Victory at the Maroon Island brought with it the temptation to rest on their laurels - they had repelled the British fleet, killed a collaborator, and greatly diminished the enemy's naval strength in their waters. It was the kind of thing that would have been disseminated in pamphlets as a sound trouncing and a cause for public celebration, if the British had been the victorious party. Certainly the men took it as an excuse to carouse and drink themselves stupid.
Flint did not have much in his life to gain amusement from anymore, but he found special delight in marching his crew down to the beach with splitting heads and aching bellies to get underway. Silver, rather green and trying not to look like he was leaning against the railing, glared at him murderously. Flint made no attempt to hide the smirk curling at his lips as he crossed the weather deck to his cabin, and was rewarded by the steady thump of Silver's false leg on the deck after him.
The door to the cabin likely would have slammed if Silver had not been nursing the effects of too much rum from the night before. As it was, he somehow managed to convey the same sense of indignation simply by slowly closing the cabin door and letting out a long, pained sigh. "I suppose this was necessary for some reason, which I'm sure you'll enlighten me about presently."
Flint's eyes tracked over the tight set of his shoulders, the slight pinch to his face, and tried not to let his amusement show. Silver wouldn't take kindly to being laughed at. "Getting complacent is dangerous." He leafed through his charts, spreading one out across his desk and weighting the corners. "We've routed the fleet Rogers brought with him from England, but those are hardly the only British vessels in these waters, and I do not imagine that England will let our victory here go uncontested. We must contend with the Spanish as well."
It was, as always, fascinating to watch Silver's mind work. He crossed to the desk, his brow knit in concentration as he examined the chart, eyes flicking over the shorelines of islands and the sketched, shadowy shapes of sand bars and shoals. Deft fingers skimmed over the edge of the map. "You want to go hunting," he said, looking up.
Flint felt a thrill rush through him that set his skin to prickling, a slow, dark smile spreading across his face. "I want to go hunting."
Some of that vicious anticipation was reflected in Silver's face. He knew that Silver was not a man of habitual violence, not like Flint, who sometimes felt that the only way to keep himself from splitting at the seams was to slake the raging roar for blood that beat through his veins. He had also seen the way Silver looked at him when Flint let the monster free. It made the prickling heat over Flint's skin intensify, a heady air gathering around them in the cabin.
Silver looked back down at the chart, tipping his head this way and that, and finally let out a quiet, self-deprecating laugh. "I can only barely read this, you realize. I understand enough to know that we cannot plot our course this way-" his finger hovered over one of the shoals marked on the map "-but not to see the most advantageous course."
That dimmed some of the fierceness in Flint's blood. Disquiet settled like a hard stone in the pit of his stomach, prickles of a different kind sweeping down his spine. He forgot, on occasion, that Silver had once told him he'd prefer not to sail if he had a choice. Silver had become such a permanent part of the crew, so entrenched in their way of life, that Flint had come to think of him as one of them. "You can't read sea charts."
"Can't is a strong word." The tetchy edge of defensiveness was in Silver's voice now, and Flint shook his head. Silver thought he was being disparaging, but Flint only felt unease crawling at his guts.
"You should. You should learn to command the ship in battle, as well. I go with the vanguard, but your best place is on deck." Christ, it had been decades since Flint had to think about how to choose the tide to sail on. Compared to him, Silver had so much to learn, was so incredibly ignorant of even the most basic of tactics. What Flint felt now was something close to a compulsion - Silver should not be helpless. Silver should be able to step into his place seamlessly, should be able to carry on without him.
Silver spread his fingers out across the chart, seeming to pivot lightly on the table as he moved around it to Flint's side. He was getting better at that - moving while making it look effortless. Flint still kept a close eye on his recovery, too aware of how he'd pushed himself in the early days. It was an inescapable fact that the loss of his leg had been for Flint, for Flint's crew, for seeing Flint's plan carried through to its end. Sharing a cabin during Silver's recovery had led naturally to sharing a bunk, something that continued back aboard the Walrus.
There were times Flint didn't know what to make of it - of John in his bed. His initial recovery had been slow, and Flint had spent more time than he intended in the cabin. John, it seemed, was a terrible invalid and a worse conversationalist when bored. He tended toward mindless rambling and couldn't be occupied with books for long. It had driven Flint to distraction, not in the least because John also tended toward licking his lips between salient points. It was the confinement and a persistent desire to stop that damnable mouth from talking and put it to better use that led Flint to fucking John Silver the first time, up against the cabin window of the Spanish warship, the knee of John's good leg propped in the crook of his elbow. John took it and swore at him and never let him forget how he'd come staring into fevered blue eyes, surrounded by the sea.
It was little wonder they gravitated toward each other at most opportunities. Even now, standing over the charts with their shoulders brushing, Silver's fingers creeping atop his, they were closer than would be warranted if they weren't living in each other's pockets. In Flint's experience, trust and friendship had always come first, before sex or intimacy or anything of the kind. Silver turned him backward, and did it again every day.
"I suppose it's better than leaving command of the sailing to Mister DeGroot if you're ever-" Silver skipped right over that thought with only a brief little tap of his fingers on Flint's. "I can only discreetly eye him for suggestions so many times before the crew catches on, dim as they are."
"Those are our men you're talking about," Flint said. He caught Silver's incredulous look out of the corner of his eye and snorted, raising his eyebrows. "Who else is going to jump onto an enemy deck with nothing but a cutlass and a pistol?"
"You," Silver said, serious despite the levity in Flint's voice. "You'll go over the rail like you always do, and I'll watch." His fingers crept further atop Flint's, until the skin of his palm rested on the back of Flint's hand. It was intimate, something different than the way they clutched each other desperately in bed. This was soft and casual, like a lover.
Flint's breath felt like it would stop in his chest. That was far too dangerous, far too close, and far too distracting. He cleared his throat and pulled one of his larger maps, of the Atlantic entire showing both coasts, spreading it out across the desk. He had to pull his hand out from under Silver's to do it. "What do you know about trade winds?"
