Of the gladest moments in in human life, methinks is the departure upon a distant journey to unknown lands.
-- Richard Francis Burton, 1856
Beacons Harbor’s tiny port was usually busiest in the early mornings when the fishing folk set out, and at sundown, when they returned with the day’s catch. This day however, the jetty was still bustling with activity despite it being nearly noon. Workers scurried along in the shadow of the Argent Arrow, scrambling to load the last of the supplies in time for its departure.
Stiles and Scott were on the edge of this bustle, hastily but ineffectively trying to unload their luggage under the weight of the coachman’s impatient glare.
“Dash it, Stiles! What in the heavens do you have in here,” Scott swore as he heaved a compact wooden chest into his arms, “A pile of bricks?”
“Your deductive skills never fail to impress me, my friend,” Stiles answered while he struggled to extract his bulging canvas bag from the narrow carriage doors. “As always, you are perfectly and outstandingly wrong. It must be a new record.”
“Well then, what is it?” Scott enquired gamely. He knew from years of previous experience that rebuttal would futile.
“That,” Stiles pronounced with grandeur, having finally emerged victorious in his fearsome battle against the carriage doors, “Is my chest of treasures. Books, journals and maps for the self-made explorer.”
“Really? A library?” Scott’s face was a picture of perfect confusion. “You want to take this all the way to Africa?”
“Why, yes, of course. It’s not a box of tea; I’m not going to throw it overboard.” Stiles frowned at the look of disapproval on his friend’s face and became at once defensive. “They’re important! I can’t just leave them here. What if I need to refer to them?”
“Fine,” Scott sighed, “I won’t stop you, but I can promise you you’ll regret it.”
“Wait, are you sailors not supposed to be superstitious and careful about what you say? Because that sounded singularly inauspicious to me.”
Scott merely glared at him in a manner that eloquently conveyed the message Shut up, Stiles.
“And isn’t it bad luck to sail on a Friday? Come one, even I know this one,” Stiles continued, because some things just had to be said. Truthfully, he knew a lot more than that one, but Scott knew him well enough to leave before he could inadvertently break any more taboos.
Less than two hours later, Stiles was watching Beacons Harbor fade into the distance from atop the Argent Arrow. Scott had vanished off to perform his duties, which could be anything from greasing the riggings to waxing down the cargo hold. The details didn’t matter, because as far as Stiles was aware, the duties of an ordinary seaman consisted largely of menial labor.
His dad hadn’t shown up in the end. Which was for the best, since he probably had more important things to attend to as the sheriff.
And he had made his stance perfectly clear two nights ago, when he told Stiles to get out of town. I want you to go. Those were the exact words. So clear and unequivocal they were more or less a direct order.
So off I go, Stiles thought as the last glimpse of Beacons Harbor disappeared around the bend.
He stretched and turned around, leaning heavily against the wooden beam. It’s the beginning of April and the Californian sky was wide and blue above him. The waters were much smoother and darker away from the bay, though there were patches that seem to glitter under the sunlight. The wind was mild and the ship sailed so gently along the ebb and flow could barely be felt.
The Argent Arrow was a medium-sized merchantman, but it’s by far the largest vessel he had ever been on. Full-rigged ships stopped coming to Beacons harbor years ago. He used to go up to Hale cliff to watch them pass from afar, but even then, he rarely saw any. He couldn’t tell how deep the ship was from deck to keel, but the main mast alone seemed to reach a hundred feet in height. The Argents were established tobacco merchants so it came as no surprise that the Argent Arrow was well-appointed and well-maintained. She should be able to complete the voyage to Los Angeles in less than four days, perhaps in just three, if weather permits.
But getting to Los Angeles was only the first step. Stiles had a much longer journey ahead of him.
Next would be the South Pacific railroad, which would take him across the continent to New Orleans. Once there, he would have to find Mr. Finstock and, if all went well, he would be part of the Louisiana Cotton Merchants Association’s first expedition to Africa. He had heard that the new steamships were now able to get across the Atlantic in less than three weeks, but if they sailed it would probably take up to eight. And in both cases, there would always be the possibility that they wouldn’t arrive at all.
The passage was sure to be arduous, but when was there ever adventure without hardship? Each step of the way would only take him closer to his dreams. And simply the thought of stepping upon that exotic continent excited him beyond measure. He felt like Henry Morton Stanley, off to find David Livingstone among the treacherous jungles with nothing more than a letter of instruction and a positive attitude.
Of course, Finstock had emphasized that they were planning for Freetown, not Zanzibar. But to someone who had spent all his life in a small fishing town of the Californian coast, Africa was Africa. His first concern was to get there.
His dad was right. He had been suffocating in Beacons Harbor, living but not alive. He needed to look forwards and outwards. He needed to see a larger world, to feel it and be a part of it. A world that wasn’t just held in the palms of his hand, among the pages of books. A world that was without borders, infinite and free, so large that it could contain him and all his curiosities and anxieties and idiosyncrasies.
It was simply unfortunate that the first step towards achieving this was to leave his old world behind.
It was deep into the night when they were awoken by the first roar of cannon fire. The entire ship shuddered so violently that Stiles almost toppled out of his bunk. Before anyone could respond, the second round of guns started almost immediately.
Stiles was still struggling to untangle his legs from the blankets when all the other occupants of their tiny cabin had fled. By the time Scott managed to physically drag him out into the narrow corridor, it was already packed full of people in various stages of panic.
The air was filled with agitated chatter, but there was really only one question being asked. Who was attacking them? Various theories were being thrown around and rejected. Surely it couldn’t be pirates? This was California, not the Caribbean. Perhaps it was the Navy? But they couldn’t possibly open fire on an unarmed merchant ship.
Unfortunately, they didn’t have the leisure to solve this perplexing mystery. The gunfire had finally ceased, but the increasingly ominous groaning emitting from the hold and the sharp smell of gunpowder and scorched wood became much more imminent concerns.
“We have to get to the lifeboats!” Scott shouted at him over the mob that had forced them apart, “They’ve blown a hole in the hull! The ship is going to sink!”
No. That was Stiles’ one immediate reaction. He didn’t even have time to think, he simply turned around and started pawing his way back to their cabin.
Scott had promised he’d regret it, but he didn’t realize just how quickly. It was such a bad idea to bring his books. He could buy new ones if he needed them, or borrow them, or read them off the shelf. But there was no way to replace the ones that he had. The ones that used to belong to his mother.
He reached the cabin and though he could barely see anything in the dark, he knocked into his book chest soon enough. He couldn’t take everything. He had to choose. But there was no light and no time and what sort of a dim-witted blithering idiot would try to save a couple of books when his ship was about to go under?
Stiles acted on instinct, digging through the chest roughly until his fingers closed around a leather-bound volume. It fitted into the oilskin pouch he kept his money in, but just barely. He had to abandon the roll of greenbacks in order to make room.
The corridor outside was quiet now, all the other passengers having fled onto the deck. It an odd moment of calm, he remembered the life-preservers stored on the overhead racks. Groping around blindly until he found the bulky device, he fumbled it on as he ran for the deck, making sure to tuck the oilskin pouch tightly against his chest.
The heat and smoke hit him before he could even emerge from the hatch, making his eyes water and throat clench painfully in protest. He forced himself forward only to be confronted by a forest of flames. The magnificent spread of sails had been set ablaze sometime during the attack and was burning fiercely against the pitch-black sky. There was little else to be seen through the dense smoke except for the fiery columns that used to be the masts.
Stiles stumbled his way to the beam, but there were no other signs of life left on deck. The lifeboats had all been launched. He could see nothing in the waters except for agitated waves and flickering, broken reflections of the burning ship. The other survivors must have rowed out into the darkness beyond. No one cared if some got left behind in a panic.
The night was dark as coal and there was nothing to be seen of their mysterious assailant. The Argent Arrow had already sunk so low that its deck was no more than 12 feet from the waterline. Stiles briefly considered holding out for a miracle, but there was a distressing crackle and the mizzen mast came crashing down mere steps from where he stood. Seized by panic, he flung himself overboard before the hungry flames could lick their way down the beam.
He hit the waters painfully and ungracefully. The initial contact was so sharp and brutal it felt as if he had hit solid ground. Bitter salt water rushed instantly into his mouth and lungs as he plunged into the water. It was pure agony for a terrible heartbeat before the life-preserver popped him back up to the surface.
It took him a few moments of aggravated choking and hapless floundering before he regained enough senses to weakly propel himself away from the burning carcass of the Argent Arrow. He let himself drift until the air was once again cool and fresh and the Argent Arrow was just a bright vision in the distance.
