Jaebum looked around at his room for anything that he might have forgotten. Bare wooden walls looked back at him. He didn’t have many things to be forgotten, a few sets of plain shirts and pants, a single pair of shoes. No valuables because those were material objects that distracted from what was really important. Only a single earring sewn into the hem of his sleeve, for its protection and to serve as a reminder. All of his earthly possessions fit into a single backpack, a backpack that Jaebum had been forced to sew himself using his bedsheets since his father wouldn’t allow Jaebum to buy a real one. You have no need for such a thing, he’d said. You neither have any possessions nor any place to go. His intention had probably been to inform Jaebum how enlightened he was, how he wasn’t tied down by his desire for earthly possessions but all it had done was remind Jaebum how empty his life was.
But now Eunji had died.
Eunji had been his neighbour. They’d played together as kids, as much as his father had allowed Jaebum to play with other children. Now that Jaebum thought about it, it wasn’t really so much playing as it had bene simple conversations over the fence that separated their houses. Still, Jaebum had fond memories of her and had missed her when she moved away to Seoul several years ago in hopes of finding someone to marry outside of the small population they had in Goyang City.
She’d returned a few months ago, now considered to be too old to be married and had settled back in her childhood home with her parents. Jaebum had seen a sort of salvation in her. Her father loved Jaebum, who was constantly over at their house with medicines as his wife was chronically ill. The man would always comment how lucky he’d be to have a son-in-law like Jaebum. With Eunji’s return Jaebum admitted to having wild fantasies of asking her to marry him and running away from Goyang City, running away from his father.
And then Eunji had died.
Jaebum still remembered the panic on her father’s face as he ran over to their house and clinic, pounding on the door and pleading for them to hurry, to save Eunji. Jaebum remembered the noises Eunji made as she struggled to breathe, remembered the fear in her eyes. Remembered as his father simply kneeled beside her, took her hand and prayed instead of doing anything to save her.
But worst of all, he remembered how his mother had died the same way ten years prior. He remembered being nine years old, sitting at the kitchen table, when his mother started choking, when his mother starting gasping for air. Remembered how his father had calmly sat next to where she’d fallen onto the floor, peacefully eating his breakfast as Jaebum held her close, begging his father to help. Remembered that when she finally fell quiet, when her heart finally stopped beating. His father had looked down at him and said, “this happened because you loved her more than you loved God.”
For a while Jaebum believed him. He believed that his mother died because of him. That he must have done something to upset God. He promised he'd be better and dedicated his whole life to studying and obeying his father's orders, thinking it would help keep death away from others he cared about.
It was only when he got older and his father started teaching him more about healing and herbal medicine did Jaebum put it all together. He was thirteen when his dad mentioned a plant called hemlock, explaining to Jaebum that being a healer sometimes wasn't enough to save someone. That sometimes the kindest way to save them was the end their mortal life.
He was fifteen when he actually saw his dad use it. An older woman had come into their home after falling down a set of stairs. She had several broken broken bones and his father said she had internal bleeding as well. There was really nothing much they could do to help her. Jaebum's father made him stay and watch but Jaebum had to excuse himself when he realized he'd seen that reaction before. He'd seen someone die this death before. He had already seen his father use hemlock to kill someone.
He made the decision to leave that day, to take his belongings and run away from the monster who'd killed his mother. He enjoyed learning about medicine and healing, but he no longer had any interest in learning from someone who saw nothing wrong with using that knowledge to play god. It felt wrong.
He'd packed his things—he'd had fewer of them then—but when he'd actually prepared to leave he realized he had nowhere to go, no one to go to. How whole life was in that clinic and the only person he had was his father, as monstrous as he was. He'd let fear change his mind back then. He'd unpacked and spent his days healing the wounded and hating his father.
And then Eunji had died.
That was enough for Jaebum. He saw the look his his father's eyes as they sat with Eunji's parents after her death, knew the message behind them, 'this happened because you loved her more than God.'
