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something in the water

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in the darkness and silence of a summer’s night, the water is eerily calm—too calm, almost, a foreboding feeling about it. in a storm, things get compromised: ships overturned, crew members washed out to sea. but there’s a strange sort of comfort in the chaos, in wrangling that chaos into submission until, safely out of harm’s way, the satisfaction and triumph of surviving is so sweet that it almost hurts.

but this—this is different. the moon shines overhead, casting a long trail of white light along the shapeless water, few ripples or waves to mark any turbulence further into the sea. it laps at the rocky shore, in and out and in and out, constant, fervent. the sky is clear, stars dotting the black canvas of space overhead, no wind or rain to mark this night as memorable.

jeongguk doesn’t like it.

he’s always been better at it: wrestling storms, outlasting hurricanes and typhoons. and, too: fighting his way out of a hard-won battle, sword in hand and a victorious smirk on his lips as he sails from one disaster to the next, toeing the line between bravery and insanity. given an enemy, a battle, he can find order and a voice with which to command his inferiors. it’s only in the midst of danger that jeongguk has been able to feel some sort of alive for years, seeking out the risky jobs, the thrill of peril. in danger, he can always have a plan, two, three.

but on a calm night, no storm or chaos in sight, jeongguk can’t help feeling a foreboding unease. he stands with one foot on a jagged black rock marking the shore and the other against the bow of a boat, watching the horizon suspiciously. the boat rocks against the shore with the weight of the tide, and further by the men inside shifting, moving, carefully storing the loot they’ll have to row back to their ship.

jeongguk’s eyes shift across the water to the ship, looming above the water in its glory—the mourning star. he’s grown increasingly fond of it over the past four years, having salvaged it and restored it himself after he was left for fucking dead by—

“captain!”

he turns his attention to his first mate shin as she breaks free from the rocks of the shore, hauling a large wooden crate. “this is the last of it,” she says when she reaches him, out of breath once she hands the crate to the two men waiting in the boat. “cabin boys are doing one last sweep of the area, but this should be it.”

jeongguk’s eyes narrow as he counts the crates they’ve amassed in the boat—and comes up short. “no,” he says. “there should be one more. i told you there were seven, and we only have six here.”

“there were seven when we found the stash,” says shin, “and i personally counted each crate as it was taken. i saw all of them, each one carried by someone back here.”

again, jeongguk counts the crates, and again, there are only six in the boat. it only takes him a moment of thought, and then—jeongguk draws his pistol, eyes slowly sweeping the shore as he cocks it. it’s too dark to make out much other than the edges of the rocks and the members of his crew making their way back to the boat. now, he realizes he’s been foolish—foolish not to do a better sweep of the area before he let anyone off that ship, foolish to put so much trust in this crew. they’re not his crew—jeongguk has been without one for four years, instead hiring crew members as he sees fit for whichever job he decides to go after. he and this crew have been on the sea for only a month, not nearly enough time to gain the trust he so desperately needs when it comes to looting.

“someone thinks it’s funny to cross me,” murmurs jeongguk as he steps down from his perch, footsteps wet against the rocks of the shore. he stops in front of shin, letting his gun tip forward until the barrel taps against her collarbone. “you wouldn’t do that to me, would you, shin?”

her stare is hard. “no, captain,” she says. “if a member of this crew is trying to steal from you, it’s being done without my knowledge.”

jeongguk considers it, and then moves on, looking back over his shoulder at the two men still in the boat. “don’t fucking move,” he tells them. “if i come back to find the rest of this treasure is gone, i’ll blow you so high into the sky, you’ll come down as rain in europe.”

see, the thing about jeon jeongguk is that he’s done this long enough to know. he’s been a pirate long enough to know that trust is hard to gain and so, so easy to lose—to know that even the most loyal of crew members or closest of companions can easily stab their captain in the back. the pirate code was written for a reason, but god knows no one ever fucking follows it—not when it counts most. not when they deal with treasure and gold and jewels, not when anyone even thinking of becoming a pirate is immoral enough to take their chances in stealing from a captain, killing a crewmate, mutiny.

jeongguk doesn’t pretend about any of this, about this life. he’s pillaged and he’s thieved and he’s killed. oh, he’s killed. although he tries to abide by some code, tries to treat his crew fairly in hopes of gaining some mutual respect, he’s all too aware that if he wouldn’t think twice about betraying one of his crew members should he need to, why should he expect anything different from them? years ago, things were different. years ago, he had a crew, had friends, knew what it meant to be part of a some fucked up family.

