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take what you can, give nothing back

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The floor was uncommonly still under Ten’s boots, the ocean’s rhythm like a gentle lullaby, waves the slightest and lightest touch to The Queen’s Hand’s hull. But Ten paced his gods-forsaken cell the same way he would pace The Vision’s captain’s cabin when dark clouds lingered on the horizon. When the violence of the waves began to rock the ship in a way that always turned poor Sicheng’s stomach.

Even deep in the belly of a man’o war, the salt of the air wafted through the gaps in the boards that made up the holding cell’s ceiling.

Ten refused to flinch at the sound of the stairs that led down to his cell creaking, despite the fact that each time felt like fate tossing a coin into the air. Heads, and it was the Captain’s bruisers come to beat him. For information, they claimed, even as they gagged him with a filthy rag.

Tails. Ten thought to himself, somewhere between a bet with and a prayer to any listening gods. Let it be tails.

“Well, well, well,” Ten grinned, hoping he’d scrubbed the last of the blood from his teeth. Tails it was: a young sailor, boyish and bright, too kind to be a good jailer. Too kind to be a soldier, sailor.  “If it isn’t my favourite midshipman come to see his favourite pirate.”

“You’re in good spirits tonight,” Mark smiled, a shy and faint thing - but genuine enough. He passed a metal cup of freshwater through the bars, and lingered nearby. “Did something happen?”

Ten shook his head, before downing the water in one go. It barely wet his throat, but he was grateful nonetheless. He knew Mark fought just to get it to him, breaking rules in a way he never would have dreamed weeks ago, when they first met.

“There’s just something in the air, I suppose. Moon magic.”

“But there’s no moon tonight.” Mark furrowed his brow, unaware of the most delightful news he’d just shared.

“No-moon nights are the most magical of all,” Ten began, knowing he had an audience easier to capture than a ship with no guns. “With no moonlight to watch over us, the more superstitious of sailors claim nights such as these are ripe for sacrifice to the sea. Blood spilled into her, bodies given, and if she likes them enough she’ll treat you gentler. ”

Mark drank in the story faster than Ten had gulped up the water, his hand pressed against the rusting iron bar, breath held in anticipation.

The Vision’s doctor is one such sailor. And it’s easy to listen to superstition, when it comes from a pretty mouth. Isn’t it?”

The young sailor’s cheeks flushed a vibrant red, forcing Ten to bite back a smile. He knew he was still handsome, even unwashed and haggard as imprisonment left him, but better still he could tell his conversations with Mark had crawled under his skin; sweet words and quiet questions working to unlock the treasure-chest of all the thoughts Mark had worked so hard to repress.

Uncivilised thoughts. The best kind.

“Can you do me a favour, sweetling?” Ten asked.

Mark stilled, fidgeting as he tried to piece together an answer.

“I mean, I’ll try,” he said, with an edge of apprehension that softened the more he spoke. The need to follow his captain’s orders losing to his desire to please, perhaps even save the powerless prisoner. Perfect. “But you know I can’t do much…”

“I just want to know what’s got everyone upstairs so worked up. I could hear the captain yelling from up here,” Ten tried to look as innocent as possible.

“It’s nothing to worry about. There’s a damaged ship nearby. A merchant, by the looks of it, and she’s flying friendly colours…” Mark said, and Ten found how hard he tried to be reassuring almost as sweet as the way Mark risked a whipping to sneak him ration scraps.

Too kind, Ten thought, too lovely. He decided then and there, he had to save Mark. Had to keep him.

Right as he had that thought, he began to make out muffled yelling above deck, the thunder of footsteps and the bells of alarm.

Ten stopped in place, like a tiger taut and ready to pounce. He locked eyes with Mark and smiled, hoping to ease the dread filling his wide, unblinkng eyes.

“Thought as much,” he purred, taking no small amount of pleasure in the way Mark shuddered. “No matter what you hear, darling, you must stay down here with me.”

Click. The key Ten crafted over the past few weeks turned somewhere in Mark’s chest when he nodded, and moved to sit down at the guard’s table instead of making for the door to warn his crewmates of the trap about to be sprung.

Ten began pacing again. The ache in his legs seemed less painful with the knowledge of what was to come. For all the beatings, the torture, the Captain’s solemn oath that Ten would hang by the neck until death the moment the ship found purchase at a friendly port - the navy had taken nothing from him.

Oh, but he would take from them. 

-

The Vision had the wind with her, the wind and the luck of all the gods. Full sails, she glided through the night like a dream, and by the time The Queen’s Hand saw her - it’d be too late.

The navy vessel sailed towards a small ship, helplessly adrift and flying royal colours. Any minute now, they’d get close enough to render assistance.

Everything was going according to plan.

Still, Captain Qian wasn’t one to relax. He steadied his grip on the helm, keeping the ship’s wheel where it needed to be. The Vision’s crew was skeletal, with the bulk of their force hiding in the trap waiting to spring. He needed to focus, to keep those who remained focused, to be worthy of the responsibility they’d all given him when they voted him captain.

