Chapter 1: Blue Hole
“I don’t like this.” Taehyung peered forward where the aqua water turned a deep night blue in a huge, perfect circle. The sea floor dropped away to inky depth. “I really don’t like this place.”
Namjoon tugged on the end of his red head scarf. “It’s just a blue hole, Tae. Wide one, but I’ve seen a bunch. They’re harmless. The water doesn’t move in them, so there won’t be a lot of fish.”
“I’ve seen plenty of blue holes, Captain. This is a monster cave,” Taehyung said. He scowled as he re-adjusted his head scarf.
“Bo’s’n, please take the helm,” Namjoon yelled across the deck. Seokjin ran up onto the quarterdeck and grabbed the helm from him. Taehyung hung onto the rigging and pursed his lips.
“Tae, it’s a submerged sinkhole. It’s fine. I won’t send you ashore if you’re worried.”
“Captain, I’d rather be ashore than in a boat over that hole.”
Namjoon turned towards Seokjin, “Skirt the edge.”
Up in the rigging, Jungkook yelled a warning, and Seokjin swung starboard to get over the shoals.
“I don’t think we should do this, Captain.”
“Do you have an alternative proposal? Find the Golden Dragon without using a map maybe? Want to search every inch of shoreline in the entire Caribbean?”
“Approach from outside the reef,” Hoseok said beside them. “Send someone in with a dinghy.”
“That’s several miles of water and sandbars they’d have to drag the dinghy over,” Namjoon said, “Such a waste of time. Don’t tell me you’re scared of monsters too now.”
Hoseok shook his head quickly.
“Oh, sure. I’m crazy again,” Taehyung said, “I’m always the fucking crazy guy. At least the old crew would have agreed with me. If we fuckin drown, you all owe me rum in hell.”
Jimin and Yoongi hauled up the mainsail and stood awaiting further instruction. “What do we do about dropping anchor, Captain? It’s too deep.”
“We don’t. We drop Kook and Hoseok into a dinghy and sail in a slow circle around the edge. We’ll pick them up and sail out.”
“What if there are traps?”
“We won’t be far away.”
“Is it a good idea to send the surgeon out?” Jimin asked, pointing to himself. “You know, at the rate we keep getting injured.” Jungkook frowned at a large scab wrapping over his upper arm. Yoongi touched a healing bump on his head. Taehyung shifted his stiff ankle delicately. Namjoon had a large burn on his leg that he didn’t like to think about.
“You’ve never been a surgeon in your life, Jimin. Just because you’re the carpenter and you can handle a saw doesn’t mean I can’t easily assign that role to someone else. I don’t have a lot of people to pick from.”
“Send Tae. He’s just a mate.”
“His ankle needs a few more days of rest," Namjoon sighed, "and he’s is worried about monsters."
Jungkook, just climbing down the rigging, stopped and hung there in the air. “Wait. Monsters?”
“I fuckin swear to the gods of this sea that there are monsters here,” Taehyung said. Jungkook whipped around, looking down into the deep, blue water.
“Monsters or not, I need two men to go ashore and find the capsule. It can’t be Taehyung, and it can’t be Seokjin because he’s the only one who knows how to cook.”
“Land is probably safer,” Taehyung said again.
“I’m going,” Jungkook said quickly.
“Then Jimin, you’re staying. Taehyung will feel safer here with you aboard.”
“Can we stop talking like I’m scared of mommy’s bedtime stories,” Taehyung said, “I’m serious. There are monsters here.”
“Mermaids?” Jungkook said, sounding oddly hopeful.
“I’ll go,” Hoseok said, “Yoongi’s not strong enough.”
“Fuck off,” Yoongi said.
Namjoon shut his eyes, trying to think himself into his happy place, a calm blue sea under calm blue sky and a still, empty ship in morning light with no petulant able seamen and no goddamn monsters.
The Lucifer drifted slowly around the edge of the reef. Namjoon peered over the side down the steep drop off where the water cut suddenly from Caribbean blue to deep, deep navy. Several small fish darted around the sand in little grey slivers, but other than that, the sand was unnaturally barren for a shallow reef. Without the chatter of the other men, Namjoon could feel something off-putting in the mid-reef stillness. They’d barely scraped through a passage in the reef floor on a king tide, and had under an hour to get out again, or their deep hull would get them stranded for twelve hours at least, and months at most.
They dropped the dinghy into the water. Hoseok and Jungkook climbed aboard and paddled quickly to shore as Seokjin came about, and they trailed lazily away around the curve of the blue hole. Behind them, Hoseok found the spot on the map, and they began digging.
“Such a weird way of doing things, finding shit on some weird map.” Seokjin laughed as Namjoon took his place at the helm again, “I thought we were done with this after Captain Bullard’s disastrous final expedition. What if the capsule just has, like, a drawing of the Dragon and we did all this planning for nothing?”
“Then we give up sailing, go ashore and never bother following weird maps or raiding ships again. We’re already a weird crew, Seokjin. This boat had forty people manning it just three months ago. I’m the captain and the navigator. You’re the Bo’s’n and the cook. We’re not doing any of this by the books anymore.”
“You need a better hat, Captain Namjoon.”
Namjoon laughed and self-consciously touched the battered tri-corner on his head. “I wish I had Captain Bullard’s old, frilly thing. Who even knows where that went.”
“Sea sprites ate it,” Taehyung said without a trace of doubt in his face. He had both his chipped, dirty swords hanging haphazardly from his belt, “And you better hope the old crew ain’t sea sprites coming to get us now.”
“Seokjin, go take over Taehyung’s post,” Namjoon sighed.
“Do you have your sword on you?” Taehyung asked.
“No? Why would I need it? I really doubt we’ll be seeing anyone today.”
“If a giant sea serpent swims up and tries to bite my head off, you won’t be able to do a thing about it.”
“Taehyung, I promise we’ll get out of here as fast as possible as soon as we have Jungkook and Hoseok aboard. Suspend your belief till then and relax, please.”
“Sea serpents exist,” Taehyung said, “I’ve seen one.”
“So have I. Really long silver fish. Looked completely harmless, tiny, and it was dead.”
“I’ve seen one eat a man,” Taehyung said, scowling unconvincingly into the breeze. A little strand of hair pulled free of his headscarf and flopped gently down his forehead, mid-day sun glowing off his deeply tan skin. “Captain, this was a terrible idea.”
“Tae, this terrible idea was yours. Who was it who decided we were going after the Five Kings Ship in the first place? You. And that was a great idea. We need to do this whether there are monsters here or not.”
Taehyung bit his lip and stared at Namjoon for a minute, then swore in Haitian and scampered down to the main deck. Yoongi pulled out a spyglass and came up on the quarterdeck to use it. “They’re pretty deep already. It’s only a few feet under, right?”
“Should be. The water table is just under the sand here, so nothing can be buried very deep.”
“I’m nervous,” Yoongi said, and handed the spyglass to Namjoon so he could look, taking his place behind the helm.
“I don’t know. I always get nervous when Taehyung starts spouting this shit. The old crew would get scared out of their minds because bad shit happened whenever he said it would, but once I caught him and Jungkook starting a fight in the bar just to make his premonitions come true. But it’s just us now, you know? The only person that believes his shit is Jungkook, and Jungkook was the one who was in on the pranks to begin with.”
“Tae genuinely believes what he says,” Namjoon said, “He grew up on this sea. The superstitions are his reality. He just likes pulling pranks too.”
“I was nervous even before Taehyung started claiming there were monsters,” Yoongi said. “I feel it, you know? I’ve seen blue holes. They’re always a little weird, but they never make me scared like this one does. I feel like someone’s about to pull the plug and we’re going to get sucked into it. Or something. I don’t know.”
The half-masted sails pulled the ship over the gently rippling water. The boom creaked slowly as they turned to the wind, swinging around and catching taut.
Namjoon knew the Lucifer like another limb. They all did. They knew how she felt in any wind, how quick the shore should move past with any amount of sail. She moved fine now. He wouldn’t be able to say if she was too slow or too fast, sunk too deep or floating too high, if it felt like her sails were wet or the rudder jammed. Everything seemed normal, but something about the way she moved on the water felt wrong, like she was dragging through syrup.
Taehyung ran up the stairs and fastened Namjoon’s sword belt around his waist as Namjoon stared through the spyglass. They’d made it two thirds around at a snail’s pace. Jungkook pulled the capsule up out of the sand and stepped out of the hole, waving it in the air. Hoseok continued to poke around, maybe checking for anything they missed.
“Can you two go let down a little more sail? They’ve got it and we should book it out of here.”
Yoongi and Taehyung scurried away with. Taehyung’s dirty, too-big blouse billowed behind him. That shirt used to be Namjoon’s. Taehyung had torn his last shirt one drunk night and tossed it overboard before Seokjin had a chance to mend it. The new one didn’t fit him, but he didn’t seem to mind, and Jimin kept talking about how much nicer the view was now, staring not at the sea, but at Taehyung’s collarbones.
The sail dropped a few more feet open and Namjoon swung Lucifer into an arch across the deep water, cutting towards Jungkook and Hoseok. Up in the rigging, Taehyung clung to the mast, staring out across the water. Hoseok and Jungkook got into their dinghy, preparing to come out and meet them. Taehyung stood and made wide, sweeping motions across his throat in a “Don’t fuckin do it,” gesture.
Namjoon grunted in annoyance. Keeping Taehyung comfortable was one thing. Stalling the whole operation was entirely another.
“Taehyung! Let them come!”
“Why? You want the rest of your crew dead too, Captain?” Taehyung yelled.
Every member of the crew straightened up and stared between them, jaws hanging. “I’ll fuckin lash you, you little prick!” Namjoon roared.
“Please sir!” Taehyung yelled, draping himself off the rigging with his eyes closed, “Just ten more, sir. Feels so good, Captain. Harder, sir!”
“Get your flat ass down here!”
“What’ll you do if I don’t, sir?”
