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Without tenderness, we are in hell.

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When Flint sees him, the first thought that crosses his mind is that he’s hallucinating again. Induced by grief or guilt or sheer exhaustion, his mind has conjured another ghost; a phantom to shadow his every self-destructive thought and plead the case for life, as she had done in those months after Charles Town. It’s a comforting sort of madness, in its way, but it riles and itches where instead capitulation to the inevitable would offer some kind of peace. Though, he thinks, should the ghost insinuate itself like a festering thorn in his side, it would not be such a change from the living counterpart whose company he had come to rely upon. Even come to cherish. But then a broken cry cuts through his wide-eyed contemplation of this vision and Madi is rushing past him and flinging herself into Silver’s arms, kissing him hard and being kissed in return. And oh. Oh. If he still believed in a compassionate god then he might call it a miracle, but John Silver has always had something of the devil about him, and so perhaps his breathless thanks ought to be directed to somewhere beyond the dirt beneath his feet.

He’s staring, and suddenly Silver’s eyes are on him too, the most violent shade of blue, peering out from under the wild tangle of his salt-crisp hair, and he looks as feral as the sea. Propped up on a makeshift crutch, battered and filthy, he is not the image of a newly anointed monarch, and yet there is something fierce about him, and the men around them seem transfixed by it. Flint sees all of those things, and yet none of them. Under the visage of this living legend, returned from the dead, he still sees the clean-shaven young sailor, wily and sharp, and most adept of all at clawing his way towards one more sunrise. Just one more. Always one more.

Flint’s feet feel leaden and his knees weak, but like the needle of a compass he finds himself drawn inevitably towards his North. No more than a foot away he stops, swaying slightly into Silver’s space, and he could swear he feels the heat radiating off him, distinct from the oppressive rays of the sun overhead. It’s only at the last moment that he catches his arms tensing to lift, his fingers reaching to grab, and he stops them too. Always quick to deal out fresh punishment, his mind wonders loudly what right he thinks he has to hold him. He was alive. He is alive. And Flint left him behind. Whether or not the duress of the guns and the cannonfire was justification enough, he left him behind. And so he settles for a smile, wide and warm and no less real for the longing it hides. Carefully curated truths have served him as comfortable masks for so very long, and this smile full of teeth and softened eyes is no different.

“Son of a bitch,” he says, still breathless, and he hopes Silver knows he means, “My god, I missed you.”

“Captain,” Silver replies, with a nod and a tired quirk of a smile, and Flint wants to believe he’s saying, “I missed you too.”

“How?” he asks, a crack in his voice, and his fingers twitch forwards again.

Silver’s eyes glance down, drawn by the movement, and then back up as he says, “It’s rather a saga. I wouldn’t mind some food and rest first, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Of course,” Flint nods, and this time his arm is lifting to grasp Silver’s shoulder before he can stop it. He is warm and solid and very much alive under Flint’s hand, and the smile still stretched across his face grows impossibly wider.

Madi is clinging to Silver’s other arm, wide eyes drinking him in in stunned disbelief, her fingers tightening and loosening reflexively on his sleeve; abortive little strokes that turn her nails white with the pressure and seem to say without words that if she stops reassuring herself that he is truly there then she fears he might slip through her fingers like a dream, never to be recaptured. Flint wonders whether she’s even aware that she’s doing it.  

All of a sudden, the feeling of stifling closeness that comes with intruding on a private moment presses upon him. He had called Silver a friend to both of them, but in truth he knew full well that there was something between him and her which was more. The exact nature of it he did not know, and he had not asked, but it was plain to see. He pulls his hand away reluctantly, his fingers hovering close to Silver’s sleeve for a moment longer than they ought, and he wills the feeling of loss away, treading it down harshly. It isn’t difficult. He has had so many years to practise stifling his humanity, or trying to amputate it altogether, that he has become most proficient at it. It isn’t difficult, but he never quite worked out how to stop the process from hurting.

His hand feels cold from the loss of contact, and as he lowers his arm his muscles ache as though straining against the tide. He wonders at it, at this tie that binds him to Silver. Perhaps this need to be close to him is born only of relief at the return of his friend; the feeling that the world is suddenly brighter for his presence in it, and Flint simply wants to bask in that light, and to revive himself in its warmth. Perhaps he needs to touch him to reassure himself that he is truly no longer alone, and that his mind isn’t playing some awful trick after all. His breaths still feel shallow, fighting for space against the sparking bursts of joy and hope that have ignited behind his ribs, and without that grounding touch he feels adrift and lightheaded. Perhaps it is one of those things, or both. Or perhaps it is more primal than either of them. Perhaps all he wants is to touch, and to be touched, by the last person left on Earth who might feel any softness towards him. He can’t recall the last time he was touched gently, with kind intent. Not since Miranda. It was strange how one could grow so used to solitude and isolation, but still the instinct towards tactility remained. One could reason with the voice of loneliness, or will away the dreamlike imaginings of some moment of tenderness, but to ignore the insistent buzz of touch-starved skin that shivered at the brush of a hand in the passing of a spyglass was a silent struggle that time did not ease. And as the starvation was drawn out, and the hunger grew more gnawing and cruel, Flint had found that his skin became ever more sensitive, until the cascade of goosebumps at the slightest touch was its own kind of agony.