It was only then when he was struck by the fearful realization that he was alone. Totally alone.
So deep was the night that he could see nothing apart from the hellish glow of the Argent Arrow and a few dim stars, high up above. There was almost no difference in the view behind his lids and before. All was silent apart from the hauntingly rhythmic sound of waves.
He could feel the panic bubbling up from the pits of his gut and it took all his willpower to keep it from spilling over. He had to go back towards the ship. It was his only guidance in the darkness, his only chance against losing himself to this dreadful oblivion. He kicked his legs and paddled with his arms, but he could get no closer as the tides were pushing inexorably against him. His limbs were getting heavier by the minute and soon he had lost all feeling in them.
He was awoken the next day by the harsh heat of the mid-morning sun. The water was grey and calm, with small ripples pebbling the surface. The horizon was unbroken on all sides; there was absolutely nothing to be seen. He was truly and utterly lost.
There was no panic left in him now, only a sort of harrowing, bone-deep despair. He allowed himself to drift mindlessly while trying to ignore the overwhelming thirst. His face was burning from the sun’s rays so he lifted his arms up to protect it, but let them sink into the water again when he found that the soggy sleeves smothered him. Every moment was torture, but all he could do was to endure.
Time passed. It could have been minutes, or hours, or eternities. He had no energy left to care. He was slipping in and out of consciousness, blacking out for unknown periods before he was jerked awake once again by the acrid taste of seawater.
Stiles was barely on the edge of consciousness when he suddenly perceived the sounds of splashing. The splashing of oars. He opened his eyes and turned his head towards the sound. His vision was blurred from fatigue so all he saw at first were vague, uncertain colors. Then, as the waves dipped and rose, the world came into focus. He saw a small rowboat slicing its way towards him, slowly and wondrously, as if in a dream.
The rower was silhouetted against the sun but Stiles would readily believe it to be his guardian angel. He wanted to wave his hands, do something to gain notice, but he found that he couldn’t move. He could only wait, while hoping with every fiber of his being that salvation would not pass him by.
It did not.
As the sound of oars grew nearer and nearer, the feeling of sheer relief was rapidly draining him of all remaining energy. He thought he heard the sound of a man calling out to him, in a voice that was terse and gruff, but not discomforting. He thought he felt strong arms around him, pulling him out of the water. He thought he saw a pair of vexed and stormy eyes, set under heavy brows.
He thought he did, but he couldn’t be sure, because an unrelenting blankness was rising up all around him. And he gave himself up to it the moment he was out of the water.
It is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever present perils of life.
-- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, 1851
“I spoke to Scott.” That was the first thing his dad said when he came through the door.
“Yeah?” Stiles shrugged, not looking up from where he was setting the table. It was almost ten, but he had heated up the lasagna less than half an hour ago, so things were all right. He didn’t mind late dinners as long as they weren’t also cold ones.
“You can talk to me about it, you know,” his dad removed his jacket, dropped it onto the couch and strode over to pull out a chair at the kitchen table. Stiles eyed the crumpled mess meaningfully until his dad retreated back into the living room. When he returned, the jacket was hanging neatly on the coat rack.
Stiles didn’t say a word the entire time, but he did finish setting the table. When they were both seated, he inclined his head to indicate that he’d made his point.
“Stiles, this is not about my jacket,” his dad told him flatly in reply.
“What’s it about then?”
“You. What you want to do.”
“I’m doing things dad. I’m working. I enjoy my work.”
“You enjoy being a bank clerk?” His dad frowned at him.
“I also work weekends at the museum,” Stiles mumbled through a mouthful of pasta, not bothering to look up because they both knew it wasn’t really an answer.
His dad had not touched his food. Obviously, he meant serious business. The world wasn’t going to move on until he gets a satisfactory answer. His dad cut him a lot of slack on most things, but when he really put his foot down, nine bulls and a tractor couldn’t move him an inch.
“It’s a chance in a lifetime,” his dad said, “The town’s been in decline ever since what happened to the Hales. We don’t get much salmon anymore. You know that ships won’t come up past San Francisco just for some sardines.”
It was true, but Stiles wasn’t about to be persuaded by information he already knew. “It’s Los Angeles dad, not China. I can get there some other way.”
“Or you could go with Scott. He told me the ship sails on Friday.”
“I already told Scott that I’m not going,” Stiles snapped. He was going to kill Scott, or at least seriously maim him. His best friend hasn’t been back in town for eight months. Eight. Yet he still managed to stir up violence in Stiles’ mild-mannered soul in a matter of days.
“Stiles.” His dad leaned forward and looked him in the eye. He looked back, suddenly feeling guilty and uneasy, the way he did when his father had to deal with the consequences of his unmanageable restlessness as a child. “Stiles, I want you to go,” his dad said, entirely without inflections.
“Are you crazy?” He bolted up from his chair, hands jerking frantically in the air to emphasize his point. “I can’t go! Who’s going to cook? Who’s going to do the laundry? Who’s going to make sure you eat?”
His father’s shoulders sank. “I know I haven’t been… I know I’ve been busy,” he sighed, “But I’m not blind. I’ve seen the look in your eyes when Scott left. When the Martin girl left. There’s less than half of your elementary school class left in this town now. You shouldn’t be stuck here, looking after a graying middle-aged man.”
Stiles could feel the familiar flood of bitterness at the back of his throat, the hot prickle at the back of his eyes. He knew the feeling well, but he didn’t know what it was for this time.
Was it for Scott? Lydia? Scott had been working around the port since he was twelve to help with his family’s upkeep. It hadn’t come as a surprise that he decided to become a sailor, even if Stiles hadn’t expected him to leave so abruptly. And Lydia had always been destined for university. Her gender never had a chance of stopping her.
In a way, he had always known that they were going to leave, that they would move on beyond him. He had seen it coming and he had let it pass with a smile on his face, wanting nothing but the best for them, even if it was away from him. He knew he couldn’t hold them back and he convinced himself that he didn’t want to.
And if it wasn’t for them, then was it for his dad? Or was it for himself? All this time he had stayed behind when, maybe, he should have left long ago. He wanted to think he was doing the best for them, for him and his dad, but perhaps he was wrong. Or perhaps he was right, and he had merely been refusing to see the truth all along. No matter what, the simple truth was that no one actually needed him here. The only person who had ever been holding him back was himself.
He was free to leave. He wanted to leave. Everything worked out, but somehow he felt like the ground had been taken out from beneath his feet. He was standing in front of an abyss, an abyss that he had been trying to fill for so many years, except now he knew that he couldn’t. And his father stood on the other side of that unfathomable darkness, saying, “I want you to go.”
And that was it. If he just turned around, he would stop facing the abyss. He could move forward, go somewhere else, do the things he wanted to do. Except if he turned around, he would be turning his back on all that he was. Beacons Harbor and his little desk at the bank; Hale cliff and the rocky tide pools they used to play in; his dad and the godforsaken abyss. All those years, lost over the edge and into the darkness.
“It’s been thirteen years, hasn’t it?” The ground was back under his feet and there was just the kitchen table between them, but his dad’s question still sounded like it came from far away.
Twelve years and nine months actually, but Stiles didn’t correct him. His father was looking at him with sad, gentle eyes. Perhaps looking through him at someone else. “She would have been proud of you.”
Stiles stood mutely at the table and watched as his father ate. No more was said that night.
Stiles woke up quietly, blinking tears out of his eyes. He might have had a dream, parts of it a nightmare, parts of it a memory. He just wasn’t sure which were which.
The first thing that struck him was the scorching sensation spreading across his skin, concentrating on his face and arms. The pain was constant and agonizing, and likely to continue until he grows a fresh layer of skin. The second thing that became obvious was the unfamiliarity of his surroundings. He was in a spacious ship cabin, on a thoroughly uncomfortable bed. It felt like no more than a layer of cloth over hard wood, but at least the sheets were clean and cool to the touch.
Gradually, he became aware of the presence of other people in the cabin, though it took him a little longer to make sense of the conversation going on.
“—the gall of you to even show you face here,” a man was saying with a voice that was strained with cold, unnerving fury. Just the dangerous, contained nature of that low, disembodied voice was sufficient to send a shiver down his spine. It might have sounded more oppressive and threatening, if not for the fact that it was oddly familiar.
“Please Derek, I had to do it. You know how much that means to me,” the other man replied. He sounded older and completely undeterred by the other’s anger. Though his words were respectful, his tone was relaxed, perhaps even patronizing.