For all the times he’d moaned and groaned about wanting quiet to focus, the absence of Ten’s teasing was a kind of phantom pain. He’d never quite realised how much it drained the tension from his shoulders, snark as a constant reminder he did not have to bear leading alone.

In his peripheral vision, he spotted someone approaching. Not skulking, but quiet, the figure stopped by the edge of the port side, peering out into the night.

“Sicheng,” Kun called out, frowning. “You should be in my cabin.”

Sicheng shook his head, gaze fixed on the distant light of their enemy. He leaned on the taffrail, sea breeze rustling his hair and the cuffs of his sleeves his shirt pushed up to his elbows. The plain black linen, Kun observed, over the white silk. The one best suited to bear the blood of his patients.

“It isn’t safe out here,” Kun tried again, despite knowing it was in vain. When the good doctor made up his mind, changing it was impossible. But part of being captain was a willingness to fight those losing battles for the good of his crew. For the good of those he loved. “We’ll take fire, even in the best of outcomes. You’ll be better sheltered inside.”

When Sicheng turned to face him his expression was neutral as always, but something burned in the dark of his eyes.

“No,” he said, quiet as tonight’s gentle sea, and just as unforgiving. “I want to watch them burn.”

The same sentiment raged inside Kun, under the calm, wrapped safe in the rationality of his plan. Take back what they stole, tear them to pieces. He inclined his head in understanding, and decided to say no more.

Until, at last, the moment of action arrived.

“All hands, prepare to fire,” Kun yelled. Before he’d finished speaking the crew had scurried to follow the orders they knew he’d give.

The crew would see this through. Sicheng would get to watch those who dared to take Ten be skewered and set alight.

“Xiaojun! Ready the signal!”

Bells of alarm rang out from the enemy ship, so close to firing range. Xiaojun’s voice cut over it all, his beautiful voice bellowing from the crow’s nest atop the mast.

“Ready, captain!”

Kun took a deep breath, and shouted at the top of his lungs.

“Fire!”

The roar of The Vision’s broadside swallowed all other sound; forty cannons firing into the night. Some splashed into the deep, but others battered the hull of The Queen’s Hand . Tore straight through and sent wood splintering; debris crashing down into the sea.

“Xiaojun! Now!”

-

The Queen’s Hand shuddered,  the shock of cannons piercing its hull tremouring through the whole ship. Hanging on for dear life, Hendery could feel the vibrations in the wood under his boots. He looked to either side, suppressing a sigh when he saw Yangyang still attached to the unscathed side of the  enemy ship.

In the chaos, The Queen’s Hand had drifted closer to the ‘merchant ship’. Not close enough for planks and ladders, but perhaps close enough for the plan.

Hendery looked up right before the screaming started.

Colour burst across the night sky, a rain of viridian sparks. The same green Hendery imagined when he listened to old sailors whisper of the green sunsets at the world’s end, a flash of viridian that burned the back of your eyelids.

The last thing a sailor saw before the world’s end took his soul.

And with the burst of the flare, new voices joined the cacophony of barked orders and cannon fire. The war-cries of Hendery’s crewmates. Screams and silhouettes barrelling through the empty air between The Queen’s Hand and the sham merchant ship. Pirates hurtling towards the enemy, blades glinting green as they roared from their bellies with rage - not fear. Hendery thought they must look like demons to the soldiers, like the monsters pirates are so often made out to be. Inhuman.

“Now, Hendery! We have to go now,” Yangyang hissed from beside him.

And he was right. Green sky and a sinking ship, it was now or never. They had a mission to complete.

They scrambled up the side of the ship, towards the groans, grunts and musket-fire. The clash of metal on metal, the crackling of fire; they heard it all before they saw it, before they launched over the side of the ship, muscles burning but feet at last on the ground. True to the plan, no one noticed two scallywags slipping onto the scene near the edge of the fighting, a small detail lost in the midst of flying pirates bearing down upon the midshipmen with their teeth barred and swords bared.

Even outnumbered and outgunned, the Vision’s crew fought like men possessed, like men from myth. The battle was just beginning, yet already the deck was littered with those in a uniform, dead and dying.

The power of purpose tinged with hatred was a singular kind of horror. But at that moment, Hendery had no time for nausea. Two sailors ran towards them, bloodlust in their eyes, brass buttons gleaming in the lantern-light.

A feral cry erupted from Yangyang as he charged at them, from some primal place within. He drew both his pistol and sword, firing his one shot before Hendery could blink. The bullet ripped through the chest of one soldier, sending him crashing to the ground. One of his buttons popped off, small and round, rolling across the wood.

Hendery didn’t realise he was frozen until Yangyang thrust his cutlass through the man’s pale throat, clean and easy, like slicing through a tender cut of meat.

He was no longer the scrawny stowaway who barely survived his first fight. The boy who had run from his first battlefield to hurl his guts out over the starboard side of a sinking ship. This Yangyang - bloodsoaked and snarling -  was transformed by something far greater than hate.

