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trust / caution

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The hour was late in the captain’s cabin, and something was on Flint’s mind. Gates could tell by the lines that were steadily multiplying between his brow, the way his attention kept drifting from his charts, from Silver’s hastily copied and dubiously truthful schedule to the flickering light of the oil lamp on the desk between them. 

Gates had seen this coming, in a way. It’s why he’d followed him in here, bottle of rum and accounts book in hand. Normally Flint preferred to chart his courses alone, content to be surrounded by his fortress of navigational tomes and reference books. But ever since he’d been back from the interior--from visiting his Mrs. Barlow--there had been a set to Flint’s shoulders, a rigidity there, that alerted Gates that all was not well. So he’d followed him--foolish old man--into his lair, under the pretense that he needed a quiet place to review the accounts before they set sail again. It wasn’t the first time they’d shared space like this; captain and quartermaster, silent at their work, together as they were separate. 

He’d just intended to be a soothing presence there, a familiar shape to help set the captain’s mind at ease, keep him from drifting into the darker recesses of his mind that Gates knew were prone to swallow him. The crew needed Flint fresh, his mind sharp and nimble, to tackle the challenges that were coming. Gates’ first duty as quartermaster always was to the crew; it was on their behalf that he set himself the sisyphean task of putting the captain in order.

It was for them, then, surely, that Gates found himself reaching across the desk to smooth the lines that were gathering between Flint’s brow. Flint started at first, eyes wild as Gates’ touch brought him out of some maelstrom of memory, and for a horrible moment Gates was sure he had made a dreadful, costly mistake. But then green eyes found Gates’--thus grounded, they softened, and closed. Flint sighed and leaned into his touch like the ship cat. 

“Perhaps it’s time to call it a night,” Gates said, softly. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve tried to add these sums about five times and come up with a different wrong answer each go at it.”

Flint snorted and smiled, his eyes still closed as Gates finally removed his thumb from Flint’s middle brow. But Flint chased his hand, trapped it at his cheek, and Gates found his fingers tangling in the coarse orange hairs of his beard. Flint sighed again, his fingers twining over the back of Gates’ hand, holding him there. Gates blamed the rum he’d been nursing steadily over the course of the evening for his slowness, his reluctance to pull away. 

He would blame the rum, too, for what would happen next.

Flint’s eyes were open again and on him, pinning Gates in place more effectively than Flint’s hands ever could, and Gates knew in his bones what would be asked of him next, and knew what his answer would be.

