A Pirate's Heart
Dawn was breaking on the horizon.
Ignoring the pain that his wounds were causing him, and suppressing the rage that engulfed him, he kept walking, not knowing exactly where he was heading but knowing he had to keep going.
He should have never left his ship, 'The Flying Horse', and come ashore alone. He had been an easy prey for the governor's patrols. But after months at sea he had been desperate to feel solid ground beneath his feet, to smell the earth after the rain, to hear the jungle animals cry out and the birds sing.
He had been spotted by the patrols when he reached shore, and although he had managed to escape his pursuers, he had not prevailed unharmed.
He paused for a minute to catch his breath, knowing his strength was rapidly diminishing. His limbs were becoming stiff, his breathing more and more difficult, and his wound was still bleeding, even after he had wrapped it with a crude bandage made from his shirt. He had been hit with a bullet; most likely from a pistol, and the lead was still somewhere inside him, thankfully without damaging any vital organs. It was not a serious wound, but it could quickly become so if it was not looked after promptly.
He advanced slowly, and let himself fall heavily to the ground. He wanted nothing more than to curl up into a ball and let himself be transported into oblivion, but through an act of sheer will he kept from passing out. He knew he was feverish, feeling his body being overpowered by cold sweat and hot flashes at the same time.
He dragged himself under a wide leafy tree, ignoring the dizziness and nausea attacking him ruthlessly. He closed his eyes, trying in vain to stand up, his strength finally gone. He fell to the ground exhausted, panting harshly.
Uttering a last helpless cry, Captain Chris Larabee, pirate to the Caribbean seas, also known as 'The Phantom', surrendered to the darkness hovering over him like a ghost.
CHAPTER I - Recovery
When he came to, Chris found he was no longer in the field he had crossed during the night, but in a spacious room, lying on a comfortable, soft bed. He was feeling infinitely better and realized someone had tended to his wounds. Sitting up slowly, he looked around, but did not see anyone. He strained his ears, but could not hear anything; it was eerily quiet outside.
He turned his attention to the bedroom and began to examine its contents in detail; it was a vast room, elegantly decorated and lit by two large windows through which could be seen immense trees. He spotted a piano at one end of the room, on which were scattered some pages of music; a mahogany table took up the middle of the room.
"Where the hell am I?" He wondered softly. "And who tended to my wound?"
Suddenly the handle of the door rattled and turned and a man entered, walking slowly, carrying several pieces of white cloth and a small basin. He was younger than Chris, shorter, but sturdily built. He had chestnut hair and pale green eyes that lit up as they settled on him.
"You are awake!" The man exclaimed. "I'm happy; I was afraid we might lose you to the fever. You have been senseless for three days."
"Three days!" Chris echoed surprised, his mind conjuring images of the green-eyed man bathing his face and crooning softly to him as he writhed feverishly. "How did I get here?"
"I was riding through the plantation when I found you unconscious against a tree. I brought you here and nursed you back to health. Your injuries could have been fatal," the man replied. "How are you feeling now?"
"Better. Not in much pain."
"I'm glad to hear it. May I be so bold as to query, what happened to you, sir?"
"I don't know," Chris lied smoothly. "Several men attacked me on the road. I have no idea who they were, but they took all my money and possessions and shot me."
The man nodded. "Probably bandits. We have been having many problems with such miscreants. No matter. All you should care about at the present is getting better. You will have to remain here for at least a fortnight, you have lost a lot of blood."
"Where am I? And who are you?"
"You are in the governor's plantation. I'm his nephew, Ezra Standish."
"The governor?" Chris muttered, his expression darkening. He quickly recovered himself, "I'm --"
"Don't." Ezra interjected softly, his fingers brushing against Chris' mouth to prevent him from speaking.
"Why?" Chris asked, curious as to the reason the other man refused to hear his name.
Ezra smiled gently. "I saw your expression at the mention of the governor. It will be better if I know nothing of you. He is staying in Port Royal for the next two weeks, due to business affairs. By the time he returns you should be long gone."
"I don't understand. I'm a stranger, for all you know, I could be one of those bandits you mentioned."
Ezra chuckled, shaking his head. "I'm a good judge of character, sir, I do not believe that. And..." He hesitated, then ventured on. "He may be my uncle, but that doesn't mean I agree with his laws or the way he rules over this exquisite island. Now, let me check your injury and change the bandages."
"You were the one here with me all this time, weren't you? I remember someone bathing me, cleaning the wound."
"Yes, it was me." Ezra replied, unwrapping the bandage gently and using a moist cloth to clean the wound. Once he was done, he used a new bandage. "There. You are overly warm," he remarked. "Let's see if we can make you a little more comfortable. Can you move forward just a little bit so I can take your shirt off?"
"I can try."
Chris let the other man pull him forward carefully and work his arms out of the shirt, discarding it to the side. Ezra then helped him lie back on the bedding. "All right, just relax and try to breathe easy."
He couldn't hold back a low moan as Ezra bathed his face and chest tenderly. He took a number of slow, deep breaths, enjoying the way the cloth moved down his throat, over the curve of one shoulder, then the other, brushing softly over his chest and nipples until they were hard.
"Feel better?" Ezra asked, chuckling as his only answer was a low, throaty grunt. "Good."
"You have a foreign accent," Chris found himself saying abruptly, feeling a strange pull to the man sitting beside him on the bed.
"I have been most fortunate. I have spent most of my childhood and puberty traveling throughout Europe." Ezra replied, a sadness invading his eyes before it was quickly replaced by a carefully neutral expression.
"Why do you live with your uncle if you don't agree with him?"
"It's a long story, sir. One best left alone," Ezra replied grimly, making to rise.
Chris reached for him, his hand closing firmly but gently on his wrist. "Please?"
Ezra exhaled softly, sitting back on the bed. "This plantation belonged to my father originally. He and my mother were the product of an arranged marriage. I don't remember much of my younger years or my father, only his foul temper and the beatings should I happen to cross him. When I was six, mother and I escaped his tyranny and traveled to Europe."
"Why did you return?"
"Last year we got word my father had died in a riding accident. Mother decided we should return so I could claim the inheritance. But when we arrived, Uncle Rupert was here and had taken over. He threatened to kill us both if I didn't sign the plantation over to him." He sighed unhappily. "I did, obviously. He's a powerful man; there was nothing we could do. He did let us remain here, which answering your question, is the reason why I live with him. I have no money of my own, no place to leave to; I have to stay. Besides, should something befall Uncle Rupert, I will be the sole heir."
"And your mother?"
"She left a few months back, I assume to return to Europe; I haven't heard from her. I thought of joining her, but I was weary of her ways. She also doesn't have any money of her own, and her way of getting around that problem is to swindle innocent souls of their hard-earned valuables. That was how we survived the first time; I had no wish to do it anew. Now, you're still weak and in need of nourishment. I will see that some soup is brought up to you. In the meantime, rest."
Giving Chris a parting smile, Ezra left quietly, leaving the other man to wonder about his host and his predicament.
He had been living in Jamaica for two years with his wife Sarah, and son Adam, when Governor Rupert Standish had taken over. It hadn't taken Chris very long to realize the man was a corrupt politician with only his own best interests at heart.
Chris had begun a campaign against the man, speaking against him and his ways any chance he got, even gathering a few followers among the populace. Then one day, without so much as a warning, his home had been suspiciously burned to the ground, killing his wife and son.
In a fit of blind rage, Chris had gone to Port Royal to kill the man who he knew was responsible, but the governor was too heavily guarded. He had only managed to kill a few of his watchdogs before his friends had helped him escape to safety.
Turned outlaw, Chris had joined forces with his three friends, Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington and Josiah Sanchez, buying a magnificent ship, 'The Flying Horse', and recruiting a small, but fierce and loyal crew who fought the governor's troops. And the legend of 'The Phantom' had been born, thus known for his surprise attacks on any ship unfortunate enough to cross his path, most of its loot going to the poor or those who Governor Standish saw fit to persecute.
And so it was beyond ironic for him to be recovering from his injury in the house of his greatest enemy, especially without his nemesis' awareness of the fact.
Vin Tanner returned to the ship with a heavy heart.
"Well?" Buck asked grimly as soon as he jumped aboard.
"Nothing. I found the dinghy on the beach, but no sign of Chris. I went all the way to the main road and found traces of blood and footsteps matching the governor's troops' boots. Some tree branches in the area were broken, and I found a few bullets on the ground."
"Damnit! But he hasn't been caught yet," Buck said. "Governor Standish has been trying to capture us for months now. If he had Chris, he would've been shouting it out loud from the highest tower. Not to mention he would've been announcing the hanging by now."
"So where the hell is Chris?" Josiah whispered, exchanging worried glances with the other men.
The days flew by quickly and by the afternoon of the tenth day Chris found he was strong enough to at least get up from bed. He was tired of spending so much time lying down and locked up inside the same four walls. For someone used to the immensity of the ocean it was an unbearable feeling.
He donned the clothes left for him by Ezra and exited the room. He soon realized the rest of the house resembled his bedroom; wide, spacious, richly decorated with all sorts of fancy paintings and china, expensive furniture and golden touches everywhere. He went to the window that looked out onto the immense garden.
There, sitting in the shade of a palm tree, was Ezra. He was alone, deep in thought, a book resting on his knees. Chris remained there, motionless, eyes fixed on the younger man, holding his breath, as if afraid of bothering him.
He felt close to the other man, which was surprising considering the little time he had actually known Ezra. He had thought it to be gratitude at first; after all, Ezra had nursed him back to health, and had been spending nearly every waking hour by his side. Chris would be dead if not for him.
But deep down he knew it was not so. The more time they spent talking, getting to know each other, the closer he felt to the other man. Someone who hid a gentle heart behind a bland mask, who hid his true nature in order to survive a harsh world which was not his own. Sometimes he felt as if he had known Ezra all of his life instead of merely a week. He couldn't really count the first three days; he remembered only scant images, all of Ezra by his bedside, watching over him.
Finally coming out of his daze, he walked out of the front door, taking slow, careful steps until he was standing behind the other man.
As if realizing he was no longer alone, Ezra looked back, grinning when he saw him. "Well, seems you are feeling better, sir!" He exclaimed, rising from the ground.
"I needed to get some fresh air."
"I can understand that. Maybe a guided tour of the plantation would help?" Ezra suggested with a smile.
"Who's going to be the guide?" Chris asked with a grin.
Ezra chuckled. "Since we have no other guides available at the moment, I'm afraid you are stuck with me."
"In that case, let's go."
They took their time walking through the enormous plantation, going through the main house, gardens and finally the fields. They were watching the slaves work, when suddenly the sound of a whip hitting flesh and a small cry caught their attention.
"What the...?" Ezra growled, running towards the scene unfolding before them. On the ground was a small black child, curled up into a ball, while a huge white man whipped him fiercely. "Thompson! What the hell do you think you are doing?"
"He disobeyed my orders, Mr. Standish. I told him no water until lunch break."
"And for that you saw fit to whip him, Mr. Thompson? May I remind you, you are but the foreman here, not the master? You cannot make such decisions."
"The master's not here." Thompson drawled.
"But I am. Now, get back to work."
"Get. Back. To. Work." Ezra gritted out angrily. Once the man walked away, Ezra knelt beside the little slave. "What's your name, child?" He asked softly.
"Timothy, young Master." The child sniffed, uncurling slowly, his small face a mask of pain.
"Well, Timothy, let's take you to the healer." Ezra said gently, picking him up effortlessly.
"Healer?" Chris echoed, following Ezra to the slave quarters behind the main house.
"One of the other slaves, Nathan Jackson. My uncle bought him six months ago. He makes the most obnoxious concoctions you can imagine, but I trust him with my life. He knows more than any of those quacks calling themselves doctors these days."
"Don't get me wrong, but I'm surprised at your reaction to what happened. Most plantation owners don't care what happens to their slaves just as long as they keep working."
Ezra sighed sadly, looking from the child in his arms to Chris. "I wasn't always like this. I grew up believing slaves were nothing more than farm animals, with not a thought between them. And as advanced as Europe is, I saw nothing there to make me believe otherwise."
"But?" Chris prompted.
"But living here has been an eye opener. My uncle is a ruthless master. He mistreats the slaves, enjoys torturing them. He advocates regular beatings and administers most of them himself. When you see their suffering, their fight to survive..." They reached the slave quarters and walked inside. "Nathan, where are you?"
"In the back room." A voice replied, and the two men walked over to the back of the building.
They entered a small room and Chris watched Ezra sit the child on a small table. "Nathan, Timothy here needs your care."
"What happened?" Nathan asked, nodding to Chris as a way of greeting.
He was tall and strong, probably in his thirties and by the way he was examining the little slave, Chris realized he had a gentle manner and knew what he was doing.
"Thompson again. That man truly loves his profession."
"And you stopped him from whipping Timmy? I'm surprised he let you."
"Well, I'm sure he will complain to my uncle as soon as he returns from his business meetings in town. I'm sure I will be lectured again on the ways a master should handle his slaves."
"Just be careful, Ezra. Your uncle is a dangerous man, and he don't take kindly to being defied."
Ezra smiled. "I know. I will be careful, I promise. Take care of the little one for me?"
"I will. It's not too bad; a couple of deep lashes only. Could've been a lot worse. Now, you better go. It's not proper for the young master to be seen in the slaves' quarters."
Chris followed Ezra out of the building, the two men proceeding on their walk in comfortable silence. "You are an enigma, Ezra Standish." He finally stated.
The other man laughed. "I hope you mean that in a good way, sir."
"Oh, I do. I do." Chris whispered, feeling his heart swell as he watched the other man's beautiful smile.
His journey to dry land had certainly earned him more than just a bullet. Each passing day he felt more drawn to Ezra. The man was a mystery and Chris had never been able to resist mysteries. He was already dreading the day he would have to leave.
CHAPTER II - Punishments
They were having lunch in the living room when they heard someone crying out, "Young Master, young Master! Come quickly!" Both men rushed to the yard, seeing little Timothy trying to prevent Thompson from chaining Nathan to the post.
"Mr. Thompson, what's the meaning of this?" Ezra snapped angrily.
"This slave nearly killed one of my men. He must be made an example, he must pay for what he did."
"And what did your man do to cause such a reaction? Well?" Ezra challenged when the foreman hesitated.
"He went to fetch Timothy back to work, he was needed in the kitchen."
Chris saw Ezra's eyes darken with rage. "I took Timothy to Nathan to be treated for the lashes *you* inflicted on him. He was not supposed to go to work again today."
"That still doesn't give the slave the right to turn on my man. He must be whipped. The punishment in these cases is fifty lashes."
"Very well," Ezra complied suddenly, much to Chris' surprise. "Chain him to the post."
They watched Thompson raise Nathan's arms over his head and lock the shackles in place around the healer's wrists. However, when the foreman reached for the whip, Ezra stopped him.
"That's enough. No one but the master can see to his punishment. Since my uncle is not here, it's my responsibility. For the next ten days this man will see no food and shall receive a cup of water only every twelve hours."
"What?" Thompson shouted. "That's not punishment! I will --"
"You will do nothing, Mr. Thompson. You work for my uncle, thus you work for me. Are we clear? You either obey me or you will be fired." He bluffed. "Now, get out of here."
Once Thompson was out of hearing range, Ezra looked down at Timothy. "Thank you for calling me, little one. I will need your help for the next few days. Can I count on you?"
"Yes, young Master."
He ruffled the child's hair. "Good boy. I want you to pay close attention to the foreman's whereabouts. Especially near meal times. Understand?" When the boy nodded, Ezra proceeded. "Good. Now, when you know for sure he is away, I want you to bring Nathan some food and water. But don't let anyone see you. If by any chance you get caught, I want you to shout out as loud as you can and I will come running. Deal?" He asked, holding out his hand for the child, who shook it with a grin.
"Deal, young Master. I'll make you proud, you'll see."
"I already am," Ezra whispered, watching the boy run back to the slave quarters. He turned his attention to the chained man. "Nathan."
"You should've let him whip me." Nathan told him softly, his head resting tiredly against the post.
"Fifty times? He would have killed you, Nathan."
"Why not just let him go?" Chris asked. "You are the master."
"I can't." Ezra replied sadly. "If Nathan's not punished, my uncle will kill him when he hears what happened. This way, he will be furious with me for being too lenient, but he will let it be." He patted the slave's back gently. "Courage, my friend. I will come to see you in a few hours. Come, sir, let us go back inside."
"That's the real reason why you don't leave, isn't it?" Chris asked as they made their way back to the house. "The slaves."
Ezra smiled dismally. "During the course of the last year I rediscovered my love for this land and its natives, yes. I'm the one thing standing between them and both Thompson and my uncle. If I left... I believe many of them would die. And I can't let that happen."
They sat back at the table, but their need for nourishment was gone. Chris suddenly found himself wishing he could stay, wishing he could somehow help the other man, make things better for him. He had no doubt Rupert Standish was going to be furious when he realized he'd had an uninvited guest and that his nephew had been challenging his foreman every step of the way.
"I know where Chris is!" Buck shouted, rushing into the Captain's cabin where the others were talking.
"Where?" Josiah asked, rising to his feet.
"I went into town to get supplies and stopped by the local tavern. There were two men there talking and I overheard everything."
"And?" Vin snarled.
"One of the men said he had just returned from Governor Standish's plantation and that while the governor was away his nephew had taken a guest in. He said no one knew who the guest was, but rumor had it he had been shot on the road to Port Royal. He also described the man as having blond hair, green eyes, and being tall and slim. It has *got* to be Chris."
"In Governor Standish's plantation?" Vin raised an eyebrow in puzzlement. "He's insane! If the governor returns suddenly, he'll get caught."
"The governor won't get a chance. We're going for Chris tonight." Josiah vowed. "We've been without our captain for much too long."
When in the middle of the night there was a knock on his door, Chris had yet to go to sleep. He jumped out of the chair in a flash and opened the door. Ezra appeared at the entrance to the room, two natives, both armed to the teeth, accompanying him.
"Ezra, what's wrong?" Chris asked, frowning at the armed men.
"We just got word about intruders on the plantation. You better come with me, we need all the help we can get. You two, go find Mr. Thompson. I want to know what we are dealing with."
"Yes, young Master."
After the two men left, Ezra turned to Chris. "Come with me. I want to unlock the slave quarters, I want them to be able to escape should something happen."
"Unlock?" Chris echoed as they rushed through the corridors.
"Thompson locks the doors to the slave quarters every night so they can't run away."
They had just reached the hall when the front door was suddenly kicked open. Chris grinned as he recognized the three men storming in.
"Took you long enough." He remarked sarcastically.
"Contrary to some people who have been doing nothing but vacationing on someone else's plantation, some of us had to work hard to find our lost lamb." Josiah replied with a smile.
"I take it you know these gentlemen?" Ezra asked him.
Chris chuckled. "Yeah, they're my friends."
"Chris, are you all right?" Buck asked.
"Chris?" Ezra echoed.
"I'm fine. And yes, Chris. Chris Larabee," he replied.
Ezra hissed. "Lord, my uncle will perish with rage when he hears about this." He glanced at the three intruders' miserly weapons. "Those are all the weapons you carry with you?"
"Yes." Vin replied with a frown. "Why?"
"Come with me."
When the others hesitated, Chris nodded. "We can trust him."
They left the hall and passed into the drawing room. Its walls were covered with a wide variety of modern weapons. Ezra rummaged inside one of the desk drawers, grabbing a set of keys.
"How did you arrive?" He asked.
"By horse. And before you ask, yes, we brought one extra for Chris." Buck replied with an amused smile.
"Good. Take any weapons you want. In case of an attack we have a guard prepared to go for help. There's a military garrison ten minutes away, they should be here soon." He moved closer to Chris. "Take Nathan with you?" He asked softly, handing him the keys to the shackles.
Chris reached for the keys, holding Ezra's hand captive and making no effort to release him. "Come with us. Your uncle will turn on you when he finds out what happened."
Ezra smiled sadly. "Perhaps. But I can handle him. You know why I can't leave. You have your weapons?" He asked the others.
"Yes." Josiah replied.
"Then you better leave. Come."
"Thank you." Vin told him softly as Ezra walked by him.
"For taking care of him."
Ezra smiled. "My pleasure."
They ran out of the house, Chris freeing Nathan while Buck went for the horses. The others mounted, Nathan behind Vin, while Chris spoke with Ezra one last time.
"You sure I can't change your mind? About coming with us?"
"I would love to. But I can't."
Chris nodded, then acting on impulse hugged the other man tightly to him. "You're one hell of an amazing man, Ezra Standish." He whispered.
"So are you, Captain Larabee." Ezra replied, his own arms going around the other man. "You better go." The sound of horses approaching pulled them apart. "The soldiers from the garrison!" Ezra breathed. "Go! Get out of here, Chris!"
Without another word Chris jumped on his horse and together with the others disappeared at a gallop behind a cloud of dust. Ezra stayed frozen for a long moment, watching the cloud diminish until it vanished completely.
"Farewell, Chris Larabee." He whispered softly. "I hope our paths will cross again."
It was nearly dawn when Ezra retired to his bedroom. Instead of lying down he began to pace around the room in a state of agitation.
It had been easy to convince Thompson and the soldiers from the garrison that he had been overpowered and forced to surrender the weapons to the intruders. They might be good at carrying out orders, but thinking was definitely a thing both the foreman and the military lacked. Making his uncle believe the lie, however, was another thing altogether.
That would be the worse part. Thompson had told him he had ordered a guard to go fetch his uncle in town; he should return sometime in the afternoon. And Ezra would have to play the part of his life or face the consequences.
He shook his head ruefully. Insane, he had to be insane. He had harbored a known pirate, worse, the one his uncle hated with a passion that bordered on madness. Then to make things worse, he had given him and his comrades weapons and had even helped them escape. Insanity indeed.
So why had he done it? His heart knew the answer. He had felt drawn to the man from the moment he had laid eyes on him. Maybe it had been Larabee's vulnerability that had gotten under his skin, the way he had trusted Ezra to take care of him. No one had ever needed him that way before; it had been a heady feeling. Whatever the cause, he had been lost when he had found those dark green eyes open and staring curiously at him.
And as the days flew by, he'd kept feeling closer to the other man, letting his guard down for the first time in years, allowing a perfect stranger to see the real 'Ezra', to see the man inside. He sighed sadly, wondering if Larabee had felt that same inexplicable connection between them.
He shook himself out of his reverie. It didn't matter now; it was too late to have such foolish thoughts. Had she been there, his mother would have berated him incessantly for allowing someone to break through the mask he wore. It was a dangerous thing to do; it gave power to the other person, power over him, over his emotions. He would have to remember that if he ever saw Chris Larabee again.
He threw himself on the bed fully clothed, convinced he would never be able to rest, but exhaustion took over and soon he drifted off to sleep. He awoke a little after noon, as the sun was streaming in through the windows that had remained open. He summoned a servant and asked after the governor's whereabouts, but was told that he had yet to arrive.