"Some. The northern trades blow south-westerly." Silver's eyes were intent on the map, and he made no move to resume the contact. The moment was broken. It was what Flint had intended, but he misliked the way it felt, to have Silver's face shutter closed, to have him casually step away so that distance lay between them instead of heat and contact.
"Only the basics, then." Flint traced his finger over from the southern coast of Portugal in a southerly-sweeping arc across the Atlantic to Cuba. "The trade winds. Ships pick them up out of Lisbon, skate south toward the African coast before riding them west along the equator into Havana. They're fickle as they come into harbor, and the Caribbean islands stir them around into a crucible for storms, especially as the seasons change. For the return trip, ships tack north into Florida harbors, to catch the westerlies as they skim up the colonial coast and blow north-east back to France or England."
Silver watched the circuit Flint drew around the Caribbean. "That's why we swing wide out to sea when we come back down to Nassau."
Flint nodded. "We have to take our course far south enough to miss the westerlies and catch the trades back home."
"So if we're disembarking from here, we come..." Silver pulled the smaller map of only the Caribbean islands out from under the larger. "...south out to sea, so we can ride the back of the southern trades from the coast of Africa, then come around the tip of Cuba past Havana and sail east into port."
"Yes." Flint looked up at him in some surprise, a smile pulling at his lips unwillingly. "If you're as quick a study at this as you were with a rifle, we might make a captain of you yet."
"We have a captain," Silver murmured, and there was no mirth in those piercing eyes, only seriousness.
Flint fixed his gaze back on the charts. "The Spanish anchor in Havana. When we can, we try to follow a crosswind up more northerly, into the leeward coast of Florida, to avoid their navy."
His attempts at deflecting Silver's concern were likely transparent. It was not that it was unwelcome - Miranda having been the last person to show him concern, it did comfort him some to know that his grief-stricken visions of her had not been wrong, and he was indeed not alone. It was only that Silver had been right, that night in the dark around the campfire - he brought death to all who cared for him. He didn't want Silver added to that number. Nothing good could come of Silver's association with him, especially not if it were to grow truly intimate, now that they had at last come to a place bare of secrets.
Just as he had at other times when Flint withdrew and put up walls between them, Silver let it pass without comment. Flint looked up at him after a moment, dreading what he might see on the other man's face, but Silver's attention was on the charts once more. They spent hours like that, Flint unrolling his charts and Silver devouring their shapes avidly with his sharp, intelligent gaze.
When Silver left the cabin that evening to seek his bunk below with the men, Flint knew without doubt that he was the one who had chased his erstwhile bedmate away, and found neither satisfaction nor regret - only a loneliness that seemed to worm its way into his breast and coil around his vital organs, squeezing behind his ribcage as he finally turned in at the midnight watch.
They made a course as Silver had said, setting sail southward away from Maroon Island, skirting around Barbados where they finally caught a strong-blowing westerly, setting their sails by it and blowing past Grenada before the wind calmed, broken by the archipellago. With this, their sailing lessons continued, Flint drawing Silver back into his cabin.
"It's the islands that break the strong winds up as they come into the Caribbean Sea," he explained. "The windward side, here, bears the brunt of the southerly trades. On occasion if taking a southern course past them, you can see the dust they bear in from Africa."
"And now we're in the lee." Silver looked up at him. "Yes?"
That was quite nearly endearing, how Silver looked to him for confirmation whenever he wasn't sure he had something right. It reminded him of the man when they'd first met, when he was feckless and always ready with a mercurial smile. "Yes. Sailors plot wide of an island's leeward side. The wind breaks across the land, and on the other side the sea is becalmed. The leeward side is a bad engagement in sailing and in battle - if you're fighting downwind of your opponent, the only option remaining to you is to press sail and retreat before the wind."
Silver was frowning now. "Surely another ship's sails aren't enough to break the wind and cast you into a calm."
"That's not why you hold the weather gage in battle." Flint smoothed his palms over the map. It had been so many years since he'd had this explained to him. "Upwind, a ship has freedom of movement." He cast about for something to demonstrate and landed on their mugs, pulling Silver's free from his hand despite his protests and staging them both on the map. "As the aggressor, we come bearing down on a ship from upwind. This leaves us free to close distance, or hold position as long as we please. The ship downwind of us cannot turn against the wind to close distance with us, so they cannot bring themselves into range to fire first - they must wait until we close, and hope that our guns don't outmatch theirs."
"And with the wind, we can turn the ship to deliver a broadside, then turn back to close distance again-"
"-And the opposing ship does lose some momentum if we are directly in line with them upwind, the effect of which grows the closer we become."
Silver snatched his mug back - it represented the pursued vessel - and took a long drink. "They still see you coming, which gives them time to make preparations to repel boarders. If they choose to fight."
"If," Flint said, that unwillingly impressed smile back again. "Our reputation preceeds us."
"Your reputation," Silver corrected. "Your flag. Your ship."
This sounded far too much like the last conversation. Flint settled down in his chair, watching Silver's eyes travel over the map. "The Walrus has had other captains. She will again."
He cupped his mug between his palms, and found that he could pinpoint the exact moment his words struck, Silver's brows drawing together and his lips thinning in a frown.
"I thought we'd moved past this death wish business." Silver hitched himself up onto the table, scattering the charts and nudging a pot of ink dangerously close to the edge. Flint reached out automatically and pushed it away. The low disquiet in Silver's voice unsettled him.
"I'm only being practical, John," he said, burying his reply in his mug as he took another sip.
"Practical." Silver's voice was flat - he was growing angry, the way he had a few days ago before he'd left the cabin to go below. Flint wasn't sure how to deflect that. He'd always known his death would come at sea, and that it was likely to come before he'd had much chance to grow old. It was a truth of his life, a fact of nature just like the south-westerly course of the northern trades.
"If anyone is to captain this ship after me, I would prefer it to be you," he said, trying to gentle some of the edge out of his voice. It mystified him that he had to explain this to Silver at all. "The men like you. If you show yourself to be a competent commander, they'll elect you, surely."