“Gates… I need you to do me a favor.” 

~~~

“And you couldn’t have asked your Mrs. Barlow to handle it for you, I take it,” Gates said. He paced before the captain’s desk as Flint pulled from the rum bottle, tracking Gates’ movements with his eyes. Gates knew it was futile, that his protestations were just for show; that Flint had had him from the moment he’d followed him through that cabin door. But he owed it to himself, to his remaining shreds of dignity, to try anyway.

Flint glowered at him for a moment before letting his gaze fall to his fingers where they worried at the worn edge of the desk.

“My recent visit with Mrs. Barlow was… dissatisfying,” Flint said, almost wincing, and Gates suddenly felt remorse at having brought it up. He had never begun to understand--never tried, really--to understand the complexity of Flint’s relationship to the woman, their shared past. Normally he was loathe to bring her up at all, out of some unspoken agreement he had with Flint not to go there, a threshold in his captain’s mind he knew it wasn’t his place to cross. All he knew--all that mattered for him to know, really--was that usually Flint returned from her company refreshed and reformed, ready to tackle the challenges of captaincy. Usually.

“Besides,” Flint continued, “I try to keep this aspect of myself… my baser desires, separate from her. It’s… too likely to bring up bad memories.” 

Now that , Gates wasn’t going to begin to touch. He knew there was a ghost there, a man, in his past with Mrs. Barlow whose shadow Flint was desperate to avoid. Gates was happy to avoid it with him, both for Flint’s benefit and for other reasons--personal, uncomfortable--he wouldn’t begin to consider. 

“Please, Hal. You’re the only man aboard this ship--on this island--that I can trust.” 

And that was that, wasn’t it. Gates knew that trust was essential for his captain. Flint wasn’t like the other pirates Gates had worked with over the years--and there had been many--who engaged in occasional buggery. For most it was more of a diversion, a pass-time, until ship came to shore and the men gained access through coin or coercion to members of the softer sex. That had certainly been the case on the rare occasion that Gates partook, in his youth. Partners were mainly chosen out of proximity, opportunity. Trust was optional, especially on a pirate ship such as Flint’s where there were none of the repercussions an uncareful sodomite might expect to receive on, say, a merchant vessel, or--god forbid--the Navy. 

Maybe that’s where this carefulness came from, ultimately--Flint’s need for trust, for discretion. The Navy had formed Flint in ways that even now, eight years into their partnership, Gates was still unravelling. 

But even without the looming threat of the noose, Flint was unable or unwilling to open himself up, so to speak, to a man he didn’t trust implicitly. He didn’t engage in dalliances. Gates suspected that sex touched some deeper part of Flint that he simply couldn’t or wouldn’t share with just anyone. Despite everything--despite the headaches, despite the inherent danger and sheer foolishness of a quartermaster allowing this of his captain, despite the fact that before Flint, Gates would never have chosen a man when there was a woman within 30 miles--Gates treasured, begrudgingly, that Flint had chosen him for some godforsaken reason to trust with this part of himself.

“You know,” Gates said, pausing his pacing to loom across the desk, palms splayed over the paperwork, “you might have a more expansive choice of partners on this ship if you bothered to cultivate trust among your men rather than constantly undermining it,” Gates said, his tone gentle despite the barbed content of his message. 

Flint just watched his face, his expression unreadable.

Gates continued, “I can’t help but think a young buck like Billy would be better able to satisfy your particular appetites. Certainly better than an old warthog like me.” 

Flint sneered. “ Billy Bones wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with a man like me. He’d piss himself in terror were I ever to touch the tent of his trousers.” 

But now his eyes flickered over Gates warily, and Gates knew he was searching for signs of rejection. Flint brought the near-empty bottle to his lips.

“Trying to pass me off?” he muttered into its echoing neck. 

Gates sighed. “More like succession planning. Just trying to look out for you. I’m not a young man anymore, Flint--in fact, I haven’t been in any of the years I’ve known you. It’s been months since I even had the inclination to visit the ladies at Noonan’s. The spirit is willing, but the flesh…” Gates chuckled to hide his self-deprecation. “The flesh is getting old.” 

In an instant, Flint had risen to meet Gates across the desk. He paused for a moment, eyes flashing. Gates tensed, unsure as ever whether to prepare for a fuck or a fight, but then Flint was grabbing for his head and pressing a fierce kiss against his mouth. After a moment Gates relented, allowing Flint’s tongue entrance to his mouth, exploring him, claiming him. He sighed into the familiarity of it, the sulfur and spice taste of rum on Flint’s tongue threatening to intoxicate him all over again. 

Sometime during the kiss and without coming up for air, Flint had made his way around or over the desk, papers and books scattering to the floor. Now he was sitting on the edge of the desk, trapping Gates between his legs. Gates allowed himself to feel the taut lines of Flint’s body, furious with desire. He felt the hard line of Flint’s cock through the clothing separating them, where Flint ground it against his belly. It almost frightened him, at times--the force of Flint’s need. He knew it frightened Flint too, sometimes, which is why he bore it. He was a man his captain could trust, after all. 

“Don’t worry, old man,” Flint muttered into his mouth. His hand dipped to lazily fondle at Gates’ soft member through his trousers, hitching Gates’ breath. “You needn’t worry about waking up your old warthog tonight.” With those words and a flash of teeth, Flint sent him stumbling backward with a shove to the chest. Gates caught himself before he fell, swollen lips suddenly bereft of fierce kisses.

For one small, panicked moment, he was sure he was being dismissed. The moment he’d dreaded for years had finally come. Flint had finally recognized that Gates couldn’t keep up with him, physically--could no longer satiate the younger man’s seemingly bottomless hungers.

But Flint wasn’t pushing him out the door. Instead he was methodically disrobing himself. First his boots and socks, then his belts, then his trousers and finally his underthings. The only items he kept were his grey cotton shirt, freed from his trousers and trailing down to mid thigh, tenting around his cock, and of course the tie that kept back his hair. Padding over to the bed platform suspended in the corner of the cabin, he turned to look at Gates and arched an impatient eyebrow. 

Gates sighed long-suffering, but couldn’t keep the fond smile from creeping onto his face as he bolted the lock on the door. It had already been dangerous, allowing Flint such liberties while anyone could have walked in and witnessed such a dreadful breach of ship protocol. (He carefully chose not to remember that he had been the one to start things, reaching across the desk for Flint’s clouded brow).

Both men set to work, together but apart, not unlike their earlier efforts as captain and quartermaster. Gates retrieved the oil lamp and pulled his stool over beside the bed, knees cracking as he lowered himself onto it and set the lamp on the side table. As he began carefully rolling his sleeves to the elbow, Flint retrieved and deposited familiar things between them--a small pot of oil, a bowl of water, a cloth, and then finally, a smooth, long, tapered piece of carved whalebone. Gates took the familiar weight in his hands, smiled as he rolled it between his tattooed fingers. A clever piece of diletto, expensive no doubt, that Flint had ferreted away from a prize they’d taken ages ago. My, had it come in handy over the years. 

When he glanced back up, Flint was watching him, legs splayed, lips wet and slightly apart, waiting. His shirt rode up over his hips to expose his cock laying dark across his freckled thigh, pulsing as he watched the bone implement roll between Gates’ fingers. Gates felt an old, familiar heat spark in his belly at the expression on Flint’s face. An expression of hunger. Of need. 

“Alright then, captain. As you wish,” Gates said, and dipped his first finger into the pot of oil. 