“You drugged me and left me stranded on a beach,” the one named Derek growled.
“I also left you a rowboat and coordinates. I would never do anything to hurt you, but you were just being so stubborn. You forced my hand, Derek.”
“We’re not ready to take on the Argents. What if someone saw you? What if they know?” Derek no longer sounded angry, just frustrated. “The moment they get wind of this — They can and they will hunt us down.”
“Oh, they already did,” the other man commented without humor.
“This is not the time, uncle Peter. We have plans. We'll go to Brazil, but until we get there, you have to let it go.”
“I can’t,” the reply was so swift and so vicious that it caused cold sweat to break out at the back of his neck. “You weren’t there, you don’t know what it was like. The heat, the screams, the smell of burning flesh. I can still feel it, I can still see it, and I can still smell it. And as long as I can’t forget that, I am not going to let this go.”
There was a sudden, suffocating silence in the cabin. Peter spoke calmly and evenly, but there was a disturbing sense of something torrid, something deranged lurking just under the surface.
Stiles knew who these people were now, as anybody from Beacons Harbor would have. They were the last of the Hale family, that once-great family that used to be the economic pillar of their town – Derek and Peter Hale. It was uncanny to be having such chance meetings with these infamous local personalities out here at sea.
“How many innocents did you kill last night?” Derek had all but deflected after hearing what his uncle had to say.
“You misunderstand me, Derek,” Peter answered sardonically, “I merely seek justice against the Argents. I have no desire to go about committing mass-murders.”
“Just answer me.”
“Do you think so poorly of me? I gave them sufficient time to escape. They weren’t far off the coast, so I’m sure they’ll survive.” Peter’s tone was causal, as if he was discussing the possibility of rain in the morrow. If Stiles could move, he would have surged up and mauled the man for causing him so much trauma and distress. Except he probably wouldn’t, because even though he had only been listening to the man’s voice for ten minutes, he could instinctually tell that Peter Hale was bad news.
“Yeah? Then what about the boy?” Stiles involuntarily froze as the topic suddenly turned upon him. “You think he would’ve survived if I hadn’t found him?”
“Ah,” Peter said in a manner so delicate, it was almost indulgent. Then he explained, patiently, as if to a child, “It was dark, Derek, as it had to be, so that they wouldn’t see us. Because, as you know, if they saw us I would have to kill them. And it was chaotic, as it is bound to be, when a ship starts sinking. It’s unfortunate, but I can’t help it if one or two gets lost in the process.”
“Surely you jest,” Stiles couldn’t help but speak up at this point. Sadly it did not come off as dramatically as he would have liked, because his throat was dry as parchment and the words crumbled out like sand. “You might as well open fire into a crowd and say ‘Tough luck if I hit you. I wasn’t aiming for anyone’.”
“Why, someone has a smart mouth on him. Would you like some water to soothe that acerbic tongue?” Peter Hale asked. He sounded amused, which was probably good, but he also sounded like he was moving towards the bed, which was definitely the opposite of what Stiles wanted.
“Water would be welcomed,” Stiles croaked, because it really, really would. Biting back the pain in his muscles, he struggled until he was sitting up against the headboard, and was rewarded by a full cup of water and an indulgent smile from Peter Hale.
While accepting the wooden mug from him, Stiles couldn’t help but notice the thick, knotted burn scars that covered his entire hand. Those striking, twisted scars continued up his forearms until they disappeared under the sleeves of his cotton shirt.
His staring must have been blatant, because Peter Hale was smirking at he drawled, “Would you like to touch them?”
“No,” Stiles jerked his eyes away immediately, “Thank you for offering, but no. And thank you for the water — Oh Good Lord!”
He had been trying to be subtle as he edged away from the placidly smiling man with the horrifically scarred arms, but then a shadow fell over him and a large hand closed around his bicep in a deathly grip. He startled so fiercely that he spilled all the remaining water onto the sheets.
“Get. Up.” Derek Hale was beside him, wrenching him off the bed with a strength that was sure to leave bruises. It all happened in the blink of an eye, but Stiles managed to fling an arm out and latch onto the nearest handgrip. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the collar of his assailant’s jacket. But nonetheless, he held on with vindictive strength because his legs were like those of a newborn foal and it was all he could do to stop himself from crumpling into an undignified mess upon the floor.
Derek Hale glared down at him coldly, but he didn’t look so intimidating with someone pulling his collar out of shape.
“You could have just asked,” Stiles glared back with equal vehemence as he transferred his weight to the bedside table for support and gingerly propped himself up against the cabin wall, “You don’t have to pull my arm off.”
Derek Hale had a few inches on him, so Stiles had to lift his chin to look him in the eyes. The man was of a broad and powerful statute, which was only to be expected, since his strength was nothing short of savage. His countenance, however, had some pensive and quietly intense quality to it. There was a stoic severity etched into the sharp lines above his cheeks, and something somber about the downward inclination of his lips. His eyes were especially unexpected, in that they were surprisingly absent of the brutality and cruelty you would expect of so menacing a man.
But just as he was observing the other man, the other man was observing him. They were like animals upon the savanna, hunter and prey encircling each other, awaiting the optimal moment to strike or flee. And in this case, Stiles had no illusions as to which role he played.
“You overheard us talking,” Derek finally made his move. The physical aggressiveness was gone, replaced by an easy confidence that was much more disconcerting. “You know who we are.”
“No!” Stiles immediately denied, even though he was involuntarily shrinking under Derek’s cool, assessing gaze, “I know nothing. I cannot even begin to speculate. I am absolutely ignorant of everything. So you can just drop me off at the nearest port and forget that I ever existed and I’ll just —”
“I know you,” Derek interrupted, cutting off all his escape routes, “You’re the sheriff’s son.”
“No, we’ve never met. You think of someone else,” Stiles didn’t give up even though he was honestly stunned that the other man remembered. They did use to live in the same town, but Derek Hale disappeared years ago, before Stiles had even hit puberty. There was no way the man could be sure it was him.
Nodding, Derek stepped back. But Stiles barely had time to breath a sigh of relief before he heard the other man calling a name out the door. “Jackson! Get in here!”
Once again, his blood ran cold. It was like being pulled out of the ocean only to be plunged back in the next second. Peter Hale smiled surreptitiously at him from across the bed, mouthing the words A dead man tells no tales. It immediately induced a sort of sick lurching in his gut.
Soon enough, there was a sharp rap on the door and an unpleasantly familiar figure appeared at the doorway.
“Reporting for orders,” the blonde youth muttered sullenly, not bothering to look up from the floor.
“Sir,” Derek Hale snapped. He strode swiftly back to Stiles and dragged him over to the door.
“Reporting for orders, sir,” the youth repeated. The words sounded like they were minced out through clenched teeth.
“Do you know him?” Derek questioned, pushing Stiles forward.
Only then did the surly youth finally peel his unhappy gaze from the cabin floor and look directly into Stiles’ ashen face. His blue eyes bulged almost comically wide, then narrowed in a flash.
“Stilinski?” he sneered, causing Stiles to wish for the hundredth time that he’d never known Jackson Whittermore. Ever. Derek Hale didn't even bother to look smug, his chiseled face managed to look insufferably superior despite being completely devoid of expressions.
“What is he doing here?” Jackson asked, then took one look at Derek’s dark glower and added a hasty “Sir” to his question.
“He is going to be your new crewmate.” Derek Hale proclaimed this as a matter of fact. “He’s taking over as cabin boy, Jackson. You’ve been promoted.”
Two disbelieving exclamations echoed in response of that proclamation. One was delighted, the other outraged.
“Ay, ay, sir!”
“You cannot be serious!” Stiles shouted, spinning round to confront his captor. But the man appeared unmoved by his fury.
“I don’t want to kill you,” Derek told him in all seriousness, his pale eyes serene, “And I don’t think you’re in any hurry to die. But I can’t let you go away, knowing what you know. So either you stay on this ship, as a cabin boy. Or you get off this ship, as a corpse. Your choice.”
Stiles’ mouth slipped open and close wordlessly. Then finally his face shuttered down in defeat. “That’s not a choice,” he protested weakly, “That’s a death threat.”
Derek Hale merely inclined his head in reply, as if to say And you point is?
Stiles shook his head. For once, he didn’t have a clever retort or a biting riposte. He felt drained and emptied out by the events of the past two days. He had just spent hours alone and adrift at sea, hours during which he had lost all hope of survival. It was hard to be optimistic while submerged up to your neck in Davy Jones’ locker, held afloat only by a bit of cork and balsa wood. And he could still recall the entire process with terrible clarity, as if overwhelming fear had permanently seared the experience into his memory.
