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Dire Straits

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Taehyung had spent all of his life dreaming about adventure – yearning to explore the vast world beyond the palace walls, which he had seen so very little of. He had longed for excitement, the thrill of not knowing what was going to happen at any point in time, anything other than the monotony of life as an overly-protected prince.

So he supposes he should be happy about this turn of events. But he’s finding it difficult to be too overjoyed when he’s standing in the poorly-lit hold of a violently rocking ship, a dark-haired pirate pointing a gleaming sword directly at his throat.

“Who the fuck are you?” the pirate barks, nudging the tip of his sword against Taehyung’s neck. Taehyung tries not to let himself get distracted by how attractive the pirate looks, dark hair swept across his forehead, eyes glinting dangerously. His earlobes are decorated with a scattering of studs, and there are far too many chunky silver rings on most of his fingers. He looks so much like everything Taehyung had imagined pirates to be, except he’s real, and standing right in front of him.

And, of course, holding a sword to his throat.

Taehyung gulps, feels the cold steel of the blade against his skin. “I’m Taehyung,” he says, trying to keep his voice steadier than he feels. Both emotionally and physically, what with the ship listing from side to side as waves buffeted it unrelentingly.

This wasn’t enough of an answer to satisfy the pirate, who narrows his eyes at Taehyung suspiciously. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just kill you now,” he snaps.

“Because,” Taehyung says, taking a deep breath and puffing up his chest in an attempt to bolster his own confidence, “I want to join your crew.”

 

 


 

 

It had only been five days since Taehyung had received the news. Bogum had come over personally, along with his parents, and a whole entourage, which Taehyung supposed he should be impressed by, but the excessive pomp of the whole affair had just terrified him instead.

He had been standing in the throne room, his delicate gold crown perched atop his head. The formal cloak he had been forced to wear was far too heavy for the hot summer weather, and Taehyung could feel sweat trickling down the back of his neck.

“Your Majesties,” Bogum had said, taking a deep, respectful bow. “I come before you today to humbly request your son’s hand in marriage.”

The words weren’t a surprise to Taehyung, who had been delivered the news that morning. This was just a formal ceremony that had to be put on because – well, Taehyung wasn’t sure why, really. Something about being royalty apparently meant that they were always on show.

“Your Highness,” Taehyung’s father had replied, because Bogum was a prince in his own right, from the nearby kingdom of Astrane. “I thank you for your offer, and on behalf of my son, I graciously accept.”

Taehyung’s father gestures at him, and this is the point where he’s supposed to bow, so he does. It is meant to symbolise his acceptance of the proposal. Another empty symbol, Taehyung thinks, because his father has already accepted for him. The trade deal Bogum was offering in return for Taehyung’s hand in marriage was too good to pass up.

It wasn’t that Taehyung had anything against Bogum, necessarily. They had met a number of times before, their families often visiting each other’s courts in order to keep up the good relations between their two kingdoms. Bogum had seemed nice enough, always kind and polite to Taehyung. It didn’t hurt that he was also easy on the eyes.

But Taehyung just didn’t feel anything more for Bogum that the affection one had for an older brother. And call Taehyung a romantic, but he wanted to fall in love. He didn’t want to think that this was the most that life would have to offer.

Not that he had planned on doing anything about it.

No, he had resigned himself to a short engagement to Bogum, then a lavish wedding, then a permanent move to Astrane to live with Bogum – who was the crown prince of his kingdom, after all, whereas Taehyung was not.

But he had convinced his guards to let him take a walk around the city, because it was a beautiful day and because he might not have many more chances to explore it. Taehyung had been content just to have a short stroll through the market square, and down to the docks, then back up to the palace.

They were standing by the docks, which were a hive of activity, when a man in ragged clothes lurched suddenly at Taehyung.

“Please, please,” the man had moaned, his thin arms reaching out towards Taehyung, “can you spare any coin for a poor beggar?”

Taehyung’s guards had immediately caught hold of the beggar, shoved him away from Taehyung. But the man’s voice had carried, attracted attention, and soon more beggars were pouring out from god knows where, swarming around Taehyung.

“Your Highness!” shouted one of Taehyung’s guards – the youngest one, the one who didn’t know better than to reveal Taehyung’s identity in public, in the middle of a growing mob. A mob that heaved with excitement when they realised that they were surrounding a prince.

Fear thundered through Taehyung’s chest. His guards were somewhere in the crowd of people around him, but he couldn’t see them, couldn’t see anything except a seemingly infinite number of bony arms and gaunt faces circling around him.

He wasn’t thinking straight, wasn’t thinking at all, when he pushed his way blindly out of the crowd, feet pounding on the cobblestones as he ran, as quickly as he could, away from the mass of people all trying to grab hold of him.

It didn’t take long for Taehyung to get lost, once he weaved his way in and out of the twisting streets and alleyways he almost immediately found himself in a completely unfamiliar part of the city. His guards were nowhere to be found.

Panic surged through Taehyung, but as he looked around, trying to find his way back, realisation dawned on him. He was, for the first time in his life, free. Maybe just for an hour or so, maybe less, until the guards found him and brought him back. But for now, he could enjoy this.

Taehyung shrugged off his brocade jacket, drops it in a heap of rubbish by the side of the street. It wasn’t anything too fancy, but it was still much more obviously expensive than what everyone around him was wearing.

And then he walked.

He walked, and walked, surprised to find that he hadn’t been found yet.

He walked until he found himself back by the ocean, although not quite at the same part of the docks where he had dropped his guards. There was hardly any activity in this part of the docks, if it even was part of the docks. It seemed barely more than a small pier jutting out from an empty beach.

There was a ship there, though. A small one, compared to the huge vessels in the main part of the docks, or the ones Taehyung had seen in the royal navy.

Taehyung walked up to it slowly, wandering up the rickety wood of the narrow pier. There were two men standing on the deck, and it sounded like they were arguing. Taehyung ducked behind the pile of crates and boxes stacked up at the end of the pier.

“Well, did Namjoon say where we were going?” one of the men asked.

“I don’t know, but does it matter?” the other one replied, grinning brightly, “we’re free to go wherever we want.”

Wherever they wanted. That sounded nice. Taehyung wished he could go wherever he wanted.

The other man didn’t seem as taken by this as Taehyung was. “He wants us to bring all of those crates on board, and we don’t even know where we’re going to sell them?” he asked, sounding suspicious. “Do we even know what’s in there?”

“Nope!” came the reply. “But Namjoon will throw a fit if he gets back and we haven’t loaded the ship, so let’s get on with it.”

“Fine,” grumbled his companion, “but they better not be heavy.”

That was when the idea came into Taehyung’s head. He didn’t have much time – the two men were already turning to start heading down the gangplank – so he just found a large crate in the back of the pile, lifted the lid, and climbed in. Covered his mouth with his hand to stifle a giggle when his crate was lifted, and the grumpy man complained about how heavy it was.

It wasn’t until the ship had started rocking with the unforgiving waves of open water that Taehyung realised he was on a ship of pirates.

 

 


 

 

Taehyung had heard the crew talking as they moved in and out of the hold, and it hadn’t taken him long to piece together enough information to figure out that they were pirates. Fear coursed through him, then regret, then a sort of defeated resignation to his own death.

But then he’d heard one of them complaining about how they were being over-worked, and how they needed another crew member, and that was when Taehyung had decided. He was going to join their crew. He was going to become a pirate.

This plan had swirled around in his mind for what felt like hours, and had started to take on a life of its own, by the time Taehyung had been discovered.

He’d imagined himself with a sword, dashingly clashing blades with a grizzled old man with a scar across his face. He’d imagined himself opening treasure chests laden with glittering gold coins. He’d imagined himself just standing out on the deck of the ship, the saltwater breeze spraying in his face.

He’d imagined being free.

He had convinced himself with such certainty that he was going to become a pirate, that the words fell almost unbidden out of his lips.

“I want to join your crew.”

That was when a particularly violent wave smashed into the ship, nearly tipping it over. Taehyung throws up.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The dark-haired pirate drags Taehyung out of the hold and out onto the deck, where it’s so bright that Taehyung goes sunblind for a second. He squints, blinks hard, tries to focus on his surroundings.

The first thing he notices – is the ocean.

Wide open and impossibly blue, glittering in the sunshine. It’s also a lot calmer than Taehyung had thought it would be from how seasick he’d felt below board. But maybe being up here, the sun on his face and the salty smell of the sea in his noise, steadies him.

He’s never seen the ocean like this before. Whenever he had been on a ship before – which wasn’t often – he had always been surrounded by a whole fleet of other ships. The royal navy, protecting the royal vessel, but also obscuring the infinite expanse of the ocean from Taehyung’s view.

“What are you shouting about?” the grumpy pirate from before comes stomping down the steps from the prow of the ship. Now that Taehyung can look at him properly, he realises that the grumpy pirate is far less intimidating than his voice made him sound. He has a scarily displeased look in his eyes, for sure, but he’s otherwise fairly slight in stature. His hair is a silvery colour that gleams in the sun.

“Yoongi-hyung,” greets the dark-haired pirate of Taehyung’s dreams, twisting Taehyung’s arms behind his back and clutching on to his wrists tightly. “I found this in the hold.”

Taehyung frowns. “I have a name,” he grumbles, “it’s Taehyung.”

“Ooh, sassy,” pipes up a voice from behind Taehyung, and he twists around to see who’s talking. It’s a tall, broad-shouldered man, stepping out through a set of double doors and strolling leisurely round to look at Taehyung more closely. He smirks. “The stowaway has an attitude.”

Another man has come out from through the double doors, this one with tousled sandy brown hair that looks like it’s been lightened by the salt and the sun. He stands back, arms crossed, appraising Taehyung aloofly.

“He’s cute!” calls out a lilting voice, and Taehyung looks up to see the other pirate on the deck, the one who had been arguing with the grumpy pirate, leaning over the railing and grinning down at him.

“Shut up, Jimin,” snaps the dark-haired pirate, his hands tightening slightly around Taehyung’s wrists. “That’s irrelevant. He’s a stowaway.”

Another face pops up beside the other pirate – Jimin, Taehyung thinks – and it’s an equally happy-looking pirate with fiery orange hair. “What are you doing on our ship, stowaway?” he asks.

Taehyung tries to wriggle himself free, but to no effect. “I want to join your crew,” Taehyung shouts, glancing around at the pirates assembled.

“Absolute nonsense – he just threw up in the hold. He can’t be a pirate.”

“Only because I was curled up in a box,” argues Taehyung. “I’m fine now!”

That’s when the brown-haired pirate, who had thus far been wordlessly appraising the situation, uncrosses his arms, straightens up off the railing he had been leaning against. As if on cue, the rest of the crew falls silent, turns to look at him. Presumably, the captain.

“Your clothes,” the captain says, his voice deep and slow, as he takes a purposeful step towards Taehyung, “they’re well-made. Expensive.” He pauses right in front of Taehyung, reaches out to feel the material of Taehyung’s shirt with his fingers. “You’re not any old street urchin.”

Taehyung licks his lips nervously. “Uh, no,” he admits, because there’s no point lying about that – he would never pass for a boy of the streets. “I – my father’s a merchant. We’re comfortable.”

“Then what,” continues the captain, “are you doing here?”

This question is easier. Taehyung doesn’t need to lie. “I want to be free,” he says, sincerity behind his words, “I don’t care about nice clothes, or money, or good food. I’ve been trapped all my life, and I just want to be free.”

His answer seems to please the captain, who gives Taehyung a knowing smile. Two deep dimples appear on each of his cheeks, and he suddenly looks a lot more approachable. “Don’t we all?” he asks, and for a second he looks so contemplative that Taehyung might have mistaken him for a philosopher.

“He’s a rich boy,” pipes up the dark-haired pirate, dropping Taehyung's arms and stepping up to the captain. “He knows nothing about being a pirate.”

The captain just smiles. “Did any of us? Before we became one?” he questions coolly. “Did any of us know anything except that we wanted the freedom of the open seas?”

He pauses, turns back to Taehyung. “But Jeongguk here has a point,” he says. Taehyung makes a mental note of the dark-haired pirate’s name. “You’re not like us. How do I know we can trust you?”

Taehyung straightens his shoulders, lifts his chin. “I can’t say anything to convince you now,” he says, firmly. “But I can prove it to you. Give me a chance, and I’ll show you.”

The pirate called Jimin squeals in delight, comes bounding down the steps onto the main deck. “Said like a true pirate,” he coos, running straight up to the captain and looping one arm through the crook of his elbow. The closeness and familiarity of Jimin with the captain startles Taehyung, but he tries not to let it show on his face.

“Please, hyung?” whines Jimin, pouting slightly. “Let’s give him a chance. It’s not like you’re going to throw him overboard, and we could use an extra pair of hands.”

The captain glances down at Jimin fondly. “Fine,” he says, looking back up at Taehyung, “he can stay, at least until we next drop anchor. But you’re responsible for him. Make sure he learns the ropes.”

“Namjoon-hyung,” the one named Jeongguk starts, but is silenced by the captain raising a hand.

“We’re not throwing a man overboard for no reason, we’re not that kind of pirates,” the captain – Namjoon – says, with finality. “And we could imprison him in the hold until we dock, but we would have to feed him to keep him alive – and if we’re going to do that, he might as well work. Jimin’s right, we could use some help.”

Then Namjoon’s heading back in through the double doors – to his quarters, presumably – and, one by one, the rest of the pirate crew wander back to their duties. Jeongguk throws him a glare before he leaves.

They all leave except Jimin, who’s still standing in front of Taehyung, beaming like he’s just won a prize.

“Welcome aboard,” he says, extending a hand, “I’m Jimin.”

Taehyung smiles, reaches out to shake Jimin’s hand. “Taehyung.”

 

 


 

 

Taehyung learns so many things over the day that he’s surprised information doesn’t start leaking out of his ears. He sits with Jimin in the kitchen, peeling and chopping onions, as Jimin explains who everyone is and how life aboard the ship works.

The ship’s called Bangtan, Taehyung finds out, and the dimpled-man is her captain, Kim Namjoon. The grumpy pirate is Yoongi, their quartermaster – which Jimin explains is more like the role of first mate on most naval vessels, rather than someone in charge of their food and water supplies.

“That responsibility falls, unfortunately, to me,” pipes up the broad-shouldered man from across the kitchen, where he’s stirring the chopped-up onions into a pot of stew.

Jimin grins. “Seokjin-hyung’s the cook, but he also makes sure we have enough food and supplies, and he’s also the medic – he just keeps all of us alive, to be honest,” he says.

“Damn right I do,” agrees Seokjin, turning towards Taehyung and waving a wooden spoon at him. “Now – do you like your stews spicy or no?”

Taehyung blinks in surprise. “Uh, yeah, I guess,” he murmurs.

“Good, that’s the right answer,” Seokjin replies, nodding approvingly. He winks at Jimin. “We’ll keep him,” he adds, before turning back to the stove and tossing an alarmingly generous handful of chilies into the pot.

Jimin giggles. “Yoongi-hyung’s not going to be happy about that,” he whispers loudly to Taehyung, nodding at Seokjin’s exuberant addition of chilies.

Taehyung smiles. It’s easy, and comfortable, with Jimin and Seokjin. In some ways he already feels less out of place than he sometimes did in the palace, in his tightly starched collars and weighty cloaks.

“Hoseokie-hyung – that’s the one with the crazy orange hair – is ostensibly our navigator,” Jimin continues explaining, “but he absolutely hates it, prefers to focus on actually steering the ship, so he and Yoongi-hyung split the map-reading part of it. But Yoongi-hyung is already so busy, so sometimes Jeonggukie and I help out too.

“I mean, we really all just do whatever the ship needs,” Jimin says, cocking his head contemplatively. “Like – Yoongi-hyung is technically in charge of artillery stores, as quartermaster, but in reality it’s Gukkie who manages all of that. It’s really all hands on deck around here.”

Taehyung nods, already feeling overwhelmed. “I’d like to help out,” he says eagerly. “I’ve seen the ro – I mean, my father’s men on ships. He sometimes lets me tag along. I’ve never done anything myself, but I’ve seen people working on ships loads of times.” Taehyung winces at how easily he had almost mentioned the royal navy, but thankfully Jimin doesn’t seem to notice.

“Mm, good,” Jimin says, “but for now – I need to clean the deck, so you’re coming with me.”

Jimin has to go into the hold to get the cleaning supplies, so Taehyung heads out onto the deck first to wait for him. The sun is setting by the time he steps out, and the sky is glowing a fiery orange streaked with pink and purple. Taehyung stops in his tracks, momentarily transfixed by the by the sheer beauty of the scene.

Then someone walks into his back, and Taehyung stumbles forward.

“What the hell are you doing just standing there?” a familiar voice snaps. Taehyung turns around to see the pirate that had found him in the crate – the one with dark-hair and way too many piercings. Jeongguk.

“Sorry, uh, I’m just helping Jimin clean the deck,” Taehyung says, shuffling out of Jeongguk’s way.

Jeongguk strides past him, casting him a disdainful look. “Doesn’t look like it,” he says dismissively.

Taehyung lets out a sheepish chuckle, one that is most certainly not returned by Jeongguk. “I was distracted by the sunset,” he explains, glancing around him at the sky, which is turning more and more purple with each passing second.

As if surprised that the sun is setting around them, Jeongguk looks around him as well. For a moment, his eyes widen slightly, and he seems startled by the majesty of the sky around them. Then his face clicks back into rigidity, and he narrows his eyes at Taehyung.

“Stop daydreaming and get back to work,” he snaps, before spinning round on his heel and stomping off. Taehyung glares at his retreating figure, sticks his tongue out petulantly. He may be good-looking, but Jeongguk is an asshole.

Jimin pops up beside him a moment later, nudges him with his shoulder. “Why do you look like that?” he asks, reaching out to pinch Taehyung’s cheeks. Jimin is so physically affectionate that it’s slightly unnerving for Taehyung, who isn’t used to people being so comfortable with him. But he’s finding out quickly that he really likes it.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung murmurs, cocking his head at Jimin, “he seems to hate me.”

“Ah,” Jimin breathes, like he understands now. “Gukkie is just…prickly. He doesn’t warm up to people easily. But he’s a good kid at heart. He’s our maknae, did you know that?”

This fact surprises Taehyung. “But he seems so…so…bossy!” he exclaims, struggling to find the right word to describe the aggressively confident air with which Jeongguk carries himself.

Jimin shrugs, shoving a mop handle into Taehyung’s hands. “He’s like that,” he explains, “but I promise he’s nice once you get to know him. Now – less chat, more mopping.”

Taehyung grins, stands to attention and salutes. “Yes, sir!” he shouts, stomping his foot enthusiastically.

Jimin shoves at Taehyung playfully. “We’re pirates, not the army,” he complains, but he’s laughing, his eyes folding into crescents and twinkling with delight. It’s nice, Taehyung thinks, to see how happy he can make someone. And not because he’s the prince and they have to laugh at his feeble jokes either.

The sun casts a warm, fiery glow across the deck as they get to mopping. Taehyung’s happily scrubbing the deck, when he pauses for a break, wiping his sleeve across his brow, already getting sweaty.

As he glances up, he sees Jeongguk standing at the prow of the ship, next to Hoseok, who’s at the wheel. But Jeongguk’s by the railing, looking down. Watching Taehyung.

Their eyes meet for the briefest of moments. There’s something gentler, almost soft, in Jeongguk’s gaze in the split second where he’s caught off guard. But then he snaps back to his usual glare, eyes narrowed and jaw clenched, before he turns away sharply.

Taehyung sighs, glancing over at where Jimin is loudly singing as he mops the deck. It seems like pirates, just like people anywhere else in the world, come in all different types.

 

 


 

 

It’s a few days later when Namjoon announces to Taehyung that he’s going to learn to fight.

Jimin’s checking the rigging while explaining how it all works to Taehyung, when Namjoon strides up to them purposefully, Hoseok bounding along behind him.

“I don’t know how long you’re going to be with us, but if we run into any trouble I want you to be able to defend yourself, at the very least,” Namjoon says, in a tone that clearly leaves no room for discussion. He turns, nods to Hoseok, then walks off with his hands held behind his back. Taehyung muses absently that even though he’s the one who’s a prince, it is Namjoon who looks quite regal here.

Hoseok grins, and Taehyung sees that he’s holding two swords, the hilts of both loosely clasped in one hand. He tosses one sword over to Taehyung, who scrambles to catch it by the hilt without slicing his hands open on the blade.

“Don’t worry too much – I’ve blunted these blades,” Hoseok says. “Don’t want you slicing me open by accident.”

Taehyung tests the weight of the sword in his hands. It’s fairly light, clearly meant to be held in one hand. He hasn’t used a cutlass before, but he’s had fairly extensive training with a hanger, and it doesn’t seem like it would be too different than that.

Hoseok raises his eyebrows and the easy way Taehyung handles the sword. “You used a sword before?” he asks curiously.

“A little,” Taehyung says modestly, grinning. “Not much.”

Then he takes an experimental slash with the sword, a quick sidestep towards Hoseok, and hits the flat of the blade against Hoseok’s shoulder. Jimin lets out a low whistle of appreciation.

“He’s not half bad,” Jimin says, resting back on his hands like he’s watching a show. “Might give you a run for your money, hyung.”

Hoseok glares at Jimin, but there’s a glint of playfulness in his eyes. “We’ll see about that,” he challenges, tilting his chin at Taehyung, as he adjusts his grip on his own sword, settles into a preparatory stance.

Taehyung mirrors his stance, tries to recall everything his combat masters had taught him growing up. Not that Taehyung’s ever had a chance to use any of these skills in a real life situation, with fear and adrenaline coursing through his system. But still – close to twenty years of training can’t have gone completely to waste.

He takes another darting step forward, but Hoseok is ready this time, blocks the blow with his own sword easily. Their blades connect with a ringing clang, then Hoseok is spinning off to the side and Taehyung has to quickly right his footing to block another blow.

It’s sparring like he’s never known it before. His combat masters had always been so by-the-book, forcing him through specific routines over and over again so that he could perfect certain moves, certain blocks. But Hoseok moves fluidly, like he’s dancing, one move flowing naturally into the next. Taehyung has to try to let go of the moves and steps he knows in his head, let his body and muscles recall what to do.

After a few minutes – Taehyung can’t even tell how much time has passed – Hoseok uses his sword to nudge Taehyung’s sword down.

“Let’s take a break,” he says. He’s beaming widely, exchanges a look with Jimin, who’s applauding enthusiastically from his spot on the ground. “Good work, kid. A little stiff, and you overthink it sometimes, but you’ve definitely got potential.”

Jimin nods, hopping to his feet and clapping Taehyung on the back. “Hell yeah! Where did that come from? I thought you were just a rich boy?” he asks.

Taehyung feels his cheeks colouring faintly from the praise. “My father was, um, really afraid I would get kidnapped,” he says by way of explanation. Sort of true, he supposes, even if he’s leaving out the fact that combat training also just so happens to be mandatory for all royals.

Hoseok laughs. “Bet he didn’t expect you’d be using your training to become a pirate,” he teases, elbowing Taehyung in the ribs playfully. “Come on, let’s go again.”

Taehyung chuckles, picking his sword up and heading back into the centre of the deck, readying himself for another round of sparring with Hoseok, when he hears a voice behind him.

“Wait,” the voice says, and Taehyung turns around to see Jeongguk, walking purposefully down the steps from the prow. Yoongi’s leaning on the railing at the top of the steps, watching them. Have they been watching this whole time?

Jeongguk stops in front of Taehyung. “Spar with me,” he says, and it sounds more like a command than a question. Which Taehyung resents, but he doesn’t want to seem like he’s afraid.

“Fine,” he replies coolly.

Hoseok shrugs, offers his practice sword to Jeongguk. But Jeongguk just shakes his head, pulls his own sword out of the scabbard resting on his hip. Taehyung swallows. That’s the sword Jeongguk had pointed at him when he’d been discovered in the hold. It’s definitely not been blunted.

“I’m not going to go easy on you,” Jeongguk says, flicking his sword through the air, flexing his wrist in preparation.

Taehyung holds his chin up defiantly. “I don’t want you to,” he replies.

And then they fight.

Jeongguk’s a good fighter, of course, but he’s different from Hoseok. More aggressive, more unpredictable. And he’s also much stronger – or at least, he’s using more force than Hoseok had against Taehyung. It doesn’t take long for Taehyung to feel his arms start to ache from the effort of holding off Jeongguk’s blows.

But Taehyung isn’t one to give up easily. He pirouettes away from Jeongguk’s blade, stepping around behind Jeongguk. He almost gets his blade to smack into Jeongguk’s back, but Jeongguk is too fast for him, whirling round and blocking quickly.

“Cheeky!” calls out Jimin, and Taehyung can’t help himself but grin. Jeongguk doesn’t say anything, but Taehyung swears the corner of his lips lifts slightly in the tiniest of smiles.

In the end, though, Jeongguk’s too good for Taehyung to hold off. With a slick twist of his wrist, Jeongguk knocks Taehyung’s sword out of his hands, then steps forward to press the flat of his blade against Taehyung’s chest. Startled by the flurry of movement, not to mention Jeongguk’s sudden closeness, Taehyung stumbles backwards, falls on his butt.

Jeongguk lowers his sword, smirks down at Taehyung. “Not bad,” he concedes, “but room for improvement.”

He looks so smug, though, that something blazes in Taehyung, something that seems to take a hold of him, until he’s moving without thinking. He reaches his leg out, swipes across Jeongguk’s ankles, knocking Jeongguk clean off his feet.

Then he leaps to his feet, snatches his sword up and points it down at the exposed skin of Jeongguk’s neck. The same point that Jeongguk had held his sword to when he’d found Taehyung in the hold.

“One thing I was always taught,” Taehyung says, a smirk of his own coming to his face, “is that the fight is never over till it’s over.”

Jeongguk just glares up him, uses his arm to shove the blade away. He gets to his feet, storms away without so much as a backwards glance at Taehyung.

Taehyung doesn’t have too much time to think about this, because Jimin and Hoseok are already surrounding him, hugging him, clapping him on the back.

“Gukkie’s going to be so cross about that,” Jimin says, laughing. “He may have technically won, but he hates letting anyone else have the last word.”

