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Gates stood on the house’s small porch and hesitated, listening to the soft patter of rain on the eaves. Flint muttered something poisonous and unintelligible and Gates shifted his grip under the captain’s shoulders. He’d half carried, half dragged the man all the way from the Guthrie tavern; Flint had spent his brief moments of lucidity cursing him to hell and back. Gates couldn’t wait to be rid of him. And yet he couldn’t bring himself to just dump him on the porch like a sack of potatoes, as much as he may have wanted to, and as much as the man may have deserved it.

He was saved from having to knock by the front door cracking open. Mrs. Barlowe, Flint’s Puritan woman, stood wiping her hands on her apron. 

“Good evening, ma’am. Apologies for barging in on you like this, but…” and he shrugged the limp man draped over his left arm.

There was something drawn in her expression as she looked over Flint’s sullen shape. Then she granted Gates a weary smile and opened the door wide, beckoning him in with his rum-soaked burden. 

Silently she led Gates through a warm central room to a small, bare bedroom. She indicated for Flint to be deposited on the bed, and Gates did so. If he let Flint’s head bump against the wall a bit on the way down as revenge for his poor behavior on the long walk over, she didn’t comment. She just stood there, looking down at Flint with an inscrutable expression. For Flint’s part his eyes were screwed shut into a deep scowl, and he quickly thrashed himself into a position curling against the wall, turning his back on them with more muttered obscenities. 

As he turned to leave, Gates noticed that Flint’s muddy boots and damp coat were still on. After a brief glance at Barlowe, Gates shuffled forward and removed each of Flint’s boots, setting them gently by the door. He narrowly avoided a flung elbow as he struggled to remove Flint’s coat and belt. After watching for a long moment, the woman moved forward to assist Gates.

“Here, let me,” she said, and the two of them were able to remove both without injury.

As Gates hung up the belt and coat, the woman drew the covers up over Flint’s body. Gates retrieved a chamber pot and set it next to the bed, along with a pitcher of water. He averted his eyes with a blush as she bent over to leave a gentle kiss on Flint’s forehead. Gates’s last glimpse of his captain’s face before retreating to the main room was an expression he’d never before seen on the man and hoped never to again—abject misery, almost childlike in its rawness. 

Gates was halfway to the front door before the Barlowe woman called out to him, closing the door to the bedroom behind her.

“Wait—Mr. Gates.”

He stopped, surprised that she knew his name. They’d never been introduced as far as he could remember. He’d only seen her in passing a few times when he’d had occasion to come this far into the interior to meet Flint. Flint himself had never spoken of her in their months of partnership, and he’d never pried. All he knew was her name, and that only from whispered rumors that abounded about her in the tavern and brothel. Rumors that she was his wife, his sister, his witch.

She was close to him now, a gentle hand on his arm. She smelled of spices from cooking, and something feminine and floral—lavender? It had a calming effect. 

“Stay for dinner, please,” she said, her brown eyes warm on his face. 

“Oh, I couldn’t. I’ve got to get back to the men.”

“Please, Mr. Gates. Don’t make me beg you. I’ve made enough for two, and he won’t be eating anything anytime soon.” 

With that she turned and walked across to the kitchen to stir something in a pot. It really did smell heavenly, and Gates’ thoughts were interrupted by a loud growl from his stomach. It had been an effort to get Flint’s barely responsive body all the way here, and his stomach was demanding caloric repayment.

He could see the smile curving up her face in profile.

“Well, that’s settled it then, hasn’t it?” she said, not turning away from her cooking.

Gates laughed and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.

“I suppose I could stay for a bit, if it’s truly no trouble,” he said, and settled himself into a chair beside the fire. The warmth felt heavenly on his aching joints, aggravated by the journey through the mud and damp. The weather tonight seemed to mimic Flint’s mood, gloomy and dark. 

After a quiet moment, where the only sounds were the flickering fire and her quiet work in the kitchen, Gates was possessed to speak up again. 

