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The Prize Master

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It might have seemed odd for a person determined to make their life as a pirate, but boarding a prize and fighting the attacked crew were Jack's least favorite parts of his profession. The thrill of the fight was enticing, certainly, but the danger of it and the sheer inadequacy of Jack in this role were overwhelming. They had plenty of men willing to spill blood in the name of their captain and technically speaking Jack was not obliged to join them in those endeavors. Not since he became the prize master and his head became slightly more valuable to the men.

This setting, however, turned Jack into some sort of an addition to the crew rather than an integral part of it. He felt no kind of kinship with the men he sailed, but to climb the twisted and slippery ladder of Nassau power prospects one could not be considered merely an addition. Additions were a luxury one cannot always afford, a luxury that pirates learned to live without and could easily drop in a heartbeat if the need occurred. Jack was no great fighter nor a nautical genius, he needed to be as integrated with the crew as possible if he wanted to keep his place in it. That unfortunately required accepting certain risks.

Anne fumed at him as he worked on the books, noting their most recent gain while the shallow gash on his forehead still bled slowly.

"The fuck you're tryin' to prove?" she finally snapped. "You know you're more useful here."

"Be that as it may," he agreed with the ease of an old argument. "They need to know I can fight as well. As one of them. We need to be the part of this crew if we want to stick with it, my dear."

"I fight with them!" she growled in annoyance and wasn't that another messy point entirely.

Because Anne did fight with them. She was one of the best of them, actually, even while she stayed behind just enough to cover Jack. She was careful and steady like the blade she yielded. Lethal and absolutely breath-taking. Her skills were already impressive when they joined the crew, she took to it quickly and with ease picked tricks from Jack and her opponents, but then Charles Vane himself offered to teach her more, fuck only knew why, and she became even better. She exchanged the typical cutlass for two blades worn at her sides just like their Captain and she cut through the attacked crews with the ease few could compare with.

Jack had no doubt that if the crew decided they can do without him the only thing that would make them pause would be Anne's wrath at such a verdict. Somehow it was both enough and not even close to enough for him.

"Darling, my- personal feelings about you fighting for the both of us aside..." She scoffed. "They can't see this partnership as a secluded part of the crew which it actually is. It can't be them versus us in their eyes or the final result will be quite the same except I will have you for the company on whichever island they will leave me on. I admit it would be quite a comfort, but still not the preferable option."

She stayed silent and he returned to work as she watched him.

"It is us against 'em," she finally said quietly and he looked at her, finding her questioning gaze.

"Always," he agreed and she nodded, accepting his reasoning and following through like she always did.

He bit his lip to distract himself from the dull pain in his skull and focused on the calculations.

-

The wound on Jack's forehead hadn't yet healed properly before they engaged in another attack. The scab was itching mercilessly and it cut into Jack's hair making it stick out at an odd angle, but that hardly seemed like a big enough deal to complain. He was lucky enough to recover so far, the Ranger crew was not known for their patience or restraint.

Anne stormed towards him as they braced for the attack.

"Just be fuckin' careful," she growled with a warning he knew meant she cared and was actually worried about him. He gave her a tight smile and nodded before catching a hold of her hat and pulling her head down enough to kiss the top.

Anyone who thought she had no heart was a fucking idiot, Jack thought fondly, watching as Anne walked ahead and positioned herself ahead to cover him from the worst of the attack.

They boarded the merchant ship easily enough, but the fight was intense. The crew they attacked was not a big one, but it was clearly determined, possibly threatened by the loss of their wages if they would not put up a fight. Jack planned to check it later in their articles if possible, mostly to satisfy his own curiosity. It hardly changed anything, they all were making a living and Jack was hardly the one to cry over the unfairness of it. Certainly not as he blocked blow after blow from two sailors at the same time.

The sudden bullet connecting with his arm was really overdoing it.

He fell to the deck of the merchant ship. It was covered with blood and he wondered vaguely how much of it was his, if there was any way to tell.

Anne was going to kill him was his second thought.