Silver's throat worked, and his hands had grown white-knuckled around his mug. "You truly do not see how talk like this could upset me. It's foreign to you."
Now it was Flint's turn to swallow. "I... understand you have some regard for my welfare, which I of course return-"
Silver set his mug down on the table with a decisive thump. "I will never comprehend how such a brilliant mind can be so stymied by something as basic as affection. It's not merely concern for your welfare, damn you."
"All of our best efforts cannot protect me from all ills," Flint said, annoyance beginning to mount. It was an absurd argument to have in the middle of a lesson. "You said yourself. I go over the rail with the vanguard. Anything might happen to me on that deck."
"Which is why Billy and I have been attempting, without notable success, to have you pass command of the vanguard to someone less valuable, and command the assault from the Walrus-"
"I trust none of those men to have a tactical head in battle. It's a learned trait, not an inborn talent. It's something that I'm trying to teach you-"
"I'd be happier to learn it if it didn't feel as if you're drilling this into my head so you can safely throw your life away!" Silver was only barely restraining himself from shouting, his teeth clenched and an angry fire in the back of his eyes.
The muscle jumped in Flint's jaw first. He wondered if he'd developed that tic because of this man. There were still those times when Silver was just as much of an irritating shit as he'd always been. "We're at war, for fuck's sake. It's not about what you want, or what I want, or how good either one of us is at what we do. Men die. Captains die - they hanged Charles Vane in Nassau." Another death to add to his account. "I want you ready for it if-"
"Don't you fucking dare." Silver's lips tremored like he was holding back a snarl. "Don't expect me to approach that as if it's just another contingency plan."
"Christ, John. I can take this kind of sentimentality when it's between the two of us, but if it interferes with our professional relationship-"
Silver pushed off the table and stormed out, his iron leg thumping on the deck, slamming the cabin door behind him hard enough to make the bulkhead shudder. Flint threw himself back in his chair, swearing quietly when his skull met the wood and glaring at nothing. He knew it had been cruel when he said it, crossing an unspoken line by saying relationship at all, and especially in that way.
Yet he could not bring himself to feel any apology for the sentiment behind the words, no matter how cruel. Despite all of Silver's self-assured posturing about not letting himself become another person who died because of Flint - another ghost to weigh on his conscience - Flint sometimes felt that a malevolent hand hovered over him, ensuring that any momentary happiness he might find was stripped away soon after. He hardly thought that after all this time, whatever curse of misfortune that followed him would allow him to pass peacefully with anyone by his side. Better to die on his feet, with a sword in his hand, knowing that he was spared at least one loss.
He found himself suddenly wishing for Miranda, for her sharp-tongued good sense and the way she would tell him he needed to stop being so bloody self-sacrificing. Her loss still cut him like a blade, even if his mind seemed to have laid her to rest at last. He wondered how long he would have to wait before every thought of her didn't slice him to the bone.
Flint could only just bear her loss, and only because it felt as if they'd talked of it endlessly in the long midnight hours of her house in Nassau. They had lain awake on the nights when he was ashore, speaking in soft whispers of how the loss of Thomas was turning him into a monster, how she couldn't bear the loneliness when he was away, how one day he might never return to Nassau - or might come ashore to find her gone, slipped away to some illness or felled by grief itself.
Perhaps Miranda's shade had returned only to remind him of how heavily he carried Thomas's death, to remind him that he could not carry hers in the same way. He had learned long ago that unlike Miranda, unlike the hushed acceptance of each other's loss in the small hours of the night, he would never lay his grief for Thomas to rest. He felt now that if he lost John, too - God, he could not even think. What kind of creature would he become then, so consumed by grief and rage without a single soul left to call him back from the abyss?
He had already done so much to John, the ripple of his actions causing all the misfortune suffered since Flint had first laid a knife to his throat at the Wrecks. He could not be the cause of his death as well. He had to be sure that John would continue when he was gone, and if that meant sabotaging whatever chance for intimacy he might have left in his miserable existence, so be it.
Stubbornness led to a lasting silence, not speaking to one another save for the briefest exchange of words on the deck when it was necessary. The crew caught their mood, and made them at turns subdued and rowdy. Flint snarled at the men when normally he would have ignored the crew's antics and left them to Billy for correction. Silver, who usually took it upon himself to step in between Flint and the target of his ire, only watched it play out with an unreadable expression, his eyes cold when Flint met them.
On a particularly blustery morning, when the wind was blowing south-westerly in heaving gusts, Silver surprised him again by ordering the topsail reefed before Flint could do it himself, a knit to his brows that Flint recognized all too well. It was the same expression he wore himself when he felt the mainmast could not hold under the pressure of the wind. That Silver had sensed the need before his captain meant that he had found a way to continue learning the craft.
An unwelcome surge of jealousy made Flint's throat tighten, especially at the way DeGroot clapped Silver on the back like he'd done well. He caught Silver's eyes darting back at him, a look that was at once vindicated and searching, and turned to leave the deck, striding to his cabin and throwing the lock behind him. He'd done what he'd planned - lit the curiosity in Silver's clever mind and then turned him away. Still, despite the firmness of his convictions and all practicality, he could not escape how dark and alone his cabin was without the thump of Silver's leg on the deck and the warm amusement of his voice.
The winds turned into a spate of storm, and while Silver was doing better with the ship, Flint was forced to emerge on deck in the driving rain, bracing his feet wide on the wet wood so he could stand impervious to the deluge and roar orders down the length of the deck, hearing Silver's voice pick them up and repeat them in his own recently-cultivated bellow.
Working with Silver at his right hand felt so like the Navy again. It was as if he had come to anticipate Flint's orders, and his continuing work with DeGroot was bearing fruit. It made him think, unbidden and in the middle of a blinding bolt of lightning and deafening crack of thunder, that Silver understood him in ways that nobody else in his life ever had, not even Thomas.