“I’m sorry about the Captain, ma’am. I should have watched him better. I know he has a proclivity for the drink when he gets in a way.” 

That was an understatement, but Gates wouldn’t burden a nice Puritan woman with that knowledge. Flint could be a raging drunk, a mean drunk, when the mood took him. And tonight had been worse than Gates had ever seen him. He’d quickly abandoned cups to drink long pulls straight from the bottle, had become belligerent and gloomy. He’d tried to start a fight with a bartender, a bouncer, three patrons and Ben fucking Hornigold of all people. Gates had finally grown tired of babysitting him and tried to put him to bed in a room above the tavern—only for ten minutes later Flint to come barrelling out, break his empty rum bottle over the bannister and try to put it through the eye of Teach’s boy, Charles. After prying the two of them apart, that was when Gates had decided to remove him from Nassau entirely for the night, before he could do enough damage to the ship’s reputation, or otherwise fully drain the funds from their latest haul. 

Mrs. Barlowe brought a covered dish over to the table and set it down. Gates noticed that the table had been set with silverware—real silver, only slightly tarnished—with two places laid. The china didn’t look cheap, either, and the napkins looked to be of a fine linen he wouldn’t have expected from a Puritan.

When she looked at Gates again, her smile was still in place but that drawn expression had returned. 

“Mr. Gates, there’s no need to apologize on his behalf. I assure you I’m as familiar with his vices as well as if not better than you are.”

“Of course ma’am, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s no matter. I only say it because...” and she paused, her eyes closed, as if she were gathering herself. She let out a long breath.

“Nothing about his behavior tonight is your fault. There’s no way you could have known. Tonight is an anniversary, of sorts, and not a happy one. For either of us.”

Gates rose to his feet, but suddenly she was across the room, her hand on his chest. 

“Please. Before you say anything silly about intruding or giving us our privacy. Of course, I had hoped…” and she takes a shaky, steadying breath, and indicates the table set so finely, so meticulously for two.

“I had hoped that tonight could have gone differently. That James would have been able to sit and eat, and talk with me about old times. But I see now how foolish a hope that was.”

“I’m not angry with him. He is trying to cope in his way, and I in mine. Our grief isn’t always compatible, you see. But at least with you here, I won’t—”

Almost without thinking, Gates brought his hands up to cover hers and gently removed it from where it had balled in his shirt. She looked up into his face then, her brown eyes glistening.

“I understand,” he said lamely, his blush creeping up the back of his neck to ghost the edges of his tattoo. He was both moved and embarrassed by her vulnerability, her trust in him—a stranger, a pirate. A man so rusty and unfit for a lady’s trust and vulnerability. He felt a strong urge to do whatever was in his power to help her feel better, less lonely in her grief.

She granted him a smile, then—a real smile, and laughed, wiping the back of her hand across her eyes. 

“Excellent. Thank you, Mr. Gates. Now enough of this wallowing. Let’s eat.”