Hoseok nods. “Wait till Namjoon hears about this,” he adds, “he’ll have to let you stay.” Taehyung beams at the thought.

But Yoongi’s still watching them, and he pipes up now. “You’ll have to tell him soon, then,” he says, and his voice silences them. Taehyung looks up, curious. But Yoongi’s face is unreadable. “Namjoon said he could stay until we first drop anchor, right?” he explains, then turns to gaze out across the open ocean.

Except it’s not open ocean any more.

Because, looming up ahead of them, unmistakeable, is land.

“We’re a few hours away,” Yoongi says, this time looking directly at Taehyung. His eyes are hard, and cold, and Taehyung can’t help but feel intimidated. “You have until then to convince the captain.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Jimin’s the one who goes to drag Namjoon out of the captain’s quarters, emerges a couple of minutes later, trailing after the captain like a lost puppy.

“But hyung, he’s improved so much, and you didn’t see him fighting with Hobi-hyung and Gukkie, he was so good,” Jimin pleads. Taehyung doesn’t think he was that good – he managed to hold his own, but he was still miles off from where Hoseok and Jeongguk were – but he doesn’t say anything, lets Jimin plead his case.

Namjoon stops in front of Taehyung. “How have the past few days been, kid?” he asks, kindly, but also appraisingly. “You still want to be a pirate?”

“Yes,” Taehyung says, with certainty. It’s surprised him as well, but he hasn’t missed anything about life in the palace, not when they’re out on the open ocean, and Taehyung doesn’t have to bear the weight of his title, pressing down into him like a whetstone. “Absolutely. And I still want to join your crew – if you’d have me.”

Half-smiling, Namjoon nods. “I’d have you,” he says, and Jimin is starting to cheer, but Namjoon continues, “but it’s not up to me. It’s up to the crew. I won’t take anyone on board unless every single one of my crew members is happy with the decision.”

Jimin pouts. “Hyung, you can’t,” he says, “Gukkie won’t agree.”

“I said what I said,” is all Namjoon says, and the finality of his decision is evident. “Go call the rest.”

Hoseok hurries off to grab Seokjin and Jeongguk, returns not a minute later with both of them in tow. Yoongi climbs down the steps to the main deck, and suddenly, without having planned it, all six members of the crew are standing in a vague circle around Taehyung.

“Taehyung here wants to join our crew,” Namjoon announces, “but this crew is as much yours as it is mine, so I leave the decision to you.” He looks round the circle, at each one of his crew members in turn, then back at Taehyung. “Taehyung, do you have anything you want to say?”

Nerves flutter in Taehyung’s gut as he glances round the circle. Jimin and Hoseok are nodding at him enthusiastically, shooting him wide grins and cheery thumbs-up signs. Seokjin looks at ease, but he’s smiling at Taehyung encouragingly. Namjoon and Yoongi just look like they’re interested to hear what Taehyung has to say, their faces open and waiting.

But Jeongguk. Jeongguk is closed-off, his jaw clenched, and his hands shoved into the pockets of his trousers. He’s frowning at Taehyung, like he’s trying to figure out a difficult puzzle, but he can’t quite manage it.

Taehyung sighs. Jimin’s right. He’s not going to get to stay on the ship, not if Namjoon insists on a unanimous decision. Not when Jeongguk’s glaring at him like that.

But Taehyung will be damned if he goes down without a fight.

So he squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath, before he starts speaking.

“Thank you, all of you, for welcoming me onto your ship,” he begins, feeling a little like he’s back in court, welcoming the courtiers. Except these aren’t courtiers, they’re pirates, and they aren’t trying to curry his favour, but the other way around. Still, there’s a little bit of familiarity that comes from public speaking, which Taehyung clutches onto in order to calm his nerves.

“I know that you guys don’t know anything about me, and have no reason to trust me,” Taehyung continues, “but I promise that I am telling the truth when I say – all I want is to be free. And these few days, on the open sea with you guys, has been the most freeing experience of my life.

“But I know it’s not going to be all easy, of course,” Taehyung quickly adds, hoping he’s not giving the wrong impression, “and I really want to learn everything there is to learn. I promise, I’m a quick learner and a hard worker.”

Taehyung pauses, chews on his lower lip contemplatively. “I know you probably think I’m just some – some rich boy,” he says, hesitating on those words. But he pushes through the discomfort of the lie. “But I swear that – that’s not all that I am. It’s not who I want to be at all. My life, back home – that’s not what I want. I want to be here. With all of you.”

Then he nods, firmly, concluding his statement, and bows formally. Jimin giggles.

“Thank you, Taehyung,” says Namjoon, also trying to hide a smile. “No need for the bowing, we’re not royalty,” he adds, and Taehyung flushes. The bow had been habit.

But Namjoon just keeps on talking, turning to the crew members. “I am in favour of letting Taehyung join our crew,” he says, “but unless all of you are in favour as well, we will drop Taehyung off at the next port. Now – all those in favour?”

Jimin’s hand shoots up. “Aye!” he shouts. “I think Tae would be a wonderful addition to our crew!”

“Thank you, Jimin, but no need to shout,” Namjoon says, extending a placating hand.

“Aye from me too,” pipes up Hoseok, “I was impressed by your sword skills, kid. You have a lot of potential.” Taehyung smiles, nods at Hoseok gratefully.

Seokjin catches his eye, then turns to Namjoon. “I’m voting aye as well,” he says, “Taehyung’s got the heart for it, and – isn’t that what you told me mattered the most, when I joined?”

“It is, indeed,” agrees Namjoon. He glances at Yoongi. “Hyung?”

Yoongi shrugs. “Aye, whatever,” he says, brushing it off casually, “he seems decent and we need the extra member.” But then he quirks a half-smile at Taehyung, and Taehyung feels a swell of affection for the grumpy pirate who seems softer and softer on the inside the more time Taehyung spends around him.

But there’s still one more person who’s yet to vote.

Everyone turns to look at Jeongguk, who’s got his arms crossed in front of his chest, as he watches the proceedings unfold before him.

“Jeongguk,” Namjoon says calmly, “you have the deciding vote.”

Taehyung can’t tear his eyes away from Jeongguk, even though he already knows how it’s going to go. He watches, almost transfixed, as Jeongguk slowly looks from Namjoon, to his crew members, and finally at Taehyung.

“This man is a stowaway,” Jeongguk says, his tone sharp. Taehyung feels his chest crumple a little. Here it goes. “He snuck onto our ship, without your consent, captain. And he’s a rich boy, he’s not one of us. He knows about shipping only from books, and about fighting only from sparring practice.”

Taehyung looks down. Nothing Jeongguk has said is untrue, which it what makes it hurt the most. He feels ashamed, embarrassed to think that he – not just a rich boy but a prince – could have ever dreamed of being accepted by pirates.

But Jeongguk’s not done.

“When I look at him, I think, how could this man ever be a pirate?” he says, somewhat incredulously. Then he pauses, lets out a small laugh. Taehyung looks up in surprise.

“But then, I remember,” Jeongguk continues, glancing at Namjoon, “when you found me on the streets, hyung. How little I knew, how little I could do. But I begged you to take me with you, and despite how far I was from being a pirate, you agreed.

“Because you said, hyung – and I’ve never forgotten your exact words, ‘you have the resilience, the grit, the dogged determination to become a pirate – and if you have that, you’re already have a pirate’s soul’.”

Jeongguk stops, nods at Namjoon, who returns the nod with pride. Taehyung can barely believe his ears, doesn’t dare to let himself hope.

“I don’t know if you have what it takes,” Jeongguk says, finally, turning back to Taehyung, “but if Namjoon-hyung is willing to take you on, he must see something in you that he saw in me. And I’m not sure I see it yet, but I saw a sliver of something earlier, when we were sparring.

“So, even though I don’t like you all that much, fine – aye.”

Namjoon grins. “Welcome to the Bangtan, Taehyung,” he says.

Jimin lets out a scream of excitement, dives into Taehyung’s arms for a hug.

 

 


 

 

The port they dock at is a small one, but it’s still bustling with activity. Namjoon, Yoongi and Seokjin grab a small cart and head off with the boxes they had loaded onto the ship along with Taehyung. Off to sell the goods to a contact Seokjin has, apparently.

Which leaves the rest of them free to wander the market. Taehyung’s instantly overwhelmed by the noise, the endless chatter of voices haggling, arguing, greeting each other excitedly. And his nose is assaulted by a cacophony of smells – a myriad of spices, but also the fishy smell of the fishermen bringing in their catches, and the saltiness of the sea breeze.

It’s invigorating.

“I want to buy a new belt,” Jimin says excitedly, slipping his hand into Taehyung’s. “Let’s go!”

Taehyung lets himself get tugged along. He pats the coin purse hooked to the inside of his waistband, checking that it’s still there. He doesn’t have much on him – he’s never really had to buy anything for himself, after all – but when he leaves the palace he always makes it a point to bring a handful of gold coins. Just in case.

He’s never had to use any of his coins. Until now.

“I should get some clothes, I guess,” Taehyung muses aloud. He’s been wearing the same shirt and trousers all week, and they’re starting to smell slightly.

When they arrive at the clothes section of the market, Jimin launches off in search of a belt. Taehyung can see Hoseok and Jeongguk wandering around other stalls in the vicinity, idly checking out various wares. They all look so comfortable, so at ease. Taehyung doesn’t quite know what to do.

He walks over to a stall that’s displaying an assortment of billowy white shirts, some completely plain, others with intricate lace and embroidery work. There’s one in particular, with tasselled ties around the neckline, that draws his attention.

“How much is this?” he asks the old lady manning the stall. She looks at him grumpily, like he had just interrupted her in the middle of something important – which he hadn’t, she was just sitting there glaring at everyone who passed – and wordlessly holds up four fingers.

Taehyung doesn’t know if that’s a lot of money, or not. But he doesn’t have that many coins, and four will make a dent in his supply. He pulls out his coin pouch, tips out a handful of the coins, counts out four of them and contemplates the remainder.

The old lady is staring at him with wide, horrified eyes. She reaches out towards him, and Taehyung’s about to hand the four gold coins over, when a hand suddenly shoots out of nowhere, grabs Taehyung by the wrist.

It’s Jeongguk.

Taehyung stares at him in bewilderment. Jeongguk just slides his hand over Taehyung’s, closes his hand into a fist so that the four gold coins are out of view.

“Here go you,” Jeongguk snaps sharply to the old lady, reaching into his pocket and tossing a handful of coins her way. They don’t look like gold coins, Taehyung thinks, but Jeongguk’s already snatching up the shirt Taehyung had been eyeing, and dragging Taehyung away by the wrist.

Taehyung’s still too confused to speak, just stares dumbly at Jeongguk as he stops in the small square away from the clothes stalls, whirls around to glare at Taehyung.

“Are you insane, or just stupid?” he asks hotly.

“What?” Taehyung replies sharply. He doesn’t appreciate being spoken to in that tone, especially not when he doesn’t even know what he’s done wrong.

Jeongguk just rolls his eyes. “Most of the people in this town haven’t even seen a gold coin in their life,” he says, like it’s the most obvious thing. “She meant four coppers, you idiot.”

Taehyung’s mouth falls open. Jeongguk’s words feel like a slap in the face.

“Rich boys,” Jeongguk says, shaking his head. Then he’s storming off without so much as another word to Taehyung.

Taehyung’s mind is whirling. He’s vaguely aware that coppers and silvers exist, of course, but he doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything other than a gold coin. His clothes, his accessories, all of his belongings – he’s pretty sure they all cost gold coins. To think that the common people don’t even have a single gold coin, while he’s been spending them by the handful, makes him feel sick.

The noise and the smells and bustling activity of the market, which had all seemed so fresh and exciting at first, now just make him want to fall over with overwhelm. He stumbles out of the main town square, trying to find a quiet space to collect himself. The sun is blazing down on him, too hot, too bright.

He finally finds himself in a small, shaded alleyway, leans against the wall tiredly. Closes his eyes, tries to find his breath again.

A loud, coarse voice interrupts his thoughts.

“There he is,” the voice says, and Taehyung’s eyes fly open. He turns, and there’s three men standing in the entrance to the alleyway, leering at him. The one to the right was the one talking, a tall, scrawny man with a scar across one cheek. He’s pointing at Taehyung.

“The boy with the gold coins?” asks the man in the middle, who’s large, and missing a few of his teeth.

Taehyung’s heart is pounding. The alleyway is narrow, there’s no way for him to squeeze out past them. The men take a step towards him, and Taehyung shuffles back. His back presses against the wall at the end of the small street. He has nowhere to run.

The big man pulls out a dagger, brandishes it threateningly. It catches the light, and Taehyung squints away from the glare of the sun reflecting off the blade. “Give us the coins,” the man says, his voice scratchy and unpleasant to hear, “and maybe we won’t hurt you.”

Maybe? Taehyung’s hand flies to the coin pouch hanging at his waist. He would give them the money if it could guarantee his safety, but now he’s afraid that they’ll just take the gold and kill him anyway. Taehyung feels like he wants to cry, he’s so terrified and so at a complete loss for what to do.

“We’re losing patience!” shouts the third man, who hasn’t spoken yet.

“Just stab him and take the gold,” urges the scrawny man.

Taehyung squeezes his eyes shut, presses himself into the back wall like he’s trying to disappear into the stone.

He opens them when he hears a shout of pain.

The big man with the dagger has fallen forward, is scrambling to his feet while clutching at his face. His nose is gushing blood – he must have hit it on the ground on the way down.

“What the fuck!” shouts the scrawny man, whirling round.

And that’s when Taehyung sees him. Jeongguk. Standing at the entrance to the alleyway, backlit by the blinding sunlight, so that Taehyung has to squint to see him.

What happens next is a blur. Jeongguk’s launching punches as quickly as he’s dodging them. The scrawny man slams into the wall with a forceful kick from Jeongguk, straight to his stomach. The third man gets his head smashed against the ground, then Jeongguk’s stepping on the big man and hopping over him to pick up his dropped dagger.

“If you value your lives you’ll fuck right out of here now,” Jeongguk says, spinning round, pointing the dagger at the three men. He’s standing between Taehyung and his attackers now, a physical barrier stopping them from getting to Taehyung.

The three men, all clutching at various parts of their bodies, make a few noises of discontent, but quickly scamper out of the alley when Jeongguk takes a threatening step towards them.

Taehyung can’t even express the wave of relief that washes over him. He steps forward, reaching out, wanting to thank Jeongguk for saving him, but Jeongguk’s already whirling around to face him. For the second time that day.

“You idiot,” he hisses venomously, “I knew you were going to get into trouble.”

Taehyung can’t help but feel affronted. He’s the victim here, after all. “I didn’t do anything,” he grumbles. “Those guys attacked me.”

Jeongguk scoffs. “Only because you were waving your gold around like some sort of fool,” he snaps.

“So what, I was asking for it?” asks Taehyung hotly. He’s so sick of Jeongguk constantly having a problem with him, even when he’s done nothing wrong. “Maybe people shouldn’t try and take what’s not theirs.”

This only seems to piss Jeongguk off even more. “Of course you feel entitled to your gold,” he says, shaking his head like he’s disappointed but not surprised. There’s something so incredibly derisive in his tone that it prickles at Taehyung.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Taehyung shoots back. He can’t help the fact that his voice is getting louder. “It’s mine, isn’t it?”

Jeongguk laughs at this – actually throws his head back and laughs, like Taehyung’s made a joke. But there’s no humour in his tone. It’s more bitter, and maybe even pitying. Like he’s sorry for Taehyung because Taehyung doesn’t understand. Which Taehyung doesn’t. It makes him even more frustrated.

“What are you laughing at?” he shouts, taking a step towards Jeongguk.

The laughter cuts out so suddenly that Taehyung startles. Jeongguk turns his dark eyes onto Taehyung, gaze burning into his skin.

“I’m laughing at the fact that you think that gold is yours,” he says, in a low voice. “What have you done for it, except to be born into a rich family? Have you earned it? Have you worked for it? Have you risked anything for it?”

His words cut deeper than Taehyung would like to admit. “So is stealing it better, then?” he asks. “Is being a thief, a pirate, better?”

Jeongguk’s jaw clenches. “You tell me,” he says. “You’re the one who wants to be a pirate.”

Then he steps back, turns away. “We’re leaving soon,” he says, back-facing Taehyung. “If you haven’t changed your mind, I’ll see you on the ship.”

When he leaves, Taehyung is left in the dim light and silence, head fuzzy with confusion.

 

 


 

 

Jeongguk’s so frustrated after his encounter with Taehyung that he heads straight back to the ship, busies himself with taking stock of their weapons stores, sharpening the various swords they have in the hold. He doesn’t know what made him lose his temper quite so fiercely, but something about Taehyung, and how he seems to live in an entirely different world, just annoys him.

He isn’t really paying attention to time passing, but after a while, he hears Namjoon calling for them to set sail, so he comes up on deck to help out. Taehyung’s there, standing and whispering with Seokjin. The sight of him renews the sense of annoyance in Jeongguk, and he turns away quickly, stomping over to help Jimin with the rigging.

His bad mood doesn’t go unnoticed by Jimin, but they’ve known each other for long enough now that Jimin just leaves him to stew in his own moodiness.

They’re out in the open sea again by the time Jeongguk feels fit to speak more that single syllables to anyone. He’s standing at the prow, looking out at the endless blue of the ocean, when he hears Seokjin’s voice.

“Dinner time!” Seokjin’s shouting. Jeongguk turns, confused. They don’t often have dinners together – there’s just too much to do on the ship, it’s easier for everyone to just grab food whenever they have a spare moment. But Seokjin is yelling insistently, so Jeongguk trudges over obediently.

“Joon’s approved it, says the seas are clear enough,” Seokjin adds, ushering everyone into the small mess hall adjoining the kitchen.

When Jeongguk steps into the hall, his senses are suddenly assaulted with a whole host of smells. The table is laden with more dishes than Jeongguk’s ever seen on this ship before. There’s even a roast bird of some sort, and potatoes, a thick stew, assorted platters of vegetables. And there are bottles scattered around the table – wine, probably, but possibly mead, or even rum.

Sitting at the table are Jimin and Taehyung, beaming up at everyone as they enter.

“What’s the occasion?” asks Hoseok, dropping into the closest seat and looking up at Seokjin curiously.

Seokjin glances at Taehyung, which Jeongguk catches, but he doesn’t quite understand what the look they exchange means.

“No occasion,” Seokjin says brightly, gesturing at the empty seats for everyone to sit down. Jeongguk obediently does so, as does Namjoon next to him. “Just thought it would be nice for everyone to sit down for dinner together.”

“How did we afford this?” Yoongi asks, raising an eyebrow as he slides into the seat next to Jimin.

Seokjin grins, winks. “A mystery benefactor,” he explains, without explaining anything at all, “who had too much money on their hands that they felt like they didn’t need or deserve.”

And that’s when the thought crosses Jeongguk’s mind. He turns to stare at Taehyung, but Taehyung’s just smiling shyly into his plate.

“And this mystery person chose to give the money to us?” Yoongi asks, sounding suspicious. He glances at Taehyung as well.

With a nonchalant shrug, Seokjin picks up the carving knife and starts to carve up the roast – turkey, Jeongguk thinks. “Maybe he wanted to show his appreciation to us for being such a special crew,” Seokjin muses. Jimin giggles, nudges Taehyung in the ribs, and there’s no doubt in Jeongguk’s mind now that the meal was paid for by Taehyung.

But why? He doesn’t quite understand it. Taehyung is proving to be an endless enigma.

Jeongguk tries not to dwell too hard on it, though. He lets Hoseok fill his cup with a rich, sweet-smelling liquid, drinks in the intoxicating scent of honey and wine.

“To the open seas!” shouts Hoseok, and everyone knocks their cups together cheerily. Jeongguk’s reaches across Namjoon to spoon himself a generous helping of the stew. They don’t get to eat so well very often, so Jeongguk’s going to enjoy it no matter how much the thought of Taehyung keeps trying to creep into his mind.

It’s not until later, after they’ve cleaned out the entire feast Seokjin had prepared, that Jeongguk gets a chance to speak to Taehyung.

The sun has long set, their meal lasting hours and hours as they ate and drank and talked and laughed. Jeongguk hasn’t felt so relaxed in a while.

He’s walking out onto the deck for some fresh air, when he sees Taehyung. Standing by the railings, looking out at the inky black ocean. The sky is a velvet curtain, scattered with an infinite number of stars, each one a pinprick of searing light. Taehyung’s skin is illuminated by the soft glow of the moon, and for a breath Jeongguk wonders if he is real, or just an illusion.

“The ocean’s beautiful at night, isn’t it?” Jeongguk asks, as he steps up next to Taehyung.

Taehyung startles slightly, turning to look at him in surprise. Jeongguk just stares out across the empty ocean. He doesn’t know why he’s come up to talk to Taehyung, doesn’t know what he wants to say. Maybe the mead and wine have just gone to his head.

Once Taehyung recovers, he smiles, nods hesitantly. “Yeah,” he breathes, and it’s like he’s actually breath-taken by the beauty of the ocean. “It’s like nothing else.”

They both stand there like that, staring out across the ocean, into the starry sky, for a long while. Jeongguk can’t help but feel that, at the very least, Taehyung gets it. Understands the call of the open sea.

“I never thanked you for saving me,” Taehyung says suddenly, turning to look at Jeongguk. “So – I guess – thank you.”

Jeongguk turns, locks eyes with Taehyung for a moment. He feels light-headed from the drink. Taehyung’s eyes are bright, sparkling. Have they always looked like this?

“That’s okay,” Jeongguk says, shrugging. “Thank you for dinner.”

This makes Taehyung turn away shyly. Jeongguk can’t quite tell in the moonlight, but he thinks that maybe Taehyung’s cheeks have coloured slightly.

“You were right,” Taehyung murmurs. “About the gold. I had it, but it wasn’t mine.” He laughs lightly, like he’s remembering a funny memory. “I didn’t want it anymore, but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I gave it to Jin-hyung. Thought it might help you guys out.”

“Us,” says Jeongguk abruptly, without thinking.

Taehyung blinks at him. “What?”

Jeongguk scrunches up his face. He’s never been good with words, with talking to people. “Us,” he repeats, “it might help us out. You’re one of us now, aren’t you?”

It takes a second for his words to register, but when they do, Taehyung beams. He nods to himself, still grinning. “Yeah,” he says, turning back to look at the ocean. He looks so happy, so content, that something inside Jeongguk feels a tug of affection towards him. He’s naïve, sure, but there’s something about his innocence that Jeongguk is almost envious of.

“I want to earn my keep,” Taehyung says, firmly. “Like you guys. I don’t want any more handouts from my father, my…position.”

The force of conviction in his words surprises Jeongguk. But he doesn’t have anything to say to that, so he just nods in acknowledgement, turns back to the ocean and endless sky.

They’re standing there, silently contemplating, when Taehyung speaks again.

“The world is so big,” Taehyung says, his voice so soft it’s almost a whisper. He sounds like he’s in awe. Jeongguk doesn’t blame him. He’s in awe of it too.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Taehyung wakes up the next morning to the sound of Yoongi and Hoseok arguing. He stumbles out onto the deck, rubbing his eyes, still groggy with sleep. His head is throbbing slightly, the after effects of the wine from the previous night.

“This doesn’t feel right!” Hoseok is shouting, standing at the helm. Yoongi’s next to him, hunched over a compass.

“It’s what the map says,” snaps Yoongi.

Hoseok makes a strangled noise. “Are you sure the map’s right?” he asks. “It’s been wrong before! Check against the one we got from the weird man with the gold tooth last month.”

“That map’s not reliable,” shoots back Yoongi.

“None of the maps are reliable, that’s why we have so many!” shouts Hoseok back.

Yoongi makes a frustrated noise in the back of his throat, storms down the steps and back into the captain’s quarters where the maps are kept. Taehyung can hear him talking loudly to Namjoon, even through the closed doors.

Jimin’s sitting on the bottom step to the prow, chomping on an apple. Taehyung sits down next to him.

“What’s up with them?” he asks in a low voice, jerking his head towards where Hoseok’s standing, gripping the wheel tightly.

“Don’t worry, they’re always like this,” says Jimin, shrugging nonchalantly. “All of the maps we have are slightly different, and it’s a massive pain trying to read them. It’s not so bad when we’re going to our usual ports, but when we have to actually navigate? They always end up in a fight about the best way to go.”

Taehyung nods, thinking. He glances towards the captain’s quarters. “I can read maps,” he says, hesitantly.

Jimin raises an eyebrow. “Is there anything you can’t do?” he asks, smirking.

Taehyung makes a face. “My father insisted I learn,” he says, which is true. “He insisted I learn a lot of things. Cartography and navigation included.”

“Makes sense, I guess, for a merchant’s son,” Jimin says. And for a prince, Taehyung thinks, but he doesn’t say anything.

“Do you – do you think I should go help?” Taehyung ventures. He doesn’t want to seem like he’s trying to barge in. And he doesn’t know how much he can actually contribute – what if everyone else is miles ahead of him, and he looks like a fool trying to help?

But Jimin nudges him with his shoulder. “You’re overthinking it,” he says, and Taehyung wonders how Jimin is so perceptive. “Just go – Yoongi-hyung honestly hates map-reading so much, he’ll be grateful if you save him from it. Anyway, what’s the worst that could happen?”

Taehyung nods. In any case, all of his risky decisions seem to have turned out okay thus far. He gets to his feet, clenches his fists to give himself a burst of courage, and strides purposefully towards the double doors leading to Namjoon’s cabin.

He knocks hesitantly, pushes the door open a crack. Yoongi’s inside, standing over a table in the middle of the room, over which an assortment of maps is spread. Namjoon’s next to him, frowning, one finger tapping against his lip contemplatively.

And, somewhat unexpectedly, Jeongguk is there as well, leaning against the wall, gesturing at something on one of the maps.

They don’t seem to have heard Taehyung’s knock, so he just pushes the door further open, steps into the room. “Uh, hi,” he mumbles.

Jeongguk stops mid-sentence, turns to look at him. Yoongi and Namjoon look up at him as well, surprise written over all of their faces.

“Um, Jimin told me there was some issue with the maps?” Taehyung offers by way of explanation. “And I can read maps – I mean, my father made sure I learned – so I thought maybe I could help?”