Yoongi, looking rather ashen, grabbed Namjoon by the vest and forced him back to the helm. “Something’s up with Jungkook and Hobi.”
Namjoon focused back across the water. Jungkook and Hoseok had gotten out of the dinghy and dragged it up on the sand. Their garbled shouts came quietly over the breeze. They waved their arms wildly.
“Fuckin hell,” Namjoon growled. “We don’t have time for this shit.” The shore got steadily closer. They’d have to swing around again soon and leave, with or without Jungkook and Hoseok alongside. Their hour was already nearly up and they still had to get out of the reef. He whipped the spyglass up to his eye. Jungkook and Hoseok pointed at Lucifer, screaming. Namjoon shoved Yoongi at the helm and ran to the edge of the ship to look down. Water lapped gently up from the wake, bubbling against the hull, empty and still. Then a strip of deep blue detached from the water line and reached lazily up the boards.
Namjoon blinked, trying to figure out how water could flow up the hull instead of down. Or how the water was dark blue and not clear, or maybe how it was splashing so slowly up the side.
Taehyung slammed into the rail beside him. “Lusca!” He screamed.
“W-water? Flowing up? What?”
Taehyung yanked the spyglass from him and leveled it across the surface of the water. “There’s more. Fuck. Namjoon there’s more.” Between the ship and the sandbar, a dozen wide blue bumps rose low over the waves. “We have to leave.”
“Jungkook and Hoseok,” Namjoon said weakly, “The capsule. What are those?”
“They’ll swamp the ship and eat us!” Taehyung yelled, “Yoongi come about! We have to make it out of here.”
Yoongi was right at the railing beside them, staring down and gasping in terror. Taehyung stepped to the helm and whipped it around just as Namjoon got back to the railing and stared down. Lucifer’s port side lifted out of the water, and the deep patch of blue stayed clinging to the side, a massive, eight-armed glob of glistening, undulating flesh. Before his eyes, a massive reef octopus rippled and turned grainy brown like the side of the ship, each arm ten feet long, body large as their dinghy. One long arm wrapped around the railing between Namjoon’s hands and he backed slowly away.
“Sword, Captain!” Taehyung screamed behind him. Namjoon drew it numbly and sliced hard at the rippling, gelatinous surface oozing up over the railing. Blue blood spurted over the deck, then a massive wave of black ink. It dropped back into the water. Yoongi and Seokjin fought a few sails into the right place, dropping them down, and the boat ripped out over the blue hole. The little blue swells followed them, cutting V’s across the surface.
Namjoon knocked Taehyung out of the way and seized the helm. “Map. Get me the fucking map.”
“Jungkook and Hoseok have it!”
“Fuck.” Namjoon yelled. “Go fight those things!”
“Are you gonna navigate the shoals from memory?”
“I’m gonna fucking have to,” he growled. Hoseok and Jungkook still stood on the shore behind them, up on the crest with their dinghy, watching.
Yoongi appeared on the stairs, leveled a rifle past Namjoon, and shot another glob off into the water. The edge of the blue hole passed under their bow.
“Ready?” he screamed.
There was a beat, frustratingly long, and then Jimin, Taehyung, and Seokjin all yelled “Ready!”
“Jibe-ho!” he yelled, and then whipped the boat to starboard. The booms swung hard across, but the men had the sheets, and they stopped right where it needed to. The water churned under the bow. Taehyung scaled the rigging. “Shoals ten degrees to port!”
Namjoon turned Lucifer a little and she slipped past with the barest bump. Jimin rushed up past him waving his arms and saying “Shoo, shoo!”
Namjoon turned quickly and saw another blob retreating obediently away from Jimin. “And stay off,” Jimin yelled after it, and then ran back down.
“Jimin, the fuck?”
“Just ignore it Captain!” He yelled back.
Yoongi came back up. “I think they’re all off for now, but some are following.”
“What do we do about—“
“Shoals fifteen degrees to starboard!”
Namjoon turned again.
“What do we do about Jungkook and Hoseok?” Yoongi said. “They’re gone. They’re not on the beach anymore.”
“Fuck. Fuck! Shit. Can we go back?”
“Not now,” Yoongi said, “The hour is nearly up. I’ll be surprised if we get out of here without getting stranded.”
“Shoals dead ahead! Turn to starboard!”
Namjoon shook his head and turned to port. “I said starboard!” Taehyung shrieked.
“The passage we came in on was this way!” Namjoon called back. “There are too many reefs to starboard!”
“Jungkook and Hoseok!” Jimin said, running up on the quarterdeck, “They’re carrying the dinghy over the sandbars!”
“Reef to port!”
Lucifer bumped over the sandy bottom. The water slowly crawled out of the shoals as the tide turned, lowering the shallow passage.
“Namjoon,” Seokjin said. He crawled up the steps and leaning against the railing. “Sorry—Captain. I can’t. I need to sit down.”
“I can’t sail this ship with only three crewmen, Seokjin.”
“I can’t breathe,” Seokjin gasped. He shook wildly, sweat streaking down his face. “Those things. It pissed black on my boot.”
“It inked on you. It’s just an octopus.”
“It’s huge!” Seokjin yelled. “Get us out! Get us out! I can’t do it!” Jimin knelt beside him and rubbed his cheeks.
“Jimin, leave him till we’re out! Get back to the mast.”
Jimin huffed and ran back down the steps, tugging his shirt off as he went. Hoseok and Jungkook faded further and further into the distance, popping up and over sandbars at intervals. They heard a couple gunshots, saw Jungkook beating something off with a paddle, and then they disappeared for another minute and reappeared over the next dune. Hoseok’s arms flailed in obvious panic.
“We’re not making it out of this,” Namjoon said, “Not with our shitty luck.”
“There’s one in the water behind us,” Yoongi said from his spot by the ropes behind Namjoon. “It’s huge.” Seokjin wrapped his arms around the mast and whimpered.
“We need more wind in the sails!” Namjoon yelled.
“On it!” Jimin yelled from the foredeck, wrangling the foresail into place. He raced up to the jib sails and started tugging those each into place too. Namjoon groaned and stomped impatiently. This sprint would have been difficult enough with all seven of them aboard. Taehyung fought with one of the topsails while the top foresail flapped uselessly in the breeze. He deeply regretted sending Jungkook out.
By the time they reached the edge of the reef, the hull was scraping over every sandbar, tossing them across the decks. Taehyung wrapped his body around the mast and hung on. They skidded up onto the final sandbar before the ocean and stuck right in the middle. Taehyung yelped and slipped off the mast, dangling from the rigging. The sails pulled taut, trying to tug the Lucifer forward, and it teetered right on the edge.
Lucifer rocked backwards suddenly as if pulled. Seokjin screamed. Yoongi leaned over the back of the ship with his rifle.
“Wait!” Namjoon yelped. Silence fell over the boat as they all turned to stare at him. The rudder creaked ominously.
“Namjoon,” Yoongi rasped, “It’s enormous.”
“Will it do what you say?”
Jimin froze up, panic flashing across his face before it went blank.
“Answer me, Jimin! You were ordering them overboard earlier. Can you tell it what to do?”
“Yeah, he can,” Taehyung yelled as he struggled back onto the mainsail’s shroud.
“Good. Lead it to the bow,” Namjoon said.
Jimin balked. A single oak-toned tendril oozed over the back railing, thickening as it rose, blending with the deck. Two more grabbed to railings. Seokjin’s panicked gasping reached critical pitch.
“Yoongi, take Seokjin below.”
Yoongi tossed him the rifle and began wrestling Seokjin down the stairs.
“Jimin, do what I say!”
“I-I don’t know if it’ll work,” Jimin said, “It could just crush the ship. It gets harder the bigger the thing is.”
“No fucking choice now, Jimin.”
“There’s more,” Taehyung said, pointing down at a tentacle clinging to Lucifer’s side, Namjoon’s skin crawled.
The massive mantle began to appear over the back of the ship, and Namjoon stood off to the side. “Lead it to the front or let it eat me, Jimin. Your choice.”
“You’re fucking crazy! Please don’t make me do this.”
“Just do it!” Taehyung yelled. Jimin climbed slowly up to the quarterdeck as the monster hauled its mass in a glob over the railing, plopping down and puddling out across the whole deck. It stank of flesh and saltwater. The whole thing was easily four times the size of any of the others, big enough that the whole quarter deck barely contained it all, and the Lucifer groaned under its weight, tipping backwards towards the lagoon.
One tentacle wrapped around Namjoon’s ankle. He grunted in disgust, resisting the urge to yank out of its grip.
“Let him go,” Jimin said. The tentacle slid off his foot again. “Follow me,” Jimin said, and started walking backwards down the stairs. The thing seemed to hesitate, then slipped slowly over the railing and onto the main deck. Jimin backed up faster, eyes widening in terror. “Follow me,” Jimin said again, voice trembling. “Good boy,” he added. “Keep coming.”
He led it around the starboard side of the mast and the whole ship tilted slightly to the right on the sand.
“Hurry,” Namjoon said.
Jimin backed up faster, and it picked up speed after him, grabbing lazily at his feet. “Don’t touch me,” Jimin yelped. He backed all the way to the mast and the thing followed. Littler ones swarmed onto the deck. “Get off!” Jimin yelled at them. Namjoon got a weird urge to jump overboard. Taehyung slid down the rigging so fast that he hit the deck and rolled. All the little ones abandoned ship. The main monster approached the bow, and the ship teetered slowly, slowly forward with its massive weight, tipped bow-first over the sandbar, and then slid slowly over and into the sea.
“Yes!” Namjoon shouted, leaping back to the helm
The monster shuddered all over, and grabbed Jimin. He jolted and shrieked. The tentacles turned grotesquely to the dark shade of his skin and black of his breeches and boots. It slid swiftly around his body, tentacles sliding around his neck. Taehyung scrambled up and slashed two huge, gaping wounds in the monster’s back. With one last writhe, it expelled a jet of ink all over Jimin, and then shimmied over the side of the boat and dropped into the water. Namjoon ran to the side. The thing pulsed and shot back towards the channel, trailing a billowing cloud of blood behind.
