ALIVE AND FREE

“Cap’n, if we stay on this course, the British will intercept before dawn.”

Captain O’Reilly whirled to glare at his First Mate. “Are you questioning my orders, Mr Owen?”

Owen took a small step back. The screams of the last Mate who’d questioned Captain O’Reilly still echoed in his mind. “Of course not, sir. I was simply letting you know I was aware of the situation.”

O’Reilly sneered at Owen, his thin lips twisted and his watery blue eyes hard. “We appear to disagree on exactly what the ‘situation’ is, Mr Owen. I suggest you attend to your duties, rather than standing here trying to attend to mine.” O’Reilly’s thick ginger beard quivered and glittered in the late afternoon light, the fiery brilliance of it sparking as quickly as the man’s temper.

“Aye, sir,” Owen replied smartly, then spun on his heel and left the bridge.

Owen stopped at the rail and stared at the speck of white sail on the horizon.

“What’s the story, Owen? Does he mean to continue on this heading?”

Will Thompson, the Bos’n, stepped up beside him. Owen sighed and glanced around to see how close others were. “This will probably be our last day as free men, Will. By the time the sun is fully risen tomorrow, we’ll either be dead or captured.” He slid a little closer to his friend and lover, allowing their hands to touch briefly where they rested on the railing.

Will leaned toward him before stepping away and winking at him. “Ah well, t’was a good life while it lasted, weren’t it Mr Owen?”

An involuntary chuckle escaped Owen. Perhaps the beefy man really enjoyed the poor food, poor treatment, sickness and constant danger or boredom, but he suspected it was more their relationship Will was talking about. “It was indeed, Mr Thompson.” He looked into the eyes of one of the men he loved most in the world. “The best,” he whispered. He straightened from the rail. “And if I can, I’m going to find a way to make sure we keep it.” He winked at Will. “At least the ‘alive and free’ part.”

Thompson grinned at him. “Right you are, Mr Owen. I’ll have your back. You and Mr Smith.” He slipped away, calling the Crow for an update.

Their options were few. Owen could surrender as soon as the British came within hailing distance. Of course that would probably end in his death at the hands of O’Reilly, or at least on his orders.  He could wait until they were boarded and surrender then, but as soon as the British learned his real name, he’d be walking the plank, or more likely, run through and shoved overboard. He looked around, wondering if there was any way he could fake their heading. If it was possible, he could take them out of danger and the captain would be none the wiser. Of course they were all sea faring men, any one of them capable of discerning heading by the stars, and while most of them were loyal to him, the captain had brought his own men on board when he took over the Marie Jayne. If that was the plan, he’d have to find a way of effecting it immediately.

The only other option he could think of was to allow the situation to unfold as it was. At best, if the British didn’t recognize him, he’d be incarcerated for the term of his natural life. At worst, by sunset tomorrow, he’d be dead. He looked out to sea wondering how he could fix things so that at least Eugene and Will would be safe.

“I can bet that what you are planning is mutiny.” The voice came softly from the darkness under the bridge.

“I should have realized you’d be lurking in the shadows listening to my conversation with Will. Why didn’t you join us?”

The tall man moved to stand with him at the rail, a hand-span between them. “If the three of us are seen together too often, the Captain and his friends are likely to assume we’re plotting a mutiny.”

He huffed a laugh. “That’s probably true. Instead, all we usually plot is the next time we can get together to fuck.”

Eugene chuckled too. “So, what do you have planned?”

“I’m thinking a prayer vigil is our only option.”

“It’s that bad?” Eugene turned toward Owen, moving closer as the light faded into twilight. His voice was low, carrying over the water only a short distance.

Owen breathed deeply, relaxing minutely as the smell of his lover reached him, mixed with the salty tang of the ocean. He turned to regard the other man who made his life worth living.

“Unless there’s a sudden squall that blows us away from each other, we’ll be meeting that frigate come dawn.”

“Sail ho!” came the call from the Crow’s Nest.

“Damme, there’s another one.” he turned to Eugene. “If there’s anything you wanted to do before you die, I suggest you make your peace with it tonight. We won’t see another.”

“There is one thing,” Eugene said speculatively.

Owen laughed. “Only one? You must be a man of simple tastes. For myself, I have a list of things as long as your arm, and every one of them include you and Will.”