Namjoon smiles at this, nods and motions him over. Taehyung shuffles closer to the table of maps, peers at them. There are numerous different ones on the table – from officially commissioned ones from the government, to ones that are clearly more regional, showing more detail of smaller sections of coastline and ocean.

“There’s a ship we’re trying to – link up with,” Yoongi says, hesitating. He glances at Namjoon, then back at Taehyung. “It’s sailing from here, to here,” Yoongi continues, stabbing his index finger at the largest map on the table. “We’ve just left from here – but some of these maps show the ship’s most likely course differently.”

Taehyung glances at some of the other maps Yoongi’s referring to. He can see the issue. The relative distances and directions between the various points on the maps are all different.

“We’re trying to figure out the most efficient way to get to where we need to be,” Namjoon explains, “we’d like to err on the side of being ahead of the other ship. Can you do that?”

Taehyung pauses. He can feel the weight of everyone’s gazes on him. All he can think about is this problem he’s been presented, this one chance he’s been given to prove himself a worthy member of this crew. The pressure feels terrifying, but also oddly electrifying.

“I think so,” Taehyung says, nodding. He’s done things like this before, in his lessons. Learning to plot a route from a handful of different maps was one of the most important tasks of a royal naval navigator, and therefore a task that the king thought that a prince should obviously be adept at.

Namjoon nods, and Yoongi manages to even look impressed. “We’ll leave you to it, then,” Namjoon says, “shout if you need help.” Then he turns to Yoongi, already talking about something to do with their stores, and they both walk out of the room.

It’s just Jeongguk left, still leaning against the wall, watching Taehyung intently. His unblinking gaze unnerves Taehyung.

“Are you just going to stand there staring at me?” Taehyung asks, finally, irritably. He can’t focus like this.

Jeongguk quirks a half-smile, like he’s sharing a secret with himself. It annoys Taehyung for some reason he can’t quite pinpoint.

“No, I’m off,” Jeongguk says, pushing himself up off the wall, brushing down the front of his shirt with his hands. He tilts his head at the mass of maps scattered in front of Taehyung. “Good luck,” he adds, before he’s turning and disappearing the way of Yoongi and Namjoon.

Taehyung frowns. He can’t tell if Jeongguk was being genuine or sarcastic. But that’s not to something to think about now. He has a job to do.

 

 


 

 

It feels good, Taehyung thinks, standing next to Hoseok and Yoongi at the prow, holding one of the maps – the one he’s judged most useful – and directing them towards their destination. The sun is beating down on them by the time they spot the ship they’ve been looking for in the horizon.

“Well done,” says Yoongi, nodding at Taehyung. Coming from Yoongi, that’s extremely high praise, and Taehyung glows with the approval.

Yoongi’s calling out to Namjoon, telling him that they’ve found the ship, when Taehyung turns to Hoseok. He’s still beaming with how happy he is to have helped.

“Why are we linking up with this ship, anyway?” Taehyung asks, cheerily.

Hoseok glances at him suddenly. He looks surprised, his eyebrows raised. “Do you really not know?” he asks. Taehyung cocks his head at him in confusion.

Jeongguk hops up the steps to join them at the prow. “Namjoon-hyung says to steer towards them but not too aggressively, let them come towards us,” he conveys, before he notices the weird energy between Taehyung and Hoseok. “What?” he asks, frowning at them.

But Hoseok isn’t paying attention to Jeongguk. He’s just looking at Taehyung oddly, like he’s both concerned, and disappointed. “Taehyung-ah,” Hoseok says, his voice gentle, “we’re pirates. Why do you think we’re looking for a ship?”

It clicks. It’s obvious, really, that Taehyung marvels at how he managed not to immediately get it. But he had been so caught up in trying to prove himself that he had completely forgotten what kind of ship he was on. What kind of people he was with.

Jeongguk’s staring at him openly now. “Did you not know?” he asks, and his voice isn’t as kind at Hoseok’s was. “How could you not know?”

Taehyung doesn’t know, he really doesn’t. But the thought that he’s now on a ship on its way to pirate from a ship full of innocent people – the thought that he helped them get there – makes Taehyung feel an odd twisting in his stomach.

“You’re regretting it now,” says Jeongguk, harshly, and it’s not a question. Taehyung must have let the horror he was feeling slip onto his face. Jeongguk looks furious. “This is what being a pirate is,” he snaps, “it’s not all fun and games and sailing the open seas. This is how we live. How we survive.”

“I didn’t say anything,” protests Taehyung feebly.

But Jeongguk just scoffs at him. “You didn’t have to,” he says, and he sounds utterly disgusted. He shoves past Taehyung, knocking shoulders with him roughly as he passes.

Taehyung looks at Hoseok helplessly. Hoseok just sighs, pats Taehyung on the shoulder. “It’s not so bad,” he says, “the merchant ships aren’t usually very well guarded. And we try not to kill anybody.” He’s trying to be reassuring, but it makes Taehyung feel worse.

The merchant ship in the distance is getting close quickly, far too quickly. Taehyung can’t even tell if the ship is moving towards them, or if they’re the ones moving towards the ship.

Jimin seems to have noticed the dazed state he’s in, or maybe Jeongguk’s told him what’s happened, because the next thing Taehyung knows, Jimin’s clattering into him, a sword clutched in his hand. He looks flustered, like he’s been running around – which he probably has, getting ready to attack the merchant ship – but he also looks worried.

“I forgot your dad’s a merchant,” he says, pressing one hand flat against Taehyung’s cheek, and that’s not it, that’s not it at all, but Taehyung feels such a wave of fondness rush over him, because Jimin’s remembered, Jimin cares.

“Namjoon has principles, we all do,” Jimin continues, but he’s pushing the hilt of the sword into Taehyung’s hand. “We don’t kill, we only hurt in self-defence, we take the goods and we go. They’re big shipping companies, they can take the hit.”

Taehyung nods mutely. All of his words have deserted him. He’s shocked, but he’s also scared.

“Just stay on the Bangtan, keep them off our ship,” Jimin instructs. “They probably won’t try to cross, so you’ll be fine, okay? I promise. I’ve got your back.”

Then things are moving, so, so rapidly. They’re pulling up alongside the merchant ship, and Taehyung can see and hear people on the deck shouting at them, people panicking, trying to steer their ship away. But the merchant ship is huge, built for carrying huge loads, not for speed or manoeuvrability.

Jimin and Jeongguk are sending grappling hooks through the air, latching the Bangtan onto the merchant ship, and winches drag the two ships closer. Then they’re laying down planks, and suddenly the divide between the two ships disappears, the crew of the Bangtan charging across the planks, swords blazing.

Everything starts all at once, then seems to wrap up just as quickly. Seokjin and Yoongi are charging back across the planks once, twice, thrice, laden with sacks and boxes of whatever the hell it is they’re stealing. Jimin’s the next one back, leaping down onto the deck, grinning at Taehyung, like they’re not in the middle of a chaotic battle.

Taehyung barely has time to react when he sees one of the guards from the merchant ship come charging across the plants towards Jimin.

“Jimin!” Taehyung screams, lurching forward, but he doesn’t know what to do.

Thankfully, Jimin reacts to Taehyung’s scream, ducks down and narrowly avoids getting his head sliced off. But the sharp edge of the blade connects with his shoulder, and he stumbles, falls to the ground, a spray of blood splattering from his wound onto the deck. And the guard is already raising his sword, ready to bring it down onto Jimin –

Taehyung staggers forwards blindly. His feet feel like lead, but he manages to reach out with his sword, and block the blow before it connects with Jimin. With an almighty heave, he knocks the sword clean out of the guard’s hand, and it clatters to the ground.

The guard stares at Taehyung with wide eyes, panic. This is his chance, Taehyung thinks, to deliver a blow that would take the guard out of action. He doesn’t need to kill him, just needs to disable him enough that he can’t hurt Jimin.

But he can’t. Can’t bring himself to raise his sword, bring it down on the guard’s arm, or leg, or anywhere at all, even anywhere non-fatal.

He’s frozen in place.

He watches mutely as the guard notices his hesitation. With a smirk, the guard’s picking up his sword off the deck, turning back to Jimin, ready to attack again. Jimin’s wincing, trying to reach for his sword with his injured arm.

Everything is a blur. A body throws itself directly at the guard, knocking him off his feet.

“Fuck – off!” It’s Jeongguk, and he’s shouting, bringing his boot down, hard, onto the guard’s fingers. Taehyung hears the unmistakable sound of bones crunching. Then Jeongguk kicks guard’s sword across the deck, far out of reach. “Get the fuck out of here before I change my mind about not killing you,” he hisses.

Clutching his broken fingers, the guard staggers back across the planks, collapsing onto the deck of his own ship. Yoongi and Seokjin are already unhooking the Bangtan from the merchant ship, pulling the planks back, while Hoseok steers them away from the site of the attack. Namjoon himself is heaving at the ropes, adjusting the sails to help them get as far away from the merchant ship as quickly as possible.

Taehyung’s heart is slamming into his ribs. He feels like he can’t breathe.

“Jimin, are you okay?” Jeongguk’s asking, kneeling beside Jimin, checking his shoulder. There’s blood blossoming like a rose on the white of Jimin’s shirt.

Thankfully, Jimin manages a smile. “I’m fine, don’t be so dramatic,” he jokes, but when he tries to get up, he winces.

Grunting in anger, Jeongguk’s ripping his shirt off, wadding it up and pressing it into Jimin’s wound to stop the blood flow. Jimin nods at him gratefully, takes over the task of applying pressure to his own wound.

Satisfied that Jimin’s not going to die, Jeongguk gets to his feet. Taehyung blinks in distraction. Jeongguk’s extremely well-built, all lean muscle and not the slightest trace of fat anywhere. He can’t help but glance down from the smooth expanse of Jeongguk’s wide chest, down to the ridges of his abs.

That’s when he sees the blood.

A gash, across the side of Jeongguk’s waist. Gaping open like a monstrous mouth and spilling blood as red as wine.

“You’re bleeding!” Taehyung exclaims, pointing.

But Jeongguk doesn’t seem to care. He glares at Taehyung, advances towards him. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he shouts.

Taehyung stumbles backwards.

“He could have died!” Jeongguk shouts, his voice rising in volume with every syllable. He charges at Taehyung, grabs him by the collar. “He was counting on you, and you let him down.”

“Jeongguk-ah, stop,” Jimin’s saying from his spot on the ground. “It was his first fight, he was scared.”

Scoffing derisively, Jeongguk releases Taehyung forcefully, shoving him aside. Taehyung staggers a little, trying to regain his balance. “He wasn’t just scared,” hisses Jeongguk, “he couldn’t bring himself to. Not even when you needed him.”

Seokjin approaches them, reaches out for Jeongguk. “Guk-ah, we can talk about this later, let me look at your wound,” he says. But Jeongguk just pushes his reaching arms away.

“All we have is each other,” yells Jeongguk, not once taking his eyes off Taehyung. “But all you seem to want to cling onto is your moral high ground. Poor little rich boy, too good to steal, too good to fight, too good to be a pirate.”

Everyone’s staring at them now. Namjoon steps forward. “Jeongguk,” he says, a hint of warning clear in his tone.

Jeongguk ignores him – which is extremely unlike Jeongguk. He always listens to Namjoon.

Instead, he just takes a big step, right up into Taehyung’s personal space. “You will never be one of us,” Jeongguk spits. He looks disgusted by Taehyung’s mere presence.

“Jeongguk, that’s enough,” says Namjoon, this time loudly, firmly. Jeongguk stops, breathing heavily, chest rising and falling with each inhale and exhale. He curls his upper lip at Taehyung in a sneer, then storms off, Seokjin hurrying along in his wake to tend to his wound.

Taehyung feels adrift. He casts a glance at Jimin, still sitting on the ground, still pressing Jeongguk’s shirt into his wound. Yoongi’s crouched down beside him, but he glances up when he notices Taehyung looking.

They don’t look angry. Neither do Hoseok or Namjoon.

But they look disappointed. Like they had expected – or hoped for – something from Taehyung, and he had turned out to be someone completely different. It hurts, the way they’ve looking at him.

It hurts because Taehyung’s disappointed in himself as well.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Taehyung keeps to himself for the rest of the day. He can’t stop thinking about Jimin and Jeongguk, and the fact that they’re both hurt – because of him.

His quietness doesn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the crew. Hoseok tells him to keep his chin up, says that everything will be okay. Yoongi even gives him an awkward pat on the shoulders, tries to reassure him that it’s not his fault, that people get hurt all the time, and that in the grand scheme of things Jimin’s and Jeongguk’s wounds are only minor.

But it’s Jeongguk’s words that ring in his head. You will never be one of us .

He’s right, Taehyung thinks. He’s just a lost prince, trying to be something that he’s not. Something that he will never be.

Taehyung skips dinner, sits instead right at the prow of the ship, leaning his head back against the railings so that all he can see is the black curtain of the night sky and the infinite stars, broken up only by the mast reaching up into the sky, the swell of the mainsail, the criss-cross of ropes.

“Something on your mind?”

The voice surprises him, not just because it breaks him out of his daze, but because it’s Jimin’s voice.

“What are you doing here?” Taehyung asks, alarmed. “Shouldn’t you be in bed? Does Jin-hyung know you’re here?”

Jimin laughs, eases himself down to sit next to Taehyung on the deck. “I’m fine, mom ,” he teases. “It’s just my shoulder, I can move around alright.” His shoulder is bandaged up, and his arm is in a sling. Taehyung winces, feeling guilty.

“Jimin, I’m so sorry –”  Taehyung begins, but Jimin cuts him off.

“Don’t apologise,” Jimin says, shaking his head. “It’s not your fault. No matter what Gukkie says.”

Taehyung hands his head, eyes trained on his hands folded in his lap, where he fiddles his fingers together. “He’s right, though,” Taehyung mumbles around the lump in his throat, “I’m not cut out for this.”

Jimin sighs, shuffles closer to Taehyung, leans his head gently on Taehyung’s shoulder. “He’s not right at all,” Jimin protests. “You saved my life, didn’t you? You blocked the first blow. Yeah, you hesitated after, but it’s difficult, the first time you have to hurt someone. It was difficult for all of us. Gukkie forgets that.”

Taehyung doesn’t quite feel like he believes this, but Jimin sounds earnest, and genuine.

“Jeongguk said that I think I have some moral high ground,” says Taehyung. “He might be right about that.”

Jimin lifts his head off Taehyung’s shoulder, adjusts himself so he can look Taehyung in the eye. “Do you think we’re bad people?” he asks, staring intently into Taehyung’s eyes. “Do you think I’m a bad person?”

The answer to Jimin’s questions comes to Taehyung instantly, without even the slightest hint of hesitation.

“No,” Taehyung says, shaking his head furiously. “No, not at all. Every single one of you – you’re all such good, kind, people.”

“That’s all I need to know,” Jimin says, shrugging his good shoulder. “None of us think that stealing, hurting people is a good thing – and you don’t have to think that to be one of us. But we believe that the world is unfair, and we do what we can to make it a little fairer.”

Then he pauses, sighs. “We’re all orphans, you know?” he says, and no, Taehyung didn’t know. Jimin smiles sadly. “All of us – we grew up on the streets, and every day was a struggle to survive. Becoming pirates – we chose it, but it also chose us. It was what we had to do to live.”

Taehyung feels so terrible, so ashamed. He’s never known a day of hardship or suffering in his life. Never felt like he had to fear for his life.

But Jimin reaches out, places his hand on Taehyung’s knee. “I’m not saying this to make you feel bad,” he says softly, “but – stealing is bad, sure, but it’s just as bad, if not worse, to be complicit in a system that deprives people of what they need to survive, while others live in excess. We’re just trying to do the best we can in a broken society.

“Not all pirates have the same ideals, of course – but Namjoon does, and we all do too. We don’t keep most of what we take, you know? We sell what we need to keep ourselves going, but we give the rest away. Which is why we often try to steal grain, flour, sugar, rice – that sort of stuff.”

Taehyung didn’t know this. He looks up at Jimin, feeling confused. “Why didn’t you tell me this?” he asks, frowning.

Jimin smiles. “You never asked,” he replies. “You just assumed – and this isn’t me blaming you, because everyone does – that pirates steal to get rich.”

Once again, Taehyung feels like his entire world is shifting beneath him. He’s only been aboard the Bangtan for a week or so, and already he’s not sure what to think, not sure what he believes. Everything he’d thought he knew about the world – all of that seems to be in flux now.

“Gukkie’s in the crews’ quarters,” Jimin says suddenly. “You should go talk to him.”

Taehyung purses his lips nervously. “He probably doesn’t want to talk to me.”

“No, probably not,” Jimin agrees. “But he needs to. As much as you need to talk to him. You may have assumptions about us, but Gukkie has assumptions about you too.”

And Jimin’s right, of course. So Taehyung climbs to his feet, helps Jimin up, walks him back to the mess hall where Seokjin and Yoongi are chatting over cups of wine. They look up when Taehyung enters, and smile at him. There’s gentle warmth in their smiles, and it bolsters Taehyung’s confidence.

He slips into the crews’ quarters quietly. It’s mostly dark, but the far corner is lit by flickering firelight.

“Jeongguk?” Taehyung calls out, almost warily. He can’t see Jeongguk, because of the room dividers in the way, so he tiptoes around the various cots, trunks, scattered personal items, heading towards the back of the room.

“What do you want?” asks Jeongguk as Taehyung approaches him. He’s sitting up in his bed, a book open in his lap. He has a loose shirt on, but it’s unbuttoned, and Taehyung can see the bandages wrapped around his torso.

Taehyung stands awkwardly by the foot of Jeongguk’s bed, shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “I wanted to apologise,” he says, meeting Jeongguk’s gaze and trying his best not to look away.

Jeongguk scowls. “You can apologise by getting off this ship,” he snaps. “Like I said, you don’t belong here.”

The words sting, but Taehyung doesn’t want to believe them. “No,” he says, firmly, clenching his jaw. Jeongguk glances up, looks surprised. Taehyung repeats himself, “no, I’m not leaving.”

Jeongguk looks like he’s about to say something, but Taehyung cuts in quickly, before he can get even a word out.

“I know you don’t like me,” Taehyung says, gaining confidence as he speaks. “You think that I’m just some rich boy, who thinks that I’m better than all of you. But I don’t. You’re just projecting how you feel onto me.”

This makes Jeongguk frown with displeasure. “Excuse me?” he asks sharply.

“You’re the product of your past, of where you came from and what you experienced,” Taehyung continues, ignoring Jeongguk. He isn’t sure where the words are coming from, but now they’re pouring out of him. “I won’t ever be able to fully relate to that, but I’m trying to learn, to understand.

“But what you don’t see is that – I’m the same. I’m the product of my past as well. I grew up thinking and believing certain things, because I had only seen one very limited view of the world. But at least I’m trying to learn.”

Taehyung pauses. His heart is hammering in his chest. He feels like he’s on the verge of tears, though he doesn’t know why.

“I’m trying to get to know you,” he says finally, quietly, but firmly. “But you don’t even want to get to know me.”

Jeongguk is staring at him, an unreadable expression on his face. He looks like he might be trying to form the words the say something, but Taehyung doesn’t want to hear it. Not right now.

“Thank you for listening to me,” Taehyung quickly adds, bowing his head. “Rest well – I hope you get better soon.”

Then he’s turning on his heel, and rushing out of the crews’ quarters without another word.

 

 


 

 

Taehyung talks to Namjoon as well, the following day. Knocks on the door to the captain’s quarters, and walks in as confidently as he can manage when he hears Namjoon calling him in.

“I thought you might come see me today,” Namjoon says simply, smiling in that knowing way that he does. He’s standing by the large table, which is still covered in maps.

Taehyung grins sheepishly, shuffles towards Namjoon. “I wanted to come and…apologise, I guess,” he says, after taking a deep breath.

Namjoon nods slowly. “What are you sorry for?” he asks, and he sounds genuinely curious.

Taehyung hesitates. He’s not quite sure, really. “For…letting you guys down?” he says, wincing at the way his voice lifts at the end of his sentence, like he’s asking a question.

“According to Jimin, you saved him from the first blow, the blow that no one else would have been close enough to deflect,” Namjoon says. “Not to mention, you read the maps and led us to where we needed to be. So tell me, how have you let us down?”

This brings a slight colour to Taehyung’s cheeks. “I guess, maybe I was judging you guys a little, for being pirates,” he mumbles, “and I’m sorry for that too.”

“It’s difficult to let go of beliefs we’ve held onto our entire lives,” Namjoon replies, and it sounds like he’s just musing aloud to himself, but he keeps looking at Taehyung, like he’s watching to see how Taehyung responds.

“Uh, yes,” Taehyung says, when Namjoon pauses. “That’s true. I’m making an effort to be open-minded, though.”

Namjoon smiles more broadly now, his signature dimples appearing in his cheeks. “I can tell,” he says, “it shows.”

Taehyung returns the smile hesitantly. “So…you’re not going to kick me off the ship?” he asks. “Even if Jeongguk doesn’t like me?”

This makes Namjoon sigh, and shake his head, but he’s still smiling. “Our Jeonggukie – he can be harsh, but only because of how fiercely protective he is of all of us. We’re all family, but for Jeongguk especially – he came to us when he had nothing, and no one.

“What I’m trying to say is – Jeongguk means no harm. He can lash out when he feels like his family is being threatened. But he knows just as well as I do that we all would benefit from having you on board.”

More than anything, this acknowledgement from Namjoon that he’s useful, worthy – it makes Taehyung want to cry. He blinks hard, trying to keep the prickling in the back of his eyes from turning into actual tears.

“Thank you, Namjoon-hyung,” he says, bowing deeply.

Namjoon just bows his head in return. “Don’t thank me,” he replies, “thank yourself – you’re the one who’s brought you here.”

Those words ring in Taehyung’s head as he returns to the deck. He’s always thought of himself as someone who passively let things happen to him – like his engagement to Bogum. But he supposes Namjoon is right. He’s brought himself here. He’s in charge of his own fate.

Taehyung’s so lost in thought that he isn’t paying attention to where he’s going. So, of course, he bumps into none other than Jeongguk.

“Ow,” Jeongguk hisses. He glances at Taehyung, winces as he doubles over in pain.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” Taehyung exclaims, reaching out to steady Jeongguk, but he hesitates. He’s not sure Jeongguk would appreciate being touched by someone he so clearly reviles. “Are you okay?” he settles for asking, still hovering awkwardly around Jeongguk. “Should I go get Jin-hyung?”

Without warning, Jeongguk straightens up. “Just kidding,” he says, smirking at Taehyung. “It barely even hurts.”

Taehyung’s face falls. He knew Jeongguk disliked him, but it hurts to think that he would make fun of him like that.

But Jeongguk suddenly looks worried. “No, I didn’t mean it like that,” he says quickly, “I was just teasing.” He pauses, tongues his cheek like he’s trying to find the words to say. Taehyung looks at him, openly curious now.

“I wanted to say sorry, too,” Jeongguk finally mumbles out, “you didn’t do anything wrong. I shouldn’t have said…all the things I said.”

Taehyung beams. Is this the start of acceptance?

“That’s okay,” he replies, “I understand. Jimin, and everyone in the crew – they’re important to you. But I promise, you’re all becoming very important to me too.”

This draws a small, rare, smile from Jeongguk. It lights up his eyes, and Taehyung feels something inside him churn.

 

 


 

 

By the time they arrive at their next port, Taehyung is feeling much more settled into life on board the Bangtan . He barely thinks about – barely remembers – what life was like as a prince. But it’s at this next port, that he receives an unwelcome reminder of the life he’s trying to leave behind.

The port is even busier than the last one they were at. It’s possibly the most hectic environment Taehyung’s ever been in. He links arms with Jimin, presses himself close. The last thing he wants is to get lost in this heaving, shouting, crowd.

“This is Wrul,” shouts Jimin, over the noise, “home of the pirates!”

They’re making their way to a drinking house, which seems dark and dingy from the outside, but leads through a narrow archway into a sprawling courtyard. There are people at every table, and standing around as well, some people playing various games involving cards or stones or little blocks of wood, and almost everyone drinking from huge tankards of beer.

“So is everyone here a pirate?” Taehyung asks, once they’ve found a table in the far corner of the courtyard. He looks around. There are all kinds of people here – from the incredibly old, to the shockingly, startlingly young.

“Mostly,” replies Yoongi. “Wrul is unofficially protected by a truce – we don’t attack the city or its nearby waters, and in return the city allows us to be here.”

Hoseok grins. “Not to mention we bring a lot of money into the city with us, spend it all on ale,” he adds.

“Sometimes you can find jobs here too,” continues Seokjin. “People commissioning pirates to go on missions – to collect something from somewhere, or to bring something somewhere, or to find something. Whatever people need sailors for.”

Yoongi nods. “Namjoon likes those,” he agrees, “they usually involve less moral quandary.”

That’s when Namjoon returns, carrying two tankards of ale in each hand. Jeongguk’s following close behind with three more tankards, along with a very well-built man who’s chattering away in Namjoon’s ear.

“Fancy seeing you guys here!” shouts the muscular man, squeezing himself onto the bench next to Seokjin. He beams round the table at everyone, until he notices Taehyung, wedged in the corner next to Jimin. “You’re new!” he exclaims.

Another man strides up to their table. “Jackson, you can’t just run off like that,” he scolds. Taehyung guesses the first man’s name is Jackson.

“Jaebum-hyung, look who’s here!” is all Jackson says in response. He grins at Namjoon. “Let’s pull up a table, come on!”

Taehyung’s already wondering why they need a whole other table for just two more bodies, when he sees more people weaving their way through the crowd towards them.

“That’s the crew of the Ahgase ,” whispers Jimin in Taehyung’s ear, “Jaebum’s their captain.” He points out and names each of the seven crew members in turn.

“Do we like them?” asks Taehyung, once Jimin’s done the round of introductions for him. He doesn’t know what pirate politics are like. Do pirates have rivals? Do pirates have friends? He has no idea.

Jimin nods eagerly. “Namjoon-hyung likes them, so yes, we do,” he says, “I just find Jackson a little intimidating.”

This makes Taehyung giggle. He can see why. Jackson’s extremely loud, and overtly friendly. He’s slung an arm around Seokjin, who just laughs good-naturedly.