he was just a boy then. and now—

now someone’s trying to steal his fucking treasure.

he marches over the rocks, pistol held in one hand and his sword waiting at his side. he knew—he knew something was going to go wrong with this job. it was the calm waters, the clear skies. if he had to fight his way to this treasure, he could have done it, could have trusted the crew to not want to die; they’d have been too preoccupied with keeping themselves safe to even fathom running off with the treasure—his treasure. jeongguk has promised each of them a fair, albeit small, portion of the loot, but in truth, it’s not even about what he’ll make. he cares little for money or precious jewels or fancy artifacts at this point.

these days, every step jeongguk makes is predicated on anger. on revenge. he could just give one of the crates to the group of imbeciles trying to steal from him for all he cares, but it’s the very act of stealing that has his hand tightening on the gun, finally rounding the last of the rocks and heading into the trees toward where the treasure was buried.

there—torches, an orange glow in the darkness. jeongguk tries to calm the racing of his heart as he makes his way through the trees, formulating a suitable punishment for the traitors. he could kill them, make an example… but he’s not planning on keeping this crew beyond sailing back to the mainland after this. he could keep them out of the share of the treasure, leaving them high and dry after a month of searching and work and without a means of surviving until they find another crew.

he’s just decided on a more humiliating option when he gets close enough to the clearing to realize—his crew isn’t alone. “what the f—” he begins, but is interrupted by something hard cracking against the back of his head. jeongguk lets out a grunt of pain as he’s knocked forward, but his survival instincts kick in. in an instant, jeongguk has fallen to the ground and rolled onto his back, aiming his gun upward and shooting blindly. the resulting bang is enough to finally incite all of that chaos he works so well in.

jeongguk doesn’t stay to tell whether the bullet hits, instead rolling again and getting to his feet, running for the clearing as shouts begin to ring from his crew members—both in front and behind him, more gunshots firing, and jeongguk growls when he sees dark shadows moving toward him in the darkness.

he loads and shoots at the first, a satisfying thump against the ground his reward. the second he pulls his sword on, waiting until the mass is close enough to slice where he imagines the chest is. and then jeongguk is bursting into the clearing, only having a moment to take in the sight before him: the mound of earth they’d dug up to find the buried treasure, shovels and other tools scattered around the site, and the rest of his crew engaged in a battle with uniformed men, their colours so distinct and familiar that jeongguk almost throws up on the spot: it’s the military of the king.

the fucking government has finally come knocking at his door.

“captain!” he hears amid the gunshots and clash of sword on sword, and jeongguk runs into the clearing sword first. he should have known this day would come, but he’s always been careful about avoiding ports known to be monitored by the military, not dealing with pirates who might compromise his safety, and laying low as best as he can. someone must have ratted him out—and if that person manages to make it out of this alive, jeongguk will make sure to give them the harshest punishment possible.

jeongguk throws his sword up in time to block the swing of a man in a red military uniform, cocking his gun and shooting him in the stomach before he twirls out of the way and engages the next uniform. quick glances give him enough information about the battle—his crew, unfortunately less experienced in this area than he would have liked, are losing badly, although the military seems to have been ordered not to kill anyone. rather, one by one, his crew is being detained, weapons dropped to the ground below and necks bared to the blades and guns of their enemies.

but no matter—jeongguk works best under these conditions. he cuts his way through another pair of soldiers, ducking out of the way of bullets and fists thrown toward him, trying to shout orders to his crewmates. and then, in a miscalculation almost too embarrassing to admit, jeongguk steps too close to the hole his crew has made. thrown off balance, his opponent takes the opportunity to kick him in the chest and send him flailing into the shallow hole below.

jeongguk lands with a dull thump, gun knocked from his hand as he stares up at the night sky—and the half dozen naval soldiers who appear around the edges of the hole, pointing their own guns at him. breathing hard, jeongguk prepares to haul himself up and fight longer, but the complete lack of aid from his crew and the appearance of a lieutenant at the edge of the hole don’t afford him a chance of making it out of this.