He washed and dressed for the new day, deciding to go down for something to eat. At the very moment he had finished his meal, his uncle entered the living room. He was frowning, his cold, brown eyes gleaming dangerously.
"Ezra," he drawled. "Thompson told me what occurred tonight. What is this about a guest?"
"Uncle. I found the gentleman unconscious over a week ago and brought him to the plantation."
"Very charitable, nephew. And who was he?"
Something in his uncle's voice made Ezra swallow hard. "I didn't want to be too intrusive. I know he was a traveler, injured by bandits on the road to Port Royal. He was a salesman."
"Really? That's interesting. You see, the soldiers managed to get very close before they let those men escape. And Sergeant Hutchison swears the blond man leading the others was Chris Larabee. And by Thompson's description, he was your poor, wounded guest."
Ezra gasped. "Oh, Lord! Uncle, I didn't know. You had mentioned that miscreant's name before, but I have never seen his face. I had no way of knowing who he was."
"True, true. And Nathan? Why didn't you punish him?"
"I believed the slave's actions were Mr. Thompson's fault, not his own. There was no call for the fifty lashes."
His uncle shook his head sadly. "I wish I could believe you, Ezra. I really do. Thompson!" He called.
"Governor?" Thompson walked in almost immediately, and Ezra knew he had been standing just outside.
"Take my nephew to the post. I will give him the fifty lashes he wouldn't allow you to give the slave."
"Uncle, no!" Ezra pleaded brokenly.
"I'm sorry, Ezra, but it's time you learned your lesson. I will not be disobeyed or defied. This was the last time. Take him!"
Ezra fought against Thompson's hold, but the other man was bigger and stronger and it was useless. He was chained to the post, his shirt torn from his back. As the leather bit cruelly into his flesh, he closed his eyes, biting his lip to stop from crying out. He allowed his mind to wander, thinking back to the beautiful green eyes of the pirate he had lost his heart to. And while pain invaded his whole being, a sense of relief filled his heart; the other man was far away and safe from his uncle's clutches. And that was worth all the suffering in the world.
CHAPTER III - A Day At The Tavern
Tortuga Island, Caribbean Sea
Three months later
The five men sat inconspicuously at a table by the back of the tavern, watching the comings and goings of the other customers, and sipping leisurely from their ales.
"Think Jasper will come?" Buck asked Chris.
"He's the one who sent word out he wanted to see us. It's in his own interest." Chris replied.
"Wonder what that old bastard wants with us?" Vin muttered.
"Whatever it is, I'll listen. His information about the whereabouts of British cruisers and the business deals done by the governor has been extremely useful. Thanks to him, we have taken a great chunk of the governor's intended fortune and given it back to who it really belonged. I wouldn't trust him with my life, but his word is good." Chris said.
"Here he comes." Josiah warned.
Jasper O'Neill was a man in his late fifties, wrinkled by a hard life at sea. His frail build belied a fierce temperament, one that had allowed him to survive more than one dire situation. The five men watched him sit at their table, waiting until he had his own ale before getting down to the reason of their meeting.
"Well? Why did you send for us?" Chris asked impatiently.
Jasper smiled, the effect being somewhat ruined by his lack of teeth. "I have in my possession something that you might want to have, gentlemen."
"Really?" Buck retorted. "And what is that 'something'?"
"A map." Jasper replied, looking very smug.
"A map?" Nathan repeated with a frown.
"Treasure map. Belonged to Cap'ain Mckenzie."
"We heard he died last week." Vin remarked.
"And he left you the map out of the kindness of his own heart?" Chris quipped sarcastically.
Jasper chuckled. "Not the kindness of his own heart, no. Mine. See, after he made his fortune, he was forced to hide the loot because the British troops were hunting him down somet'ing fierce. He drew the map and hid it, but before he could disappear he was caught and sent to the galleys for life."
"So, how did you come by his map?" Buck challenged.
"He managed to escape two years ago, but by then he was too old to go back for his treasure. I happened to find him wandering through the island and took him in. The day he died he told me where to find the map. A reward for having taken such good care of him."
"So, why not keep it for yourself?" Vin asked curiously.
Jasper shook his head sadly. "I'm too old meself, lad. But... there's nothing to say I can't sell the map and make a few coins to save for my old, old years." He added with a chuckle.
"Why us?" Josiah asked, staring at the man through narrowed eyes.
"I like you. You're good men and you fight the good fight. Governor Standish is the devil hisself, he is."
"So..." Chris drawled. "You told only us about the map?"
Jasper chortled, obviously understanding what Chris was getting at. "Now, I never said that, Cap'ain Larabee. A man must make plans should one of his buyers not meet his demands."
"I see. And who else did you tell?" Chris asked with a glare that had Jasper squirming in his seat.
"Just Cap'ain Death," he replied.
Chris hissed angrily. Captain Death was the worse scourge in the Caribbean Sea. While Chris and his men attacked only British ships, especially if under Rupert Standish's orders and always let the prisoners go, Death attacked any ship, no matter the nation, and left no survivors to tell the tale. The man was ruthless and with a thirst for blood like Chris had never seen before.
"I suppose you're going to say you also like him and that he fights the good fight?" Vin scowled.
"No. Like most people, I have never even seen the man, and honestly, I hope it stays that way. Speaking with his second in command was bad enough. The things you hear about them..." Jasper shuddered. "But he's the only one besides yourselves who can pay what I ask."
"Which is?" Buck prompted.
"Ten gold coins."
Nathan whistled. "You're asking a lot."
"Bah! That's nothing, laddie! Mckenzie sunk hundreds of ships in his golden years, most of them full to the brim with goods. The worth of his treasure is..." He shrugged helplessly. "I can't even imagine it meself. The map isself is worth much more than the ten coins. It's a bargain. Take it or leave it."
"We'll take it." Chris decided.
Jasper nodded. "Good. I'm happy it goes to you and not Death."
"But you'd still have sold it to him." Josiah scolded.
"Business is business, Sanchez. Now, obviously I don't have the map with me, I have no death wish. Meet me here in a week, same time. Bring the coins, I'll bring the map." He shook Chris' hand. "I'll take my leave now. May the good winds carry your sails, Cap'ain Larabee."
"Jasper?" Chris called out.
The man interrupted his slow march to the exit and turned. "Yes, Cap'ain?"
"It might be a good idea for you to disappear after our... deal is done. I can only assume the other 'buyer' won't be too happy to have lost the map."
Jasper nodded. "I thought so as well. Do not worry, good Cap'ain. I have the perfect hideout waiting for me once this is over. Goodbye, gentlemen."
"Think he'll keep his word?" Vin asked once Jasper had left the tavern.
"Yes. He's never let us down before. I just hope his hideout is secret enough. Death will be looking for him once he knows we have the map. If he finds Jasper, he'll never get a chance to enjoy the coins or his 'old, old years'." Chris replied.
"Oh, my Lord!" Nathan whispered suddenly.
"What?" Chris asked, frowning at him.
"That man who just walked in, he's one of the slaves from the governor's plantation." Nathan replied, rising from his seat. "I'll be right back. I want to know what he's doing here."
The others watched him approach the slave, a black man that resembled Josiah in both size and weight, and whose garments were close to rags. Nathan guided him to their table, and asked for an ale. Once his friend had the drink securely in his hands, he sat down.
"Joseph, what the hell are you doing here?"
"I's a runaway slave now," the other replied sadly.
"And you're here in plain sight?" Nathan hissed. "Tortuga may still be out of the governor's control, but there are spies everywhere. You have any idea what they'll do to you if they catch you?"
"I wouldn't talk, you's also a runaway and you's here." The other remarked sullenly.
"Yes, but I'm not alone. If someone recognizes me, my friends can help me escape. And my clothes don't draw attention to myself. Now, what are you doing here?"
"I didn't have a choice. I been lookin' for ya." The slave answered softly.
"Why?" Chris asked, a feeling of dread washing over him.
"I need your help. The plantation is gone."
"What do you mean, the plantation is gone?" Buck started.
"Burned to the ground." Joseph told them with a shake of his head. "Never thought I'd see the day, Nathan. It was... hell right here on Earth. Everythin' burned; the fields, the Master's house, the slave quarters... There ain't nothin' left standing."
"What happened?" Josiah asked soothingly.
"The night ya escaped," Joseph began to Nathan. "Young Master Ezra talked foreman Thompson and the soldiers into believin' your friends had overpowered him and forced him to give 'em arms. But the next day..." He exhaled slowly, the sorrow clear in his eyes.
"What happened?" Chris whispered, echoing Josiah's earlier question, his heart lurching painfully in his chest as he remembered his green-eyed savior.
"Thompson sent for the guv'nor that night. He arrived in the afternoon. He didn't believe the young Master, ordered Thompson to inflict him with the fifty lashes he had refused to give ya."
"Lord," Nathan whispered brokenly, covering his face with his hands.
"Thompson didn't get very far, though."
"What do you mean?" Vin asked.
"When the slaves saw what was goin' on, they rebelled. We turned on the guards, forced the guv'nor to free the young Master. He always been good to us; he didn't deserve such treatment. But then one of the slaves set the fields on fire."
"And?" Buck prompted.
"When he saw all of us, the guv'nor let the young Master go. But the soldiers in the garrison must've seen the fire and soon we could hear 'em comin'. The young Master told us to run, go get away. He then struck his uncle in the face and ran away in the other direction, so we could escape. He saved us, Nathan." Joseph told them softly. "The soldiers killed some o' us, but we's natives, we knows the land. Most made it into the jungle and are safe. The British can't stand the marshes or the jungle heat and don't chase us there."
Chris swallowed hard. "Did... did Ezra die?" He whispered, looking down at the tablecloth. He didn't want to see the answer shining from the other man's eyes.
Joseph sighed, "No. But I ain't sure he's much better off."
Chris looked up sharply. "Why?"
"Thompson caught him while we was escaping. He was taken to Port Royal and imprisoned."
"Imprisoned?" Vin echoed. "What for?"
"Treason. You's enemies of the Kingdom and he helped ya and harbored one of you. His trial was last month."
"He was convicted?" Josiah guessed sadly.
Joseph nodded. "To ten years in the galleys."
Chris moaned. The whole situation was his fault. He should have made Ezra come with them, even dragging him by force if he had kept refusing. The only thing the other man had done was be kind to a stranger, to him, and he was now paying the price for his goodness. Very few people lived a year in the galleys, let alone ten years.
"You said you needed our help?" Buck remembered.
"Yes. I been tryin' to find ya for months."
"After what happened we decided to set sail for a while. We got back two weeks ago and have been staying close to Tortuga. Jamaica is just too dangerous for us at the moment." Vin explained. "What kind of help do you need?"
"The ship the young Master was taken to is a patrol cruiser. It will stay in the Caribbean Sea, lookin' out for pirates in these waters and the islands. It shouldn't take ya long to find it; it's the 'Courage', under Captain Perry's command. Ya have to rescue him, ya have to!" Joseph pleaded desperately.
"Chris?" Nathan asked, although he already knew the answer.
Chris nodded, his green eyes breathing fire. "Josiah, Nathan, go find Jasper. Tell him I'll give him twenty gold coins if he keeps the map until we return. Vin, Buck, we need supplies."
"On our way." Vin replied, following the other three out of the tavern.
Chris focused his attention on the slave. "You have done well, Joseph. We will get him back, rest assured. You better get away from here now, go join your friends in the jungle where you'll be safe."
"I will. And thank you, Captain Larabee. The rumors is right; ya are a good man. May the Lord bless ya."
Finally left alone, Chris closed his eyes tiredly. Life certainly had a funny way of sneaking up on a person when least expected. Ezra had saved his life three months earlier, now it would be his turn. He just hoped his ship was strong enough to face up to the British cruiser.
CHAPTER IV - Gains And Losses
Aboard the 'Courage'
Ezra followed the second in command from the galleys to the upper deck, wondering why the Captain would want to have a word with him. He had done nothing to justify any punishment; in fact, his month aboard the 'Courage' had been surprisingly better than he had anticipated. He had a few more scars on his back, but other than that...
The second in command knocked on the captain's door. After hearing the shouted 'Enter', he moved aside to let Ezra enter, then closed the door silently, leaving him alone with Captain Perry.
"Captain?" He left the question unvoiced.
Captain Perry smiled up at him from his desk. "Sit down, Mr. Standish."
He obeyed, remaining silent as he waited to hear why he had been summoned. It was the second time he stood face to face with the commander of the ship, the first being during his arrival. Perry was an old man, probably in his late sixties, tall and slim, with snow-white hair, and warm brown eyes.
"You must be wondering why I sent for you."
"I'm an old man, Mr. Standish. I should have retired from this game a long time ago. But the sea..." he took a deep breath, then smiled gently. "The sea is my mistress. I find I cannot leave her alone. I'm also old enough to allow myself some extravagances. As you may know, Mr. Chamberlain, my cabin boy, died when we were attacked last week by that Spaniard ship. Well, I'm in need of a new cabin boy and I decided it will be you."
Ezra cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Please don't get me wrong, Captain, but besides being too old for a cabin boy, I am a prisoner. You could come to serious problems over this. I wouldn't put it past my uncle to have you court-martialed."
The captain chuckled. "I am aware of the fact Mr. Standish. Going back to your first point, and although I understand it's a somewhat demeaning title, you wouldn't have much to do. I simply need someone to help me in and out of these wretched uniforms and who won't mind spending some time listening to an old man reminisce about the good old days. I'm sure that's a major improvement from your current position in this ship. As for your uncle, I know perfectly well who he is. I also know what you, Mr. Standish, have done to get you here."
"Don't tell me you concur with my association with pirates!" Ezra smiled, relaxing under the other man's easy-going manner.
Captain Perry grinned. "From what I've heard, Larabee is much more than a common pirate. Plus, I don't agree with the way your uncle runs Jamaica. I already made it known to England, and so have others. We have been waiting for news from the Queen herself. One should not use one's position for personal gain, which is exactly what your uncle is doing. From now on you will be my cabin boy and will remain so until we conclude our journey. I highly doubt someone will tell him, and even if it happens, there's little he can do to me. So, what say you?"
"When you put it that way... Yes!" Ezra replied with a grin, still unable to account for his good luck.
"Good. Come with me, I'll show you to your cabin. You can change into the proper attire there."
The captain took him to his new quarters and showed him where everything was to be found. Soon he was freshly bathed and dressed, feeling the sea breeze caress his body for the first time in a month. He strolled quietly through the main deck, nodding to the seamen. He couldn't help but grin as he saw a young man by the bow, scanning the horizon with a thoroughly enthralled expression on his face.
"First time?" Ezra asked as he joined him.
The young man reddened slightly, but grinned back. "Easy to tell, uh? Yeah. We've been out here for a month and still..." He took a deep breath. "It's beautiful. I'll never get over it, how big and beautiful and cruel it is." He held his hand out to Ezra. "JD Dunne, the cook's helper."
"Ezra Standish, former galley prisoner, now cabin boy." Ezra replied, shaking the offered hand with a smile.
JD nodded. "We've all heard about you. I'm glad the captain saw fit to set you free, you didn't belong in the galleys." He seemed to hesitate, then, "Did you really meet 'The Phantom', Captain Larabee?"
"What is he like?" JD asked eagerly.
Ezra remained silent for a moment, remembering the wonderful days spent by the other man's side. "Larger than life." He finally whispered, sadness tingeing his voice.
"You miss him, uh?"
He started at the young man's insight, but JD shrugged. "I could tell by the way you spoke. I wish I could've met him." He told Ezra sullenly. "I joined this crew so I could be a sailor, have an exciting adventure on the vast ocean. Instead I spend most of the time locked below, scrubbing pots."
His forlorn expression made Ezra chuckle. "Don't be so hasty, Mr. Dunne. I have always heard that good things come to those who wait. Your time will come, you will see."
JD grinned. "Hope so. I have to go back; the cook's probably threatening to skin me alive by now. See ya around, Ez!"
"Goodbye, Mr. Dunne."
He stayed leaning on the rail for the longest time, watching the sun reflected on the ocean like a mirror and wondering about his life. Would he ever see Chris Larabee again? Did he want to? And where was the other man at that moment? Was he safe? Was he even alive?
He closed his eyes, allowing the soft breeze to brush over him with a lover's touch, then sighed gently. Time to go about his duties. Anything to keep his mind busy and away from impossible dreams.
Ezra sat up suddenly, peering into the darkness, trying to place the sound that had awoken him. He lay still, looking up at the starred sky, but the beach was quiet except for the sentries patrolling the shoreline.
He had finished his second week as a cabin boy when suspicious smoke had been seen coming from one of the smaller islands spreading throughout the Caribbean Sea. The captain had ordered a small group to go ashore and investigate, but they had yet to find anything.
Desperate to feel solid ground beneath his feet at least for a few hours, he had asked the captain if he could spend the night on the island. His request had been granted and JD had joined him at the last minute. The cook would remain on the ship, but the group going to the island would need someone to provide them with meals.
He looked at the sleeping men gathered around the dying fire, and realized JD was nowhere to be found. He pushed off his blankets, knowing something was wrong. He pulled on his boots, then climbed to his knees and very slowly made his way to the tropical forest surrounding the beach.
Wishing for a torch, but knowing it would be unwise to advertise his position to possible miscreants, he squinted at the soft ground, spotting the footsteps easily. He looked up in the direction of the prints and saw a flash of movement in the darkness. Drawing his gun, he stepped toward the woods. The last vestiges of sleep left him as he moved silently forward, his heart speeding at the thought of the danger lurking before him.
He heard what sounded like a whisper off to his right, a man's voice. A second voice and a muffled cry; he was getting closer. He kept moving, faster now, certain that JD was in some kind of trouble. The voices were coming clearer now.
"You really are somethin', boy." One of the men said roughly. "Tender meat, that's what you are."
"Yeah. Going to show us a good time, ain't ya?" The second voice chuckled. "Bet you're a little virgin, ain't ya, boy?"
"Oh, Lord," Ezra whispered, shuddering violently as he realized what the men had in mind for his young friend.
He rushed in the direction the voices were coming from and suddenly he could see the frail light coming from a lantern. The scene that greeted him made his blood turn cold. JD was kneeling in the middle of a clearing, gagged and blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back. One of the men had him securely by the hair, yanking his head back in what could only be an extremely painful position.
He didn't recognize either man; they were probably pirates or bandits, and unquestionably the ones responsible for the smoke the sentry had seen that afternoon from the ship.
He moved forward carefully, not wanting to make a sound until he was standing close enough to act. When he reached the edge of the clearing, he aimed his pistol at the two men. "Let him go. Now!" He ordered, relieved when his voice didn't betray his uneasiness.
One of the men grinned. "Well, well, well, looky here! Another sailor boy to join the party. And nice looking too! We made it big, Jack!"
"Yeah." The other man nodded. "You better drop that gun, lad, or my friend standing behind you will be forced to hurt you... before time, that is."
Ezra narrowed his eyes, feeling the hairs at the back of his neck stand up. Could the man be telling the truth? Could there be a third man behind him? It would have been easy to miss him in the darkness, but it could also be a bluff from the two men to try and overtake him.
Before he could make a move, a hand hit him on the shoulder forcing him to stumble forward, the pistol dropping from his hand and disappearing somewhere in the bushes. He was turned around, a fist catching him hard in the stomach, and he fell to his knees gasping for breath.
Filled with a sudden rage, he growled angrily, throwing a punch at the man towering over him, grinning madly when he felt his knuckles connect with the other man's groin. The man howled in pain, falling to the ground and curling up into a ball as he whimpered pitifully.
Ezra rose to his feet, but failed to see one of the other men approaching. Another fist struck him on the chest driving him back against a tree trunk, a second punch slamming hard against his face. He hit his head on the tree, his vision blurring as he felt blood trickle into his mouth from a split lip.
"What the hell is going on here?" A new voice boomed and everyone froze.
Ezra blinked at the sudden light of the lanterns and looked up to find two sentries from the camp and three of the seamen standing in front of them. Spotting his pistol in the extra clarity, he reached for it and aimed at the three men, one of which was still moaning on the ground.
"These... 'gentlemen' were trying to kidnap our Mr. Dunne, probably to try and extract information about our small party." He lied smoothly. He knew how embarrassed JD would be if the others knew the truth. He was certain the miscreants wouldn't dare contradict him. "I stumbled into the attempt and was doing a dreadful job at rescue." He added with a rueful grin.
"What do we do with them?" One of the seamen asked.
"Take them back to camp, chain them up. Question them to see if there are any more of their friends around. If yes, search for them. If not, take them to the captain in the morning. He will decide what to do with them." Ezra suggested firmly. "I will see to Mr. Dunne." He said, already pulling the gag from the young man's mouth and getting rid of the blindfold.
He might have been the cabin boy, but none of the others thought twice about questioning his judgment. The three men were taken to camp immediately, leaving the two friends alone in the woods.
He cut the ties binding JD's wrists, watching him closely to gauge how he was fairing. JD coughed violently, staggering to his feet with some difficulty.
Ezra put a gentle hand on his shoulder to steady him. "How are you doing?" He asked softly.
JD coughed some more, then rasped out, "You arrived just in time, Ezra. Thank you."
Hearing the quiver in his voice and feeling the trembling in the young man's frame, Ezra guided him slowly back to the beach. Instead of taking him to camp, he led his friend to a small stream they had discovered upon arriving.
They knelt by the water's edge and Ezra used the gag to tenderly clean JD's face. Once the dirt had been washed away, it became clear the young man had put up quite a fight; he had a black eye, a bruised cheek, a few scrapes and cuts, and a split lip to match his own.
"My, aren't we the pair," he quipped, knowing his torso would also be badly bruised. He was relieved when JD gave him a weak, but genuine smile. "You will be fine, my friend."
Gently, he wrapped his arms around JD, and the other man leaned forward, resting his head on his shoulder. He felt JD snuggle up against him, his whole body beginning to shake as realization of what might have happened hit.
Ezra embraced him tightly, crooning softly as the young man wept and trembled silently in his arms. "Shhh. That's it, let it out. Let it all out, JD. Everything is fine now."
"I just... I wanted... to go for a walk," JD whispered brokenly against his chest, hiccups rocking his frame.
"It's over, JD." Ezra promised, rubbing his back gently. "They won't hurt you again, they will never hurt anyone again. I will see to it tomorrow. You will be all right."
They remained by the stream for most of the night, JD eventually drifting off into a restless sleep. As he watched his friend fighting the demons in his dreams, Ezra hoped that night's events had not deprived the world of JD's most precious possession -- his innocence.
Ezra woke up to the feeling of being watched. He opened his eyes to find himself under the warm hazel gaze of his young friend. Somehow during the night they had stretched out on the sand, still in each other's arms. He was lying on his back with JD's head resting comfortably on his chest.
"Feel better?" He asked gently, making no attempt to move.
"Yes. Thank you, Ez. For saving me and... and for last night."