“Taehyung, get Seokjin and Yoongi back on deck. We need to get to Jungkook and Hoseok.”
“He passed out,” Yoongi said, climbing up onto the deck. “Poor city boy. I put him to bed. Why is Jimin so black?”
“It pissed ink all over me,” Jimin whined. “Stop the ship. I need to rinse off.”
“Jungkook and Hoseok,” Namjoon reminded them. “We have to sail around the whole reef to pick them up. That might take a couple hours.”
“I’m gross!” Jimin yelled.
“You can mind control giant octopi. Wanna explain that?”
Jimin looked up at Taehyung. Taehyung shrugged.
“I don’t know,” Jimin said, “Taehyung has a theory.”
“What is it?”
Taehyung shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. You won’t believe me.”
Namjoon rolled his eyes. “Both of you back to work. We’ve got to get around to the other side of the island.”
“I can’t touch the sails. I’ll get ink all over them.”
“Pull up some water in a bucket and wash off then. The sails are flapping. We need to adjust.”
“Wind is picking up,” Taehyung said. He jammed his oversized shirt further into his belt. It stretched across his paper-thin chest, clinging to his shoulders. He’d tied the sleeves above the elbows so they didn’t slide down his thin arms and cover his hands.
They began the long trip around the southern tip of the reef and back up.
After they were well underway up the other side of the island, heading, hopefully, for Jungkook and Hoseok, Taehyung climbed down out of the rigging. “Captain?”
“I’d, um, I’m sorry for being a dick earlier.”
“Who did you all elect to be the captain of this ship, Taehyung?”
“You,” he sighed. “Sorry, sir.”
“When I give orders, you listen.”
“Yessir.” He stared forlornly down at his battered boots.
“And if you have an issue with anything I say, you can politely and reasonably contest it instead of insulting me, yeah?”
“In another crew I might have tied you to the mast for days for that one.”
“But we’re not in another crew, sir, and you always act like you’re humoring me when I actually know this sea better than you.”
“They were giant octopi, Taehyung, not monsters.”
“Monster is a relative term, Captain, and they were monsters. Those were all little ones, even the last one. That was probably a nest of babies.”
“You’ve seen a full grown one then?” Namjoon snorted.
“No, but I’ve heard stories,” Taehyung said, eyes going wide. He leaned forward, story-telling hands up and ready as if he would cast a spell on Namjoon. “The Five Kings used to control them as weapons. Lusca get bigger than you can imagine, like the size of a small island. They sit on the bottom and wait till a ship floats overhead and then pull it under with a single, powerful tug.”
A grin quirked at the corner of Namjoon’s mouth, and the excited fire died from Taehyung’s face. “Fine. You’ve even seen the damn things and you won’t believe me. Do normal octopi know how to attack ships in a swarm, Namjoon? Can they turn into dark blue water?”
“Evidently they can.”
“They’re sea monsters, Namjoon. They don’t have to be the size of an island to be unnatural and terrifying. I warned you about them, you saw them, and you still wanna smirk at me when I tell you about monsters. No wonder I get a little insubordinate sometimes, huh? Respect your fucking crew, Captain Namjoon. You’re smart in your own way, but you don’t know this sea like I do. If you don’t listen to me, I’ll leave.”
Namjoon grabbed him by the collar and pulled him between himself and the helm so he could steer and have him face to face at the same time. Taehyung glanced quickly around, but the crew was all up at the bow looking out for Jungkook and Hoseok. He pulled a defiant look onto his face, but it didn’t cover up the fear. Namjoon sighed regretfully and pressed his lips to Taehyung’s sweaty forehead.
“Calm down. I wouldn’t hurt you. Please don’t leave,” he murmured. Taehyung sagged against the helm. His hands latched onto Namjoon’s vest.
Namjoon bumped their noses. “’Captain’ while the sails are set.”
Taehyung nodded, let go, and slipped out from under Namjoon’s arm.
They finally found the dinghy floating out in choppy water. Jungkook handled both oars, and it looked for a while like he was the only one in the boat, but when they dropped anchor and let Jungkook pull up alongside, they could see Hoseok curled up under Jungkook’s long legs. Black ink stained both of their clothes, worn, sun-bleached breeches picking up the dark stains easily.
“How’d you escape?” Taehyung yelled down as Jungkook hooked the dinghy up to the pulleys.
“They were distracted with you guys, I think. Only a couple of them noticed us. They couldn’t do much. Hoseok shot one and I had to keep beating on the other. It wouldn’t leave the reef. Jimin, you look a little inky.”
“We got a giant one onboard. It inked all over me! Good thing my clothes are black, right? You two look terrible. What’s up with Hoseok?”
“I think he has heatstroke,” Jungkook said as he helped him climb groggily up the ladder. “Should have worn his hat.”
“I didn’t think we’d be out there that long,” Hoseok whined. They brought him below and gave him plenty of water and a bucket to barf into, and then hovered around his and Seokjin’s hammock to open the capsule. Seokjin hadn’t woken up yet, sweaty and ashen even in sleep.
“Better be fucking worth it,” Yoongi groaned.
Namjoon pulled a rolled-up length of heavy canvas out of the capsule and unrolled it on a barrel, right where the sun streaked through the hatch. “It’s another map.”
Yoongi swore and lay down on the floor.
Namjoon studied it. “There’s a third map.”
“What?” Yoongi yelled.
“Yeah. They’re sending us on a fucking scavenger hunt for seven pieces of a third map that leads to the actual ship. There’s also a warning.”
“What is it?” Taehyung said, staring straight down at the warning written in clear, un-smudged Spanish. Namjoon sometimes forgot he couldn’t read, not in English or any language.
“It says there are several other copies of this scavenger hunt map hidden all over the Caribbean, which means several different crews could be after the seven pieces right now.”
“How did the Five Kings even manage this?” Jimin said. “Assholes. I give up. Someone else can have the goddamn Golden Dragon. Can’t we just commandeer another small ship for seven people?”
“That’s the thing,” Taehyung said, “It’s not a small ship. It’s a large ship that a crew of five operated for decades. I saw it come into port once when I was younger. It’s amazing. That thing is huge, fast, and beautiful, and can be easily sailed by only five people. It’s perfect for us. I don’t think any other ships on the sea are like it.”
“It’s an incredible ship,” Namjoon said solemnly. “The Five Kings confronted my Dad’s ship once when I was younger. No attack or bloodshed or anything. They just sailed up and asked for our cargo and we happily gave it away. Our crew helped load the ship themselves. My father locked me and mom in the cabin the whole time, but it was incredible. Even my father was honored that they chose to rob us. They were so polite. I’ve never seen a more beautiful ship. Sometimes I still wonder if I dreamed it.”
“It’s got a lot of really amazing spells on it,” Jungkook added excitedly, picking his head up from Jimin’s shoulder. “Rare ones. The winds always favor it, and it floats really lightly so its damn fast. Barnacles never grow on it. The crew is blessed with good fortunes. Canons bounce right off—”
“The curse won’t follow us,” Taehyung said, “It’s blessed by some Caribbean god. We need to get off this ship, and that’s the only one that the curse won’t follow us onto. We’ll finally stop having such bad luck.”
To Namjoon’s annoyance, every conscious member of the crew grew stone-faced. Jimin patted Hoseok consolingly. Yoongi gazed worriedly at Seokjin. The burn on Namjoon’s leg stung.
“Or so the stories go,” Taehyung said, rubbing his sore ankle, “but since the Captain believes none of those are true, we’re just going with practicality.”
“This might only put us in more danger than we’re already in,” Yoongi said. “Is it worth it?”
“I like this ship,” Jungkook said. “I’ve lived here for like, half my life now. Lucifer is ours, you know?”
“Our ball and chain,” Jimin said. “We should give her up.”
“We should set her on fire,” Taehyung said.
“We can’t do that,” Yoongi said, “The rest of the crew would turn in their graves."
Yoongi was the only one that still referred to the other thirty-four men that used to inhabit the ship as “the crew” and not “the old crew,” like he was forcing them to keep it present, to not forget.
"God rest their souls," Namjoon said drily.
In his hammock, Hoseok snorted. Everyone else nodded solemnly.
"They're going straight to hell, you know," Hoseok said.
"So are we," Jungkook said matter-of-factly. Hoseok's smile flickered off his face.
Taehyung gestured back at the map. "So where do we go first?"
"There's one in Hispaniola," Namjoon said, studying the map, "One up the coast of Mexico, and one on the Yucatan. Those are both pretty close. Then one in Cuba, one up north near Florida, one down in Trinidad. And then the Virgin Isles." He pointed to the last one on the map.
"Speaking of the crew," Yoongi muttered.
"God rest their souls," Namjoon repeated, "Don’t worry. It’s close to Barbuda, but not right next to it."
"Oh god, I don't like that," Taehyung said. "They might be able to reach us there."
"No they can’t," Namjoon said, "They’re dead. Let's just get these pieces and get ourselves a new ship."
Taehyung gave him a baleful glare. "You’ll steer us right to the old crew someday, sir, and then you’ll know I was right, and people will die.”
Namjoon's hands tightened on the map. "Who did the crew elect as captain, Tae?"
Taehyung scowled. "You."
"Well then I guess they trusted my judgement more than yours, didn't they?"
Taehyung gaped at him. All the other men stood very still. Namjoon stared him down evenly until Taehyung got up, threw himself into his hammock, and stared resolutely at the ceiling.
"Good lord," Yoongi grumbled.
"In any other circumstance, I'd say we should travel up the coast and hit the Yucatan and then the coast of Mexico first," Namjoon said, "But we lightened our load too much to come tackle this reef. There's not enough food and water on board to make it all the way around the Yucatan and then back to port afterwards, since there aren't any rivers between here and there. Looks like we're not going to be doing the quick and easy circle around the Caribbean."