“give it up, jeon,” says the lieutenant even as jeongguk begins to sit up; there’s a round of clicks as the naval soldiers cock their guns at him, and even with his determination not to get caught, jeongguk knows he doesn’t have the upper-hand. “unless you’d like to die with six bullets in your head in the bottom of a hole on an island in the middle of the ocean, i suggest you put down that sword.”

jeongguk considers putting down the sword by throwing it at the lieutenant and hoping it strikes him, but no doubt noncompliance will get him killed—along with the rest of the crew. generally, dealing with the military grants a pirate jailtime upwards of several years, though, and at this point, being dead might be the better option.

still—still. jeongguk lets his sword clatter to the dirt below, putting up his hands to show his submission.

“good,” says the lieutenant. “jeon jeongguk, otherwise known as the pirate captain starling, i hereby place you under arrest for piracy.” jeongguk grits his teeth. “get him out of that hole, would you?”

the cell they place him in is small and dirty, even for a military ship. they had the good sense not put him in a cell with the rest of his crew, considering jeongguk might have strangled each and every one of them for managing to get them into this situation in the first place—and they’re not really his crew anyway, none of them a pirate he would willingly put his life on the line for. jeongguk stopped letting himself grow so attached to other pirates years ago.

hello?” he shouts, banging on the metal bars caging him in. it’s dark in the underbelly of the ship, even with the lanterns offering enough light to see where he’s being kept. “you can’t fucking prove anything, lieutenant! i’ll throw those fuckers under the ship and claim they were taking the loot without my knowing!” there’s no response, even from the two soldiers left guarding his cell as though jeongguk will somehow muster up enough strength to break out on his own. had he been given anything other than the clothes on his back, he just might, but there’s nothing in the cell other than dirt on the floor.

more than not wanting to be thrown in a real prison for his crimes, jeongguk simply wants answers on what’s happening—to his ship, for the most part. as far as he can tell, they haven’t set sail from where the military ship had been hiding out of sight of the mourning star, but he imagines they’ve managed to detain the few pirates left on his ship to watch for trouble. fat load of good that had done.

“get me out of this fucking cell!” jeongguk yells, taking a step back to kick at the bars. “i demand to talk to someone!” he’s slaved over that goddamn ship and refuses to see her left on the shores of this godforsaken island or, worse, destroyed merely for belonging to a pirate. he wants to know where they’re planning on taking him, if they’ve made him go through a goddamn trial even though he’s well aware he’ll be found guilty for any number of things: piracy, theft, fraud, murder. as much as he’s tried to lay low for years, jeongguk is well aware he’s made a name for himself. he’s well aware he has enemies, not just in the government.

“i said—” he growls, kicking at the cell again; this time, jeongguk loses his balance on the ground, slipping backwards and landing on the back. pain shoots through his spine, groaning even as he hears a low chuckle from outside of the cell. “shut the fuck up,” he snaps at the soldier. “i could kill you with two fingers.”

“i’d like to see you try,” says the soldier. and jeongguk could—but he’s tired and angry, so he just sits up, scooting until he reaches the side of the ship and leans against it, glowering into the darkness. how stupid to be caught this way, stealing some treasure from an island like any old pirate. it hadn’t even been a good fight, what with his crew pissing themselves so easily. going to prison for this doesn’t even seem worth it. and yet, here he is. and yet—

no one comes for an hour, for two. no matter how many times he yells, no one comes. no matter how many threats he makes, no one comes.

and then, when jeongguk is beginning to think they’ve all abandoned ship and left him to rot here as some cruel and unusual punishment, he hears footsteps on the stairs. he rises from his spot on the floor, stalking forward and holding onto the bars of his cell, trying to see through the muddled darkness who they’ve chosen to speak to him—maybe a simple seaman, deeming jeongguk unworthy to hear from anyone but the lowest ranked man. or maybe the highest ranked officer onboard, afraid he won’t listen to anyone else, afraid he’ll bite.

“finally,” he snaps as the footsteps echo closer, a shape moving in the darkness. by some movement he can’t see, the two soldiers stationed outside of his cell step away. “i demand to know what you’re doing with my sh—”

he stops as the newcomer steps into the light. the words get caught in jeongguk’s throat as a strange chill settles over him—shock, maybe. disbelief. sickness, something swelling up in the pit of jeongguk’s stomach as he stares at the man that comes to a stop in front of him, hands clasped behind his back. he’s—different from how jeongguk remembers. cleaner, hair shorter and neatly tucked away from his face. taller, somehow—maybe it’s the naval boots he wears, the uniform trimmed and proper against his slender body. maybe it’s the way he holds himself with that badge against his chest, the mark of a commander, maybe, or a captain, whatever he is.

and yet—it’s like seeing a ghost, like a memory that has haunted jeongguk for four years. he knows that face all too well: the sharp eyes, dark and barely crinkled at the corners. that rounded nose, those careful lips. he’s older, but so is jeongguk. he’s a stranger in so many ways. but jeongguk would know him anywhere.