He fought to catch his cutlass or any sort of weapon, to get up, to protect himself, but his moves were sluggish and he merely managed to weave his hand aimlessly. His head was heavy and buzzing with so much pain. It hit the deck with a thud as the world before his eyes disappeared.

-

He didn't have the time nor coherence at this moment to think, but he hardly expected to wake up again. Certainly not in captain's bed.

Captain was currently wringing out a wet cloth in the basin next to the bed, before he brought it back to Jack's forehead and seemed startled at seeing Jack's eyes open.

"You're awake this time?" the captain asked with a small frown.

If pressed, Jack would have to admit he wasn't entirely sure. He really doubted Charles Vane would be aiding him in healing if he was awake. Then again, it would make for quite a weird dream as well. The throbbing pain slowly seeping in seemed to be the only stable proof of reality.

Jack opened his mouth to voice his doubts, but the movement must've aggravated some wound on his face he couldn't see and instead he hissed in pain.

Captain nodded to himself and went on with cooling Jack down with the refreshingly cold wet cloth.

Jack really hoped it would end up being a bizarre dream after all, but he had no strength to fight for it as his eyes closed again.

-

Next time he woke up it took him far too long to figure out where he is for it to be a comfort, but he was still in the captain's cabin, in captain's bed. The situation made only slightly less bizarre due to the lack of captain himself. Jack looked down to the warm presence snuggled to his side and he automatically petted Anne's sleeping head as she was awkwardly half laying on the bed, half still seating in the chair next to it.

He run his fingers through her hair, vaguely disturbed by how weak he felt, but comforted by Anne's well-known presence.

The door opened suddenly, but the captain paused before entering and he closed the door behind him more quietly. He made his way to the desk and grabbed a cup he drunk greedily from, making Jack swallow in envy.

Captain looked at him carefully and sighed glancing at Anne before coming closer towards them and getting some water into his cup from the nearby bucket. He leaned towards Jack, one hand helping him raise his head, the other holding the cup for him as he drunk. The water felt cold and fresh and Jack swallowed greedily wondering how long he was asleep and when precisely his captain became so at ease with attending to him.

When Jack was lowered back to the pillow, perhaps not too gently but not painfully either, he watched the captain cautiously. Suddenly he seemed more mysterious than ever before.

"You seem awake enough this time," Captain volunteered, his voice a quiet rumble.

"How long-" Jack rasped and stopped with a soft cough that Vane simply waited out.

"Three days since the fight. You've been awake on and off, but never fully." He nodded towards Anne. "She's been awake most of this time, barely let the doctor patch few of her own cuts, when I agreed to watch over you."

Jack smiled at her, small hooks of worry tugging at his insides even as he could see her before him.

"Was she badly hurt?" he croaked.

"It was just a few shallow cuts. She's fine. I told her to sit here with you when she almost got into another fight."

"She's not good with people, when she's tired," Jack excused her fondly.

"She's never good with people," the captain barked back and well, there was really nothing to say to that.

Jack pet her hair some more, enjoying their familiar feel. She was amazing.

-

When he woke again Captain was bent over the books and that... that was really not good. Jack moved, alarmed and the pain shot through him, although it seemed far less overwhelming than before. It seemed he was going to pull through once again. He still had to make some pained sound because Captain lifted his frustrated gaze from his calculation to rest it on him.

"Are you working on our books, Captain?" Jack asked cautiously before the man managed to speak.

Captain snorted, clearly amused by Jack's priorities.

"Someone has to."

"I believe there's a quartermaster," Jack suggested lightly.

Jack hated Hanrahan with all he had. The man had twice as much ambition as he had the brains and it didn't really mean he had that much ambition. He somehow crawled to the post of the quartermaster and was about as useful as an empty pocket in a whorehouse.

Still, the crew trusted him, knowing him for years since he was one of the old Teach's people. He would've never become a quartermaster on a ship belonging to or following Teach, but just the fact that he sailed with the man raised him in the eyes of the Nassau crowd and that had to count for something.

