"He's going to outlive us, you know."
The words cross their sitting room, with its open windows. James sees the moment they land, when Thomas's eyes lift from the volume he holds.
"I can't say that I do," says Thomas after a pause. "Who do you mean?"
The question is a fair one to ask of a man who's thrown such a statement without preamble into the center of a quiet, cicada-drone afternoon, but his careful tone betrays that he has a name in mind, specifically the one used by — if perhaps not belonging to — that particular object of so much rage and so much gratitude, the source of that unpayable debt that flows as no river does, both uphill and down.
It's a fine guess, but not a true one.
"Well," says James, "I say he," and with a tight, quick not-a-smile and another, sharper omission, his meaning is unearthed.
"Oh." Thomas sets his book down entirely now, open like a cloven thing across his lap, a finger stuck between the pages. "What's brought this on?"
Another fair question, but not one so easily answered. Perhaps there was a thread that took a logical course — books and reading do not occupy a space that is so very far from newspapers, and what is printed within them. But perhaps the thought was only a flaring of that old war wound, the one he'd picked at to stave off scabbing from the moment he cut half his name from him as he'd done his hair in order to pick up a new one. James shakes his head, and spreads his hands.
"Does it matter?" he asks, then winces. It is a very unkind thing to so dismiss a man who has been as oft-dismissed and discarded as Thomas, and for the reasons he was made to bear that cold and endless dismissal — Thomas never stands for it, anyway, even more so than before. James tries not to ask him to. "What I mean to say," he amends, "is that I don't know. But it's been brought on nonetheless. And it's true. He will."
"I see," says Thomas. "He can hardly outlive you in the natural sense. You're speaking in terms of legacy." Furrowed brow, worried eyes — the prospect of exactly these things nearly kept James's maudlin words firmly behind his teeth. Now they're here, and they draw speech from him as from a well. That has always been Thomas's effect upon him, to persuade him to bring all to light. Answering that call, they long ago decided, is what it means to share a life.
"It goes on and on," says James. "In the memories of those I sailed with, their tavern tales. Between the pages of newspapers that still talk of a ghost that stands ten feet tall, mouth dripping blood onto a beard of fire. In homes, where his is the name of the man who cut down one of their number — a husband, perhaps. A father," he says, and he can still feel, still relish the memory of the give of guts to the end of his blade, even as he imagines what grief might look like on the young face that began it, those round eyes. "And that's to be expected. Proper, even. I can hardly expect the world to forget all I've done — nor do I want it to, precisely." A stormy calm settles over him, thickening the air in his lungs. For all his lingering regrets and torments, England lost sleep and gold and blood and Charleston burned for a reason. That has never changed.
Thomas nods slowly. "I can understand that," he says, and that old relief floods James for a moment. Though Thomas's feelings regarding James's past may be complex things, at once painful and ponderous and fiercely protective, the keystone holding it all together is understanding, spoken freely in the home they keep. "What still troubles you then, if not a wish to be forgotten?"
There are times when James's long reputation as a storyteller pales, fails him. What good is an affinity for words and their harmonies when no single one nor any combination can ever measure up to the quiet, earth-moving joy of simply sitting here at home in adjacent chairs, of doing so day by day, of living in this house with its one bed?
"A wish to be remembered," he begins. "We may not be recluses, but no one has tales of any magnitude to tell of Thomas McGraw and James Hamilton, the two widowers who live simply at the edge of town. There are people on an island who live a little easier for what we can send them when they ask, but aside from that, our life is quiet, and small. I don't mean that disparagingly," he says quickly when he sees how Thomas blinks at him. "This is the sweetest part of my life — you know that, I know you do, the very sweetest — and I wouldn't mind the quiet, unsung nature of it at all if I were not acutely aware that we won't live forever," and those simple words weigh heavier for James than they might for one whose lover has no grave in England, does not sit before him death-defiant, graying at more than his temples and peering at him through lenses he'd managed without only last fall, "and that he just might."
It's familiar, the sad smile on Thomas's face. Familiar like the shape the sun makes as it spills through the window this time of day, this time of year. "I do know," he says. His hand finds James's on his armrest, warm, calloused, and so familiar, too. "How you treasure our life, I mean. I know for countless reasons, and one of them is that we could hardly be at odds about such a thing. But that is where your thoughts and mine part ways on this matter, dearest. This is the sweetest part of your life, you said, and it pains you that it will never be known. Well, it is the sweetest part of mine, too, and it is precisely because of this that I don't want the world to know one goddamn thing about it."
It's subtle, that flicker of tendons as Thomas grips James's hand tighter, the gathering strength of his voice. James doesn't miss a note of it. The waters here, he realizes, run deeper for Thomas than he knew. "It doesn't trouble you? That they speak only of the worst?"
Thomas shakes his head, eyes far away and wistful. "I used to love making a scandal of myself, do you remember? Of course you do — but you never saw me at my height. You should have seen me when I was young, truly young, so determined to prove that all I shared with my father was my name, when my greatest delight was to hear that name spoken from across a room by those who did not know how their voices carried." He shakes his head again. "No more. My years in Bethlem rather starved out my appetite for being on display."