“Anyway,” says Jackson, as the rest of his crew settle themselves around the extra table they’ve pulled up, “I was just asking about your new recruit. Who’s babyface over here?”

Everyone turns to Taehyung, who squirms under so many pairs of eyes. “Uh, I’m Taehyung,” he manages to get out.

“Woah, that’s a way deeper voice than I was expecting,” says Jackson. He sounds impressed, which is odd, because Jackson’s voice is much deeper, and even has a gravelly tone to it. “Where’d you guys pick him up?”

“Istea,” replies Namjoon easily. Taehyung’s home city. He tries to count in his head how many days it’s been since he was last there.

The guy next to Jaebum – Jinyoung, his name is, Taehyung recalls Jimin telling him – leans forward on his elbows. “There’s news from Istea,” he says, in a low voice, like he’s about to share a secret. Taehyung perks up, curious but apprehensive.

“Are you guys looking for jobs?” asks Jaebum. Taehyung guesses this must mean the commissions Seokjin had referred to earlier.

Namjoon shakes his head. “Not particularly, but if an opportunity comes along I wouldn’t say no,” he replies. “Why? Do you have any good leads?”

Jaebum glances at Jinyoung, tilts his chin in a motion for him to explain. “Apparently, Istea has lost its crown prince,” Jinyoung says. “He went missing a couple of weeks ago.”

“Abducted?” asks Yoongi, frowning, “or a runaway?”

“No idea,” replies Jinyoung, “but the prince was betrothed to the Astrane prince, who’s now desperate to find him. He’s paying a generous sum to any crew who joins in the search. Word is, the lost prince was last seen near the docks in Istea, so the Astrane prince thinks that the prince may have sailed somewhere.”

Taehyung can almost hear his heart hammering in his ears. He’s frozen in place, panic surging through him as he watches, listens, helplessly. Waiting for some crucial information to drop, that will make it clear that he is, in fact, the lost prince.

But that moment never comes. Jaebum wraps up the story, explains that his crew is going to accept the job. It’s a great deal, he says – they just need to sail out to a location that the Astrane prince specifies, and ask around for information about the lost prince.

“No one really knows what he looks like – he’s been kept so well protected his whole life,” says Jaebum, “but the Astrane prince thinks that he wouldn’t be able to do very much without revealing his identity, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find him, as long as there’s someone asking in the right place.”

Seokjin looks suspicious of this plan. “How can we find him if we don’t even know what he looks like?” he asks. “Sounds like a wild goose chase to me – how is this a good deal?”

“You get paid upfront, when you accept the mission, and there’s a large reward on top of that if you do actually find the lost prince,” explains Jackson, waggling his eyebrows enthusiastically. “You guys should do it. It’s a no brainer.”

But they can’t, they absolutely can’t. It’s too risky, would bring them far too close to potentially finding out Taehyung’s true identity.

Only – Taehyung doesn’t know how to stop them.

“Did you know the prince?” asks Jimin, later, as they head back into the city in search of the representatives from Astrane who can give them more information about the job. Jackson had tried to describe their uniforms, the Astrane crest. But Taehyung, of course, already knows. The deep navy fabric, the nine-pointed silver star. He can’t stop keeping an eye out for that distinctive emblem, can’t stop hoping that they won’t find it.

Hoseok laughs, elbows Jimin. “Of course he didn’t, why would a commoner know the prince!” he teases.

Jimin pouts. “Tae was rich, he might have known the prince,” he objects, “I don’t know how rich people and royalty work.”

“No, I didn’t know the prince,” says Taehyung flatly, trying to put an end to the conversation.

But Jimin’s still on the same subject. “If he ran away two weeks ago, that means he left Istea around the same time as you, doesn’t it?” he asks. “What a weird coincidence.”

Taehyung’s breath hitches in his throat. “Yeah,” he says, in a somewhat strangled voice, “weird.”

By the time they get hold of the Astrane representatives, and get assigned a city to sail to – one that’s unnervingly close to Istea – the sun is already setting. They head back to the ship, eager to leave, but it’s already too dark to risk setting out, not when there isn’t any particular reason to.

When Namjoon declares that they’ll set sail first thing in the morning, Hoseok lets out a wild cheer. A night on land is hard to come by, so he, Seokjin and Jimin decide that they’re going to head back into the city. Seokjin cries out, “Namjoon-ah!” so many times that eventually Namjoon gives in and goes along with them.

Yoongi mumbles something about going to bed early, and shuffles off, leaving Taehyung alone with Jeongguk on the deck.

“You’re not heading out with them?” Jeongguk asks, glancing at Taehyung curiously.

Taehyung shakes his head. “Not in the mood,” he says vaguely, before wandering over to the prow, and sitting himself on the railing, one hand loosely holding on to the ropes to steady himself.

To his surprise, he hears some shuffling behind him, and then Jeongguk lifting himself to sit on the opposite railing, mirroring Taehyung. In the narrow beak of the prow, they’re so close that their knees are almost touching. The night air is cold, but the Jeongguk’s closeness brings a sudden warmth coursing through Taehyung’s body.

“I’m not in the mood either,” says Jeongguk, softly.

Taehyung doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t need to. He looks out across the harbour, and the multitude of ships docked. Looks across to the city, and its flickering lights. Then turns back and looks across the blackness of the ocean.

“I like it here,” he says, suddenly, breaking the comfortable silence that has blanketed him and Jeongguk.

For a moment, Jeongguk just breathes. Then he asks, “Do you not miss home?”

Taehyung considers this. Istea – the city he’s grown up in, but that he barely knows beyond the walls of the palace. There are certainly things about the city, even the palace, that he thinks of fondly. But nothing that he would rather have, than what he has right now.

“It barely feels like home anymore,” Taehyung says, truthfully. He feels a sudden sense of sadness, because even though he doesn’t miss it – it’s somewhat disheartening to think that the place he spent two decades in can mean so little to him.

He doesn’t want to think about it anymore, so he shakes his head lightly, trying to clear out the fuzz from his mind. “What about you?” he asks, turning to glance at Jeongguk. “Where are you from?”

The corner of Jeongguk’s lips curl into a smile, one that’s tinged with bitterness. “Nowhere that matters,” he says, simply. “I don’t have a home except on this ship.”

Taehyung nods. He turns back to look into the distance, trying to find the horizon, but the sea bleeds so seamlessly into the sky. “And the ocean,” he adds.

At this, Jeongguk smiles, not broadly, but genuinely. “The ocean will always be home,” he agrees.

Taehyung sneaks a peek at Jeongguk out of the corner of his eye. He looks different to how he usually looks. Happier. More at peace.

Taehyung wonders if the ocean will one day become home for him as well.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Taehyung watches the Wrul port recede into the distance, as the Bangtan sets sail on their mission to St. Julep, a port that is less than a day’s journey away from Istea. He can barely believe that, after all of this journeying across the oceans, he’s going to find himself almost back at square one.

But all they need to do is to ask some questions, and get the hell out of there. It’s going to be okay. All Taehyung needs to do is to keep his head down.

He’s standing next to Yoongi at the helm, the salty wind tangling his hair, looking out across the endless expanse of brilliant blue ocean, and he can almost forget who he is, where he’s come from. This Taehyung isn’t a prince, isn’t betrothed to a man who he barely knows. This Taehyung is free.

“How long more till we reach Julep?” Yoongi asks, squinting into the distance.

Saint Julep,” corrects Hoseok, which earns him an eye-roll from Yoongi.

Taehyung glances down at his map, though he doesn’t need to. He’s studied their course countless times over the past few days. As much as he doesn’t want to go to St. Julep, he’s the ship’s navigator, and he’s going to do his bloody job as well as he possibly can. “If the winds continue to work in our favour, two days,” he replies.

Yoongi nods slowly. “And if the winds don’t?”

“Three days, maybe four,” Taehyung says, “do we have enough supplies for that?”

“Jin-hyung thinks so, but we might have to restock before we leave Julep if it takes any longer than two days,” says Yoongi.

Saint Julep,” repeats Hoseok, who never seems to get tired of bothering Yoongi.

Taehyung licks his lips nervously. If they have to restock in St. Julep, that just means more time in close proximity to Istea, which means more chances of getting found out. He glances at the billowing sails. Prays to whatever sea gods are out there that the winds continue to stay in their favour.

“Hey, Jimin,” calls Yoongi suddenly. Taehyung glances back onto the main deck. Jimin’s crossing the deck with a coil of rope on one shoulder, and heading into the hold, but he stops suddenly when Yoongi calls his name.

“Yeah, hyung?” Jimin calls back, and starts to make his way towards the steps up to the prow, but stops in his tracks again when Yoongi holds a hand up.

“No, don’t come up here,” Yoongi says. “Can you go check with Jin-hyung how many days we can go before restocking?”

Jimin nods, reversing back down the steps, but stumbling slightly on his way. “Yeah, sure,” he mumbles in response, adjusting the coil of rope where it’s started to unravel slightly. He looks like he’s struggling a little, so Taehyung darts down to help him.

Together they manage to get the rope back into a neat coil, and into the hold where it needs to go. Jimin’s tightening up the knots deftly, while Taehyung just watches him.

“You’re weird around Yoongi-hyung,” Taehyung says, suddenly, a small smirk coming unbidden to his lips.

Jimin lets out a sharp breath of air. “Excuse me?” he asks, whipping his head round. “What are you talking about?”

The extremity of Jimin’s response only serves to confirm what Taehyung had already been suspecting. “Yoongi-hyung,” he repeats, grinning now. “You get flustered whenever he talks to you. And you’re usually so confident and affectionate with everyone, but you’re never like that with him.”

Jimin purses his lips. “That’s because Yoongi-hyung doesn’t like people touching him,” he says flatly. Which is true, but Taehyung knows there’s more to it. Growing up in the palace, where everyone is always trying to manipulate each other, and no one ever reveals their true motives, Taehyung’s become good at reading people. And compared to all the palace politicking, Jimin’s basically an open book.

But maybe Taehyung’s pushing too hard. Maybe, despite how friendly Jimin has been with him – maybe they’re not actually friends.

The thought makes something inside Taehyung ache.

“I’m sorry,” he says, softly. “You don’t have to talk to me about anything you don’t want to. I just – I want to be your friend. And if you need me, I’m here for you.”

He nods politely at Jimin, more formally that he’s been with Jimin in a while, and turns to leave. But Jimin just sighs, reaches out an arm to stop him.

“No, Tae – sorry,” Jimin says, shaking his head. “I don’t mean to push you away. It’s just – it’s weird. And I don’t know how to talk about it.” He scrunches up his face, sits himself down on a crate. The odd slats of light that stream in from above deck illuminate his face as much as they shadow it. Taehyung goes to sit down on the floor by Jimin’s feet, leans his head against Jimin’s thigh. Hums softly in happiness as Jimin cards his fingers through his hair absently.

“You’re right, I do have a thing for Yoongi-hyung,” Jimin says quietly, after a moment of silence. “It’s just weird because, well – because he knows, and I know he likes me too. But he thinks it’s a bad idea for crew members to get involved.”

Taehyung’s heart skips, though he’s not sure why. “Does – do you think that, too?” he asks, trying to speak levelly.

“No, I don’t,” Jimin replies. He moves Taehyung’s head off his lap, drops down onto the ground so they’re both sitting cross-legged, facing each other. “You’re one of us now, so you should probably know,” Jimin says, leaning forward, taking Taehyung’s face in his hands, pressing their foreheads together. “This is all in the past, and you mustn’t mention it to anyone again – but I used to have a thing with a couple of the other crew members. It wasn’t romantic, not really, but we used to sleep together sometimes.”

This is certainly news to Taehyung. He tries not to react, though, just swallows hard and blinks at Jimin. The next question comes to his lips instinctively. “Who?”

Probably Hoseok, Taehyung thinks. And possibly Jeongguk. The thought of Jimin running his hands down Jeongguk’s abs, of Jeongguk pressing kisses into Jimin’s skin, makes Taehyung feel a twist of displeasure inside him. It would certainly explain why Jeongguk had gotten so angry when he had let Jimin get hurt.

“Hobi-hyung,” Jimin says, and Taehyung nods. They’re so physically affectionate with each other that it’s not really a surprise.

But the next answer that Jimin supplies is the last thing Taehyung would have expected.

“And Namjoon-hyung,” adds Jimin, grimacing slightly.

“Namjoon-hyung?” repeats Taehyung, in a loud whisper. Jimin shushes him but Taehyung just gapes openly. “The captain? You had an affair with the captain?”

Jimin flicks Taehyung on the forehead, but he’s grinning. “It wasn’t an affair – it just gets lonely on the open oceans, you know, and we helped each other out. That was before Jin-hyung joined, anyway.”

Taehyung doesn’t get what the significance of Seokjin joining the crew is, though he’s long suspected there was something going on between him and the captain. But that’s a question for another time.

“What does this have to do with Yoongi-hyung?” Taehyung asks.

“Nothing, really,” replies Jimin, “but ever since he found out – I don’t know. He’s been weird about it. He says that it’s evidence that crew members shouldn’t get involved, but I don’t get it – if anything it’s evidence that crew members can get involved without it fucking everything over, you know? Plus, Jin-hyung and Namjoon-hyung are basically a married couple and that’s working perfectly fine.”

This is so much information that it’s boggling Taehyung’s brain. He can barely register the confirmation of Seokjin and Namjoon’s relationship. “Wait, you’ve talked to Yoongi-hyung about this?” he asks in bewilderment. There’s so much going on behind the scenes.

“Yeah,” replies Jimin, shrugging. “We’ve kissed a few times, too – before he got all weird and panicky and said we had to end things before they went too far.”

Taehyung’s eyes widen. “Okay, this was not what I expected when I asked if you had a thing for Yoongi-hyung,” he admits. “I thought you just liked him, or something!”

“I do like him!” objects Jimin. But he giggles, pinches Taehyung’s cheeks. “This is another way pirates are different from rich boys,” he teases, “lots more sex.”

Despite himself, Taehyung can feel his face heat up. “Rich boys have plenty of sex too,” he mumbles, even though that’s stretching the truth. He’s had a fumble beneath the sheets with a couple of the palace guards, and some of the palace maids, but it’s hardly the tangled web of sexual relations Jimin seems to be describing.

“Sure they do,” says Jimin in response to Taehyung’s assertion, his voice low as he leans in towards Taehyung. He slides his hands slowly up Taehyung’s thighs, the friction causing a heat to coil in Taehyung’s gut. “Then why are you getting so flustered,” Jimin breathes, his lips hovering tantalisingly close to Taehyung’s ear, “when I’m not doing anything at all?”

“God, Jimin, not Taehyung too,” comes a familiar voice from further down in the hold. Taehyung leaps backwards, shoving Jimin off him. Jimin falls back in a heap, laughing to himself.

Standing at the bottom of the ladder down into the hold is Jeongguk, looking at the two of them with an expression of distaste.

“It’s not what it looks like!” Taehyung exclaims, scrambling to his feet. Jimin’s still on the ground, eyes glittering with amusement as he looks between Taehyung and Jeongguk.

But Jeongguk just makes a sort of grunting noise of annoyance. He stomps over to the corner of the hold where the extra food supplies are, grabs a sack of rice, and clambers back up the ladder, without saying another word.

Taehyung buries his face in his hands. “Oh god, that’s embarrassing,” he moans.

“It’s not so bad, Gukkie’s just a bit of a prude,” Jimin says, hopping to his feet and pulling Taehyung’s hands away from his face. “Sorry for teasing – you’re just too cute to resist.”

Taehyung pouts at him. “So you weren’t actually coming on to me, then?” he asks.

Jimin shrugs. “Nah,” he replies. “Don’t get me wrong – I totally would,” – at this, Taehyung pulls a face – “but I can tell you’re not interested. You, my friend, seem to have your eye on someone else.”

“I – what?” Taehyung splutters. His cheeks are flaming. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t think I don’t see the way you look at Gukkie,” Jimin teases, pinching Taehyung’s cheek. Taehyung slaps his hand away, which just makes Jimin chuckle. “He’s pretty sexy, isn’t he? I would have tapped that, except he wasn’t interested. He’s never been interested.”

Taehyung groans. “Are you trying to sleep with every crew member on this ship?” he whines.

“Hey, I have needs and I’m not afraid to go get them satisfied,” Jimin replies, grinning. He heads towards the ladder up to the deck. “We should go see if Jin-hyung needs help with dinner. And check on those supplies like Yoongi-hyung asked.”

Taehyung follows Jimin, but then a thought occurs to him. “Jimin-ah,” he says, warily. Jimin pauses at the foot of the ladder, turns to glance at him. Taehyung chews on his lower lip. “Have you ever thought – maybe Yoongi-hyung’s jealous? Like, maybe he sees what you’ve had with Hoseok-hyung, and Namjoon-hyung, and maybe – maybe he doesn’t want to be just one more notch on your bedpost.”

Jimin frowns. “No, he knows – he knows I feel differently about him,” he says, but with a twinge of uncertainty in his voice. “I didn’t feel anything more with Hoseok-hyung, or Namjoon-hyung. But Yoongi-hyung – I like him. I actually like him. I wouldn’t get flustered around him otherwise. He knows that.”

“Does he, though?” questions Taehyung.

Jimin is silent for a moment, a look of contemplation on his face. But then he shakes his head, and his usual bright grin is back. “Doesn’t matter,” he says, beckoning Taehyung towards him. “Now let’s go! Dinner awaits!”

 

 


 

 

The winds are still in the favour, and everyone is in great spirits at dinnertime, which means that Seokjin cracks out a couple bottles of mead. At first Namjoon and Yoongi are reluctant to drink, because they need to watch over the ship in case something happens during the night. But then Jeongguk volunteers not to drink, and Taehyung follows suit, which means that by the time the food is finished, all of the crew except for the two youngest members are fairly sloshed.

Jimin’s giggling and leaning his head on Taehyung’s shoulder, even more affectionate than he usually is, his hands snaking round Taehyung’s waist. Seokjin and Hoseok are singing loudly, and the atmosphere is somehow both cozy and rowdy.

But Taehyung can’t stop noticing Jeongguk’s eyes on him, from across the room. It makes him uneasy, and it makes him want to extricate himself from Jimin’s hold.

So when Yoongi slips into the seat next to him, having returned from getting himself a refill of his drink, Taehyung wriggles away from Jimin, gently shoves him towards Yoongi.

“Hyung, I need the bathroom – take care of Jimin for me, will you?” he says, not giving Yoongi a chance to object before he’s on his feet and fleeing the room. He glances back to see Jimin pulling Yoongi close, leaning up to whisper into his ear.

The cold night air on deck slams into Taehyung, a stark contrast from the burning warmth inside the dining hall. He doesn’t actually need the bathroom, so he just wanders across the deck, climbs the steps to the prow, stands at the very tip of the ship – he keeps finding himself back here, but somehow he never gets sick of it. Never gets sick of the view, even though it’s technically the same thing every night. Wide open ocean, a never-ending expanse of sky. But it’s always different. It’s not like the palace walls, which never change. The ocean shifts every single second, as do the clouds, and the stars in the sky. Taehyung doesn’t think he will ever get sick of this view.

The thought that he can’t keep running forever, that one day he’s going to have to return to his life as a prince, as a caged bird in a castle, suddenly springs to mind. It brings hot tears to his eyes. He blinks them away angrily. He isn’t going to let thoughts like that ruin what time he does have aboard this ship.

“Surprised to see you out here,” comes a voice from behind Taehyung, right behind him, so close that it makes him jump.

“Fuck – don’t sneak up on people like that!” Taehyung shouts, spinning round to see who it is. Even though he already knows, recognises that deep, rich voice.

“I wasn’t sneaking,” replies Jeongguk, not looking at Taehyung, just coming to stand next to him. “You were just lost in thought.”

Taehyung scowls slightly, but turns back to face the ocean. Lets the endless dark calm him. “Yeah, I guess I was,” he agrees.

Jeongguk glances at him. “What were you thinking about?” he asks, his voice completely even, but a little too even. There’s a tightness in his words, like he’s trying to contain his curiosity.

“Nothing much,” Taehyung replies, because he doesn’t want to get into it. “Why were you surprised to see me out here?”

Jeongguk shrugs. Again, there’s something calculated about his movements. Taehyung doesn’t quite understand it. Doesn’t quite understand him. “I thought you’d be with Jimin,” he answers, like it should be obvious. Taehyung thinks back to the compromising position he and Jimin were in when Jeongguk walked in on them, and winces.

“There’s nothing going on with me and Jimin,” Taehyung says, quickly. “What you saw, earlier – he was just teasing.”

Jeongguk tilts his head at Taehyung. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me,” he says. Which frustrates Taehyung a little, because his statement about Jimin had plainly been an attempt to draw something out of Taehyung.

“I know that,” Taehyung replies, a little hotly. “I just – you seemed to be implying something.”

“I wasn’t implying anything,” comes Jeongguk’s response, almost immediately.

Taehyung just scoffs. Talking to Jeongguk can be so easy, so enlightening, sometimes – but most of the time it just feels like tearing the skin off the side of his fingernail. He focuses his attention back on the ocean, on the pinpricks of stars, the reflection of the moon on the rippling surface of the water.

“Are you nervous about going to St. Julep?” Jeongguk asks, abruptly, after a long silence. Taehyung startles, turns to look at him in shock.

“No,” he says, even though he is – he’s so nervous the mere thought of setting foot on that port sends spasms of anxiety shooting through his gut. “No, I’m not nervous. Why?”

It’s so difficult to read Jeongguk. His jawline is almost always clenched that it’s hard to tell when he’s actually tense. “You just – you’ve seemed nervous,” Jeongguk says flatly.

This alarms Taehyung, but it also surprises him. He didn’t think anyone would have been able to pick up on his nervous energy, but apparently Jeongguk had noticed. “I’m not nervous,” he denies, hoping that his voice isn’t betraying any further information. “What would I have to be nervous about?”

Jeongguk turns his head at this, looks directly at Taehyung. “I don’t know,” he says, cocking his head to one side. “I don’t know.”

Taehyung tries to sort through the churning of emotions within him. He doesn’t like the disappointed look in Jeongguk’s eyes, feels an inexplicable urge to give a little something more.

“I guess – it’s a little close to home. Or what used to be home,” Taehyung mumbles. He sneaks side glances at Jeongguk out the corner of his eyes.

A small hum of acknowledgement is the only indication Taehyung gets that Jeongguk’s heard him. But he gets the feeling that Jeongguk’s on the verge of saying something, maybe something important, so he waits.

Such a long silence falls over them that Taehyung almost forgets what they were talking about. But suddenly, without warning, Jeongguk is saying, “I’ve never told you how I joined this ship, have I?”

Obviously not, since this is already the longest conversation they’ve ever had, but Taehyung knows better than to say that. So he just shakes his head, turns his gaze to Jeongguk, tilts his head to the side as an indication to Jeongguk to continue.

“I was an orphan. Never knew my parents,” Jeongguk begins, and even though Taehyung already knew this, knew it about all of them, hearing Jeongguk say those words to him makes a twinge of sadness twist in him.

“I lived in a small port, sort of like Wrul. But nastier. And I – I was a thief,” Jeongguk says. He glances at Taehyung then, warily – like he’s trying to gauge his reaction. Taehyung focuses his every effort in suppressing his instinctive reaction of shock. Keeps a straight face.

Whether Jeongguk can see through him, see through to his initial reaction of distaste, the reaction he’s been brought up to have, not the one he wants to have anymore – Taehyung can’t tell. But if he can, Jeongguk ignores it, and continues, “I lived with a bunch of other orphans. We had to pickpocket, give all our takings to the leaders of our – gang, I guess. And if we didn’t hit quota, we would get a beating. There were loads of these gangs around the town. In all the towns, really. It was the only way for orphans to survive. No one would take an apprentice or even pay a boy to clean stables, not if he had no family, no one to vouch for them. There were plenty of poor kids with families, begging for jobs.”

This is all horrifying, but all the more so horrifying for the fact that it’s supposedly rampant, and yet this is the first time Taehyung has heard about it. He thinks back to the day he left Istea, back to the old beggar man who had grabbed onto his arm and pleaded for money. Had such poverty always existed in Istea, right under his nose, invisible to him? Or, worse – had it always been there to see, and he just blind to it?

“There was a kid, one of the orphans, he was maybe nine, at most ten,” Jeongguk continues, looking away from Taehyung, out at the stars. “He was terrible at pickpocketing. Too afraid, too hesitant. He never made his quota, and one day the leaders told him this was his last chance. He tried his best, but it wasn’t enough. Wasn’t nearly enough.”

Jeongguk looks so old, so haunted by memories, that Taehyung begins to feel an ache in his heart. “What – what happened?” he asks, afraid to hear the answer. Afraid to hear that the ten year old boy was also the man now standing in front of him.

The truth is, somehow, even worse.

“I was fifteen, then,” Jeongguk says. “I gave him the money I had stolen, to make up his quota. Even though it meant I didn’t meet mine. Figured I could take a beating from the leaders. I was one of the better thieves. I hadn’t been punished very much.”

“And did they? Beat you?” Taehyung asks. His voice is trembling, and his heart feels so heavily crushed into his chest he wonders how it’s still beating.

Jeongguk laughs at this, but the sound is cold. It sends icy shivers coursing through Taehyung’s veins.

“They did,” Jeongguk replies, “but it wasn’t for not meeting my quota.” He turns, now. Looks Taehyung in the eyes. “They figured out what I’d done. They were punishing me. Said that the weak members of the group had to be cut loose. That I was inhibiting progress.

“Namjoon-hyung found me, bruised and bloody in some old alleyway where they’d left me. They figured I would come crawling back to them. And maybe I would’ve. There wasn’t any other way to survive. You couldn’t even steal for yourself, the gangs would come for you.

“It was just him, and Yoongi-hyung, back then. They didn’t even have a ship. But I believed in him, so I followed him. And I’ve never looked back since.”

Taehyung doesn’t what to say. Doesn’t know how to stop the rushing of his heartbeat in his ears. He can feel tears prickling at the back of his eyes, but if feels – disrespectful, almost, to cry when Jeongguk himself is looking so stony-faced.

“Why are you telling me this?” Taehyung manages to get out.

Jeongguk just shrugs. “You’re one of us now, aren’t you?” he says, simply. “You should know.”