Jungkook had gotten distracted by Taehyung, staring worriedly over at the hammock that Taehyung was rocking creakily back and forth. Namjoon grabbed Jungkook by the chin and gently directed his gaze back to the map.
"Sorry," he muttered.
"It's okay," Namjoon said. Jimin pet the back of his head reassuringly and Jungkook leaned against his leg, eyelashes fluttering at the attention.
"I think we should head back to Hispaniola as fast as possible, get the one there, hit the Lucayos Islands and Cuba on the way back, and then hit Mexico and the Yucatan. Then we can run straight across to the Virgin’s Isles and Trinidad and stop in Hispaniola to get supplies if we have to."
"Sounds like a plan," Seokjin said.
"Unless we die," Taehyung muttered from his hammock.
"Well that's always the risk, isn't it?" Namjoon said. "We have a few more hours before nightfall. The moon should be nearly full tonight, so I'd be tempted to keep going, but we don't know quite what the weather will be, and I'm predicting flat calm. Am I right, fortune-teller?"
"Shut up, asshole,” Taehyung said.
"And now you're washing dishes tonight."
"Yes!" Jimin said.
"Fuck off," Taehyung said.
"You're on first watch tonight, right?” Namjoon said, glaring at the back of his head, “Well now you're on second too."
Taehyung’s jaw twitched. Jungkook perked up. "I can sleep?"
"Yup. You earned it. We set sail as soon as I get off the head. Get to your posts."
Namjoon woke in the middle of the night and stared out at the moon. It was almost overhead, so right in the middle of the second shift of watch. He was a little surprised, with all the unseasonably terrible weather they’d gotten used to having.
Sometimes Namjoon looked at all their bad luck and wondered if there was any way they weren’t cursed. And then he remembered curses weren’t real. Taehyung always laughed at him when he said that. He’d wave his hand around at the dirty, banged-up, understaffed ship, all their injuries, rips, and exhaustion and go “so what’s this then?” Namjoon lay on his back for a while, letting worry eat at him, and then slid on some breeches and walked out into the bright nighttime.
“You’re relieved of duty,” Namjoon said, popping up into the small crow’s nest to find Taehyung lying on his back and not watching the horizon at all. Namjoon didn’t call him on it. There wasn’t much need on such a calm night. No ships could move anywhere with the sails slack and the water like glass. Namjoon settled against the railing and waited for Taehyung to leave. Taehyung hummed a little and didn’t move. The tension from the afternoon seemed completely absent in Taehyung’s form. His feet and calves hung over the edge to give the rest of his long body room on the narrow ledge.
“You should go get some sleep.”
“And miss this, Captain? Look how bright the moon is.”
“Yes, I see it,” Namjoon said, still staring at Taehyung. Things tended to look greyscale in the dark, but the moon reflected off the ocean and set everything in shades of deep blue, including Taehyung's smooth, dark skin, and the folds of his too-big white shirt that used to be Namjoon’s, sleeves unlaced and hanging over his palms, swamping his thin body and making him look so young.
“Is this an apology?” Taehyung said.
“I’m not apologizing for doing my best as a captain. Not unless you apologize to me for being a shitty crewman. I really am going to flog you in front of the crew one of these days.”
“Pretty sure you’d lose their respect.”
“I’m trying, Taehyung. This is really hard. I’m not used to being anyone’s superior. I’m trying to do what you all elected me to, and then you get pissy about shit and undermine all of that. I am sorry for being so dismissive of you today, but at some point I have to make decisions, and I’m just choosing what I know best. I’m trying to take care of you anyway.”
Taehyung nodded slowly. “Sound carries really well over flat water,” he said.
“Imagine drifting by an island of sirens now. They’d be able to call us over from so far away, and there’s no wind to escape them. We’d be dead.”
Namjoon huffed. Way to turn the conversation. Sirens. “There’d be no wind to sail to them either.”
“They’re sirens. We’d be swimming. I'm not sure there are even sirens in this sea though. That story comes from Mediterranean sailors. Lord, I wanna hear a siren song.”
Namjoon nudged him with a foot. “Why?”
Taehyung turned on his side, fighting to untangle his feet from the railing. “They tell you everything about yourself. Like, what your deepest desires are. And I gotta know what the hype is. Does the song, like, drug you so you forget it’s dangerous? Or is it just so beautiful that death doesn’t matter anymore? If we ever come up on an island with sirens, tie me to the mast and let me listen.”
Namjoon smiled. “I’d be tied up right beside you. If it’s that introspective, I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
Taehyung grinned, teeth glittering in the moonlight, and rolled onto his back. He’d taken his usual headscarf off, and his overlong hair hung on his forehead like a kid’s, unusually soft. “You’re always so wise,” he said, “but I know you don’t believe in sirens, Captain Kim.”
“I believe in what I’ve seen. I accepted that Jimin can control luscas, didn’t I? Because I saw it. I can’t explain why he can do that, but natural philosophy is finding new things out all the time.”
“Natural philosophers are intent on stripping the world of meaning.”
“And why would the world need meaning, Tae? What if it’s enough for it just to be fascinating and beautiful? We can make our own meaning out of reality, you know.”
“You’ve fucking seen luscas and you still don’t believe.”
“Well I believe in luscas now. And…mind control, I guess. I just don’t see why they have to be supernatural. We just don’t understand them yet, and that’s amazing and cool. It’s not half as scary as believing they’re magic.”
“They could turn blue like the water. And those were all babies. They get much bigger than that. That’s not natural, Captain.”
“How do you know what’s natural and what isn’t? What if magic is just as natural as the rest of us?”
“That’s not as fun.” Taehyung stretched and blinked sleepily at the sky. “Wait till you see mermaids. You’re so logical, but that won’t help you when your head is scrambled up. They’re so beautiful that you feel like your heart is melting through your blood and your head is filled with bees.”
“Yeah, well,” Namjoon nudged his leg, “I’m used to beautiful.”
Taehyung chuckled, grabbed him by the ankle, and reeled him in. Namjoon fumbled and nearly fell ass first out the gap at the bottom of the nest, but managed to stay up until Taehyung had roped him in to lie on top of himself, body heavy on top of his thin little frame.
“There’s no room for this up here,” he said. Taehyung gazed up at him, the full moon reflecting off his eyes, the rest of him shrouded in Namjoon’s shadow.
“Captain Namjoon, sir,” Taehyung said with the edge of a smirk, “Do you really expect me to resist you with lines like that?”
Namjoon huffed and dropped down beside him, wedged in between his body and the railing, still half on top of him, trying to keep a little distance and failing.
“I’ve seen a mermaid, sir. I was ten, I think. It was from a distance. I saw a bare human body, and then it slid into the water and it had a fish’s tail. I’ve never stopped thinking about it. Mermaids will do that to you, catch your attention and change your life, leaving you a pining idiot forever.”
“You sure you have to be a mermaid to do that?” Namjoon said, poking his forehead.
“Shut up,” Taehyung giggled, “Take me seriously for once.”
Namjoon leaned down, struggling to find Taehyung’s lips in the shadow cast by his own head, and ended up with the dip under his bottom lip. Taehyung giggled, a quiet, low rumble in his chest. Namjoon kissed him again, finding his lips this time, and Taehyung hummed, hands rubbing over Namjoon’s waist. He kissed lazily, mouth willing and soft, following wherever Namjoon’s lips took him.
“Captain,” he murmured.
Taehyung moaned and pulled him closer, long arms sliding tighter around his waist. “Isn’t this wrong, Captain?” he murmured, “Against the ship’s articles or whatever?” and then licked past Namjoon’s lips and over his tongue. Namjoon squeezed his arm under Taehyung’s shoulder and rolled them further back towards the railing so he could tangle a hand in Taehyung’s hair and slow them down. He pulled Taehyung’s head back when he got too frantic, mouth wide open and tongue fucking deep into Namjoon’s mouth.
“You’re always so impatient,” he said, “Slow down.”
Taehyung glared, face nearly lost in blue shadow with the moon shining down, but Namjoon could see his indignation, his tongue still hanging a little out of his mouth. “Namjoon!”
“Shh,” Namjoon said, and kissed his long neck instead. He jostled Taehyung up completely into his arms. “You feel like a bunch of twigs strung together.”
“Fuck off,” Taehyung muttered. “I was underfed as a child.”
Namjoon kissed him softly. Taehyung squirmed a little and tried to get it moving faster. Namjoon pulled away and manhandled Taehyung onto his back again so he could look back up at the stars.
“As for wrong,” Namjoon said, he hesitated, one thumb stroking over Taehyung’s cheek, “Yeah. I’m not supposed to do this. It’s bad for ship power dynamics. That’s the entire reason I ditched society and hopped on a pirate ship, you know. No more bullshit power dynamics. Leaders with checks and balances.”
“Then why are you acting like our bullshit power dynamics are so important?” he whined. “Just kiss me and stop caring.”
Namjoon stared at Taehyung’s left jaw, the way his cheek curved gently towards his chin. “Our crew formed under unusual circumstances. I’m trying to run the ship like we’ve always wanted it to be run, but with only seven of us…” his voice trailed off. “I don’t know, Tae. I want you. Technically I shouldn’t. I think Seokjin and Yoongi know, though, and they don’t care. I don’t know if I should or not.”
“Jimin knows,” Taehyung murmured, looking straight up at the moon, “He caught us up by the bow the other night.”
“Does he care?”
“He cares a little. Not about the morals or the ship’s articles or whatever. He says it’s just weird to think about us banging.”
Namjoon chuckled, face turning invisibly red in the moonlight. “It’s not like we are.” They’d limited themselves to soft moments in the dark, passionate kisses and wandering hands and nothing else, always trailing off into just holding each other tight or lying together on the deck until one or the other slipped away.
Namjoon crowded closer, one arm on the wood beside his shoulder to steady himself, and his fingers clutched the edge over a rather scary drop down to the deck below. He tightened a thigh between Taehyung’s legs and leaned in to kiss him again. Taehyung went limp when he was pinned down. Namjoon kissed the freckle on the tip of his nose and he giggled, so giving, so still and easy below him after bouncing off the railings all day, refusing contact and pulling pranks on everyone. It was like his energy left with the sun, leaving him pliant and still every night.
