There's one thing that makes this bloody nightmare worthwhile and his name's Sebastian; without him, you're dead sure you've have walked the plank by choice.
He's sweet and kind and gentle, a midshipman who's been at sea too long, and if there's been any luck at all in your impressment by His Majesty's bloody Navy, it's that you've somehow landed on his ship. You're not sure you can really call it luck, finding yourself in a ship of thieves and thugs and monsters sailing some foreign sea under the auspicious command of a captain far too fond of the lash, but Sebastian tells you quietly as he tends your back that really, it's not so bad on the Excelsior.
He's crewed worse, is all. The way he says that, soft and sad, makes you want to hold his face still and kiss him until the whole ship fades.
It takes him ages to tell you he's been Captain's Boy for years, that he's only been "promoted" because they've picked up someone younger last time they made English berth. You don't know much about how His Majesty's Service is meant to work but you're sure he shouldn't look so ashamed of it, that he shouldn't speak of gang rape so easily, that he shouldn't expect it because he's pretty.
You're very, very sure he shouldn't be more worried about you.
For a time, it's only horrible, being kicked out of your hammock to spend your watch up on the lines, scrambling for purchase and terrified you'll fall. You get all the shit jobs, you think, the constant deck swabbings and the endless, finger-shredding knotwork, and you're not the only one, because the other men they picked up with you are no better off. David throws up constantly, says he has no sea legs at all but he's trying, and the captain has him strung up and lashed for it when he hears. None of that's new, exactly, not the sounds of wretching to all hours or the captain having someone strung up for nothing in particular, something they can't help, but the officers make you stand there on deck and watch.
Then they make you swab the deck.
Sometimes, you can hear Richard cry at night, pain and fear that only stops when one of the midshipmen gets up to "tend" him.
The sounds then are worse. You squeeze your eyes tight and pretend you can't hear. Sometimes, when you're very, very lucky, you can feel Sebastian's hand sneaking up to touch your back.
You figure this is hell on Earth, proof positive your Mam's God is blind, and that's before the fighting starts.
You had no bloody idea.
Sebastian finds you before the raiding starts, presses extra shot for your pistol into your palm and makes you swear you'll keep your wits about you. There's so much smoke, he says, it gets confusing once it starts up in earnest, and if you find yourself on the bloody Spanish ship, you'll do best with your sword.
He holds your hand too long, probably, but standing down by your hammocks in the dank dark of the ship, staring into his rather earnest eyes, you think it ends too soon.
Then you find out in excruciating, vivid detail what he means.
Richard doesn't come back. The ship's surgeon takes David's arm. They put manacles on the Spanish who survive long enough to surrender and the first mate shoves the last one overboard and all you can do is watch in horror as they all slide off the deck in sequence. The last one grabs for someone to keep himself anchored on the deck; you see him reach out for Sebastian and in that moment, you're sore you're out of shot.
He doesn't get Sebastian, he gets the thin-lipped Captain's Boy, and for a moment, you're not sure how to take Sebastian's wide eyes. It won't really dawn on you until Sebastian gets "demoted", loses his bunk in the hold for a spot back in Captain's quarters, but in that moment, the silent, awful splash ringing in your ears in ways not even the constant slap of waves can match, in that moment you think maybe Sebastian's sorry he's still on deck.
Once you hear about the demotion, you think that makes a pack of sense.
The Captain flays the Spanish captain to make an example of him, though you're not sure for who, because the bloodthirsty bastard's already tossed all the other Spaniards overboard. Mickey's not quick enough to laugh when your Captain jokes at how very messy the Spanish are and it's his turn next, a count of 50 with the cat'o'nine, and when you're scrubbing bits of bloody bone and flesh from the wood grain of the deck, Spaniard and Mickey both, Woolsey clamps a hand on your shoulder and tells you about Richard again, like that means anything special.
You find out later that means it's your turn.
You don't mean to be late for watch, you just can't get out of your hammock the next morning. When the first mate sends someone down to get you, you half-hope he'll just run you through.
It's Sebastian, you know it without looking, because the hand on your back is gentle, oh-so-careful of your aches, and the voice comes soft and kind. He apologizes for leaving you alone, which makes you want to cry again, because it's not like he's had a choice.
It breaks something in you when he helps you get up, when he wipes at the smears you are not thinking about again ever if you can help it and helps you straighten your uniform, tells you quietly the best ways to move until the soreness fades.