Taehyung doesn’t understand Jeongguk, wonders if he ever will. He can barely even tell if Jeongguk likes him, or wants to push him off the ship. And yet, here they are, Jeongguk standing with his hands in his pockets, casually, like he hasn’t just revealed a close, desperately intimate piece of his past, to someone he’s known for only a handful of weeks.

It makes Jeongguk make a little more sense, though. Why he had bristled so strongly when he thought Taehyung had been judging them for being pirates. Why he had lost it when he thought Taehyung had let Jimin down.

“What about the boy?” Taehyung asks. His voice is barely more than a whisper. He feels like he knows the answer, even before the question has left his lips.

Jeongguk just locks eyes with Taehyung. His gaze is unwavering. “I wouldn’t have abandoned him,” he says, his voice low, and steady. But there is something so steely – too steely – about his expression. Like he’s using every ounce of energy to hold himself together. “By the time they got to me – I couldn’t save him, in the end.”

He doesn’t need to say more. The meaning is perfectly clear. Taehyung doesn’t look away from Jeongguk, not even for a second. Tries to say, with his eyes, that he understands.

“Thank you for telling me,” he says, finally, softly. He reaches out a hesitant hand, rests it on Jeongguk’s arm. Jeongguk tenses slightly at the contact, but he doesn’t push Taehyung away.

“You were right,” Jeongguk says, looking down at his feet. His lashes are long, feathery, and they catch the pale white glow of the moonlight. Taehyung has a sudden urge to reach out and brush his fingers against them, see if they feel as soft as they look.

“You said that I was judging you based on who you were, and where you’ve come from,” Jeongguk continues, “you were right. I never even tried to get to know you. And I’m sorry for that. I would like to get to know you now.”

Taehyung feels his breath catch in his throat when Jeongguk raises his eyes to meet his gaze. The roguish good-looks are still there, but there’s something softer, less sharp, about Jeongguk’s face as well, from his round cheeks, to the gently parted lips, all softly illuminated by the moonlight.

“Because – because I’m one of the crew, now,” Taehyung says. He isn’t sure if he’s asking, or telling.

Jeongguk smiles, and Taehyung has to resist the urge to reach out and run the pad of his thumb across the swell of his cheeks.

“Because you’re one of the crew,” agrees Jeongguk, “but also – also, because you’re...different.”

“Yeah?” Taehyung breathes. He wonders when the two of them ended up so close, because right now he could so easily just lean forward – just lean forward, and capture Jeongguk’s plump bottom lip between his own. But he tries to keep his breathing steady, even as his heart hammers wildly against his ribcage.

Jeongguk is staring at him with equal intensity, and that really, really doesn’t help. It takes all the self-control he has to tear his gaze away from Jeongguk, away from his wide, unexpectedly vulnerable eyes, his full, pillowy lips.

“What – what’s so different about me?” Taehyung asks. He goes back to staring out over the ocean, tries to forget who he is, where he is. Tries to forget that Jeongguk’s standing right there next to him. Staring at him. Taehyung can feel the heat of his gaze burning into his skin.

“The way you think,” Jeongguk replies, watching Taehyung intently, like he’s trying to puzzle him out. “The way you take in all this new information and it’s like I can see you absorbing all of it, being so open and selfless and prideless about it. It’s – I’m not open, like that.”

“You’ve told me so much about yourself tonight,” Taehyung says, glancing at Jeongguk.

“Yeah, I have,” Jeongguk says, and he looks just surprised as Taehyung had felt when he’d first started sharing. “Thank you – for listening. I guess.”

Taehyung murmurs gently in a way that he hopes conveys that there’s no need for thanks. He tilts his head back to look at the mess of stars scrawled across the inky canvas of the night sky.

After a moment, Jeongguk looks upwards too, past the sails and ropes and masts, up into the small glimpse they have of infinity.

“Do you like the stars?” Jeongguk asks.

 

 


 

 

The winds, unfortunately, do not remain in their favour. Taehyung barely gets to see or speak to Jeongguk at all, instead spends the next three days alternately queasy with nerves about getting to St. Julep, and queasy with sea sickness. Jimin comforts him by saying that the seas are unusually rough. Taehyung thinks he’s lying to make him feel better, until he spots Hoseok throwing up off the side of the ship.

By the time they finally dock in St. Julep, Taehyung is almost grateful to set foot on solid ground again. Almost. But not quite. Because as they make their way through the bustling marketplace, it quickly becomes apparent that the entire city is talking about the lost prince of Istea.

Taehyung keeps his head down, even though it’s not like any of the common folk on the streets are going to recognise him. But still, he can’t help feeling like everyone’s eyes are on him, like he’s seconds away from being discovered. He ends up buying a scarf from a street vendor, winding it round his head while complaining about the blazing sun. Jimin gives him a weird look, but says nothing.

They’ve split up into two groups, Seokjin, Yoongi and Hoseok off to restock their supplies, while the rest of them follow Namjoon as they question the locals about the lost prince. The responses they get vary from the wildly speculative – that the prince has been abducted by an evil sorcerer – to the unnervingly accurate – that the prince has run off to join a pirate crew.

Thankfully, there’s enough of a lack of consensus amongst the people they ask that it becomes clear all of the rumours are just that – rumours. Taehyung’s starting to relax a little, starting to think that maybe they’ll be able to get back off this port before anything untoward happens, when they hear Hoseok shouting Namjoon’s name.

They turn, and Hoseok’s charging down the street towards them, almost running over a number of flustered civilians in the process. Seokjin is running behind him, and further in the distance they can see Yoongi grumpily striding along.

“Namjoon-ah,” calls Hoseok as he very nearly crashes into their little group. “We’ve been trying to find you.”

“I thought we said we would meet back at the ship,” says Namjoon, frowning in mild displeasure. “Have you guys gotten the supplies we need?”

Seokjin jogs up to them, his face red from the exertion. He leans a hand on Namjoon’s shoulder, wheezes heavily to catch his breath. “Yeah, we have, they’re back on the ship,” he says. “We dropped them back there before coming to find you.”

“And why have you come to find us?” asks Namjoon, slowly, with infinite patience.

“We met soldiers at the ship!” shouts Hoseok, at the same time that Seokjin exclaims, “You have to come with us!”

The mention of soldiers sends the blood draining from Taehyung’s face. He stares at Hoseok, then at Namjoon, in horror, trying to figure out what’s going on.

That’s when Yoongi finally catches up to them. “Astrane soldiers,” he says coolly, and Namjoon looks visibly relieved to see him, rather than the two incoherent babbling fools standing in front of him right now. “They’re here with the prince, and he wants to meet us.”

Taehyung feels his heart stop, drop straight into his stomach. He stumbles backwards, knocking into Jeongguk, who steadies him but gives him a strange look.

“The lost prince?” asks Jimin in confusion, earning him a withering look from Yoongi.

“No, of course not,” Yoongi says, “the Astrane prince. The one looking for him.”

“Why does he want to see us?” asks Namjoon.

Yoongi shrugs. “Don’t know – but apparently when he heard that there were people in the city asking for the lost prince, he went and checked all the ships docked to see if any of them were ones commissioned by him,” he explains. “I suppose he just wants to check up on progress.”

Namjoon nods, asks Yoongi a few more questions – like where they’re meant to meet the prince – but Taehyung zones out. He absolutely cannot go with them. Bogum would recognise him instantly, even with this stupid scarf wrapped around his head.

Then Namjoon is nodding, saying, “fine – but stay alert, keep your weapons with you,” and Taehyung’s mind reels into a panic.

“I can’t – I should stay with the ship,” he mumbles, taking a few panicked steps backwards, even as everyone steps forwards to follow Namjoon. He crashes into Jeongguk again, who glares at him in annoyance.

“What are you doing?” Jeongguk snaps. “Why are you being so weird?”

Namjoon tilts his head at Taehyung in confusion. “Is everything okay?” he asks.

Taehyung forces a grin, even though smiling is the last thing he feels like doing right now. “Everything’s great,” he replies. His voice is a little high-pitched, and he clears his throat to try and bring it back down to a normal level. “It’s fine, I just – I just think someone should wait with the ship.”

“The anchor’s deadlocked, we checked when we left,” says Yoongi. “There’s no need to leave someone with the ship – you know this.”

This is true. Taehyung racks his brain for something else, anything else. “I – I don’t feel well,” he stammers. “Sorry – I just – I think I need to lie down.”

Jimin puts an arm around him. “He was complaining about the heat, earlier,” he says, looking at Namjoon. “We had to stop to get the scarf? To cover his head? Maybe he has heatstroke.”

It’s not clear if Jimin actually believes this, or if he’s just trying to help Taehyung out. Either way, Taehyung just leans gratefully into Jimin’s arms, nods weakly at Namjoon.

“Alright, fine,” says Namjoon, glancing between Taehyung and Jimin. “Both of you, go back to the ship. No running around the city. I don’t know what’s going on, but if you haven’t been on the ship the entire time we’re away, we’re going to have words.”

Jimin nods. “Straight back to the ship and we’ll stay there until you return,” agrees Jimin. He pats Taehyung on the shoulder, steers him round so they can start heading back. “See you later, guys!” he calls, waving as they leave.

They’re barely stepped away when Namjoon’s already turning to Yoongi and asking him to lead the way to the council hall where the prince is. Hoseok and Seokjin eagerly whisper between themselves about what the prince will be like, whether he’s horribly deformed and if that’s the reason why his betrothed ran away.

But Jeongguk’s gaze lingers for an extra moment on Jimin and Taehyung’s departing figures. He watches them, Jimin’s arm curled protectively around Taehyung’s shoulders. Watches until they disappear into the crowd and can’t be seen any longer.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Jeongguk leans his weight onto his hands, pressing into the railing behind him. He tilts his head back, looks up at the night sky that Taehyung seems so fascinated by.

He doesn’t know what possesses him, what force rips into him and compels him to say the thing he does next. Maybe it’s the same force that spurred him into telling Taehyung all about – about life, before .

Either way, he doesn’t give himself time to think, to worry. Just speaks.

“Do you like the stars?”

Taehyung looks down, turns to look at him. His skin glows in the starlight, making him look almost ethereal. Like he’s not quite human. In some ways, Jeongguk can barely believe he’s real. The way he’d dropped into their lives, the way he’d turned out to be – funny, and kind, and intelligent – it all just seems too good to be true.

And he looks at the ocean, at the sky, at the tapestry of galaxies above their heads, in the same way that Jeongguk looks at them. Like he’s drowning in their majesty. It’s that faraway look of wonder, more than anything, that really convinced Jeongguk that maybe, just maybe, Taehyung could be one of them.

“Yeah, I do,” Taehyung says, smiling at him, a boxy grin that reveals his perfect teeth, that crinkles the skin around his eyes.

Jeongguk had known that Taehyung was handsome from the very first moment he’d set eyes on him, of course – but in an abstract sort of way. Now, though – now he can’t stop noticing all of the little things, from the pout of Taehyung’s lips to the slope of his jaw to the elegant taper of his fingers.

He’s so distracted. Feels drunk, even though he hasn’t had a drop to drink.

“You know I do lots of night watches, right?” he asks, grabbing Taehyung by the wrist – tries not to think about how warm and soft Taehyung’s skin feels – and tugging him towards the climb to the crow’s nest. “Let me show you why.”

Taehyung follows him obligingly at first, until it becomes clear where they’re headed. “Oh, no,” he murmurs, resisting. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not? It’s a beautiful view – it’s worth the climb.”

“I just – I’m afraid of heights,” Taehyung admits, looking down.

Jeongguk pauses. His heart lurches at the sight of how small, how vulnerable, Taehyung looks. “I won’t let you fall,” he says, softly, like he means it. And he does, he thinks – he realises, in that moment. Whatever it is, Taehyung’s one of them now. And Jeongguk will never let him down.

He steps closer to Taehyung, his heartbeat pounding in his eardrums, roaring like the ocean in a seashell. It’s the half-darkness, and the relative privacy they’ve found themselves in, that makes Jeongguk brave. Impulsive.

“I promise,” Jeongguk says. They’re so close now, Jeongguk swear he can hear the thrumming of Taehyung’s heartbeat. Or maybe that’s his own. He reaches out exploringly, brushes against Taehyung’s fingers with his own.

He’s asking something, he thinks, but he doesn’t even know what the question is.

For a second, it looks like Taehyung is leaning closer, eyelids fluttering gently close. But then he’s jerking back, stumbling over his own feet, and Jeongguk can’t even tell if he’s imagined it all.

“I – I’m sorry,” Taehyung mumbles, looking everywhere except at him. “I’m really sorry.”

Then he turns, rushes back down into the crew’s quarters. Jeongguk watches him leave.

 

 


 

 

Jeongguk stands sullenly in the council hall, behind Namjoon, fidgeting with the sword strapped to his waist. Namjoon had argued with the prince’s guards for ages to be allowed to keep their weapons with them, but Jeongguk is grateful for that – he’s feeling as uneasy as it is, and that’s with his sword by his side.

He’s had a few days to think about what happened with Taehyung, and still he doesn’t understand. Doesn’t understand why Taehyung had let him come so close, only to push him away.

It feels like a cruel joke, especially since Jeongguk’s never let this happen before. He’d been tempted before, of course, when Jimin had joined them, all charm and smiles and gentle touches. But Jeongguk didn’t want to get involved with his crew members. Still doesn’t.

Taehyung is the first time he’s let himself slip up. Maybe because Taehyung’s not quite one of them – not because Jeongguk doesn’t accept him, but just because Taehyung might one day leave. He’s not like the rest of them, orphans with no home but the open seas. He has a family, a home to return to. Maybe that makes it okay.

If he’s being totally honest, though, that’s not quite it. The attraction is less about where Taehyung’s come from and where he might go, than it is about who Taehyung is. He’s special in a way that Jeongguk doesn’t quite understand.

But all of that is moot. Taehyung had rejected his clumsy, rash, advances. No use wondering about what might have been.

Jeongguk refocuses his attention towards the front of the room, where the doors leading back into the private council chambers are being slowly pulled open. It must be nice, being a prince, Jeongguk thinks – people to open doors for you, city councils falling over themselves to offer you their meeting halls for your own private use, pirates to search the wide world for your betrothed on your behalf.

The prince strides in, flanked by four guards – a little unnecessary, Jeongguk thinks – and walks over to them. Stands in front of Namjoon, who’s already bowing his head politely in greeting. Jeongguk glances around, quickly does the same, albeit with bitterness in his heart.

“Please, no need for that,” the prince says. He extends a hand for Namjoon to shake. “My name is Bogum, and it is a pleasure to meet you. I must thank you for your help.”

“We are honoured to be of assistance,” Namjoon replies. Honour, Jeongguk thinks, with a wry smile. A nice of saying ‘money’.

The prince is handsome, and he exudes regality in the way he walks, stands. The way he looks around the room, eyes resting on each and every person like he’s blessing them with his presence. He looks kind enough as well. Jeongguk wonders why his betrothed ran away from him.

Jeongguk’s spacing out, his thoughts drifting back – despite his best efforts – to Taehyung, to the way he had looked in the moonlight, the way he had maybe started closing his eyes, leaned forward…

A word from the prince jolts Jeongguk back to the present. He blinks, trying to figure out if he’d heard the prince correctly.

“What did you say?” Jeongguk blurts out, despite himself.

Yoongi shoots him a sharp look, which Jeongguk ignores.

The prince looks mildly startled to be addressed so curtly, but quickly schools his expression into one of unflappable calm. “I beg your pardon?” he asks.

“The prince – your, uh, betrothed, I mean,” Jeongguk explains. “What did you say his name was?”

“Taehyung,” Bogum says, “Prince Taehyung.”

“Jeongguk,” Seokjin says, quietly, but his voice is a warning. Not that Jeongguk needs it. He’s far too taken aback to speak. Dots start connecting in his head. A rich man’s son. From Istea. Disappearing at around the same time that Taehyung joined the Bangtan.

Could it be? Could their Taehyung be the same Taehyung as this prince? It fits too perfectly that Jeongguk wonders why the thought had never occurred to him before.

“The reason why I have brought you here, however, is to provide some assistance in your search,” prince Bogum is continuing, “I have been working with master painters in Astrane to recreate a likeness of Taehyung. All we have to work with are my descriptions and memories of him, and so this has taken some time to create. Right now we only have one copy of this painting, but we are working to produce more.”

Bogum gestures to some of his aides to bring the painting out. “I wanted to show you what the prince looks like,” he says, “so you know what you’re looking for.”

There’s still a chance that this Taehyung isn’t their Taehyung, of course. Jeongguk watches the aides unroll the canvas, hoping against all hopes that he won’t recognise the face staring back at him.

Whatever master painters Bogum has been working with truly do live up to their reputation, because the painting is the absolute spitting image of Taehyung. He feels the blood rushing in his ears, thundering so loudly that it blocks out everything else.

His stomach churns. He feels like he’s about to throw up. All he can see, all that flashes across his mind’s eye, is the way Taehyung had looked in the soft moonlight, when they had almost kissed. That image, interspersed with the painting of Taehyung being held up in front of him now. A different Taehyung, this one clothed in rich velvets and furs, gold dripping from his neck, a jewelled crown perched atop his head.

Seokjin’s hand circles around his wrist, like he’s trying to hold Jeongguk in place. Stop him from running away. But that’s quite unnecessary, because Jeongguk can barely keep his balance, let alone do or say anything. The feeling of Seokjin’s fingers, warm and soft against his skin, is the only thing Jeongguk is able to focus on. He can vaguely hear the prince and Namjoon continuing to talk, but none of it goes in.

Jeongguk stumbles out of the council hall in a daze as the prince – finally – dismisses them. He feels like an idiot, can’t believe how close he let himself come to falling. Taehyung had just been pretending, all along. About who he was, about where he had come from. Jeongguk’s mind reels – what else had he been lying about?

“Well – frankly, I’m shocked we didn’t think of that before.” Hoseok is the first one to break the silence that seems to have smothered them as they wander back out into the city.

Namjoon glances at Hoseok, then at Jeongguk. “Not now,” he says, sharply. “Back to the ship first.”

 

 


 

 

By the time they make it back to the ship, Jeongguk is almost shaking with rage. He climbs onto the deck to find Taehyung sitting against the main mast, his head bowed in a huddle with Jimin. For some reason, the sight only serves to further fuel Jeongguk’s blind fury.

“Get the fuck away from him!” he spits, storming across the deck, snatching up Taehyung’s arm and dragging him away from Jimin. Taehyung stumbles to his feet, looking equal parts bewildered and frightened.

“Gukkie, what the hell!” shouts Jimin, leaping up as well. “What’s going on?”

Hoseok and Seokjin have clambered onto the deck now as well, are striding hastily over to Jeongguk. Hoseok places one firm hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder, while Seokjin stands in front of him. His eyes are gentle, but his jaw is set in a hard line.

Behind him, Taehyung stands with his arms wrapped around himself, his gaze trained on the ground. He looks so small, so broken, that Jeongguk feels a renewed surge of anger. It would be okay, he thinks, if Taehyung lashed back out at him. It would make things better if Taehyung would just prove to him, prove to them all, that he had never cared about them at all. If he did something, anything at all, to make it easier for Jeongguk to write him off completely. But he just looks hopelessly sad, and it shatters something inside Jeongguk.

“Jeongguk,” Namjoon’s voice slices through the tense silence. “Let’s talk about this.”

Jimin has his arm around Taehyung, glares at Jeongguk in open challenge. “Talk about what? ” he barks, uncharacteristically hostile for Jimin. “What the hell is going on?”

Seeing how protective Jimin is over Taehyung makes something snap inside Jeongguk. Jimin is so soft, so fiercely loyal, that makes Jeongguk’s insides curdle to see him being so wholly taken in by Taehyung’s lies.

“Tell him!” he shouts, trying to take a threatening step forward, but Hoseok holds him back. “Tell him who you really are!”

Jimin’s eyes flicker between him and Taehyung in confusion. “Tae?” he mumbles. “What’s Gukkie talking about?”

Taehyung looks like he’s about to cry. “He – you know, then?” he chokes out, his breath catching on his words. It almost makes Jeongguk break, but he refuses to let it get to him. Clenches his fists. He won’t let himself be tricked again.

“When were you planning on telling us?” hisses Jeongguk. “Were you just going to lie to us forever?”

“I didn’t – I didn’t plan on this,” Taehyung says. His eyes are wet and shiny with unshed tears. “I didn’t mean for it to go this far.”

Jeongguk scoffs loudly. “Why should we trust you?” he spits, voice thick with disdain.

Namjoon steps forward. Looks sharply between Jeongguk and Taehyung. “That’s quite enough,” he says. His voice is commanding and strong, leaving no room for dispute. “Let’s get out of here first. Lift anchor.”

But Jeongguk is going to lose his mind. His heart feels like it’s been ripped out of his chest. When Hoseok releases him to go help Yoongi and Seokjin prepare to set sail, Jeongguk stomps angrily towards Namjoon. “Hyung, you can’t!” he shouts. “You can’t let him stay!”

“Can someone please tell me what the fuck is going on?” yells Jimin.

Namjoon sighs heavily, turns away from Jeongguk to look at Jimin. “The lost prince we’ve been looking for,” he explains, in a low voice, glancing at Taehyung as he speaks, “is Taehyung.”

Those simple words, now that someone’s spoken them into existence, make Jeongguk feel like all the air’s been punched out of his lungs. He runs a hand through his hair in frustration. “If the prince finds out we have him, we’re fucked, ” he says fiercely, glaring at both Taehyung and Namjoon.

“That’s – no,” Jimin says, shaking his head. “No, Tae’s not the prince. You guys – you’ve gotten confused.” He turns to Taehyung, eyes wide with disbelief. “Right? Tae, tell them. You’re not the prince.”

Taehyung stares at Jimin with those huge, pleading eyes. “Jimin,” he breathes, “I’m so sorry.”

“Woah,” Jimin exhales. He takes a small step back. Rubs his hand across his face. “Okay. Wow.”

Jeongguk scowls at Namjoon. “Are you seriously going to let him stay?”

Namjoon fixes him with a steady gaze. “If you had really wanted him off the ship,” he says, quietly, “you would have said something in the council hall.”

And Jeongguk doesn’t know what to say to that. Why didn’t he just speak up the moment he saw that painting of Taehyung? It would have been so easy, if he had really wanted Taehyung gone, to have gotten rid of him then.

He can’t reconcile how he had been starting to feel towards Taehyung, with how he feels now. Can’t parse through the anger and feeling of betrayal, through the lingering tendrils of attraction, the frustration and the fear. He’s exhausted.

“Taehyung – you’re one of us now,” Namjoon says, turning to Taehyung, who still looks like he’s about to pass out, “we’re not going to do anything without first figuring out what you want.”

“Hyung,” Taehyung says, meekly, bowing deeply. He rubs a hand across his eyes. His cheeks are shiny with tears. “Thank you, Namjoon-hyung.”

Jeongguk’s seen enough. “This is fucking bullshit,” he snaps, before turning and storming into the crews’ quarters. The door slams shut behind him, leaving him alone in the silence.

 

 


 

 

Sunlight filters in through the small portholes, slicing the room into sections of light and dark. Jeongguk can’t be bothered to light a lantern, so he just crawls onto his bed in a shadowy corner of the room, presses the heels of his hands into his eye sockets.

“Want a drink?” comes Yoongi’s low voice, and Jeongguk looks up. His hyung is standing at the foot of his bed, holding a darkly-coloured bottle in either hand.

“It’s a bit early for ale,” Jeongguk mumbles, but he’s already reaching out for one of the bottles.

Yoongi smirks, perches at the end of the bed. “Talk to me, kid,” he says.

Taking a long swig from the bottle, Jeongguk shrugs half-heartedly. “What’s there to talk about?” he asks, demurring.

“Maybe why the fuck you’re so angry with Tae?” returns Yoongi, not beating round the bush at all. Being coy and subtle was never Yoongi’s style.

“He lied to us, hyung,” Jeongguk says, but even as he does he knows that’s not it. Taehyung lied to all of them. It doesn’t explain why Jeongguk’s so much angrier than anyone else.

Yoongi raises an eyebrow at him as his takes a sip of his ale. “So?” he asks. “As far as lies go, it was a pretty innocent one. He wasn’t trying to take advantage of us. He just wanted to be free. We can all relate to that.”

Jeongguk’s fist tightens around the bottle he’s grasping. “That’s – that’s not it,” he mumbles, looking down. He can’t find the words to say what he wants to say. He doesn’t even know what the fuck he wants to say. “Just because it was innocent doesn’t mean it’s harmless,” he continues, chewing on his lip. “People can still get hurt.”

He can feel Yoongi’s eyes on him, boring into his soul. Jeongguk tries to shutter himself off, but he can’t quite do it. Not in front of Yoongi, who seems to have a way of worming right into the parts of himself he can’t even see.

“Who’s gotten hurt, Jeongguk?” Yoongi asks, but in that tone of voice that suggests he already knows the answer.

“Everyone,” replies Jeongguk, still not meeting Yoongi’s gaze. He mumbles his words into his lap. “All of us. All of us who cared about Taehyung.”

“And you?” Yoongi adds, reaching out to place a hand on Jeongguk’s knee, on top of the thin blanket. “Have you gotten hurt?”

Jeongguk rakes his fingers through his hair. He doesn’t know what to say. “I told him,” he finally manages to get out. “About – before .”

This seems to surprise Yoongi slightly, causes his eyebrows to raise into the curtain of his fringe. But he doesn’t comment on it except to make a soft, murmuring noise of acknowledgement. “Just because he didn’t tell us about this one thing, doesn’t mean he was lying about everything else,” he says, and Jeongguk knows this, he does. But it doesn’t stop the way his stomach churns with abject humiliation at the thought of how vulnerable he had made himself in front of Taehyung. How stupid he feels for having done that.

“Talk to him, yeah?” says Yoongi, after a long pause. Jeongguk looks at him, trying to wordlessly convey his gratitude that Yoongi hadn’t pushed for any more answers. He isn’t ready, not yet, to talk about how he feels. “I don’t want to see you get more hurt.”

“Yeah, okay,” promises Jeongguk reluctantly. He knows that Yoongi is right, knows that the best way forward is just to have an honest conversation with Taehyung. But all he wants to do is curl up in his bed and never look Taehyung in the eyes again.