If he used to think that it was possible to be defiant in the face of death, he now knew, with certainty, that it was not. All men live enveloped in whale-lines. He had read that famous line long ago, but it was only now that he fully appreciated its sentiment. Death was not a possibility -- it was a constant. He was merely some pale skin and fragile bones, his life like a candle in the wind, easily blown out at any moment. Yet, even though it might not matter to anyone else, it was at least precious to him.
So he fell silent under Derek Hale’s flat, dispassionate gaze. This man did not care for him, but of course, he had no reason to. It was enough, for now, that he didn’t want his blood on his hands. It was enough that he was giving him an option to survive.
“Welcome aboard the Alpha,” Derek said, impassively accepting his surrender. Then the man turned to Jackson and began efficiently conveying his orders. “Take him to the galley and show him his duties. Then go report to Boyd. Let him know you’re a seaman now, he’ll tell you what to do. But first, get someone to Danny. I want to see him immediately.”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson answered, the corners of his lips twitching as if he wanted to grin but didn’t dare.
“Now get out of here.”
“Yes, sir!” Jackson grabbed Stiles by the shoulder and proceeded to hustle him out the cabin.
As they were leaving, they could hear Derek turning his attention to Peter Hale.
“You’re my uncle, but I’m your captain. I have to punish you for what you did,” he was speaking so lowly that it could barely be heard. “You’re confined to the steerage for a week and removed from your position as first mate until further notice. If you ever…” That grim, steady voice faded as they walked out of earshot.
You won't make yourself a bit realer by crying,' Tweedledee remarked: 'there's nothing to cry about.'
'If I wasn't real,' Alice said – 'I shouldn't be able to cry.'
-- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-glass, 1871
The first thing Jackson did once they were alone was to shove him roughly against the wall and attempt to interrogate him.
“Why are you here, Stiles? Are you following me?”
“What? No!” Stiles was almost tempted to laugh, caught off guard by this absurd accusation, “I don’t want to be here, not in the least. But they have sunk my ship, so I must be here, or under the sea. But you,” he turned the question back on the other man – “You should to be in university, with Lydia. What are you doing here?”
“It’s none of your business,” Jackson glowered at him, but he released him and stalked brusquely ahead.
“Fair enough. You’re the least of my concerns,” Stiles muttered, straightening out his shirt. It was much too large and draped loosely over his frame. Someone must have put it on him while he was unconscious. That didn’t matter though, because it was dry and soft and he was prepared to make do with whatever he gets.
“Shut up,” Jackson said, apparently having heard him, and it seemed so familiar he felt almost nostalgic.
Out on the deck, Stiles could finally see the full form of the ship. He could not name the make, but she was an intimidating two-mast beauty, the wood painted a burnished umber and the sails a shade of burgundy so dark it was almost black. She was smaller and sleeker than the merchantman, obviously made for speed with her many layers of jibs and sails. It was no wonder that no one aboard the Argent Arrow had been able to spot her when she attacked. She was regal and imposing in the day, but would have blended seamlessly into the night.
The Alpha, Derek Hale had called her.
The wind had lifted and the ship was swaying boisterously upon the white-capped swells. All her sails were drawing except for the jibs, pulling her forcefully onwards. Jackson strode confidently despite the constant motion, but Stiles was having a harder time. The deck was smooth and the ship tipped sufficiently for him to see the waterline rising up to meet them with every dip, adding to his unease.
As they proceeded along the deck, they were met by a tall, lean fellow with a thick head of curls.
“Isaac,” Jackson greeted as they came up to each other, but he received no answer. The taller youth’s only response was to casually slam his shoulder into Jackson as they brushed past each other, causing the blonde to let out a short grunt of pain.
“Isaac!” Jackson barked again, much sharper this time, “I have Derek’s orders.”
That finally prompted this Isaac chap to stop. He turned around lazily, eyes half-lidded and sparkling with playful arrogance, the corners of his lips curling into something between a sneer and a smirk. Even the way he angled his head belied a total disregard for the one he was regarding. Stiles was once again struck by a feeling of disorientation; this was a world where Jackson was at the bottom, and not the top, of the food chain.
“Oh, were you addressing me? I thought I imagined a sea serpent’s hissing,” Isaac spoke with a slightly slurred, lyrical accent. It wasn’t British, and certainly not French. Irish perhaps? “Go on then. What does our captain have to say?”
“Go find Danny,” Jackson was clearly bristling though he tried to maintain a veneer of calm, “Derek wants to see him immediately. Then go drown yourself in a bucket. Maybe you’ll be able to wash your blighted ears out.”
“Why don’t you go tell Danny yourself?” Isaac’s dismissive attitude took a turn for the malevolent, “Are you not intimate with him? I had assumed, since you spend so many nights biting his pillow.”
With a ragged cry, Jackson launched himself viciously at the other man and struck him with a brutal blow. Laughing as if he had expected it, Isaac surged up against his attacker and soon, the two were a twisted, grappling mess upon the deck. Uncertain of how to respond, Stiles backed slowly away until his ankle bumped into a bucket.
He was reluctant to get involved, but this was clearly not a friendly brawl. The two combatants genuinely looked eager to tear each other’s throats out, and somehow, he had an inkling that things would end no better for him if someone actually died while he looked on. So he picked up the bucket, filled it with seawater, and splashed the entire load over the two struggling man.
Drenched and gasping, they fell apart and looked up at him with stunned, disbelieving eyes. Fumbling, he dropped the bucket, which rolled away with the movement of the ship.
“Fastest way to break up the fight, lads,” he shrugged.
Jackson shook the water out of his hair and pushed himself upright, glaring balefully. He had a split lip and there was blood all over his chin. Isaac had simply brushed the hair out of his face and was lounging where he had fallen, regarding Stiles with cool interest. One of his eyes was swelling and he had bloody scratches across one cheek. The wounds were probably stinging from the salt water.
Stiles was beginning to calculate his chances of escape when a firm voice cut in. “You there. Good job. Derek broke this guy’s arm the last time he went about baiting Jackson.”
“Drop it, Boyd,” Isaac tilted his head up and grinned, all teeth.
“Not until you’ve learnt your lesson,” the newcomer said. He was young, black and huge. But beyond the broad chest and muscles, there was a distinct impression of intelligence and maturity about his manner. More so than anyone Stiles had met aboard this ship so far. There was also Peter Hale, except the man was clearly unstable.
“Come Isaac, I’ll find you better toys to play with,” another figure stepped out from behind Boyd’s thick frame. It was a girl, perhaps a woman, but definitely not a lady. Her long, golden tresses were haphazardly tied up and she was wearing trousers. Even more shocking was her top, a loose cotton shirt that dipped down her neckline and exposed more skin than Stiles had ever seen on a member of the opposite sex. Lydia had always been progressive, but this woman was something else entirely.
She reached forward with a hand and pulled Isaac up, allowing their shoulders to bump together briefly in camaraderie. Then she snapped around and arched an eyebrow at Stiles’ bewildered stare.
“Like what you see?” She asked, thrusting her bosom out with little subtlety, but there was a feral, malicious gleam in her eye. Will you walk into my parlour? Said the spider to the fly. The lines of a childhood poem immediately flittered through his mind. Not unless I have a death wish, Stiles thought as he kept his gaze firmly fixed upon her eyes. They twinkled at him.
“You’re a smart one,” she said and her brazen grin was an exact mirror of Isaac’s.
Dear lord, Stiles thought, This ship is a congregation of children and lunatics.
“Clear off you two. The wind’s picking up and I need hands on the tackles,” Boyd finally intervened, dispersing the troubling duo with a short command. The two of them trudged off, but not without matching parting smirks.
Then Boyd turned towards Jackson, who appeared little appeased by his intervention. “What did you want, Jackson?”
Despite looking reluctant and resentful, Jackson answered promptly. “Derek wanted me to pass on a message. I wasn’t looking for trouble.”
“If you weren’t looking for trouble, then you wouldn’t have found Isaac,” Boyd snapped, his tone reproachful but not cruel. “And what does Derek want?”
“He wants to see Danny.”
“I’ll tell him,” Boyd nodded. He looked over at Stiles, “Who’s this?”
“He’s the new cabin boy. I’m taking him to the galley. I’m… Derek says I’m a seaman now,” Jackson’s entire demeanor changed as he said those words. His back straightened and his eyes burned with a fierce light. “I’m to report to you later.”