For a long time, Eugene didn’t respond, and Owen thought he meant to kiss him but, instead, he said, “You know, we’re not that far from the Spanish coast. It could be them coming up behind the British.”

“The Spanish have no more love of pirates than the British. I fail to see how that would benefit us.”

“That’s true, but they hate each other more than they hate us.”

“So you think they’ll go at each other and forget about us entirely?”

“I’ve seen stranger things.”

Owen grinned at Eugene. “If I weren’t so sure of my impending death, I’d place a wager on that.”

“Place the wager anyway. I can collect when we escape what appears to be certain death.”

“Very well. What would you care to wager?”

“We must remember our lives are in the balance here, so I think the wager needs to be commensurate with the importance of that.”

Owen laughed. Eugene never failed to bring a smile to Owen’s face, even when the situation seemed most dire. “If I win, we’ll be dead so there won’t be anything for me to collect.”

“True, but if I win, we’ll be alive and, more importantly, free. I think that state of affairs will be significant enough for me to name my price.” His white teeth glinted in the dying light and a shiver ran down Owen’s spine. “Now the question remains, how far would you go to save your life.”

Temptation skittered under Owen’s skin but he continued to play the game. “You aren’t saving my life, Eugene. You’re simply speculating on the outcome of events already unfolding around us.”

“But my speculation means you will be alive, whereas your speculation has us all dying a horrible death.”

Owen laughed. Truly, what was he arguing about? Did it really matter what he promised him? If he was honest with himself, he’d been wondering for some time what it would feel like for Eugene to take him. The man had suggested it often enough over the last couple of years. Even Will had seemed intrigued by the idea. “Of course. How foolish of me. Very well, Eugene, I agree. If we’re both alive and free after this encounter with the British, whatever is in my possession to give you is yours. You have no more than to ask.”

“Anything?” he queried, his voice at once low and serious.

“I’m yours, Eugene. Yours and Will’s. Whatever you want.” He raised his hand toward Eugene and grasped it in a firm shake. “On my honor.”

He watched Eugene walk away scant seconds later, the memory of his lover’s feral grin making his own lips curl up at the corners. He felt like he’d done a deal with the Devil, and was going to enjoy it. Owen spent the night issuing clandestine orders and making whatever adjustments he could to the heading without O’Reilly or his men being alerted. The sky was clear and cloudless, the numerous stars providing enough light to keep the approaching sails illuminated. At two bells, clouds swept in from the south-west and, in the sudden darkness, he gave the order for the black sail to be hoist. The captain had retired thirty minutes prior so was unaware of the order. Owen shook his head at his fanciful ramblings. As if there was only one problem. Nevertheless, the problem was they had only half a set of black sail. With the other sails furled to minimize the reflection of light in the night their speed dropped considerably.

“You know, if you change the heading just slightly, further to the west, by morning we could be behind the British.”

Owen nodded at Eugene, acknowledging that once again they were of the same mind. “Orders have already been given,” he said quietly.

“The captain?”

“Abed.”

“When we’re staring at an attack like this?” he asked incredulously. “The others?”

He knew of whom Eugene referred. The captain had very powerful allies aboard. For all that he was First Mate, Owen wasn’t one of them. The captain had inherited him when their previous captain had gambled his ship away the last time they were in port. O’Reilly brought some of his own men with him but had put them in positions where they could watch more men more closely than they could have if they’d all been officers.

“With the cloud cover they might not notice the change in course if we do it carefully.”

“They’re sure to notice the loss of sail.”

He remained silent for several moments, still unable to work out how to cover that change. Then he grinned and turned to Eugene. “I’ll bet Will has already given them the reason.” Knowing Will, it was the same reason he always used because it always worked. Will had no idea, though, that the only reason it always worked was that Eugene always made it happen.

As soon as Eugene noticed Owen’s change of focus, he raised his hands defensively. “Oh no, you don’t. I told you last time I wouldn’t do that again.”

Owen clasped his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “But they’ll believe you, when they wouldn’t me. They always do.”

“I cannot imagine why that would be the case. It’s not as if I come from any particularly trustworthy stock.”

He laughed softly. “And that’s exactly why they trust you. They think you’re as bad as they are.”

Eugene humphed. “Yet you don’t.”

