Note: The story is set roughly a month after the events of episode "III." It was also written before the rest of the season aired, so it will not follow with the shows canon after episode III.

xxx

A peel of laughter roared up in the room, louder, brighter, and more musical than any of the other noises filling the bar. The sound momentarily robbed Eleanor of breath, it caused her heart seize and then twist painfully in her chest.

She knew that laugh.

She used to be the cause of it, drawing it from Max by kissing the tip of her nose, or playfully nipping at Max's inner-thighs as she lay between them. She used to make Max laugh like that in bed at night as she lightly tickled Max's side before hugging the woman to her, her lips curving up happily as Max muttered threats into her neck before pressing her lips above Eleanor's heart.

That laugh had brought light into Eleanor's world on the darkest of days.

Eleanor closed her eyes and breathed in and out deeply, trying to calm the rush of feelings suddenly crashing over her. When she felt steady once more, she opened her eyes, and then slowly lifted her head from the glass she had been polishing until her eyes settled on Max with unerring accuracy.

The brunette looked lovely, aching beautiful in the torchlight, and Eleanor's heart twisted again, her features contorting in misery as she watched Max from across the room.

Her covert observation of Max did not last for long however, for less than a minute after Eleanor lay her eyes upon Max, Max's eyes drifted away from Rackham who she had been talking to, over towards the bar, over towards Eleanor, as if she had been able to sense the blonde's eyes on her.

When their eyes met, Eleanor looked away, unable to bear seeing the hardness Max's eyes now held, when once they had been filled with tenderness, warmth and love when they fell upon her.

She lowered her eyes back to the mug she still had clutched in her hands and began to scrub again. Concentrating all of her attention on the task at hand, she let her mind empty as she methodically reached for another mug and began the cleaning process again, repeating the motions mindlessly again and again and again, until a figure appeared on the barstool in front of her, casting her into shadow.

Eleanor didn't need to look up to know who it was. So, instead of facing the new arrival, she walked to the left and picked up a bottle which she used to fill a short glass. She then moved back over to where she had been standing before and placed the glass down on the top of the bar.

"How much?"

The sound of Max's voice cut through Eleanor like the blade of a cutlass through flesh.

"It's on the house," Eleanor murmured, cleaning again, not looking up.

"I don't want your charity," Max muttered, fiddling with the glass but did not lifting it to her lips.

"Well, I won't take your money, so …" Eleanor shrugged, looking up and over at Max very briefly before she walked to the side to collect a few more empty mugs.

"Strange position to take, for a woman who had no problem with the trading of money for goods when the goods were Max," the brunette commented dryly before she lifted the glass Eleanor had presented her with to her mouth and shot it back.

Eleanor looked over at Max sharply, and then marched back towards the other woman, coming to a stop before Max just as the brunette slammed her glass down on the bar top.

"You know that's not how it was," Eleanor declared indignantly, finally meeting Max's eyes head on for more than a split second.

Max released a derisive sound from her throat and rolled her eyes before angling her head away from Eleanor.

"You weren't a commodity to me," Eleanor continued, heedless of Max's obvious disdain for what she had to say. "I was trying to protect you. I love you," Eleanor breathed out roughly, holding Max's eyes openly for a moment longer before she reached out for Max's glass agitatedly and moved down the bar to refill it.

"The words come easy now that the responsibility is gone," Max said accusingly as Eleanor poured, her voice low and harsh.

Eleanor walked back over to Max and placed the glass down in front of her silently, her eyes shining wetly as she stared at Max's impassive face. She wanted to say something in response to Max's words. She wanted to refute what Max had just said. But the painful truth was that she had never said the words out loud to Max before. She had felt it every time she slipped her fingers between Max's and felt the brunette squeeze her hand. She had felt it every time her eyes blinked open in the morning to feel of Max's lips on cheeks, kissing her awake. She had felt it, she had known it, but she hadn't said it.

"Neither did you, until that day," Eleanor breathed out softly, angling her head away from the brunette.

"You could have said it back," Max replied, her voice laced with pain as she stared at the side of Eleanor's face. "Look at me," she demanded a second later, when Eleanor kept her face averted. "You look at me," Max insisted, and Eleanor turned, releasing a shaky breath as her eyes met the stormy depths of Max's.

"I wanted to," Eleanor said tremulously, dangerously close to crying. "I wanted to," she repeated, moving back towards Max before leaning over the counter so that she could take Max's hands in her own. "Everything happened so quickly, I couldn't think -"

"You didn't have to," Max interjected, her voice soft but fierce and insistent.

"Yes, yes I did. I do. I don't know how else to be." Eleanor's voice was pleading as she squeezed Max's hands tightly. "You know that. I think, too much. Your little worrier," she continued, her lips curving up the slightest bit as she remembered Max sitting on her lap, whispering those words to her tenderly as she pressed her finger to the crinkled skin between Eleanor's furrowed brows, gently smoothing out the flesh before she leaned forward and kissed Eleanor's lips. "I just needed a little time," she continued beseechingly. "But they were outside of the door, and I had already given Flint a large sum, in retrospect a dangerously large sum. But I had plans Max, glorious plans for future. For the island and for us. I didn't know you had designs when I tossed my stake in with Flint."