“That so?” Boyd replied noncommittally, his face an unreadable mask, “Get on with your duties then. I’ll be at the forecastle.”
After that eventful journey, they finally made it to the galley, which was almost directly under the hatch, not more than 40 feet from the cabin.
“Get in,” Jackson ordered, pushing Stiles forward before he could obey. “As cabin boy, your only duty is to serve. Set the tables for meals and wash the dishes after, make the officer’s beds, scrub the decks, climb the riggings, trim the sails, mend the rope, do whatever you are told.”
It was a slightly disturbing to see Jackson listing all these mundane tasks while looking like he’d just dined off a fresh carcass. He had wiped most of the blood off with his sleeve, but it had left grisly smudges all around his mouth.
“Did you do all that?” Stiles had to ask, because from what he knew of the Whittemores, Jackson had probably never even had to tie his own shoelaces back in Beacons Harbor.
Jackson didn’t answer, but he looked at him with enough venom to poison a small colony. “You’ll spend most of the time helping out in the galley. Take your orders from the cook,” he continued his lecture instead. “Deaton!” he called into the darkness behind the stoves. “Are you in there?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so eager for work, Jackson,” came the mellow answer. A stout black man emerged from the unlit alcove. He had a calm, reasonable air about him and he looked around the same age as Stiles’ dad.
Oh, wait. Dad. That was when the world paused for Stiles.
He had not even realized that he’d been avoiding that topic, but now that it had come bursting up to the surface, it wasn’t going away.
How long ago was it? It felt like a lifetime but it had barely been three days since he left Beacons Harbor. Would news have reached by now? Would Scott? What would they tell his dad? That his only son is dead? That he didn’t even have a body to bury?
Suddenly, Stiles was hit by an overwhelming feeling of vertigo. All the blood was rushing to his head and black spots blossomed across his vision. His breaths were becoming shorter and shorter. He needed to sit down.
“I’m a seaman now. He’s the new cabin boy,” he could hear Jackson saying, but it sounded oddly distorted, like he was hearing it from underwater. The world was closing in upon him. It was getting impossibly hard to breathe.
He could feel his shoulders starting to spasm and his lungs fighting for air. Distantly, he was aware that he was having a fit of vapors and part of him wanted to die from the shame of it. Most of him though— most of him just wanted to be away from here. He wanted to be home, to be able to hold onto his dad and to find some way to make it all better. But it didn’t seem to matter whether he was at home or away, somehow he was always causing his father pain.
His heart was racing, ready to burst out of his chest, and no matter how he gasped there just didn’t seem to be enough air. But then he could feel strong, warm hands closing around his, bringing them up to cup around his nose and mouth. “Breathe deeply,” someone was instructing him, steady and immovable, “Inhale and exhale on the my count. One, two, inhale. One, two, exhale.”
Slowly, he was sinking back down to the ground again. And though he was still shaking, at least he could breathe normally. He opened his eyes and saw Deaton looking compassionately down at him. He closed his eyes again.
“What in the world was that?” Jackson asked cautiously, sounding almost concerned.
“He had an episode of panic,” Deaton answered, “An attack of the mind, which carries over to the body. But you need not worry, it will subside if he is distracted from his troubles. I’ll put him to work and he will be fine. For the time being.”
“Worry?” Jackson sneered, reeling back with a look of contempt, Why would I worry for a sniveling quim?" He stopped at the door, shoulders taunt and hands clenched, looking as if he had more to say but he somehow couldn't say it. “This is no place for crying, cabin boy,” he finally spat out before thundering away.
Deaton said that he would put Stiles to work, and so he did. There was a multitude of tasks to complete before dinner. All the greasy pots and pans left over from lunch had to be washed. Supplies had to be fetched up from the holds, dredged out from a dreary maze of crates and barrels. Dinner passed in a flurry of activity and then there were yet more dishes to wash.
Stiles passed through the motions in a stupor, devoting all his energy to the mind-numbing chores but only dimly aware of what he was actually doing. At some point in time, the sun had set and he was peeling potatoes by the dim, yellowish light of a sea lamp.
He stopped when he noticed a trickle of blood flowing down his hand. He must have nicked a finger, but his mind registered nothing. So he just sat there, staring at the painless wound with blank fascination.
Then Deaton came up to him and took the peeling knife out of his hands. He replaced it with a butter knife.
“So you wouldn’t slice a finger off,” the cook explained.
It was good for Stiles, but not for the potatoes, for they ended up more mutilated than peeled. He labored on nonetheless, because if he stopped, he would have nothing to focus on except the image of his dad standing in front of two tombstones, alone. Potatoes were much easier to deal with.
“Stiles,” Deaton called, pulling him back from his listless distraction. He looked up absently, expecting new orders, but saw a familiar figure standing by the galley door instead.
“Come with me,” said Derek Hale.
The true biologist deals with life, with teeming boisterous life, and learns something from it, learns that the first rule of life is living.
-- John Steinbeck, Log from the Sea of Cortez, 1941
Derek Hale led him above deck and towards the cabin. Away from the amber glow of lamplight, the world seemed starkly devoid of colors. The sky was clear and the stars were out, but The Alpha faded like a shadow into the night.
Stiles didn’t know much about the captain, but he could observe from the set of his jaw that the man was in a taciturn and unapproachable mood. No conversation was exchanged between them the entire way, and for once, the silence was cause for relief instead of uneasiness. He had nothing to say to his captor; it was impossible to gamble when you held no stakes.
Derek Hale turned to look at him, just before they could enter the cabin. His eyes were strangely bright under the starlight, bestowed with an indistinguishable, translucent hue. “They call you Stiles,” he said, “Is that your name?”
“It’s what people call me,” Stiles answered vaguely, unsure of what was really being asked. But that seemed sufficient for the other man, because he merely nodded, then reached into his jacket to pull out a plain oilskin pouch.
“This is yours,” he said, holding the item out. Stiles grabbed for it with both hands and opened it eagerly. He found his book within, the pages damp and wobbly, but the binding still intact and the words largely legible. For perhaps the first time in the past few days, he felt something that was not utter misery.
“I have removed the letters of credit,” Derek Hale informed him, nonchalantly overlooking his loss of composure, “You won’t be needing them aboard this ship.”
Stiles had not thought about the bank letters until Derek mentioned them. They represented the bulk of his savings, which he had planned to transfer once he was in New Orleans. The letters would have had no effect if they had been lost, but now they effectively placed all his money wholly into his captor’s hands.
“I do not intend to rob you, but the letters must remain in my safekeeping until… until I see fit to return them,” Derek Hale continued stiffly, as if he could read Stiles’ thoughts and were affronted by them, “Or I can have them destroyed immediately, if you prefer.”
“You have a strange sense of honor,” Stiles commented in reply, “You hold me prisoner aboard your vessel, and force me to work against my will. Yet you say you would not take my money.”
“Would you rather that I do? It would be no hardship for me to accept.” There was a hint of amusement in Derek’s voice, though his stony expression remained unchanged.
“No, please don’t,” Stiles widened his eyes with mock earnestness, the banter flowing out with unintended ease, “I only meant to point out the curiosities of your behavior.”
“You are a curious one yourself, Stiles Stilinski,” the captain muttered, his tone contemplative. “I heard you broke up a fight between my men today.”
“It’s just ‘Stiles’,” he corrected, then modestly added, “As for your men, I merely helped them cool their heads a little.”
“So you did… I cannot decide if you are very brave, or simply very foolish.” There was a sort of change coming across Derek Hale’s face, the lines becoming not so much softer as just a little less tense, the storm in his eyes becoming a little less turbid. It was like watching clouds clearing from the midnight sky and a full but distant moon emerging.
“Perhaps I am both,” Stiles answered, compelled to meet Derek’s accusations even though he ought to be protesting them.
He had become very aware of how close the other man was standing. Close enough to sense his body heat in the cool night air. If he reached out, he could touch the man’s lashes just as easily as he could punch him in the face. But even whilst he was excruciatingly aware of this strange intimacy, he was unable to move away. He was locked into Derek Hale’s inscrutable gaze, just as much as he was caged in by his ship.
“Perhaps,” Derek repeated, then abruptly looked away. At once, that bizarre, unspoken connection between them was lost. “But I suggest that you be neither, if you wish to survive.”
It was an odd coincidence that, on the very same day, two unexpected men would offer him two equally useless pieces of advice. It was odder still that they were both right, but he wished that they weren’t.