He reluctantly slid his hand from Eugene’s shoulder, needing, on this night particularly, the touch of his lovers. “I trust you for entirely different reasons,” he murmured.

“Bastard,” Eugene intoned as he turned to deliver his ‘Sirens of the Deep’ speech.

As the air grew heavy in preparation for the rising of the sun, the sails were changed out again. They were raised one at a time so the increase in speed was gentle, barely noticeable except by expert feet on the deck. Owen prayed he hadn’t underestimated the captain’s seafaring abilities. Or those of his men.

He tensed as O’Reilly slipped into position beside him just as the lip of the sun kissed the horizon. The captain stood silently for several minutes as he took in the activity of the men and the situation in the ocean around us. Owen waited tensely for the Crow’s update.

“Sail astarboard.” One sail, with the sun behind them. That was good.

Owen’s heart pounded in his throat. Where was the other?

“Sail aport.”

“Fuck.” He grabbed the eyeglass and climbed several rungs of the mizzen. His breath was ragged as he scanned for the ships. “Bloody hell. How did they get so damned close?” The British ship was to the starboard and had obviously noticed them, even as the men on the Marie Jayne found them. They were coming about hard, positioning themselves broadside to them. They were so close Owen could see the sailors scrambling in the rigging and over the deck. At this range the advantage of the rising sun was lost. As he watched, the gun ports were flung open and cannons nosed out of the holes.

“Battle stations,” Owen screamed into the early morning breeze, but he needn’t have bothered. The men had already noticed the ship breathing down their necks and were scrambling into position.

Below decks he could hear Will bellowing at his men, counting through their routine to position and arm our cannon.

“Owen,” the captain demanded his attention.

“Not now, Captain. The men know their drills. We’ll be ready for them.” He hoped. He swung the glass in a slow arc, looking for the other ship and soon found it.

It was another British frigate but inexplicably it was sailing away from them rather than toward. “Why would they do that? We’re smack in the middle of them and a clear shot with the sun behind them. They could have us at the bottom of the bedamned ocean in minutes.” He’d no sooner uttered the words than he dismissed them. They were heading away, that was all he needed concern himself with at the moment. The more pressing issue was the damned frigate breathing down their necks from starboard.

The British were obviously more practiced in warfare because no sooner had Owen begun to turn back to starboard than a spume of seawater arced over them.

“Damage report!” he screamed. It wasn’t a direct hit but it had been close. There was sure to be percussive damage.

The order was relayed into the bowels of the ship and came back quickly. Minimal damage. Under control. His instinct was to swing the wheel hard aport and flee but they were too close to the frigate. They’d blow the Marie Jayne out of the water before they could gain enough speed to get out of range. “Thompson! Status?” The only response was a loud boom and a harsh rolling of the ship. Owen stumbled, catching the wheel to steady himself. The captain did the same, his sweaty hands slipping before he gained a secure hold. Owen flicked a look at him, noticing his pale features and terrified eyes. Had the man never been under attack before?

He gripped O’Reilly’s wrist and shoved him toward the railing around the bridge. “Hold there so you don’t wrench us off course.”

“Off course? We need to get out of here man. Can’t you see how close they are?”

“They’ll blast us out of the water before we have time to change tack, Captain. Our only chance of survival is to fight and fight hard.”

Another blast rocked the ship. The captain slipped under the deluge. Flames billowed up the side of the ship, belching out of the gun ports, accompanied by screams of men below. Eugene!  He was below decks, probably issuing sidearms by now. Will was counting the canon through their paces so, while he was perilously close to the gunpowder storage, Owen knew he was still alive.

He yelled to the Bos’n. “Thompson! Status below.”

“Sounds worse than it is, Mr Owen,” came the reply.

Owen grimaced. That meant it was every bit as bad as it sounded but at least Eugene was alive too. Will would have told him if it were otherwise. He started yelling orders, although most of them weren’t needed. His men knew what to do in a situation like this. They’d weathered many of them over the years. The biggest problem was O’Reilly’s men getting in the way. The ship rocked and rolled both under the onslaught of the British guns and the reverberation of their own. Sailors clambered through the rigging, making adjustments to the sail to keep them on course. If they could get through this barrage and out of range, they’d probably survive.

Owen called for updates in between orders. By the time the shadows of the masts had shortened, he was hoarse, there were out-of-control fires below-deck and the British had come alongside. He drew his sword and raised it. “Prepare to be boarded,” he yelled with the last of his voice.