They passed through the worst of the storm like that, with Flint astern beside the helm and Silver on the forecastle. When the wind abated to the occasional gust again and the rain to a steady drizzle, Flint returned below. He could feel Silver's eyes on him as he left, but he didn't come to join Flint in the cabin, and Flint didn't go to find him with the crew.
They passed north of Curaçao not long after, keeping a westerly course. It was then that the stalemate finally broke.
Flint was frowning at a map of the Haitian coast when Silver threw the door of his cabin open without knocking, then slammed it behind himself and threw the bolt.
"How much longer are you planning on doing this?" Silver's jaw had a mulish set to it when Flint looked up, and he bit back a sigh, setting the map aside.
"I've come to understand you make a very promising student under Mr. DeGroot." Flint didn't rise from his chair as Silver came closer. The sound of his tread on the deck was more familiar than it had any right to be.
"I'm almost insulted." Silver rounded the desk and set the false leg against Flint's chair. He shoved, turning it away from the desk and moving it and Flint a handful of inches across the floor until Silver was looking Flint in the eye. After a moment, he huffed, a disbelieving smile without any humor to it curling his lips. "You really are going to play the obtuse. All right then, here it is - DeGroot can teach me to sail, but he can't teach me to command a ship in battle. He's not you. If you're bound and fucking determined to send yourself to your grave and leave me standing in your place, have it your way. Teach me."
Flint pretended not to hear the way his voice cracked when he said grave, or to see the way he swallowed hard at the end of his tirade. He stared Silver down as he scooted his chair back over to the desk. If Silver thought he could barge into the captain's cabin and demand, then by God, Flint would make him wait for it. Silver didn't look away, one finger tapping against the surface of the desk, his lips pressed together in a bloodless line behind his beard. Flint's mouth was dry, and his body seemed acutely aware of how few feet stood between them. The cabin felt too small, too close, and Silver's frustration with him was nearly palpable on the skin.
A short, ragged huff of breath escaped Silver, and his fingers tightened on the desk.
"Please," he said, clipped and near-mocking, the blue of his eyes going positively frigid.
Flint reminded himself that he had wanted this, even as much as he wanted to reach across the distance between them and ruin the both of them for good. He licked his lips to wet them and didn't miss how Silver's eyes flickered to his mouth. He looked down at the charts, smoothing them with his hands, avoiding the place where Silver was perched on his desk. "Spanish ships anchor here, in Havana. They patrol the waters in a north-easterly sweep, then come around south on the wind through the rest of the Indies."
For a moment, Flint thought Silver might lose his carefully cultivated temper after all. Flint was under no illusions that the man didn't have one. He'd seen what he could do when he allowed himself to sink into the ruthlessness he carried under the surface. Sometimes Flint wondered if it had been there, before Charles Town. He wondered if that, too, was something else he'd done to change John Silver.
He pushed the thought away. "If we were to encounter a Spanish ship in these waters, where would we have them at the advantage?"
After a long moment of stretching silence, Silver finally turned to the desk. Flint watched his face change, watched him bank the anger and put it away, press it down. He studied the map, biting the inside of his cheek. "Here?" he suggested, tapping his finger on the northern coast of Jamaica. "We have the wind, if we're to escape."
Flint snorted. He couldn't help it. "If you always run from an engagement, the men will never follow you. I asked where we would have them at an advantage, not what the best position is for us to scarper back to the island."
Silver glanced at him, a sideways look he'd seen Silver give some of them men when they said something he regarded as particularly idiotic. "A Spanish Man o' War is more than we can take in the Walrus. The last time we tried, we had the Ranger with us and they still nearly sank us. We wouldn't stand a chance."
That look made Flint want to grind his teeth together.
"Spain has just ended a protracted war of succession. It ceded its port in Gibraltar to the English and the port in Sicily to the Italians. Portugal has signed a treaty that closes Lisbon to the Spanish and opens it to the British and the Dutch. And then there is the Urca de Lima, lost along with the Man o' War escort. That ship now rests in Captain Teach's possession. We have done them damage they will not have recovered from so quickly. And further-" Flint looked up, finding Silver's expression rapt with fascination. He paused for a moment, stilled by the intensity of it and how close they'd drawn together as he spoke.
"Further?" Silver prompted. He shifted a little, ostensibly to take weight off his leg, but now Flint could feel the heat of his body over the scant distance between them.
"Further." Flint looked back down at the map, tearing his gaze away. "Further, the previous king of Spain preferred to contract a navy, not maintain one himself. The Spanish have what ships they have captured from England. Third-rate ships of the line, mostly - similar in complement to the Walrus. An even match." He glanced back at Silver only to make sure the man was still paying attention, and looked away again just as quickly when he found the intense focus of Silver's eyes had not lessened. "The advantage?"
Silver considered longer this time, and at last that soul-searching gaze left Flint and transferred to the map. His lips moved silently, like he was trying to call something to memory, looking over the coastline.
"Here," he finally said decisively, tapping the map off the coast of the South American continent, just on the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea. "Their wind is broken by the archipelago just as ours is, and if we can keep close to the coast and slip by on the outside of the Gulf, we could easily lie in wait until they pass." He looked up at Flint, seeming like he was only barely restraining himself from asking for confirmation.
It was not the strategy Flint would have chosen. "You would have to reef sail and steer clear of the port here-" he laid a finger on the map a small ways down the coast from where Silver had indicated "-but all in all, not a terrible strategy. Why not tack north with the wind?"
"Port Royal," Silver said simply, tapping the small island of Jamaica. "Too close to the British, liable to be caught between." He paused, tilting his head. "But that's the course you're taking now."
Flint should not have been surprised that John had guessed his course, but something like surprise thrilled through him. A tongue-tied moment later, he realized it was admiration. God, but John had such a brilliant mind.
He cleared his throat. "The British still cannot field a large navy from there, not since more than half the fucking town sank, but it's still the nearest friendly port, and the most likely destination for whatever remains of the fleet Hornigold brought against us. We'll tack north - the French hold Port-au-Prince and will not be bothered by us, and we'll have a headwind. The men are to be ready to beat to quarters-"
"James." It was said softly, but it still jarred him from his thoughts. John had only used his given name in bed - to hear it now, in this setting as partners, was so near the place Flint had tried to wall off between them that he had to take a long breath. He looked up, pinned by those blue eyes again. John's smile was wry. "They're not Navy men."