Ezra smiled. "You are most welcome, Mr. Dunne. Now, what do you say we go back to camp? The others must be worried."
The young man nodded and they rose from their makeshift bed. He had begun to walk back to the other side of the beach, when JD's voice stopped him.
He turned to face the other man. "Yes, Mr. Dunne?"
JD stepped close and pulled Ezra into a brief but hard hug. "Thank you." He whispered into Ezra's ear, then ran off to camp, leaving Ezra far behind.
Ezra found himself chuckling at his friend's antics. JD was going to be fine, they both were. Now it was time to join his crewmembers and see to his captain; leave day was over.
CHAPTER V - The Battle
A good wind was blowing from the southwest, the sea was calm, and 'The Flying Horse' advanced without facing the slightest bit of resistance.
Everything was ready for the upcoming battle. The cannons and the firelocks were loaded with the greatest of care. Large quantities of cannonballs were piled onto the deck; rifles, axes and cutlasses were laid out and the grappling hooks were placed on the bulwarks, ready to be hurled at the enemy vessel.
All preparations complete, they began scanning the sea for yet another day, some from the ratlines, some from the bulwarks, all anxious to spot the 'Courage'. It seemed that Chris' anxiety and restlessness had spread throughout the ship.
He walked nervously from bow to stern, continually scanning the vast stretch of water, gripping the golden hilt of his sword tightly, ignoring his friends' amused glances. They had been searching for the 'Courage' for two weeks and had yet to sight the British cruiser.
He couldn't stop thinking about Ezra; how the younger man would be faring after a month and a half at the galleys. He wanted to storm the seas, board the 'Courage' and rescue the other man, but until they actually saw the cruiser there was nothing he could do. And helplessness was not a feeling he was accustomed with.
Then suddenly, a few minutes after midday, a voice shouted from atop the mainmast.
"Ship to leeward!"
Chris stopped pacing, a maddening grin lighting up his face. "Battle stations!" he commanded, watching all the seamen that had been hanging from the mast take cover and go to their assigned stations. "Buck," he shouted, turning to the man stationed on the mainmast. "What do you see?"
"A sail, Captain." Buck replied from above.
"Is it our target?"
"It's the sail of a cruiser, but I can't see the name yet. We need to get closer." Buck told him.
"Damn... Where the hell is that ship?" he muttered with a frown. "Very well. Vin, move us closer. Even if it's not the 'Courage', we can always use the practice."
"Aye, aye, Captain." Vin replied with a grin.
Half an hour passed, during which their ship gained five knots on their prey, then Buck's voice was heard once more, the excitement clear in his tone. "Captain, it's the 'Courage'!" he shouted. "They have seen us and are trying to get away."
"Ah, finally!" Chris leered. "Vin, give them chase, don't let them escape."
"Consider it done, Captain." Vin assured, capable hands steering the helm.
Another forty-five minutes and they were close enough to see the frenzy on the enemy vessel's decks. They were obviously preparing for battle as well, each sailor going about their posts.
Chris narrowed his eyes, then looked down at his faithful crew. "Men, remember! Aim high, I don't want the galleys to be destroyed by a loose cannonball. And no more bloodshed than necessary, take as many prisoners as possible. Now... Attack!"
A wild cry arose from the crew of the pirate ship at the shouted command. Nathan and Josiah rushed to the cannons on the bow, while the others aimed their rifles and armed their carbines.
Suddenly a shot rang out from the cruiser, and a small caliber cannonball whistled through their ship's sails. Chris glared at the British vessel. "Well, well, well, the mouse wants to play... Josiah, show them how it's done."
Josiah bent over his cannon and fired. The effect was immediate; the cruiser's mainmast, split at its base, oscillated violently back and forth then crashed down onto the deck, dragging down sails and rigging. They watched as men ran chaotically along the bulwarks of the vessel, trying to escape the wreckage.
"Good shot, my friend." Chris praised. "Let's teach these sailorboys how to fight!"
They resumed their attack, showering the cruiser with cannonballs, destroying its foremast, smashing its bulwarks and frame. Deadly projectiles sliced through its rigging, killing a few of the sailors that were desperately trying to defend the ship with nothing but their rifles.
They continued to advance until they were side by side with the cruiser, flanking it on the left side. They hurled the grappling hooks at the enemy vessel, bonding the two ships together with an iron grip.
"Attack!" Chris shouted again, following his friends as they sprung on board the 'Courage', guns held high and aimed at the many seamen still trying to resist.
Ten or twelve pirates, who had been hanging from the riggings like monkeys, jumped over the bulwarks and landed on deck, surrounding the remaining crew of the cruiser.
"Surrender!" Chris shouted at the few rebellious fighters.
The men that were still brawling with the pirates, faced with the prospect of fending off a second attack, threw down their arms.
"Who's the captain?" Chris asked.
"I am," replied a voice from his right, and Chris watched as a man in his sixties, standing tall and proud approached him, sword laid down in both his hands. He handed it over to Chris. "The 'Courage' is yours, sir."
"Thank you, Captain, but there's only one thing I need from you."
"Yes, and did you really have to cause such massive destruction to get it?" A new voice asked, and the men turned to see Ezra walking up to them, a slight smile grazing his lips. "Captain Larabee," he greeted, bowing slightly.
To Chris' surprise, the captain of the British cruiser chuckled softly. "My good man, had you told me who you were and what you came for, we could have saved all this melodrama. I'm perfectly content to release my cabin boy to you."
"Cabin boy?" Nathan echoed, blinking in surprise.
"Long story." Ezra replied. "Suffice to say, Captain Perry decided I didn't belong in the galleys."
"What now?" Perry asked. "The 'Courage' is obviously beyond salvation."
"Well, uh, we could take you and your men back to Jamaica, drop you off close to Port Royal. It's the least I could do." Chris offered, looking slightly shamefaced.
Perry chuckled again. "Don't look so forlorn, Captain. As one of the Queen's men I am under sworn duty to fight all piracy. Even knowing who you were and what you wanted, battle was inevitable. However, I do accept your kind offer." He turned to his second in command. "Mr. Gallagher, see to it that all the prisoners in the galleys are released and taken to Captain Larabee's vessel. The rest of you, follow the captain's men back to his ship."
Half an hour later, having abandoned the now dismasted and battered cruiser, they sailed back to Jamaica. The seamen and former prisoners from the galleys were being moved to the lower deck, while a cabin was provided for Captain Perry for the remainder of the journey.
Ezra smiled at the five men standing in front of him. "So we meet again." He drawled softly.
"So it seems. I'm Josiah Sanchez, by the way. Last time we were in too much of a hurry for formal presentations. This is Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington."
"Nice to meet you, gentlemen. Nathan, how are you?" Ezra asked, turning his attention to the healer.
"Fine, thanks to you. We heard what happened on the plantation." Nathan told him, grimly.
The green eyes darkened with rage. "Yes. Well, maybe one day someone will take over and rebuild it." Ezra replied, taking a deep breath, then looking around.
"Looking for someone?" Vin asked.
"Yes. One of the men... Ah! Mr. Dunne!" he called, and a young man rushed to join him.
"Ezra! Are you all right? I lost sight of you during the shooting!"
"I'm fine, Mr. Dunne. And yourself?"
The young man grinned. "I'm fine, Ez."
"Good. Gentlemen, this is young JD Dunne." Ezra introduced. "Would it be possible for him to join us?" He asked, turning to Chris.
Chris grinned. "He seems a little young, Ezra. Are you sure?"
"I'm sure." Ezra assured him.
"In that case, welcome aboard, JD." Chris said, shaking the young man's hand.
Ezra grinned. "Mr. Dunne, your exciting adventure on the vast ocean is about to begin. The gentleman you just shook hands with is none other than Captain Larabee himself."
JD gasped, blinking rapidly, his mouth opening and closing without a word being said. He took a step back, two steps, a third, proceeding to trip over a large coil of rope, tumbling over it and falling to the floor. The others chuckled at his antics, then taking pity of the sullen young man, Buck helped him up.
"Come on, lad, let me show you around the ship. The Captain needs to have a quiet word with Ezra."
The men walked away, leaving Chris and Ezra alone, standing face to face on the bridge. After an awkward moment in which they simply regarded each other silently, Chris finally took the lead.
"Did I do that?" He asked, touching Ezra's bruised cheek and split lip gently.
"You?" Ezra frowned in confusion.
"The attack." Chris said as a way of explanation.
"Ah. No, I was not harmed during the attack. Mr. Dunne and I had an... unwelcome encounter with some miscreants last night while ashore on a small island. They managed to do some damage before they were caught."
"What happened to them?" Chris growled angrily.
"They were taken to the 'Courage' this morning before we set sail. Unfortunately, they were close to the mast when you first fired. They met their demise at your hands, Captain Larabee."
Chris grinned wolfishly. "Good." He cleared his throat hesitantly. "When you asked if JD could join us... Does that you mean you're staying?"
"If that is your wish." Ezra replied enigmatically.
"I want you to stay by my side, yes. But what do you want, Ezra?"
Ezra looked into the stormy green eyes he had thought of so often during the last months and smiled. "I want to stay as well."
Chris smiled back. "I'm glad. Come, I'll take you to your quarters. I have asked Josiah to prepare the cabin next to mine. He should also have supplied some clothes. There's not much choice, I'm afraid, but I'm sure he'll find something that fits."
Ezra nodded. "That will be fine, thank you."
Chris showed him to his cabin, a surprisingly large room on the stern of the ship. Most of the back wall was surrounded by windows, presenting him with a marvelous view of the calm sea. There was a large bed, a square table with a couple of chairs, a bookshelf and a huge chest for his garments.
"As you can see, there are some clothes on the bed. We should reach Jamaica by tomorrow night, we can get you something then." Chris told him. "I'll leave you to change. Join me on the bridge when you're done."
"I will," Ezra promised, shedding his shirt and trembling slightly as he felt the other man's hungry gaze traveling over his body.
Chris practically rushed out of the cabin, closing the door on temptation. The circumstances conspiring to bring him and Ezra together had been queer to say the least, without having to add his confused emotions to the mixture. It was best to let the sleeping demons lie.
The next night, as promised, Chris allowed Captain Perry and his crew to go free. They disembarked on the beach close to Port Royal, under the darkness provided by a moonless sky. It took several trips to take every man ashore, Captain Perry being the last one to set foot on solid ground.
"Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure," Perry told Chris and Ezra, who had accompanied him to the island. "It's a shame we had to meet under such terrible conditions, but I look forward to our next meeting. And Mr. Standish, remember; your uncle won't be able to stay on his self-appointed throne for much longer. One day you and your friends will be able to claim your right to freedom and avenge the injustices that have fallen upon you."
Ezra shook the man's hand. "I shall look forward to that day, Captain. And to seeing you again. Please take care; my uncle will be furious when he finds out I escaped and have joined his greatest enemy."
Perry chuckled. "In that case, I'll take great pleasure in telling him myself. It will be a memory to treasure once I retire. Well, time to go, we have a lot of ground to cover. Gentlemen, farewell."
The two men watched him venture into the night, guiding his men towards civilization. "He's a remarkable man." Ezra whispered. "I owe him so very much, I don't know if I will ever be able to repay him."
"If you owe him, then so do I. If he ever needs help in any way, he will have me and my men to stand by his side." Chris vowed. "Come, we better head back before a patrol finds us."
Ezra glanced back one last time, hoping he would get the chance to see Captain Perry again. His life seemed to be turning into a whirlpool of unforeseeable events, which he was powerless to control. Any help he could gather in the future was more than welcome.
CHAPTER VI - Captain Death
The next morning they set anchor in Tortuga, away from the few ships swaying in the harbor. Ezra watched the buzzing town from the ship's bridge, wondering if Captain Perry had arrived safely at Port Royal.
"He will be fine," a voice assured from behind him, and he turned to face Chris. "By this time he has spoken to your uncle and is safely back home. He's probably enjoying his precious memory of a furious Governor Standish as we speak." Both men chuckled at that. "Ezra?"
Ezra narrowed his eyes suspiciously at his demure tone. "Yes, Captain Larabee?"
"I want you to stay aboard the ship."
"What?" Ezra exclaimed. "But --"
"Ezra, please." Chris interjected softly. "It's too dangerous for you to be seen in town at the moment. Tortuga is full of your uncle's spies, not to mention dozens of cutthroat bastards who would sell you out for a few gold coins. You'll be safer here."
They remained silent for a long moment, eyes locked in a battle of will, until finally Ezra exhaled sharply. "I don't like it, Chris." He said. "But I understand. Very well, I will stay. But don't expect me to be so agreeable to your wishes next time." He added with a grin.
Chris chuckled. "I won't. I promise we won't take long. We will meet with Jasper, buy the map, and return. I allowed most of the crew to go ashore; they deserve a little free time after yesterday's battle. But I'm leaving five men behind to watch over the ship. If you need anything, they will see to it."
Ezra nodded. "I doubt they will be needed, but thank you. I will go back to my cabin and read while I wait for your return. Be careful?" He pleaded in a low tone.
Chris brushed a hand over his face gently. "Always. We won't be long; two hours at most."
"Just be sure to bring that treasure map with you, I promised Mr. Dunne an adventure." Ezra quipped.
"And he shall have it. See you in a few hours, Ezra."
"Safe journey, Captain."
Ezra stood on the deck, watching the six men lower one of the cutters and row towards the quay. He waited until they were but a small dot in the water before going to his quarters. Surely there was a book there to help him pass the time.
A little over half an hour later, and while enjoying a book about ancient civilizations, Ezra suddenly heard a loud thud coming from the upper deck. He sat up on the bed, alert to any possible danger, but when no further sound was heard he went back to his book.
Only to hear the same noise again.
He frowned. It sounded suspiciously like a body hitting the hard wooden floor. But there hadn't been any other sounds; no shouts, no cries for help, no typical noises originating from a fight.
Ezra put the book aside and rose from the bed, exiting quietly from the cabin and moving to the upper deck. His first glance showed the ship to be deserted; not even the five sentries Chris had left behind could be seen. But something told him he was not alone.
Reaching for his pistol, he walked to the bridge to get a better view of the vessel. And his blood froze in his veins. He could clearly see the bodies of his shipmates lying dead or unconscious, hidden behind the cannons. And spread throughout the deck was a group of five or six men he had never seen before, all of them aiming their guns at him.
One of the men left his cover and walked over to the middle of the deck, looking up at Ezra. He was tall and well built, probably in his mid-fifties. His long brown hair flowed past his shoulders, while his dark eyes seemed to see straight through Ezra. A gruesome-looking scar crossed his left cheek from the eye to the lips. He was dressed all in black, from the shirt to the tight pants and knee-high boots, to the feathered hat.
"Mr. Standish, I presume?" He asked. "Please, be so kind as to place your pistol on the floor."
Ezra obeyed, his eyes never straying from the man, obviously the leader of the small group of intruders. "Who are you?"
"Me? I... I am Captain Death. And you, Mr. Standish, are my prisoner."
Chris glared at Vin. "Well?"
"I can't find Jasper anywhere, Chris. I searched the whole town and nothing." Vin answered. "I don't understand. He said he would wait for us!"
"Think he sold the map to Death?" Nathan asked.
Chris shook his head. "It doesn't make sense. He told us the map was ours and he wouldn't go back on his word. He even told Vin we could pay him only fifteen gold coins instead of the twenty I offered."
"Maybe he is hiding." Buck suggested.
"From what?" Josiah asked. "He said he would stall Death until we got back. There would be no reason for him to go into hiding until the map was sold."
"Unless Death got tired of waiting for Jasper to make up his mind. Especially if he knew I was the other possible buyer. He has lost quite a few ships to us." Chris remarked.
"So, now what?" JD asked with a frown.
"Let's go to the tavern, have a word with the owner. He's a friend of Jasper's, maybe he knows something."
"How do you know my name?" Ezra asked, as was he taken to Chris' cabin and pushed into a chair by two of Death's thugs.
"Through a... Let's call it a mutual friend." Death replied with a smile.
Ezra frowned. "I don't understand."
"Well, allow me to explain. About three weeks ago I got word someone named Jasper was looking for me in Tortuga. I sent my second in command to meet with him and was informed about a certain map. I'm sure you are aware of all this?" He half-questioned. When Ezra nodded, he proceeded. "I was perfectly happy to wait until Mr. Jasper decided if he should sell the map to me, when, to my surprise I began to hear rumors of a second buyer. And none other than Chris Larabee, a man who has cost me more than you can imagine."
"And I'm sure if Jasper had decided to not sell the map to you, you would have let him be." Ezra drawled sarcastically.
Death laughed. "Actually, no. I intended to get that map one way or another, but as long as he wouldn't try to sell it to anyone else... He told my second in command the map was well hidden and would take some time to retrieve. He never mentioned anything about a second buyer. So last week I had my men search for him, torture him until he told them where to find the map, then kill him. Slowly."
"I still don't see what this has got to do with me." Ezra scowled.
"I'm getting around to that, Mr. Standish, patience. So, Mr. Jasper had suffered a somewhat painful demise, but now I had the map. So I went to meet with my associate, the mutual friend I mentioned earlier. We have been working together for years; he gives me information about certain ships carrying valuables, I attack the vessels, we split the loot. There's nothing more beautiful than a relationship based on greed," he added with a laugh. "But where was I? Oh, yes. I showed him the map, when to our surprise, we realized its instructions were in French. But not all was lost. My associate knew you spoke French and where to find you."
"So you were going to attack the 'Courage'." Ezra realized, relieved that Chris had been the one to do it. Perry and all his crew would have perished at the hands of this madman. "But how does your... associate know I speak French?"
Death chuckled. "Because, my dear boy, my associate is your Uncle Rupert." He laughed outright as Ezra gasped, turning as pale as a ghost. "Now imagine our surprise when last night Captain Perry and his crewmen showed up in Port Royal, on foot, and told Rupert you had joined forces with Larabee. I thought your uncle would explode, so furious he became."
"So you decided to attack Larabee's ship?"
"Not really, no. When we realized you two were together, we knew Larabee would be coming to Tortuga for the map. So I set sail immediately and arrived just a little behind you. I had no real plan to capture you; maybe wait until you went to town, ambush you when you went searching for Mr. Jasper... Larabee saved me the trouble when he sent his whole crew ashore and left you behind with only five men to watch over you. They're dead, by the way."
"Now I'm going to leave you alone to translate the map. And I advise you to do it; there are a lot of things more painful than death. And I know every single one." He placed the map, a sheet of paper, ink and a pen on the table. "You can start right away. I'll be back in half an hour to see how you are doing. It shouldn't take you long, it's only a couple of lines."
Ezra watched Death and his men leave the cabin, heard a key rattling on the door and realized they were locking him inside. He looked down at the map. Death was right; the French was easy to translate. A few minutes would be enough for him to write everything down.
Not that he was going to do it; he had every intention of escaping.
He folded the map and placed it inside of his shirt, taking care it wouldn't fall out. If his plan worked the map would get wet, but since it was drawn on some kind of animal skin, he didn't foresee it getting too damaged.
Going to the door, he looked through the keyhole. The key was not there and there was no one guarding his temporary prison that he could see.
He grinned wolfishly. "Amateurs," he muttered.
Pulling off a boot, he turned it upside down and shook it until a small piece of wire fell out. During his many years accompanying his mother through her escapes in Europe, such a small piece of equipment had come in handy. Especially if they happened to get caught during one of his mother's schemes. There was no lock he couldn't pick, given enough time.
Pulling his boot on again, he turned his attention to the door, tackling the lock with gusto. It took him a while; the wire was too thin and the lock was obviously new, but he finally did it. There would be nothing stopping him now.
"What do you mean, Jasper's dead?" Chris growled at the tavern owner.
The man cowered behind the counter, nodding frantically. "It's true, I swear. I went to his house last week and found him. He was tortured to death. The place was completely wrecked."
"Any idea who did it?" JD asked.
The man looked around nervously. "Not for certain, no. But there are rumors. I heard it was Captain Death."
"Damnit!" Chris snapped. "He has the map for sure."
"What map?" The man asked curiously.
"Never you mind. Come on, let's go back to the ship. We've been gone long enough."
He reached the upper deck easily. Looking around, he could see only two of Death's men; the others were probably somewhere in the lower decks with the Captain. No doubt looking for something they could take with them when they left.
He was about to jump overboard when a sudden shout startled him. "You there! Stop!"
He did not obey this time. Rushing to the side of the ship closest to the quay he jumped over the rail, his whole body shuddering as he impacted with the freezing water. He surfaced gasping for air, taking enough deep breaths to regain his balance, then began to swim as rapidly as he could.
He heard Death cursing him from up above, but did not stop, not even when the shooting started and the bullets began to fly around him. A bullet hit him in the right arm with enough force to drag him under the water, but he came back up fighting and kept going. Death would not win. His uncle would not defeat him yet again.
They were boarding the cutter when the sound of guns firing reached their ears. Momentarily confused, the six men suddenly realized where the noise was coming from.
"It's coming from the 'Horse'!" Josiah shouted, practically dropping into his seat and grabbing the oars.
"Let's go!" Chris ordered and they began to row with all their might.
"Someone's in the water!" Vin yelled. "It's Ezra! He's coming our way!"
They kept going until they were close to the other man, who having seen them was coming straight for them. Nathan and Chris helped him climb into the cutter.
"You're hurt," Chris whispered worriedly, allowing Ezra's soaked frame to lean back against his chest.
"Not... serious," Ezra panted, letting Nathan tie a piece of cloth on the still bleeding wound.
"Who is that, Ezra?" Buck asked.
"Death..." Ezra huffed, still out of breath.
The others exchanged a worried glance.
"Captain Death?" Vin asked for confirmation.
"What did he want?" Chris growled angrily.
"Me." Ezra replied softly, his forehead resting against Chris' throat, his whole weight resting exhaustingly against the other man.
CHAPTER VII - The First Kiss
"Are you sure we are safe here?" Chris asked, looking around the inside of the rundown church.
"Yes," Josiah replied. "Tortuga hasn't had a priest for some time; no one will come here."
"Good. Buck, JD, go look for the rest of the crew. Tell them not to return to the ship, explain what happened. And tell them to meet us here tonight at midnight. Vin, Josiah, search for something Nathan can use to bandage Ezra's arm."
The four men nodded and rushed out of the abandoned church. Chris waited until they left before turning to Ezra, who was sitting quietly in one of the pews.
"How are you doing?" He asked softly.
"I am well, Chris." Ezra replied, giving him a weak smile.
"He is," Nathan confirmed when Chris turned to him for assurance. "The bullet merely grazed him and the wound has stopped bleeding. Once it is properly cleaned, there shouldn't be any problems."
Chris nodded and allowed himself to relax for the first time since seeing those men shooting at Ezra from the ship. Death would pay dearly. For taking over the 'Horse', killing his men, and especially for hurting Ezra. He began pacing the expanse of the church, impatient to take some kind of action, but knowing he would have to wait.