“Don’t be a fool,” O’Reilly called. It was the first time he’d heard from the man in hours. “We have to surrender.”

Owen rounded on him. “There is no surrender. If we don’t walk the plank before sunset, we’ll be beaten to within an inch of our lives and thrown into some rotting prison.” He crowded O’Reilly against the railing. “We fight or we die. You want to stay out of it, then go find a quiet spot to hide, but whatever you do, Captain, keep your fucking mouth shut. I’m not ready to die yet.”

It was mutiny, he knew, but the bedamned man had done everything to put them in this situation and nothing to help. In the end, it was quick, and pitifully easy for the British to take them. By sunset the crew of the Marie Jayne were lined up on the deck of the listing ship, ragged, sweaty and thirsty almost beyond endurance. A call went out on the British frigate that their Captain was coming over to inspect them. Owen turned his head to watch the man balance along the ropes slung between the ships and gasped.

Eugene leaned closer to him. “You know him?” He scrutinized the captain as he jumped down to the deck and turned to them, swearing softly as he made the connection.

Will stood on the other side of Eugene. “Owen?”

“Shut the fuck up,” Owen hissed. He glared at the British captain, resplendent in his uniform, his midnight black hair glinting blue in the afternoon sunlight, such a contrast to Owen’s own dirty gold locks. He was taller and broader than Owen but anyone who looked closely would see they shared the same eyes and mouth.

Cornflower blue eyes, the exact same shade and shape as Owen’s, widened as they saw him. Captain Brian Forsyth turned to his first mate and murmured a few words. Within seconds two British seamen marched over to Owen and demanded he follow them.

“Smith and Thompson too,” he called to Brian, not at all sure whether his brother would acquiesce or run the men through without further discussion. After what felt an interminable time, he nodded. The three of them gathered at the railing closest to the frigate and waited. A scuffle broke out behind them and he turned to find two British sailors manhandle O’Reilly out from under one of the lifeboats.

A muffled whomph sounded beneath them, the deck trembled with the sound and then leaned to aft. Owen called out. “Captain, if you don’t want us all to drown, you might want to get us off this ship and get yours away from the draft area. This one’s going down and it’ll go down fast.”

“You always were a bloody know-it-all, Owen,” Brian grumped as soon as he gave the order and clambered back onto the boarding ropes. “You three come with me.” He glared at Owen as if daring him to disagree. Owen wasn’t stupid, even if he did hesitate long enough to recognize nothing but anger in his brother’s face. His ship was sinking and there was no way he wanted to go down with it.

Owen glanced back at O’Reilly and grinned. “You’ll probably want to go down with your ship,” he said to him as he jumped up onto the railing to grab the boarding rope. “That’s what good captains do.” Owen winked at him then swung himself out over the roiling water and into the smoke belching from the gun turrets.  Bloody stupid place to put boarding ropes, he grumbled as he coughed his way between the ships. If there’s smoke coming out of those turrets, there’ll soon be flames and the bedamned ropes will be gone in seconds. But who was he to question the decisions of a captain in the British navy. Even if he was Owen’s stupid-ass younger brother.

The ropes jumped when he was half-way across, accompanying another thud of timber falling in the bowels of the Marie Jayne. That was probably the last barrier between the guns and the gunpowder stored below. He called a warning to those left on board. Thankfully, Brian’s men seemed to have more sense, or at least experience, than he did, because they quickly organized their prisoners and within ten minutes they were all on the British frigate, the ropes were cut and sail hoisted.

They almost made it away clear. Another explosion rocked the Marie Jayne and Owen turned to watch his home and possessions splinter, engulfed in flame. The bow rose high in the sky but he didn’t watch it sink into the sea because his face hit the deck of the frigate a scant second before Eugene landed on top of him.

“I swear you’re an imbecile sometimes Owen.” A splinter from the Marie Jayne pierced Owen’s forearm and he became aware of the yells of men frantic to get their ship out of the draft area in time.

“Will?”

“Beside us, you fool, where he always is.”

Owen grinned. “Not always. Sometimes he’s on top.”

Will reached over and cuffed Owen on the back of the head. “Shut up, you fool.”