~~~

“Hush now, boy, I’ve got you.” 

Flint had an arm flung across his face, the other behind his head to grip white-knuckled at the edge of the gently swaying bed platform. He moaned into the crook of his elbow as Gates slowly scissored his fingers wider inside Flint’s hole. Gates’ other hand massaged at the puckered edge, coaxing the muscle to relax, before floating back up to jack the base of Flint’s cock, eliciting another string of curses and low moans.

He was tight--tighter than last time, tighter than usual. Flint really had been neglecting this part of himself. When was the last time they had--? Before the taking of the Maria Aleyne , surely, before the string of bad prizes that had so soured the taste of Flint’s name on the mens’ tongues. It made Gates’ chest tighten to think of, and he redoubled his efforts, swearing to himself that he wouldn’t let things go so long again, wouldn’t let his captain go without. 

“You’ve no right--to be as good at this as you are,” Flint said, his voice hitching as Gates twisted the foreskin over the sensitive ridge of flesh at his cockhead. 

Gates hummed a laugh to himself. “Years of practice, my friend. Years and years of practice.”

Gates paused, the tip of his ring finger grazing Flint’s hole, and contemplated how far he would go with this part. The whalebone at his left knee sang to him to be used--it could go so much deeper than Gates’ relatively short, stubby fingers. But the feeling of Flint around him, the powerful rings of muscle quivering and contracting around his fingers, was intoxicating. He wanted to push deeper, more fingers, until all four tattooed knuckles, F A S T, were kissing Flint’s wanting flesh. He wondered how far Flint would let him go--how open Flint would allow himself to be bared before flinging the shutters closed on Gates once more. Part of him thought there would never be an end to Flint’s allowances, that maybe this was what he wanted so desperately after all, to be split apart by these familiar hands. 