"If you had told Max …" the brunette began, bracing her elbows on the bar top combatively as she leaned into Eleanor's space.

"If you had told me!" Eleanor countered before Max could finish.

Immediately, Max opened her mouth to respond, but she sat back without uttering a word, contemplating Eleanor silently. As much as she wanted to spit fire in Eleanor's direction, she couldn't deny the blonde's words. She hadn't told Eleanor what she was doing. She had been planning for their future on her own, just as Eleanor claimed she had been.

"You …" Max began hotly, but she paused before any more words escape her and bit down on her bottom lip, worrying it with her teeth for a few seconds before she was ready to speak again. "You hate this place," Max finally breathed out. "All you do is talk about what is wrong with it. All is stress and worry and anger. Always in crisis, no end to it in sight. This place is killing you, it is eating all of your joy," Max continued plaintively as a large figure passed behind her and settled two stools away.

"Oi, love what 'bout a drink, eh?" the sailor directed at Eleanor once he was comfortably seated.

"No," Eleanor said gruffly without turning to face the man.

She simply pointed her finger at him and then swept it to the side indicating the direction he should fuck off in.

"That's no way to treat a payin' custome…"

Eleanor turned to face him then and the expression on her face immediately halted the flow of words coming from his mouth.

"Move fucking now," Eleanor hissed. "If you ever want to buy another fucking drink at this bar for the rest of your natural fucking life, then you will bugger the fuck off right this fucking minute!"

"She means it," Max chirped at the man, her lips curving up despite herself as she watched Eleanor tear into the hapless sailor. Eleanor had always been irresistible to her with fire in her eyes and curses falling from her lips. That had not changed since they parted, only her desire to feel the attraction had. "Better to be sober for one night than for all the nights to come," Max continued in a more restrained tone.

The man stared at Max for a moment, considering her words, and then he looked at Eleanor, which he regretted when he saw the hostility lighting up her pale eyes. Shifting uncomfortably under her gaze, he looked back over to Max, who nodded at him encouragingly. The man nodded back faintly, then rose from the seat he had just taken and ambled off back into the main part of the brothel.

"I love this place, Max," Eleanor began, facing Max again, her voice now gentle as a night breeze. "Yes, it's infuriating all of the time, but it's also invigorating. You said to me that if we fled from this place that we could be free, but this island is freedom," Eleanor continued, wanting to reach for Max's hand again, but scared that she would be rebuffed if the hard look in Max's eyes were an indication of her current mood. "There is nowhere else in the world where I could exert my will and command respect the way I do here. I may have to wield my father's name when necessary, but he did not built this business, he did not build this place up from the ground. I did. But the fact remains, no matter how much it pains me, that I could have done none of it without his name. Beyond these shores, beyond his name, I'm just another woman."

"You've never been just another woman," Max said before she could think better of it, instinctively offering the words of comfort after having spent so long soothing Eleanor's fears and worries.

"But I would be, Maxie," Eleanor breathed out, blinking back tears. "The world is not kind to women. It hates us. It rejects us like bastard children. Here, at least, there is some autonomy to be had. Here, at least, I could hope to make some kind of life for us."

"For you," Max corrected her voice both hard and sad.

"For us," Eleanor insisted. "I may not have said it before, but I feel it, and I mean it. I love you," Eleanor declared passionately.

"You say that," Max began, blinking back her own tears. "You say you think too much, but did you ever stop to think what this place means to Max. I loved you," Max said slamming her fist against her heart hard enough that Eleanor could hear it, "but Max was not free to give her love. You had to buy my time," she whispered, pained. "Max is owned here," she continued. "What freedom is there for a slave in a brothel? Out there," Max said gesturing beyond the walls of the brothel, towards the sea. "There is no debt binding Max's life to another. Out there, hundreds of murdering thieves may not have cowered at the sound of your voice, but you could've bought property. You could've built something again, made something that was your own without need of your father's name, we could've done this somewhere where Max could be free too."

"Do you think, honestly, that I've ever wanted, that I want anything less for you?" Eleanor asked with shimmering eyes as she finally gave into the desire to reach for Max's hands. "I would not have you beholden to anyone. It's one of the reasons I placed my stakes on Flint," Eleanor began when her touch was mercifully accepted. "The Urca de Lima is worth millions and my investment in its capture has guaranteed me a significant share of the fortune when it is found. It guaranteed me more than enough to pay Noonan off and rid you of that noose around your neck," Eleanor whispered, squeezing Max's hands. "More than enough to buy this place and turn it into an Inn if it was your heart's desire. And enough still to keep my current trade running and perhaps even to expand it to other islands," Eleanor went on feverishly. "I never wanted to trap you, Maxie. I wanted, I still want, to give you the world."

Max breathed in deeply, blinking against the tears blinding in her eyes as she drowned in Eleanor's ocean blue gaze. She felt it tugging at her heart as it had in the past, pulling her towards the blonde. It teased her with memories of warmth and comfort, of Eleanor's embrace. It made her long for the intimacy they had once shared, and for the security she had once felt in Eleanor's arms.