He was beautiful in motion, but beautiful here too, moonlight glowing on his skin and shining in his hair, eyes sparkling with light, body giving in to Namjoon’s easily.
“Gotta get that new ship,” Taehyung murmured, like he could sense Namjoon’s sudden need for safety, for a way to make sure they all lasted.
“Can you read the stars?” Namjoon asked, and almost followed up with, “I can see them in your eyes,” but stopped himself before his inner poet got too enthusiastic.
“Yeah. They say that we have some busy months ahead of us. Enjoy the calm while you can, Captain.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he laughed.
“Then do you want the prediction of danger? Lots of change in the sea, and not in our favor?”
Namjoon snorted. “No.”
“I’m not messing around.” Taehyung scowled. “Listen to what I’m telling you, it might be important.”
“Dangerous, busy time coming. The sea is changing. It’s always good to be prepared anyway. What I meant is can you tell where we are by looking at the sky? Which way are we facing?”
Taehyung’s eyes flicked up. “That’s boring. East-North-East. We’re west of Jamaica by about a week if the weather is good, shorter if we travel at night.”
“How long till dawn?”
“About five hours.”
“Do you know constellations?”
“Not the same ones that you do.”
Namjoon brushed a thumb under Taehyung’s pretty eye, somehow even bigger in the moonlight than it seemed normally, skin flawless as pearl and so soft. “Who taught you constellations, beautiful?”
“Some old man from Haiti. He taught me Voodoo magic.”
“I’ve never seen you use Voodoo magic.”
“I never use it. I don’t really know how. I can do simple shit, but nothing really interesting. He told me about a bunch of cool rituals, some for warding off monsters, some for talking to spirits, some for good luck. You’ve seen me predict the future a bunch of times. That’s Voodoo.”
“Can you kill someone by stabbing a doll?”
“That’s so stupid. No.” He turned away, face flattening out angrily. Namjoon grabbed his ear between his teeth and bit down gently, then licked it and sucked the lobe into his mouth. Taehyung tried to snuggle closer and didn’t do much but shove Namjoon’s shoulder harder against the railing.
“I’m sorry, Tae.”
“It’s okay,” he murmured.
“I want to learn Voodoo magic.”
“Bullshit. You don’t believe in it.”
Taehyung hid his smile behind his hand. “Ever seen a possession ritual? They get wild. The spirits possess them and they sacrifice chickens and drool everywhere.”
Taehyung shrugged, “It’s one body sharing two spirits. It’s gonna be a bit overwhelmed.”
Namjoon rubbed his forehead against Taehyung’s hair. “Everything that comes out of your mouth surprises me, Tae. I love it.”
Taehyung laughed and kissed his cheek, lips lingering, brushing against Namjoon’s dimple as he spoke. “You’re going to have to learn all that shit if you want to captain a ship in this sea.”
“I’m doing pretty well so far.”
“You’re doing okay. And the lusca. You keep calling it the giant octopus. We didn’t do so well there. At the end of the day, I knew about it and you didn’t, and we probably could have done better with that whole mess if we’d been cautious like I wanted to. Accept that folktales are relevant to reality here.”
Namjoon chewed on his lip for a moment, staring at Taehyung’s open shirt collar. “Yeah. Fine. I need to know more.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Taehyung said, and pulled Namjoon’s lip away from his teeth with his own teeth.
Namjoon sat up and peered around. The ocean remained flat calm, empty water. No boats, no giant octopi. “Horizon is clear. No storms, but I hope we’re not becalmed tomorrow.”
“Do you want to keep a lookout now?” Taehyung said, “I’m about to fall asleep.”
“Yeah,” Namjoon said, and sat up. Taehyung tucked himself in under Namjoon’s elbow with his head on his thigh. A light breeze ruffled his hair. “There’s a wind,” Namjoon said, “Let’s hope it builds. I’m sick of bad luck.”
“Mhm. Gotta move before we attract sea serpents.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Namjoon muttered.
“I am this time,” Taehyung said, “Just wait. You’ll see everything I’ve seen eventually, city boy, and then you’ll get it.”
“I’ve been on the sea for as long as you’ve been, Tae.”
“Yeah, in the captain’s cabin of a big merchant ship. Doesn’t count. You don’t get to learn the waves the same way there as you do on a pirate ship.”
Namjoon scratched his fingers through Taehyung’s hair and his eyes closed, body going limp.
“Hrrng.” He pressed one final kiss to Namjoon’s thigh and then drifted off to sleep, leaving Namjoon awake and on watch, eyes on the shifting shadows across Taehyung’s nose, ignorant of the sea.
Namjoon had been away from home three months on a small merchant vessel when the Lucifer attacked them. He jumped ship. The pirate crew adopted him with open arms. Namjoon spent the first month drunk and laughing, completely caught up in his new crew, all of his dreams coming true. A week after his first stay as a pirate in Port Royal, the crew went nearly broke, and the captain decided to attack a small fleet of merchant ships.
Captain Bullard was one of the more respectable men on the ship, beard trimmed and hair in a neat braid. His big, red hat marched around the ship above the crowd like a peacock with its tail spread. He seemed, to Namjoon, a bit like his father, but more honorable, more willing to make sacrifices for his crew. He didn’t hesitate to offer his help.
Without Namjoon’s knowledge of loopholes in current insurance policies, they probably would have been sunk. Namjoon personally handled the negotiations using arguments he remembered from listening at the keyhole to the Five Kings convincing his father to give up his cargo. The merchants handed everything over to Namjoon and Captain Bullard without a fuss. The captain gave him a warm pat on the back, and for a little while, Namjoon felt like he had finally stepped into a place in the world that he could enjoy, free and appreciated.
After they learned exactly how much money they had earned, the captain claimed complete credit, and the crew accepted it without question. Namjoon waited for days for Captain Bullard to give a single word, not even that Namjoon had saved the crew and got them rich, but that he’d accepted any help at all.
The crew went drinking in the captain’s honor while Namjoon blinked at his minuscule share of the prize. “I helped,” he pouted weakly to Yoongi and a tired drunk named Ginger Joseph in the back of the bar. Yoongi was smaller and safer than most, and spoke like he thought about what he said. The crew seemed to trust him, putting him in a position of de facto authority.
“I help all the time,” Yoongi growled. “He’s an idiot that doesn’t know what he’s doing. He needs all the help he can get. Don’t ever think you’re going to get credit for it though. It doesn’t work that way here. I’ll tell you this. You’ve got less of a chance of getting boozed up and sold into the slave trade now. Congrats.”
Across the bar, the captain tipped his ridiculous hat back and laughed. The massive bo’s’n sat imposingly behind him with his python arms and his black mass of hair, rotten teeth just visible through his beard. The crew laughed when the captain laughed and listened when he talked.
“This isn’t what a pirate crew should be,” Namjoon said. “What happened to democracy and mutual respect? He can’t do that. He can’t just shove it under the rug when someone else helps him out.”
“Sure he can,” Joseph said, grog running through his beard, meaty forearms taking up half the small table. “If he let on that he depends on deck rats to help him—like you little twerps,” he patted them on the back affectionately, “—he’d be facing mutiny.”
“So he should promote the deck rats that help him,” Namjoon grumbled.
“No way. Top positions for his yes-men only.” Yoongi took a big swig of rum, emotionless face suddenly harshly bitter. “And don’t complain about it to the crew.” He swiveled his back to Namjoon and pulled up his shirt to show a web of red scars slicing across his back. Joseph leaned back to let Namjoon see, staring down at the lash marks with a mix of pity and fascination, and Namjoon felt sick, wanting to look away. “This is what you get for fostering malcontent on this ship by being a decent human or standing up for yourself. You want more appreciation? Start sucking.”
Chapter 3: Graveyard Island
The crew of the Lucifer pokes around a small island flooded with black magic.
“I hear you’re going after the Golden Dragon.”
Zico slid onto the bar stool, dirty black hair falling over his eyes. He brushed it back and levelled his thin stare at Namjoon, hand already wrapped around a tankard.
“How’s the slave trade?” Namjoon said.
He cringed. “Booming. But you know I don’t mess with that shit anymore.”
“Oh look. He does have a conscience,” Namjoon said.
Zico snorted and rapped his fingers distractedly on the counter. Rings sparkled on his fingers, little subtle things that drunks wouldn’t notice, but would command some interest in a quiet room.
“You’ve been doing well for yourself,” Namjoon said.
“Fun. Found some extra gold?”
“Made a deal with a merchant.”
“What do you give him in return?”
“Sex. Apparently, I’m feminine enough.”
They sat quietly in the din of the tavern for a few minutes. Across the room, Hoseok danced on a table with some woman in a low-cut dress, a rare commodity even in Port Royal. “I’m sorry about your crew,” Zico said eventually. “How’s the ship with only seven people?”
Zico shrugged. “Small crews are getting more and more common. I heard about a twelve-member crew that just went rogue from the British navy. They’re doing pretty well.”
“Well, the military keeps causing issues, sending their crews out for off-the-book bullshit. Someone was gonna snap. And did I hear right that your new crew made you the captain?”
“Smart,” Zico said, smirking proudly. “Good for you. You deserve that.”
“Thanks,” Namjoon said, grinning. Zico had grown up on the same ship as him, had been his closest friend for most of his childhood. Zico fell out with his father, commandeered a ship from the port, and took off with a crew to plunder on the high seas just a few months before Namjoon walked out of his house and jumped on a merchant ship. He had followed Zico’s footsteps a couple months later when pirates raided that ship, and theLucifer had looked so much better than the authoritarian merchant ship that had taken him on. Zico had treated him to a full week of debauchery in this same port when he found out.
“Who survived?” Zico asked.
“Would you know them?”
“I’ve heard of him. Strategist?”
“Yeah. Good guy. He’s useful. Um, Hoseok, Jimin—”
“Jimin! The part-siren guy?”