“min yoongi,” says jeongguk, voice barely a whisper. disbelief colours the words, along with confusion, with a thread of coolness. he stares at yoongi for as long as he can muster, trying to fit the pieces together.

yoongi has the audacity to grin at him. “jeon jeongguk,” he says, his voice so familiar and damning. jeongguk hates the way it sends a shiver down his spine, just to hear it. “we meet—”

“what the fuck are you doing?” snaps jeongguk before they can pretend with pleasantries. his hands tighten on the bars of his cell, knuckles white with the pressure, and that disbelief is immediately replaced with pure, unadulterated anger. “who the fuck do you think you are, hauling me in here, leaving me in this fucking cell for hours?

“we arrested you,” says yoongi evenly. “you are in no position to make demands about your well-being, jeon.”

captain,” jeongguk growls. “it’s captain jeon.”

“congratulations,” says yoongi dryly. “now, if you’ll allow me t—”

“you disgust me,” says jeongguk. despite his calm demeanor, he sees something flare in yoongi’s eyes, something so much more familiar than the uniform, the complete lack of recognition he’s been affording jeongguk—“you absolute piece of shit, min yoongi. you traitor. you stand there in your uniform and your fancy shoes—”

“it’s commander, actually,” says yoongi. “commander min yoongi. if we’re being technical.”

“fine, commander. let me go.”

yoongi just looks at him. looks at him, shoulders so straight, eyes so cold. he looks at jeongguk and jeongguk feels as though they’re perfect strangers. was it under yoongi’s orders that he was found, captured, arrested? has yoongi been hunting him down? has he made all of this a game just to spite jeongguk, forgetting all they did together? were together?

yoongi just looks at him, and then says, “no.”

jeongguk spits in his face.

and maybe—maybe the worst part of it is that yoongi doesn’t even react. he merely brings a hand to his face, wipes away the spit that landed on his cheek, and says, voice even, “you’ve been arrested under the new piracy act.”

“i said, let me go,” says jeongguk.

“the king has recently passed a law allowing the military to take swift and harsh action against those terrorizing our waters and citizens—”

“do you think this is a joke, min? after everything we’ve been through.”

“—in which any person caught violating the laws surrounding piracy, including theft or murder with the intention of piracy, or caught on board a pirate ship, fraternizing with a pirate, or engaging in illegal activity with a pirate—”

“you leave me on that goddamn island and then turn around and betray everything we worked for, everything we lived for—”

“—is subject to death by execution.”

jeongguk closes his mouth, startled out of every insult he thinks to throw at yoongi by this last piece of information. and yoongi, of course, looks unscathed by his words, his accusations. “what?”

“execution,” repeats yoongi. “the new piracy act allows the military to execute pirates. without trial, without a single word from the likes of you.” he cocks his head. “what was that you were saying about letting you go, captain?”

jeongguk swallows, throat and mouth dry, fingers itching. executed—he always knew it was a possibility. but the military never had the manpower to find and execute every goddamn pirate on korean seas, couldn’t hope to be given permission. only the most notorious and bloodthirsty of pirates were given such a sentence. being caught for looting an uninhibited island, stealing treasure the military couldn’t even prove didn’t belong to jeongguk should only land him months, maybe a year, in prison.

and now he’s going to be executed.

“well,” says jeongguk slowly. “in that case, shouldn’t you be the first with the noose around your neck, commander?

for the first time—he sees yoongi waver. it’s nothing more than a pinch of his lips, his jaw clenching in a tell that jeongguk knows too well: he’s angry. trying to hold back a comment, trying not to lash out with an insult that will roll so sweetly off of that tongue of his. even with the military garb, even with the new hair and the new title—jeongguk knows him. somehow, that only makes him angrier.

just as quickly as the look comes, it goes. “we’ll be sailing back to the mainland shortly,” says yoongi, and jeongguk realizes—no matter how angry he is, it’s not solving any of his problems. no matter how upset he is with the situation, with his crew, with yoongi, it won’t free him. he has to change tactics. “your ship, since you seem so concerned about it, will likely be destroyed or repurposed, whichever the admiral sees fit.”