 

~~~

 

The dinner was simple but delicious, certainly better than the cheap slop they doled out at the tavern. She had produced a bottle of red wine as well—a decent make, one she’d obviously been saving—and insisted that they share it. 

The wine loosened their tongues, dispelling most of Hal’s remaining nerves. He ended up sharing much more than he meant to, and learning little. 

He learned a few things, though. He learned that her name was Miranda. 

He learned that she was not Flint’s wife, but that she had been married before. He did not pry into the specifics and she did not offer them. 

He learned that she shared Flint’s passion for the written word; she was perhaps even better read than the man himself. She showed him their library—extravagant by island standards though she seemed to find it modest—a few hand-built shelves stuffed with dozens of books. 

Hal had never been a reader, but he recognized quite a few of them from prizes he and Flint had taken together. He entertained her by recounting some of the more light-hearted tales of their capture. She listened raptly, holding each book against her chest as he told tales that were only slightly edited and embellished to feature Flint’s power and prowess as captain.

In return, she recited for him a few of her favorite verses, some of them quite bawdy. This catapulted them into a kind of competition of dirty limericks, which soon devolved into fits of laughter. 

Sitting back at the table, Hal wiped the tears from his eyes after her latest poem. The shock of vulgarity coming from this seemingly Puritan woman had sent him into convulsions of laughter. When he was able to see again, he saw that she was smiling at him slyly, swirling the remains of red wine in her cup. 

“Hal… I’m really glad you stayed,” she said.

“Me too, ma’am,” he said, voice rough with laughter.

“Call me Miranda, please,” she said, and he amended—”Miranda”—with another sip of wine to stifle his giggling.

“I’ve been wanting to get to know you for some time,” she said, her eyes still on him in a way that he was starting to find a bit unnerving. 

“I’ve been curious about you as well,” he admitted, though he hadn’t an inkling why she would take any interest in himself.

“James doesn’t share much with me about his life on the sea,” she said, a small frown breaking onto her face as she glanced toward the bedroom door. 

“I imagine he doesn’t want to burden you,” Hal said, gently.

“Hmm,” she said, her frown deepening a fraction, before turning her eyes back to him. 

“In any case, from the little he has deigned to share with me, I gather you are quite high in his estimation.”

“Me?” said Hal, at the same time letting out a little hiccup of shock.

“You,” she said, that strange, sly smile returning. “And I can tell from the way you treated him tonight… bringing him all the way here, that you must feel somewhat the same.”

Hal hoped the flush from the wine was doing a good job of hiding his sudden flush of embarrassment. He cleared his throat messily. 

“Well, Miranda. I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you, but. The man can be an absolute shit.”

And that brought a laugh of true pleasure bubbling out of her. It was a magical sound, and one he instantly wanted to hear again.

“But with that said, he is one hell of a captain. He has this will… like once he’s decided on a course of action, there is truly nothing on heaven or earth stopping him. I haven’t seen the likes of him since Avery. We’ve accomplished things together I’d never thought possible, at least not at this late phase of my career.”

“And that’s why you gently remove his boots before he goes to sleep?”

“Hey, alright now—” he sputtered, and she was laughing again. “That was a one time thing. Just didn’t want the stupid git to get hypothermia, end up dead in the night and me having to scrounge around for a new captain in the morning.”

“Mmhmm,” she said, taking a deep sip from her cup, her eyes glittering with amusement.

He was saved from having to make more excuses by a clap of thunder. The foggy drizzle from their long walk over had intensified to a bonafide storm during dinner. He’d been so enchanted by Miranda’s company he’d somehow failed to notice. 

“Oh my,” said Miranda, her eyes on the rivulets of rain pouring down the window. 

“I’m a sailor, ma’am. I’ve been through worse,” he said as he rose from the table.

“Nonsense,” she said. “This isn’t one of your ships and you’re not at sea. This is my home, and I insist that you stay through the storm at least.” She placed her palms on the table and stood, wobbling just slightly.

“If you insist,” he said, coming to her side to place a broad steadying palm on her shoulder.

“But if I’m to stay, you must put me to work. Here, sit, and let me do the washing up,” he said, guiding her back down into the chair. He couldn’t look her in the face, not this close, but he could feel her eyes shining on him, the flush on her cheeks as she smiled. 

He busied himself with clearing the table, humming tunelessly under his breath. There was a stool and a bucket of clean-ish looking water near the kitchen area, and he sat upon it with only a light groan of effort. 