"You would have let them beat me," Max rasped, tugging her hands furiously, roughly breaking Eleanor's hold on her, disgusted with herself for almost letting herself believe Eleanor's pretty words, and for wanting, still, to believe that Eleanor had actually loved her.

"Wh … when I brought them to your room I didn't think that you would refuse the request, I didn't know that there was a reason for you to resist," Eleanor began cautiously, painfully aware of the delicacy of the topic. "They were there, Max. They knew. Flint's captaincy, his very life even, rests on securing this treasure. If he lost the page to you, he would have had nothing to fear from me any longer. He'd just avoided a mutiny. Without that treasure my threats about not unloading his merchandise would have held no sway because his boat would not have been his boat anymore and his crew would not have been his crew."

Max made to move off of the stool she had been sitting on for the past half hour, unmoved by Eleanor's words.

"I would've tried to stop them," Eleanor said quickly. "I would not have stood idle while you bleed," she continued, her hand stretched over the bar reaching for Max though the brunette had moved out of range. "Please believe that," Eleanor whispered desperately. "I'm so sorry. There are no words to express my deep and unending regret. I was frozen, I admit it. I was silent when I should have spoken, but you know the mere thought of you in pain undoes me. I would have acted, Max. I would've."

Max blinked rapidly a few times and then closed her burning eyes and lowered her head.

"I don't believe you."

"Max," Eleanor whispered pleadingly.

When Max lifted her head to meet Eleanor's eyes she looked as broken as Eleanor felt.

"I don't believe you," she repeated, losing the battle she had been fighting against her tears.

Eleanor stared at her for a moment, her chest rising and falling rapidly as her heart pounded in her chest.

And then she was in motion, walking to the end of the bar and then out from behind it. Once free of the confines of the bar, Eleanor then walked towards Max and came to a stop in front of her.

"Come with me?" she asked softly, anguished. "Just for a minute? Please."

Max refused to look at her.

"Please," Eleanor begged.

Max stayed where she was, rooted in spot as her head and heart warred, pulling her in opposite directions. Her brain told her to walk away and chided her for having gone over to the bar in the first place. But her heart wanted to follow Eleanor, it wanted to believe her, it couldn't fathom that it could've been so wrong about the blonde, that it had laid its love so poorly.

"A minute," Max finally breathed out.

Eleanor released a shaky, thankful breath, and then nodded before reaching for Max's hand.

They ended up in a supply room, not far from the bar, alone for the first time in over a month.

"I would have acted," Eleanor said, repeating her earlier mantra once the door had closed behind them.

Max huffed disbelievingly, meeting Eleanor's eyes just long enough for the blonde to see the incredulity in them before she looked away again.

"I love you," Eleanor breathed out entreatingly as she closed the distance between herself and Max. "This," she stated, reaching out for Max's hand and then drawing it up to cover her heart, "is not mine any longer. It belongs to you," she declared, pressing on the back of Max's hand, holding it against her heart. "It's yours," she whispered.

Max's eyes closed and she released a shuddering breath. Eleanor lifted her free hand to Max's face and cupped her jaw tenderly. She stroked Max's cheek sweetly with her thumb and Max's eyes couldn't help but flutter open. Eleanor leaned in slowly and Max did not draw back, so Eleanor kept going until their lips touched.

A soft sound escaped from Max when their mouths met, and then she swayed towards Eleanor, eliminating the scant distance that remained between their bodies, clutching at the blonde desperately as she returned her kiss as urgently as Eleanor kissed her.

A knock sounded at the door, and then a creaking sound filled the air as the door was pushed open.

"Ah, ladies. So sorry to interrupt your … conversation," Rackham began, stroking his mustache as he grinned at them. "But I'm afraid I really must steal the lovely Maxine away," he continued, shrugging his shoulders helplessly. "The Captain has called and so, to the Ranger we must go. You understand," he said with mocking sympathy to Eleanor, who was still cupping Max's face in her hand as she glared at Rackham like she could kill him with the sheer force of her will.

"Max," Eleanor whispered, grasping wildly for Max's hand when the brunette stepped away from her.

"You will see me again," Max breathed out, her lips turning up just the slightest bit as she met Eleanor's eyes, her own holding a far gentler expression in them than Eleanor had seen directed at her for quite some time. "Nassau," Max continued, letting Eleanor's hand fall from her own, "she is not so big."

Max walked past Eleanor then, towards Rackham and the door, and Eleanor turned to watch her go. She wanted to reach for Max again, she wanted to go after her, but she held herself in place, knowing that Max had given her all that she could give her that night, acknowledging that Max had given her more than she could have hoped for given how things had stood between them only an hour before.

As Eleanor watched Max disappear into the crowded brothel with Rackham at her side, she comforted herself with the thought that while things between them were still not right, that they were at least improving. Max had talked to her, Max had let her touch her and touched Eleanor in return. Max still cared for her, despite the mistakes she had made and all that had happened.

The ghosts of their past still weighed heavily between them, but they had made progress that night. As Eleanor made her way back behind the bar, for the first time in a very long time, she was able to believe that all was not lost. She was able to believe that there was still a chance for them to heal.

The End