Jaebum didn't even believe in God, not anymore. He hadn't since he was fifteen and realized what his father had done. He wasn't in love with Eunji either, just in love with the idea of being free and she seemed to be the only thing he could find that might give him the freedom he was searching for.
But Jaebum still felt guilt for her death, even though he was not the one directly responsible. He didn't poison her, but his father would have left her alone if it wasn't for Jaebum.
So he'd packed up his things and was determined this time. He'd raided his father's herbs and added some borage to his father's bedtime tea. It wasn't the strongest sedative they had, but valerian root had a horrible smell that his father would recognize.
He would never tell anyone how his hand has hesitated over the hemlock, how tempted he was to use that herb instead, but he'd moved on in the end. Jaebum might have been a lot of things, but a murderer wasn't going to be one of them. He refused to be like his father in every aspect he possibly could and killing another human was a similarity he wasn't willing to share, no matter how he thought his father might deserve it.
He picked up his bag and crept quietly out of the house. Even with the sedative, Jaebum was willing to risk nothing. He wasn't stopped as he exited the house, the late spring air colder than Jaebum would have expected, but smelling sweeter than Jaebum had ever smelled.
A smile split his face when he made it to the end of his street without getting caught, growing wider with every step his feet carried him away from the building he used to call home.
It took Jaebum three days to walk to Incheon, the port town closest to Goyang City. He might have been able to do it in two since he wasn’t carrying very much to slow him down, but it was the first time in his entire life that he’d been outside of his village and he was in no real rush. He knew his father would never come after him; he didn’t care enough about Jaebum to waste his energy and time like that. He liked manipulating Jaebum, but he was certain his father carried no paternal affection for him, like how Jaebum had no filial feelings for his father.
It wasn’t even that Jaebum came across anything particularly exciting or different from what he'd had back at home, the villages he passed were remarkably the same in terms of that they looked like and what they offered travellers. But the simple fact that it wasn’t home was enough for Jaebum to slow his pace and allow himself time to wander, just looking around at something that wasn’t home for the first time in his life.
As he walked, he tried to imagine what kinds of things he’d see once he left Korea. He liked to listen to stories that the retired sailors in the village shared, the older men always glad to have an eager ear to talk to. At the time, they were just stories, something that Jaebum could picture before he went to sleep in order to dream of a better life.
It wasn’t until he entered Incheon and caught his first ever glance of the Yellow Sea, a body of water so large Jaebum couldn’t even fathom it’s size, that it really hit him that he had a chance to live all those stories he’d listened to. He could go to Jeju, China and maybe even Japan if he could find a ship that was looking for another crew member.
He was somewhat disheartened when he reached the harbor and only found two ships resting within it. He truthfully wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but he certainly thought he’d have more of a choice than just two. And as he made his way closer to the piers he realized that he only really had a choice of one. He admitted that he did not have any knowledge whatsoever about ships, but even he could see the splintered hull of one of them, what look like a hole blown straight through the front of the ship. Other portions of the wood looked scorched, as if the ship had been on fire at some point. Again, Jaebum knew less than nothing about sailing, but he did know he did not want to get on that ship.
The other one was smaller with a different rigging system for the sails, one that Jaebum had never seen before. He wasn’t sure what kind of ship it was, military or merchant perhaps?
As he began to walk to the end of the pier it was tethered to he could read the name carved into the ship. Ahgase. Baby bird. Jaebum thought it a strange name for a ship—to name a vessel of the sea after a creature of the sky—but he kind of liked it. It made him realize that he was not too different from a baby bird himself, finally leaving the nest with no idea where he would end up, if he would fly or just go barrelling straight into the ground. Though the name seemed odd for a ship, Jaebum found it oddly fitting for him personally.
The only person he could see that might be connected to the vessel was standing at the end of the pier, a leather-bound book in his hands that Jaebum assumed held some kind of list as the man was looking between it and a pile of crates and barrels that were stacked on the pier next to him.