Love twists , Hendery thought, distantly.  The ship to be taken by the ocean, the sea of corpses they would leave behind. Atrocities made easy, made right. All for love.

Wordlessly, the two pirates dragged the less-bloodied corpse further out from the fighting and peeled the coat from it. Hendery caught sight of the Yangyang he knew and loved in the way the boy’s hands trembled at the task.

“No one will notice I’m missing a button, right?” Hendery asked while slipping on the dead man’s uniform, pointing at the place the button popped off but pointedly ignoring the bullet hole in the lapel.

Yangyang laughed shakily and shook his head.

“Perfect,” Hendery grinned, leaning in close as the cannons fired. “Now be careful, alright? Ten will never forgive you if you get yourself killed. And I’ll have to tell him, when I find him, which would be really awful for me.”

Perhaps it was his words, the hope of finding Ten, or just reality setting in - but Yangyang looked more sane, even as he shoved Hendery away.

 “Just go! Don’t fucking die, or else.”

-

The Queen’s Hand is sinking, Mark’s mind unhelpfully looped. She’s sinking, he thought, as the water flooding below decks came up to his knees. Ten weighed almost nothing on his back, the pirate’s arms tight around his neck and bitten-down fingernails digging into his collarbone. Why does this feel right?

While his crewmates fought Ten’s friends, Mark fought the weight of the water, the wool of his drenched trousers slowing his climb of the staircase. The hatch above them was open, but revealed nothing but the darkness of the crew’s quarters. So far left to climb, against the tide. Against time.

“I’m going to get you out of this,” Mark promised, clinging as tight to the railing as Ten did to him. The ship shook, taking more fire. “I’ll keep you safe.”

Ten laughed right in his ear, honeyed and sweet.

“Here I was, about to say the same,” Ten said, as Mark began to climb again. “You’ll need me above, precious. I’ll save you right back, from the filthy pirates.”

There was something in Ten’s confidence that made Mark a believer. He believed in Ten with a solidity that he could neither explain or deny. Without proof or reason, he believed Ten had the power to save him from this sinking ship.

And that betraying everything he’d ever known to save Ten in return was the right thing to do.

So it wasn’t a surprise to find they had company, when the unlikely pair finally reached the abandoned crew’s quarters. A young man Mark had never laid eyes on in his months aboard The Queen’s Hand , in the coat of a naval officer but with the loose hair and reckless grin of a pirate.

He called himself Hendery, and didn’t bat an eyelid at his crewmate’s' acquisition of an ally in enemy colours. A raised eyebrow at best, as he led them above deck, into the smoke and sulphur that choked the sea-salt breeze.

Out into what Mark expected to be a raging battle. But where he looked for battle, he found the aftermath of one. The bodies of those he’d served with bleeding out onto the ground, pirates scouring through the dead - picking the rings from their fingers and buttons from their coats.

Ten’s hand seared around his wrist, something in the touch saying ‘ mine, mine mine ’.  And Mark, Mark barely had the presence of mind to feel anything but pleasantly unsettled. He followed Ten and Hendery out onto a lifeboat, docile and following every command, he rowed with the pirates out to their ship.

The Vision was just as gorgeous as Ten described, even in the low-light. The Captain, just as soft-faced and voiced, the doctor just as sharp. Mark floated through the aftermath of setting his whole life ablaze for love of a pirate, feeling as if  he had come to live in one of the wild stories Ten had told him from behind bars.

Reality stayed far away, until Ten’s touch was finally pried from his wrist when the doctor dragged him away. Until the crew grew bored with the novelty of a turncoat soldier, affording Mark a chance to slip away from the celebrations to a quiet spot near the front of the ship. 

He gazed out at the sun peaking over the horizon, knowing The Queen’s Hand still burned, her wreckage further behind them with each passing moment.

“Don’t think you’re special.” A voice sounded from behind him, with exactly the kind of venom Mark expected a pirate to feel for a soldier.

But when he turned to face the voice, he couldn’t find it in himself to think of it’s source as a pirate. It belonged to a boy. A boy who couldn’t have been any older than Mark, whose clothes were streaked soot and blood from the battle.

“You have his attention now, but you won’t hold it. Nobody does. Don’t get used to it or you’ll regret it forever. You’re not- like I said. You’re not special.”

Blinking, Mark stared at the lanky boy with a face as shock-blank as his mind. He soon found he was staring at the place the boy had been, mind racing to catch up as two more people approached.

A beautiful stranger. And a face he recognised, Hendery, from the battle before; only cleaned up out of his bloodied clothes and with his long hair loose in the wind.

“Don’t mind our Yangyang,” the stranger called out, his voice somehow prettier than his face. “He’s always sour after a fight.”

“He means well though,” Hendery added, “But nevermind all that. You look like you could use some rum, good sir.” Hendery adopted an absurdly posh accent, tipping an imaginary tricorn hat. 

And Mark laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen or heard. Maybe it was, or maybe he’d gone a little mad.

Either way he took the rum, and drank to his new life.