Josiah and Vin returned at that moment, carrying a small pot filled with fresh water, a bottle of whiskey and a few pieces of linen to use as a bandage.
Nathan examined the items carefully, nodding his approval. He cleaned the wound with the water, then used the whiskey as a disinfectant, apologizing when Ezra hissed sharply. That done; he wrapped the wound and patted the other man gently on the shoulder.
"All done. I'll have another look at it tonight, just to make sure it's not infected."
JD and Buck burst through the large wooden doors, both looking a little out of breath.
"We're back. Everyone knows what happened." JD announced softly. "They will be ready at midnight."
"What are we going to do at midnight?" Buck asked with a knowing grin.
"Get our ship back," Chris replied with a growl. "I'm not letting that bastard keep the 'Flying Horse'. That ship is mine." He snarled, then looked down at Ezra. "Now, what did you mean when you said Death was here for you?"
Instead of answering, Ezra removed something from within his shirt. "I believe this is what you came here for." He said, handing it to Chris.
Chris accepted the object, unfolding it and looking at the crude drawing on the animal skin. He blinked as he recognized what he held in his hands.
"Ezra, how did you manage to end up with Jasper's map in your possession?" he finally asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Death asked me to translate it, since it's in French and both he and his associate are unfamiliar with the language."
"Associate?" Josiah repeated.
"My uncle." Ezra sighed tiredly. "Apparently they have been working together for years. My uncle provides information on ships carrying valuable cargo and Death attacks them. Jasper made a terrible mistake when he contacted Death about that map. When he heard you were also looking to buy it, Death sent his men to kill Jasper, after torturing him until he revealed the location of the map. He then met with my uncle, probably to discuss how to go about such a venture, and found the map was in a foreign language."
"Your uncle doesn't speak French? He's the governor!" JD observed.
Ezra snorted. "My uncle, speak another language? My uncle believes England should rule the world and all other nations should bow to the Queen. They should be the ones to learn English, not the other way around."
"I get the idea." Chris told him. "And of course, you speak French?"
"Yes. Mother and I spent a few years living in France and my uncle is aware of that. Death was going to attack the 'Courage' in order to get me back, but you were faster."
"Why didn't your uncle just pardon you?" Nathan asked with a frown.
Ezra shrugged. "I did not ask. But I believe a pardon takes some time to arrange, months I think, if not longer. And I'm guessing they were afraid you would somehow get ahead of them and find the treasure first. Not to mention, my uncle knew I would never help them out of my own free will, even after liberated. Plus, the 'Courage' would be out at sea for at least six more months. Even with the pardon, they couldn't wait that long for me to return."
"How did Death know you were staying aboard the 'Horse'?" Buck asked.
"He didn't. From what I understood, he was with my uncle last night when Captain Perry arrived at Port Royal. They realized I was with you, and that now that you were back, you would obviously come for the map. Death set sail right after us and followed us here. He's probably anchored on the other side of the cape. He watched the crew come ashore, saw you leave, then realized I had stayed behind, so he tried his luck. He killed the others and tried to force me into translating the map."
"And did you?" Vin asked with a grin.
Ezra chuckled. "No. I stole it instead." He replied, making the others laugh as well.
When the laughter had died down, Chris looked at his friends. "It's after midday, we need to find something to eat. Vin, Nathan, see to it. We're going to spend the afternoon here, maybe rest for a few hours. There will be no sleep for us tonight. By this time tomorrow I want to be back on board the 'Horse' and on our way to the treasure island."
"Island?" Josiah echoed.
"Yes. I can't understand the words on the map, but the drawing represents a group of small islands close by. One of them is marked with a cross. We should find Mckenzie's loot there." He looked at Ezra, who nodded his agreement. "It shouldn't take us more than a day to reach it. Providing Death didn't do anything to the 'Horse'." His eyes narrowed dangerously. "And Lord help him if he did. He will regret it for the rest of his short, miserable life."
It was already dark outside when Ezra woke up from his afternoon rest. His arm throbbed a little, but nothing that would lead his attention astray. He rose from the pew where he had been lying, noting the others were still asleep.
He walked closer to the altar, his mind wandering over the past months. How much his life had changed since his chance meeting with Chris Larabee nearly four months earlier. The pirate had stormed into his life and turned everything upside down, changing his peaceful -- if not always pleasant -- life into a never-ending adventure. And what was even more amazing, he was loving every minute of it. Even after having been whipped, imprisoned, sent to the galleys, threatened by bloodthirsty pirates and shot at, he wouldn't change a thing if it meant not having met Larabee.
He shook his head ruefully; he had been right before, he was insane. And apparently getting worse, for now he was one of Larabee's men, a pirate himself. On the way to a treasure hunt with a madman on their trail.
"What are you thinking about?" A voice whispered softly from behind him.
"About Captain Death," he replied without turning around.
"What about him?" Chris asked.
"He will chase after us, you do know that, don't you? Especially after what I did, stealing the map right from under him. He's probably plotting his revenge as we speak."
"Let him. He won't get near you ever again, he won't hurt you ever again," Chris vowed fiercely.
Ezra shuddered at the emotion he could hear in the other man's voice.
"Cold?" Chris whispered, mistaking his trembling for something else entirely different.
"A little." Ezra replied, and Chris wrapped his arms around him from behind. "Chris?" Ezra called after an extended silence.
"What's happening between us?"
"I'm not sure. But it's not a bad thing. Is it?"
Ezra chuckled softly. "Not bad, no. Dangerous, though."
"I know. Let's... get through this first, see what happens."
Ezra nodded. "I agree." He said, tipping his head back to look at the man embracing him.
Without any conscious thought he turned to face Chris, leaning forward slowly, uncertain of his reception. Apparently unable to resist the unspoken offer, Chris closed the distance between them and their lips met. Chris' mouth was soft and moist against his own and he tenderly explored the addicting sweetness. He nipped at Chris' lower lip then traced it with his tongue before teasing at the crease between the full lips until they parted and he was allowed access to the heat of Chris' mouth.
He moaned as Chris' warm body pressed hard against him, tightening his hold and pulling them impossibly closer. He wrapped his arms around the older man's neck, sighing softly and settling into Chris' embrace as their tongues danced leisurely together. Both were breathless when they finally parted.
"This is waiting?" Chris finally asked, amusement tingeing his voice.
"Just something to keep you interested." Ezra replied with a grin.
They stayed in each other's arms for a long moment, his head resting on Chris' shoulder, the other man nuzzling his hair softly with his cheek. He smiled. No matter what happened in the future, that moment would forever keep in his mind. Even with all the madness constantly crashing in on them, for the first time in his life he felt content, safe, whole.
He looked back at the pews, his breath catching in his throat as he saw Vin sitting quietly, looking at them. He exhaled softly, relaxing against Chris as Vin smiled gently, nodding his approval and mouthing 'About time'. He grinned back, relieved to have the other man's friendship and understanding. 'Thank you', he mouthed back.
"Are you two done?" Chris chuckled suddenly, leaving them staring at each other shamefaced at having been caught by the other man.
A knock on the door broke through the silence, rousing the four men still sleeping. Vin went to answer, opening the door for the rest of the crew to join them. It was finally midnight, time for action.
Chris nodded at his men. "You all know what happened this morning. I have no idea if we still have a running ship, or what that bastard might have done to our 'Horse', but it's time we got it back. We still have our three cutters in the quay and at this hour we won't have any problems 'borrowing' a few more. Just enough for all of us to get back to our vessel. Be as silent as possible, surround the 'Horse' from all sides, and when I shout 'Go', climb on board as fast as you can. Be careful; we don't know how many there are or what weapons they might be using. Let's go."
It took over fifteen minutes for the whole group to reach the quay. Even if Tortuga was a pirate haven, there were still enough of the governor's spies around to make them cautious. Every available seat was soon taken in the three cutters, four more were commandeered for their cause.
Rowing as silently as ghosts, the cutters slid effortlessly through the dark waters towards their target, under the patronage of a new moon, all eyes locked on their lost lady, 'The Flying Horse'.
Chris waited enough time for all the cutters to surround the ship, then gave his rebel yell. "Go!" He ordered furiously.
Suddenly the quiet harbor thrived with frantic activity. Every seaman rushed to obey the command, grabbing ropes, riggings, the anchor line, anything that would help them get aboard the ship.
The seven friends were among the first to set foot on deck. Under Chris' guidance they split up, spreading throughout the ship, looking for any signs of their enemy.
Chris gritted his teeth as he spotted their five fallen comrades hanging from the masts. He knew then Death was long gone; those symbolic hangings were meant as a taunt, a way of hurting him. But all it really meant was just another nail in Death's coffin.
"Well?" He asked when Josiah approached him.
"Nobody. They're gone. And by the look of things, they left soon after Ezra escaped."
"And the 'Horse'?" He growled angrily.
"Everything's in place." Josiah replied. "Nothing's damaged that I can see. The others are checking again."
Chris took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, trying to control his fury. His revenge would have to wait. At least now he had someone by his side who knew what Captain Death looked like. One day -- soon -- they would cross paths again. Maybe Ezra was right and Death would follow when they departed for their treasure hunt. And should they come to battle... He would come out the victor.
"Chris, you better have a look at this." Buck called out, bringing him back from his reverie.
"What's wrong?" he asked, walking over to his friend.
"Ezra's cabin is completely destroyed." Buck replied, leading him to the sleeping quarters.
The others were all there, already waiting for him. He looked around dismally. The cabin was a complete wreck. The bed was broken, the chest open and overturned, the bookshelf had been torn from the wall, and the chairs were lying in pieces on the floor. The only thing left whole and standing was the table. Resting among the chaos, it stood tall and resistant, a small sheet of paper adorning its center.
"What does it say?" JD asked.
Ezra looked up, gazing at the six men. "'Until we meet again, Mr. Standish'." He replied softly.
CHAPTER VIII - The Storm
It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining brightly, the sky was clear for as far as you could see, and there was a soft breeze blowing which prevented the typical Caribbean heat from becoming too menacing.
Ezra took a deep breath, closing his eyes and enjoying the smell of fresh air and salt water. Nothing could ruin that moment, not even Death's pathetic threats. He was in heaven.
"Enjoying yourself?" An amused voice asked from beside him.
Ezra opened one eye to glance at a grinning Buck. "I certainly am, Mr. Wilmington. I have seldom had the chance to enjoy such a marvelous day, especially during the last months."
"Well, you better make the most of it, 'cause it won't last." Buck remarked.
He raised an eyebrow quizzically. "Oh?"
"Vin says the weather's gonna change during the day, might still rain today." The mustached man replied.
Ezra looked up at the clear blue sky. "You jest, surely? It's such a nice day, not a cloud in sight!"
Buck shook his head and shrugged. "Can't explain it, but I know it's true. Seen Vin predict it before, he never fails. He told me once the air smells kind of different when a storm is brewing. He's expecting that by late afternoon a gale will build from the southwest."
"Which is the course we have taken?" Ezra half-asked, half-stated.
"Yes." Buck grinned.
"So you're basically saying we are heading towards a possible storm?"
"Yes." Buck's grin grew wider.
"Why, thank you, Mr. Wilmington! Glad to see you are the bearer of such good news." Ezra drawled sarcastically.
Buck laughed. "No problem, Ez. Always aiming to please, that's me."
Ezra remained hopeful for most of the morning, as the weather kept fairly warm and sunny. However, as the night drew closer, and as predicted by Vin, the weather did change. Threatening gray clouds replaced the clear sky, and even Ezra could feel the difference in the air around them. It felt charged, heavy and stuffy, making it almost impossible to breathe.
The storm didn't hit until the early hours of the morning, catching most of the crew in their sleep. The first splattering drops of rain rapidly turned into heavy rain. The wind picked up and the waves began to swell, rocking the ship violently.
"I can't believe this!" Chris yelled, trying to make himself heard over the roar of the storm. "We're so close to the damn island! One more hour and we could've found a safe cove to hide from the storm!"
"Too late now?" Ezra guessed, yelling back.
"Yes!" Chris nodded with a shout. "And Vin says this is a big one! Let's hope the ship holds up!"
Ezra held his breath as he faced one of the most exhilarating and frightening moments of his life at the same time. Lightening lit up the sky and thunder boomed in his ears, the raindrops were so thick it hurt when they hit his body, and the ship was swaying so hard it was difficult to keep on his feet.
He watched Vin and Josiah trying to control the helm while Nathan and JD tied them securely so the growing waves wouldn't drag them overboard.
Buck walked slowly to the bridge where both he and Chris were holding on for dear life. The blinding light and loud noise from the thunder and lightening was painful to withstand, but Ezra knew it was too late to go back now; they were in the heart of the storm.
"Chris! The ship won't take much more punishment!" Buck yelled at them. "We're being pounded to pieces by this storm!"
"We have no choice!" Chris replied. "We're barely holding on now; if we try to turn back, the winds will take us off course and set us adrift! We have to keep going!"
Lightning slashed through the sky at his words, illuminating the furious sea as if it were day; thunder rumbled overhead, and the ship seemed to vibrate in its wake, making standing a difficult task.
"Jesus," Ezra whispered to himself.
He felt Chris reach for him, holding him tightly as a huge wave nearly capsized the 'Horse'. Large waves rolled over the decks, buffeting the cabins, and threatening to destroy the ship.
One powerful bolt struck the main mast, breaking it in half and setting it on fire until the merciless rain falling down put it out. The top half of the mast crashed down onto the deck, sails and rigging coming down with it.
"Reef!" He heard someone shouting over the maddening roar. "Reef! Watch out!"
It was too late. The wind pounded the 'Horse' against the reef, and the ship struck with a jolt, throwing everyone off balance. He watched terrified as several of the crewmen fell overboard, their cries ringing loudly in his ears, even over the storm.
He watched helplessly as the load began slipping away; the sides of the ship gave way, the noise of splitting wood competing with the thunder for attention.
"There's a hole in the hull near the bow! It's taking on water!" Someone else shouted, but he seemed to be the only one listening; everyone else was fighting for their lives.
"Help! Help us!" He heard Vin shouting.
He turned to see both Vin and Josiah frantically trying to break free from the ropes tying them to the helm. The ship was sinking; if they didn't hurry they would go down with it.
Ezra reached for his dagger, crawling painfully on the soaked wood until he reached his friends. "Hold on!"
"Where's Chris?" Vin shouted.
"I can't see him!"
Ezra turned back, never stopping cutting through the thick rope. His heart lurched as he realized Chris was no longer there; he and the two men tied to the helm were the last ones standing on the bridge. Taking a deep breath, he forced his mind back to the task at hand. Chris was all right; he had to be.
Finally the ropes slipped free and the three men rose awkwardly to their feet. Just as they were rushing down the short flight of stairs leading to the upper deck, a loud crashing noise was heard and the whole ship shook.
Ezra had enough time to realize the 'Horse' was breaking in two -- a nutshell in Mother Nature's hands -- before something hit him from behind and he dove into the unforgiving sea.
Ezra woke to the sound of seagulls and the warmth of the sun on his skin. He was lying on his stomach, on a beach, by the water's edge. It took him a moment to remember what he was doing there, but when the memory returned, he sat up with a gasp.
"I can't believe I'm still alive," he muttered to himself as he looked around.
Then a painful ache filled his heart as he thought of Chris and the other men. Could they still be alive? After all, and against all odds, he had managed to reach land. And by the look of things, the very island they had been searching for.
He couldn't bear the thought Chris might be dead, not when they still had so much to face together, to look forward to. And as for the other five men, he had come to enjoy the friendship and camaraderie they seemed determined to share with him, he wasn't ready to give them up for dead. Not yet.
He looked back at the sea, staring for as far as his sight could reach, seeing large chunks of wreckage floating in the clear water. He blinked suddenly as he noticed there was something strange about a large piece of a cutter, which was drifting closer to the beach.
"Oh, my Lord," he whispered, recognizing the two men lying on the floating wood.
He rose swiftly, plunging into the water and swimming rapidly until he reached the two marooned. He felt for their pulses, holding back a sob as he realized they were both alive, merely unconscious. Knowing he would have to take them back to shore one at a time, he began with the easiest; JD.
He turned the younger man onto his back, wrapped an arm around him protectively, and swam back to the beach. He laid JD gently on the sand, then went back for Buck. The other man was harder to rescue. While they were in the water it was not too difficult, since Buck was unconscious and didn't offer any resistance. But dragging his weight to the beach took a definite effort and by the time Ezra placed the man by JD's side he was exhausted.
"Ezra!" He heard someone shout, and turning towards the voice, he saw Vin and Josiah waving madly at him.
He waved back, suddenly feeling better. He still didn't know where Chris and Nathan were, or even if they were alive, but at least four of his friends were safe and together.
"Are they --" Josiah began fearfully as he saw the two men lying on the sand.
"They are alive, Mr. Sanchez." Ezra interjected gently. "Merely unconscious. I just pulled them out of the water; I was about to try and rouse them."
"We have more survivors. There's another beach on the other side of that cliff." Vin told him. "Nathan is trying to patch up everyone as best as he can. We have three dead and eight men still missing."
Josiah knelt beside JD, patting his face gently. "Wake up, JD. Come on, son, we need you to open your eyes."
JD groaned, turning his face away from the stinging slaps. "Buck, will you stop that!" He rasped out angrily, swatting at the insisting hand.
Josiah chuckled. "Not Buck, son. Open your eyes."
The young man sighed tiredly, but obeyed. He stared at the men looking down at him, at their surroundings, then closed his eyes again. "Lord... I never thought I'd live to see another day." He whispered. Then, "Buck!" He shouted, sitting up rapidly.
"Take it easy, JD. He's right beside you." Vin told him.
"Oh." JD pushed against Buck's shoulder. "Hey, wake up. Buck, wake up! We're alive!" Buck twisted, but didn't open his eyes. "Come on, wake up! Buck!"
"Damnit, boy!" Buck groaned. "Let me sleep!"
"We sunk, remember? Wake up!"
"Sunk?" Buck echoed with a frown. He opened his eyes, looking up at the other men. "Holy...!" He exclaimed, sitting up.
Seeing his friends were fine, Ezra turned to Vin, ready to ask the question burning in his soul. "Chris?" He whispered.
Vin shook his head sadly. "He's one of the missing. No one has seen him yet."
Ezra nodded slowly, gazing despairingly back at the sea. He felt numb, unable to grasp the reality that Chris might be dead. He couldn't be. It wasn't fair.
"He's alive," Buck told him knowingly as he rose to his feet. "That man has nine lives."
Ezra smiled slightly as he looked at the four men before him. "Am I that transparent?" He asked.
Josiah patted his shoulder softly. "We knew what to look for. Before you came along, Chris was different. He fought your uncle's troops, attacked the enemy ships, sailed the Caribbean Sea... He was alive, but he wasn't living. There was this part of him that was dormant, that he kept hidden from sight. Since you've met, he looks happier, smiles more, he's more alive than I've ever seen him before. And we have seen you two together, the way you look at each other, smile at each other."
"And are you comfortable with that?"
"In these violent times, you reach for whatever happiness you can find," Josiah replied with a smile.
"Besides, it wouldn't be none of our business," JD grinned. "And you two look... right together."
The others nodded, then Vin wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "He'll show up, you'll see. Come on, let's go over to the other side and join the others. We found fresh water and some of the men are already out looking for food."
Ezra nodded, really looking at their surroundings for the first time. They were standing on a beautiful beach, surrounded by a dense forest that reached beyond their vision. A few softly rolling mountains were barely visible above the trees. He could hear birds singing, as well as the calls of other animals he didn't recognize.
He took a long, deep breath and closed his eyes, smelling the coconuts, the sweetly scented flowers, and the salt air. They had found paradise. And he had no one to share it with.
Ezra stood by the water's edge, gazing upward at the endless expanse of the heavens. It was a clear night and millions of stars shone down their light on the small island.
He wanted to be alone. He appreciated the other's efforts to try and draw him out and talk, but he really couldn't be bothered. The eight men were still missing, Chris among them.
The whole day had been spent building shelters, finding food for at least a few days, and searching for their missing friends. Stranded on the island, they had no way of knowing when they would be able to rejoin civilization anew, but they had a pile of wood ready to light should they happen to spot a ship sailing by. The smoke from the bonfire would surely be enough to disclose their location.
Now all they could do was wait. Wait for the night to end so they could keep working on their provisory habitations; wait for a vessel who would rescue them; wait... for Chris to appear.
A sudden noise close by made him tense, but before he could move, he was grabbed from behind. A hand covered his mouth while an arm wrapped powerfully around his chest, imprisoning him. He fought fiercely as he was taken to a shelter behind a large group of boulders.
Once there, he was released and turned around to face his captor. Prepared to growl his protest at being manhandled thus roughly, he focused his attention on the man before him. And blinked.
"Well? Aren't you going to say anything?" Chris finally asked, obviously amused at his speechless reaction.
"You... you bastard!" He snapped, coming out of his daze, and surprising the other man with his anger. "I thought you were dead! And why the hell did you drag me out here? I thought it was a miscreant wanting to hurt me!" Then, in one swift movement, he buried his right hand in Chris' hair and pulled his head down, brushing their lips together in a feather-like caress. "I thought you were dead..." He whispered brokenly against Chris' mouth. "That I would never see you again, feel you again, kiss you again..."
"I'm sorry," the other man whispered back, capturing his lips and kissing him passionately.
Chris broke the kiss long enough to take a deep breath, then took his lips again, this time less frantically. When they finally parted, they eyes met and held, saying all the things they were unable to voice yet.
"Why didn't you join us at the camp?" Ezra asked.
"I wanted to see you first, speak with you first. I couldn't resist when I saw you by the beach." He sighed tiredly. "I can't believe we came all this way for nothing. Now we have no ship and no map. I wish I'd never heard of that damn treasure!"
Ezra smiled. "Well, I can't assist you with the ship, but I still have the map."
"You do?" Chris asked, confused. "I thought I'd left it in my cabin."
"You did. But I still have it... Memorized in my head." He explained with a grin.
Chris hugged him hard, laughing softly. "You really are one hell of an amazing man, Ezra Standish!"
CHAPTER IX - The Treasure
"So, what happened to you?" Vin asked him as the seven men sat around a warm fire.
"I was thrown overboard by a wave." Chris replied as he stared into the flames. "Last thing I remember is Ezra crawling over to you and Josiah, then this huge expanse of water coming down at me and then... nothing. I woke up on a beach on the other side of the island."
"See anybody else?" Josiah asked. "We still have seven missing."
Chris nodded. "Simmons and Kershaw's bodies washed up on the beach. I buried them before coming to search for the rest of you."
"What now?" JD asked. "We have no ship and the map is gone."
Chris grinned at the green-eyed man sitting beside him quietly. "Well, Ezra here says he remembers what was written on the map. Since we're already on the island, all we need to do is follow the instructions."
"Why bother?" Nathan asked. "Even if we do find the treasure, then what? We have no way of getting it off of this island. What's the point in finding a treasure if we can't spend it?"