As he got closer Jaebum still couldn’t determine if the man was a member of the crew or a merchant who was supplying it. He was young, likely around Jaebum’s age. He was dressed casually, loose fitting pants and an even looser white shirt draped across his chest and arms, tucked in at the front to reveal a broad-buckled belt tied around the man’s hips. He seemed far too handsome to be a seaman Jaebum decided when he was only a few steps away, looking far more like a prince than a sailor.
He looked up when Jaebum got close, making Jaebum stop in his tracks. “Can I help you?”
Jaebum looked up at the ship next to them. “I was wondering if you knew who the Captain of this ship was?” He asked, trying to hide his nervousness.
The man nodded. “He’s away at a meeting at the moment. I’m the Quartermaster though, is there anything I can do for you?”
Jaebum knew from the stories he’d listened to that the Quartermaster was the second-in-command. The one who oversaw the crew and the supplies. If the Captain wasn’t here, this man was the next best person to talk to.
Doing what would either turn out to be the stupidest or best thing Jaebum had ever done, Jaebum answered, “I’d like to join your crew.”
The man seemed taken aback by Jaebum’s words, his eyebrows raising slightly as he turned more fully to face Jaebum, closing the book in his hands as his eyes moved to take in every detail about Jaebum from the worn shoes on his feet to the haphazardly made backpack on his shoulders. Jaebum had never felt more exposed, but the man’s eyes seemed kind when they met Jaebum’s once more. “What is your name?”
“Did I hear that you retired?" Jackson asked incredulously, dropping into a chair across from one of his dearest friends.
Hyunwoo smiled so wide his eyes nearly disappeared. "Captain Wang," he chuckled standing up and pulling Jackson back out of his chair and into a half hug. "What on Earth brings you to this tiny place?"
"I was looking for Captain Shownu, the most feared pirate in the China Sea only to find out he retired."
Hyunwoo chuckled. "It was a forced retirement. Jooheon and Minhyuk revolted. Turned the whole crew against me."
Jackson turned and looked at a pair of men who were leaning on each other as they laughed at something a third man was saying. "That Jooheon and Minhyuk?"
Hyunwoo glanced fondly over Jackson's shoulder at the duo. "Naturally."
"What did they do?" Jackson asked, curious as a woman came over and set a beer on the table in front of him. It wasnt even noon yet, but Jackson supposed pirates did have a terrible fondness for liquor.
“Jooheon's brother-in-law died. Jooheon decided to quit pirate life to help his sister raise her daughter. Naturally Minhyuk followed along—he'd follow Jooheon into the mouth of the leviathan itself," he rolled his eyes, but his voice was warm. "Hoseok needed no convincing other than the word 'child' and Kihyun decided that he needed to be there too to ensure the girl was getting proper nutrition."
"And the next thing you know you're on babysitting duty," Jackson finished with a smile.
Shownu could be terrifying. He was tall and broad and muscular and very capable with an assortment of weaponry. Jackson was an accomplished fighter in his own right and he wouldn't dream of challenging the man in front of him. But Hyunwoo, the man under the pirate, Jackson personally felt was far more suited to a simple life playing with children than a life on the seas. Under the muscle and the tattoos and the years of cultivating a name that made people flinch was a truly kind soul, a gentle man who just wanted to take care of what was his.
"I'm happy for you guys," he said honestly, trying to imagine what retirement had in store for him, if he'd live long enough to make it till then.
"I'm sure you are, but that is not all you're here to say, is it?" Hyunwoo asked with a knowing, almost resigned expression.
Jackson let his smile slide off his face, his fingers playing with his untouched beer. He braced himself for the reaction he knew he was about to get, but was unwilling to let the question go unasked. He’d made his crew travel for two more days to make landfall in Incheon instead of in Busan just so he could find Hyunwoo and ask him this question.
He looked up and met Hyunwoo’s eyes. “Have you heard anything about Ching Shih’s whereabouts?”