If he could bring himself to be very brave and very foolish, he would steal a cockboat in the dead of night and try to row his way back to his father. Chances were that he would die in the process, but at least there was still a chance, however infinitesimal, of somehow getting home. But he was not brave and not foolish, not after those hours spent on the border of death. He was not going to take that infinitesimal chance. Which also meant that he was not going home and he was not going to tell his dad that he was alive. He wasn’t even going to try.
And if he were actually able to cry about this, he might maybe feel marginally better. But of course, as he had been so kindly reminded, this wasn’t the place for crying.
Derek Hale had stepped through into the cabin without waiting for Stiles’ response. He led him along to one of the stateroom doors, saying, “The cabin boy would normally sleep in the steerage, but some of my crew have requested that you be put here, with them.”
This was ominous news because Stiles had not met many members of Derek’s crew, and most of the ones he had met frankly did not seem to make for good company.
Indeed, when the door fell open, he was greeted by a pair of identical, wolfish grins. A third imposing presence loomed silently in a corner of the tiny quarters.
“This is Isaac. Erica. And Boyd,” Derek introduced, “I believe you have met them.”
Contrary to Stiles’ fears, the night passed peacefully without incident. In fact, he fell asleep the moment he slumped upon his makeshift bunk of oilskins and blankets, too tired to be wary of his new roommates. He waited for some sign of hostility from them, but it didn’t come the day after, nor the day after that. Isaac revealed no plans to exact revenge and Erica made no further attempts to scandalize him.
He didn’t let it bother him though, because he had always been adaptable. He took things as they come. If he couldn’t fight something, he would fall back and wait for it to go away. If he wasn’t going to cry about something, he found little point in moping about it too.
And as time passed, he became more and more caught up with the irresistible rhythm of sea-faring life.
As cabin boy, he must be up by five, helping Deaton with the baking and setting the tables before the first rays of the sun snaked over the waters. While the crew had their breakfast, he’s in the captain’s cabin, making the bed and topping up the kerosene lamps. Then he’s back out on deck, tidying the inevitably tangled mess of ropes, still stiff and heavy from the morning dew.
Being completely unskilled in the ways of sailing, there wasn’t much for him to do above deck. Most of his time was spent in the galley, assisting with the preparation of meals and the cleaning up thereafter. Except on the third day, Derek decided to start putting him on the late afternoon watch, upon the pretext that he had nothing better to do in that lull between lunch and supper. Stiles would beg to disagree, but learning about seamanship soon turned out to be much more engaging than peeling potatoes.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was discovering that Isaac, who stood watch with him at the main mast, was a pretty decent fellow. For all his apparent unsavoriness, it took only a bit of conversation to unveil the fact that he was a man of passion and one of them was clearly The Alpha. He spoke of his beloved vessel with an enthusiasm bordering on reverence and was almost pleasant to be with in those moments.
Stiles learnt much about his temporary prison just by a few days of standing watch with the Irish youth. The Alpha was one of the fastest sailing ships off the Californian coast. It was a hundred-ton schooner carrying a crew of some thirty men, the exact number often depending on Hale’s mood. Her beam was twenty-eight feet across and her length over well ninety feet. She was a weathered ocean-farer, and had returned from across the Pacific little more than a month ago.
But as he waxed lyrical about The Alpha and her voyages, Isaac inadvertently let slip that he had been aboard the vessel for barely more than a year. By right he had no more claim to being a seaman than Jackson or perhaps even Stiles. Yet, it was this knowledge that gave Stiles a newfound respect for this gangly, bright-eyed youth. Isaac was still a child in many ways; he was willful and rash and he held onto his grudges tighter than a constrictor knot. But it was admirable, inspiring even, that that this half-grown man had managed to find such joy in this alienating and unfamiliar environment, even under the yoke of a callous and sullen captain. And there was no question that he truly loved what he did – the thick layers of callouses on his fingers were direct testimony to his deep devotion.
Stiles learnt much from Isaac Lahey. Not just about The Alpha, but about how to look at the world with new eyes. He found that he was no longer trapped in a bleak, isolated prison. He was on a masterpiece of engineering, sailing a vast ocean of possibilities. He wanted to go to Africa, but really, he could go anywhere and it would all be new to him. The larger world he sought was not a single place or a single continent. It was all around him, he just didn’t see it because he kept looking back, at Beacons harbor and the abyss.
But he couldn’t go back, wasn’t going back. The thought of it made his chest feel hollowed out and his breath falter, but he wasn’t going to let it break him down anymore. He had left in the first place, looking for an adventure. Well, now he’s got one. Not in the way he had planned, but he was prepared to make do with whatever he gets.
The world around him had changed, and not merely in perspective. The weather was warmer, the winds rougher. The waters in particular had taken on a jeweled tone, becoming a deep ultramarine blue that was looked almost surreal under the sunlight. This was the ‘tuna water’, Isaac had explained, the deep oceanic region of the Pacific that teemed with life: porpoises and sea turtles, whales and lobsters, and of course, countless varieties of fishes.
That afternoon, he decided to spend his break above deck. He sat upon the stern with his mother’s journal open upon his lap, sketching everything that he saw. Schools of flying fish skipping over the waters; playful porpoises frolicking in the frothing white trail The Alpha left in her wake; different types of tuna darting about just under the surface.
He only wished he could record it all down in full color. He had not known, until now, that there were so many different shades of blue: from the deep metallic navy of the albacore to the lighter, slivery blue of the bonito, and all of it blending perfectly with the vivid ultramarine of the sea.
He was so caught up in his observations that he did not notice the approach of a certain schooner captain until the man’s shadow had fallen over him.
“I’m off duty,” he hurriedly explained, snapping his book shut and standing to face the man, “Deaton said I was allowed to take a break until the first dog watch.”
“I didn’t ask you to stop,” Derek Hale replied, arching a dark eyebrow at him.
“Well, I thought – since you’re here – that is – ” Stiles fumbled for words but failed to find anything coherent.
“Do you fear me?” Derek asked out of the blue, cutting off his mumbled excuses.
“W-what?” Stiles could not believe his ears for a second, but he soon composed himself. “No. Surprisingly, but no. I don’t think I do.” It was difficult to pin down how he felt about Derek Hale, but whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t fear.
Derek was looking at him in that hard-to-define way he sometimes does, too intimate to be assessing but too remote to be appreciative. “Then do you think of me as a tyrant?” he asked.
“That depends on how you define ‘tyrant’,” Stiles replied without thinking. He always seemed to fall easily into banter with this man, even though he displayed about as much humor and good cheer as the Spanish Inquisition. They had built up a sort of rapport over the days, but it was vastly insufficient to explain that nebulous, unseen connection which often wavered between them.
“How would you define it?” Derek threw the question back at him, sounding genuinely curious.
“A person who exercises his powers oppressively, I suppose. Someone who would hold a helpless man prisoner aboard his ship and force him to perform hard labor, for instance.”
“So you find me to be a tyrant,” Derek concluded. His expression was dark, but then it was almost always dark.
In all their interactions, Stiles had never deliberately intended to provoke the other man. That would be a foolish thing to do, since he was decidedly helpless against him. But it was that frustrating, invisible synergy between them that encouraged him, time and time again, to push that one step further. To probe the other man’s mind and to unsettle him. In short, to discover more about him.
“I do,” Stiles confirmed, but he had more to say. “My opinion however, cannot not speak for your crew. They, I assume, have actually volunteered to be placed under your command and to take up the tasks that you assign to them. To them, I think you have been a fair master. Extremely stern, and quite harsh, but fair.”
“Those are high praises, coming from you.” Derek said. He was still scowling, but there was a warm glow in his eyes. It was probably the equivalent of an ear-splitting grin by Derek’s standards, and Stiles felt oddly satisfied to have induced it.
Nevertheless, it was his scientific duty to attach a disclaimer to his hypothesis. “I speak only from my observations however, and I have been upon this ship for but a week.”
“And are you a good…observer?” Derek asked, his eyes falling upon the leather-bound volume in Stiles’ hands. “Were you recording your observations in that book of yours?”
“That has nothing to do with you or your ship,” Stiles told him shortly. He was aware that this was an opportunity to reach out to Derek Hale, to create something more substantial between them. But he refused to take it. The journal was an intensely personal matter and he had no inclination to share it with a man who was still holding him captive.
“I hope so,” Derek responded as predicted – swiftly and ruthlessly, severing their tenuous bond with barely a pause, “For I do not wish to have to destroy something you hold so dear.”