Flint felt an answering smile catch his mouth before he could stop it. "No," he said. "My mistake."
It was easier on deck between them after that, yet something still hung in the air, unresolved and looming like a gathering cloud. Calm sailing toward the Haitian coast gave Flint time to begin teaching John tactics, which was another dimension entirely from understanding the winds and the tides. He would likely never be as proficient as a man who was raised to it from boyhood the way Flint was, but cleverness had kept John alive more times than Flint could estimate, and that just since they had known each other. Flint fully expected that to carry over into any ship he might captain - and John proved him right during their lessons. He argued for approaches that began to reveal what he would be like in command of a ship - circumspect, subtle, and unafraid to break away from an engagement when it was not turning in his favor.
Evenings wore late into the night between them. The tension did not break. John avoided any more conversation about relationships as if nothing had been spoken at all. At times a silence would fall in the cabin that seemed to choke off Flint's breath, and he would sense John's eyes on him, but he would wait for the moment to pass before looking up, moving tokens on the map, recreating battles he remembered from his youth.
Despite the late nights, John always left the cabin before they turned in. Flint was certain now that he was proving a point - that while he had been willing to bridge the gap between them first on the subject of learning command, Flint would need to be the one to meet him the rest of the way. Whether it made him a coward or simply a man who was dead already, waiting for his body to remember that his soul was in tatters beyond repair and lay itself down, Flint did not.
They had been sailing northwest toward Port-au-Prince for three days when the call of "Sail!" came down from the crow's nest. Flint looked out toward the horizon, knowing before DeGroot passed him the glass that he'd find the enemy ship ahead. He put the glass to his eye and felt his blood rush hot in his ears.
"English," he said, trying to strangle down the rough growl that wanted to crawl up his throat. He passed the glass off to his left, and John's fingers brushed his as he took it.
"Still too far away to say whether it was one of the ships that attacked the island." John took the glass down. Flint knew the look on his face - he felt it himself. Anticipation.
"Mr. Silver will have command. I will board with the vanguard."
John stared at him. "A couple weeks of sailing lessons and a handful of days' worth of tactics-"
"You'll have to learn some time," Flint said. He hadn't meant for amusement to creep into his voice, but that shocked look on John's face was actually quite priceless.
"Why is it that every time you decide to be funny, it manages to be at my expense?"
"Remember what a shit you were when you first came on board?"
A reluctant smile split John's dark beard. "Fair." He turned then, all surprise and levity gone from his face and his voice firm with command. "The vanguard will stay below the rail until the black is raised. Mr. DeGroot, make ready for full sail. Ready the guns but keep the ports closed."
The crew moved to obey without question, only one or two glancing at Flint. It was a strange feeling to watch another man give orders on the deck of his ship, but Flint couldn't find fault with them. Saving the element of surprise would give them an advantage, and there were ways to press sail without seeming like they intended to bear down on the English vessel.
John put the glass to his eye again and gazed out to sea, the spray dampening his coat and the wind tossing his hair over his shoulders. Flint again thought of how it felt to have John here at his right hand, the intense anticipation of battle settling on his face. His pulse began to beat in his ears, throbbing at his wrists.
"Can you make out the name?"
"I can make out the masts," John said, taking the glass down long enough to grin fiercely, like he was baring his teeth. "They're short two spars on the foremast, like they took a shot through the sails. And she's listing."
Flint took the glass from him again. The listing was plain enough - her waterline was higher to port than it was to starboard. The masts, though, that Flint had to look for. "You and your bloody eyesight."
John was looking at him with a spark of mischief in his eye when he took the glass down. "Now, Captain, don't be cross with me because you're getting old."
There came a sound from behind them that sounded like someone choking down a laugh by turning it into an unattractive snort, but Flint found he didn't have the irritation to spare for whichever crew member was brave enough to laugh at his expense. John was smiling, the way he'd done all that time ago, before any of this started, like he knew he was stirring up trouble and couldn't help it.
It was distracting. Flint handed the glass back. "I'm below the rail with the vanguard. Don't sink my ship, Mr. Silver."
"Hardly," John scoffed, but there was enough seriousness tempering that ridiculous grin that Flint felt safe walking away from the rail, descending the steps from the forecastle.
"Raise the mains!" came the command from the rail. The ship began to pick up speed, the slap of waves on the hull becoming more frequent. They would close with the English ship faster now, but without the topgallants, it would not appear that they were making any especial effort to close the distance. The command hadn't yet been given to fly the black, and they would look like any other merchant ship coming into Port Royal, perhaps a bit more eager to make landfall than most.
When Flint was the one in command of cracking on, it was a time when he felt most in sync with his ship. The feel of her slicing through the water, gaining speed by the knot, the shiver through the deck when a new set of sails billowed taut with the wind, the creak of the spars and the masts, the call and response of the crew and the snap of canvas.
It felt altogether different when all he could do was wait. His hand tightened on his saber and he paced, feeling anticipation beat in his breast like the fury of a caged animal. He could sense the men falling back away from him, the way they did when he was caught by a mood. It was gratifying that he was not the only one to find the tension palpable.
"Mr. Silver, she's pressing sail." DeGroot handed John the glass again, and as Flint prowled below the deck, he watched John set it to his eye, leaning toward the railing like the movement of his body could make the ship cut through the water faster.
"She can try," John said, a cruel smile on his lips. "Full sail, and raise the black. She won't be getting away with broken spars and a list."
"Full sail! Raise the black!" DeGroot repeated. Flint's hand fell to his saber, even though he knew it would be some time before they even closed to firing range.
"Run out the guns," John said. That order, too, was echoed and shouted down the length of the deck. Flint looked up, seeing his flag climb the mast over the stern, and his lips twisted to bare his teeth - it was more of a threat than a smile, but when John looked away from the rail and caught his eyes, he smiled in return, just as predatory and terrifying.