Yoongi gets to his feet. “Come out for dinner later,” he says. “We can figure it out together then.”

Jeongguk nods. “Thanks, hyung,” he says quietly.

This draws out a small, rare smile from Yoongi. “Anytime, kid,” he murmurs, as he turns to walk back out onto the deck. “Anytime.”

 

-

 

Jeongguk ends up falling asleep, wakes up to pitch darkness. He can hear the rest of the crew noisily moving about in the dining hall above him.

“Dinner time,” he mumbles to himself, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he fumbles his way up into the dining hall. He really doesn’t want to see anyone right now, feels a little embarrassed by how dramatically he had reacted. But he had made Yoongi a promise, and he didn’t take those lightly.

The person he almost crashes into as he stumbles groggily into the dining hall is, of course, Taehyung. Something in his chest twists painfully when he sees the smile fall instantaneously from Taehyung’s face.

“Oh, sorry,” Taehyung mumbles, shuffling out of his way hastily. He’s carrying a large dish with what appears to be a decorative squirrel figurine carved into it, brings it over to Seokjin and holds it out like a child offering their parent a drawing they’d made. The look on his face is pure innocence.

Seokjin lets out a bark of laughter. “What the heck is this?” he cries out. “Where did you find this?”

“You wanted a big dish,” Taehyung explains. “It was in the cupboard.”

On the other side of Seokjin, Namjoon peers round and breaks out into giggles. Jeongguk can’t help himself but smile at the sight of their usually stoic captain looking so soft and happy and at ease. He watches as Taehyung very earnestly starts plating the fried vegetable pancakes Seokjin had been making onto the dish. There’s an odd, unusual energy that Taehyung brings to their group, Jeongguk thinks. It makes them better.

“You look lost in thought,” says Hoseok, nudging Jeongguk gently with his shoulder. His eyes dart over to where Jeongguk’s looking, at Taehyung hunched over the kitchen counter, delicately picking up each small pancake and placing it onto the dish. “See something you like?”

Jeongguk returns the nudge. “No,” he replies firmly, “I was just – Taehyung’s not so bad, is he?”

Hoseok nods, humming lightly. “I like him,” he says. “I hope he stays.”

How could he possibly stay, though? It had been bad enough when he was a rich man’s son, but a prince? Jeongguk shakes his head. The gulf between them had been wide enough before, but now – now it was like Taehyung lay not only across the ocean from him, but far beyond the horizon. Too far to even dream about.

“Do you?” asks Hoseok, interrupting Jeongguk’s train of thought.

“Do I what?”

“Do you hope he stays?”

Jeongguk tongues his cheek. Yes, yes, of course he fucking does. But he can’t say that.

“It’s not for me to say,” Jeongguk replies flatly. “It’s his decision.”

Hoseok shrugs. “It’s his decision,” he agrees, “but you’re entitled to hope he decides one way or the other.”

And before Jeongguk can even say anything, Hoseok’s wandered off, chatting cheerily to Jimin across the room. Jeongguk rubs his face with his hands, sinking into a seat at the corner of the table. Dinner hasn’t even started and already he feels emotionally drained.

Jeongguk’s pretty sure Namjoon’s had a secret conference with the rest of the crew while he was asleep, because once dinner’s on the table and everyone goes to take their seats, Taehyung somehow ends up in the seat next to him. It could just be a coincidence, but Jeongguk knows his captain too well for that.

There’s a thick tension hanging in the air, even as Hoseok and Seokjin boisterously bicker at the other end of the table in a largely futile attempt to lift the mood. Jeongguk can see them casting wary glances over at him. And he can feel the heat of Taehyung’s presence right by his elbow, radiating outwards, engulfing him entirely.

That’s it, Jeongguk thinks. Fuck it. Time to be the bigger man.

He reaches across the table with his chopsticks, picks up a nicely-formed vegetable pancake from the squirrel dish that Taehyung had scavenged. Leans back, drops it delicately into Taehyung’s bowl.

“Here,” he says gruffly. “For you.”

He still doesn’t look at Taehyung, but from the corner of his eye he can see Taehyung staring at the pancake in his bowl in what looks like wonderment. Taehyung looks up slowly, turns to glance at him. Still Jeongguk doesn’t meet Taehyung’s gaze, instead hunches over and shovels some rice into his mouth.

“Thank you,” Taehyung says, his voice deep and low and soft. It sounds relieved, more relaxed than it had been earlier in the day, when Jeongguk had been shouting at him.

Jeongguk makes a grunt of acknowledgement. “Yeah, well,” he mumbles indistinctly. “You’re one of us, aren’t you?”

Something in the air, something like tension, dissipates. Hoseok beams at him from across the table. Jeongguk glances surreptitiously at Taehyung to see him nibbling delicately at the vegetable pancake with the tiniest of smiles playing on his lips.

 

 


 

 

Jeongguk quickly excuses himself from the table once dinner’s over. Namjoon’s promised to give Taehyung at least until tomorrow to decide what he wants to do, but that doesn’t stop Jimin and Hoseok from asking Taehyung about it. Especially doesn’t stop them from asking about life as a prince, if there really is as much food at each meal as they’ve heard, if he really bathes in milk and honey, if he really sleeps on beds heaped with luxurious silks and velvets. And Jeongguk really, really doesn’t want to hear any of it.

He stands at the prow, where he somehow always finds himself. It’s a way of pretending he’s in control of his life, of pretending that he’s the Bangtan , slicing purposefully through the water.

“Thought I’d find you here,” comes a hesitant voice from behind him, so quiet that a strong gust of wind might snatch the words away. But the night is calm, and Jeongguk hears Taehyung with perfect clarity.

He turns, tries not to think of that night not too many sleeps ago, when the two of them had been in a similar position. Except things were completely and utterly then.

“I wanted to apologise,” Taehyung says, eyes darting between him and the deck and the infinite expanse of night sky behind him. “I just – I didn’t mean to lie to you. Well, I did, but – that wasn’t my intention. All I wanted was – I wanted to be free.”

Jeongguk feels his lungs deflate, feels all the air he has inside him come rushing out. He isn’t angry at Taehyung, not anymore, but there’s a sense of loss. For whatever it was that might have been growing between them. It’s gone forever now.

“I know,” he replies, trying to smile, trying to make the smile go to his eyes. “It’s all any of us have been chasing all our lives. I get it, I really do.”

They’re the same, but at the same time – they’re not. Jeongguk has no home to return to, but Taehyung does. He has a magnificent palace, untold riches waiting for him.

Why then, does Jeongguk feel so connected to him, despite it all?

“Yeah,” Taehyung breathes, softly. “I didn't mean – didn't mean for things to go so far. To get...complicated.”

Jeongguk’s heart thunders in his chest. He clenches his jaw, stares out stoically at the black curtain of sea and sky. “What are you saying?” he asks.

He can sense, more than see, Taehyung shifting beside him. The discomfort radiating off Taehyung is palpable.

“This ship, the crew,” Taehyung starts, “it all means so much to me. I never thought I would get so attached.”

He pauses. Jeongguk hears him inhale slowly, exhale evenly. “Never thought I would find it so hard to say goodbye.”

The stars twinkle in the sky. Jeongguk casts his gaze upwards, relaxes and allows the small lights to blur in his vision. There are tears pooling in his eyes.

“I'm really sorry,” Taehyung repeats. His voice is so gentle, so genuinely, utterly, vulnerable, that Jeongguk realises, with a start, that all of this is idiotic. They’re both the same, at the end of the day. Two people searching for something that means something.

“Don’t go, then,” he says, abruptly. He turns, looks Taehyung in the eye.

Taehyung blinks at him in bewilderment. “What?”

“If it’s too hard to say goodbye,” continues Jeongguk, the words swelling up in him in a wave of courage. His chest aches. “Then don’t go. Don’t say goodbye.”

Maybe it’s just his mind playing tricks on him, but Jeongguk thinks he can see the shine of tears in Taehyung’s eyes. They’re standing so close now, just like they had been a few nights ago. Except this time, he knows why Taehyung was afraid, why Taehyung was sorry. Knows everything about how none of this makes sense. About how they’re from different worlds, about how they will inevitably have to go their separate ways.

A million reasons why they shouldn’t the next step. But Taehyung sways ever so slightly closer. Jeongguk swallows his panic, tries to will his hammering heart to slow. Reaches a hand up to cup Taehyung’s cheek.

“I don't want you to go,” Jeongguk admits, his voice barely more than a whisper.

Taehyung tilts his head, leans his cheek into Jeongguk’s hand. “I don’t want to go,” he breathes in reply.

His eyes fall shut slowly, like the setting sun dipping beneath the horizon. It’s the most mesmerising, intoxicating sight Jeongguk thinks he’s ever seen.

“So don’t,” Jeongguk says.

And then he kisses him.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Taehyung sits on the deck, facing Jimin, both of them studiously sharpening the crew’s stash of swords. The cool steel rings out as they run it against the sharpening block. There's a comforting rhythm to it, one that Taehyung lets himself slowly relax into.

“Have you decided?” Jimin asks, suddenly.

He’s been itching to ask, Taehyung knows this, can tell from the fidgety way Jimin’s been shifting in his place all morning. In a way, he’s glad that Jimin’s just blurted the question out. Namjoon’s told them all not to put too much pressure on Taehyung. They have to do a supply run anyway, stop at a couple of ports to pick up goods — presumably stolen, but Taehyung doesn't think too hard about that — and deliver them back at Wrul, so they don’t need to decide what to do until after that.

But Jimin obviously wants to know. Which is fair enough. Taehyung wants to know as well.

“I don't know,” Taehyung says, truthfully. His mind creeps back, unbidden, to the kiss he’d shared with Jeongguk, a few nights back. Neither of them have spoken about it since.

Jimin pouts. “I know I'm not supposed to say this,” he says, “but I really wish you'd stay.”

Taehyung smiles fondly at Jimin. “I want to, too,” he murmurs.

“Why don't you, then?”

Why doesn’t he? “It isn't that simple,” is all he says, feebly. His eyes dart over towards the prow, where Jeongguk is standing next to Yoongi. Taehyung studies the handsome angle of his jaw, the broad set of his shoulders, emphasised by the way he has his hands held behind his back. His dark eyes glitter with intelligence as he nods gravely, taking in whatever Yoongi’s saying to him. Then, without warning, he suddenly throws his head back and laughs. It crinkles up the corners of his eyes, exposes the long expanse of his neck. Taehyung feels his chest clench in a stab of affection.

Jimin narrows his eyes at him. “What's going on with you and Gukkie?” he asks.

Taehyung whips his head back round to look at Jimin. “What?” he replies. “Nothing’s going on!”

“Please,” sighs Jimin, rolling his eyes. “You’ve been staring at him non-stop for two days now, and I know for a fact that he keeps sneaking glances at you as well.”

Heat floods Taehyung’s cheeks. He casts another surreptitious glance in Jeongguk's direction, just to make absolutely sure he's out of earshot. Then he turns back to Jimin.

“He kissed me,” Taehyung says.

Jimin’s eyes widen comically large. “He what?”

Taehyung shushes him. “The night we left St. Jules,” he explains quietly. “He told me that he didn’t want me to leave, and then we kissed.”

This draws a strangled screech of excitement from Jimin. He punches Taehyung on the arm, hard. “I can't believe you waited two days before telling me this,” he cries out in indignation, then giggles and lowers his voice when Taehyung elbows him sharply and holds a finger to his lips. “What does this mean then? Are you going to stay?”

Taehyung sighs. “I don't know,” he mumbles. Turns his attention back to the sword he's sharpening, runs the blade over the steel block rhythmically. “I feel like it'll just cause all of you trouble.” There's a heavy ache that settles in his chest at the thought of leaving, of going back to his life like a songbird in a gilded cage.

Jimin reaches for his head, stilling the steady slice of steel against steel. There's a soft, fond look in his eyes. Another thing Taehyung's going to miss when he goes back.

If he goes back.

“We’re pirates,” Jimin says, quirking a smile. “We're used to trouble.”

Taehyung smiles at Jimin, who gives Taehyung’s hand a squeeze. “All that matters is what you want. The rest of it — we'll figure it out.”

It's a novel way of living, Taehyung thinks. Life in the palace is always about thinking four steps ahead, planning and scheming and setting up political marriages to secure trade deals. He wants to live like the crew of the Bangtan — nothing but the ocean winds and their own hearts to guide them.

He looks up to the helm of the ship again. Realises with an electric jolt in his chest that Jeongguk's watching at him. A frisson of energy flickers between them.

Taehyung blinks, turns back to Jimin, who's studying him with a knowing smile. His cheeks are flushed, he knows. But it's okay — it will all be okay.

“Yeah,” murmurs Taehyung, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a grin. “I think I want to stay.”

 

 


 

 

Taehyung isn't sure if he's just imagining it, but he thinks Namjoon looks pleased when Taehyung tells him that he wants to stay. Gives Taehyung a dimpled smile, nods approvingly.

They don't have much of a plan, except that Taehyung is to stay on the Bangtan until either the frenzy of the search for the lost prince dies down, or they figure out a feasible way of hiding his face when he’s on land. The only suggestions so far have been using a scarf as a veil — too attention-grabbing — or severely disfiguring him — too permanent — so Taehyung is left twiddling his thumbs as he waits for the rest of his crew to return.

This is the way it's been for the past three ports, while they picked up the goods they needed to deliver to Wrul. But it was better there, when they hadn't needed the entire crew for the pick-ups, which meant that Taehyung had at least been left with either Jimin or Seokjin for company.

There's plenty to deliver at Wrul, though, which means everyone except Taehyung traipses off, leaving him alone and bored. He's starting to feel literal cabin fever, but Namjoon had also promised that they'd pay a visit to a contact who specialised in disguises, so Taehyung is at least hopeful that the next time they dock he'll be able to stretch his legs and feel the solid ground beneath his feet again.

He leans his forearms on the smooth wood of the rails, looks out over the bustling port. His eyes scan the numerous alleyways that open out onto the harbour, eager to see his crew mates return so they can set off again. When they're out on the open ocean the vastness of the endless seas takes his mind off everything except the feeling of freedom and the salty breeze through his hair.

There's a sudden commotion at the far end of the harbour, the crowd parting and pressing into itself in the way it does when people are trying to get out of someone or something's way. Taehyung peers into the distance curiously, trying to see what's going on. It may make for a fun story to share with his crew mates when they return.

What he sees first is a man dashing through the crowd at top speed, darting around carts heaped with clams and mussels, past crowds of gamblers playing dice on upturned barrels, through entire processions of street urchins begging for food.

And then he realises that he recognises that man.

Hoseok waves his arms wildly up at Taehyung as he approaches. “Start lifting anchor!” he shouts, over and over. It takes a while before Taehyung can make out what he’s saying. “We need to leave!”

Taehyung now sees the rest of the crew sprinting along in Hoseok's wake, through the path he's cleared. His heart starts to pound violently in his chest as he turns to the winch and leans his entire body weight into it to start raising the anchor.

“What's going on?” Taehyung asks as Hoseok clambers on deck. He can see Jimin and Jeongguk pounding their way along the jetty that leads out to their ship, and the rest aren't too far behind.

Hoseok's chest is heaving with the effort, sweat glistening across his brow. He charges across the deck to start unfurling the sails. “They know,” he pants, fingers deftly unknotting the ropes holding the sails in place.

“They? Who's they?” Taehyung asks in a panic, but Hoseok's already scurrying up the netting to release the rest of the sails.

Jimin’s made it to the rope ladder, climbs up quickly and hops on deck. Jeongguk follows behind him, heads straight to set the mechanical oars that will give them that first push into motion. Jimin joins Taehyung at the winch and helps him raise the anchor.

“What is happening?” asks Taehyung again. His eyes are wide with confusion.

“The crew of the Ahgase,” says Jimin sharply. He glances back, out across the port. Like he's watching for shadows behind his back. “They met the prince, he showed them the painting.”

Taehyung's heart plummets.

But there’s no time to even think, because Namjoon is already striding across the deck, takes his place at the helm. Yoongi climbs on board and follows him. Seokjin goes to help Hoseok with the sails. The ship starts to rock as the oars creak into motion. A gust of wind billows the sails.

“First priority is speed,” Namjoon directs. His voice is firm, and no-nonsense. “We go where the wind blows.”

Yoongi steers the Bangtan out of the harbour. It glides smoothly, and quickly — but still it doesn't feel like it's quick enough. Taehyung casts a nervous glance across the port they're leaving behind.

“They're there!” he shouts, pointing. He recognises them, but even if he didn't — it's hard to miss the scuffle in the crowd as the crew of the Ahgase come charging through. The muscular one named Jackson leading the way, shouting so loudly that even from this distance Taehyung can hear him.

“Stop that ship!” Jackson bellows. He's amazingly fast, sprinting down the jetty that leads to the Ahgase. “We know who you are!”

Taehyung casts a frightened glance at Namjoon. The captain gives him a tight smile. It does nothing to still Taehyung's pounding heart, or his shaking hands. He turns to Jimin. “What are we going to do?”

Jeongguk appears next to them. His jaw is clenched, the muscles in his cheek prominent. He doesn't look at Taehyung, just stares fiercely out into the distance, where the crew of the Ahgase are already clambering aboard their own ship. “They're not taking you,” he says firmly.

“They're going to catch us,” says Seokjin suddenly. And yeah, the Ahgase is docked much closer to the end of the harbour, which gives them a head start . The crews of the two ships make eye contact as the Bangtan glides past. The sails of the Ahgase unfurl with a deafening thump as the wind catches, and the ship begins to turn its prow to follow the Bangtan.

Panic courses through Taehyung's veins, searing hot like fire. The wind that's in the their sails is also in the Ahgase's — both ships slice through the water out into the open seas with startling speed.

They're out of the harbour and moving fast, but the Ahgase catches up without issue. Taehyung can only watch helplessly as the Ahgase gets close enough to shoot grappling hooks across the gap between them, lash the two ships together. Jackson and the tall one Taehyung thinks is called Yugyeom start laying planks down so they can cross over to their ship.

“Cut them loose!” orders Namjoon, but Seokjin and Jimin are already frantically slicing through the ropes tying the ships together. Jeongguk and Hoseok head towards the planks to fend their intruders off.

Taehyung reaches for his sword with shaky hands. Yugyeom leaps gracefully down onto the surface of their deck, starts advancing towards him.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Yugyeom says, even as his sword catches the blinding sunlight and glints into Taehyung’s eyes. His voice is a lot more high-pitched than Taehyung would have expected. But now's not the time, thinks Taehyung sternly to himself. Yugyeom reaches out a hand to grab Taehyung's arm. “I just need you to come with us.”

“Hey asshole!” shouts Jeongguk, suddenly leaping into the scene. The flat of his blade smacks Yugyeom's arm away. “Get away from him.”

Yugyeom lets out an annoyed whine. “Guk-ah,” he complains. “Captain's orders!”

Jeongguk steps in front of Taehyung. “Don't care,” he grunts. “You're not taking him.”

This is a bizarre interaction, Taehyung thinks. He peers out from behind Jeongguk as Yugyeom throws his hands up in the air in frustration, stomps back across the deck towards where Jackson and Hoseok’s swords are clashing with the ring of steel against steel.

“Hyung!” yells Yugyeom. “He won’t come with me!”

Jackson glares at Yugyeom. “You’re supposed to grab him, not convince him!”

Yugyeom pouts. “Jaebum hyung said not to hurt anyone.”

From across the ship, the handsome pirate standing next to Jaebum at the helm — Jinyoung, Taehyung thinks — draws his sword and heads towards the planks joining the ships. “No,” he says sharply, “He said not to kill anyone.”

Namjoon shoots a dark look across at Jaebum. “Are you kidding me?” he shouts.

Jaebum just shrugs. “Look — we need the reward money as much as you do,” he calls back. “Just hand him over and no one needs to get hurt.”

“Can't promise that!” Jinyoung yells. There's a hardness glinting in his eyes that makes Taehyung think he means it. He looks from Namjoon and Yoongi, desperately trying to outsteer the Ahgase — to no avail — to Jeongguk, standing in front of him, sword held out threateningly. The rest of the crew are either busy struggling to maneouvre the ship, or already engaged in combat.

All for him. All of this, for a bored prince in search of a life that doesn't belong to him.

Taehyung places a hand on Jeongguk’s arm. Steps forward. He’s sort of in the middle of all the action now. “No one needs to get hurt,” he says firmly. “I'll come with you.”

Silence, and stillness, follow.

Taehyung hadn't realised he could do that, make everyone turn to him with just his voice. In that moment, he feels princelier than he ever has before. Lifts his chin a little higher.

Jeongguk turns to stare at him. “No,” he says. “You're not going. You don't want to.”

Taehyung bites down the swell of sudden emptiness that hollows him out. “I don't want any of you to get hurt.”

“We won't,” argues Jeongguk. “We’ll protect you.”

Taehyung levels Jeongguk with an even gaze. “I don't need protecting,” he says calmly. Jeongguk looks furious, but Taehyung refuses to let that sway him. “It's my decision.”

“So you’re just going to go with them?” Jeongguk asks hotly. “Let them take you back to the palace, back to your life as a prince?" He pauses, hesitates. "Back to your arranged marriage?”

Taehyung turns away from Jeongguk, away from the accusatory glare in his eyes. “We’re not going to outsail them,” he says, which is true. Their ships are too evenly matched in size and speed. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

“Okay, then, pretty boy — let’s get moving,” says Jackson chirpily, beckoning Taehyung forward with the point of his sword. Yugyeom gives him a nudge, and Taehyung stumbles forward towards the planks that link the two ships.

He casts a glance backwards, hesitant. The wind is whipping through Jeongguk’s dark hair, half-covering his eyes. It gives him an air of mystery, the same one that Taehyung had seen in their first meeting, when Jeongguk was the one holding him at swordpoint.

Now, though — Taehyung can see through the cloud of harshness that surrounds Jeongguk. Can see the frustration and anger in his face. Their eyes meet, briefly. Jeongguk tears his gaze away, turns and storms off. Taehyung's chest twists.

"Tae—" Jimin says, taking a half step towards him. Jackson holds his sword up in front of Jimin in warning.

"What, we can't even say goodbye?" Yoongi snaps sharply. Taehyung turns to look at him. There's a hardness in his jaw. He's staunchly refusing to meet Taehyung's eyes. Taehyung realises with a start that the crew is going to miss him as much as he misses them.

Jackson's sword wavers in the space between Taehyung and Jimin. He glances back at Jaebum, looking for instruction.

Namjoon turns to Jaebum as well, the two captains exchanging looks across the narrow gap between their ships. "He's not our captive," Namjoon says. "He's part of our crew."

Jaebum is silent for a moment, then he nods. "Let them say goodbye."

On the deck of the Ahgase, Jinyoung rolls his eyes, but makes no move to object. Just lowers his sword hand, still watching Taehyung distrustfully.

But Taehyung doesn't have the luxury time to observe the crew that's come to take him away. He turns back to Jimin, who's already charging over and flinging himself into Taehyung's arms. Taehyung wraps his arms around Jimin, his cheek pressing into the side of Jimin's head.

"I'm sorry, Tae," Jimin mumbles. He sounds tearful.

Taehyung tightens his hold on Jimin. "Silly," he says, trying to sound light-hearted. It just comes out a little strangled. "What are you sorry for?"

"Sorry we couldn't protect you." Jimin sniffles, burying his face in Taehyung's shoulder.

"Don't be sorry," Taehyung replies quickly. He pulls away to look Jimin in the eye, both hands holding firmly onto Jimin's shoulders. "You guys have shown me more than I could have ever dreamed of."

Jimin nods, rubbing at his tear-streaked cheeks. "Don't forget me," he says. "Don't forget us."

Taehyung shakes his head vigorously. Tears spring to his eyes, prickling like the fire that's burning in his chest. "Never," he says, voice sounding thick around the lump in his throat. "Never."

When Jimin steps away, Taehyung turns to find the rest of the crew hovering about behind him. Hoseok launches himself into Taehyung's arms with a ferocity to rival Jimin's. Seokjin has to pry them apart in order to press a fond kiss against Taehyung's forehead. Namjoon shakes his hand firmly, and Yoongi gives him a curt nod and a muttered "you're a good kid" that makes Taehyung's heart suddenly ache because he knows just how much Yoongi will miss him.

"You'll always be one of us," Namjoon says with unwavering certainty. "If you ever manage to find your way back — we will always have room on board the Bangtan for you."

Taehyung exhales shakily. "Thanks, hyung."

Next to him, Yugyeom lets out a low moan. "This is too sad," he says, and when Taehyung glances over, he can see that Yugyeom means it. "Hyung, do we have to separate them?"

He's speaking to Jaebum, who looks hesitant. "We need the reward money," he repeats, but he doesn't sound quite like he believes it. Jinyoung glares at him, whispers something angrily into his ear. Yugyeom shoots Jackson a mournful look.

Taehyung takes the chance to look around. This ship, that's somehow become more of a home to him in the last few months than the palace has ever been in all his years living within its walls. And this crew, his family.

Except — something's missing.

"Where's Jeongguk?"

His voice sounds thin in the silence. He exchanges glances with Jimin.

"I can go look for him," Jimin says.

But no. Taehyung shakes his head. "It's fine," he says. Jeongguk is probably off sulking somewhere about the fact that Taehyung's chosen to leave with the Ahgase. And Taehyung doesn't blame him, but at the same time — he wishes he could see Jeongguk one last time.

It's easier this way, though.

Taehyung turns back to Yugyeom and Jackson, gives them a tight nod.

"Your highness," Jackson says, bowing with a flourish and pointing Taehyung towards the planks connecting the two ships. They're still moving at top speed, the wind billowing in their sails, and it's a measure of both crews' skill that they're managing to sail alongside each other. Taehyung stares at the wobbly planks, swallows nervously.

"Okay," he says, more to himself than anyone else. "Let's do this."

That's when a flash of movement in Taehyung's peripheral vision catches his eye. He whips his head up at the same time that he hears Jinyoung shout, "fuck!"

Jeongguk's soaring through the sky, one arm clutched onto a rope hanging from the mast of the ship. In his other hand is a dagger that glints in the bright sunlight.

"Holy shit," Yugyeom exhales in shock. Taehyung feels the same way as he watches Jeongguk release his grip on the rope when he's at the very top of his upswing. His momentum propels him forward, and he crashes flat into the Ahgase's mainsail with a sickening thwack.