“Huh? No. What?”
Zico snickered into his drink. “Well, don’t tell him this, but he’s got quite the reputation as a seductress around the ports. How old is he, even?”
“Pretty young,” Namjoon said, gazing over to where Jimin did indeed seem to be chatting up some tall, drunk man with wide shoulders and an expensive-looking hat. “Maybe younger than me.”
“And getting prettier every time I see him,” Zico murmured. “You hit that yet?”
“No,” Namjoon laughed, “Well maybe once, but neither of us remember it, and Taehyung was the only witness so he could very well be lying.”
“Did Taehyung survive too?” Zico said with an odd hush.
“Yeah, he did.”
Zico nodded. “Good. That’s good. It would really be a shame if something happened to Taehyung. If you held a funeral for him, half the Caribbean would show up. Man, I’d love to have a kid like that on my ship.”
“Why, because he tells fortunes?”
“He has a third eye,” Zico said, thoughtfully sipping his ale.
“You know he makes most of his predictions come true through trickery, right?” Namjoon said.
Zico shook his head. “He doesn’t. I’ve seen some things out of that kid on late nights. He’s a clever little trickster, but you’d be an idiot not to listen to him, and everyone knows that. Can’t blame him for having some fun with that every once and a while.”
Namjoon couldn’t help but feel a little proud.
“Do you still have that cute cabin boy?” Zico asked.
“So all the underappreciated, young kids survived,” Zico said. “Convenient.”
“Lucky,” Namjoon said. “We’ve kind of formed a de facto team over the last couple years or so, and we just happened to be the group they left to watch the ship while they went ashore. You say underappreciated, but it saved our asses.”
“So not mutiny?”
Namjoon almost choked on his drink. “You think I’m a murderer? My whole crew died, Zico.”
Zico put his hands up. “No, no. I know you. I’m just repeating what people say.”
“No, not mutiny,” Namjoon said, staring into his grog. “The captain took most of the crew out to find some sort of secret treasure hidden that he wouldn’t tell us about, and while they were out a storm came up and they never came back. You should have seen Yoongi afterwards though. I thought we’d lose him too for a while there.”
Zico nodded and took another long sip of ale. Taehyung ran up with Jungkook trailing behind, red lipstick all over his cheek and his shirt unbuttoned and hanging from his belt.
“What happened to you two?” Namjoon asked.
“Kookie got a new ear piercing!”
He dragged Jungkook forward so they could see a third hoop in his left ear, and the thin stream of blood trailing down his neck.
“And we got trapped by a Lia’s crew of, uh, ladies of the night, I guess,” he giggled, “which is why Jungkook looks so shell-shocked. They remember us from last time,” he winked, “think he’s grown up nice.”
“Holy fuck,” Zico said, slamming his tankard down, “You’re Jungkook? But you’re supposed to be adorable! Holy shit, you got hot. When did this happen?” He gestured to Jungkook’s bare chest.
“It’s a-always b-been there,” Jungkook said, almost too quiet to be heard over the little band squealing away in the corner and all the sailors howling over their drinks.
“Well, kid, if you ever want some extra cash, I know some people with a demand that you got the supply for,” he said, tugging lightly on the front of Jungkook’s breeches.
Jungkook’s giant eyes went completely blank. Taehyung broke down giggling. Namjoon just rubbed Jungkook’s back comfortingly. He shivered a little. “Tae, I think he’s going into shock.”
Just at that moment, blood spilled from the little puddle it had been forming in Jungkook’s collarbone and dripped down his chest. Jungkook caught it on his finger and stared at it blankly for a moment. Namjoon pushed him into a chair and wrapped his hand around the handle of his own tankard. Jungkook brought it to his mouth and took a long sip. Taehyung draped himself fondly around Jungkook from behind, probably getting blood all over his only shirt. Namjoon put his head down on the bar. “I’m getting too old for this. I’m gonna go back to the ship and sleep.”
“You in port for long?” Zico asked.
“Nah. Leaving tomorrow.”
“When will you be back?”
“Not for a while. We’ve gotta stretch our funds for a bit. We’re going after the Golden Dragon, which probably won’t bring us any profits for a few months yet. I’m letting the boys have one last night and then we’re gone for a while.”
“Where you headed first?”
“Small island off the coast of Spanish Hispaniola.”
“Hm,” Zico glanced around, “Do yourself a favor and ask some locals about whatever island you’re going to before you go. I hear loads of stories about small islands off the coast of Hispaniola.”
“Never knew you’d be one for superstitions,” Namjoon said.
“Always have been,” Zico said, “just not around you. Listen. Things are getting dangerous. You’re not in port often so you probably haven’t been hearing the rumors, but things have been changing.” He looked around the tavern. “You going back to your ship?”
“I’ll walk you there.”
Namjoon got up and found Taehyung sitting in the middle of a large audience, face lit up, hands flying, obviously telling a story. Jungkook looked more comfortable now, sitting back and grinning as he listened. Namjoon heard something about slimy tentacles as he walked past.
“You can’t afford to ignore rumors anymore, Namjoon,” Zico said once they were both outside in the dark, lamp lit street. Only a few crews knocked around town this week, leaving the port calm and quiet at night. “Superstitious or not. Ever since the Five Kings disappeared, the trading companies have gotten more aggressive. More and more pirate ships are turning up with small crews. You’re not the only crew that’s been cut in more than half in freak storms or run-ins with military vessels. They used to leave us alone for the most part, or at least the British navy did, but the seas are getting more dangerous. Ghost stories and monster stories used to be a fun pastime, but now they’re all people talk about. No smoke without fire, Namjoon. Something is happening.”
A gang of drunks tottered past them waving bottles and hooting. Namjoon dropped his voice. “So you’re saying keep my head down for a while? Be cautious? I’m not about to stop pirating. There’s no other profession I’d be happy in. You know how seriously I take this system. Democracy, you know? The way of the future.”
“I know,” Zico said, “You and your political philosophy texts. But take rumors into consideration. Many decimated crews are showing up, but you’re the only ones that people are asking questions about. Everyone else has come back in shock, maybe stayed in town a couple months, and then either put together a new crew, or dispersed onto other ships. You seven came back, told the story, loaded up on supplies, and sailed away like you’d had a plan all along.”
Namjoon sighed, “We didn’t have the closest bond with the old crew. Well, except Yoongi. We didn’t make him work except when he had to for a while. Jungkook didn’t talk for a week. Taehyung went a little manic. We knew we couldn’t stop moving or it would just get worse.”
Zico wrinkled his nose and sighed. “I’ll try to put in a good word for you wherever I hear rumors, but be careful, Namjoon. People are all for deposing a bad captain, but murdering most of your crew is quite different.”
“I didn’t!” Namjoon said.
“Just be careful. It doesn’t matter if you have or haven’t. If people believe you have, you’re in danger.”
Namjoon rubbed his hands tiredly over his face. “Okay. I’ll keep a lookout. Thank you.”
“No problem. I know you’re a good guy, Namjoon, not a mutineer. I’d hate for something to happen to you because of this.”
Namjoon was fairly sure he was the only person Zico bothered to care about. He laughed quietly. “I appreciate it.”
“I’ll see you next time you get in to port, okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks for everything, Zico.”
“No problem,” Zico said again, wrapping an arm around his shoulders for just a moment. He cuffed Namjoon lovingly on the back of the head and walked off, long and lanky with his coat swinging and his hair catching the moonlight. They’d both come so far since they were little port rats with dirty feet and grubby hands. Both captains. Only Zico had a full crew and Namjoon had only a fourth of one.
Lucifer creaked woodenly against the pilings. Up on deck, Seokjin straddled a canon and stared down onto the dock, bags under his eyes and tired-looking, still not recovered from the lusca incident, even a week later. “Hullo, Captain.”
“I don’t like this port.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Namjoon flopped down on the floor beside Seokjin’s leg and leaned on him. Seokjin dutifully ran a hand through his hair.
“Did you…ask around about…you know.”
“Taehyung did,” Namjoon said, “Thinks your friend might have sailed back to England a couple years ago.”
Seokjin sighed heavily and put his head on the railing. “Thank god,” he whispered.
Seokjin sat still for a while before answering. He picked his head up and looked off across the town and up the hill where he’d grown up. House lights still twinkled in the night. His parents probably still lived up there. “Part of me wanted to see him again just so I could run him through and throw his body down a well.”
“Who was he?” Namjoon said, pressing against his leg. “I always assumed he was your Dad, but Taehyung said he was about your age.”
“He was my only friend growing up. The kind of friend that controls you and takes advantage your trust. I did whatever he said. He said some pretty shitty things.”
“And now you’re a pirate?”
Seokjin’s hand had gone still on Namjoon’s jaw, just a thumb absently stroking small circles against his temple. Namjoon closed his eyes and shivered. “I got tired of being someone’s dog, so I ran away.”
“I’ve always wondered why a land-lubber like you joined on with us. Are your parents still alive?” Namjoon said, slurring a little.
“I don’t really care. They never helped me.” He turned them both around so he could grind his thumbs into Namjoon’s tense shoulders. “Our tough captain,” he cooed, “He does so much for us.”
Seokjin’s hands ran over his shoulders and down his chest, stroking heavily. “This okay?” Seokjin murmured.
“Yeah, feels good,” Namjoon murmured, and then flinched when Seokjin pinched his nipples.
“Would Tae be okay with this?”
“Yeah. I’m pretty sure he has shit he does with Jungkook.”
“Sweet little Jungkook is a bit of a slut,” Seokjin murmured, “He does little shit like this with everyone. Kid loves getting pampered and he doesn’t care how. Shameless.”
“Do you have people doing this for you?”
“Yoongi helps me sometimes. We’re all just one giant massage train, aren’t we?”
Namjoon laughed as Seokjin squeezed his arms. “What do you do with Jungkook then?”
“He sleeps with me in my hammock.”
“I’m jealous,” Namjoon said. “I miss sleeping with the rest of you down there. It’d be nice to sleep next to someone.”