“commander min,” says jeongguk, forcing softness into his voice.

“as for your crew… they’ll likely be executed as well,” yoongi continues, already stepping back from the cell, and he’s leaving, he’s leaving—“unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done considering you were all caught in the act of thievery and as you are a somewhat notorious pirate, their association with you immediately paints them as guilty.”

“yoongi.

he turns back toward the shadows, taking a step into them. “i hope our journey will give you ample time to reflect on the mistakes of your life, captain jeon,” says yoongi. “unless you’ve managed to grow wings to complement that pirate name of yo—”

hyung.

yoongi stops. there, a flicker of hope within him—a flame of something more, spurred on by such an immediate reaction. yoongi’s back is to him, still rigid and professional, but jeongguk can see his hands clasped behind his back. can see the way his fingers clutch each other, nails digging into the meat of his hand hard enough to break the skin.

jeongguk takes his chance. “yoongi-hyung, please,” he whispers. “please don’t do this to me. i don’t—i don’t want to die, not like this. if you… care—

“i don’t,” says yoongi, so casually that jeongguk recoils. maybe it would hurt less if yoongi was angry, harsh. if what jeongguk was saying, alluding to affected him enough to warrant such a reaction. but his voice is as calm as the first moment he spoke to jeongguk, and when he turns again, there’s no hint of emotion on his face. somehow, it hurts more than a bullet to the chest, seeing yoongi look at him and knowing… he’s telling the truth. he doesn’t care, even now—even after everything, even after all they’ve sacrificed and lost and bled for together.

it’s been four years since jeongguk last saw min yoongi. he supposes a lot can change in that length of time.

yoongi returns to the bars of the cell, eyes raking over jeongguk’s form. they must look a pair—jeongguk with his long black hair, in desperate need of a cut now that he’s had to begin tying it back just to see; loose-fitting and dark clothing stained with dirt and sweat and blood, maybe, torn in places; face hardened from years of piracy and criminal acts and building walls around the most vulnerable parts of himself, the anger and pain and regret.

and yoongi, his short hair styled close to his head, clothes pristine and pressed, not a scuff of dirt or dust on him, a military officer, a commander.

yoongi, whom jeongguk once would have carved his heart out for, if only to see that smile, if only to hear those soft, sweet words, if only to know it would last forever

yoongi, pretending they don’t even know each other.

“i don’t care,” yoongi repeats, voice low. “you have broken the law, jeon jeongguk, and it is my duty to ensure that you pay for it. you chose this life. and now you must bear the consequences.” oh, jeongguk thinks. how the mighty fall. then—a moment of clarity in yoongi’s expression. a thought seems to pass over his face, brows furrowing as he watches jeongguk. “unless…”

“unless,” repeats jeongguk.

yoongi hums, the barest hint of a grin ghosting his lips. “i’ll give you an ultimatum, starling.” he steps back, running a hand over his jaw as he studies jeongguk. “see, you may be of some use to me yet. this new law… we can’t simply wait for you pirates to slip up and get caught. not everyone is as embarrassingly inexperienced as you.” jeongguk bristles, but yoongi barrels on—“too many of you have been terrorizing our seas and our people for too long. but i believe that the average pirate could do little damage without the sort of leadership exhibited by the most notorious pirates.”

jeongguk begins to feel a little queasy. “what are you proposing?”

“i have a list,” says yoongi, fully grinning now, like he enjoys this, “of five of the most notorious pirates on our seas. the ones without whom i believe the act of piracy would quickly dwindle, until it’s no longer such a prevailing threat to our citizens. i want you, captain jeon, to find them for me.”

“are you fucking kidding me?”

“if you aid the military in locating, capturing, and arresting these five pirates,” continues yoongi, “i’ll grant you immunity.”

jeongguk’s eyes narrow. “what kind of immunity?”