With that reminder of Flint’s self-destructiveness and his own role in it, he swiftly withdrew his fingers, eliciting a noise of complaint. Flint lifted his arm to glare, an order already forming on his lips, but his expression adjusted as he saw Gates take the whalebone dildo into his hands and methodically slick it using the excess oil from his fingers. Gates relished the slackening of Flint’s jaw out of the corner of his eye, the fluttering of Flint’s eyelids. The smell of Flint was everywhere--the deep smell of inside him, heady and dark, mingled with a lingering scent of cunt from his earlier visit to Mrs. Barlow. It suffused Gates’ fingers such that he had a brief, terrifying thrill that he would never get it off, that the crew would smell Flint on him the next day. 

Gates’ cock twitched. 

He pushed such thoughts from his mind. Tomorrow was another creature, to be considered in its time. Now, his captain lay bared before him, his green eyes flickering back and forth from the white length in his hands to his face, trying to read him, study him, flay him open. Gates dragged his fingers through the pot to gather more oil, humming tunelessly to himself as he slicked down its length. 

“Mr. Gates,” Flint growled, a warning. 

“Just making the preparations, captain. Want you to be able to sit down tomorrow,” Gates replied cheerfully, lines creasing at the corner of his eyes.

“Oh? Is that what you want?” Flint drawled, and slowly extended his bare foot to toy with the tent beginning to form in Gates’ trousers. Gates’ eyes slid closed for just a moment as Flint’s toes trapped his quickening cock against his thigh, rolling and massaging. 

Gate coughed politely and scooted back slightly, just out of Flint’s reach. Flint’s expression darkened, and he made to sit up, never a man to be denied. His hair tie lost somewhere in the bedclothes, soft strands of hair filtering over his eyes. But Gates was ready for him. He intercepted the hand that was grabbing possessively for his cock and brought it to his mouth to kiss. The unexpected tenderness seemed to momentarily disarm his captain, who let out a low sound as Gates pressed a kiss to each knuckle on each finger, the palm of his hand, the pulse of his wrist. 

“Gates,” he whispered, and his voice was wretched.

“Hush now, boy,” Gates said, pressing a final kiss to Flint’s forehead before guiding him back down on his back. Flint said nothing, just nodded and flung his arm back up over his eyes, his hard mouth quivering. 