“You like taking care of people, don’t you,” said Miranda, and again he could feel her eyes burning into the back of his neck from her place at the table. 

“Well, I’m a quartermaster, ma’am. It’s part of the job,” he said as he dipped a washcloth in water and began scrubbing the silverware.

“Mr. Gates, I may not be the most knowledgeable person in Nassau regarding the management of pirate ships, but I know enough to know that a quartermaster doesn’t wash the dishes.”

“Hmm,” he smiled, “sometimes I wish that were my job. Would be a hell of a lot easier,” he said. 

“Is it so difficult? Being quartermaster. Speaking for the men as you do. To James.”

He sighed and wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. He was still a bit tipsy and sweating from the drink.

“It’s not so bad, really. He doesn’t always want to hear it, but he’s usually reasonable enough. The harder part can be speaking to them on his behalf. He’s not the easiest man to follow. Though he has strength and vision, he isn’t the best at expressing himself in terms they can understand. I feel like a translator, or a salesman, at times.”

“Or a politician,” Miranda supplied, in a quiet voice. 

“Certainly,” said Hal, drying a fork. “Some Lord of Parliament I’d make. ‘Lord Gates of Doncaster’,” he chuckled. “Though I guess I could use the wig.”

Suddenly he felt Miranda close at his back. Her breasts pressed against his shoulder blades, and an arm draped over his shoulder to lay against his forearm—how delicate her hands were, even with the calluses of daily use. 

“Come,” she said, and when he turned his head to look at her his nose almost bumped into her lightly perfumed chin. He had to steel himself not to inhale deeply.

“You’ve done quite enough caretaking for tonight, Hal. I can finish those in the morning. Let me make you comfortable.” 

Her warmth disappeared from his back. He felt the flush creeping up the back of his neck again as he set aside his work and rose to his feet, his knees complaining audibly. 

“There is another bed in my room, if you’d like to lie down for a bit,” she said.

“I— Thank you, Miranda, but then where would that leave you?”

She blushed, and her eyes fluttered down and then back up to hold him in a brief, heated gaze. Or, at least he allowed himself to imagine it so, for a moment.

“You’re right, silly of me,” she said, before disappearing into the other back room. 

She returned shortly with her arms full of blankets and a few pillows. She began arranging them into a little nest on a clear place near the hearth.

“I’m sorry I don’t have anything more comfortable,” she said as she shook out her linens.

“I so rarely get visitors here, I’d thought James’ and my rooms were enough. My kingdom for an armchair or—heaven forbid—a chaise.” 

“Bah, nonsense. I’d kill to have a nook as cosy as this aboard the Walrus. Just promise not to judge me at the sounds I might make getting down and up again,” he said.

That earned him a laugh. When she finished she stood regarding her handiwork with her fists on her hips, staring at it quite seriously with the wine blush across her cheeks. 

He quickly removed his boots and stepped into the circle of warmth, feeling the squish of the blankets between his toes. Slowly he lowered himself to sit on a collection of pillows near the hearth and extended his feet before him, wiggling his toes contentedly. 

Soon Miranda pressed a renewed glass of wine into his hand and was sinking down beside him, her back against the hearth and another glass in her hand.

“I hope you don’t mind if I keep you company a little while longer,” she said, smoothing her skirts around her. He shook his head no, the smile that had been plastered on his face for hours growing a bit wider. 

“I’d like to propose a toast,” she said, brandishing her glass. The reflection of the fire danced across its wine-dark surface. He raised his in return and waited while she gathered her thoughts.”

“To great friendships, both old and new. Though some pass from our lives, but never our hearts, we must always remain open to the possibility of the new.”

“Beautifully put,” he said, and clinked his glass against hers before taking a long draught. The wine was warm and heady, and he savored it for a moment before he realized that beside him, Miranda was crying.

“Oh god, what has old Hal done now,” he said, taking her glass from her shaking hands. The wine had almost fully melted his inhibitions by this point, and he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and drew her in against his chest. He remembered, dimly, that today was an anniversary of grief for her and Flint. Flint’s miserable face flashed once through his mind, and he drew her closer, feeling the wet of her tears seep through his shirt to his chest.

He didn’t mind. He muttered comforting nothings into her hair while running his palm up and down her arm. For either of them, he didn’t mind. He was no stranger to loss and longing. It didn’t frighten him. 

He remembered the day the letter came that told him his father had passed. It was the first time Hal had cried since he was a child, and so far the last. The weeping had passed through his body like a hurricane, leaving him lost and desolately empty. 