And yet he steps back, and ignores the hollow feeling of loss, and he thinks that while no man is an island, nor perhaps a rocky promontory, he might just be that restless surf that pounds at its feet, fated to swell and surge at the whims of this celestial body that tugs so very insistently at a place somewhere behind his ribs. And though one can never leave the heavens and the other is confined to the Earth, every once in a while the moon appears to concede to the pull of the sea and allow the wide horizon to swallow it whole. But not today. For today the moon belongs to her. And he’s not jealous, not really. After all, one can only be jealous of something one already possesses. It can’t be jealousy; it’s only his old friend loneliness, wearing the face of envy.

 

***

The moment that Flint had realised that his copy of Meditations now lay at the bottom of Nassau bay, tucked away in a corner of his cabin, the feeling of despair that cascaded through him had driven the air from his chest like a punch to the gut. Unbidden, Gates’s voice had echoed in his mind, and he cursed the devouring water which had claimed everything he had left. His ship, his sacred text, his partner. And yet just this once the sea had seen fit to give him something back. Although it was quite possible that it wasn’t the sea’s choice at all; perhaps it was just that all the water in the West Indies was not powerful enough to lay claim to John Silver, and the sea had been a fool to try it. The idea of it made him smile again, and this time it felt less like a mask and more like slipping into an old and comfortable coat, a little battered with time, but soft around the edges and still well-fitting.

The afternoon had pressed into early evening, and he found himself rifling through the books in the spare bedroom of the house. His house. And Miranda’s. It was still theirs, despite its metamorphosis into this soulless thoroughfare and base of operations. Although the things which had made the house a home had been swept aside, even desecrated, Flint was at least in some small part grateful for the fact that Billy was no philistine. This war had consumed and corrupted him in so many ways, but he had taken the care to neatly stack the books littered around the living space and ferret them away along the walls of the bedrooms. The fine china held no meaning for him, inspired no spark of sentimentality, but the precious power of words was something Billy did understand, and so he had protected them.

He is searching for a little book, something by Middleton, that he had taken from a merchant ship many long months ago, along with a brand new cook and a whole lifetime’s worth of unasked for complications. The memory seems something of a dream now. He isn’t sure whether Miranda had ever even read it; she had been so upset with him not long after that he wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d tossed it into the fire. And yet, she was no philistine either, nor prone to rash outbursts the like of which she had endured with grace from him, and so he is certain it must be here somewhere. The copy of La Galatea which had been proffered as an apology was similarly absent from the piles he had so far deconstructed. He’s not really in the mood for reading anyway, but it gives him an occupation to wear as armour against the pressing quiet of the house that seems to demand the conjuration of painful memories. Today, however, his mind is resolutely focused on the present, and wanders ceaselessly across the narrow corridor to the bedroom that he and Miranda had shared; the bedroom where he imagines the books he seeks are lying; the bedroom currently occupied by his miraculously revivified quartermaster.

He wants to pretend that his reasoning for offering Silver that bed was simple. It was the more comfortable of the two, it was already made with fresh sheets, and the back of the house was quieter than the front. Plus, Silver was not an unwelcome guest as Richard Guthrie had been. He knew though, even as he made the offer, that there were more complicated feelings underlying it. He was letting Silver sleep where he slept, where he slept with her, and where he slept with her, and ever since the door had shut a creeping guilt had been crawling  up his spine at the idea that he wanted to somehow make Silver a part of that private aspect of his life without actually asking his permission. There is something so very intimate about the thought of Silver wrapping himself up tight in Flint’s sheets, in his bed, and trusting enough in the safety of this place and Flint’s presence to sleep soundly. He wonders whether the bed will smell like Silver after just a few hours of occupation, and he wonders whether it’s wrong for him to desperately want to know the answer. As his imagination conjures the image of his nose pressed against the crumpled sheets, his lungs expanding in a deep breath, a page tears beneath his fingers and he jumps, tutting at his clumsiness and his wholly unhelpful flights of fancy. He snaps the book shut, stroking his palm across the cover as a sort of apology, and he sets it aside to go in search of fresher air and a clearer head.

Walking into the hallway, he finds that the door to the master bedroom is ajar and Silver is visible propped up against the pillows, his one bare foot swinging idly off the edge of the bed. The light is getting low and it is difficult to make out the details of his features, but he still looks tired, his eyes deep set and his shoulders slumped, and the few hours of sleep have not done anything to help tame his hair. He almost manages to look wilder surrounded by this soft, domestic setting. Again Flint recalls the man he had first met. This change was so startling and profound, and yet he had barely noticed it happening. In little creeping increments the bright young chancer had been replaced by this gnarled and world weary pirate, and it could not be undone. It breaks his heart more than a little to think of it. Perhaps in another life John Silver never boarded that merchant ship, never found that page, never hatched his foolish ingenious plans, and never found himself in the unfortunate position of caring for other people. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

He turns to leave.