It was only then he noticed they weren’t alone. He had no idea what he’d been thinking as he’d been hearing the sounds of frantic movement since the explosion. He knew they were on a strange ship with a crew that didn’t know them. Owen knew if they realized what the three of them were, they’d string them all up. He pushed up and Eugene lifted off him while Will gave him a hand up. He swayed, and lifted a hand to his stinging forehead. It came away bloody.

“That blow to the head at least explains why your mouth is running away with you,” said Will.

Owen turned, scanning for Brian. As soon as he located him on the bridge, he called out. “Captain. My men can help set sail.” They’d get away a lot faster with more hands on the ropes. Brian glared at him and looked over at the Marie Jayne before he nodded and Owen quickly relayed the orders to his men. O’Reilly stood in a huddle with what remained of his cronies and scowled at Owen, but didn’t approach.

There were long seconds when Owen thought the ship would be drawn into the whirlpool created by the Marie Jayne going down but they held their own, timbers and ropes creaking with the effort, then suddenly, they shot away, the wind in the sails overcoming the draw of the water. Everyone on board let up an excited hoot and enjoyed the feeling of once again beating the sea at her game.

The British soldiers, embarrassed at toiling side-by-side with pirates, quickly shackled Owen’s men. There were prisoners again. Owen approached Brian but was prevented from coming too close. His brother’s officers obviously hadn’t made the connection between the two men even though Owen thought it was obvious. Will and Eugene were at his back. He couldn’t see them there but they’d been together enough years, he thought he’d feel them even after they were dead.

Brian scowled at him. The anger and disgust in his expression was new to Owen and he felt the loss of his brother as keenly as he had all those years ago when he’d been tossed out in the middle of the night.

“You,” Brian said as he pointed at Owen. “In my cabin now.”

The three of them stepped forward but Brian whirled on them before they crossed the threshold. “Only you, Owen.”

Owen shook his head. “With respect, Captain, Thompson and Smith go with me or I’ll stay here and take whatever punishment comes to my men.”

“Stubborn fool.”

At least that’s what Owen thought he said.

“Come on, then. Let’s get this over with.”

Brian’s cabin was small and cramped but well organized. There was no sign of the carefree, careless boy he’d been. Owen wondered if the child with the bright smile still existed somewhere. He hoped so.

Brian turned to Owen as soon as the door closed. “You fucking idiot. What the fuck are you doing in these waters? Don’t you know we’ve begun a blitz on pirates? Even the damned Spanish are supporting us.”

Owen nodded. He’d guessed as much and had recommended the Marie Jayne and her crew repair to easier pickings, perhaps the Americas, but O’Reilly had ignored him.

“And what the fuck is it with these two clowns?” Brian gestured to Smith and Thompson. “Are they why you left so suddenly?”

The men behind Owen stepped closer and although they’d all been disarmed, both kept their sword arms free. Eugene placed his hand on Owen’s back for a second and he relaxed out of the tension that had drawn him tight as a bow-string.

“No, but the fact you know to mention that gives you the reason I left.”

He sneered at Owen. “Fucking men was more important than your family?”

Owen scoffed, although it was an effort. Brian had always been his best friend. It hurt to know that was gone. He’d known it, of course. It had been more than ten years, but he’d still held a kernel of hope in his soul that Brian either didn’t know what he was or his brother could forgive him.

“Staying alive was more important than dying,” Owen retorted.

“You had to leave in the middle of the night, without saying ‘goodbye’, to stay alive?”

Owen laughed. “Is that what he told you? Of course. The old bastard would never have owned to the truth.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Our dear father….” At the look on Brian’s face, Owen stopped. “You know?”

It was Brian’s turn to scoff, a sound so similar to Owen’s he almost laughed. It was too serious a situation, though, so he held it in and focused on Brian.

“Look at me Owen,” Brian said. “I might have our mother’s eyes, just like you do, but there’s nothing of the old man in me. I’m the image of Conway, and the old man never let me forget it.”

Owen nodded. “I’d wondered.” A lot of things from his childhood fell into place. His mother’s fascination with the garden in the dead of night, and the odd way the head gardener always kept his face averted whenever my father spoke to him about anything. He remembered long, lazy afternoons with his mother, Conway and Brian, playing in the maze, laughter ringing in the air. Then his father shouted for them and Conway melted into the shrubbery and his mother’s face settled into that of a dutiful wife. It was all a long time ago, though. He had moved onto a new life. It was a harsher one, but more free too.