It had to because otherwise there was really no point in keeping the man among the crew, far less in a position of power.

"I don't trust Hanrahan and you know it."

"I hardly think disloyalty is his worse trait."

"He'd sell his own mother for an ounce of gold and you don't think it's a problem?"

"Many would," allowed Jack. "In his case, I'd be more worried he wouldn't know how much an ounce is and sold the old lady for half the agreed prize."

Captain Vane made a small sound that seemed more like an agreement that fury at the nerve of a relatively low-ranking crewman. Jack sat up slowly, putting his legs on the ground and taking a slow, careful breath. Everything hurt, his arm was blazing and his ribs almost made him regret every breath, but the dizziness passed easily.

"And yet you think he'd be better at the book keeping than me."

"I do not mean this as an insult, Captain. I have more experience with the man's work and well, at least I know he could read and do some basic math."

"You think I can't read?"

Jack paused. It hardly seemed an insult among pirates and yet, well.

"I can fucking read," the captain growled.

"My apologies?" Jack offered unsurely and the captain rolled his eyes.

"I can fucking read," he repeated. "But I hate this shit. I'm not good at writing it all down and keeping track of it. I can do it," he said as if Jack dared to disagree with him. "But it takes too much time."

Jack nodded slowly.

"I realize I'm still somewhat... incapacitated, Captain, but I'm sure I could return to my duties easily enough now."

"You can barely stay awake for more than an hour and you wanna do the books?"

"Well, when you phrase it like that-"

"How about I phrase it like if you weren't dumb enough to push yourself into the fight, we wouldn't be having this problem in the first place."

Jack swallowed any possible reply and after a moment the captain nodded in satisfaction, seemingly accepting his agreement before standing up from his desk and abandoning the books.

"You can try later when your head stops swimming. Sit for now. I will call someone to bring you food."

He left before Jack managed to formulate an answer, so Jack simply focused on fighting faint nausea, but quickly the curiosity got the best of him. He slowly stood up and made his way to the desk to check captain's progress. The writing seemed quite messy, especially the numbers which were often scratched out and rewritten, but it was surprisingly eligible and most of the numbers added up. It seemed he underestimated his captain in this regard, but perhaps to the man practically raised and tutored by the Blackbeard, it was a thing a captain had to know and learn how to do. In Nassau, no one would pay attention if Vane couldn't read. Plenty of the pirates couldn't. Jack was pretty sure he wasn't alone in his assumption that Captain Vane was one of them, but it seemed they mistook his reluctance to deal with it for lack of an actual skill.

Jack was still staring at the pages when Anne walked in with a plate of food and seemed surprised but also relieved to see him standing, before the more usual frown returned to her face.

"You shouldn't be walking around and snoopin'."

"Did you know Captain Vane could read?" he asked, suddenly curious.

She shrugged, but he could tell she was surprised.

"His style is perhaps a bit unpracticed but still clear and mostly correct."

"So?"

"Hm?"

"The fuck it matters?"

"Oh, it doesn't I suppose. I guess I'm just surprised," he answered and suddenly swayed slightly.

"Jesus, sit the fuck down Jack," Anne snapped and he automatically listened and fell into the captain's chair as Anne put the plate before him on a clean part of the desk. "Eat somethin'."

"Of course, my dear," he agreed, reaching for the fork while his gaze still skipped through his captain's work. Anne rolled her eyes at him as usual.

-

Jack could not help but stare at Captain Vane looking over the books and Jack's calculations. The view was quite unprecedented. Previously he assumed no one but Hanrahan checked his work and even that not too carefully. Now not only the Captain was carefully checking everything he wrote, sometimes asking for clarification of some notes, sometimes carefully jotting down the calculations to make sure he got it right, but also Jack let himself be more creative than just doing what he was ordered to do. Suggesting the way to divide the income more profitably, using his knowledge of trades in Nassau and his predictions for the changes in it. He observed Nassau's business for months by now, studying carefully the changing tides and he was rather proud to say he finally got the hang of it.