“i’ll let you walk free. you won’t be tried under any piracy law and you won’t be executed under the piracy act. at least—not for this.” yoongi tilts his head. “we find those five pirates and i’ll let you sail away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist for your behaviour. if you’re caught again after that, you’ll be executed, but it’ll be as though this arrest never happened. you, little starling, get to live.

suddenly, jeongguk is all too aware of the gentle rocking of the water below them. of the sounds of the sailors overhead, talking and laughing. of everything in this moment, perhaps the most important moment of his life—the way yoongi is looking at him, real and here for the first time in four years. for what feels like hours, jeongguk’s world narrows down to this: he is alive. he is entirely at the mercy of min yoongi, who could steer this ship to land and hang a noose around his neck and end his life of piracy and thievery and murder, but of everything else too—of laughter and love. of the good things.

the idea of doing anything with min yoongi has him stirring uncomfortably, so many memories and emotions surfacing from where he’s kept them locked away for years. it’s a suicide mission, sailing off with the military to find and capture five of the most notorious pirates on korean seas, most of whom he can guess the identities of: some his enemies, some… his friends, or people he used to consider friends. jeongguk is sure he’ll die trying.

but if he doesn’t try—he’ll die anyway. and wouldn’t he rather die on a ship, out on the open sea, battling pirates?

yoongi is giving him an out, giving him a choice. he doesn’t want to make it, wants to be on his fucking ship, heading into the night with his treasure and the entire world ahead of him. but given the circumstance, he has few options.

“i want to think about it,” says jeongguk, finally letting go of the bars. his fingers ache from holding on so tightly, but there’s no use putting up a fight—not anymore. he steps away from the bars, away from the light.

“you only have so many options, jeon,” says yoongi. “choose wisely. i’ll give you until morning.” for a moment, when he looks at jeongguk, there’s something more—something familiar, something jeongguk recognizes from four years ago. some sort of yearning, maybe, or regret. or want. but it’s all a trick of the light, he knows—after all of this, after their conversation and the truth it has revealed to jeongguk, he knows better than to fool himself into false beliefs. he knows better than to hope.

and anyway—yoongi says nothing more, turns away, leaves jeongguk alone and cold in his cell. and when jeongguk slumps onto the floor again, he feels as though yoongi takes so much of jeongguk with him as he goes—like he did once. like he always will.

in his dream, they’re together again. in his dream, everything is so familiar that it makes him ache—the sunsweet tone of their skin, browned and burnt from years under the open sky, on the open sea; the snapdragon laughter in his ears, breathless from too many bottles of rum and games of liar’s dice; the smell of the salt and the sea and something more, something like sweat and sex.

in his dream, everything is good again, as it once was, as he will always wish it to be.

he’s standing on a ship, a familiar ship, a ship that was his home for so many years. saw him through growth and heartache and this, too—love. the hangman’s daughter, he thinks idly. in his dream, he hasn’t gone yet, still knows the grain of the wood like the wrinkles in his palm. the sun is sharp as it touches him, the horizon an endless blue, the water disappearing where it touches the sky. his eyes trace the water, the bristles of the rope in his hand so familiar, so real. somehow, everything always feels different on the hangman’s daughter.

when he turns his eyes toward the deck of the ship, jeongguk sees he’s not alone. there—yoongi stands near the wheel. he’s wearing their captain’s hat, likely stolen in a dice game, and he’ll have to give it back. but it looks good on him—looks good against the long black hair, the freckles dotting his cheeks. the beaded bracelet jeongguk once gave him, something from his childhood, something linking this and that.

he’s grinning at the horizon. yoongi always had a way of looking at the sea like it was his—not in a way to conquer and own, but in a way to love.

in his dream, yoongi still looks at jeongguk like that, too.

“what are you doing down there?” yoongi asks, and then jeongguk is at his side, watching the sea with him. familiar hands, familiar fingers tangle with his, and if only he could close his eyes for this part—could revel in the rough skin of yoongi’s hand against his, the warmth of their arms pressed together, the way yoongi hums when he leans over and presses a kiss to jeongguk’s cheek.

“one day,” whispers yoongi, and unbidden, jeongguk imagines it all—what they could have, what they could be. together. in his dream, some part of jeongguk still believes they’ll be together. “one day, i am going to hurt you, jeon jeongguk. i am going to hurt you so horribly you’ll want to die from it.”

jeongguk jerks away, startled, but yoongi’s grip on him is tight tight tight, and the sky swirls into a molten red and the sea kicks up its waves and jeongguk feels himself beginning to hyperventilate as a plank stretches out from the edge of the ship, looming longer and longer as yoongi pushes him forward, laughing, whispering die die die

jeongguk wakes with a start, breathing hard as he snaps upright and blinks through the darkness in an attempt to place himself. the panic from the dream remains even as the images and memory immediately begin to fade, and he’s left staring at the bars of a cell and an unfamiliar woman staring at him from beyond it.

eventually, once he gets his breathing under control, jeongguk croaks out a, “what?