“Why did you leave?”

“I didn’t.” Owen paced to the small desk beneath the porthole and leaned on it, hoping the indolent pose would calm his racing heart. Even after all that time, he felt the same terror he’d felt that night. “Our dear father beat me with the fire poker until I was broken and bloody and then he tossed me on the compost heap. I would have died there if Conway hadn’t spirited me away in the small hours of the morning. His sister nursed me until they were sure I’d live, then her husband put me on the first ship he could find before the old man discovered I was still alive.” He glared at Brian. “Is that enough of a reason not to tell you ‘goodbye’?”

Owen spared a glance at his companions then, part of him terrified this would be the last time he saw them. He wasn’t sure if that fear was borne of the real possibility they would all be dead by morning or because he thought they’d reject him now they knew the truth of where he’d come from. There was shock in both their faces and he looked away before he could see it turn to disgust.

“Fuck.” Brian ran an agitated hand through his hair and paced in the confined space between his desk and his bunk.

Warmth seeped into Owen’s sides and he realized both Will and Eugene had moved to stand beside him, pressing their bodies close. He sighed and would have grabbed them both to him if he’d been alone. Eugene’s hand once again found the small of Owen’s back and Will’s fingers brushed his as they gripped the edge of the desk.

“Good God, look at you.” Brian’s hands flapped at his side. “How the hell have you escaped detection with the way these two are constantly touching you. It’s like you’re magnetic or something.”

Owen grinned. He couldn’t help it, knew it wouldn’t help, but knowing his lovers couldn’t stay away from him, even after seven years, was one of the things that made this life bearable. Probably the only thing.

“The old man is dead,” Brian declared.

The world paused. It simply stopped. Owen knew it did. Time rested in a little bubble around his head while he absorbed the knowledge that his father was dead. After what felt like hours but was probably only seconds the world began to move again and he realized he felt nothing. He’d be upset if his mother or Conway had died, but his father’s loss had no impact at all. He didn’t even hate the bastard anymore. He was much more suited to this life than he’d ever been to the life the old man had mapped out for him in England.

“Will you come back?”

The question took Owen by surprise. “Why would I?” He immediately regretted his response as he saw Brian’s face fall into stiff lines. He moved to his brother and placed his hand on his shoulder, half expecting him to shake it off and relieved when he didn’t. “I love you, Brian, but what kind of life would I have there? Could I bring Thompson and Smith with me and live with them there? Because I’m telling you, I won’t be parted from them.”

Brian’s eyes widened. Even though he’d seen their closeness and had commented on it, Owen thought that was the first time he’d actually considered that Owen was actually with both of them.

“Both of them,” Owen confirmed. “We’re circumspect aboard ship, but most of our men know of us. We don’t have to hide who we are. What do you think would happen if we returned to England and lived there?”

Brian spun away and stared out his port hole for long minutes. Owen took the opportunity to grasp his men to him and breathe their scents. Scant seconds in their arms calmed him enough to face the rest of his meeting with Brian as he turned back and glared at them, telling them he’d seen what they did. “I told Mother I’d find you.”

Owen nodded. “You have.”

“What am I supposed to tell her when I return?” He waved his arms around again. “I can’t tell her you’d rather fuck two men than take up your duties on the estate.” He paced again. “Fuck.”

On his second turn, Owen stepped in front of him and grasped his brother’s shoulders to hold him still. “Brian,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry I left you alone but I had no choice. I can’t return now.” He glanced at Eugene and Will standing silent and patient. “I won’t leave them.”

Brian looked at Smith and Thompson again. “Both of them?” Bewilderment colored his tone.

Owen laughed a little. “I know.” He shrugged. “I figured if I was going to be an abomination, I’d be a good one.”

Brian chuckled. “You always were inclined to over-achievement.” He sighed. “If you won’t return home, I can’t take you back to England. You’d stand trial for piracy at the least, although Her Majesty’s government is charging many pirates with treason.”

“Treason?” Just the word was enough to send chills down Owen’s spine. There was no escaping from that.

“It’s the situation with the Spanish.” Brian shrugged. “The Portugese and the Americans.” He paused. “And the French—always the French,” he added with a little laugh. He looked suddenly serious. “Don’t relax too much. Stay alert and together. I’ll sort something out and let you know.”