The last thing you see before you step out on deck is Sebastian's hopeful smile. You can't remember the last thing you wanted to kiss this much.
You know it's not normal, how Sebastian makes you feel, but you find you can't help yourself. You're both stuck in hell and you know it, even if he doesn't always seem to, and you want to protect him more than you'll ever be able to manage. You see the way he stiffens slightly when the Captain calls his name and leers, the way he walks sometimes in the mornings that looks horribly like Richard's morning shuffle, and for all he slips away sometimes between the end of watch and the call to bed, you know it's not enough.
There are days the only thing that keeps you going is his smile, the way he ducks his head and crinkles his nose when he laughs, the way the fading sunlight catches his eyes. You can see it in him sometimes, the boy he must have been, the man he'd have been without this place, and you're drawn to him more than you've ever been to anyone else.
For Sebastian, you'd gladly take the lash. Sometimes, you do. Christ knows you've taken beatings for stepping between him and the first mate's ugly looks.
Sebastian touches your arm once when the Captain's call to bed comes early and you can't help the sheer annoyance on your face; he says it's all right, everyone's got their places on this ship and he knows his, and under all that sweetness and miraculous bloody innocence, you see Sebastian's strength.
That's when you know it's love. You should be terrified for yourself, because His Majesty says it's a hanging offense to love one of your own, but honestly, you're more terrified for him.
Because on this ship, rough rutting in the dark of night is fine but having tender emotions for anything is a sign of weakness no one's willing to tolerate for long.
They use it against you. Of course they do. Once they figure out you'll do pretty much anything to keep Sebastian safe, they set about finding ways to make you pay.
By the time they get to putting glass in your sandals, you aren't even surprised at how far they'll go. You're almost expecting the beatings now, and that's just when the crew knows.
At least you get to see Sebastian from afar. Sometimes your eyes meet; sometimes, he smiles. Sometimes, you can even manage to smile back.
Then the Captain finds out.
The worst thing there is, he finds out about Sebastian first.
So it's the plank for both of you and you've never even kissed, and you'd do almost anything to keep Sebastian safe, that hasn't changed at all, but there is absolutely nothing you can do. The very best you can hope is that he's comfortable, that they haven't bound his hands as tight, that it will be quick and painless for him and that he won't feel a thing.
The salt water's going to feel horrible on your scars, you know, because you're a mess of half-healed wounds, but you know you can take it because you've taken so much worse.
In so many ways, what they're threatening is an escape, the closest thing to a reprieve you'll get out here.
The last thing you see is Sebastian's face, grim and fraught, eyes widening as his lips press tight when you tip off the plank. The way they've tied you up means you can't swim or anything, there's no way to keep yourself afloat really, but he's right in after you, a shadow hovering over you as you sink, and it takes ages before you'll close your eyes.
It takes ages before everything fades away. It bloody hurts, your chest burning as your precious air slips away, salt flaring up your back as the weight of your clothing drags you down.
It's bloody horrible, dying, and it can't be over soon enough. You have Sebastian to find in hell, a first kiss to claim.
So when you find yourself shivering and choking on the drenched deck of a ship, still bound at the wrists until someone orders you cut free, you're beyond surprised. The only reason you don't fight it, whatever impulse has had them drag you both back from hell, is that you hear Sebastian choking, too, from not far away at all. You turn until you can see him and in the process, you have the vague sense this isn't your ship.
The man hovering over you is strange and fey and bedangled, bits of bone and trinkets knotted in his hair and a leather tricorn tipping jauntily on his head. When he smiles at you, his teeth flash gold.
He's rambling on at you about old sea tales and impossibilities, there's no such thing as the Dutchman and you know it, and trying to keep up with him hurts your head. From an arm's length away, Sebastian coughs your name, chokes out sea water and looks up at you.
You don't care that they're pirates, that they'll probably run you through as soon as look at you once you're on your feet; Sebastian's there and speaking and he's still alive. You can take on pirates for him. You can and will.
Only, you don't need to, apparently, because a tallish man behind the rambling madman clears his throat, folds his arms across his chest and gives you a smallish nod.
"Sparrow, we've discussed this," the tall man says in an accent not far removed from yours. "You cannot parlay with them when they first arrive. It takes at least a quarter-hour before their wits return."