"We will have to be patient. The Caribbean Sea has a lot of navigation, sooner or later a ship will sail close enough to locate us; providing we build a fire to catch their attention."
Ezra snorted. "With our luck it will be a pirate ship and we will all be slaughtered."
Chris glared at the other man. "Damnit, Ezra, don't say things like that! Look, even if it is a pirate ship, chances are they won't stop for us; they won't care. On the other hand, if it is one of her Majesty's vessels... They patrol this area frequently and if they see the smoke they are bound to investigate. We can say we were attacked by pirates and left here to die. There's no reason for them not to believe us."
"Then what?" Buck asked, but he was grinning.
Chris chuckled. "You know what, we've done this before. We overpower the poor bastards sent to land, don their clothes and take over their ship."
"You make it sound so easy!" JD laughed.
"It is. We did this twice before when we were after ships more powerful than ours and couldn't afford to engage in a battle. They fall for it every time. It'll work, you'll see. The worse part is having to wait until a ship comes close enough for us to see it and for them to see our signal."
"The plan still stands, then?" Josiah asked. "Tomorrow we'll go searching for Mckenzie's loot?"
"Yes. I'll talk to the crew. They will stay here; this place is well out of sight and they should be safe. The seven of us will leave first thing in the morning." He informed, ignoring Ezra's pitiful moan.
Seeing the others nod their approval, he rose and went to speak with the crewmen about the new plan. He took his time, going around all the small fires spread throughout the camp where the men were warming up. When he returned, the others were preparing to sleep, lying as close to the fire as humanly possible without getting burned.
Grinning, he waited until Ezra was lying on his side, before joining him. He spooned up behind the sturdy body, shaking his head chidingly as he felt the other man tense against him.
"It's all right, Ezra." He interjected softly, propping up on his elbow and looking down at the other man. "Nobody will say a thing. I just want to stay close to you."
Ezra stared up at him for a long moment, then nodded and nestled back against him, closing his eyes with a soft sigh. Almost immediately his breathing changed into sleeping pattern.
"I'm glad you made it." Vin told him sincerely. "I don't know what we would've done with him if you had died."
Chris frowned. "What do you mean?"
"He hardly said a word all day. Kept to himself, didn't let anyone get too close. He hides it well, but... It was easy to see how much he was hurting." Vin replied.
"Yeah. You better not do something like this ever again, or I might be forced to hunt you down and kill you." Buck mock glared at him.
Chris grinned at his men, understanding they had accepted Ezra as one of their own and knowing they would give him hell if he ever hurt the other man. With a final nod to the others, he snuggled closer to the warm body lying so close to his own and proceeded to fall into much needed sleep.
"You sure the map said we had to start at the 'cliff of white'?" Nathan asked for the hundredth time.
"Yes." Ezra replied tiredly.
"What the hell does that mean?" JD frowned.
"I don't know, Mr. Dunne, probably the walls of the cliff will be made of a different kind of rock, white in its color. Sort of like the cliffs at Dover."
"Let's keep circling the island. We're bound to find it sooner or later." Chris remarked as he walked ahead of the small group.
Half an hour later they had found the elusive cliff, which as Ezra had predicted, was chalk white. Chris leaned over the edge, looking down at waves crashing over the sharp rocks far below.
"Now what?" Vin asked Ezra.
"Well, the map said to look for the twin mounds."
"Twin mounds?" Josiah echoed, looking around. "Don't see anything resembling that description."
Chris narrowed his eyes suspiciously as Buck suddenly snorted, chuckling softly until it turned into a full belly laugh. "Twin mounds!" He chortled. "Twin mounds!"
"What the hell is so funny, Buck?" Vin growled.
"There!" Buck gestured towards the mountains visible above the trees. "Twin mounds, get it?" He placed each hand in front of his chest, kneading the air as he would knead a woman's breasts.
And Chris laughed too, realizing the two mountains did resemble breasts, standing parallel to each other and with their inverted 'V' formation. He laughed harder as JD shook his head disgustedly at the two of them.
"And you call me boy!" He scowled.
"We found the twin mounds." Nathan chuckled as well. "What's next?"
"We have to reach their base." Ezra replied.
Chris sighed, all laughter leaving him. The mountains looked far away and it would take hours to reach them. He wasn't sure he would make it without killing one of the others. They were great seamen, but a pain to be with on dry land. He had never seen a more complaining group in his life.
From Ezra who didn't like early mornings, to JD who kept telling them anecdotes -- or so he said they were -- to Nathan who never shut up, to Buck who kept driving them crazy with his stupid pranks. The only one behaving was Vin, and that was because he was ahead scouting most of the time. Even Josiah kept disappearing to observe one animal or another. He felt like an old matron trying to keep her unruly children in line.
"Let's stop wasting time, it's nearly midday. Vin, lead the way."
"Aye, aye, Captain." Vin replied, giving him a maddening grin.
Chris exhaled softly, going back on his thought; none of them were behaving. It was going to be a long, long day.
Chris frowned. "Where's Vin?"
"Ahead of us. You sent him to lead the way, remember?"
Chris glared at Buck. "Yes. But we haven't seen or heard from him in a few minutes."
They stopped moving, all ears wanting to pick up their friend's whereabouts.
"Vin!" Nathan called out. "Vin, where are you?"
"I heard something." Josiah said. "It came from there."
They marched that way, cutting through the dense foliage until they all heard it, Vin's voice whispering, "In here. I'm in here."
"Why the hell is he whispering?" JD asked.
"Let's find out." Chris said.
They followed Vin's voice, reaching a small clearing in the middle of the forest. The floor was covered with dry leaves, which was obviously the reason why Vin had failed to see the quicksand he was rapidly sinking in.
"Damnit!" Chris growled, looking around. Spotting a sturdy piece of tree bark, he snatched it from the ground. "Vin, grab the bark."
The other man reached slowly for his salvation, careful not to make any sudden moves that would make him sink faster. "Got it," he breathed.
Chris nodded, beginning to pull his friend out of the quicksand, assisted by Josiah and Nathan. Once Vin was out of danger, Chris scowled at him. "You're supposed to be good at this scouting thing."
"I am!" Vin replied defensively. "I heard something fly above me and looked up. When I realized I'd stepped into quicksand it was already too late."
Chris sighed tiredly. "Fine. Let's keep going; we're almost there."
It took them over an hour to reach the base of the twin mountains. They were obviously traveling through a scantily visited island and it was hard to advance in such rough conditions. The vegetation fought them every step of the way, and even with cutting through it with the axe Buck had found on the beach that morning, it was nearly an impossible task.
Once they were finally there, Chris turned to Ezra. "Next?"
"Turn East. There should be a narrow path going up the left mountain." Ezra replied.
JD nodded. "Found it."
Ezra shrugged. "Then we go up until we find a cave."
"Sure is a lot of walking to this treasure hunting thing." Nathan complained.
"Well, you didn't want it to be easy, did you? Everyone would be able to find it then." JD retorted.
They kept climbing for about another half an hour before they found the entrance to the cave. They walked inside, taking deep breaths, enjoying the refreshing air, relieved to be out of the suffocating heat.
"And now?" Vin asked. "Let me guess, we keep walking?"
Ezra chuckled. "Right you are, Mr. Tanner. There should be a tunnel to your right, heading down. We are to take it and keep going until we see a large chamber where we are to find the treasure."
JD grinned. "You mean this is it? No more threading through the jungle?"
"This is it, Mr. Dunne. Although there was nothing in the map stating how long we have to walk before we discover the aforementioned chamber."
"In that case..." Chris drawled sarcastically, gesturing for them to get moving.
"Lord, this is tiring!" Josiah exclaimed as they found yet another fork ahead.
They had been walking for over an hour, always going further and further into the mountain, still moving downward. At each turn they had found a fork, having to look for the scratches on the rock that pointed in the right direction. The inside of the cave was a real maze, and without the faint markings, they would have been lost, maybe forever.
JD shuddered. "I just wish there weren't so many bats in here. I *really* don't like them!"
"You know what would be really ironic?" Buck mused. "If we got to the chamber and there was nothing there."
"Buck, you want me to shoot you?" Chris glared at the other man.
"Then shut up."
Vin tilted his head to the side. "I can hear running water."
"Yeah, so can I. It's just ahead." Nathan said.
The passageway kept getting progressively wider until they were standing in a large chamber. There was a cascade of water running from the cave ceiling, and beautifully sculpted stalagmites and stalactites all around.
"This place is amazing!" JD breathed, looking longingly at the waterfall.
"Think this is the right chamber?" Chris asked Ezra.
"No. The map stated it was the last chamber. There's another passage to our left."
Chris groaned. "Let's keep going then."
"You know," Buck began as they continued. "If we keep going down, we are going to be below sea level. This chamber is not underwater, is it?"
"The map didn't mention anything. Which in itself means nothing." Ezra replied grimly. "It could have been done on purpose, in case someone had found the map and was trying to reach the treasure before Mckenzie could retrieve it."
"I can see light up ahead," JD said.
They followed the light into another chamber and this time Chris knew they had found the right one. It was probably the biggest cave chamber he had seen in his life. Water droplets were catching light as they fell hundreds of feet from the ceiling, making it look like it was raining stars. The walls were covered with luminous rock formations and the impressive stalactites and stalagmites spread out through the ground and ceiling looked like polished chandeliers and candlesticks.
And there, right in the center of the chamber, resting in what looked like a natural cavity in the cave's floor, stood the treasure. Chests and chests full to the brim with jewels, precious stones, gold coins, goblets and tiaras.
"Oh. My. Lord." JD whispered, walking slowly towards the huge golden pile.
Buck whooped, jumping into the pool of water surrounding the treasure. "We did it! We found it!"
The treasure hunt was finally over.
CHAPTER X - Trapped
While the others looked through the treasure, Chris gazed around the chamber, feeling a strong sense of foreboding. He kept waiting for something to happen, to go wrong. It didn't bode well for them.
"I can't imagine how long it must have taken to bring everything down here. Most of Mckenzie's men had been caught and hanged by that time. He had only a handful of trusted men left." Nathan remarked as he walked towards him. "What's wrong, Chris? Why aren't you trying to bury yourself in the loot with the others?"
"Can't," Chris muttered. "I have this feeling something's wrong. Makes me nervous."
"That's just the sight of all that fortune." Nathan grinned.
"I guess." Chris allowed, although he wasn't too certain.
Vin approached them, his whole face lit up with a wide smile. "You do realize we are rich beyond our wildest dreams, don't you?" He chuckled happily.
"Correction; *I* am rich beyond my wildest dreams!" A new voice stated from behind them.
Chris turned around and found himself looking straight into the barrel of a pistol. Ten men were standing near the passageway, all heavily armed. Their leader was dressed all in black, looking smugly down at him, and Chris had no doubts about the man's identity, especially after seeing the anger in Ezra's eyes.
"Death," he growled.
"Larabee," the other man mock bowed. "We finally meet face to face." His eyes focused on Ezra, turning impossibly cold. "Mr. Standish, we meet again. I believe we have some unfinished business between us. Now, gentlemen, if you please. Relieve yourselves of your weaponry."
Chris nodded to the others who obeyed, letting their swords and guns fall to the ground. "You won't get away with this." He swore.
Death smiled. "I already have, Captain Larabee." He turned to one of his men. "Go back to the 'Skull' and tell Mr. Cook we have found the treasure and need every available man to help carry it back to the ship." After the man had left, he grinned at Chris. "It is most fortunate that my ship is anchored on this side of the island. It will save precious time."
"How did you find us?" Buck asked.
"I have been following you since you left Tortuga. The storm gave me some trouble, but my ship is better equipped to handle it than yours was. It was easy to discover this island and where you camped last night. When you went in search of the treasure this morning I followed you. I have a good tracker amongst my men and you gentlemen left a visible trail. Which one of you had the misfortune of landing in quicksand?"
"I did." Vin answered with a scowl.
Death shook his head, tsking softly. "Very clumsy, Mr. Tanner. I expected more out of you. Mr. Appleton, Mr. Donovan, watch the prisoners. The rest of you, start taking the treasure out. And make it fast."
For the next three hours Chris and the others watched helplessly as the treasure was taken from the chamber, first by Death's remaining seven men, then by the dozen others brought from the ship. Little by little all the chests disappeared, taking several trips before the task was completed.
Death approached them, brushing an imaginary speckle of dirt from his clothes. "Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure. Mr. Standish, I'm certain you will be exhilarated to know you will be coming with me. As I stated before, we have some unfinished business to see to. I don't take kindly to being made a fool. As for the others... Kill them." He ordered his men.
"No!" Ezra shouted, blocking Death's way as he made to leave.
Death raised an eyebrow quizzically. "Something to say, Mr. Standish?"
"Don't kill them." Ezra pleaded softly. "I'll do anything you want, but please... don't kill them."
"Anything, Mr. Standish?" Death grinned.
"Yes." Ezra replied firmly.
"Are you certain? Anything?" Death leered, his eyes running up and down Ezra's body lasciviously.
Chris saw Ezra's eyes widen as he realized exactly what Death was asking for. "Don't do it, Ezra!" He shouted desperately.
Ezra looked at him, his eyes regarding him sadly. "I'm sorry, Chris. I can't let you die." Then to Death, "Anything."
Death stared suspiciously at the two of them, and Chris saw the sudden understanding shine in the man's eyes. "Ah. I see. Well, well, well! I confess I am surprised, Captain Larabee. But then, Mr. Standish is a very handsome man." He sighed dramatically. "Oh, very well! I'm feeling benevolent today. Mr. Donovan, please tie the prisoners securely."
Chris fought furiously as his wrists were tied behind his back, followed by his ankles. He was thrown on the ground, his shoulder hitting the wall painfully. The others were soon sitting beside him, all bound hand and foot and leaning against the rock wall.
"There!" Death gushed out. "I did what you asked, Mr. Standish. And to show you I am a reasonable man, I will even allow you to say goodbye." He told Ezra, gesturing for him to go to Chris.
Chris watched Ezra approach him hesitantly, then kneel before him. "Chris?" He whispered softly. Chris turned his head to the side, unable to face the other man. "Chris, please?" When he still didn't acknowledge the other man, Eza sighed sadly. "Fine, be that way. I know you are upset, but I had to do it. Would you have let me die?" He wrapped his arms around Chris, hugging him tightly. "I love you," he breathed into Chris' ear.
When he moved back, Ezra looked at the other men. "Gentlemen, hope we meet again someday."
"Count on it, Ez," Buck vowed fiercely.
"Take care of him for me?" Ezra whispered.
Vin nodded. "We will. Take care of yourself. We will come looking for you."
"Enough!" Death ordered. "Take him to the ship!"
Chris watched as two men grabbed Ezra and dragged him away from the chamber. As they reached the passageway, Ezra turned and their eyes met. He wanted to say something, to tell Ezra he was sorry for the way he had acted as the other man was saying goodbye, that everything was going to be fine, but nothing came out. Ezra smiled at him sadly, then disappeared from sight as the men took him away.
He tensed as Death drew near, staring down at them. "You didn't really think it would be that easy, did you?" The man drawled.
"Meaning you are going to kill us after all?" Josiah challenged.
"Oh, no! I may be Death, but I do keep my promises. And I did promise Mr. Standish I would not kill you. Of course, there are other ways of making you disappear. I can always give nature a hand."
"What?" Nathan frowned.
"I'm certain it will be relatively easy to blow up that passageway after my men and I go through it. Even if you do manage to free yourselves from the ropes, you will be trapped in this chamber forever and die. I will have kept my promise, as I won't be the one killing you. I will eventually tell Mr. Standish. It would not be very sporting of me if I kept such knowledge hidden from him. But of course, I will have my fun with him first." He smirked. "How does it feel, Larabee? To know I have everything you wanted? The treasure and... more." Death laughed evilly. "Well, time to go. Die well, gentlemen."
When they were finally left alone, Buck banged his head against the wall with a groan. "I hate that bastard!"
The roar from an explosion echoed throughout the chamber, a deep rumbling growl that nearly deafened them. The ceiling in the passageway collapsed, dirt and rocks raining down on the six men, and blocking the way out.
"I don't want to die," JD whispered brokenly when the dust finally settled.
"And you're not going to." Vin told him. "Can you turn around?"
JD frowned. "I think so. Why?"
"There's a knife hidden in my right boot. If you take it out, we can use it to cut the ropes."
"We need to find a way of getting out of this cave," Josiah remarked.
"We will. At least now we'll be free." Buck retorted with a maddening grin. "We still have a fighting chance."
Chris narrowed his eyes dangerously. "And we will get out of here." He vowed fiercely. "Death hasn't seen the last of me yet. However long it takes... I will find him."
Ezra sat down on the bed, looking around Death's cabin. He had been brought to the man's quarters as soon as he had arrived at the ship, his hands tied in front of him so he wouldn't try to escape again. He had been left alone, the door locked after the two men had shoved him inside.
He stared out the windows, realizing it was probably mid-afternoon. He was hungry; they had arranged for something to eat in the morning before going on their treasure hunt, but hadn't anticipated spending so much time away from camp.
The door opened and Death entered, a wide smile grazing his face. "Mr. Standish, I believe it's time you kept your part of our deal. I need something to bank the fire inside; finding a fortune always does that to me."
"You mean, stealing." Ezra scowled.
"Details, Mr. Standish. Well?" When Ezra hesitated, he glared. "We haven't set sail yet. I can always send my men back to kill your friends."
"No! No, I will do it." Ezra agreed, swallowing hard.
He lay back on the bed and closed his eyes as Death covered him with his body, his hands beginning to paw at him. He bit back a groan as the man nipped at his throat, the bigger frame grinding against his in an obscene parody of lovemaking.
He tried to keep his mind away from what was happening, but all he could think of was Chris. He remembered their intense yet loving kisses, the way the other man always managed to set his body on fire with a mere touch. Something rebelled inside of him and he suddenly knew he couldn't go through with it, he couldn't betray Chris that way.
He shoved Death away as hard as his bound hands would allow, his body bucking at the same time, trying to dislocate the weight pinning him down. When the other man became more forceful in his rough caresses, he moved a leg between Death's and kneed him furiously in the groin.
Death cried out, his hands moving to cover his loins, and Ezra took the opportunity to push him away. The pirate fell to the floor whimpering softly, his gasping breaths loud in the otherwise silent cabin.
Minutes passed until Death finally sighed and sat up slowly. "I see you are not a man of your word, Mr. Standish," he observed, glaring at Ezra through watery eyes. "That's --" A knock on the door prevented him from finishing. "Yes?" He called out as he rose from the floor.
The door opened and one of the men Ezra had seen at the cave walked in. "Captain, we are ready to depart."
"Very well, Mr. Donovan. Set a course to Port Royal." Death ordered. "Now leave us."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
Once they were alone again, the pirate stared down at Ezra. "As I was saying, it's not very gentleman-like to go back on your word." He smirked. "Then again, neither one of us is truly a gentleman, are we? So I guess I can tell you the truth now."
Ezra frowned. "What truth?"
"Your friends are dead, Mr. Standish. Or will be, eventually."
"W-what?" Ezra stammered. "B-but you said --"
"I said I wouldn't kill them, and I didn't." Death interjected. "I merely blew up the passageway's entrance, trapping them inside the chamber. It will take them an agonizingly long time to die." He stated with a laugh.
Ezra felt his blood turn cold in his veins. He looked at the man chuckling before him and a furious rage took over his whole being. Rising from the bed in one swift move, he pushed Death away from him, reaching for a chair with his bound hands and hitting the man with it until Death was cowering on the floor, shouting desperately for help.
His mind didn't register the door opening or the four men trying to get him away from Death; all he could see was the man who had fooled him, the man responsible for his friends' excruciating demise. He kept swinging the broken chair, over and over again, until finally someone managed to hit him from behind and he plunged into blessed oblivion.
Buck dumped another load of rock away from the blocked tunnel and wiped his dirt-covered brow. "How long have we been doing this?"
"Forever," JD muttered.
They kept digging away at the dirt and rock, their ragged breathing filling the chamber. They had been clearing the passage for hours, painstakingly removing rock after rock, in an effort to escape their entrapment.
Chris was pulling away another large boulder when he heard a muffled scraping sound. "What the --? Everyone keep silent!" He ordered. "I heard something on the other side."
The five men stopped working, standing frozen as they all tried to hear any sounds coming from the other side of the blocked entrance. The scraping sound was clearer now, along with the sound of several voices.
"Hello?" Chris shouted. "Can anyone hear me?"
"Captain Larabee?" a familiar voice penetrated through the rock and dirt. "Captain, is everyone all right?" The distant voice called out again.
"Yes! Can you get us out of here?" Chris asked.
"We're trying. Me and the boys are all here. We'll get through to you soon, we still have more rock to move. You better keep going on that end as well."
Chris nodded and they set their minds and bodies to it, digging feverishly through the blockage. Soon the sound of rocks falling echoed in the chamber as the top of the entrance suddenly became clear. A pair of hands appeared and pushed more dirt away.
Chris grinned as Henry, one of his crewmen, slithered through the opening, sliding down on his stomach until he reached the bottom. "Captain," he panted with a grin.
"Henry. Well done, man! How did you know we were here?"
"Mark was searching for food on this side of the island when he spotted Captain Death's ship. He came for the rest of us. When we got to the cove, we saw a group of men heading towards the mountains and followed them. We saw them enter the cave, but decided to wait before doing anything. We almost attacked when we saw them leaving with the treasure, and then Ezra, but we didn't know what had happened to you. After Captain Death left we came inside and heard the explosion. We figured you had to be here."
"Good work. Let's get out of here."
One by one they left the chamber, joining the rest of the crew in the passage, following the markings on the walls to find the exit. Once outside, Chris took a long, deep breath, relieved to be out in the sun again. They were free. Now all that was left was to hunt Death down... And kill him.
CHAPTER XI - Vengeance
He stood on the beach for a very long time, watching the 'Skull' sail into the horizon until it was only a small dot on the ocean.
It hurt him to think of Ezra in that madman's hands, suffering whatever torture Death chose to inflict, while they were stranded on the island with no way out. They were ready to signal any ship sailing their way, but until that time they would have to be patient and make the best of a hopeless situation.
"We'll find him, Chris," Vin assured him as he walked up to him.
"Eventually, yes." Chris acknowledged softly. "But what shape will he be in? It could be weeks before a ship comes our way. By then Death could have killed him, for all I know."
"He won't. If I know Ezra, he will fight Death tooth and nail. And that bastard loves a challenge."
Chris closed his eyes on the slowly setting sun. "That's what I'm afraid of, Vin. That's what I'm afraid of."
Ezra woke up with a splitting headache. Opening his eyes, he realized he had been taken to the ship's hold, his hands still tied, but with a new addition; he was bound to a pillar by the waist. He squinted his eyes at the darkness around him, seeing the treasure resting securely on the other side of the hold, strong ropes keeping the chests together and preventing them from slipping as the vessel swayed gently.