It seemed to be doing the same to the woman in his arms. Her breathing was beginning to steady, the sobs coming less frequent. God, when was the last time he’d held someone like this? Best not to think about it. Best not to dwell on maudlin subjects lest the grief catch hold in him too. Better to be a shelter for others as they sought to escape their own storms. If not, then where would they be? Two mourners, practically strangers, weeping into each other as the island slept.

She lay against him like that for a long time as her breath steadied and slowed. He made no move to dislodge her. They stayed and breathed together, watching the rain drip from the eaves outside the window.

When she finally did stir, she didn’t pull away. Just tilted her face up to look at him. He had a moment to admire her eyes, that warm brown shining through the wrecked redness of her tears, before she shifted again and softly captured his mouth in hers.

He should have started away, then. He had the weight and the age on her to know he could hold his alcohol better. It was his responsibility to know their surroundings, to safeguard the perimeter of propriety. But, Lord forgive him, he could not. He didn’t press in or crowd her, but he didn’t push her away. Just continued as he was, giving her the reins. An extension of his duty as comfort, as shelter.

Why did he feel like he knew her, already? Maybe it was because of Flint. He’d sailed beside him for years, now. Despite all the unsaid between them, he felt closer to him than anyone else on the Walrus—over men he’d known for years. He’d long suspected there was another side to the man from the image he projected as Captain Flint; holding Miranda felt like a piece of the puzzle clicking into place. The way she talked about him, knew him, even said his name —James— was like seeing the outlines of this other man, this other Flint. Because she was his other side, at least in part. This strong, intelligent, charming, enigmatic woman, a match for Captain Flint—no, a match for James — in every way. He envied her, even as he desired her.

Yes he desired her. How could he not? She was beautiful in a way that was disarming. She was nothing like the other Puritan women on the island—and he was coming to suspect that it was because she was not one of them at all. She was elegant and proud and devilishly clever. It was clear that much had happened to her, but not enough to leave her broken. Like a willow tree, hers was a tensile strength. 

She continued kissing him softly for a while, the fire occasionally hissing from an errant raindrop down the chimney. Then, something in her shifted. He felt her tongue at his lips, testing. Yet again, another place to say no, and yet his mouth fell pliant as she pushed her way into his mouth with a muffled little noise of pleasure. She tasted like spice, wine and the salt from her own tears, and he drank the taste of her gratefully. 

How long had it been since he’d been kissed like this? How long since he’d felt a pleasure unpaid for?

She hiked up her skirts and swung one leg over his to straddle his lap; one of his hands came to rest on the back of her thigh, the other around the small of her back. He was lost in the sensation of her—the fabric of her skirts around him, her mouth on his, the taste of the wine shared between them. One of them must have loosened her hair at some point because now it tumbled down around her shoulders, tickling his whiskered cheeks. 

She was grinding against him now, dragging her hips against his to create a friction that had her moaning gently into his mouth. More than anything, it was her sounds that excited him—more than he would have expected, given his age and the night’s alcohol consumption. Her cheeks were still wet from her tears, and he swiped them away with a thumb before dipping his hand experimentally to cup her breast through her dress. She made an encouraging noise. He delved his rough hand deeper to free her breast. It was full and inviting in the firelight, and he wrapped both arms around her waist to pull her close as he took her nipple into his mouth. 

She was moaning in earnest now, head thrown back in ecstasy. She was ground her sex against him as he gently sucked more of her breast into his mouth, lathing at the nipple with his tongue before releasing her. He repeated this motion a few times, his teeth roughing her harder from her nonverbal cues. It had been a while for him and this particular act, but this much at least he remembered. And she was oh so appreciative. 

He was in process of freeing the other breast when the sound of running water dimly entered his consciousness. 

“Don’t worry, it’s just a leak in the roof. It does that from time to time,” she assured him, interlacing her fingers with the hand on her breast. Still, Hal was a problem solver, and he couldn’t help but peer over her shoulder in the direction of the sound’s source.

...to discover his captain, naked as the day he was born, pissing into an empty bucket not six feet away. 

 