Finally, some peace and quiet. He could tend to Flint’s needs without the messiness and chaos of Flint’s involvement. Between Flint’s legs, his hole lay slightly open, slack, proof of the efficacy of Gates’ work, and Gates felt himself begin to harden in earnest at the sight of it, of him. His captain. His handiwork. Now all that was left was to bring him some release. 

~~~

“Shh, there’s a good lad. Let old Hal take care of you.”

Flint flexed his legs, crushing Gates closer to him. One leg flung over Gates’ left shoulder, Gates pressed a sweaty kiss to the inside of his thigh. The other across Gates’ knee, his heel hooked around Gates’ hip. And before him was Flint, whalebone already four inches deep inside of him, keening and begging for more.

Gates stared down at the flushed and freckled body beneath him as it shuddered with tension and pleasure. The place where white bone met wet rings of muscle, inching slower inside. His own budding erection twitching, he allowed his mind to wander while he worked, distracting himself from his own body’s growing interest in the proceedings. 

He thought about the lonely sailor who’d carved this object with such love and care--its ridges, bumps and curves molded perfectly to pleasure. Had he made it for a lover he’d left at home, to use and think of him the long months he was asea? Or perhaps the reverse--to use on himself on lonely nights in his hammock, thinking of one he’d left behind. Then Gates’ thoughts drifted even deeper, to a pale goliath plunging through the ocean’s depths as he slid a sliver of its carved corpse deeper into Flint, eliciting a sound as beautiful and resonant as whalesong.

“Shh,” Gates soothed, and swept a hand up his captain’s broad chest to play through the tufts of hair there, ghosting over a pebbled nipple. 

“I can’t. I need--” Flint stuttered, a hand darting up to crush Gates’ against his chest. Flint’s cock was leaking seed--not pre-come, but seed--though he’d not yet finished.

“Jesus, boy. Let me see,” he said, and gently extricated his hand from Flint’s grasp. Holding the bone inside him with one hand, he brought the other to trace the curves of Flint’s balls, tight and straining. Flint hissed a whine through his teeth. Gates gently rubbed circles into the depression in the center of them, watched as they twitched, felt his own twitch and bob in sympathetic desire.

“Fuck me, James,” Gates rasped, “I don’t understand you. With a woman as good as you have to go home to, you come running back to me this unspent?” 

“It’s not--her fault,” Flint began, through gritted teeth, and Gates saw the glitter of tears at the corners of his eyes and immediately regretted what he’d meant in playful jest. “I’m just--”

“Shh,” Gates said, and wrapped a firm hand around Flint’s weeping cock. He began twisting it lightly, timing it with twists and movements of the whalebone inside him. “Shh, it’s alright, I know. I know you better than any man on this ship. You don’t have to explain, nor pretend, for me.”

“Hal--” he moaned.

There came a sudden rapping on the cabin door. Gates froze, scrambling to remember if he’d locked it, mind racing against the rum haze to think of who could be calling on the captain at this late an hour. Gates made to stand, but suddenly Flint crushed him in closer with his legs. 

“Don’t you leave me, Hal,” he growled. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

Gates motioned for Flint to be quiet, his expression disbelieving.

“Let me go you bloody octopus,” Gates pleaded.

The rapping came again, this time with a timid, “Captain?”

Flint raised himself up on his elbows, his eyes glassy with desperation. His face had taken on that dreadful aspect Gates sometimes saw in battle--where he could see the clean outlines of Flint’s skull, the dark beneath his green eyes cavernous. 

“If you leave me, I’ll kill you,” he whispered. Gates shuddered, and knew, suddenly, that he meant it.

So Gates did what he knew would disarm him--he took that horrible skull into his hands and crushed a kiss to his mouth. Flint moaned into him, opening for him immediately, desperately lapping at his tongue. It did the trick--his legs relaxed around him, and Gates was able to slip away.

~~~

He dared not cast a glance back at Flint as he crossed the darkened room, picking his way past the scattered papers and books from their earlier dance at the desk. Gates cursed his captain, the rum, and himself most of all for letting things get this out of hand. 

Gates cracked the door to see none other than Billy Bones peering down at him. Oh, sweet Billy.

“Oh, quartermaster,” Billy said, blinking away confusion. “I apologize. It’s just that I heard some strange noises coming from the captain’s quarters and only wondered--”

“The captain has come down with a bit of fever, probably due to his wounds from the duel,” Gates supplied. The lie rolled so easy off his tongue. “He’s had some… vocalizations. Don’t worry, I’m tending to him.”

“Oh, I see,” Billy said, his eyebrows drawn together anxiously. “Should I fetch up Dr. Howell?”

“No need, boy. Nothing I can’t handle.” Then even though they were already whispering, he motioned for Billy to lean in closer. “I think the captain would prefer that no one else see him in this state of vulnerability,” Gates said conspiratorially. 

Billy nodded, straightening. “Of course. Well, let me know if you need anything.” Then Gates’ stomach flipped as Billy wrinkled his nose. “God. I think I can smell the fever from here. You’re sure you’re alright?”

“Yep, yes, quite alright, goodnight Billy,” Gates chirped as he hastily closed the door and re-bolted it. For a moment, Gates just slumped with his forehead against the door, willing his heartbeat to slow as he listened for Billy’s retreating steps.

He was gathering himself to turn around and face what awaited him when he felt a thick forearm encircle his neck. His hands flew to claw at Flint’s grip as it slowly constricted his breathing. He felt Flint’s rum-hot breath at his ear, the tickling of his loosened hair across his cheek. The hard line of his erection pressed hot into the small of his back. 