Captain finally raised his head and stared silently at Jack, who abandoned his train of thought to look back questioningly.

"This is fucking stupid," Captain said and Jack was quite taken aback.

"Pardon?"

"If you can do books so well, why the fuck are you even boarding prizes? Especially when we don't need extra men and you're a shit of a fighter."

"I am a perfectly passable fighter."

"That doesn't make you good. You only slow down Anne who is way better than you." Captain frowned. "Is that why you fight?"

"Sorry?"

"To prove you don't need her to protect you."

"There's nothing I need to prove to Anne. I am well aware she has more skill in the fight that I ever will. In change, I have more skill in more subtle matters. It is a perfectly well-balanced partnership," he said hotly.

"Then what the fuck is your problem?" Captain watches him closely.

Jack sighs. The captain is the last person he wanted to talk about this.

"The Ranger crew is rather... fond of violence. Most bonds and relations here are tied over the blood spilled together or sailing previously under the same captain. While I can't change history, I still have a chance to spill the blood with them and integrate myself in the crew. To be an integral part of it, so I can make my place in it more secure."

They watch each other carefully, assessing and silently refusing to back down. The captain looks away first, glancing at the books and shaking his head.

"These men bond over the fights and kills they've done together, the prizes they took, but they will sell those bonds over a few gold coins. Few of them more loyal than that. You want to be part of the crew? Sit by the fucking books. Gain every single thing we can from what we get, raise their gain and they will fucking love you."

"That might be a touch too personal," Jack murmured and the captain smirked at him again before standing up and away from the desk.

"You're smart, Jack and you think quick. We need that here. And unless we need all men to board you're off the fighting crew. Stick with the books and maybe one day we can finally replace Hanrahan."

Jack blinked in surprise, his brain running fast as he tried to comprehend what was vaguely offered to him. He glanced at the captain unsurely, a new plan forming already in his head.

"Captain, if I may make a suggestion-"

Vane nodded for him to continue.

"Since I'm no longer part of the boarding party, we should probably replace me with someone."

"Yeah, I will find someone."

"I was thinking it should be Hanrahan," Jack suggested boldly.

The captain stared at him for a long moment, clearly processing the proposition. Hanrahan, besides being annoyingly thick and loved by the crew, was also gaining years fast and left his best years as a fighter long ago. Jack quickly started explaining.

"He is a beloved member of the crew, others trust him, they will happily follow him into the worst battle and fight for him quite passionately, I really think-"

"You do want to take his place. You want to be the quartermaster."

Jack swallowed.

"In time. If the crew would see the benefit of such a role for me."

Captain grunted and stared for a long moment before leaving the room without another word. Jack let out a breath slowly. This could've gone worse.

-

It seemed the odd camaraderie with the captain has ended as the next day Anne showed up to help Jack move back to his old hammock. She seemed upset and on the edge of saying something and Jack purposefully slowed his walk even further to give her the opportunity to do so before they got to the rest of the crew.

"The fuck you told the captain?" she finally snapped.

"Whatever do you mean?"

"He replaced you with Hanrahan in the boarding party. Hanrahan ain't a fighter no more. He'll be dead within weeks."

Jack smiled slightly. It seemed someone finally appreciated him enough to give him another break in the trade.

"And then that's about as long as I have to work enough magic with the books to get us some extra gain for the crew which should put me highly in their favor."

She stopped suddenly.

"You gonna go for quartermaster."

"Well, as you keep telling me, I am wasted in a fight."

Anne snorted, suggesting that was a very nice way of putting what she thought of him in a fight, but luckily she did not elaborate.

Captain nodded at them from the quarterdeck as they passed and Jack nodded back with a small smile. This was going to be a rather exciting new challenge, he thought happily, stumbling towards his hammock lost deep in thoughts. The books detailing their previous trades were neatly stacked next to his bags and he reached for them eagerly as soon as Anne let go of him and let him settle in.

He barely heard as she walked away to tend to her own duties.