“are you okay?” she asks, not unkindly. “you were making weird noises and thrashing. i was beginning to worry.”

all at once, reality snaps into place and jeongguk remember—he’s a prisoner. he’s in a cell on a military ship and this woman is one of the seamen tasked with watching him, even through the night. despite her concern, jeongguk stiffens, pulling his coat tighter around his frame as he scoots against the side of the ship and averts her gaze. “m’fine.”

but even as she turns away from him, going back to manning her post, jeongguk feels an uneasiness settle over him. the details of the dream are alluding him now, a smoke signal disappearing into the night. and still, it’s impossible to forget certain things, not when this dream has always been a recurring one: the hangman’s daughter, a life he’s lost and still longs for.

yoongi.

it’s always yoongi, in all of his dreams—the good ones and the bad, with that grin and those eyes and the way he once looked at jeongguk with them. jeongguk tries to map any of those familiar feelings onto the eyes of this new min yoongi, commander. fucking sellout. but even in the night, all he sees is a stranger.

jeongguk sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face. sometimes on nights like these, when he wakes from such a dream, he allows himself just a taste of memory. for years, he’s drowned them out, tucked away what he knows he’ll never get back, but he’s tired. seeing yoongi again, speaking to him after four years, has dealt a shattering blow to his defenses, has left him weak and angry. but around that wound, the memories seep out. around that wound, he remembers that there was once a time he didn’t hate min yoongi. there was once a time he felt quite the opposite.

for—years. jeongguk sees the seas they have sailed together, the battles they have fought and won. the nights spent together, burning hot through his veins knowing that while he’s intimately aware of what yoongi looks like in anything other than that goddamn military uniform, he’s even more intimately aware of what yoongi looks like without anything at all. knows the feel of him, the weight, the taste.

he closes his eyes, letting his head fall back against the wood behind him. once, they were crewmates. once, they were friends. once, they were lovers.

once—they were strangers. and so it appears they are strangers once more, the past four years having driven them further apart than jeongguk thought possible. the last time he saw yoongi is still etched so carefully in his mind, the last memory he tried to hide away: yoongi’s cool, grieving eyes. his back as he turned away. the ship sailing off, leaving him, yoongi leaving him

for years, he thought of when this day would come. in the beginning, jeongguk wanted more than anything to find yoongi and make him hurt. to make him want to die from it. but anger eventually mellowed into resentment, resentment into a cool acceptance. now, jeongguk knows he could have gone the rest of his life without laying eyes on min yoongi again, if only to keep these feelings from being stirred up again, if only so not to realize that beneath the anger and the bitterness, there is still something that feels a lot like want.

there are too many questions he needs answered. beyond the glaring question of why and how could you abandon me like that and don’t you hate it sometimes, how lonely you get, how much you miss me, a new and startling one has appeared: what the fuck happened in the past four years to turn yoongi into a military man, a commander? once, yoongi was the most feared gunner on the open sea. but he turned on piracy like he turned on jeongguk, maybe, like a theme in his life: tossing away something once it no longer serves him a purpose, once he gets bored of it.

the idea of working with yoongi again, in any capacity—aboard a ship, so like but so unlike their years as part of the same pirate crew—makes jeongguk sick. but in the end, he knows he has little choice. either he dies at the hands of min yoongi like a goddamn coward, or he learns to do what he couldn’t four years ago, and the five years before that: put his feelings for min yoongi aside and be the pirate he knows he is.

starling, they called him, for the bird—at the time he’d been small, barely a teenager when he’d found himself a cabin boy onboard a pirate ship after running from his family. but he was vicious in the way he accomplished the tasks given to him, unsuspecting as a pirate the crew began to rely on in battles and quick thinking. and jeongguk is far from being that boy. he’s lived nearly twenty-eight years, has grown into something hardened and scarred, has no wings to fly with in this cell. but jeongguk is still a pirate. he’s still a captain.

and he refuses to die like this.

when yoongi comes for him in the morning, jeongguk is still sitting with his back against the side of the ship, waiting. with the sound of those boots against the deck, he stirs, watching as yoongi appears from the shadows—so unlike the yoongi from his dream, so unlike the yoongi he once knew. perhaps that will make this easier.