Hyunwoo looked at Jackson for a moment before the disappointment started to creep in, the exasperation following soon after. “How long are you going to keep looking for her?” Hyunwoo asked gently and with far more patience than Jinyoung had for the topic these days. “How many years has it been?”
“Ten years,” Jackson replied, having a hard time that it had been so long. He still remembered the day ten year old him swore his revenge, the day that his life as he’d known it had been torn to shreds.
Sometimes he felt like two different people. Part of him felt like he’d lived an entire lifetime on the sea, as a member of Ching Shih’s crew and when he escaped and formed his own. Yet other times he’d wake up and it would take him a moment to remember that he wasn’t at home, that his mother wouldn’t walk through the door to wake him up and his brother wouldn’t be waiting for him to go and play. Some days he felt like the Jackson he was now and the Jackson he was before. Some days he felt like both and others he felt like neither.
He could see the question in Hyunwoo’s eyes, the one he’d heard so many times before. ‘Isn’t it time to give this up?’
But one of the reasons Jackson valued Hynwoo’s friendship so much was because he didn’t judge. He might not have agreed with Jackson, but he wasn’t going to argue with Jackson’s choices and he’d help as long as he thought Jackson wouldn’t get hurt. “The last I heard of Ching Shih she was headed for Thailand. She was looking for something there, but I can’t remember what it was.”
Jackson exhaled, not sure what to feel about that information. It was accurate, he was certain of that. Hyunwoo and his crew were among the most infamous group of pirates in the Yellow Sea, which always made Jackson chuckle, because underneath their ferocity they were all softies. But Hyunwoo knew the waters between Korea and China like no one else Jackson had come across and he had far more contacts on either side than Jackson did. If he heard Ching Shih was heading to Thailand, then Ching Shih was heading to Thailand.
“Any idea how recent that information is?” Jackson asked. It would take them over two weeks to sail to Thailand from where they were; Jackson wanted to know how far behind Ching Shih he already was.
“Two months,” Hyunwoo said, his expression almost apologetic.
Two months was a long time. Jackson tried not to let his frustration show but he finally drank from the beer that had been placed in front of him, draining about half of it before setting the mug back onto the table, which was as good an indicator as any for anyone who knew Jackson well. Jackson didn't drink much, especially for a pirate.
Hyunwoo eyed him carefully before taking the glass away from him entirely.
That made Jackson smile. Hyunwoo was only two years older than Jackson but he always acted like he was Jackson’s father. “Thank you hyung,” Jackson said, grateful for more than just the information.
“Take care of yourself Jackson,” Hyunwoo replied, referring to more than just Ching Shih.
He said his goodbyes and passed on his best wishes before stepping out of the bar to find Jinyoung leaning casually against the exterior wall, using his knife to clean under his nails.
He looked up when the door opened, a sly smile crossing his face when he saw it was Jackson. "I found us another crew member."
Jackson raised his eyebrows, pleasantly surprised. "Okay. How long has he been sailing?"
Jinyoung’s smile grew. "Never sailed a day in his life."
Jackson paused and narrowed his eyes slightly. "Can he fight?"
"Can he read a map?"
"I didn't ask him."
Jackson took a deep breath to avoid throttling his quartermaster. "Has he seen a ship before?"
"Yes, he's seen at least two." Jinyoung said with a grin, his eyes alight with mischief.
God Jackson hated this man sometimes. He resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose in exasperation. "Why should I let a man on board my ship who has no sailing experience, likely doesn't know how to fight and probably can't read a map either?"
Jinyoung's expression softened. "Because he needs us." He said simply.
Jackson stared at his quartermaster for a long minute. Jackson personally was always a sucker for a sob story, always tried to help where he could, and was usually scolded by Jinyoung for doing so. Scolded for wasting their time or resources, which was fair because it was Jinyoung’s job to ensure they had enough resources to keep them alive at sea. The fact that Jinyoung was suggesting Jackson allow a man who was essentially useless onto their ship to drain those resources was…intriguing.
"Let me see him first."