~~~

 

Gates leapt to his feet with the spryness of a much younger man, toppling Miranda into an undignified pile of cloth and limbs by the fire. She leveled Gates with a look of frustration before following his gaze to Flint’s form. His hair was loose around his face as he finished, shaking himself off and muttering something incomprehensible. In contrast to Gates’s straight-backed terror, Miranda just huffed a long-suffering sigh, ruffling the strands of black hair in front of her face.

Gates felt frozen in place. Should he run? Just make a break for it? No, Flint was a decade younger and a hell of a lot faster.

“There’s a perfectly good chamberpot in your room, you know,” Miranda said, not even bothering to turn her head toward Flint as she pulled back her hair and knotted it into a bun. 

“‘S got sick in it,” Flint slurred, his tone puerile, before continuing on unintelligibly.

Oh good, he’s still wasted, Gates thought, and slumped against the mantle. With luck, Flint wouldn’t even remember this tomorrow. 

As it was, Flint just stood there in the middle of the room, scratching his balls. He finally seemed to register Hal’s presence, and he started squinting blurrily between Gates and Miranda on the floor, as if he were trying to work out a particularly difficult nautical equation. 

Gates wasn’t about to stick around until he figured out the answer.

He reached down to grasp Miranda by the elbows and pulled her to her feet. She attempted to move closer but he used his grip to enforce the distance, his eyes never straying from her face to the breasts he knew hung in tantalizing reach. 

“It was a lovely dinner, Mrs. Barlowe, and I thank you for it,” he said, his voice low and gentle but with a subtle edge. “Now, it’s time for me to be getting back to town.”

Her brown eyes searched his face, the look of frustration still there but tempered by understanding. She nodded.

Gates let go of her arms almost regretfully. Then, with a nod toward his captain but without meeting his eye, he attempted to move past him toward the door. He’d almost made it too, before he felt a grip of iron on his wrist stopping him in place.

“Wait,” came the unmistakable voice of Captain Flint.

Gates’ eyes slid closed and he said a prayer to God, Jesus, Mary and every saint he could remember as Flint spun him around and fisted the front of his shirt, pulling their faces inches apart. 

“James,” came Miranda’s voice, sounding exasperated. 

Gates could almost feel the bristled points of Flint’s moustache against his face. He could certainly feel the heat radiating off his naked body, the long line of muscle pressed so close against him. He swallowed. 

“Hal... Is this a dream?” rumbled Flint, and Gates saw his unfocused eyes rake Gates’s face and settle on his mouth. Gates could see Flint’s teeth exposed under his top lip. 

“Yes, Captain. This is just a dream,” Gates said quietly, as if Flint were still asleep and he could somehow disturb him by talking too loud.

Flint inhaled then, like he was taking in Gates’s smell—like he was hungry for it. Gates slowly took Flint’s hand that was fisted in his shirt and gently pried open the fingers. Flint just watched him, his face softening from its drunken snarl as he watched in wonder.

“Just a dream…” Flint muttered to himself. Suddenly his eyes shot back up to Gates’s. This time they were wide like a child’s, full of an un-nameable emotion that sent shivers down Gates’s spine.

“Where’s Thomas?” Flint asked, his eyes searching Gates’s. For his part, Gates had no fucking idea what Flint was on about. But he was eager not to upset him at this crucial moment in his departure and subsequent survival. He weighed his options against the look in Flint’s eyes and went for the lie that he prayed would go down easiest. 

“He’s coming, son. He’ll be here soon. Now get back to bed.” 

Flint’s sea-green eyes searched Gates’ for another moment before slowly losing their focus again, his face falling slack. He nodded and turned back to his room. 

Gates opened the front door—it was still pouring outside, the rain showing no sign of letting up—where he hazarded one last look back at Miranda. Her own eyes were shining with tears again, her hand clasped over her mouth. His heart seized in his chest at the sight of her, and he had to fight himself not to cross the room to her again and envelope her in his arms. 

But Hal Gates was a survivor, and he’d not hazard his life like that again. So he held her eyes and nodded to her goodbye before stepping out into the black and rain.