Stiles would have flinched away from the threat, except he was starting to become accustomed to it by now. Derek’s moods were as volatile as the weather, even though his expressions were as constant as rock. However, it was true that he was fundamentally no tyrant. Stiles had yet to see him take out his anger on anyone who did not deserve it. His gales blew ferociously, but they caused little destruction.
Dangerous but not malevolent, tempestuous but not wanton; that was his impression of Derek Hale. Not a likeable man by most standards, but certainly a fascinating one.
He made a little more sense of Derek’s unusual questions later that night, when he returned to his bunk. The tiny stateroom was half-shrouded in darkness and most of its contents— Boyd’s charts and compasses, Isaac’s collection of knots, all the fur pallets that had hung from the walls— were in a ravaged pile upon the floor. Glass from the shattered sea-lamp crunched dully under his feet with every step.
“What happened here?” He asked.
“Erica,” came Isaac’s disgruntled reply. “Boyd’s gone to find her.”
“And what happened to Erica?”
“She had a fight with Derek. Actually, she tried to have a fight with Derek but, as you can see, she ended up having it with our room.”
“With Derek? Whatever about?” He wasn’t surprised that Erica had trashed their room. Far from it. He was simply surprised that she had done so because of their captain.
As far as Stiles could observe, he had not detected any hostility between those two. And it would have been easy to detect hostility, when it came to Erica. She was a woman of fire and ice, explosive and unrestrained, almost like a force of nature. If she had a disagreement with someone, she would have made it known.
“Old quarrels,” Isaac answered cryptically, “It’s been going on for as long as I’ve been on board this ship. But don’t trouble yourself over it. She mostly just shouts at him and he’ll sentence her to a week or two of night watch. Nobody cares. You’ll see.”
“She shouts at him? Did she call him a tyrant?”
“I suppose. Among other things.”
“Well then,” Stiles sighed, feeling a sort of soft, inexplicable sentiment creeping into his chest, “You might find that Derek cares.”
Curled up in the shadows of his bunk, Isaac merely answered with an incredulous huff.
Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive. Everything kills everything else in some way.
-- Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, 1951
The next day Stiles found Erica slouched upon his previous spot at the stern, staring moodily out at sea. She straightened up at his approach, tossing her hair back and raising an eyebrow, as if daring him to say something about her presence.
“Err, well, hello,” he greeted, a little taken aback. They shared a cabin but hardly talked. Erica was… volatile. Stiles had always tried his best to stay out of her way and that had worked out for them so far. “I’m just… going to leave you alone.” He turned to go.
“I didn’t ask you to leave,” she said coldly. He froze. “Are you running away? Do I frighten you?”
“Why do you ask the same questions as Derek?” He replied without thinking.
The look on her face immediately told him that it was the wrong thing to say. It was the same look he saw her give Finnegan the other day, right before she sliced half a finger off his hand. It wasn’t exactly a bloodthirsty look, but it was savage in a way that reminded him of wild animals.
“Are you looking to get hurt?” She asked softly, “Because I can indulge you.”
Ah, a threat of physical harm. Stiles was starting to get used to them. There really was an odd similarity between Derek and Erica, now that he thought about it. They both responded badly when things didn’t go their way. They were both made out of sharp and hostile edges, defensive in the way others were aggressive.
“I did offer to leave,” he reminded her dryly, “I was trying to be considerate.”
Erica laughed, which he took as a good sign. But, still grinning, she eyed him mockingly. “Consideration! We think so little of it out here at sea, I almost forgot that it exists. What’s next? Are you going to start pulling out my chair before meals and offering to escort me on walks along the deck?”
“No, that would be inconsiderate,” he answered carefully. This was why he avoided Erica; she was like a mine field, he never knew when he might just inadvertantly set off an explosion.
“Why? Because I’m not a lady?” she pouted her lips teasingly, but her eyes were sizing him up, waiting for a mistake.
He stood there, sweating under her gaze, feeling as if he was back in elementary school and being put on the spot by the headmistress. His mind was racing, unhelpfully reminding him of the times he had seen her take down men twice his size.
Erica’s gender wasn’t a topic open for discussion. That was the unspoken rule. Stiles hadn't given much thought to it, preferring to accept things the way they were, but now he was being forced to consider it.
Everyone knew that it was a huge taboo to have a woman among the crew. It was unlucky, it went against centuries of tradition, it was simply unheard of. Yet almost everyone aboard The Alpha went to great pains to ignore the fact that Erica was one. And those that didn’t soon learn that it was lot more painful for them to make it an issue. But this was all due to Erica's efforts. The unspoken rule didn't just materialise out of common agreement, she was the one who put it in place and enforced it.
Perhaps the one person most troubled by Erica’s gender was Erica herself. She was the one who had to work twice as hard and fight twice as viciously just in order to be treated like any other man.
So in a way, Erica was right. She wasn’t a lady. She couldn’t afford to be a lady if she wanted to keep her place upon The Alpha. That's why she took offence so easily, to the point of seeming arbitrary. it was actually quite simple to understand, know that he thought about it. She wouldn't - couldn't - take it as some form of well-intentioned modern chivalry if someone tried to treat her like a woman, let along a lady. She had to take it as an insult. If he tried to open a door for her, she’d probably slam it into his face.
“No,” he finally answered, after pro-longed thought, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a lady. You’re a seaman, first and foremost. And I’ll treat you like one.”
She stared at him blankly, until he was flushed with nervousness and unease. Then, at long last, she smiled.
It was a weak smile, entirely unlike her characteristic, too-bright grin. It made her look tired, sardonic, and it reminded him a little bit too much Lydia, that one night before she had declared that she was going to university. He felt suddenly subdued and apologetic for just being here to see it.
“Relax. I’m not going to eat you up,” she said, “Isaac said you were all right, you know. And I wouldn’t have agreed to share the cabin if I thought you were a prick. You just…you just shouldn’t have mentioned Derek.”
Then, abruptly, she turned away from him.
She had a pair of fishing lines thrown over the ship’s stern and she started to reel one of them in. It came up empty. The lure was gone, torn clean off of the line.
“You’re free to go,” she mumbled, deliberately not looking up as she started fixing the ruined line, “But if you want to stay, you might as well come over and help me check on the other one.”
The wise thing to do would be to take this opportunity and leave. Cut her off the way he did Derek Hale. But, looking back, he wasn’t so sure if that had been the right thing to do. Even now, he often found himself wondering if he should have taken the chance, allowed them to move that step closer towards each other instead of stubbornly holding his ground.
In the end, it might just have been the thought of their sullen captain that compelled him to stay. Almost unwittingly, he found himself stepping up to the beam beside her and doing as she instructed.
A moment later, he had reeled in the other fishing line and discovered it to be in a similar state, lure torn off and stretched to distortion. Fishing was a common activity back in Beacons Harbor, but he had never seen anything like this.
“What did this? Some kind of sea monster?” he quipped absently, not really expecting an answer.
“No,” Erica snorted, pausing in her work, “It’s the tuna. Fast little bastards. They strike the bait so hard that, when combined with the speed of the ship, the force of it simply breaks the line. That, or their jaws. So either way you get nothing. It’s extremely annoying.”
“That’s amazing,” he blinked, though he was more surprised by her candidness than her knowledge. “How do you know that?”
“Experience,” she shrugged, “Anyone who’s fished in tuna waters can tell you that.”
“So you really like fishing, don’t you,” he commented as he watched her expertly swing the re-strung line. It sailed swiftly through the air and dipped smoothly down in the distance.
“Oh no. I hate it,” she frowned as she pulled the line taunt. It cut a thin white trail across the water surface, dragged along by the momentum of the ship. “It’s dull and passive and more than half the time you come up with nothing. I don’t have the patience for it.”
Stiles regarded her with raised eyebrows, pausing in his work on the second line. “So why…”
“Why am I doing this?” Erica finished his question for him, “It’s a little complicated.”
“Good thing fishing doesn’t require much attention then.” He tried to look encouraging, but it wasn’t really necessary, because Erica seemed to have decided to tell him the story anyway.
“It was…some time ago,” she started haltingly, “We were engaged on a seal-hunting charter and it turned out that we were… good at it. Really good. It was lucrative business and, more than that, I enjoyed it, the thrill of it. I thought we all did.
“And because I’ve been on the crew for a while, I thought that I might have some influence. I thought that my suggestions might matter to our good captain. So I went and suggested to him that that’s what we should do – be a proper hunting schooner. The Alpha had what it took. She didn’t need to keep taking on irregular charters, like some vagrant, third-class vessel. We could do it. Find our prey, take them down. Put an end to all this aimless wandering.”