“You don’t have to do that, Brian. Don’t put your career in jeopardy.”

“This is my last mission. I’m going back to the estate.”

“Estate?” Eugene spoke for the first time, then turned to Owen. “You’re not being too hasty are you, Owen?”

Owen glared at him and Will laughed, speaking up for the first time. “Don’t worry about him. He just has visions of becoming Lord and Master of all he surveys. Pull your head in, Eugene. You’re not getting rich out of this.” He turned to Brian and eyed him speculatively. “Unless it’s a really nice estate?”

Owen laughed and cuffed Will on the back of his head. “You pull your head in too, Will.”

Brian sighed. “Conway said I needed to be prepared.”

“What are you talking about?”

Brian had stepped around his desk and pulled a drawer open. “He and Mother are sailing for the Americas in the spring. They believe they’ll be able to live there without judgment. She married him, you know, about a month after the old man died.”

“They’re leaving? What about you?”

For the first time, Brian laughed. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m a big boy now and, with you gone, I have a healthy estate to keep me busy.” He blushed. “There’s also a young lady I met last time I was on leave.”

I raised my brows. “She won’t have been married off before you get home?”

Brian shook his head. “Her mother likes the idea of her daughter marrying an Earl, or she will until the scandal Mother’s caused becomes known.  I’ve made an offer and it’s been accepted. The contracts have been drawn and Giselle understands I needed to make one more effort to find you before….” He shrugged. “They’re going to declare you dead if I don’t bring you home.”

Owen didn’t know how to react. Finally, he allowed humor to carry him through. “The old man told me I was dead to him, so I guess this just makes it official.” He turned to Will and Eugene. “Can you two bear to be with a penniless pirate?”

“You won’t be a pirate much longer. Our ship’s gone, remember?”

“And you’re hardly penniless. You’ve never spent a penny of your spoils. I know, because I’m the one always buying the drinks.”

Owen laughed and threw his arms around their necks. “And we’ll be dead by tomorrow anyway, so none of it matters, heh?” He looked each of his lovers in the eye, letting them see exactly how much he cared for them. “The last seven years with you have been the best of my life.” They nodded. Will sniffled and turned away.

“Baby,” Eugene teased, but he rubbed a gentle hand on Will’s shoulder.

“If you’re going to be dead come dawn, that means I’m definitely inheriting the estate and becoming an Earl.” Brian rubbed his hands together gleefully but Owen could see the sadness in his eyes. His brother picked an oilskin package off the desk where he’d placed it while Owen was talking with his lovers, and passed it to him. “This should get you wherever you want to go and set you up.”

Owen didn’t take the package but rounded the desk and drew his brother into his arms. Brian clasped him close and buried his face on Owen’s shoulder as he had done as a child. Owen clamped his eyes closed against the welling tears. It didn’t help. They overflowed as he drew back and he laughed as he saw similar damp tracks meandering down Brian’s cheeks. There was so much he needed to say, memories of their childhood he wanted to relive with his younger brother, but it was already too late for all of that. If he returned to England, he would die; if he left, he’d be dead according to law. Either way, he and his brother would never see each other again.

Brian handed the package to Owen again.

“Come. It’s dark now and you’ll be able to slip away.” Before Brian opened the door he turned and eyed all three of them. “I don’t understand it, not all three of you, but if you feel half what I feel for Giselle, I’ll accept it.”

Owen’s response was easy. “They’re my life.”

Brian nodded. “Lifeboat number three is stocked and ready. Row east. We’re close enough to the Portugese coast that you should make it in a few days. You can find your way from there.”

Brian couldn’t do more without jeopardizing his command and his reputation. He was an Earl now, with an estate and, soon, a wife. Owen looked at him steadily. “You’re a good man, Brian.”

Brian smiled wistfully and nodded. “As are you, Owen.”

 

Sunset the following day brought them in sight of the coast. They continued to row steadily. Dawn had brought with it a heavy silence that lingered. Owen looked at his companions. Neither of them had said anything all day, obviously waiting for Owen to speak, unsure what would happen now they’d lost everything that had defined their lives for the last seven years. He hadn’t lost anything yet. If they rejected him, then he’d have lost everything. He wasn’t going to let that happen so he took control and made the decision for them, just like he did every day aboard ship. He hoped that’s what they were waiting for, and not for the anger to build so much that they threw him overboard for the sharks.