“Come back down. There’s plenty of empty hammocks.”
Namjoon shook his head. Captains were obligated to keep a little distance. Seokjin was the oldest though, and safe.
“Don’t you sleep next to Tae?” Seokjin asked quietly, “Sometimes I wake up and he isn’t there.”
“No, I never sleep with Tae. He’s probably just up on deck enjoying the water.”
Yoongi stomped up the gangplank with a mostly full bottle of rum and walked right past them down under the deck. They stayed quiet for another half hour, watching the lights go out all over town until Taehyung and Jungkook came aboard giggling wildly and shushing each other.
“Tae,” Namjoon called. They both came over, still snickering.
“Where are Jimin and Hoseok?”
“Not coming back till later,” Taehyung said, and Jungkook giggled “sluts,” behind him.
“I need someone on watch,” Namjoon said, looking at Jungkook, who blanched.
“I’ll do it,” Seokjin said, “I wasn’t planning on going below for a while yet anyway.”
Seokjin kissed the top of Namjoon’s head. “I’m sure. Go get some rest, Captain.”
“Carry this for me,” Yoongi said, handing Namjoon a small, heavy bag. “Go down in the hold and wait.”
Namjoon took it and ducked around a swarm of shouting, stumbling men, reeking of sweat and brine. He opened the hatch and descended, and then peered inside the bag. A few bruised apples, some hard tack, and some greasy shreds of fish.
“Did you bring me down here for a snack?” Namjoon asked a few minutes later when Yoongi joined him in the dim lantern-light. Yoongi shook his head. He led Namjoon through a cluster of barrels and found a scowling, thin young man in tattered clothes lying on the bare ground. “The fuck? Is he a stowaway?” Namjoon asked.
“Nah, I’m part of the crew,” Hoseok said. “I’ve been here the whole time. Haven’t seen me?”
Namjoon shook his head.
“Good,” Hoseok said, sitting up. “Is this all for me?”
“I’m taking some to Jungkook.”
“Will he eat it?” Hoseok said. “He won’t even take food from me, you know.”
“He’s scared of you,” Yoongi said.
“He’s scared of you too,” Hoseok said, taking the grog out of Yoongi’s hand and tipping it back.
“Hoseok is one of our best fighters,” Yoongi told Namjoon. “He’s like a berserker in a fight, but after he calms down the crew treats him like a dog.”
“They’re not very nice to dogs,” Hoseok hissed.
“Are you gonna come up on deck any point this week?” Yoongi asked, sorting Hoseok’s food out onto the floor beside him.
“Not unless they drag me. Will you bring down more tomorrow?”
“I’ll try. I’ll get Namjoon to help.”
“I’m going crazy down here,” Hoseok said. “I haven’t seen natural light in weeks.”
“It’s been ten days,” Yoongi grumbled. “I’m just saying, if you came up more often, the crew would get used to you again and you wouldn’t have to hide down here all the time.
“Every time I think about going up there I feel sick.”
Yoongi patted him on the ankle. “I’d stand up for you. You know I would.”
“I don’t want you getting thrown in with the rats too,” Hoseok grumbled.
“I’d stand up for you too,” Namjoon said softly.
Hoseok put his head up, skin shiny with sweat in the half light. After spending so much time amongst the bulky, leathery, sail-hardened crew, he looked incredibly delicate, pixie-like features and soft, straight hair, body almost dainty under his baggy clothes. Namjoon got the sudden, odd realization that he hadn’t seen a woman in nearly two months and suddenly understood why his crew-mates sought out pretty men in port. But his scowl was dangerous, and he moved quickly and effortlessly like his limbs weighed nothing. Namjoon wondered if anyone had ever tried to touch Hoseok and what had happened to them.
“Thank you,” Hoseok said, “but you’d just end up hiding down here with me. Keep yourself safe and come visit sometimes. That’ll help me more.”
Yoongi grabbed a lantern to go deeper into the belly of the ship, picking his way over boxes towards the bow. The water gurgled past the boards and they creaked comfortingly in the quiet dark. In a little hut made from a dirty blanket strung over two boxes, the small ship’s boy slept on a bed of scavenged netting and old clothes. Namjoon had been wondering where they hid him when he wasn’t quickly and quietly finishing his chores when everyone was too busy to give him trouble.
“I brought food,” Yoongi said to wake him up. The kid woke with a start and reflexively covered his head with his arms. “Chill,” Yoongi said, setting the bag down. “You’ve gotta get used to me at some point. Namjoon, this is Jungkook.”
Jungkook looked up with the biggest, roundest eyes Namjoon had ever seen, lip trembling, and took a deep, slow breath, defensive posture fading slowly into something cautious and deferential. “You need to eat,” Yoongi said softly. “And grog. Here.” He set them on the ground so Jungkook could pick them up himself. “Namjoon’s nice. You don’t have to be scared of him either.”
Jungkook nodded and took a careful sip of grog. “Thank you,” he said softly.
“How old are you?” Namjoon asked.
“Fourteen?” Yoongi guessed. “Fifteen?”
Jungkook pulled the bag of food into his lap and waited for them to leave.
“I need the bag back,” Yoongi said.
Jungkook emptied the bag of food onto the floor, flinching when the fish hit the dirty boards, and handed the bag back. “Thanks,” Yoongi said, “Catch you sneaking up to the head late tonight?”
Jungkook cracked a small smile. “Don’t wait up.” Someone walked right overhead, and Jungkook pulled further back into his hut like he didn’t want to be seen.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Yoongi said.
Jungkook nodded in thanks, and they headed back. “Can’t stay too long down here. Most of the time, the crew forgets they exist, but sometimes they’ll come find them to play. You have to learn to ignore it when they do so we can still come give them food.”
And so when the bo’s’n and his friends dragged Hoseok up later that week and tossed him around the deck till he was too bruised and tired to fight, Namjoon and Yoongi waited.
Hoseok came to find them afterwards and fell asleep on Namjoon’s shoulder, too tired and sore to make his way back below, and Namjoon ignored the crew’s raised eyebrows.
"I heard some things in Port Royal," Hoseok said. Warm water rushed under the hull. Namjoon pulled his hat further down on his forehead and squinted into the afternoon sun glaring off the sails.
"Asked around about the islands off the southern coast of Hispaniola. The one we're going to is completely deserted and sailors refuse to land there. They say it's filled with ghosts. Some people call it Graveyard Island."
"Well, if just the map was protected by luscas, then we can bet all the map pieces will be equally inaccessible."
Hoseok hung onto his sail sheet, leaning backwards to haul it in against the wind, pursing his lips. "Hadn't thought about it that way. Crap." He looked a little pale.
"You gonna be okay, scaredy cat?"
"Ha," Hoseok said, and scowled at the deck. "Thought I was gonna die back at that reef. You know I can't handle spooky stuff."
"You can handle a lot more than you think, Hoseok, even when you're scared of it. You've surprised me before."
Hoseok smiled thankfully, but shook his head. "That's usually in physical fights though. Actual black magic and ghosts?" He shivered, "You don't want to see me around those."
Namjoon worked his head around the fact that yet another member of his crew seemed to believe in ghosts. He sighed heavily and rubbed Hoseok's hair. "You'll be fine. You're not our trump card warrior for nothing."
Hobi made some sort of weird cackling noise and bounced around, which Namjoon took as a thank you.
"Land ho," Taehyung called. Namjoon glared up at the rigging in confusion, since they'd been traveling along shoreline for most of the past two days.
"Well, obviously," Jungkook shouted from somewhere else in the rigging.
"The fucking island! It's right the fuck there! What am I supposed to say?"
The tall, hilly, green island rose out of the water, empty beaches and sheer cliffs up to the top. A swarm of black birds circled the island like sparks over a fire.
Jimin waddled up, looking a little bow-legged. He'd mostly gotten over his limp from his night in town, but he still flinched whenever he sat down. Namjoon didn't want to know. "Will we need our swords?"
"Ooh," Jimin said, "fun," he grinned and bounced off to carry out the message.
Namjoon didn’t think carrying swords and their bad luck onto an island with a reputation for danger counted as “fun.”
"Fuckin hell," Hoseok muttered under his breath.
A huge column of circling black vultures spun wheels in the sky overhead, some distant enough to look like a flock of sparrows, some close enough to make out their feathers. There were dozens of them, drifting in slow, dizzying spirals in a giant tornado of black feathers.
Other than that, bugs chirped in the gently rustling breeze. They left Seokjin and Yoongi onboard and found an overgrown, disused path through the woods, dusty and shrouded in greenery.
"How you feeling about this place?" Jungkook asked Taehyung.
"It sucks," Taehyung said cheerfully, glancing back up at the vultures, "Feels like death and black magic."
"Can I go back to the boat?" Hoseok said.
"Oh god, no," Taehyung said before Namjoon could say anything. "We need you."
They climbed higher into the hills, surrounded by dense jungle. With trees overhead, they couldn’t see the vultures. Jungkook went in front and beat his way through the leaves growing over the path, occasionally disappearing from sight. Strangely, he had a shirt on, which had become more and more unusual over the past few years as he grew up, face sharpening to fit his body. The cute little kid who nervously followed orders and cringed every time someone spoke to him had disappeared under some new, shy bravado.
Taehyung sidled up beside Namjoon and shoved a hand into his belt, hanging onto the leather and squeezing Namjoon's waist. "What's the plan, Captain. It's a small island, but it'll still take forever to find a tiny map piece."
"I'm hoping this path leads somewhere. Any better ideas?"
"Nah, not really." He tugged on Namjoon's belt again.
"You scared?" Namjoon asked. Taehyung looked him right in the eye and nodded.
Hoseok appeared on Namjoon's other side and wrapped both his arms around his waist, shaking. Namjoon put an arm around both of them and nearly ran Taehyung into a tree. "This path was not made for three people," he said.
"Or people with no physical awareness," Taehyung muttered.
Instead of coming up with a snappy retort, Namjoon tripped over a root and nearly took Taehyung and Hoseok with him.