Erica looked out at the open ocean, her eyes dim in recollection. “But he didn’t take well to it. He said he didn’t enjoy hunting, but I knew he was lying. I’ve seen him with a gun and the way he stalked his prey. He was born to be a hunter. Then he said he didn’t approve of the killing, which I found even more ridiculous. So I kept pushing him. I pushed and pushed until he snapped.”
She paused. Stiles leaned forward in rapt attention, the line all but forgotten in his hands. “And then?” he prompted.
“Then… he told me to go kill a turtle,” she said.
“A turtle,” Stiles repeated. He had been expecting something more… impressive.
“You can get one, easily, with a harpoon. Their shells aren’t much defense against 3 feet of steel,” Erica explained, her gaze now fixed on the bit of bobber visible in the distance. “Getting one is easy, but killing it… Killing it is a nightmare. You can cut its head right off but its stupid, helpless flippers will keep going, scrabbling at the deck like someone trapped in a coffin. Touch its flesh and it will shiver. Cut it up, slice it apart, but its heart will keep pumping.” She paused and shuddered at her own memories.
“It went on for hours and hours until I couldn’t take it anymore. I dumped the entire bloody mess into the ocean... I didn’t know what Derek wanted to prove by the turtle, but whatever it was, it was convincing.
“I thought killing was about death, but I was wrong. It’s also about life. That struggling, clinging, desperate life; confused and hurting and condemning you for daring to take it. The turtle simply magnified the process, slow it down so much that even I had to be confronted by it.”
She fell silent for a while. Stiles waited, hardly daring to breathe. The air around them had turned stifling; even the light sea breeze felt thick and sluggish. For a while now, it had seemed like Erica was no longer just talking about fishing or seal-hunting. There was something more to this conflict; something that went beyond the killing of hapless turtles and baby seals. But if she didn’t want to make it explicit, he wasn’t going to ask.
“But even knowing that,” Erica spoke up again, “Even confronted by the weight of it, I still wanted to kill. It made me hesitate, but it couldn’t make me stop feeling the thrill of hunting and wanting it. I wouldn’t touch a turtle, but everything else is fair game. So weeks later, I went to Derek again.”
“And he told you to fish?” Stiles asked.
“Not really. He said that people like us, people with bloodlust in their veins, we know all too much about killing,” Erica started reeling in her line again, “What we need to do is to learn to wait.”
The line came up empty, but it was entirely intact this time, and the bait only half-consumed.
“Boyd gave these to me,” Erica indicated towards the fishing rods, “He said that if I wanted to learn how to wait, I should start with some fishing. Unfortunately, I’m a terrible learner. It’s been so long but I still keep having to come back to this.”
Old quarrels, Isaac had said. Stiles understood it a little more now. Erica didn’t say it out loud, but the hints were there. This was a continuing story – Every once in a while, she will be back at Derek’s door, screaming at him to let her go hunting, be it for seals or whatever demons they represented. But he would refuse, and she would come here to fish, trying to learn to wait a little longer. Trying until she loses patience, then the cycle starts over again.
It seemed quite inexplicable, this consistent refusal on Derek’s part. Maybe even unreasonable. But Stiles still remembered that clouded, uncertain look on Derek’s face as he asked him whether he was a tyrant. And somehow, that was enough to convince him that the taciturn captain had legitimate reasons for turning down Erica’s quest. Stiles didn’t know where his confidence came from, but he felt certain that Derek was preventing Erica from going hunting for her own good. He never liked the idea of hunting anyway. All creatures rot the same way after they die; what was unique and fascinating is the way they live.
“You’re in luck. I happen to be a master at waiting,” Stiles grinned, getting up with the second fishing line ready in his hands, “In fact, I need to learn how to stop. We can help each other.”
“I think I’ll find better teachers among the turtles,” Erica scoffed, but offered no actual protest.
The thing about fishing – it didn’t just teach you to wait, it taught you how to wait just enough. If you reeled in the line too early, the bait would still be intact. If you take too long, the bait would be entirely lost. But either way, the line would come up empty.
So they stood amicably together, fishing. And learning.
Erica gave the fishing rod to him in the end. The fishing became a regular activity during breaks and night watches. Their catches were negligible: A few small skipjacks, some mackerel and once, a beautiful dolphin fish of green and gold – the grandest of their catches, but still less barely 20 inches long.
The tuna problem persisted and had to be solved. They didn’t have a never-ending supply of tackle to sacrifice to the deeps. So Stiles started conducting crude fish dissections in the galley and experimenting with different types of bait.
Isaac joined them some days; so did Boyd, who had less duties now that Peter Hale had been allowed back on deck. The former mate was still under suspension and had been forbidden from manning the helm. But he still had sufficient authority to give out commands, if only because nobody in the crew actually dared to challenge his orders.
Sometimes Derek Hale himself would stop by to watch them fish, though he never once participated. He also seemed to linger in the background when Stiles worked on his journal records, though he never again asked about the contents. Initially, Stiles found the captain’s presence discomforting, but as time passed he began to wonder if the man was simply waiting for some sort of an invitation. And if he was, should he extend one?
Stiles was beginning to waver on the matter, becoming more and more unsure of his position.
He should hate this false imprisonment, he should bear animosity to those who enforced and endorsed it. But he didn’t. Life aboard The Alpha was tough but fulfilling. He felt alive in a way he hadn’t back in Beacons Harbor, in that sleepy little town, at his dull little desk. It also hadn’t taken much effort for him to find that his cabin mates were decent people, despite poor first impressions. He respected them, even liked them. He could almost consider them as friends.
Derek was different though. They were clearly captive and captor. It was irreconcilable. Except the categories were starting to mean less and less to him. He wasn’t miserable and Derek wasn’t unkind. He felt that it probably also wouldn’t take much effort for him to find his captor to be a decent person. But what then? Could he move past the fact that he had been detained against his will? Should he?
The thought troubled him, so he continued keeping a wary distance from Derek Hale. It wasn’t difficult, despite their enclosed environment, as Derek had apparently decided to do the same.
Then came the storm.
It was Stiles’s first encounter with one at sea. They had gone through a few squalls, but this was something entirely different.
The storm came at twilight, sneaking up on them under the cover of the dying light. They had little warning except for a sudden, urgent uplifting of the wind. Then the sky darkened in what seemed like an instance, the transition from day to night swiftly swallowed up by encroaching clouds. The water churned uneasily and the atmosphere became denser, saturated with moisture.
Stiles had been doing the dinner dishes when he was called up to help with the reefing of the sails. All hands were on deck, struggling against the wind to secure the great expanses of canvas. There was an electric tension in the air, reminding him of his experience on the Argent Arrow. But though there was that same unshakeable sense of impending danger, there was not a hint of panic or hysteria on The Alpha. The men around him were glum but efficient, with a sense of order to their graceless heaving and hauling.
Rain had started pelting down by the time they were done with the sails. The low rumbling of approaching thunder resounded ominously through the air. Stiles was unceremoniously despatched off deck while the rest of the seaman scattered to their respective storm stations. He had been learning about seamanship, but Derek apparently still felt that he was too green to be of anything more than a hindrance during a storm.
The cabin was empty when he entered. Boyd was probably at the helm, waiting to convey orders from Derek and Danny. Isaac and Erica should be at the bow, manning the storm jibs. He felt somewhat guilty to be sitting down here, secure and dry, while the rest of them faced up to the full force of the storm. Then he felt silly for feeling so, because he'd never volunteered for this. He owned nothing to this ship, her crew, or her captain. But that didn't stop his guts from rising and sinking along with the increasingly violent swaying of the ship.
The wind had risen to a shrill whistle, but the outer passageways were uncannily silent. Squalls lasted only for several minutes, but storms blew on indefinitely. He sat uneasily in the flickering light, unable to do anything but wait.
Suddenly, the door burst open. Isaac staggered in, drenched and swearing indecipherably. He was carrying Erica on his back.
Stiles jumped up immediately to help. "Watch the leg! Careful!" Isaac hissed in warning. Together, they managed to lower her onto the most accessible bunk. She was soaked to the point of dripping, but the wound on her temple was still open and bleeding. She looked blurrily up at Stiles and gave him a watery grin. "'m fine." he could hear her mumbling.
"What happened?" Stiles asked. Accidents were only to be expected during storms, but he could tell from Isaac's agitated behavior that this was no rountine casualty. Something must have gone very wrong.
"Some goddamned scumbag pushed her down the forecastle stairs," Isaac answered through clenched teeth.