“i’ll do it,” says jeongguk before yoongi has a chance to ask, already setting the stage; he’ll dictate how this entire operation will go—he makes the calls. he’s the captain, after all. “i’ll help you find your pirates, commander. but i have conditions.”

yoongi cocks a brow. “i’m not sure you’re in a position to make demands, captain.”

“we go on my ship,” says jeongguk, holding up one finger. “with a crew of my choosing, none of whom will be arrested and executed for their assistance in this operation. your men may follow in your military ship to keep the prisoners and offer assistance should we need it, but we’re sailing right into pirate territory. anyone sees this pretty boat of yours and they’ll blow us to pieces, not to mention warn every pirate within a thousand-mile radius that the military is after them.”

he waits for yoongi to respond, but is met with stony silence. jeongguk holds up a second finger. “that puts me in charge,” he says. “you can be in charge of your men, but i’m the one you need here. you need me to tell you where these pirates are, how to capture them, how to keep us from dying in the meantime. which means i have ultimate authority when it comes down to it. i don’t mind working with you, but if i say we fight, we fight. and if i say we run, we run.

“you can’t possibly think—”

“we go to busan first,” continues jeongguk, holding up a third finger.

yoongi narrows his eyes. “why?”

“busan has my favourite rum. and i’m gonna need a hell of a lot of alcohol to get through this, commander.”

he knows it’s dangerous—trying to give conditions to the man holding jeongguk’s fate in his hands. should he push too far, yoongi can easily call this whole thing off and have jeongguk hung before he can think to argue. but yoongi doesn’t argue with him, not at first. he just steps up against the bars, peering at jeongguk through them, and for the first time in a very long time, jeongguk feels a familiar spark in his chest—a reminder of the pirate he once was: bold, brash, reckless. he should have known it would take min yoongi to find that again, buried beneath four years’ worth of pain.

“and why should i negotiate with you, jeongguk?” asks yoongi. “why should i negotiate with a dangerous pirate, who could easily be using all of this as a way to turn against me, to kill me and my men and sail away rather than complying?”

funny, jeongguk thinks. that idea had never occurred to him. “because, commander min,” he says. “you need me as much as i need you. if you could find those pirates without me, you wouldn’t be here. and if i could get out of this cell, murder your fleet, and be on my way with no trouble, i wouldn’t be here. you may have the power to execute me, but i could lead you on a fruitless chase ‘round and ‘round this sea until we both die from heatstroke.” jeongguk sighs, picking himself up from the ground and wiping off his hands. “but see, you want your pirates. and i want to stay alive. and the only way we’re both going to get what we want is if we’re on the same side.”

he makes his way across the cell, stopping only when he’s against the bars, mere inches separating he and yoongi. that spark returns, the one reminding him why he wanted to become a pirate in the first place—it’s the thrill of the open sea, the freedom. the power. an able crew under his command, a heading that will surely bring danger and peril—but oh, that’s half the fun of it.

jeongguk sticks his right hand out between the bars, raising an eyebrow. “do we have a deal, commander?”

yoongi looks at him. looks down at his hand. and jeongguk swears his lips curl upward at one corner, just a little—just enough.

then yoongi takes his hand, shaking it once. “we’ll make for busan today, begin planning tomorrow,” he says. and then he yanks jeongguk’s arm through the bars, hard enough that jeongguk’s body is forced against the metal painfully. he grunts, but yoongi’s face is so close that he can smell the other man’s breath. “and if you so much as raise your hand against me, jeon jeongguk,” he whispers. “i will throw you overboard and leave you to die.”

when yoongi lets go of him, stepping away from the bars and nodding to the woman still stationed beside his cell, jeongguk can’t help but chuckle. it’s as yoongi is disappearing back into the shadows that he calls out, “wouldn’t be the first time, spitfire.”

he sees yoongi hesitate, the barest flinch in his step. but when he looks over his shoulder, he’s only grinning. “good day, jeongguk,” says yoongi, inclining his head in a slight bow. “get some rest, won’t you? we have a very long journey ahead of us.”