Taehyung already knows what's going to happen, knew it from the second he saw Jeongguk soaring through the air like some sort of crazed bird. But still his eyes widen when he sees it — Jeongguk's arm raised, then plunging dagger-first into the taut canvas. He watches like the world is moving in slow motion as gravity drags Jeongguk back down along the surface of the sail. A jagged slit opens up in his wake, the sail ripping open like petals opening to the sun.

The effect is instantaneous. The Ahgase loses speed and falls behind the Bangtan. It's still moving, just not as quickly. But from Taehyung's point of view, it looks like the Ahgase is moving backwards, receding away from them.

"Are you kidding me?" Jaebum exclaims in frustration, looking up the wrecked sail. He looks more upset by that than by the prospect of losing Taehyung. When he gesticulates angrily across the slowly widening gap between the ships, Namjoon just grins and shrugs at him.

"Gukkie!" Jimin shrieks. It's not clear what he's trying to convey, aside from amazement. Jeongguk leaps off the end of the sail and lands gracefully on the deck of the ship.

The crew of the Ahgase start blinking out of their initial shock. The tall, pretty one named Mark turns towards Jeongguk. But Jeongguk's already straightening up, and taking a running start towards the Bangtan.

"Shit, no!" Taehyung shouts. The gap between the ships yawns open. "You're not going to make it!"

Jackson gasps loudly. "Fuck, he's mad!"

Jeongguk ignores them all, just charges with blind purpose across the deck. As he approaches the side of the ship, he lifts his right leg and steps onto railing to give himself leverage. Then he's flinging himself with all the momentum of his run up, legs pedalling furiously in the air as he propels himself towards the Bangtan.

Hoseok lets out a garbled shout of horror — for a second, it looks like Jeongguk isn't going to make it. But then he seems to find some energy in him to push further, or maybe the wind changes and the gap narrows slightly. Whatever it is, before Taehyung can even process what's happening, Jeongguk's crashing onto deck with a defeating thud of bone against wood.

Everyone's frozen in place. The Ahgase is shrinking in size as they pull further and further away.

Jeongguk, on his hands and knees where he'd landed, looks up. He meets Taehyung's gaze, and shoots him something between a grin and a grimace.

"Ow," he says. "That hurt."

Taehyung chokes out a shaky laugh. "You're fucking insane, you know that?"

Jeongguk clambers unsteadily to his feet. Jimin rushes forward to support him, but still Jeongguk doesn't take his eyes off Taehyung. Something shines in his eyes that makes Taehyung — it makes Taehyung want to kiss him. But he restrains the urge, settles for beaming so widely at Jeongguk his cheeks feel like they're starting to ache.

Jeongguk shrugs at Taehyung, grinning lopsidedly. "Couldn't let you go without saying goodbye."

Taehyung's heart soars.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Once they’ve left the Ahgase far behind, they end up dropping Yugyeom and Jackson off in one the dingy little lifeboats they have below deck, so that they can wait for their ship to pick them back up. Now that they’ve given up trying to capture Taehyung, the two pirates are perfectly amicable and quite pleasant to be around.

“You’re completely out of your mind,” Yugyeom says, shaking his head at Jeongguk, who’s sitting on an upturned crate on the deck as Seokjin fusses over him, trying to examine how badly he’s hurt from his stunt.

“Wouldn’t be a pirate if I wasn’t,” Jeongguk replies, grinning. He waves cheerily at Yugyeom and Jackson as they hop over the railing and start climbing down the ladder to the lifeboat. Winces as Seokjin prods at his shins.

“You’re lucky you didn’t shatter your kneecaps,” Seokjin scolds. “As it is, I think you’re just badly bruised. I’ll prepare an ointment for you to apply — go below deck and rest.”

Jeongguk looks like he wants to protest, but Seokjin fixes him with a hard stare. “Okay, okay — I’m going,” he says sheepishly, slowly getting to his feet. The scrunched-up look on his face shows that he’s in more pain than he’s willing to admit to.

“I’ll help you,” Taehyung says, stepping forward. Jimin, who had looked like he was going to head below deck with Jeongguk, stops in his tracks. Gives Taehyung a small smile and nod.

Jeongguk glances at Taehyung, but doesn’t say anything. He lets Taehyung hold his arm, though, and he leans some of his weight into Taehyung as they go down the steep steps to the crew’s quarters. Walking is clearly hurting Jeongguk, and he rolls gratefully onto his bunk when they finally make the short journey across the hold.

Taehyung hesitates, then perches himself at the end of Jeongguk’s bunk. His eyes are cast down. Now that they’re here, just the two of them, tension radiates in Taehyung’s chest. In the confined space below deck, the silence roars out like thunder.

“Thank you,” Taehyung says, quietly. His fingers toy with the hem of his shirt, rolling the material between his now slightly calloused fingertips. He takes a deep breath, and looks up at Jeongguk. The harsh sunlight filtering in through the gaps in the wood paneling lights Jeongguk’s face up in stripes of light and shadow.

Jeongguk shakes his head, as if to say that there’s nothing Taehyung needs to thank him for. “I wasn’t going to let them just take you like that,” he replies. His voice is low, and measured. “I know you said you’d go, but you only did that to protect us. It wasn’t fair.”

“Is that why you did it?” Taehyung asks. Testing the waters. “Because it wasn’t fair?”

Anticipation crackles in the air between them. Jeongguk looks at Taehyung with such intensity that Taehyung feels as if they might both catch on fire. The waves rock the ship gently, the rhythm of it settling into Taehyung’s bones.

“No,” Jeongguk says. “I did it because I didn’t want to see you go.”

“Guk,” Taehyung exhales.

“The ointment is here!” Seokjin announces suddenly, and Taehyung jumps. Jeongguk looks away, clearing his throat and shuffling about on his bunk. Seokjin’s legs come into view as he clomps down the stairs, holding a cloudy glass bottle and some gauze. He eyes them both knowingly as he approaches, but if he can sense the tension between them, he doesn’t mention it. Just shoves the things in his hands at Taehyung. “Take these.”

Taehyung looks down the things Seokjin’s handed him. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“It’s ointment — you apply it,” Seokjin replies matter-of-factly.

“Shouldn’t you be the one doing that?”

Seokjin waves a hand at Taehyung dismissively. “Anyone can do it, no medical expertise required,” he says, already wandering off across the hold and back towards the stairs. “Just dab it onto the bruises, and don’t be afraid if it hurts!”

“Wait, hyung—” Taehyung calls out, but Seokjin’s gone. He turns back to Jeongguk. “Uh. I guess you’re stuck with me.”

Jeongguk isn’t looking at Taehyung, and if Taehyung didn’t know better, he’d say that there was the faintest of blushes on Jeongguk’s cheeks. But it’s hard to tell in the dim light.

“You don’t have to help me,” Jeongguk says.

“No — it’s the least I could do,” Taehyung replies without hesitation. And so, with some reluctance, Jeongguk rolls up his trousers to reveal the bruises on his knees and shins, where he had landed onto the deck. It hasn’t been much time, but already his skin is blossoming purple and green. Taehyung takes a sharp inhale of breath in surprise. Tears sting at the backs of his eyes as he sees the evidence of what Jeongguk’s had to endure for his sake.

“Hey, hey — don’t cry,” Jeongguk says in alarm, when he notices Taehyung sniffling. He reaches out, one hand on Taehyung’s knee. “Please — I’m okay. I don’t want to see you cry.”

And so Taehyung rubs his tears away, nodding firmly. If Jeongguk doesn’t want to see him cry, then he won’t cry. He focuses his attention on soaking some gauze with the ointment, then dabbing it carefully onto Jeongguk’s shins. They settle into a comfortable silence for a while, Taehyung working studiously, even though he’s painfully aware of Jeongguk’s gaze on him.

When Jeongguk finally breaks the silence, his voice is soft, softer than Taehyung’s ever heard it before.

“What are you going to do now?”

Taehyung doesn’t look up. He tips more ointment out onto the gauze, moves over to apply it to Jeongguk’s other shin. “Don’t know,” Taehyung mumbles. “It was easier when no one knew how I was. But now that the Ahgase know…” He pauses, sighs. “We can’t run from them forever.”

“Yes we can,” Jeongguk replies. “We’ll never stop moving, we’ll sail day and night, we’ll turn into one of the legendary pirate ships that can never be pinned down.”

Despite himself, despite how heavily the situation is weighing on his chest, Taehyung bursts out laughing. He shakes his head, grinning at Jeongguk. Their eyes meet, and for a moment Taehyung can imagine that things are simple. That they’re just two boys, feeling whatever feelings they’re feeling, and that that’s all they need to worry about.

“If you want to stay,” Jeongguk says, more seriously now, “we’ll find a way.”

“I don’t want you guys to suffer because of me.”

“We won’t.”

Taehyung gestures at the bruises decorating Jeongguk’s skin. “What’s this, then?”

Jeongguk shrugs. “Battle scars,” he replies. “Except, not even, because they won’t scar.”

Taehyung just ducks his head down, keeps applying ointment to Jeongguk’s legs. He doesn’t know what to say. But Jeongguk’s hand comes to rest on his own, stilling his movements. Taehyung freezes.

“Do you want to go back to being a prince?”

When Taehyung looks up, he can see a tinge of uncertainty in Jeongguk’s face. He’s asking a genuine question, Taehyung realises. And he deserves a genuine answer.

So Taehyung takes a moment to think about it. He recalls the fine silks and heavy furs he used to wear. The lavish meals he would have every single day. The plush bedding he used to sleep on, the glittering jewels in each of his many crowns. How servants would prepare baths for him, light fires for him, even help him dress and undress. How much easier life was back then.

Now, every single day is a struggle to survive. Some days the struggle is more intense, and some days it’s less. But every day is a struggle — they’re constantly working hard to keep food on their table and clothes on their backs. Taehyung spends his time with a sheen of sweat on his skin, covered in grime and the salt of the sea breeze, hair tangled and unwashed for days on end. His skin is sun-darkened, and there are calluses on his fingers and palms.

He looks at these palms now. Looks at the marks of where he’s been, how hard he’s worked, etched into every rough patch of skin.

When he looks back up at Jeongguk, his answer is clear.

“There are some things I miss about being a prince, of course,” he says, and Jeongguk’s face falls. But he doesn’t say anything, just lets Taehyung continue. And so Taehyung does, smiling wistfully. “It was so comfortable, so easy, being a prince. But that comfort came at a price — and that price was my freedom.

“Maybe there are people who would love to be a prince, and are willing to pay the price for the comforts that life can bring.” Taehyung thinks back to Bogum, who had always looked so at ease in his role as crown prince, so regal and dignified. Bogum was always the prince that Taehyung knew he could never be. Nor did he want to be.

“But even when times are tough, being out here — I’ve never been happier than when I’m on the open seas, with all of you guys.”

Taehyung sets the bottle of ointment and the gauze down on the crate by Jeongguk’s bunk. “I guess what I’m trying to say is — no, I don’t want to go back to being a prince,” he says. Then he shrugs, quirking a wry smile. “Besides, there are things I would miss far too much if I had to leave.”

Jeongguk, who’s been watching him intently this entire time, nods slowly. “Yeah?” he breathes out, a barely audible question. He leans forward. “Like what things?”

Taehyung meets Jeongguk’s gaze steadily. They’re sitting face to face, and Taehyung feels the distance between them starting to shrink. His chest clenches, because here they are, against all odds, despite the vastly different worlds they’ve come from, getting closer and closer with every breath they take.

Taehyung tips his head forward, presses his lips against Jeongguk’s. The first and only other time they’d kissed, it had been soft, and hesitant — barely more than a gentle grazing of lips. Now, Taehyung feels braver. He leans in, one hand coming up to rest on the back of Jeongguk’s neck, pulling him closer. Jeongguk’s lips move beneath his own, and it sends a fire coiling in Taehyung’s gut. He feels Jeongguk’s hands slide onto his waist, holding him steady.

They just sit and kiss for Taehyung doesn’t even know how long. He parts his lips, and when Jeongguk licks into his mouth it feels like the tension in his core is going to explode. Taehyung lets out a low moan, which makes Jeongguk’s fingers dig into his hips more forcefully. Their tongues slide together, hot and wet, but still — so slow, so languid, like they’re taking their time exploring each other.

When they finally break apart, Taehyung feels like he’s out of breath. His chest heaves with each inhale and exhale. Jeongguk looks just as shell-shocked, and his lips are red and spit-slick. It makes Taehyung want to kiss him again.

But he doesn’t. This is nice and all, but it’s solved none of their problems.

“What are we going to do?” Jeongguk whispers into the silence.

Taehyung sighs, leans his forehead against Jeongguk’s. Closes his eyes as he feel Jeongguk fingers tracing the skin on the back of his hand. “I don’t know, Gukkie,” he replies sadly. “I don’t know.”



 


 



“Gukkie and I kissed again.”

Jimin raises an eyebrow at Taehyung. The twilight sun gleams off his pale pink hair. “I would say I’m surprised, but I’m not.”

Taehyung scrunches up his face, glancing across the deck to where Jeongguk is, head bowed as he discusses something with Hoseok. Then he looks up, and their eyes meet, and Taehyung darts his gaze away quickly.

“Jimin,” Taehyung whines. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“What? You like him, he likes you — what’s so difficult about that?”

Taehyung elbows Jimin in the side, drawing a pitchy noise of complaint. “Same could be said for you and Yoongi-hyung,” he replies, grinning as Jimin gasps at him, scandalised. “Besides, it’s not about whether we like each other. It’s everything else.”

Jimin slings an arm around Taehyung, rests his head on his shoulder. “Namjoon-hyung will figure it out,” he reassures. “He will. He always does.”

“It shouldn’t be up to you guys to figure out how to solve my problem.” Taehyung feels guilty. If it wasn’t for him, they wouldn’t be in so much trouble.

But Jimin just nuzzles more closely into Taehyung’s neck. “It’s not your problem,” he corrects. “It’s all of our problems — you’re one of us, aren’t you?”

Taehyung laughs, and curls his arms around Jimin’s shoulders. “I appreciate the sentiment,” he says, “but in this case I am very much the root of the problem. As long as I’m here, we’ll never know peace.”

“But if you go back to being a prince, you won’t be happy,” Jimin replies. “And neither will any of us. We’ll miss you too much.”

“I know,” Taehyung says softly. He presses a kiss into the top of Jimin’s head. “I just wish those weren’t the only two options.”

Jimin nods. He shifts, slipping his arms around Taehyung’s waist and wriggling into his side. “If only there was a way to get everyone to stop coming after you,” Jimin mumbles. “Like, if you weren’t a prince or something.”

Taehyung freezes. “If I weren’t a prince,” he repeats.

Jimin cranes his neck up to look at Taehyung. “Yeah,” he says. “What?”

But Taehyung just pries Jimin away from him. “Sorry, I just — let me go speak to Namjoon-hyung.”

“What?” Jimin says again. He calls out across the deck after Taehyung. “Why?”

“I have an idea!” Taehyung shouts back. He can see, out of the corner of his eye, Jeongguk watching them curiously. But no time to waste. Taehyung charges directly into the captain’s quarters.

What he doesn’t expect, is to see the captain and Seokjin standing by the window, forehead to forehead, talking softly. Obviously having an intimate moment. Taehyung yelps in surprise, starts backing out of the room. “Sorry!” he shouts, instinctively though it is somewhat counter-productive to his attempt not to disturb. “I didn’t — I’m going to go—”

Seokjin just laughs, steps away from Namjoon. “Don’t be silly,” he says. “I was just heading out.” He pecks Namjoon on the cheek, smiles at Taehyung as he leaves.

“Sorry for interrupting,” Taehyung says, hanging his head guiltily.

Namjoon walks over to Taehyung, places a hand on his shoulder. “Nothing to apologise for,” he says calmly. He strides purposefully over to the sofa by the window, sits down and pats the space next to him. “Now — what were you charging in here to speak to me about?”

Taehyung joins Namjoon on the sofa, licking his lips nervously as he tries to piece his plan together in his head. It may not work, and it may mean the end of his life as a pirate, but he has to try. So he explains what he has in mind to Namjoon, pulling what he remembers from his history lessons, the things he’s studied about the laws of royal succession, and everything he can possibly muster about trade and politics and how to make people do what you want them to do.

Throughout his entire monologue, Namjoon just sits, nodding thoughtfully and making murmuring noises at appropriate intervals. Sometimes he asks a question, but mostly he just lets Taehyung speak.

“It’s a risk,” Namjoon says, finally, after Taehyung’s done. “The king, and your betrothed — they may not react the way you want them to.”

“I know,” Taehyung replies. “But the alternative is staying fugitives for the rest of our lives — more so than we already are as pirates, because this time even other pirates will be after us.”

Namjoon considers Taehyung carefully. A small smile creeps onto his lips. Taehyung squirms under the scrutiny.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“You said ‘us’,” Namjoon points out. “We always have to correct you, when you refer to yourself as separate from us. But you talked about all of us, this time, as one.”

Taehyung pauses. So he did.

“I guess I really feel like I belong here now,” he says. All this time, he’s worked so hard to try and fit in, to be accepted. But now, it comes easily to him. This is where he’s meant to be, who he’s meant to be. He smiles at the realisation. “I’ve never felt like myself before,” he says ruefully. “But now I do. Now, I really do.”

“I know,” Namjoon replies. “It shows.” Then he gets to his feet. “If you’re sure about giving this plan a go, then let’s go tell the rest of the crew.”

Taehyung stands up. He gives Namjoon a firm nod. “I’m sure,” he replies. “Let’s go.”



 


 

 

The plan receives mixed reactions. Jimin is vehemently against it, as is Hoseok. Yoongi, on the other hand, thinks it's the best bet they've got. Seokjin doesn't look happy about it, but says that he's inclined to agree with Yoongi.

How the plan goes is something like this: Taehyung goes back to the palace, tries to convince his father to call off the arranged marriage and strip him of his royal titles. Once he's a commoner, he's free to roam the seas with the crew of the Bangtan.

"It's like you said," Taehyung says to Jimin. "If only I wasn't a prince."

"I meant, like, in some hypothetical alternative world," Jimin objects. "I didn't mean for you to walk back into the lion's den!"

"It's not the lion's den, it's just my dad."

"Your dad, the king!" Jimin's cheeks are flushed pink. "Why would he even agree to this?"

Taehyung shrugs. He's not sure, really, but they're out of options. "I was never the best at being a prince," he says. Glances surreptitiously at Jeongguk, who hasn't said a single word since Taehyung explained the plan. "That's why I was getting married off. My older brother is the crown prince, after all."

"This is madness," Jimin says, folding his arms. He looks deeply unhappy.

"Is this even something that can be done?" Seokjin asks. "Even if your father agreed — you're still of royal blood, after all."

Taehyung looks at Namjoon, who nods in support. He's explained this to the captain. "I think so — it's been done before," he says. "My grandfather wasn't the crown prince. He only succeeded to the throne because his older brother was stripped of his titles."

Yoongi furrows his brow. "Why?"

"He, uh — accidentally killed the prince of a neighbouring kingdom when they were sparring," Taehyung says, grimacing. "That kingdom demanded his head but ultimately settled for him being kicked out of the royal family."

Hoseok's eyes widen. "He killed someone?" He glances around the group. "I hope you're not suggesting you go murder someone."

"No!" Taehyung shakes his head vigorously. "I just — I have some ideas of how I might get my dad to agree. Leave that to me."

"But no murder, right?" Hoseok asks. When Taehyung looks at him, he can see the smile on his lips. He's trying to lift the mood with a joke, as always. Taehyung is grateful.

"No murder," he replies, chuckling softly. "I'm just going to have to put some of my lessons in diplomacy into action."

Jimin pouts at Taehyung. "For what it's worth, I don't approve," he says. "It's so risky! What's wrong with just staying on the run forever?"

"The problem," Jeongguk says, abruptly, "is that time runs out."

Taehyung locks gazes with Jeongguk across the deck where they're all gathered. He can't read Jeongguk at all.

"It's not any of our decisions to make," Jeongguk continues. "If Tae doesn't want to live as a fugitive for the rest of his life, we can't force him. Even if it means risking losing him."

He gets it, Taehyung thinks. Jeongguk understands, that this is something Taehyung needs to do. He's lived his entire life being pushed one way or another, and then even when he'd taken a step into a different life, that had still been an accident of fate. Him running away from something else and stumbling into this.

No more. Taehyung's ready to take control of his own life now, whatever that means. Whatever the risk, whatever the sacrifice.

Jeongguk stares at him unwaveringly. Taehyung smiles, mouths, "thank you," at him silently. Jeongguk returns a small nod.

"Right," Hoseok says brightly, clapping his hands together. "Now that we're doing this — what's the first step."

Taehyung stands up a little straighter. Looks at all the faces peering at him in curiosity, waiting for instruction. "Now," he says, determination lacing his voice, "we find Bogum."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Finding Bogum turns out to not be that difficult. He seems to be staying close to Istea, and they manage to track him down to St. Julep — which is where they'd first seen the portrait of Taehyung.

They don't know how many people have seen the painting, so Seokjin rustles up a hooded cloak from somewhere in the stores, which Taehyung throws over himself despite the sweltering heat. Then all of them wind their way through the busy streets of St. Julep, over to the villa where the prince has taken up residence.

No one says a word as they walk. Taehyung's explained that he will do all the talking once they meet Bogum — Namjoon just needs to explain to the guards that they were one of the crews sent off in search of Taehyung, and that they have news for the prince. But that's not what they're nervous about.

Once Taehyung reveals himself to Bogum, there's no turning back. Taehyung seems to think that Bogum will at least listen to reason, but then again, Taehyung barely knows him. All he has to go on are a handful of polite interactions at formal events.

So Jeongguk's stomach is twisting with anxiety as he plods his way down the narrow streets, which are now starting to wind uphill as they approach the more expensive areas of the city. In front of him, Taehyung's walking next to Jimin with his head bowed. Sweat beads on Jeongguk's brow. Taehyung must be suffocating in that cloak, not that Jeongguk can tell from the steady, dignified pace of Taehyung's steps.

When they get to the villa, Namjoon speaks to the guards to explain the situation. They're made to leave their weapons behind, before being shown into a large chamber with tall windows. A cool breeze flutters the curtains, and Jeongguk feels like he can breathe again.

They sit around in discomfort, until finally someone comes to get them. "The prince is in the main reception hall," the servant explains, bowing low. Jeongguk doesn't understand why they can't just meet in this room, but then again, he's not royalty so what does he know. He just follows the group down the corridor, into another, even more lavishly decorated, room.

"Welcome, my friends," Bogum says, getting to his feet, arms spread wide in greeting. He's even more handsome than Jeongguk remembered, hair falling softly around his face in curls that look too beautiful to be natural, dressed in a simple outfit that belies how expensive and well-made it actually is. Kind of like the outfit Taehyung had been wearing, Jeongguk thinks, the first time they'd met. Not that that should surprise him. They are from the same world after all, Taehyung and Bogum.

"I hear you have news of my betrothed," Bogum continues, and Jeongguk zones out a little as Namjoon explains that, yes, they do. He looks at the back of Taehyung's head, wishes he could have an idea, any idea, of what Taehyung's thinking. This is the first time Taehyung's seen Bogum since he'd run away. Is he regretting his decision to leave? Is he wondering what life would have been like if he'd stayed? Is he going to change his mind?

Bogum nods serenely as Namjoon speaks. Then, once Namjoon finishes, he says, "I'm glad to hear that you have news of Prince Taehyung. But what is this news?"

Jeongguk's heart shudders to a stop. This is it.

Taehyung raises his head, lifts the hood of the cloak off his face. Stares directly into Bogum's eyes.

"Hello, Bogum," he says.

Bogum is perfectly still, and perfectly silent, for a moment. Then he nods, slowly, like he's taking it all in. "You know what," he says, finally, forming his words with exquisite care. "I think all of you should stay for dinner."



 


 



There's more food at dinner than Jeongguk thinks he's ever seen in his entire life combined. That's probably not true, but it certainly feels that way. There are trays laden with assorted cuts of meat, all thick and juicy and hot. And dishes of fresh fish, thickly buttered vegetables, heaped mountains of olives and colourful fruits and some things that Jeongguk can't even begin to name. He startles when a servant tries to pull out a chair from him, slides into it with distant unease.

"God, I'm so sorry about all of this," Taehyung says, appearing suddenly by Jeongguk's elbow, and perching delicately on the chair next to him.

Jeongguk turns to Taehyung. They've all had a chance to wash, and so everyone is looking — and smelling — cleaner than usual anyway, but Taehyung is looking especially princely. But maybe that's just Jeongguk projecting. He shakes his head. "What are you sorry about?"

"The food," Taehyung replies. He casts a glance at the feast laid out for them. "I'd forgotten how over-the-top everything is."

Something in Jeongguk's chest clenches. "You don't have to be sorry about that," he says quietly.

"No, I know." Taehyung shrugs. "I just — I feel bad. To have so much, when so many people have so little."

Jeongguk studies Taehyung's side profile. There's something so hard, yet so soft about him. Like his sharp jawline but his round cheeks. Or his sunny demeanour that doesn't do any justice to just how steely and resilient he truly is.

"You're doing the best you can," Jeongguk says. He places one hand on top of Taehyung's, where it rests on the table, before he remembers where he is and snatches his hand away. Heat floods his cheeks.

Taehyung glances at him, smiling in that way that makes his cheeks lift and his eyes fold into twinkly crescents. "Thanks, Gukkie, he murmurs softly.

Then he stands up, one hand lingering on Jeongguk's shoulder. "I have to go sit with Bogum," he says. "So we can talk."

"Right." Jeongguk glances down the table, at where Bogum is chatting politely to Namjoon. Even Namjoon, who's by far the most refined and distinguished of all of them, looks slightly awkward and gangly next to Bogum. Jeongguk turns back to Taehyung, forces a smile. "Of course."

And so he watches as Taehyung slips into the seat next to Bogum, smiling in a measured, withdrawn way that Jeongguk doesn't recall ever having seen on Taehyung's face before.

This is Prince Taehyung, Jeongguk realises. The gulf between them has never felt so wide before.