“Captain.”

Silver’s low voice cuts through the still quiet of the house, and turning back towards the door, Flint finds his eyes on him.

“Would you come in?” Silver says, and Flint nods silently and steps into the room, pushing the door to behind him.

Silver sits up further and leans forwards, beckoning him towards the space beside him. Flint sits, hands joined in his lap and fingers twisting his rings, and he maintains his silence, waiting for Silver to speak again. He says nothing, however, instead sliding across the bed until his knee presses against Flint’s and the slivers of blue around his wide pupils are almost too close to focus on. He seems to hesitate for a moment, and then he leans in and wraps his arms around Flint, tight and sure, and his hands insinuate themselves in the fabric of his shirt, pulling it taut across his skin. Goosebumps prickle along the full length of Flint’s arms and up the back of his neck, and after just a second of frozen surprise he folds his arms around Silver and hugs him back. The fingers grasping his shirt clench tighter as he pulls Silver flush against his chest, and if he hears a quiet hitching of breath and feels Silver’s ribs jump under his hands he doesn’t say a word about it.

His face is buried in a thick tangle of curls that smell like earth and saltwater, and it is more overwhelming than any lingering trace on an imagined bedsheet could ever be. He presses his nose into them and hopes that if Silver notices he doesn’t mind. His eyes feel hot, but he blinks hard against the welling moisture and breathes in deeply, trying to burn into his memory all of the sensations that have been denied to him for so long. Silver’s chest rising and falling against his own seeps a perfect heat through his shirt and into his skin that the close evening air could not hope to emulate, and one of his thumbs rubs gently against Flint’s side. It’s such a small gesture, almost unconscious, but it sends tingling shocks skittering across his ribcage, so overwhelming that he almost wants to shrink away.

A few long moments later - or perhaps minutes, or hours - Silver draws back, his hands sliding up to rest on Flint’s shoulders, warm and solid and grounding. Flint licks his lips, and his eyes refuse to stay focused on Silver’s face. They are still so very close and somehow, despite the space now between them, this feels far more intimate than their embrace. He can see the grains of sand that still cling to Silver’s hair, trapped in the little braid tucked behind his ear, and he can feel his hot breath against his lips.

“When I was with Hands,” Silver says suddenly, and Flint almost jumps at the low rumble of his voice, “there was a moment in which I felt the tide beginning to turn in my favour. I told him the story that you told me, his story, and as I told it I was reminded of the power that comes with knowing a person’s history, and the influence that can come with wielding their name. Every time he called me ‘Long John Silver’ I understood it more, because the name and the story that he was trying to use against me didn’t fit. Only just, a hair’s breadth away from the truth, and perhaps soon I will have no choice but to own them, but for now Long John Silver is still a mask to be worn while playing a part. It isn't really me.”

Flint’s fingers twitch as Silver’s hands finally slide down his arms. His shoulders feel cold without their comforting weight.

“But more importantly,” Silver goes on, the fingers of one hand wrapping loosely around Flint’s wrist, “in that moment I wondered whether, despite all we’ve suffered and accomplished together, I might go to my grave without ever having called you by your name and finding out just what would come of it. Whatever I will become in the future, or have become already, I don’t think you’ll ever stop being my Captain, but I hope that we’re far beyond the point now where you would object to me calling you James.”

“Of course I wouldn’t object. John,” Flint murmurs in reply, the name rushing out of his mouth on a heavy breath, and it feels strange and intimate spoken in the narrow space between them.

“Thank you,” Silver says, his eyes bright and his smile wide, and his tired face looks so much younger for it. Flint feels bewitched.

His hand turns over unconsciously as Silver’s fingers slip down from his wrist and over his palm, and his skin almost aches with the prickle of his hairs standing on end.

“John-,” he says again, looking up from their hands to meet Silver’s eyes, but before he has time to say another word, Silver’s lips are on his and there could be no better use for his tongue than this.

Silver’s mouth is hot and demanding, and Flint feels trembly and off-balance as he sinks into the kiss. It had been far too long since anyone had kissed him at all, let alone like this. His hands sink into Silver’s hair, pulling him closer, and the tangles catch on his fingers, while the cool bead affixed to his braid brushes against the back of his wrist. He wonders whether it’s Madi’s handiwork, and whether she has any idea that this might be happening. Though he thinks, selfishly, in this moment he will accept anything Silver is willing to offer, and he’ll worry about what anyone else might think another time. Miranda would probably be proud.

Silver pulls back minutely, his tongue brushing Flint’s bottom lip as he licks his own.

“You’re miles away,” he whispers. “Come back. She doesn’t mind, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Flint laughs gently and presses his forehead against Silver’s. He had always possessed a preternatural ability to read Flint like a book. He shouldn’t be surprised that time had only made him more frighteningly adept.

Silver nudges his  nose against Flint’s and grumbles, “James, stop thinking so loudly and just kiss me.”

And so he does, and for a little while nothing exists beyond shared breaths and soft tongues and gentle hands, and their Sisyphean war feels as far away as somebody else’s dream, dreamt in another lifetime untouched by the sea.