They closed on the English ship quickly - the wind was with them, and they had a full complement of sail. Flint set to pacing again, his boots thumping on the deck, the anticipation of battle singing through his veins.
"Bring us in range and come about. Aim above the waterline - I don't want to sink her." John put the glass to his eye again, watching the ship as she came into range. "Hold steady and don't waste shot."
"Steady!" DeGroot echoed. "Come about in range of the guns!"
The first boom of the cannon echoing below the deck always made his gut tighten, his muscles tense. He'd started his naval career on the gun deck, and the smell of powder always brought him back. For a moment he was hearing drums beat to quarters, feeling the constricting itch of a neckcloth. Then the moment was gone when the guns fired again, a full broadside this time, like the unearthly crack of a tempest breaking.
It was worse, being down here while the guns fired and the smoke billowed thick across the deck. He wanted nothing more than to be at the rail, watching each cannonball strike, throwing splinters of shattered wood and the blood of broken men into the blue gullet of the waves. Flint's hand went to the hilt of his saber, unsheathing it with a shiver of steel. John looked back at him from the rail, dark amusement in his eyes and a smirk on his lips.
"Bring us alongside and prepare to board." John gave the order to DeGroot, but his eyes were on Flint, fevered like they were dancing with witch-light. "No quarter."
Flint would not have given any, even if he had been ordered too, but a curl of vicious excitement unspooled in his chest, his knuckles white on his saber, feeling like a hunting dog tied on a lead. John would let him loose, and Flint would wreak havoc and vengeance.
A dull thud echoed through the decking. The Walrus shuddered. She'd taken damage - aft, if Flint didn't miss his guess, a shot from the English ship that perhaps was trying for their main mast. John shouted for someone to check the damage, then turned to grasp the rail, his whole body strung tight as a wire. The sun framed him against the blue sky, beams of it slicing through the smoke from the guns and lighting him up like some unearthly creature, luring men to their doom beneath the waves.
"Vanguard on the rail, boarders away!"
Flint didn't hear the order from John - he had been too lost in his own mind, staring at the way John paced the rail like Flint paced the deck. DeGroot's voice picking up the bellow was what set him into action, lunging up the stairs.
He heard shouts from the English ship - soldiers loading their weapons and preparing to repel the boarders, the rat-tat-tat of the drum, the enemy captain's frantic shouts, so unlike John's calm inflection. John gave an order quietly, like he had no doubt it would be repeated and obeyed to the fullest. Flint was used to snarling until the crew obeyed but this - John had them leaning into his every word, while still barely realizing what he was doing.
They were thoughts for another time. The two ships were so close together it was a matter of feet from one to the other. Flint coiled his muscles and jumped, arms outstretched, landing with a thud against the rail of the enemy ship.
The butt of a musket flew toward his face. Flint let himself drop, clinging by his fingertips, until he felt the wind of it pass over his head. He pulled up, his shoulder screaming with the strain, and put the weight of his body behind his saber, skewering his attacker on the blade. Red blood bloomed across the sailor's fine white shirt, and he stared at Flint without comprehension until Flint pulled his saber free and finally cleared the railing.
The deck was slippery with blood already. Shots whizzed through the air around him; marksmen in the tops, firing down on the deck below, trying not to hit their own. Flint cut a path to the mainmast, where he would be in the shadow of the crow's nest.
Smoke choked the deck, and wood splinters rolled under his boots, making the footing uncertain. A cannon sounded below his feet, and he changed his step mid-stride, making for the stair that led down to the gun deck. A bullet missed him so closely he felt the wind. It hit Dooley, taking him in the arm. It wasn't a serious wound, but Flint ducked behind a mast anyway, not wanting to be the next man the rifle targeted.
"Get up there and take care of those riflemen," Flint growled at a crewman standing beside him, and then went back to his bloody work, cleaving and stabbing. This ship would not remain English for long - if John wanted them shooting above the waterline, it meant he had plans.
A man in officer's epaulettes rounded the mast, his own saber naked in his hand. Blade met blade with the hiss of steel - a good sword, not a cheap decorative thing. Flint felt his lips curl in another snarl and moved to meet him, twisting his blade in an attempt to disarm.
The officer was good. Instead of falling for the trick, he stepped back from it, letting his saber slide from Flint's. When he returned, he was warier, having realized Flint was not an average pirate, hacking away with a blade he had never truly learned how to use. There was confusion in the set of the man's face, a pale cast to him under his freckles. He was young. For a moment, Flint remembered being that young. He clenched his jaw and shoved it aside. There had been a time that Flint would have taken a surrender, even from an English ship, but now they were at war, and war meant no mercy.
They exchanged blows, circling each other on the slick wood of the deck, cannon smoke and musket shot filling the air around him. Flint's ears rang with the sound of battle. The reports of the cannons were coming slower - his crew was on the gun deck.
The officer's legs tensed, and Flint saw the lunge before he made it. He sidestepped, throwing up his saber to catch the flat of the other blade, and pulled his pistol from his belt. The man's eyes went round and angry as he heard it cock, staggering back a step, but Flint swung his arm up and pulled the trigger before he could move away, the shot catching him in the throat. Blood fountained over his neckcloth and the fingers he pressed to the wound. It bubbled up from his lips, vermillion streaming over the stained deck as he fell at Flint's feet.
Flint's chest was heaving as he looked around the deck. A musket clattered down from the tops - his man had done as he'd been ordered. The stench of death and fear rose from the boards of the English deck. Its sails snapped in the breeze, the report of the guns silent.
Flint, naked saber and empty pistol in either hand, turned to the railing to see John half-leaning over it, his eyes only on Flint, his knuckles white as he gripped the wood.
"The ship is ours, Mr. Silver," he rasped, cannon smoke making his voice raw.