The madman's mouth pulls into what you can only call a moue. "I'll have you know, Commodore, that is not a parlay." Your blood runs cold at the title; you nearly miss him muttering that he can't parlay with "the men from your little fort."
The Commodore's expression doesn't change at all; you think he looks far too, well, composed to be in His Majesty's Service, because none of the others you've known have worn it well.
"Believe me, Sparrow, these men were not in my fort," the Commodore says, looking you and Sebastian over with a kindness you haven't seen in far too long. He turns back to Sparrow with a wry frown. "Might I trouble you to help him up?"
Then the madman's offering you a hand and you're scrambling back from it, shifting to tuck Sebastian behind you because it's really all you can do, and the Commodore nods again. Looks, for a moment, like a man in cold, dead fury. You're not sure why you're not afraid, but you aren't. Not of him, anyway. You're still not sure about the madman.
"I'd apologize for your ill-treatment on behalf of His Majesty's Service but I suspect you'd find it somewhat less than satisfactory at this point," the Commodore says. His lips press thin. Sebastian leans against your back, lays a hand on your hip. You'd fight the Kraken itself for him and you know it and just now, you don't care who else does. The world can throw its worst at you; at least you'll go out together. You've already done it once.
Instead, they feed you. You don't remember the last time you've been fed this well, a spread for kings, and for all you start out cautiously, it's not long before you're shovelling food in with both hands, warming up with the sweet-sour burn of rum and Sebastian's seat beside you as close as you can get. You've both had a chance to dry off and you feel miles better already, even your back doesn't hurt anymore, and once it seems they really don't mean to run you through or throw you back overboard, you and Sebastian share smiles again, the sweet, warm ones from when nobody else knew.
You're sure it's obvious what's between you and you know you should be worried, because last time anyone else found out, they had you killed, but the Commodore--"Please, call me James, we don't exactly stand on ceremony on this ship"--doesn't care and the captain--Sparrow, incredibly, they let the madman run things around here--doesn't, either, and apparently, they can't kill you for it this time because you're already dead.
Bit of a shock, that. Sebastian looks worried. You take his hand in yours beneath the table, rub his fingers to warm them with your own. He looks at you through his lashes, smiles with a slow heat you've never seen on him before. Just then, he's prettier than any girl you've ever seen.
They explain your options, a one-way trip to some gray haven they don't know much about or as long as you'd like crewing the Dutchman under their command, and you know you should be listening to your options because really, when are you going to get a choice like this again, but you already know what you'll do.
Whatever Sebastian does, obviously. You're still his.
You know that goes both ways when his fingers tighten on your hand, when he squeezes you a little in pure reassurance.
Sebastian bites his lip and thinks it over, staring blankly at his plate when he's not sneaking glances up at you. When he squares up to address James, he looks resolved.
"You know how things were on our last ship," he says evenly, bits of that composure you're only still adjusting to from James. "Is there any reason at all for us to think it would be any different on yours?"
The way Sebastian's eyebrow lifts is pure challenge. You adore him for it.
James looks at Sparrow, eyes him in a way that seems odd and familiar at once. Sparrow leers back in return, which makes James snort and roll his eyes as he reaches over to tug Sparrow in.
You cannot call what follows anything but a kiss. Can't see anything but tenderness and familiarity and heat in it, the sort of kiss you've wanted to give Sebastian for ages.
When James pulls back, Sparrow looks rather dazed. Not so dazed he can't tug James back to do it again, long and slow and deep.
You think maybe they've forgotten you're both here.
And when you look over to meet Sebastian's gaze this time, you're dead sure he wants to stay. That something about this ship excites him the way your old ship never did.
You can't say you're ever much of a sailor at heart but at least Sparrow's against the lash and James keeps things running smoothly; it's never going to be fun, exactly, working the lines, but the Dutchman only surfaces to pick up lost souls who've died at sea and when you're under water, there's not much to do at all, and they find you and Sebastian bunks tucked off in a corner in the hold, just the two of you and a bit of space to call your own.
It takes you three days or so to actually kiss him and actually, he kisses you first, but it's everything you've thought and more somehow, sweet and hopeful and bright and hot, and it's no time at all before you're both in the same bunk at night.
And for all this is your afterlife and you're still at bloody sea, you can't call it hell at all.