Dark as ever, that howling cavern in James's chest. Darker. He'd known what they did to Thomas from the start, had some idea, at least. Could imagine it, the indignity, the detached cruelty. How cold it must have been. But to see the scars on his arms, see how they'd already begun to fade, incorporate themselves into Thomas's body as if they belonged there — he'd known, then, running his fingers over them, the rough pad of his thumb, that his wrath would not be so easily surrendered to the sea.
"That was — " Thomas holds up a hand. An old gesture, he's not yet finished speaking, but there's more to it than that, stand down and it's all right. There are no forbidden subjects between them, never have been, but Bethlem requires extra care, is in some ways more difficult than James's own bitter, bloody decade — at least he'd forged that path, could explain it on his own terms.
Thomas keeps them both balanced there a moment, one hand held up, one hand holding James's, before continuing. "To be seen, to be known, is to be owned, a little. Enough. There was a time when I could shoulder that yoke. But then I spent ten years owning nothing at all, not even something so small, so pitifully broken as my own, cast-aside life." He smiles a little when he lowers his hand, covers the back of James's palm. "Then you took it back from them, put it in my hands, and now I intend to keep it, all of it, and share it only with you. So let them keep the ghost of Captain Flint, and poor mad, dead Lord Hamilton too. I have no need of them. Let them whisper, let them scream, let them gorge themselves on our half-told tragedy and leave us in peace."
James hears the words, feels their conviction, the gentle tug of persuasion. He shakes his head. "It's not that I still have much need of him," he begins slowly. "You were there to see the very moment that need withered. I created a monster and did monstrous things to try to gain vengeance, victory against the greater evil that destroyed the home we built. Now you're here, we're here, alive, together, happy and long-rebuilt in spite of it all — that's a victory I never thought possible, and that story will never be told. Can never be told, if it's to remain true. All the while, the true monster lives on, undefeated in the eyes of its subjects, who believe the dread captain to be dead, vanquished, fodder for their ghost stories, and will never know what it was all for."
"Forgive me," says Thomas, on the heels of the beat following James's last word. "I should not have spoken for us both. I confess, I was too quick to map your concerns onto my own, to think of how the man I was is the man I will always be to the few who still speak my name. But it's different for you. The legacy is different. While some called me traitor, I believe the image that survives is that of an eccentric, misguided, but loyal servant of the empire, pity about his wife — and a fool either way." His mouth a hard, bitter line, Thomas holds James's eye, and James is glad when he doesn't speak more of Miranda. When all they have left are memories, it aches too much to give audience to those of people who never knew her, never loved her, when she cannot defend herself, prove them wrong with that grace of hers, that will.
"It's different for you," says Thomas again. "There is a part of me that agrees with all you've just said, the same part of me that longs to take your hand when we walk into town, damn what anyone thinks. But of course, we both know that thoughts are not so abstract, so harmless and easily-dismissed as that — which makes stories and legacies all the more potent, and my willingness to let the record remain incomplete a difficult one to defend." Ruefully, he twists his mouth. "With thoughts as contradictory as these, I'm in no position to judge what ought to be said about your past. I do agree that it's rather outgrown us. It may make me a coward, or prove I've remained a fool, but if it does outlive us, I'll be content as long as there's an us to outlive."
Thomas smiles at him then, a fragile, deep-rooted thing. James faces it as long as he can bear, and when he bows his head, he sees where their hands still lie entwined. A ghost's hands never grow old, and can never become clean once bloodied. James's are certainly older, and while he's uncertain they'll ever be truly clean, this is as close as they will ever come again. The simple, ugly, resounding truth is that he'd sooner see his hands stained red for all time than miss the chance to watch Thomas's slowly crease, to rub the stiffness from his knuckles when storms approach. Whatever that says about him, about what ought to be said about him — he finds he can't say it. He hasn't the words.
"I fell in love with that fool, I'll have you know," he lands on at last, drawing his thumb across the tops of Thomas's fingers. It's easy, has always been easy to take that gentle, teasing tone with Thomas. Even when it terrified him, it was easy, somehow. It was right.
"And I love Captain Flint," says Thomas, the sincerity of the unspoken I know mingling seamlessly with that same, well-worn ease. Mischief in his eyes, he reaches up and cups the side of James's jaw. "Blood-soaked, flaming beard and all."
"Well," says James. He does not think he has ever heard Thomas say those words before. He would remember. "That's all I need to hear."
Thomas ducks his head, lowers his eyes, smiles that off-guard smile, and it's no surprise when the kiss comes after, soft and lingering, bridging that short span between their chairs. It's never a surprise, the peace that follows.
"I'm afraid I need to lie down," says Thomas, still close, and his voice takes on a hopeful note when he asks, "Join me?"
The lateness of the afternoon tugs on James's bones too. He wonders if sleep will find him, or if he'll simply lie there breathing next to Thomas until he rises.
"In a moment," he promises, and Thomas nods, and stands, and the moments between Thomas's fingers' last brush to his face and his walk to their room, that one bedroom, feel so very long. Dreamlike, nearly, for a man already half-lost in thought.
James doesn't know what he expects the empty room to tell him, only that he takes a hard, slow look. The books and their shelves, the rug on the floor, the chair still warm where Thomas leaned his weight upon it, and the walls that hold it all in. The sun pooling on the floor laps at his ankles as he stands, tries the lock on the door, and follows Thomas down the hall.