He couldn't place the expression on John's face. The skin around his eyes and mouth was tense, his throat bobbing in a hard swallow. They stared each other down, and a frission of apprehension bubbled up in Flint's chest. This was the monster he had always told John he was. Flint was still snarling with battle rage and on edge like a barely leashed animal. Finally, John took a breath, breaking the spell that had settled over them both.
"Rig the rudder to point her course toward Port Royal. Wheft the colors, then set sail, douse the deck in oil, and light it."
Flint nearly laughed - not out of humor but out of pride. John would send the ship into an English port flying a sign of distress and burned down to the waterline. A clearer message could not be sent. He turned to the vanguard, sheathing his pistol and repeating the orders to be sure they'd been heard.
He had taken no injuries in the fight aside from scraped knuckles and bruised knees, and now his pulse was beating through him for a different reason than the fever of battle, short as it had been. Excitement and the thrill of victory was hot in him, and he mounted the rail and leapt back to the Walrus without waiting to see if John's orders would be carried out.
John must have seen something in his eyes, in the way he still felt like a wild thing barely brought to heel. "The captain and I will be plotting our next course," John said, and crossed the deck to Flint's cabin, his false leg thudding on the deck. Flint stalked in his wake, bloodied saber still clutched in his hand.
The door thumped shut behind Flint and he threw the bolt, letting his saber clatter to the floor. He turned, his chest heaving on hard breaths.
John shoved him up against the cabin door, his mouth on Flint's with a click of teeth. Flint tasted blood, powder, and sweat. He grabbed for John's arms and pulled him in closer, tight against him. John had put on muscle in the recent months, still lean but hard underneath his wiry limbs. Flint pushed at his coat, sucking at his lip, and John struggled out of the sleeves, throwing it to the side.
His hands were on Flint's face, holding him fast. He broke away from the kiss, panting, something wild in his eyes.
"That shot," he said. "That shot missed you by inches, James. I saw it go past your head and I knew you'd been hit."
Flint listened to his voice break, felt fingers digging into his cheekbones, saw John's eyes boring into his own. John's breath was warm on his lips. Flint kissed him again, no less frantic this time.
"The shot missed," he said. He unbuckled his gun belt and let it fall as carelessly as the saber had, then started pulling at John's shirt, yanking it untucked so he could get at the drawstring of his breeches.
"It might not have," John hissed. He caught both of Flint's wrists in his hands, his grip so hard that Flint felt his bones grind together. "If you ever give me command of the ship again, you'll stay aboard and someone else can lead the vanguard."
Flint wasn't blind, nor was he a fool. He'd known what he was seeing in John's face during their private lessons in his cabin. He'd known from the moment John had started using the charts as a pretext to touch him, adjust this piece, rotate the map, sometimes even leaning his head over Flint's shoulder to speak in his ear, his breath maddening on the crook of Flint's throat.
"You don't want to," Flint said. "You don't want to bind yourself to me."
"That's my decision to make." John kissed him again, lips crushed together. It felt like he was trying to pour something into the kiss, something unspoken, so huge that speaking it would be like tempting fate. Flint pulled at John's grip on his wrists, only to have John crowd him closer to the door, wedging his good leg between Flint's thighs. Flint was hard, his clothing restricting and maddening under the press of John's thigh.
John's breeches barely clung to his hips, and James still hadn't managed to get his coat off. John wouldn't let go of his wrists. Flint was pinned, trapped against the door. Danger rose off John like a cloud of smoke. Flint could see it in his face when he pulled away again.
"You said yourself. Everyone who gets close to me-"
"Not me." John heaved himself even closer, his lips twisted in a snarl. "You know what you showed me out there, handing me the ship in battle? You showed it to the men, too, whether you realize it or not. They know I'm capable of command, and they know I learned from you. Do you truly believe I won't outlast you? That out of all the people who have come before me, anyone has ever been able to meet you like this?"
Flint kissed the snarl off his face, bit at his lips. John finally let go of his wrists to yank at Flint's coat. It fell to the deck atop his sword belt. John nearly ripped the rest of his clothing off, then yanked his breeches down, grabbing onto Flint's shoulder to steady himself as he stepped out of them. John pressed them back together, fingers gripping Flint's thighs. He was as hard as Flint, rubbing against Flint's stomach.
"You were fucking brilliant." Flint grabbed at John's face, fingers tangling in his hair, beard rough under Flint's palms. "Fucking brilliant, John," he said again, and went back to sucking on his lower lip and licking into his mouth.
John moaned, loud against Flint's teeth. He got a hand between them, wrapping it around both of them, then broke away from Flint, swearing. His leg must have been bothering him. He only saved that glare for the weakness in his muscles, the one that made him hold onto lines stretched across the deck and sit rather than stand while he spoke to the crew.
They went to the floor, unable to separate long enough to sort out a better solution. John lay on his back, stretched out across the deck. Sunlight from the stern windows played over him, the way it had done at the rail, and Flint let his eyes wander, taking in the scars he'd earned on the crew, how long he'd let his hair get, and the fierce, bloody thrill of victory in his eyes.
"Come down here," John said, gesturing to his lap. "I won the battle, didn't I? To the victor, the spoils."
"With my ship, my crew, and my sword arm." Flint swung a leg over John, settling on his knees, not attempting in the slightest to curb the smirk on his lips. "Did you have a plan, or was this an impulse?"
"I'm not an impulsive commander. You just saw that." John reached up to wrap his hand around Flint's shoulder, pulling him down to rest on his elbows, draped over John's chest. His mouth was in the crook of John's neck, just below his ear, and Flint plied his tongue to the skin.
John moaned, but it sounded oddly muffled and wet. Flint lifted his head and found John with his fingers in his mouth, sucking with hollow cheeks. His hips jerked, his cock rubbing against John's stomach. John's cock rested in the cleft of his ass.
Flint let his head fall, his mouth hot on John's skin again as John's fingers pulled free of his mouth with a sound Flint last heard around his cock. The next moment he was aware of them was when the first two were pressing against his ass, flirting with the rim of his hole and barely pushing for entry.