“I think we have a decision to make.” They both shipped their oars and turned to look at Owen. Eugene’s face was carefully blank, Will’s showed a mix of curiosity and trepidation. “The Americas are supposed to offer a man adventure and riches beyond measure. We could set up there, buy a ship and continue pirating.” Owen looked at the sea, heavy and ponderous around them. “Or we could find something else to do. I hear there are explorations all through the country, good land for the taking.”

“And you know all about land, don’t you?”

Owen looked at Eugene carefully, not sure if the man was angry at him or not. “I do, yes.”

“So what’s your name?” Will’s voice was hard. He was angry at him, and with good reason, Owen realized. He’d never even told them who he was.

“You’ve guessed I’m not Brian Owen, formerly of Suffolk. I am from Suffolk, just not the southern part like I told you. My name is Owen Edmund Forsyth III, Viscount of Waveney, older son of the Earl of Mid Suffolk, although technically, I suppose I'm the Earl of Mid Suffolk now. One day whilst I was on leave from Cambridge, my father found me with one of my school chums. He beat me, as you heard before. I don’t know what happened to my friend. I assume he was sent home. The Marie Jayne was my second ship.” Eugene and Will scowled at Owen, arms crossed forbiddingly across their chests, making it clear they expected more. “I’m sorry I never told you my name. At first, I was terrified someone would find out and return me to my father so he could finish the job he started.” He shrugged. “Then it didn’t matter. I’m not that person anymore. I’ve been Brian Owen for a very long time.”

They remained silent, Will still looking at Owen, Eugene looking out across the water. Eugene was the one Owen had to convince. Will would go along with whatever Eugene and Owen decided on. “You know who I really am. You know me better than anyone has ever known me. You know I love you.” His voice broke on that, having never uttered the words before.

“Fuck you.” Eugene slapped his hand on the bench he sat on. “We live and work with you for seven years and now, when you look like you’re losing everything you suddenly come out with that? Why now?” he sneered. “Do you think it’ll increase your chances of getting what you want?”

Owen reared back under the assault, then gathered his wits about him. “How often have you told me you love me, Eugene? Will? I don’t recall those words ever being uttered by any of us, yet I’ve worked on the assumption they’re true since that first night we were all together. I said them now because I needed to say them, to make sure you knew exactly what you were throwing away when you left.” His voice broke then too, but for a totally different reason. Just the thought of living his life without either one of them brought him to his knees, or would have if he’d been standing. He put his head down and began rowing again, his heart heavy in his chest, his eyes burning.

“I don’t want to leave either of you.”

God bless Will. Owen had lost count of the times Will had said something into a fraught silence between Eugene and Owen and saved them all.

Owen looked up at Will and smiled. “My life would be worth nothing without you, Will.” He turned his gaze to Eugene. “Or you, Eugene. I want us to take this opportunity and build a new life for us. One where we don’t have to hide all the time.”

“You think we won’t have to hide in the Americas?” Eugene still sneered at Owen but he was talking about their future so Owen took that as a good sign.

“I don’t think people are any more open-minded there than where we’ve come from but I think we can find a place just for us and live as we want for the most part.”

“You don’t think people will find it strange? Three bachelors living together?” Will chewed his bottom lip.

“I think people see what they expect to see. If there were just two of us, some people would question that, but I don’t think many people consider three people in a relationship.”

Eugene and Will turned and picked their oars up again, and their progress improved. They’d make the coast by nightfall, all going well. Thanks to the supplies Brian had stowed for them, all they’d suffer would be a touch of sunburn and they were used to that.

“How do you plan for us to get there?” Eugene asked, his voice grumpy.

Owen laughed out loud. He couldn’t help it. Eugene was on board with the idea; at least he was staying with them.

“We can sign on with a merchant ship and work our way over. I’m sure we can find one that will take us on even if they find out who we are. Hell, the way I feel right now, we could hop on a cloud and fly.”

“Idiot,” Eugene muttered, but a smile whispered in the word. “I have a wager to collect.”

Will turned and raised his brows in query. Owen winked at him and he grinned.

They all put their backs into the oars and rowed.

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