Hearing footsteps on the stairs, he waited until the man drew near to raise his head. He felt a profound sense of fulfillment as he noticed Death was limping slightly and witnessed the bruises covering the man's face. It wouldn't bring Chris and the others back, but at least he had allowed himself a small amount of revenge.
"I see you are awake," Death drawled.
"How observant of you," Ezra quipped sarcastically.
"You know, I could take what I want, force myself on you. But that would be far too easy. I want you to submit to me, to surrender willingly." He smirked. "So I decided to tame the beast, so to speak. From now on, and until I say otherwise, you will remain in the hold. No walking around, no going up for fresh air and sunlight. You will have no food brought to you, and only enough water to keep you alive. You will be allowed to bathe and relieve yourself only once a day. Unless you wish to starve to death, I sincerely hope you change your mind about our deal, Mr. Standish. It takes a very long time for a man to die this way. Although it would be ironic for you to perish thus; after all, your... Larabee is suffering the same fate as we speak."
Ezra growled, trying to kick at the other man, but Death moved out of the way. "Now, now! Temper, temper! I believe I shall leave you alone to ponder the error of your ways, Mr. Standish. Have a pleasant day."
Ezra leaned back against the pillar, looking up helplessly at the wooden ceiling. The numbness he had felt at the island when he had believed Chris to be dead was returning tenfold. It physically hurt to think of the other man's suffering, and a dark side of him was content he would be experiencing something similar. It brought them closer somehow.
It took three weeks for a ship to sail close enough to the island to see their smoke signal. Luckily, it was a British cruiser, and obviously patrolling the islands in search of pirates.
Chris waited by the beach as a long boat slowly approached, then went over to meet the officer and the six seamen coming ashore.
"Gentlemen, am I happy to see you!" He huffed as he shook the officer's hand eagerly.
"Sir, I am Lieutenant Durst. What has happened? Why are you here?"
"Christopher Tanner. I was captain of a small ship carrying supplies from good ol' England when we were attacked by pirates. They took all our valuables, the cargo and sunk our vessel. They left us on this island to perish, sir! Those... those scoundrels!" He shouted in mock outrage.
"Did you happen to hear the pirate's name, sir?" Durst asked, his expression a sympathetic one.
"I believe the name I heard was Captain Larabee."
"Oh, my! Sir, you are most fortunate to be alive! You were attacked by one of the most ruthless pirates in the Caribbean Sea!"
Chris raised an eyebrow at those words. "Really?" he drawled. "Then I am truly fortunate. Twice over, now that you have come for us."
"Is any of your crew here?"
"Yes, Lieutenant. We set camp not far from here. It's been three weeks, we needed some place safe to live in."
"Of course. Show me to your camp, then. My men and I will help you bring everyone aboard."
"Thank you, Lieutenant. Please, follow me."
Chris lead the men to their improvised camp, grinning wolfishly as his men suddenly jumped from cover and attacked the British, not giving them enough time to fight back. Soon they had them disarmed, out of their clothes, and securely tied.
"What's the meaning of this?" Durst asked as he glared up at Chris.
"Well, Lieutenant, it's like this. You have before you one of the most ruthless pirates in the Caribbean Sea." Chris answered with a chuckle.
The man gasped in understanding. "Captain Larabee!"
"In the flesh!" Chris responded, bowing with a flourish. "And I'm in dire need of a ship, which is why I'm going to take over yours. The rest of the crew will be brought here as soon as the vessel is under our control."
"What's the plan?" Nathan asked.
"We wait. They will probably send more men when Durst doesn't return. We need further clothes and weapons. If they do not, we attack as soon as it gets dark. In the meantime, see if their clothes fit any of you. If they see us, the clothes will fool them long enough for us to get closer."
"Wouldn't it be easier to let them take us to the ship and overpower them there?" JD asked as he donned one of the seamen's garments.
"Not really. See, if we do it that way, we have the whole crew to fight against, even if they aren't expecting a threat from the marooned. This way, we have already eliminated seven men, and if they send more, it'll be a considerable share of the crew. There will be less men left to fight. If we wear their comrades' clothes, most of them won't even see us coming." Josiah explained.
"Buck, go watch the cove. Warn us when they send more men."
"On my way."
Vin grinned as he finished buttoning Durst's uniform. "We're getting closer, Chris. The ship is practically ours. Soon we'll be able to leave this island, go after Death and rescue Ezra."
Chris nodded, his heart speeding as he thought of the other man. Three weeks was a long time, too long when you were captive to such a man as Death. He shuddered as he remembered Ezra's declaration of love as he was saying goodbye, and hoped he would be able to hear those words again. And more importantly... say them back.
Everything went according to plan. Six more men came ashore in the afternoon, armed to the teeth and expecting trouble. Still, Chris and the others didn't have great difficulty subduing them. Their clothes were divided amongst the men, and by nightfall they were ready to attack the British cruiser.
They hopped into the two long boats, rowing calmly towards the ship. The sentries spotted them, but as predicted, seeing the familiar uniforms and clothes, let them approach. They moved swiftly, going after the sentries first, knocking them unconscious, then the seamen still wandering about the decks, the ones sleeping in the crew quarters, and finally the officers' cabins.
Two hours later they had left the British back at the island and were on course to Jamaica. Captain Larabee and his men were back.
They spotted the 'Skull' on their fourth day at sea, on her way to Tortuga. Chris coldly studied their formidable adversary; with its fifteen hundred tons of impressive bulk and its numerous artillery, he knew they were in for a fight. The British cruiser was a good ship, fast, but would not be able to withstand much punishment.
"Battle stations!" He ordered, watching the men rush below deck to take their positions while the artillerymen aimed the cannons and firelocks.
There was a flash of light from Death's ship and seconds later a large cannonball whistled through the cruiser's masts.
"They've seen us!" Buck shouted.
"Fire!" Chris ordered.
Buck nodded, firing a single shot. The cannonball smashed through the gangway of the enemy bridge, snapping the flagpole in two on its way.
But Death was not defeated. In that instant the 'Skull' seemed to catch fire. A hurricane of steel whizzed through the air and struck the cruiser, fracturing its masts and creating chaos aboard.
"Damnit! Vin, move us closer, quick! Our only chance is to flank and board them."
The cruiser sailed closer, and was quickly hit by a second volley of fire that sent wood, cannon parts and debris flying. The infernal cacophony of gunfire erupted, both sides matching shot for shot, cannonball for cannonball.
Both crews, bent upon victory, could hardly see each other, engulfed as they were by immense clouds of smoke that stubbornly clung to all decks, but they continued to fight with equal furor, as fire was met with fire and discharges by more discharges.
The 'Skull' may have had the advantage of its great bulk and massive artillery, but Chris' men were leading the attack, refusing to give up the fight. Riddled with holes, sails shredded, and now almost completely unrecognizable, they continued to fire, despite being subjected to an incessant hail of cannonballs.
In spite of everything, Vin managed to maneuver the ships side by side. A wild cry of victory was heard throughout the cruiser, the men wanting nothing more than to get on board the other ship. The grappling hooks were hurled and the battle proceeded, only this time face to face with the enemy.
"Attack!" Chris shouted, jumping over the bulwarks and landing on Death's deck, his eyes already looking for the other man.
The air was suddenly filled with a different kind of noise; the distinctive sound of blades clashing together as the men from both crews fought for their lives, skillfully engaging in swordplay.
"Captain Larabee," his nemesis drawled from behind him. "You never cease to amaze me."
Chris slowly turned to face Death, sword already in hand. "As you see, I'm still very much alive. You, on the other hand... won't be for long!" He growled angrily, as he thrust forward.
Death dodged, blocking his stroke. They were facing each other, spinning in a slow circle, feinting, teasing, learning about the other, the tiniest movement countered.
"Enough fun! Time to die, Larabee!" Death grinned, finished with the teasing.
Their swords crossed, then again, and again, the sound from the blades coming so fast it was almost continual. Chris pressed on, making Death retreat. They were almost flying across the decks, never losing balance, never coming close to stumbling, paying no mind to the other men fighting all around them; the battle raged on, first one and then the other gaining the advantage.
Chris was fighting furiously, ducking and feinting and thrusting, escaping by inches as Death's sword slashed the air painfully close to his left arm. He felt Death gaining on him, forcing him back, seeming to gain strength as the duel advanced.
"Where's Ezra? What have you done to him?" He growled, as he was pushed against one of the masts.
Death laughed evilly. "Wouldn't you like to know? Stay alive and find out!"
Suddenly thinking of Ezra at the hands of the madman, Chris felt a surge of power and went into a fierce attack, striking with deadly precision, driving Death easily back, landing blow after blow, slash after slash, until the other man was bleeding from several cuts.
"Die!" He breathed, attacking in earnest.
He drove for Death's left shoulder, thrusting successfully. Then another move and his blade entered the other man's right shoulder; always striking, always moving forward. And then, almost too fast for the eye to follow, the sword stroke one final time and Death cried out as he was unable to parry and Chris' blade plunged clear through him.
They stood frozen for a moment, their eyes locked, Death's reflecting pain and fear, Chris' reflecting vengeance. Then he withdrew his sword and Death pitched forward, lying dead on the ground.
Chris leaned against the mast, panting for breath, staring down at Death's ashen features, the blood still pouring from the multiple cuts, his eyes bulging wide, but no longer seeing. He had finally won.
It was unbelievably easy after that. Seeing their captain was dead, Death's remaining men surrendered their weapons. Chris allowed them to board the British cruiser and sail away to lick their wounds, warning them not to show their faces in the Caribbean Sea in the near future if they valued their lives.
"Now what?" JD asked, looking around their new ship.
"Search for Ezra." Chris replied, already marching towards the cabins.
He was frantically going through each cabin when Vin's voice called out, "Chris! Nathan! Come quickly!"
Feeling his heart skipping a beat, he exited the last cabin, joining the others on the deck. "Where are you?" He shouted.
"In the hold!"
They rushed to the hold, and Chris gasped at the sight before him. Vin was holding an extremely frail looking Ezra in his arms. The other man had lost weight he couldn't afford to lose, his pallor was frightening and he looked haggard and weak beyond belief.
"My Lord," Josiah whispered. "What have they done to him?"
CHAPTER XII - Bliss
Chris knelt beside Vin, gently gathering Ezra in his arms. "Ezra?" He called softly, feeling the slight trembling in the other man's body. "He's freezing, Nathan. What the hell has that bastard done to him?"
The healer shook his head despondently. "I don't know. We have to try and wake him."
"Ezra? Ezra, wake up." Chris patted the pale face tenderly. "Ezra?"
The other man groaned, snuggling up against him. "Cold..." He muttered.
"Ezra, I need you to open your eyes for me." Chris pleaded. "Come on, Ezra."
"No..." Ezra whispered in a nearly non-existent voice.
"Yes, Ezra. Do it for me, come on."
Ezra sighed gently, then slowly opened his eyes, blinking sleepily up at Chris. He looked at the other man for a long time, then suddenly began to chuckle weakly.
"What are you laughing at?" Chris asked, confused.
"Hallucination," Ezra breathed. "You're a hallucination."
Chris shook his head at the man's whimsical mood. "I'm not a hallucination, Ezra. I know Death told you we were dead, but we managed to escape from the cave."
Ezra looked up. "You did?"
"Yes, we did." Buck answered gently, and Ezra turned his head to look at him, then at the others.
He turned his focus back to Chris, raising a trembling hand to brush over his face. Chris held Ezra's hand up with his own, pressing it against his cheek firmly. "I'm alive," he whispered.
"You're really here?" Ezra queried, so softly the others had to strain to hear. "You didn't die?"
"We are really here, we didn't die. Believe me, Ezra. And Death is dead. He will never hurt you again."
"Oh, Lord!" Ezra breathed, struggling to wrap his arms around Chris' neck.
Chris held him tighter, pulling him closer to him. "It's all right, Ezra. You're going to be fine."
"I'm so tired..." Ezra whispered against his neck.
"Ezra, I need you to stay awake." Nathan told him. "I have to ask you a few questions."
Chris felt Ezra nodding, so he manhandled him gently until he could look at Nathan.
"What are you feeling?" The healer asked softly.
"Do you know why?"
Ezra nodded. "Been without food for --" He frowned, then looked up at Chris. "How long... the cave?"
"You haven't had anything to eat since the day we found the treasure?" Josiah asked incredulously. "Why?"
"When he told me what he had done..." He sighed, closing his eyes and leaning back against Chris' chest. "I nearly killed him. Took four of his men to get me away from him."
"So that's why he decided to starve you to death?" Chris gritted out, feeling furious anew. Death had died far too quickly.
"I wouldn't say yes..." Ezra explained weakly. He looked up again, obviously trying hard to focus on Chris' face. "I couldn't keep my part of the deal, didn't let him... I couldn't betray you." He tilted his head to the side. "Are you still upset with me?"
"Lord, Ezra!" Chris whispered, resting his forehead against Ezra's. "I wasn't upset with you. I was angry, and not at you. I was angry at *me*. I made you a promise, that he wouldn't get near you, wouldn't hurt you again, and I couldn't keep my word."
"Chris," Nathan interrupted gently. "You can do this later. Right now, Ezra needs to be taken somewhere comfortable, like one of the cabins. And we need to find him something light to eat. Ezra, have you been in here all this time?"
Nathan exhaled softly. "All right. I need something to cover his eyes. There's not enough light here to see properly, and after nearly four weeks the light from the sun will hurt his eyes."
"Here." Vin offered, giving him a small scarf he usually wore around his neck.
"Thank you. JD, find the galley. See if there's any fruit, or at least something to make a broth."
"Right." The young man answered, rushing out.
"Buck, find him something warm to wear. Until the food begins to work, he will continue to feel cold. Josiah, can you carry him to the captain's quarters?" Nathan asked, once the scarf was in place.
Chris released his hold on the other man long enough for Josiah to carry him to Death's cabin, and lay him down gently on the bed, then sat by Ezra's side, hovering protectively as Nathan began to examine him thoroughly.
Buck returned with a heavy coat, which Chris helped Ezra don, smiling at Ezra's contented sigh as he finally felt warm enough. JD walked in carrying a cup filled with freshly made broth.
"It was already on," he informed with a grin. "All I had to do was wait a few minutes for it to finish brewing."
Chris nodded. "Thank you, JD." He reached for the cup, then waited until Josiah and Nathan placed Ezra nestled against him, to raise it to the other man's lips. "Ezra, I need you to open your mouth. I have some broth here for you."
The other man obeyed, taking slow, careful sips until the cup was almost empty. He shook his head, refusing to take more, and Chris looked at Nathan.
The healer smiled. "He did good. It'll do for now. Lay him down and let him sleep for a while. We'll give him more every few hours. He can't eat too much or he will be sick."
Chris adjusted Ezra's position until he was lying back on the bed, removing the blindfold and covering him tenderly with the covers. He brushed a few strands of unruly hair from the man's forehead, then turned to the others.
"Set course to Tortuga. This ship might not have suffered too much damage, but it still needs repairs. Do whatever you can now; leave the rest to when we get there. And clean the ship."
"What do we do with the bodies?" Vin asked.
"Throw them overboard." Chris replied, his eyes flashing dangerously.
The men worked feverishly. They were all capable seamen and several skilled carpenters and ship builders could also be found among their ranks. It took them only four hours to raise two new masts, reinforce the bulwarks, seal all the holes and repair the rigging, having had an abundance of cables, fibers, chains and ropes on board. By mid-morning the second day, not only could the ship set sail, but also engage in battle once again, for new barricades made of tree trunks had been erected to protect the cannons and firelocks.
The ship's name had also been changed. Chris refused to let such a magnificent ship be named 'The Skull', so he had renamed her 'Destiny'. It seemed fitting somehow, after all they had been through in the last months.
The seven men were now gathered in the main cabin, trying to decide their future. Ezra was sitting on the bed, much to Chris' relief, looking alert and much healthier. Against Nathan's orders he had already been walking about the ship, if only for a few minutes. Chris grinned ruefully, the other man was nothing if not stubborn, confronting even his own physical needs.
"So we still have the treasure, which means we're once again rich beyond our wildest dreams." Vin quipped. "Now what?"
"We keep doing what we have been doing so far." Chris replied. "Death might be dead, but we still have the governor to fight against. Now, after the last few weeks, I think everyone deserves a little time ashore. So take the crew and go. I'll stay here with Ezra."
"I want to go as well." Ezra protested.
"No, you don't." Chris replied sweetly. "You're staying here."
Ezra glared at him, but remained silent as the others exited the cabin. "Why can't I go?" He finally asked.
Chris sighed. "You know why, Ezra. It's only been two days. You are still too weak to walk around town with the others. Even if they went to the tavern, it would take too much out of you, and until you are well, Nathan said you can't drink. What would you do, spend the afternoon watching them?"
Ezra exhaled softly. "I'm sorry. It's just --"
"You're tired of being locked up. I know. But Ezra, you have barely moved for the last month. For what you told us, Death only allowed you to walk a few minutes each day, and during last the week, you had to have help. And you're still weak from lack of food. You have to be patient."
"Not exactly my strong point," Ezra conceded with a slight smile.
Chris chuckled. "It doesn't matter. I still love you." He said, enjoying the way Ezra's eyes lit up at the words. He leaned forward, brushing his lips over the other man's. "I've been wanting to say that for a month. I. Love. You. I'm sorry for the way I behaved at the cave."
Ezra nodded. "It's quite all right, Captain Larabee," he replied with a teasing grin.
Chris mock glared at him. "You're pushing your luck, sailor."
Rising from the bed, he began to take off his clothes, grinning at the other man's gaping expression. "What are you doing?" Ezra blinked, confused.
"Undressing." Chris answered with a chuckle.
"I can see that. Why?"
"I want to lie down with you, hold you for a while. The others are leaving the ship as we speak, we'll be all alone. No one will bother us. What do you say?"
Ezra seemed to hesitate, then nodded slowly, so Chris motioned for him to lie down. When the other man obeyed, he sat back on the bed, then made to stretch beside him, hankering down into the space Ezra had left for him. He looked over at the other man, who lay acquiescent in his corner, squinting at the afternoon sun.
Shaking his head fondly, Chris reached out and pulled Ezra into his arms, one hand gently directing the younger man to rest his head on his chest. Ezra stiffened for a moment, but just as Chris began to fear he had been too presumptuous, Ezra relaxed, letting his arms move around Chris' larger frame.
Burrowing in further to bring their bodies into full contact, Ezra sighed happily and said, "This feels good."
Letting out a relieved breath, Chris hastened to agree, his hand caressing the chestnut hair tenderly, "Yeah. Yeah, it does."
It felt so good that Chris had to struggle to keep his body under control. It wasn't easy with Ezra in his arms. Feeling his warmth, his spicy smell tickling his nose, made it damn near impossible not to become aroused. But he refused to do anything to upset the other man. They had done nothing more than kiss and he was almost certain Ezra was a stranger to male loving.
But just being there, wrapped in each other's arms, felt incredibly right. It filled something inside him that had been sorely lacking since his wife and son's death. It was contentment, bliss. He could stay in that bed forever, enjoying the feel of Ezra in his arms.
Though Chris had been sure Ezra had fallen into a healing slumber, the other man broke his contented silence a moment later.
"Yes?" He whispered back.
"I need to know if.... Not that it matters, but... I wanted to ask...." Ezra stammered, his uncharacteristic nervousness making Chris frown.
"You can always ask me anything, Ezra. What is it?"
"Have you ever... been with a man?" He asked hesitantly. "Because... I am not certain if I am prepared, but I do wish to become... intimate with you."
Chris smiled gently. "So do I. I have been dreaming about you for a long time, about loving you and --"
"You dreamt about me?" Ezra interjected, sounding surprised.
"Yes. Especially on that island. The dreams would come when I had no control, when I was sleeping. Part of me hated thinking of you that way when you could be suffering Lord knows what at Death's hands, but I was helpless to prevent them. And answering your question, yes, I have been with a man before. Some years ago. He died two years before I was married."
He felt Ezra lift his head. "I'm sorry."
Chris shook his head. "It was a long time ago, the wound has healed."
"And your wife's?" Ezra queried perceptively.
"That one still smarts. Probably will until the day I can get the man responsible for Sarah and Adam's deaths."
"Your uncle." Chris confirmed. "But it's not as important as it was before. I couldn't think of anything else but getting my revenge."
Chris smiled. "Now I spend most of my time thinking about you."
Returning his head to its former place, Ezra cuddled in a bit more and Chris could feel him smiling against his chest as he whispered, "I love you, Chris."
"I love you too." He whispered in return, and to his surprise he fell almost instantly into a deep, blissful slumber.
CHAPTER XIII - The New Governor
Chris woke up to find Ezra propped up on his elbow, looking down at him. Staring out the windows, he realized he hadn't slept more than a couple of hours. It would be some time before the crew returned.
"Been awake long?" He asked.
Ezra shrugged slightly. "A while."
"What have you been doing?"
The other man smiled. "Watching you sleep, pondering about life."
And with that, Ezra leaned down and captured his lips in a startling tender kiss, lips gliding over Chris', moving them in an excruciatingly slow caress, the tip of his tongue sweeping gently over Chris' upper lip, begging to be let in.
Chris parted his lips, letting his tongue entwine with Ezra's, feeling the other man pressing himself more deeply into his embrace. He could feel Ezra's erection brushing against his own, and he couldn't stop from moaning into the sweet mouth ravishing his. Finally coming to his senses, he pulled back reluctantly.
"Ezra..." He gasped. "We shouldn't... Oh, Lord!" He groaned, as Ezra moved against him, hips shifting slightly and further enflaming the physical evidence of their desire.
He regarded Ezra's flushed face; the wide, dilated eyes, the kiss-swollen lips, the movement of his chest as he panted for breath, and suddenly knew what he desperately needed from the other man.
"Ezra... Love me," He whispered softly, allowing Ezra's eyes to meet his own, to see the need and arousal lurking within him. Reaching for a jar containing an oily substance he had found just for that purpose, he handed it to the other man. "Please," he breathed.
Ezra licked his bottom lip, looking down at the small jar. "I... Tell me what to do," he pleaded softly.
Chris smiled, nodding his understanding. "You need it to stretch me, so it won't hurt," he explained.
Ezra raised his head at that. "Hurt?"
Chris chuckled. "It won't hurt, Ezra. That's why we use that substance."
"Oh." Then, "Stretching?"
"With your fingers." Chris replied gently. "You put some inside me and loosen the muscle with your fingers. Then you put some on yourself, too."
Nodding slowly, Ezra placed his hands on Chris' chest, touching him tenderly with his fingers, making lazy circles on the hard pectoral muscles above his nipples. He licked one nipple, then the other, blowing over them softly. Chris closed his eyes, moaning deeply and pressing himself into the touch, wanting more, needing more than the light, teasing touches he was receiving.
