“Holy—! Captain, stop it! Captain!”
Strong arms held him in a crushing grip that squeezed the air out of his lungs. He tried to wrest free, but his arms were pinned firmly against his sides, leaving him gasping for breath until his vision narrowed and stars swam before his eyes.
I have to…! I have to…
His legs buckled. As he sagged, the vice loosened. He drew a ragged breath, hoping to steady himself enough to fight back. But instead he was dragged to the ground and forced to his knees.
“That’s better. Easy does it,” a familiar voice panted in his ear. “I need you to listen to me, Captain. Can you do that?”
Words screamed through his mind but wouldn’t reach his tongue. He bit the inside of his lip until he tasted blood.
“Yeah, I was afraid of that.” The vice tightened a fraction. “Look, I’m sorry, but I can’t let you go just yet. Not until I’m sure you won’t do anything stupid, all right? Such as cutting yourself up with your own blade.”
Indeed, the handle of his dagger dug into the palm of his hand. He had wanted to… Still did.
“James? Can you let go of that for me?” Billy’s voice waivered just a little. “Because I need you to let go of your weapon before I can consider letting go of you.”
Damn it all… Reluctantly he unclenched his fist. The dagger clattered to the floorboards, but Billy didn’t relax his grip.
“Right. Now take a deep breath and tell me what in blazes that was all about.”
The thing was, he couldn’t remember. His mind had been all over place, stringing notions together into some mayhem of emotions that made no sense. Yet somewhere in that mayhem, in the frustration and anger, he had pulled his dagger. Not to attack his First Mate, but to—to what?
To show on the outside how much you’re hurting on the inside.
Now he remembered.
“You know how the men sometimes fight for no other reason than to vent their frustrations?” he said. God, he sounded calm, even to himself. “It…it was a bit like that.”
“Except you turned on yourself,” Billy said, his intonation betraying his confusion.
James glanced over his shoulder, his vision shimmering as through water. “…who else?”
The weight of Billy’s body, which had pushed down on his shoulders and kept him on his knees, now shifted backwards. One strong arm briefly moved to shove the abandoned dagger out of reach. James caught himself tensing at its absence. This strange calm, like the eye of a storm, existed solely by the grace of being restrained. If Billy were to release him…
Yet while Billy didn’t resume the choke-hold, the First Mate’s large hand did clamp down on his shoulder while the man settled in behind him, one arm still firmly across James’s chest. James reckoned he should resist. Fight. He might even win, too, despite Billy being both taller and stronger. But he couldn’t muster the resolve. After writhing once out of habit, he surrendered, utterly exhausted.
“Why did you stop me…?”
Without relinquishing a modicum of restraint, Billy’s hold mellowed into a tight embrace. “For the same reason I break up those fights among the men,” he whispered. “They may be angry and upset with everything and nothing at the same time, but they don’t really want to hurt each other. So I stop them before they do.”
“…You shouldn’t have. Not today.”
“Hmm. You know, Captain? You tell me that every time you lose your way, but the mood always passes. Could be hours, could be days, could be weeks or longer, but somehow you always regain your bearings, take the helm, and steer us clear of whatever trouble we’re in.”
“Not this time…”
He felt a puff of warm breath against his neck. “You’ve said that, too, every time so far,” Billy chuckled. “You always try to make sense of things, James. Always trying to understand what is happening, and only getting more upset when it just doesn’t make any sense to you.”
James flinched, torn between fighting Billy’s hold – and his truth – and accepting it. The First Mate now gave him enough leeway to resist, but not enough to make a lunge for the discarded dagger. Infuriatingly sensible, and ironically comforting.
“It’s okay, Captain,” Billy said. “I’ve got your back. We’ll just stay here, together, as long as you need for this mood to pass.”
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