"If you're going to do it, just fucking do it." Flint tried to growl, but it came out more of a grumble. He felt flushed, sweat gathering down his spine. He wanted John to fuck him. He might have won the deck battle, but John had commanded the ship, gauged when the time was right to loose sail.
John had thought of the message to Port Royal. A declaration of war.
John took him at his request, plunging inside. It burned, stretched with not enough to ease the way, but Flint only pushed back into it. He would not be conquered, but he wanted to feel John inside him.
They could have found something better than John spitting in his palm and stroking his cock. Flint could have gone slower as he lined John up and forced him in, inch by painful inch. John smeared more spit on his cock, bucked his hips up and yanked at Flint's thighs.
"Christ," Flint groaned into John's collarbone. He sucked on it, teeth closing on the thin flesh over John's bones, bringing a livid mark to the surface. John was marking him too, filling him, with Flint's body stretched out over his chest like a blanket of flesh and bone.
They were neither of them going to last, too high on victory and uncomfortable on the floor to take it slow. Flint rolled his hips back into John's thrusts, and John planted his foot on the floor to give him leverage to drive up into Flint's body. They fucked while clutching each other too tightly, fingers digging bruises into their skin. They fucked with Flint's cock rubbing against John's stomach, growing more urgent with each frantic drive of John's hips.
John pushed at Flint's shoulder. "Sit up. James, oh Jesus. Sit up so I can see you."
Flint pushed up on his hands, looming over John, the best he could do with his thighs squeezed tight around John's hips, keeping from being shaken off with the force of his thrusts. John grabbed his cock, jerking it just as fast and single-minded as his cock in Flint's ass.
"You have no idea," John gasped, his thrusts going ragged and his hand faltering in its rhythm. "No idea how you look, no idea what it does to me to see you fight." John reached for him with his other hand, the heel of it smearing a tacky trail of blood from the man he'd killed over his chest. "Fuck, James."
Flint saw it all in his eyes - admiration and victory and affection, the last the softest and yet the most dangerous. He heard it when John said his name, felt it in John's fingers digging into the skin of his chest and John's cock dragging in and out of his ass.
If he was stuck with anyone, he found himself glad he was stuck with this man. This seemingly hapless man who'd gone from grinning idiot to tactical adept, with Flint's hand on his rudder but steering his own course.
The thought made something like the thrill of being missed by inches tighten his ribs. He had come so close to death so many times, and yet he had survived to have this.
Perhaps someday he could convince himself he was worthy of having it.
John's pace was stuttering, panting from exertion. Flint's thighs bunched, lifting himself up and letting his weight bring him back down. John's cock hit him in all the right ways, thick and hard inside him, and John's clever thumb was playing with the head of his cock, brushing over the slit in a way that made his breath tremble in his lungs.
Their frantic pace had slowed to something steadier, like the beat of waves against the hull. Flint's orgasm spilled from him like a rising tide, slow and inescapable, sending waves of warmth and gooseflesh through him. John's hand was sticky with it, and come landed on his stomach, gleaming wet over his skin.
"John," Flint choked out, prying his eyes open to watch. John's mouth was open, his eyes screwed shut, and both his hands latched on Flint's thighs as he ground up hard, his cock twitching inside, filling Flint.
Flint let himself back down, panting, his own breath matched by John's heaving chest. Their skin was slick with sweat, their stomachs wet with come, and John was slowly softening inside him. They lay catching their breaths with no words between them, until Flint groaned and rolled over on his back, the wood cool under his skin.
"We have to give the men the course. We can't sit still in these waters," John said. Flint wondered when it would cease surprising him that John said what Flint himself was thinking.
"Put your clothes back on and tell them to tack north between the islands." Flint lay with his eyes closed, one arm thrown over his face.
"Me?" John was eyeing him incredulously when Flint cracked an eyelid open to look at him. "I just did most of the work, and you're still captain. You tell them."
It was lighthearted, but it struck something in Flint. "Have you read Homer's Odyssey?"
John's confusion was a pleasure to witness. It wasn't often anymore that Flint surprised him. "Yes?"
"Odysseus is told that he must take an oar and walk inland, and keep walking until someone mistakes the oar for a shovel. In that place, where none have known the sea, he can finally be at peace." Flint stared at the boards of the deckhead. His throat worked for a moment, remembering the last time he had said these words to another living soul.
John grunted, scooting closer until they were skin on skin, John's palm resting in the center of Flint's chest.
"You see yourself as Odysseus?" At Flint's silence, he seemed to think it over, fingertips tapping on Flint's skin. "It's the first time I've ever heard you talk about leaving the sea."
"Not until my work is done." And it felt it would never be done.
"So that's what this was about. The sailing lessons and the command, I mean. You expect to leave me the Walrus when you retire." John's voice was inscrutable, and Flint finally looked at him again to find his eyebrows pinched together.
"That was the idea."
"You fucking idiot," John said, huffing one of his old laughs, his mouth stretched in that irreverent smirk. "Did you think I'd let you walk away and not follow? I hate the sea. You know that."
Flint's thoughts stuttered. John said it with such absolute certainty, light and easy, and Flint did feel like a fool for never seeing that possibility before. John must have seen it in his face, because he rolled his eyes and leaned down, his hand still braced over Flint's heart as he claimed Flint's lips, gentler than the rough biting of mouths from before. This kiss was a soft confirmation of everything John had been trying to tell him silently since they left the Maroon island.
They parted. Flint felt warm, without the edge of impending danger that always seemed to loom over his moments of contentment. He could find no words to answer John's assertion, so they kissed again instead, soft sighs swallowed in each other's lips until the light in the cabin changed, growing dimmer, and Flint finally roused himself to pull his trousers back on.
"When you find that place where an oar becomes a shovel," John said to his back as he made to leave the cabin, "I hope you imagine I'm there with you."
Flint threw back the bolt, pausing with his hand on the door handle. It was too much like a confession, like the thing yawning between them that he'd refused to touch, but Flint could not remain a coward.
"I do," he said, and allowed himself only a brief glance over his shoulder to see John smile before he stepped out on the deck.