He felt Ezra run his hands along his sides, lingering over his waist and letting his thumbs stroke the stomach muscles. He groaned helplessly as the touch vanished, only to return a heartbeat later at his groin. Ezra handled him slowly, carefully, obviously getting use to touching him. Chris bit his lip hard, forcing himself not to thrust, letting the other man explore to his heart's content.
Never taking his hand away, Ezra attacked his shoulder, nibbling his way up toward his left ear. Caught between the double assault, Chris tilted his head back submissively, moaning softly as Ezra bit him gently on the neck, then sucked harder, alternating between nibbling and lapping at his flesh until he was whimpering his need for the other man.
"Ezra, please!" He cried out.
His reply was a breathless chuckle. "Patience, my pirate. Patience."
He watched dazedly as Ezra moved to lie between his legs, reaching for the jar. The other man coated his fingers with the oily substance, then reached down to Chris' tight ring of muscle, a first finger brushing softly over the puckered portal.
Chris laid his head back, holding the sheets in a white-knuckled grip, feeling the finger swirling in tiny circles over his opening. He moaned as the slick digit entered him, stretching his entrance and sinking slowly deeper. A second finger soon joined the first, then a third, and Chris pushed back against the invaders, writhing and crying out as they brushed repeatedly against his pleasure nub.
Finally Ezra removed his digits, coating his cock with the oil and moving forward slightly, holding himself with one hand. Poised at Chris' entrance, he hesitated as if waiting for something.
Chris smiled, staring into Ezra's eyes. "I'm ready," he whispered.
He moaned as he felt Ezra guiding himself into his body, applying a tiny bit of pressure with his hips until he was past the ring of muscle and sliding smoothly into his depths. His breath caught in his throat. It had been so long since he had felt so complete, so thoroughly possessed. He opened his eyes, gazing up at the man blanketing him, and realized Ezra was staring down at him, looking entranced.
"I never thought..." Ezra breathed softly.
Chris nodded. "Feels amazing, doesn't it? Now move."
Eyes never leaving Chris', Ezra obeyed, pulling out slightly and pushing forward experimentally. Then grinning wickedly, he did it again, and again, moving with a slow and steady grace that had Chris moaning for more. With every thrust, Ezra's cock massaged him inside, making him groan and push back against his lover deliriously.
Ezra wrapped a hand around Chris' cock, pumping it in time with his now frantic thrusts, both of them lost in the loving, letting it consume them, encompass them, destroying all awareness of time and place.
Chris' pleasure grew, and grew, and grew, until he finally cried out, his seed bathing Ezra's hand and both their bodies. He heard Ezra whimper his name, then the other man was coming deeply inside of him, his whole body trembling as he surrendered his life-force to Chris.
Ezra collapsed against him, panting hard, pinning him willingly to the bed. When he found the strength to move again, and very gently, he rolled Ezra off, using a corner of the sheets to clean their bodies. That accomplished, Chris pulled his lover back into his arms, stroking the silken hair tenderly.
Ezra sighed contentedly and burrowed into his chest. "Unimaginable," he whispered, nuzzling Chris' chest softly.
"Yes, it was." Chris agreed with a smile. "Ezra, I need you to know something. Just because we did this now... I don't want you to feel obliged... to make love just because I was prepared to do it. I don't want you to feel like I'm forcing you. It will be in your own time, when you feel it's right. Understand?"
Ezra nodded against his chest. "Yes. Thank you."
Chris kissed the top of his head tenderly. "Rest. The others will be back soon. Everything will be fine."
He stayed awake long after Ezra surrendered to his exhaustion and fell asleep. His body was sated, but his mind was fully alert, thinking. He'd had a hard life, everything he had possessed had been fiercely fought for, every person he had ever loved he had lost. He suddenly wondered if the peaceful contentment he was experiencing was not the quiet before the storm. And he prayed he would be able to survive it.
The sun was already setting when the other five returned, most of the crew still remaining behind. Chris was on the bridge, watching the slow harbor movement, while Ezra was sitting on the stairs leading to the bridge, staring at the beautiful shading skies.
"We have to talk." Vin announced, as soon as he jumped on board.
"Yeah. You won't believe what we heard back in town!" JD gushed out excitedly.
Chris nodded. "Let's go back to my cabin." Once the seven men were all there, he asked, "So, what happened?"
"We went to the tavern and everyone was discussing the same thing." Josiah explained. "There's a new governor in Jamaica."
"What?" Ezra exclaimed, his eyes growing wide at the information.
Vin nodded. "It's true. Your uncle is not the governor anymore. Last week a representative from the Queen arrived at Port Royal and made the official announcement."
"And you'll never guess who the new governor is!" Buck chuckled.
"We know him?" Chris asked curiously. "Who?"
"Captain Perry!" Buck boomed. "Apparently he and Her Majesty are close friends and when the reports started pouring in about Standish's conduct, the Queen decided to do something about it. And since she knew Perry and he was already here..."
"And my uncle? What happened to him?" Ezra queried softly.
"Didn't hear anything on that." Nathan said. "But he must be imprisoned, after all he has done..."
"And that's not all." JD grinned. "We've been pardoned."
"What?" Chris startled. "Why?"
"Well, we spoke with a few people and you know how word of mouth goes, but I think he was given permission to set everything right. You know, to undo Standish's wrong doings. The only reason we got into this business was to fight Rupert Standish. So Governor Perry pardoned us, all of us. Crew included." Josiah said evenly.
Chris frowned. "You don't think this could be a trap for us? If we are being pardoned, we will have to go to Port Royal to speak with the governor. Standish may have spread the rumors so he can catch us."
Nathan shook his head. "There was a group of men in the tavern who were at Port Royal at the time and witnessed everything. It's not a lie, Perry really is the new governor of Jamaica."
Chris sat back on his chair. "This is somewhat unexpected, to say the least. Ezra, you know Perry better than we do. Can we trust him?"
Ezra nodded. "Yes. He's a good man. If he claims he has pardoned us, I believe him. What will we do?"
Chris looked at the six hopeful faces surrounding him and chuckled. "Very well. We sail for Port Royal in three days time. Ezra still needs his rest and we have some last minute repairs to see to. This has better be true, or we are all going to regret it."
They arrived at Port Royal without incident, although Chris could feel the tension building in the crew. It was so thick you could cut it with a knife. He couldn't really blame them. Most of the men had had some sort of sentence set upon them unjustly by the ex-governor, while the others simply related with their fight against Standish. Now, they had a chance to be free from those charges, and yet they feared it was all a hoax. It would be a trying day.
No one tried to stop the seven men as they went ashore. Although he looked around constantly, Chris could see no suspicious individuals hiding in the shadows, nothing out of place that would lead him to believe they were indeed falling into a trap.
As they drew closer to the governor's palace, he stopped and looked at the others. "We're here. There will be no turning back after we go through those gates. This is our last chance."
"I still say we should go." JD spoke up.
"I agree." Buck grinned.
The rest of the men nodded and Chris exhaled softly. "In that case, let's go." They walked over to the gates, stopping before the royal guards. "We wish to see the governor." Chris stated to the two men.
"Is he expecting you?" One of them asked, watching the seven men curiously.
"In a way." Vin replied with a chuckle. "Tell him Chris Larabee and his men are here to see him."
The two guards exchanged a look, then the one who had spoken earlier nodded. "Wait here."
Chris watched him go inside, disappearing into the impressive two-story building, only to return a few minutes later and wave at the guard still at the gate.
"Seems you are in luck," he said as he opened the gates. "Go with Hill." He gestured towards the other guard. "He'll take you to Governor Perry."
They approached Hill, who led them into the house, past several opulent corridors until they finally stopped before a closed door. The guard opened it, motioning them inside.
"This is the chamber of power," Hill informed them seriously. "The governor will be with you shortly."
He closed the door behind him, leaving the seven men alone in the wide room. Chris realized immediately why it was called the chamber of power; the walls and ceiling were ornamental displays of weaponry, an obvious reflection of the governor's power. It was not a room for comfort, but for show, and he wondered why Perry would send them to wait there.
Before he could deepen the thought, the door opened and the former Captain Perry walked in, a wide smile grazing his wrinkled face.
"Gentlemen," he drawled. "I see you have heard the news. Welcome to Port Royal."
"Thank you, Governor." Chris replied as he watched the man sit down. "There are several pieces of information spreading throughout the islands. One of them in particular interests us."
Perry chuckled. "Yes. I can guess which piece of information it is. And I can assure you that it is true, you have all been pardoned. The seven of you and your entire crew as well."
"Why?" Chris asked, not yet ready to give up.
Perry sighed. "I began listening to the rumors about the rebellious pirate Larabee long before we ever met. A man who attacked the governor's troops and ships carrying cargo from or for the aforementioned governor, who had sworn to bring Rupert Standish down mercilessly. Captain Larabee, I like to think of myself as a good judge of character. Since I met first Ezra, and then yourself and your crew, I knew everything to be true. I had also been aware of Standish's doings for some time, reason why I warned Her Majesty."
"So, I am a great believer in justice. You fought for what you thought was right and I am aware of the circumstances surrounding your wife and son's deaths. I am also aware it is said Standish had something to do with it. In the face of those facts and your actions, I have seen fit to arrange for the pardons. I also have a proposition for you."
"Proposition?" Chris repeated suspiciously.
Perry grinned. "Quite. I want you in my fleet. Things are going to change around here, Captain. Although I can understand what you did and why you did it, I will not tolerate piracy. I already have a man who will handle all the navigation affairs, but I also need good, loyal men to commandeer the ships and fight pirates such as Captain Death."
Chris' eyes narrowed dangerously. "That's one pirate you won't have to worry about ever again."
"He's dead." Buck supplied helpfully. "Who's the man you were speaking of? The one responsible for navigation affairs?"
"Orrin Travis. He's a good friend and a good man. What he doesn't know about the sea has yet to be discovered. Should you accept my proposal, you will be under his command only. You will answer to no one but him."
"Can I have a word with my men before giving you my answer?" Chris asked.
"Of course." Perry replied, rising from his chair. "I have some business to see to, I shall return in a few minutes. Gentlemen."
Once they were alone, Chris turned to the other men. "Well? This involves us all. What do you think? Should we accept?" He asked, knowing that whatever the answer, their lives would never be the same again.
CHAPTER XIV - Kidnapped
The door opened and three servants walked in carrying a few chairs, Perry right after them. The chairs were placed around a large, mahogany table situated in the center of the room. Once that was accomplished the servants left, and the governor motioned them towards the seats.
"I thought it would be better if all of us were to sit down. We have a lot to discuss." He explained as they took their seats. "So, have you decided how to proceed regarding my proposal yet?"
"Yes." Chris answered. "We accept. But we would like to be given some time before meeting Travis and sailing off."
"Of course, of course! Excellent! Welcome aboard, gentlemen," he said. "So to speak."
Ezra cleared his throat. "Governor, may I ask, what has become of my uncle?"
Perry scowled. "Unfortunately, he escaped before we could place him behind bars. Somehow he knew about his deposition before the official announcement. He vanished. Obviously, he knew what would happen should he stay at Port Royal. I have men looking for him, but they have yet to find him. I do have some good news."
"Good news?" Buck echoed.
"Yes. Mr. Thompson, who I believe was the foreman at the Standish plantation, was captured four days ago and charged with murder. Apparently after what happened at the plantation, Standish blamed him for not being able to control the slaves and fired him. He moved to Port Royal and unable to find work, was forced to resort to thieving to survive. One of his victims fought him and he ended up beating the unfortunate man to death. He had quite a lot to say about his association with Rupert Standish and their... business deals together. I believe this is yours, Mr. Standish," Perry said, handing Ezra a piece of yellowed paper.
Chris saw Ezra examine the document before looking up at Perry with a frown. "I don't understand," he said.
"It's quite simple, Mr. Standish. Thompson told me how you were forced to sign the deed of the plantation over to your uncle. He stated he and his men held you at gunpoint until the deal was completed. Well, I'm handing the deed back to its rightful owner. I'm certain that between you and your mother, you will decide what to do about the property."
Ezra nodded. "Thank you."
"There's more. When I moved to this house, the first thing I did was clear my... predecessor's office of all his possessions. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this," he remarked, showing a large stack of papers resting on the table.
"What is that?" Josiah asked curiously.
"Ownership documents belonging to all the slaves. It seems your uncle didn't believe them to be safe back at the plantation. Once again, these are yours, Mr. Standish."
Ezra exhaled softly. "Would you be willing to help me with those, Governor?"
Perry raised his eyebrows quizzically. "Of course. What do you wish me to do?"
"I want to see to their emancipation. I believe they will need some documentation to make it official, but I have no idea what is necessary."
The governor nodded. "I can have the documents drawn for you, all you will have to do is sign them. But... I mean no disregard to Mr. Jackson, but are you certain, Mr. Standish? If you do decide to rebuild the plantation, you will need workers."
Ezra grinned. "That's my point exactly, governor. I would like to have them back as workers, not slaves. I believe I can afford to pay them a small salary, at least until the accounts are balanced."
Perry shook his head. "You truly are an amazing motley crew, gentlemen. Very well, I will see to the documents. But you still need to find the slaves. They disappeared after the plantation burned down."
Chris cleared his throat. "We might have a lead on where to find them," he stated, remembering Joseph. "As soon as you have the documents ready, we will look for them."
"They should be done by tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime," Perry leaned back in the chair with a smile. "I want to know exactly, how did Captain Death die? I seem to have missed the last round of rumors regarding you gentlemen. Most lacking on my part. So, tell me everything. I want to be able to imagine the battle as if I had been there. It will cure some of my sorrow. It will be some time before I will be able to sail the Caribbean Sea."
Chris nodded, and between the seven, they managed to embellish their adventure, starting from the last time they had seen Perry. They did leave some things out, like the fact they had a fortune hidden in their ship's hold.
"Where to now?" JD asked as they went through the governor's palace's gates.
"We should go back to the ship, tell the crew everything's all right." Josiah suggested.
"I want something to drink first. I think we're all entitled to a little celebrating." Buck said. "There should be a tavern around here somewhere."
Chris nodded. "Tavern it is, then." He turned to Ezra. "What are you going to do about the plantation?"
Ezra shrugged slightly. "I would like to find Mother first, before I decide on how to proceed. If I can't, I guess I should rebuild it. I can use my part of the treasure. And the workers can help." He stated with a grin.
"I like the idea of paying them a salary." Nathan chimed in. "And about freeing us... I... uh..." He stammered, embarrassed.
Ezra chuckled gently. "It's quite all right, Nathan. It was the right thing to do. As for the salaries, it's a good business venture. They know the work and they will do it better knowing they are free. It will be my gain."
Buck scowled. "That makes it sound so ruthless. That's not why you did it."
"No," Ezra replied seriously. "But this is the way I was taught, Mr. Wilmington. I always see the practical side of every action."
They found a tavern and walked in, ordering ales all around. For the first time in a long time they let themselves go. They were free to come and go as they pleased, no troops to hide from, no patrol ships to elude, no gallows to fear. It was the start of a new beginning for the seven men.
The next day Chris and the others returned to Port Royal to once again see Governor Perry. As they strolled through the crowded streets, they were greeted as heroes, the news about Death's demise having spread throughout the town. Despite Death's connection with the former governor, it was obvious the populace was happy to be rid of the pirate. Or maybe it was because of it, Chris thought ruefully. Governor Standish hadn't exactly been a model of kindness.
They were allowed in the palace immediately and taken to see the governor, who rose from his chair with a grin as they walked in the room.
He shook their hands eagerly. "Gentlemen. How are you faring? Mr. Standish, I have those documents ready for you. As soon as you sign them, they will become official. All you will need to do is give each of the former slaves their document and they will be free."
Ezra nodded. "Thank you." He said softly, already signing the first document.
Chris turned to the governor. "I have spoken to my crew. They are understandably exhilarated about having been pardoned and working for the right side for once," he quipped with a grin. "We have a ship and a full crew. I'm sure that will save you some time and bureaucracy."
"Indeed. Most of the men I chose to command my fleet are without ships or crews. It will take some time before everything is prepared. But should some major problem occur, I can always count on you." Perry replied. "Mr. Standish, have you any news of your mother?"
"Not yet. I have written letters to a few of her friends in Europe; I sent them today. It will take months before I hear anything." Ezra answered, signing the last paper. "There. All done."
Perry nodded. "Good. You can take them with you then, and good luck finding those men. In the meantime, I got word that Orrin Travis will be arriving in Port Royal in exactly a week from today. I expect you all to be here. Until then, the time is yours to do as you please. Enjoy."
"Thank you, Governor. See you next week." Chris replied, following the others out of the room.
"Back to the tavern again?" Buck asked pleadingly once they were back out in the streets.
Chris chuckled. "Why not? We have nothing better to do for the next few days. You can drink to your heart's content."
"I'll be along shortly," Nathan said. "There's a gypsy who lives around here who sells some of the herbs I use to heal some of our ailments. I'm almost out, so I need to get more."
"Can I accompany you?" Ezra asked. "I'm in no hurry to remain for hours on end surrounded by a drunken, noisy crowd." He remarked ruefully.
Nathan nodded. "Sure."
"Excellent! Mr. Sanchez, will you keep these documents safe for me?" Ezra asked, handing the other man the slaves' emancipation papers. "Wouldn't want them to get lost, they are far too valuable. Nathan, I believe this one is yours." He stated, giving the healer his document. "You are officially a free man. Gentlemen, we'll join you soon." He added to the others.
Chris watched the two men walking away, wishing he could have asked Ezra to stay behind. He had never been the possessive type with Sarah, but for some reason he hated to be parted from Ezra. Maybe because the other man was so prone to finding trouble.
They had just left the gypsy woman's establishment when Ezra heard something off to his right. He stopped moving, eyes searching their surroundings quickly.
As he turned back around, he had enough time to hear Nathan groan from beside him, and the world exploded into stars.
He woke up some time later, his temples throbbing painfully from the blow to his head. His hands were tied behind his back, and so were his ankles, and he was gagged.
Opening his eyes he saw Nathan lying down beside him, also tied up and gagged, his eyes still closed. A trickle of blood ran down his neck, and Ezra realized they must have hit the healer on the back of the head as well.
They were being taken someplace. He could hear the horses' hoofs as they moved forward, and he felt nauseated each time the wheels of what appeared to be a cart, hit a hole in the road. The two of them were hidden in the back, covered by a rough cloth, obviously to avoid being seen by anyone.
He could tell they were no longer in Port Royal; it was too quiet for that. He could not hear the usual buzz of the lively town, the frantic noises coming from the harbor, or even the constant cry of the seagulls. From the silence surrounding them, he would guess they were heading inland, and by the bumps on the path, traveling through a scantily used road.
Dragging himself closer to Nathan, he bumped his body gently against the other man, until he heard him groaning pitifully. He waited patiently for Nathan's eyes to open, wincing sympathetically as the healer flinched at the sudden light. Finally, Nathan's eyes reopened, looking around until they settled on Ezra, who raised his eyebrows and shrugged helplessly. They were in trouble again.
They remained close together for the remainder of the journey, giving each other whatever meager comfort they could manage, until they finally reached their destination. The cart came to a halt with a shouted command from a harsh male voice.
"Finally!" Someone exclaimed and Ezra gasped at the familiar voice. "I was starting to believe you would never get here! Were you successful?"
"Yes. But we were forced to bring one of the others as well. He was never alone."
"Doesn't matter. Let me see him."
The cover was thrown back and for the first time Ezra saw his captors, two of the plantation's former guards. And beside them stood a smug looking Rupert Standish.
"Well, well, well! Nephew, we meet again! It's been such a long time, has it not? Aren't you going to greet your uncle?" Then he chuckled. "Oh, of course. Silly me. You can't speak with that rag in your mouth, can you?" He reached for the gag and, none too gently, pushed it from Ezra's lips. "What about now? Anything to say?"
"What do you want?" Ezra snapped angrily.
"What is rightfully mine." Rupert replied, all humor gone from his face. "I couldn't believe when my men returned from town yesterday and told me not only that Death had been killed at Larabee's hands, but that you were back and were going to be working for that old bastard Perry! I also noticed there was no mention of a certain loot belonging to Mckenzie, which makes me believe you have appropriated it for yourselves. Well, I want it." He snapped. "Larabee had better be able to trade the loot for you, or he will be a member short in his crew."
"He will tear you to pieces," Ezra growled. "You still owe him for his wife and son. If you do this, there isn't a rock big enough on Earth for you crawl under."
"We shall see, nephew. We shall see. Take him to the slave quarters; he can stay among the ruins for all I care. But I want one of you watching him at all times." He ordered.
Ezra was dragged from the cart and for the first time realized they were back at the plantation. His uncle had been hiding in plain sight all of that time, while Perry's soldiers had been looking for him far away from the Port Royal area.
"What about the Negro?" One of the guards asked his uncle.
Ezra felt a shudder ran through his body at the hateful look his uncle threw Nathan's way. "I don't care. Do with him as you will. He's yours."
The men grinned. "Thank you, Mr. Standish. We can sell him tomorrow at the slave auction, he will make us a good profit."
"Did you provide for the note to be sent to Larabee?"
"Yes, sir. We offered a gold coin to a street urchin to give the note to Larabee at the tavern they were staying."
"Good. Now, take my nephew to his new accommodations and get rid of the slave. I have some thinking to do."
The men reached for Ezra again. He did try to fight their hold, but tied up hand and foot he was no match for the guards. He managed to steal a glance at Nathan, taking in the frightened light in the usually warmth-filled brown eyes, and wondered if he would ever see the other man again. He knew his uncle wasn't planning on letting him live, and even if Chris and the others managed to rescue him, they would probably be too late to save Nathan from being sold in the auction.
CHAPTER XV - The Rescue
Chris glared at his drink. "Where the hell are they? It's been over an hour!"
JD gulped down the rest of his ale. "I'll go look for them," he offered, putting down the mug and rushing out.
"You think something might have happened to them?" Josiah asked, the worry clear in his voice.
"Josiah, this is Ezra and Nathan we are discussing!" Buck huffed. "Remember how peaceful life was before we met them? A few battles, an occasional skirmish with the governor's troops and that was it. Now, we get trapped in caves, sunk by storms, stranded on deserted islands, engage in battle every two days... It's not normal! We've been through three ships in the last weeks!"
"We're also rich, have a much better ship, and we've never had so much fun before." Vin added softly.
Buck sighed. "Yeah, there is that. You sure get attached to those two, don't you? Not to mention the boy, who's as bad as them. We should start calling them the 'Troublesome Threesome'."
JD walked in at that moment, a small pouch in his hand, worry shining deeply in the hazel eyes. "I found Nathan's herbal pouch," he announced as he sat down. "It was lying on the ground, in the middle of the street."
"Damnit," Chris murmured angrily.
"Captain Larabee?" A small voice asked from beside him.
He turned his head to see a young boy, maybe six or seven years old, looking expectantly up at him. "Yes?"