“What did I tell you?” Flint whispered.

For a terrible moment Gates thought Flint’s grip would continue to tighten. And tighten. And tighten. Until Gates’ world narrowed to a single point--James fucking Flint--and then went dark.

But that didn’t come to pass. Not yet, not this time.

Somehow he could still breathe, just. Flint’s teeth were worrying at the cartilage of his ear, and Gates was dimly aware of his other hand working expertly at his buttons. In a few moments Gates’ trousers and underclothes were pooling at his boots, and Flint’s hand was groping him savagely. Worse, the lightheadedness from Flint’s chokehold had somehow gone straight to his flagging erection, causing him to harden against Flint’s cruel fingers. Gates was suddenly reminded of the first time he’d seen a hanging, how the dead man’s prick had come alive even as the air and life left his body forever.

“This old flesh doesn’t feel so weak to me,” Flint chuckled, calling back to Gates’ earlier admission. The laughter was too much--the cruelty, too much. He wouldn’t be a corpse on Flint’s gallows today. Mustering his strength, Gates sent a savage elbow back into Flint’s ribs, near where he’d been slashed by Singleton’s sword. Flint reeled back, and Gates’ breath returned to him in a heady rush. 

Gathering himself in his hand, Gates turned a furious eye on his captain. Flint winced up at him through tangled hair, guiltily evading his eyes. “I told you--not to leave me,” Flint muttered, and suddenly seemed so wretched that Gates felt a crumble in his resolve, even as his windpipe still ached at his throat.

Gates closed his eyes, mustering his former calm. “Desk,” he said, hoarsely. “Now.”

~~~

“Take your shirt off,” Gates ordered. 

Flint obeyed, gathering the loose linen in his arms and flinging it over his head to the floor.

“Hands on the desk. Don’t move until I say so.”

Flint obeyed, turning to splay his palms over the worn oak surface. The light from the guttering lamp illuminated the plump curve of his ass, the muscled and scarred length of his back. 

Gates inhaled a grounding breath. He attempted to swallow down his self-contempt, tried to pretend he was somehow punishing Flint instead of giving him exactly what he wanted--what he’d been working to ply from Gates the entire night. It was against his nature to do things this way--to order rather than persuade. This was Flint’s way. He hated feeling Flint’s words on his tongue, the ghost of his hands at his neck. 

And yet he couldn’t deny that their interests were currently aligned, despite what had passed between them. He hated himself for it, for wanting Flint despite knowing exactly what he was, what he was capable of. But his cock was aching for release for the first time in weeks , and Flint’s smell still permeated his hands, his mind, infiltrating his thoughts. He still wanted him, in spite of it all.

Gates stooped to remove his boots, his pants. Stepped out of his trousers, let his leather vest slither to the floor. Now it was Gates’ turn to be wearing only his shirt, cock tenting the fabric. 

Slowly he aligned himself behind Flint. Took his thick cock in hand, stroked it slowly, then brought it to press at the still-slick rim of flesh at Flint’s hole. Gates was aware of the oil on the side of the room, near the bed. In any other circumstance, he would be oiling himself generously, to make the taking easier. Gates’ cock was like the rest of him--a bit short, but girthy--and he prided himself on making sure his partners were able to take it. But tonight he was feeling decidedly less generous. 

Besides, Flint was already striving to push himself back onto him, maneuvering to kiss the head against the inner ring of muscle. Still obeying orders, palms flat on the desk. Flint’s head hung low between his shoulders, and Gates felt the shiver that went through his back at the touch, the promise of more.

“Alright. Be patient,” Gates muttered. He palmed Flint’s ass in both hands, spread it so he could see the moment he entered. Then slowly, painstakingly, he drew Flint’s hips back and down, lowering his body onto him. They both hissed at the pressure, Flint arching his back and wincing as Gates steadily pushed in to the hilt. Flint’s chest was heaving, and Gates found his hands fluttering up his chest, soothing over his clenched stomach and down to fondle at his straining cock. 

“There’s a good lad,” Gates whispered, unable to curb his impulse to soothe the younger man. He began working a rhythm into him, slow at first, then gradually faster. Sweat gathered on Gates’ brow, in the small of Flint’s back where Gates’ stomach came to kiss. The brittle lines of Flint’s back softened under Gates’ hands; gradually he became liquid, his hisses of pain morphing into groans of pleasure. 

“Wanted this,” Flint panted, “all night. Wanted you. Your stupid--thick--old man cock.”

Gates huffed a laugh, sweat gleaming down his throat, in the cleft of his ass. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he replied, and half meant it. 

“Can… can I move?” Flint rumbled, and Gates startled, forgetting the order he’d pinned him with so effectively.

“Yes, of course.”

Flint growled and lunged forward, hauling his right knee up onto the desk. Gates chased him, hands clawing at Flint’s hips, and found that the angle had changed, deepened. He groaned against Flint’s back as he fucked into him, relishing the slide and friction of engorged flesh and slick muscle. He could tell from the deepening of Flint’s voice that his thick cock had found its place. The wet sound of his balls slapping the back of Flint’s thighs filled the air.

He wouldn’t last much longer now--could see the inevitability of his orgasm approaching with every thrust. Impulsively, he reached for Flint’s face, his mouth. Flint twisted his body half around and met Gates’ mouth in a clash of tongue and teeth, rocking himself frantically on Gates’ cock. The rub of their facial hair, the wetness of their mouths and Gates was spilling inside Flint, muffling his shout against Flint’s swollen lips. A few frantic motions of Flint’s hand and Gates knew he was coming too, following Gates for once.