 


 



After dinner, Bogum suggests to Taehyung that they take a stroll through the villa and its many courtyards. "The days are hot, but the nights are cool," he says, and Taehyung dips his head demurely in assent.

So Taehyung finds himself wandering through a maze of tree-lined courtyards in the rapidly fading light, the evening breeze refreshingly cool against his skin, with the man who is still technically his betrothed by his side. He hadn't mentioned much about his plan to Bogum over the course of dinner, only that he wanted to return to Istea, and needed Bogum to vouch for the crew of the Bangtan to ensure they were not arrested. Bogum had, of course, readily agreed.

"They've kept you safe, and they've brought you back to me. I will not let any harm befall them." That was what he had said. It only served to confirm what Taehyung already knew — that Bogum was far too good a person for him.

"Thank you, again," Taehyung says, now.

Bogum has his hands gently clasped behind his back. He inclines his head at Taehyung. “What are you thanking me for?”

Taehyung shrugs, then remembers that it’s not princely to shrug, and pushes his shoulders back. He’s not used to this anymore. “For agreeing to help my friends out,” he replies.

Bogum nods. “Your friends,” he repeats, and Taehyung thinks he means something by that, but he can’t figure out what. Nor is he too bothered by it — he has more important things to worry about. Like, for example, how to tell Bogum about the rest of his plan. None of it will work without Bogum’s support.

“Can we take a seat?” Taehyung asks, as they come across a stone bench beneath a wall of flowering creepers. Bogum looks surprised, but he takes it in his stride, and the two of them sit down on the bench.

Taehyung looks up at the sky. Stars twinkle into view in the small patch of it he can see. Beautiful, for sure, but nothing compared to the infinite expanse of the universe that he can look into when he’s in the middle of the ocean.

He turns to Bogum. “I have to be honest with you,” he says. “About why I want to return to Istea. I haven’t told you the full story.”

“Yes,” Bogum replies. “I was hoping you would tell me.”

Taehyung looks down at his hands, resting one atop the other in his lap. He can see the callouses lining the edges of his palm. “I’m not going back to Istea to be a prince again,” Taehyung says. He lifts his gaze, looks directly at Bogum. “I’m going back to ask my father to strip me of my titles.”

Bogum takes a long, slow inhale. His face is perfectly still, betraying not the slightest hint of emotion. And when he speaks, his voice is even.

“I suppose you want to stay with your — friends?”

“Yes,” Taehyung replies. “I do.”

Bogum looks away from Taehyung, gazes out across the courtyard. It’s a beautiful space, really. The trees are heavy with flowers and fruit, and the scent of bounty fills the air. There’s a fountain in the far corner, the soothing sound of rushing water filling the empty space between them.

“I had a feeling you were going to say something like this,” Bogum says. He’s still not looking at Taehyung. Taehyung doesn’t know what to say.

“And that pirate,” Bogum adds. He finally turns to look at Taehyung. “The dark-haired one, the one you were talking to before dinner.”

Taehyung blinks away, swallowing tightly. “What about him?”

“Is he the reason why you’re doing this?”

Taehyung hesitates. Is Jeongguk the reason why he’s choosing to give up life as a prince, in favour of life as a pirate? He would be lying if he said that the thought of never seeing Jeongguk again hadn’t factored into his thought process. But the same goes for Jimin, and Seokjin, and each and every one of the members of the crew. They were his family now. And the ocean was his home.

“No,” Taehyung replies, firmly. “It’s not because of him.”

Bogum smiles to himself, nodding. He seems satisfied with this answer. Then he asks, “But you do love him?”

“What?” Taehyung blurts out. Before he catches himself, corrects to, “I mean — I beg your pardon?”

There’s a beat as Bogum seems taken aback, but then he’s letting out a genuine chuckle. “I see the way you look at him,” he says. “I have been in love before, and I know what it looks like.”

Taehyung cocks his head at Bogum’s words. He wants to ask what Bogum means when he says he’s been in love before, but he doesn’t think it’s his place to pry. So he just tries to figure out how to respond to Bogum’s statement about Jeongguk.

“I don’t know if I love him,” Taehyung says, quietly, as if speaking to himself. “But — I don’t know. I might.”

Bogum nods again. “You know,” he says, “a part of me was hoping, when the betrothal was arranged, that you and I could fall in love. My parents had never met before their wedding night, and yet they are more in love than any two other people I’ve ever known.”

Taehyung hangs his head, twists his hands in his lap. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles.

And he is, really. Sorry. Maybe in a different life, he and Bogum might have been happy together. Or, at least, Taehyung could have learnt to be content. Bogum seems like he would be a good, kind husband. But now that Taehyung has been out on the open seas, he doesn’t think he will ever be able to live within four walls again.

Bogum shifts so that he can look at Taehyung properly. He reaches out, takes Taehyung’s hands into his own. Taehyung looks up at him slowly.

“You have nothing to be sorry about,” Bogum says. He sounds like he means it. “There are many lives all of us could live, but in the end there is only one that we have, and that is one that we all deserve the right to choose for ourselves.” He gives Taehyung’s hands a squeeze. “I will do whatever I can to help you get the life you desire.”

Taehyung feels a smile spreading across his face. Bogum is a good man. He hopes that when they part, Bogum will find happiness too. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you.”



 


 



Jeongguk watches as Bogum takes Taehyung’s hands in his. His chest feels like it’s caving in.

He had just been on his way back to the bedrooms that Bogum had provided for them to stay in, when he’d spotted Taehyung and Bogum, walking across the courtyard below him. It felt like he was intruding on a moment that didn’t belong to him, and yet — he couldn’t make himself walk away.

So he stopped, watched as they took a seat on a bench, wishing he could hear what they were saying. And then Bogum had taken hold of Taehyung’s hands.

Jeongguk walks away now, like he should have the moment he’d spotted them. He strides down the rest of the corridor, until he reaches the room he and Jimin are sharing. Bogum had apologised for the size of the rooms, saying that the villa was not particularly well-equipped for visitors, and still it’s the biggest bedroom Jeongguk has ever seen, let alone stayed in.

“Hey, Gukkie,” Jimin says, looking up as Jeongguk enters. He has one of the many cushions on the bed in his lap, where he’s examining it with immense concentration. “Do you think this is real gold thread woven in here?”

Jeongguk ignores Jimin, just groans and throws himself face first into the bed. It’s unbelievably soft, and luxurious, and this just makes Jeongguk groan all over again.

Jimin crawls over to him, nudging his shoulder. “Hey," he murmurs. "Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Jeongguk replies flatly, voice muffled into the bedspread. Jimin makes a noise of frustration, and rolls Jeongguk over onto his back.

“Talk to me,” he demands. “What’s wrong with you?”

Jeongguk grumbles, “nothing’s wrong with me,” under his breath, sitting up and hugging a cushion to himself. Jimin flicks him on the forehead. “Hey!” Jeongguk objects, pressing his palm to his head in indignation.

“Does this have to do with Tae?” Jimin asks, ignoring the death glares Jeongguk is shooting in his direction.

“Not everything has to do with Tae,” comes Jeongguk’s sullen reply.

Jimin shrugs. “No, but you were looking mournfully at Tae throughout dinner, and when he agreed to go for a walk with the prince you looked like you were going to punch through a wall.”

Jeongguk grimaces. “Am I that transparent?”

“I’m just good at reading you,” Jimin replies. “So there’s no point pretending — tell me what’s wrong.”

Jeongguk groans again, gestures vaguely at everything around them. “This — this is what’s wrong,” he says. “Everything about this place. The expensive silks and tables heaving with more food than can be consumed. The servants to pull out your chairs and bow to you when you enter a room and — this whole life. It’s insane.”

“I happen to think it’s quite nice,” Jimin points out.

“That’s the problem. It’s so nice — too nice. Why would anyone give all of this up, for — I don’t know? Whatever it is we have.”

Jimin tilts his head at Jeongguk, studying him intently. It makes Jeongguk squirm. He clears his throat, and gives Jimin a gentle shove on the shoulder. “What?” he grumbles. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“You’re worried,” Jimin says. “You think Tae might want to be a prince again.”

Jeongguk makes a face. "Who wouldn't?"

Jimin shrugs. "I wouldn't," he replies. "Would you?"

Jeongguk pauses, considers the question. Life as a prince seems comfortable, to be sure — but the harder he thinks about it, the more stifling it feels. Even the careful, practiced way Bogum walks and stands and sits and speaks — Jeongguk is sure that it's become second nature to the prince, but that somehow makes it even scarier. Like being caged has been woven into his bones.

"No," Jeongguk says. "No, I wouldn't."

Jimin leans back onto his hands. "Do you think Tae would?"

"I don't know what Tae thinks."

"Tae's always said that he doesn't want to be a prince," Jimin replies. "And he, of all people, should know just how great it is to be waited on hand and foot. And yet — he's picked us."

"Yes, but—"

"No buts," Jimin says, cutting Jeongguk off. "Have a little faith in the person you've come to know. Have a little faith in Tae."

Faith. Jeongguk doesn't have very much in his life to have faith in. But Taehyung, he hopes, is one of those things.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

St Julep is only a short sail away from Istea, so it's barely more than a day after they set off that the familiar shores of Taehyung's once upon home are emerging on the horizon. Taehyung stands at the prow, looking out at the bustling port in the distance. It should feel like coming home, but Taehyung has barely any memories of the city itself. All he knows are the tall towers and gilded walls of the palace.

Bogum's given him some clothes to wear, making the valid point that it might be counter-protective to give the king a heart attack if his son turns up in looking like a pirate. But the thick, quilter doublet feels like a vice on Taehyung's chest. The silk shirt beneath it is too slippery, the tailored trousers too inhibiting of his movements.

"You look good," Jeongguk says, coming up to stand next to Taehyung.

Taehyung raises an eyebrow at him. "Do I, now?"

"Yes," Jeongguk replies. "Like a prince."

Taehyung laughs humourlessly. "I feel more like a jester than a prince." He turns to Jeongguk, holding out his arms. "Look at me! Dressed up like some sort of sick marionette."

Jeongguk smirks. "A very handsome marionette."

Taehyung freezes, the colour rising in his cheeks. He's trying to stay focused on the fact that he's about to go into one of the most difficult conversations of his life, but Jeongguk being here all flirty and charming is making it very difficult. Although — the distraction is also serving to calm his frazzled nerves a little, so maybe he shouldn't complain.

"I hope this works out," he says, looking out across the jewel blue seas, at the shoreline that's advancing closer to them with each passing minute.

Jeongguk follows his gaze, and nods. "Me too."

They don't say anything else after that. Jeongguk slides his hand atop of Taehyung's where it rests on the railing. The wind billows in the sails, pushing them ever closer to their reckoning. Nothing to do now but wait.

And so they wait.


 


 


Taehyung fidgets beside Bogum, as they wait in the throne room. Bogum had sent news ahead of their arrival, so his family should have known he was coming. And yet, here they are, waiting.

They've left the crew of the Bangtan behind — Namjoon thought it was safer for them to stay at an inn near the port, rather than going into the palace. They were still pirates, after all, and regardless of Bogum's assurance of protection, he was not the ruler of this land. But Bogum had stationed some of his men to surreptitiously protect the crew — just in case.

There's no one to protect Taehyung from his father's wrath, though. That's something he has to face up to all on his own. And he doesn't feel quite ready, but he's as ready as he'll ever be.

The doors to the throne room creak open slowly, and Taehyung startles. He almost forgets to bow, but then he catches sight of Bogum and quickly bends deeply at the waist.

"Please," rings out the king's voice. "Rise."

Taehyung looks up, into the face of his father. A handsome man, with sly eyes and a calculating stare. Next to him, Taehyung's mother stands with her head bowed. And, beside them all, Taehyung's older brother, from his father's first wife. The crown prince, the one who's everything Taehyung was never able to be.

"Welcome home, son," the king says. He doesn't sound welcoming at all.

"Father," Taehyung greets. The tension in the room crackles like fire on dry leaves.

"Finally back from your little adventure, I take it?"

Taehyung clenches his jaw, exhaling slowly. He knew his father would be angry about him running away, but still — his disdain is painful to bear.

But he won't need to bear it for much longer, if he plays his cards right.

"Actually," Taehyung says. He glances at Bogum nervously, who gives him a reassuring nod. "I wanted to talk to you about that." He pauses, eyes the guards lining the throne room. "Privately."

The king narrows his eyes, but waves a hand to dismiss the guards. He leans back in his throne, one elbow propped up on the armrest. "Go on then," he says. "Speak."

Taehyung clears his throat, straightens his back. "I'm not going to stay," he says, getting it all out in the open before he can chicken out. "I want to leave."

"And is that for you to decide?" the king asks, his lip curling in displeasure.

"It's in everyone's best interests," Taehyung replies, trying to keep his voice as steady as he can possibly manage. "I've never been good at being a prince — you've always said this. That's why you were shipping me off to Astrane, wasn't it?"

The king casts a wary look at Bogum, then glares at Taehyung. "Your marriage is part of an important trade deal between our two kingdoms."

"But it doesn't have to be," counters Taehyung. "I've spoken to Prince Bogum. He's willing to go ahead with the trade deal even without the marriage."

This seems to surprise the king. He frowns at Bogum. "Is this true?"

Bogum bows his head in agreement. "Yes, Your Majesty," he replies. "The trade deal benefits both our kingdoms regardless of whether our two families are united by marriage. In the absence or a union by marriage, a more carefully negotiated written agreement will suffice."

Taehyung nods. "Besides — the story of the runaway prince has been a cause of great embarrassment for the kingdom of Astrane," he adds. "I doubt that Prince Bogum, or anyone in Astrane, wants the marriage to go ahead."

"Yes," the king says sharply. "It has been very embarrassing. And you want me to grant your request when you have brought such shame onto us?"

"You wouldn't be granting my request," Taehyung replies. His heart thunders in his ears. "Not to the eyes of the common folk, at least. You would be stripping a disobedient prince of his titles, by way of apology to the kingdom of Astrane. It would be a symbol of good faith to the people of Astrane."

The king is silent for a moment as he considers this. He turns to Bogum. "And you would be happy with this?"

"It is not for me to tell you how to run the affairs of your own kingdom and court, Your Majesty," replies Bogum. "But I can assure you, if Prince Taehyung were to be stripped of his titles and cast out of the royal family, the kingdom of Astrane would view that as a gesture of great respect to our people. I believe that it would unite our two kingdoms."

"I see," the king murmurs. He doesn't look happy, but neither does he look unhappy. As always, his mind is always weighing up the benefits and downsides to every situation. It's something Taehyung has always hated about his father, but understanding it has certainly helped him today. The king waves an arm at them dismissively. "It seems like you have thought this through. I see no reason to object."

Then he stands up, and makes to leave.

"I have one more request."

Taehyung finds himself speaking before even realising it. This wasn't part of the plan. Bogum looks at him in surprise.

"Another request?" the king asks, scornfully. "Have I not already given you enough?"

"It's about the trade deal," Taehyung says. "I want to stay, and help negotiate it."

The king pauses, then lets out a laugh. "All these years, I have tried to get you interested in the business of politics and trade, but to no avail," he says. He sounds amused. "And now, as you are about to leave forever, is the time you are choosing to show an interest?"

Taehyung smiles. "I have seen the impact our decisions have on the common folk," he replies. "I finally understand how important it is, what we do."

Another laugh. "Fine," the king says. "Have it your way. I'll approve the final deal, but you have free reign otherwise."

Taehyung bows low. "Thank you, father," he says

The king nods. There's respect in his gaze. "Goodbye, son," he replies, and then he is gone, sweeping out of the archway leading to his private chambers.

Taehyung feels all the tension in his chest uncoil. His legs are suddenly unsteady, and he stumbles a little on the spot.

"My son!" his mother cries out, hurrying down the steps from the dias, her arms spread wide to fold Taehyung up in an embrace.

"Mother," Taehyung says. He presses his face into the queen's shoulder, breathes in her soft, flowery scent. "I'm sorry," he mumbles. If there's one person he feels bad about leaving behind, it's his mother. She's a meek woman, but a loving one.

"Don't be sorry," his mother replies. She pulls away, holds him firmly by the shoulders. "You've never been happy here, but look at you — look at you now! You're a man. You're going out and getting the life you want. It's all a mother could ever want."

Tears, unbidden, spring to Taehyung's eyes. The queen sniffles, and starts to cry as well. She wipes the tears from Taehyung's cheek with the pads of the thumbs.

"Promise you'll come visit," she says. "No one knows what you look like. You can be a sailor, come to advise the queen on the best weather for a seafaring journey!"

Taehyung chuckles, rubbing his hands against his eyes. Tries to stop crying. "I promise," he replies. "I promise I'll return."

The queen lets out a bright, tinkling laugh, and presses a kiss against his forehead. "My sweet, beautiful boy," she murmurs.

As she steps away, Taehyung's brother steps forward. He smiles kindly at Taehyung. "I wish you all the best, little brother."

"Thanks, hyung," Taehyung says. He takes the hand that his brother is offering, shakes it firmly. "You'll be a good king."

His brother nods. "For what it's worth, you would have, too — if you'd wanted to do it."

Taehyung laughs. "Don't joke, hyung."

"I'm not joking," comes his brother's reply. "You're clever, but more importantly, you have a good heart. It's just a shame that that heart belongs elsewhere."

Taehyung thinks immediately of Jeongguk, which his dark hair and piercing stare. And of Jimin, his smiles and laughter. And of Namjoon, and the rest of the crew.

Then he thinks of the Bangtan herself, plowing steadily through the waters. Thinks of the ocean, its endless blue surface and the horizon into which it stretches.

That's where his heart belongs, he thinks. It's maybe where it's always belonged.


 


 


Taehyung's last minute decision to work on negotiating the trade deal means that he has to stay in the palace for a up to a week — just long enough to get the broad structure of the deal in place. There are some things Taehyung particularly wants to see introduced, like controls on how much merchants can charge the common folk on essential goods — flour, grain, salt, and the like. Things to try and remedy a little bit of the disparity between the haves and have-nots.

The only problem is that Taehyung staying in the palace for anything more than a day or two was not part of the plan. Taehyung isn't sure if the crew would be happy to hang around waiting for him. If not, he supposes they could sail off without him, and come pick him up later.

He's going to run his plan by Jeongguk first, so he sends a message boy down to the inn with word to Jeongguk to meet him by the docks. For some reason, as he walks along the waterfront, unaccompanied and dressed in his unassuming civilian clothes, he feels a surge of panic. What if Jeongguk isn't there? What if the crew have sailed off, glad to be rid of him? What if this entire pirate adventure was just a very vivid hallucination his mind had created from having been cooped up in the palace for too long?

Then he round the corner, the sea breeze crashing into him, and his heart unclenches. There Jeongguk is, standing at the very far end of the docks. He has one hand on the hilt of his sword, where it's resting on his hip. The other reaches up to push his hair out of his face when the wind whips it into his eyes. He's staring out into the horizon, and in that moment there's something extremely — regal about him. The thought makes Taehyung chuckle.

"Jeonggukie," he calls out as he approaches.

Jeongguk turns, smiles at him. Affection spreads, warm and settled, in Taehyung's chest.

"How did it go?"

"Good," Taehyung replies. "Really, really well." He stops next to Jeongguk, joins him in looking out into the ocean. The sun is blazing down on them, and Taehyung finds he has to squint slightly against the light.

"You wanted to talk to me?" Jeongguk asks.

Taehyung nods. He turns to look at Jeongguk. "I wanted to tell you before I told the rest of the crew."

Jeongguk's face falls. "Oh," he says.

"It's nothing bad," Taehyung says quickly. "It's just — it's not part of the plan, and I wanted you to hear it from me first."

Jeongguk looks down. He kicks his heels against the cobblestones. "That's okay," he mumbles. "If you want to stay, I understand."

Taehyung frowns. Did the message boy perhaps explain the situation to Jeongguk? Taehyung didn't think he'd told the servants, but maybe palace gossip had gotten round? In any case, it’ll make it easier, if he doesn’t have to explain the whole situation.

"It's what I have to do," Taehyung explains. "I just — I feel a responsibility."

Jeongguk nods, still not meeting Taehyung's gaze. "I get it, I really do," he says. "Once upon a time I might have felt, I don't know — betrayed?" He pauses, and finally raises his chin to look at Taehyung. "But I understand, I really do. And if it makes you happy, I won't hold you back."

Taehyung hesitates. "It's not really that big of a deal…" he says, trailing off as he tries to figure out why Jeongguk sounds so dejected. He expected some disappointment that they couldn't sail off immediately, but this seems a little extreme.

But Taehyung's words seem to upset Jeongguk. His brow furrows, and his gaze darkens. "Maybe it's not a big deal to you," he says sharply. "But it's a big deal to me, okay? You're important to me."

"You're important to me too!" Taehyung protests eagerly. He reaches out and grabs hold of Jeongguk's wrists.

There's a mournful look in Jeongguk's eyes. "Then why are you acting like you won't miss me at all?"

"Well, I don't know," Taehyung replies in bewilderment. "I guess I will miss you, but it'll just be a week — I'm sorry, I didn't realise this would upset you—"

"Wait, hang on a minute," Jeongguk interrupts. "What did you say?"

"I said, I'm sorry, I didn't realise this would upset you—"

"No, no — before that. It'll just be a week?"

Taehyung nods. "Yeah, I just need to stay to negotiate the trade deal with Astrane, it should take about a week — isn't that what you were talking about?"

Jeongguk lets out a shout of laughter. "I thought you were going to stay here forever!" he exclaims. "I thought that was what you were trying to tell me!"

"What? No!" Taehyung gapes at Jeongguk. "Why would you think that?"

Jeongguk's cheeks flush a faint pink. "I don't know, I thought maybe you'd seen the palace again and it reminded you of how nice your life as a prince was…"

"If anything, it reminded me of how little I want to be a prince," Taehyung replies. He chuckles. "Is that why you were being so weird?"

Jeongguk scrunches up his face, and punches Taehyung on the shoulder. "Shut up," he grumbles. "You weren't being very clear."

Taehyung laughs. All the tension in his muscles bleeds out of him. "Well, then let me make it clear to you," he says, sliding his hands up to cup Jeongguk's cheeks. "I have no desire to be a prince. I want to be a pirate, and to sail the seven seas with you, until we're old and wrinkly from sun exposure and we have a peg leg and a hook hand each. Okay?"

Jeongguk giggles. "Yeah," he says. "Except I'm never going to get wrinkly, I'll always look this hot, but other than that, okay."

And Taehyung grins, so broadly he thinks his cheeks might break. His heart feels like it might explode.

So he does the only thing he wants to do right now — and leans in, presses a kiss against Jeongguk's lips. Jeongguk lets out a muffled noise of surprise, before his hand are winding around Taehyung's waist, pulling them closer together.

Taehyung smiles into the kiss, and he feels Jeongguk smiling back. The ocean breeze swirls around them. Their kiss tastes like the sea.


 


 


They’re a few days out from Istea, the sun blazing down upon them, when Jimin calls out to them from the crow’s nest. Taehyung looks up, and sees Jimin waving and pointing urgently.

“The Ahgase,” he shouts. “They’re heading towards us, and fast!”

A jolt of panic shudders through Taehyung as he looks at where Jimin’s pointing. A familiar ship is indeed sailing rapidly towards them, equipped with a what looks like a fresh new sail, ever since Jeongguk sliced a hole right through their old one.

“What the hell do they want?” snaps Yoongi in annoyance, from his spot at the prow.

Next to him, Namjoon frowns. “I don’t think Jaebum would be vindictive,” he says. “And Taehyung’s not a prince anymore — he’s of no use to them.”

“Jaebum might not be, but what about Jinyoung?” Yoongi asks.

As he says this, an arrow shoots off from the upper deck of the Ahgase , and buries itself with a sickening thud in the wood of their main mast. Hoseok yelps in surprise as it whizzes past him. Taehyung feels like he’s going to cry.

“Don’t worry,” Jeongguk whispers in his ear. “It’ll be fine.”

Taehyung turns back to the Ahgase. The ship is close enough that he can make out the faces of the crew members on the ship. Despite the fact that they’d just shot an arrow at them, they seem to be smiling. Yugyeom waves energetically at them.

Jeongguk leans over the railing, and shouts, “What the fuck, mate?” Taehyung can see Yugyeom and Bambam cackling wildly in response.

That’s when Seokjin pulls the arrow out of the mast, frowning. “There’s a message here,” he points out. And indeed there is, a rolled up bit of parchment lashed to the shaft of the arrow. He unfurls it carefully, taking in the message. When he does, he lets out a chuckle.

“What? What does it say?” Hoseok asks, bounding over towards him. He snatches the piece of paper up, scans it quickly. Then he laughs, loud and bright. “Namjoon—” he starts, and Taehyung realises he’s reading the note out loud. “You owe me a new sail. —Jaebum.”

Yoongi smirks. “At least he’s to the point.”

“You owe me a new sail!” comes Jaebum’s voice now, as the Ahgase comes up alongside them. He points aggressively at Jeongguk. “You, especially!”

Namjoon just chuckles. “Will you calm down?” he teases. “We were just trying to protect Tae!”

“We heard!” Yugyeom calls out eagerly. He looks thrilled. “It sounds exciting!” Then he bows exaggeratedly to Taehyung. “Pleasure to meet you, your majesty, sorry about trying to abduct you!”

Taehyung shakes his head, smiling. “I’m not a prince anymore,” he replies, at the same time that Jinyoung shouts, “No apologising for trying to abduct people!”

Behind him, Taehyung hears Jeongguk laugh. He feels Jeongguk winding his arms around his waist, hooking his chin onto his shoulder. It makes him feel, warm, and safe. He breathes in the salty ocean air, listens as the two crews simultaneously bicker and make plans to meet up for a meal in Wrul. Yoongi’s scribbling a rude picture on the same piece of parchment the Ahgase had launched over, and shooting an arrow with it back at them. Youngjae shrieks with laughter when he sees it, while Jinyoung looks far less amused. Jimin and Hoseok start shouting at Bambam and Yugyeom about how they’d managed to — in Bambam’s words — ‘smuggle a prince out of the palace’.

This is his family, Taehyung thinks. And these are his friends.

“Looks like we’re really in trouble, now,” Jeongguk teases, whispering in his ear.

Taehyung grins. “Yeah,” he replies. “Absolutely dire straits.”

 

 

FIN.