"I have something for you." the boy said, big blue eyes blinking fearfully, giving Chris a folded sheet of paper before running away and disappearing from the tavern.
Chris unfolded the note and read it, feeling his anger growing as the words impacted into his soul.
"What does it say?" Vin asked.
"'Meet me tonight at midnight with the treasure or he dies. I will be waiting at the Standish plantation.' It's not signed, but I can guess who it's from."
"Rupert Standish." JD stated firmly. "But... the note says 'he dies'? He must mean Ezra. But what about Nathan?"
"Hopefully, the note was written before they were captured. They were probably just trying to catch Ezra, but he's never been alone so they decided to take Nathan as well." Josiah replied.
"Now what?" Buck asked.
"We get ready for tonight." Chris growled. "And this time Standish is not getting away from me."
They left Port Royal as soon as it got dark; JD driving a cart loaded with large wooden boxes to hide their cargo, the rest of them on horses. It would give them an edge over whatever Rupert Standish had planned for them.
They had been traveling the dirt road for nearly an hour when bad luck struck again. Vin was riding beneath the branches of an overhanging tree when a dark figure dropped without warning from the foliage. The attacker landed on Vin's back, sending him crashing into the ground.
Vin's terrified mount reared up in panic but the attacker hung on. For an instant, Chris was too startled to react, but reflexes honed by years of danger took command. He quickly reached for his pistol, his hand as steady as a rock as he aimed it at the bandit.
The robber, fighting to control the horse, was a difficult target but Chris' aim was deadly; his bullet struck the man in the middle of the back. The bandit flung his arms out with a cry and fell sideways from the saddle, his hands still tangled in the reins. Secured by the weight of the body, Vin's horse could not move.
"Chris --" JD began.
"Not now!" Chris interjected with a shout.
He remained where he was; road bandits rarely worked alone and sooner or later more would emerge from the shadows. He did not have to wait long. Three more rose from the long grass beside the road; one made for Vin's unconscious frame while the rest made to approach the cart.
Without a thought for the consequences, Chris charged at the two heading towards JD, using his thighs to guide his mount while he turned the empty weapon into a club. One blow felled the man on his right and he kicked out with his left leg, striking the other in the face. Both men reeled away, driven off by the savagery of his resistance.
The robber who had run towards Vin was bending over him with an upraised dagger. Before he could so much as move, Buck ran him through with his sword, a single thrust which tore the man's throat open.
"No one hurts my friends!" The mustached man growled angrily.
Wheeling around the tree, Chris looked up. The branches were empty, so he slid from his saddle. "Everyone all right?"
"Yeah, yeah." JD replied shakily.
Chris nodded, rushing over to Vin. He knelt by the younger man. A quick touch on the warm throat confirmed he was still alive. "He's fine. Must have hurt his head when he fell down." He patted Vin's face gently. "Vin. Vin, wake up."
The other man groaned, opening his eyes and looking up dazedly at him. "What happened?"
"We were attacked by bandits. One of them jumped on your back and knocked you from the horse. Think you can ride?" Chris asked softly.
Vin sat up, touching the back of his head gingerly. Chris was relieved when the hand came back with no blood. "Yeah, I think I can manage." Vin answered. "Just don't ask me to put my thoughts into any kind of order, my head hurts too much."
Chris helped the other man rise. "I didn't know you could think," he quipped with a grin.
Vin made a face. "Ha ha. Trying for Court jester, Larabee?"
Chris patted the man's back softly. "I might. Wait here, I'll get you your horse." Three strides allowed him to catch the trembling horse. He kicked aside the body of the thief he had shot to free the leather straps and returned to Vin. "Here. Try to stay on it this time." He chuckled, springing onto the back of his own horse. "Let's keep going. We still have at least half an hour before we get to the plantation."
Ezra watched his uncle pacing around like a caged animal before him. It was nearly midnight and they were waiting by the steps of the collapsed main building. The rope binding his ankles had been severed, but his hands were still firmly tied behind his back, and one of the guards had a tight grip on his arm.
"What do you intend to do with me?" He finally asked.
His uncle grinned evilly. "Trade you for the treasure, of course."
"And will you allow us to leave safely?" Ezra asked dubiously.
"Do you doubt my word?" The senior Standish asked, raising an eyebrow in mock puzzlement.
"In a word... Yes." Ezra drawled sarcastically.
His uncle laughed. "And you should. You are correct; I do have other plans. Like killing you, nephew. You are the reason why I have been surviving on bread and water for the last days, why I have been sleeping on the ground like a common vagabond. Before you came along, the slaves knew who the Master was and how to behave. But because of you I have lost everything I held dear. You have cost me my plantation, my fortune, my position as governor, my strongest ally's life, and even that treasure. It's time I take matters into my own hands; you must pay for what you have done."
"Larabee won't allow you to kill me." Ezra promised, knowing his lover would do anything in his power to get him out of his uncle's clutches safe and sound.
"He won't have much choice. Not with a pistol aimed at his men. And by the time he realizes what is happening, it will be too late."
"You are mad!" Ezra spat angrily.
"Perhaps," his uncle conceded. "But I will be an extremely rich madman in a few more minutes. And you will be dead."
As soon as they drew close enough to the plantation, Chris was able to see the three men standing before the main house; the light from a lantern shining eerily around them.
He recognized Rupert Standish immediately, in spite of it having been some time since he had last seen the man. He still stood tall and rigid, forever the plantation owner, so full of himself. Not even being on the run had slumped the man's proud bearing.
Behind him stood Ezra, his hands obviously tied behind his back, the third man holding a dagger pressed against his neck. Chris shuddered as he realized that just one slip would be enough to kill his lover.
"Larabee!" Rupert Standish spat when they were finally close enough to talk.
"Standish." He drawled back, making no move to dismount from the horse.
"Let's get down to business, shall we? I believe I have something you want, and you have something I need."
"You want this?" Chris asked in a deadly voice, gesturing towards the cart.
"Bring it closer." The man ordered harshly.
Chris shook his head. "Release Ezra first. And where the hell is Nathan?"
Standish laughed humorlessly. "I believe you have yet to understand who is in charge here, Larabee." Turning slightly, "Mr. Pitt, if you please," he spoke nonchalantly.
Answering to his voice, the man holding Ezra pressed the dagger closer to his captive's neck, breaking the skin and making the other man cry out in pain.
Chris glared at Standish, but relented. "All right! It's your move."
"That's better. Mr. Pitt, you can rest for a moment. Answering your question, Larabee, the slave is no longer here. He didn't interest me. He was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Is he dead?" Chris asked in a low, dangerous tone.
"Dead? My goodness, no! That's the last thing my men would want to see happen. But I still have my dear nephew. And unless you give me what I want, I will kill him."
Chris saw Ezra trying to speak, but the dagger brushed dangerously close to his throat and his lover quieted down. He had to make the exchange rapidly, before things got out of hand.
"Fine!" He barked furiously. "JD, take the cart over to our former governor." He smirked as the man glared at his words.
The young man nodded, slapping the reins and forcing the horses to move a little closer to the three men. He stopped when he was inches away from Standish and jumped from the cart, walking backwards carefully, his eyes never leaving Ezra's captors.
Chris saw Standish gaze curiously at the boxes and nod. "Good, good." He drawled softly. "You know Larabee, I have to say I'm disappointed. After all this time and you still haven't learned your lesson." He grinned. "You, sir, are a fool," he told Chris as he gestured for his man to act.
"No!" Chris shouted as he pulled out his pistol and tried to shoot the man who was swinging his blade down over Ezra's exposed neck.
He heard Josiah yell something from behind him, then a shot rang out, but his eyes never left the man holding Ezra. He held his breath as Ezra suddenly kicked the man in the shin, then dropped to his knees, taking advantage of the fact the man had moved his arm slightly away. Not wasting any time, Chris aimed his pistol at the man, shooting him in the stomach.
Seeing the man fall down in a heap on the ground, Chris finally risked looking at the others. They were all standing together, surrounding a dead Standish.
"Who killed him?" He asked.
"I did," Josiah replied apologetically. "He was going to shoot Buck, I had no choice."
"By no means do I wish to interrupt such lively conversation, but would it possible for one of you gentlemen to cut my ropes?" Ezra asked sarcastically from behind them.
"Sorry, Ezra." Chris grinned, cutting through the binds imprisoning the other man. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," Ezra replied, touching his neck with a grimace. "It's merely a scratch. I have to say, though, that is one experience I have no wish to relive again."
"Pitt?" Chris asked.
"Dying." Ezra stated. "With a bullet in his stomach, it will take him a long time to do so. Is that the treasure?" He glanced at the cart.
"No." Buck chuckled. "We filled the boxes with rocks, figured your uncle wouldn't have much help, and would be too busy with you and Nathan to check it. He was such an arrogant bastard, it didn't even cross his mind we would try to double-cross him. He should've known better."
"Taking a great risk with our lives, weren't you?" Ezra chided, glaring at Chris.
"I'm sorry. But we didn't exactly have much time for planning. Where's Nathan, Ezra?"
Ezra's eyes darkened. "My uncle had a second man working for him, he took Nathan back to Port Royal. Intends to sell him tomorrow at the slave auction. We have to hurry back to town."
"They can't sell him! Didn't you give Nathan his freedom papers?" JD asked with a frown.
"Yes. But I heard my uncle speaking with one of the men, they destroyed the document. There's no way of proving Nathan is free now, we will have to buy him back." Ezra replied grimly.
Buck exhaled softly. "Lord, I will never complain about not having anything to do all day. If we keep going this way, we'll all perish from exhaustion!"
"Josiah, release the horses from the cart, we can leave it here. Ezra and JD can ride the horses back to Port Royal. We have a long ride ahead of us and we have to be up early for the auction." Once both Ezra and JD had their mounts, Chris nodded. "Let's ride. We have a friend to rescue."
CHAPTER VI - Brand New Life
The town's square was filled to capacity as they arrived for the auction. Chris watched the proceedings with an unemotional eye, trying not to let his distaste at the whole thing get the best of him. In spite of having been a pirate until recently, it never ceased to amaze him the amount of evil man could dispense on another human being. It was truly a frightening thing to behold.
The six men waited patiently as slave after slave was sold, man, woman and child alike. Finally the merchant gestured to his helpers, who brought a tightly bound Nathan forward for inspection.
"Fine slave, new this morning," the merchant told the crowd. "As you can see, he's a strong one, well built, fit for hard work. He's cultured too, well spoken. Not too many of 'em like that. Name's Nathan."
"How much?" Someone shouted from the audience.
"For you, Master Johnson? Three gold coins."
"I'll give you five!" Another voice yelled from the back.
Chris looked around. The square was full of soldiers; they would not be able to fight their way to rescue Nathan. They had tried to find Governor Perry that morning to let him know what was happening, but were told the governor was away on business. The only thing left to do was buy Nathan back. At least now they had the money to do it.
"Six coins!" He shouted, grinning as Nathan glared at him.
"Very good!" the merchant crooned. "Who else?"
"Seven!" Master Johnson shouted back.
"Eight!" Chris offered. "Josiah, have a quiet word with Master Johnson, will you? Persuade him it is not in his best interest to buy that slave."
Josiah chuckled. "Right away, Chris."
Chris watched the big man move through the throng of people in the square until he was by Johnson's side. Josiah said a few words, and suddenly the startled man looked straight at Chris, who saluted him and grinned. Seconds later Josiah was back with them.
"Will he stop bidding?" JD asked anxiously.
"Yes." Josiah replied, looking very pleased with himself.
"What did you tell him?" Buck asked. "The man is white as a ghost!"
Josiah chuckled. "Well, I told him Chris was the famous Captain Larabee and that if he so much as looked at Nathan again, we would snatch him from his home one day and cut him up into little pieces, which would then be sent to his family."
"Josiah, really!" Ezra chided, but he had a wide smile on his face. "I would have told him we would gut him and feed his insides to the farm animals. But... I guess that will do." He deadpanned with a mock sigh, making the others laugh.
"Who will give me more than eight coins?" the merchant called out. "No one? Then sold to the man in black."
"Come on, let's go get Nathan." Chris told the others.
A few minutes later they had paid for their 'slave', who was glaring at them while he rubbed sore wrists. "Did you really have to buy me?" Nathan grumbled.
"It was the only way. Couldn't find the governor and there are too many guards around. Come on, let's get out of this place."
"Not yet, Chris." Nathan interjected. "Joseph's here."
"What? Why?" JD exclaimed. "I thought he was hiding in the jungle with the other slaves!"
"He was. But every once in a while, some of them come to town for food. He was caught two days ago, and when he couldn't prove he was free and no one claimed him, he was sent to the auction."
Chris sighed. "All right. We'll buy him as well. It will save us the trouble of having to go after them in the jungle."
Twenty minutes later, Joseph was hugging Ezra enthusiastically. "Young Master! Ya is well!"
Ezra smiled gently. "I am fine, Joseph, and please, don't call me that anymore. Seems like life has given us both a hand, because we were ready to go in search of your hideout tomorrow."
"Why?" Joseph asked curiously.
"The new governor has given me the deed to the plantation and also the slave's ownership documents."
"So the plantation is yours?"
"Yes. And I have also made arrangements for all of you to be free. The documents are signed and safely back at Captain Larabee's ship."
Joseph's eyes grew wide. "W-we're... free?"
"Yes. Is it possible for you and the others to meet me tomorrow at midday at the plantation? I want to give you the papers and make you all a proposition."
"Proposition?" Joseph echoed.
"I wish to rebuild the plantation, Joseph, and I would be infinitely grateful if you kept working there. Not as slaves, but as independent workers. You would receive a small salary at the end of each week in exchange for your services. I don't know how much I can afford to pay, since it will probably be a few years before the fields will give us enough to make a profit, but --"
"We stay and work for ya," Joseph interrupted to assure. "You's a good man and we needs money to be free men. What we been doin' in that jungle ain't livin'. You're givin' us a second chance and I thinks everyone will take it. We be there tomorrow."
Ezra nodded. "Thank you. Don't forget, tomorrow at midday."
"That reminds me," Buck said when Joseph had left. "We left the bodies behind."
"Good. Maybe the animals fed on them," Chris stated cruelly. "If not, we will bury them tomorrow. I'm sure Standish's former slaves will rejoice in seeing their nemesis' dead body."
Josiah yawned suddenly. "Lord, I'm exhausted!" He muttered.
Chris nodded. "Let's go back to the ship. We can use a few hours sleep after the night we had. I think it's time for us to start enjoying the free days we've been given before meeting with Orrin Travis."
JD sighed contentedly. "Yeah. All's well that ends well." He groused, yelling as Buck cuffed him on the head. "What?!"
Chris exhaled softly as he followed the six men back to the ship. They were finally rid of all their enemies, and Lord willing, they would finally be able to have some much deserved peace.
Chris walked into his cabin to find Ezra already in bed and fast asleep. The other man was lying on his stomach, and obviously naked under the sheet covering him. Not that the linen was doing much; it was pooled around Ezra's waist, showing the smooth expanse of his back, a leg also uncovered from the thigh down. All in all, Chris thought, a beautiful sight.
He shuddered as he noticed the small wound on Ezra's neck, the result of Pitt's dagger. He had come close to losing Ezra yet again, this time forever. He suddenly felt the need to be with the other man, to touch him, to love him.
Knowing most of the crew was on shore, and that they were virtually alone, he decided to take the chance. Even if the others heard them, it was not as if they didn't know what was going on between them.
He undressed quickly, then knelt on the bed, allowing his eyes to feast on his lover's body. Finally satisfied he had memorized every sensuous curve, he crawled up on his hands and knees until his lips were directly above Ezra's shoulders. Grinning wickedly, he leaned down, nibbling first one shoulder, then the other, licking on the creamy skin to ease the sting. Ezra moaned and squirmed beneath him, but still didn't rouse.
Moving the sheet aside, he ran his tongue up and down Ezra's spine, slowly, little catlike strokes that had his lover moaning and whimpering almost continuously.
"Chris..." Ezra groaned, coming fully awake. "Please..."
"Please what?" He asked teasingly, hands gripping his lover's firm mounds and kneading gently. "Please... do this?" Running his tongue slowly up and down Ezra's cleft, he gripped tighter as his lover whimpered and jerked. "Or please... do this?" He breathed hotly over the tiny pucker before licking slowly across the opening.
Enjoying Ezra's little mewling sounds, he began to lave it with his tongue, nipping the wrinkled bud with his teeth and stroking the other man's balls and hardening cock.
"Make love to me, Chris," Ezra begged in a restrained voice, his breath coming in tiny gasps of pleasure with each sweep of Chris' tongue.
"Are you certain you are prepared now?" Chris teased, nibbling at the sensitive skin.
"Lord, yes!" Ezra shouted impatiently.
"Very well," Chris whispered as his tongue dipped inside the tight channel, making Ezra groan low in his throat, his legs spreading wider in wanton invitation. "Turn over, I want to see your face."
Ezra turned around, lying on his back, and Chris straddled his hips, one finger brushing lightly across a taut nipple. He moved his hand low to brush across Ezra's smooth skin at the juncture of hip and thigh, while his lips targeted the twin peaks. His wet tongue slid slowly across the hard nubs, wrenching a low moan deep from within Ezra's body.
He felt Ezra wiggle under his body weight, trying to press harder against him, wordlessly expressing his need. Chris chuckled, kissing and licking across Ezra's tightly wound body, enjoying the way his lover arched into his touch.
He moved over his lover, possessing the sweet, addictive mouth thoroughly. Ezra opened up to him immediately, both of them moaning as their cocks brushed heatedly together.
Pulling their lips apart, Chris reached for the jar with the oil and slowly coated Ezra's cleft with it. Sliding one finger inside the tiny puckered entrance, he moved it carefully in little circles, until the channel grew used to the intruder. When he thought Ezra was ready, he added a second digit, smiling as his lover groaned at the strange sensation. He gently manipulated his fingers first one way then another until Ezra was writhing helplessly on the bed.
Finally a third finger joined inside the tight channel, and he waited for Ezra to loosen up. At last, that moment came and Chris tenderly caressed his lover's flank in response, stilling his probing motions.
"It's time, Ez." He whispered, watching the glazed green eyes shining approval.
He rubbed the oil up and down his shaft, coating it thickly so Ezra wouldn't feel too much pain. His fingers pushed gently at the loosened hole, making sure his lover was prepared. He lined up his cock with the entrance to Ezra's body and began to slowly penetrate the tight opening.
Ezra tensed up almost immediately, groaning painfully beneath him. He made as if to push Chris away, but Chris grabbed the wandering hands, pressing them firmly to the pillows with his own.
"I know it hurts, Ezra. Take a deep breath, let your body get used to me," he gritted out, brushing his lips gently over Ezra's sweat sheened forehead, while he tried desperately to control the impulse to thrust into the virgin heat of his lover's body.
Finally, after what felt like forever, he felt Ezra's body loosen up around him. He remained still for a moment longer; their gasping pants the only sound in the otherwise silent cabin.
"I have to move, Ezra." He breathed, his control just about gone.
Watery green eyes blinked opened and gazed up at him. "Then move," Ezra whispered back, a slight smile grazing his lips.
Slowly he began to undulate, his cock sliding gently in and out of the tight passageway. He kept Ezra's hands captive, lacing their fingers together as they began to move in a perfect rhythm.
He buried his face in his lover's neck, nibbling softly. One of his hands slid down and gripped Ezra's wilted cock bringing it back to full arousal, the other still binding Ezra's wrists tightly. Ezra moaned and whimpered in response to his dual assault, bucking frantically against him, their thrusts getting harder and faster as he continued to pump Ezra's cock, willing him to come on his hand.
With a loud gasp of completion, Ezra finally surrendered to him, his seed flowing hotly over Chris' hand and their bodies. The clenching of Ezra's inner muscles sent him over the edge as well; growling low in his throat he bit sharply on Ezra's throat, filling his lover's passage with his come.
They lay together for a long time, wrapped in each other's arms, allowing their heartbeats and breathing to slowly return to normal.
"Chris?" Ezra finally whispered quietly
"Yes?" He asked, his head never leaving its resting place on Ezra's chest.
"It was worth the wait." Ezra's tone was amused.
Chris chuckled lightly. "I'm glad you think so." He kissed the nipple closest to his lips.
Cuddling Ezra close, he wrenched the sheet free and drew it up over them before giving in to the sleep that always followed incredible lovemaking.
When he woke up, Ezra was not on the bed or in the cabin. Dressing quickly, Chris walked out of what was now their quarters, finding his lover staring enthralled at the dawning day. The sky was changing from red into gold and then into a yellow-white brightness, the sun rising over the horizon, giving it the impression it was emerging from the calm sea.
"All right?" He whispered, wrapping his arms around Ezra's waist from behind.
"Yes. Just enjoying the view. It's been so long since I've been allowed to fully enjoy such a magnificent act of nature." He tilted his head up to look at Chris. "You do realize we are finally liberated, don't you? No more Captain Death, no more Governor Rupert Standish. We have been given the chance to start anew. No more ghosts from the past, no more hate."
Chris smiled, leaning down to kiss the upturned nose. "Yes. We are going to be all right."
"All of us." A new voice stated, and they turned to see Buck, JD, Vin, Josiah and Nathan standing behind them.
The seven remained in comfortable silence, watching the sun shine its light down on Port Royal, while the town slowly came awake. It was the start of a brand new day for the good people of Jamaica. But it was the start of a brand new life for the men who, from that day on, would see that the islands in the Caribbean Sea were a safer place to live.
Chris watched the frenzied activity going on all around the Standish plantation. All the former slaves had agreed not only to stay and be paid a salary, but also to help rebuild the buildings from scratch. It would take months, but after only three days work the grounds already looked different.
"Are you certain about this?" He asked softly to the man walking by his side.
"Yes." Ezra replied with a smile. "You don't belong on dry land, Chris, not anymore. It's the right thing to do."
"It will be months before 'Destiny' sets anchor at Port Royal again." He warned.
"I know; I can wait."
"Chris," Ezra interjected softly. "This *is* right. It would be wrong to make you stay at the plantation; you would wither and die of boredom here. I couldn't possibly see you go through that. You have to be Captain Larabee to be happy; it's in your blood. Your heart belongs to the sea."
Chris grabbed his lover by the arms, stopping their advance. "You're wrong," he said with a smile. "My heart belongs to you."
Their eyes met and held for a long time, then Ezra sighed gently. "Which is the reason why I'm leaving the plantation in Joseph's capable hands and joining you aboard the 'Destiny'. I will miss seeing it grow into the shape it once had, but I would have missed you a lot more."
Not wanting to insist and upset the other man, Chris simply wrapped his arms around him and hugged Ezra tightly to him. And he suddenly realized he was a truly fortunate man; he had everything his heart desired. A ship to sail the Caribbean Sea, friends who stood by his side through thick and thin, and most importantly, someone who loved him and who he loved back. Bliss indeed.
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