~~~

“It’s not going to work,” Gates laughed, untangling Flint’s fingers from his shirt. 

“How do you know if you won’t try?” Flint pouted, eyes barely open. Uncharacteristically petulant, his energy was finally sapped, by rum and release and the late, late hour. He was attempting to drag Gates down with him onto the platform bed, suspended from the ceiling by suspiciously thin chains.

“Because I know this ship and I know my weight, and this bunk wasn’t made to support the both of us. Though I appreciate the invitation,” Gates said.

Surprisingly, Flint relented. He ground the heels of his hands against his eyes and emitted a shuddering breath. 

“I’m sorry.”

Gates sighed, formed his mouth into a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. 

“I know.”

Gates sat there on his stool until Flint’s breath evened into a gentle snore. Then he quietly gathered the detritus of their encounter; rinsed the cloth in the bowl of water and used it to clean his hands, the whalebone, the surface of the desk, between his legs. He eyed the darkly glistening space between Flint’s legs but decided against it, unwilling to risk waking him again. Instead he left the water and the cloth on the side table for when Flint awoke. The whalebone he placed reverently into its velvet bed in the side table drawer, beside the pot of oil. 

He stooped to begin gathering the scattered papers and books but thought better of it, his lower back already complaining from their earlier exertions. This part at least he would leave to Flint, he thought, as he wet his thumb and forefinger to extinguish the lamp wick. 

Finally, his clothing replaced and rearranged on his person, Gates reached to quietly unbolt the door. Touching the metal, his body froze as he felt the furious line of Flint’s body behind him. The thick forearm encircling his neck, crushing him back into Flint’s body, separating him from his breath. 

But it was just a memory--and powerful as memory’s hold on him was, it couldn’t hurt him unless he allowed it. He breathed there against the door for a long moment, willing his nerves to settle. 

He thought he heard Flint’s voice from across the room, sleep-rough, repeating his assertion--”I’m sorry.”

But then again, there in the dark, Gates couldn’t be sure if that too was just a memory. Quieter, but no less real, or true.

Steeled at last, Gates slipped back out into the night.