"Some comfort you are," Hoseok said and went to hug Jimin instead.
Nearly an hour after they started walking, Jungkook popped out of the brush in front of them with a finger to his lips, eyes wide. "There's a farm ahead," he whispered. "There’s a lot of people."
The blue sky of an open space shone through the trees, but the sounds of the forest remained quiet and minimal, absent of the bustle of a lot of people. They stepped cautiously up to the edge of the path together and peered through the palm leaves. A small farm sat nestled on a flat field across the top of small hill, a little house in the middle, and patches of vegetables spread out around it. People milled silently through the fields, dazed and wobbling on their feet as if drunk, dressed in tattered rags and sickly-looking.
Or maybe not. One passed near them, carrying a huge bag of cotton and laboring on a swollen foot. Huge, rotting sores covered one arm, filled with flies. Its white eyes stayed half open. "Looks like a corpse," Jimin murmured.
"Zombies," Taehyung said worriedly.
"Are they dangerous?" Jungkook asked.
"Not really," Taehyung said, "unless they've been told to be. Who the fuck is making zombies? Fuck that."
"What are they?" Namjoon asked.
"Animated corpses brought back from the dead and controlled against their will, usually to do slave labor. It's so disrespectful. Disgusting misuse of black magic."
Namjoon blinked. They were probably all diseased, though he couldn't imagine someone staying alive through all that infection. He turned around and stared back into the comfortable forest, breathing deeply. Nothing unnatural here. Just a plain, easily explainable, logical jungle.
“Well that explains the vultures,” Jungkook said, unaffected.
"What if they're guarding the map piece?" Jimin murmured.
"We fight through them," Jungkook said, "look at how they're moving. It'd be easy."
"Oh fuck, no," Hoseok whimpered.
"They're innocent people!" Taehyung said, "or innocent corpses. We have to save them by feeding them salt to release the spell. The Five Kings fought an army of zombies once. That’s how they didn’t."
"We don't have any salt," Jungkook said.
"The Five Kings didn’t feed them salt. Imagine trying to hand-feed zombies some salt why they tried to kill you,” Jimin said, “The Five Kings led them to the ocean. They caught sight of the ocean, became self-aware, and tried to return to their graves on their own."
"Jimin, how do you know that?" Taehyung said.
"Mom used to tell stories.”
So he had a mom. There went those parented-by-a-siren rumors right there. Not that there was any traction for that to begin with. Sirens didn't exist. Neither did animated corpses. Namjoon sat down on the path. "What the fuck. What the fuck."
"Having a little existential crisis there, Captain?" Taehyung said beside him.
"Fuck the map. Let’s get back to the ship."
"Deep breathes, sir."
"Okay. Okay. What now?"
"Well, let’s just try walking to the house, and see what happens."
Jungkook, without waiting for a confirmation, stepped right out of the bush and started walking towards the house. None of the corpses so much as stumbled. Taehyung and Jimin followed, and Namjoon followed tentatively with Hoseok hanging from his elbow. One walked past with half its face dangling off, and Hoseok pressed against Namjoon's shoulder and gagged. Namjoon rubbed his arm reassuringly. The vultures, the standard, black, completely natural vultures, who were totally not there for the bodies rotted way past the point of sustaining life, flew dizzyingly close overhead.
"What the fuck," he whispered again. Hoseok laughed weakly into his shoulder.
There was nothing inside the little farmhouse, just stored supplies and more decay. Jungkook had pulled half the place apart by the time Namjoon got in the door. "Nothing here," he said.
"I see a fort on the hill," Jimin said. Everyone rushed to the window and stared out. A tiny old Spanish fort sat just within view between two slopes, little rounded turrets poking out, manned by deathly still figures like scarecrows in the sea breeze.
"That looks more promising," Jungkook said. He led the way out of the house and out across the field, stepping aside to let zombies pass without a second glance. Hoseok ducked around Namjoon, putting him between himself and the zombies.
"What about saving them?" Taehyung said, hurrying in the rear.
"We'll deal with that when we've figured out where the map piece is," Namjoon said. "Just hold on for now, okay?"
"Promise we won't leave without trying?" Taehyung said.
"If we can try and not get killed, sure."
Two grueling hills later, they ran into a zombie standing in the middle of the road with a spear.
"Oh that doesn't look good," Jungkook said. He pulled his sword out.
"Don't do that!" Taehyung yelped. "Don't hurt them! They don't know what they're doing!"
"They're dead," Jungkook said, mystified.
"It's so disrespectful to the body. You'll get bad luck."
“We’re already cursed,” Jimin muttered, “How much worse could it be?”
"And if we don't fight them and they kill us?" Jungkook said.
Taehyung hesitated. "Yeah, fair. If they try to kill us, fight back, I guess, but I'd much rather lead them to the sea somehow and free them."
Jungkook raised an eyebrow. "Well we can try. I don't know how feasible that is though."
"Let's try to sneak in first," Namjoon said.
Hoseok had his forehead pressed against Namjoon's shoulder blade as he breathed heavily down his back. "Sn-sneaking in sounds good," he said.
Jungkook continued to lead the way, pacing down the side of a hill and beating a way through the underbrush. Zombies stood up on the walls above them, staring off at the middle distance and not paying them any attention. "How the hell are they expected to be effective guards," Jimin asked. He pulled off his shirt, letting it dangle from his waist, already drenched in sweat. Namjoon wished he could too, but Hoseok clung to his arm and Namjoon didn’t want to shrug him off.
"Think we could climb this?" Jungkook said, nodding at a heavily damaged section of wall, pocked with crumbling mortar.
"Hell no," Hoseok said.
"We could totally climb that," Taehyung said, "It's not any harder than rigging."
Jungkook started up, then Taehyung. Namjoon shoved Hoseok to the front so he wouldn't be climbing up alone and last, and then followed right behind with Jimin in the rear.
Jungkook paused at the top and looked around, then slid quietly over the wall onto a ledge that surrounded the interior fort. Zombies stood blankly around them, not turning their heads or advancing, all wearing shoddy armor and carrying rusted weapons. He hauled Taehyung quietly over, and then practically carried the very shaky Hoseok over. Namjoon and Jimin came up, and they creeped quietly through the fort. Vultures sat on the parapets around them, gazing curiously around and awkwardly stomping across the stone. A large crowd of them ripped into a body lying in the corner.
“What a useless fort,” Jungkook said, looking around. “It’s in a valley. You can’t see the ocean at all from here.”
“To keep the zombies captive,” Taehyung said softly.
"But they’re not doing anything. We really could have walked in the front gate." Jimin muttered.
"You don't know," Taehyung said. "There could have been a trap in the front gate."
"I don't see the map piece," Jungkook said.
Jimin rolled his eyes, "It's not sitting on a pedestal in the middle of the fucking fort? How strange."
"Listen, you sassy asshole—"
"The fort's headquarters is right over here," Namjoon said, pushing Jimin forward. "It's the only room with a real door on it. Let's check it out."
The door swung open. A fully furnished office sat inside, no dust on the desk. Books lined the shelves. Namjoon gasped.
"Oh no," Taehyung muttered as Namjoon disregarded everything else and rushed for the shelves. "We have to find the map piece, guys. Leave the librarian be."
"The desk drawers are empty," Jungkook said.
"What's this glass thing?" Taehyung said.
"Magnifying glass. It's like a spy glass, but smaller scale. You use it to make things that are close to you bigger,” Namjoon said.
Taehyung picked it up and started examining the wood grain in the desk closely. "ooh, that's awesome. That's really cool."
"All these books are about military stuff. Here's a list of military exercises. Here's documented trade routes in the Atlantic and Caribbean. This is really unusual stuff. Well this isn't. This is a British law textbook. I've read this. Everyone's read this."
"Any signs of map pieces?" Taehyung asked.
"Should we just trash the place looking for secret compartments?" Jimin asked.
"Guys, I don't think the map is here," Namjoon said, pulling Aristotle's Poetics off the shelf and adding it to a ratty volume of Caribbean peoples and folklore and a book on trade routes.
"What makes you say that," Jimin said, while knocking on the globe for secret compartments.
"Stop that, Jimin. Those are made hollow anyway. The man who owns everything in this office is obviously military." He placed a book of naval battles and techniques on the pile. "Did anyone bother looking at the coat rack? See the red coat? The map piece we're looking for was placed here by the Five Kings. They never got along with military. Whoever is using this office, and this fort, was not in league with the Five Kings. The piece isn't going to be here."
He threw open a medium-sized chest by the back wall and dumped an array of military attire over the floor. Jimin dove on a pistol and jammed it into his belt. Namjoon dumped all his books inside it. "Taehyung, here's a book on black magic. You want it?"
Taehyung withdrew from it, crunching up and staring in horror, but he nodded. Namjoon tossed it into the chest.
"Anyway, if our piece isn't here, we are robbing, presumably, the man who controls all these zombies for no particular reason, and it's probably putting us in grave fucking danger, no pun intended."
"What if we don't rob him," Jimin squeaked. "Just leave the books!"
"No way in hell," Namjoon said, throwing a couple novels and books of poetry from the bottom shelf in on top of the rest. "I haven't had a new book to read in nearly a year. I'm not letting these go. Let's get the hell out of here. Swords out." He hefted the chest up. Jimin shoved a couple expensive-looking paperweights from the desk into his pockets, Hoseok slung a musket over his back, and Taehyung picked up a plain white shirt from the pile, held it up to his chest, and then shoved it into his breeches for storage. Jungkook found two fancy looking swords out of a case under the desk, ornate gold around the handle, gleaming and razor sharp. "I win," he said, grinning, and kicked open the door.
He stepped over the threshold and then flinched backwards as every zombie in the entire fort spun towards him. Hoseok screamed. "Run!" Jungkook squeaked, and took off right across the ground towards the gate with the rest of them hot on his heels. The zombies lumbered after them. Namjoon took the middle, dragging the chest of books behind him on the ground to free up a hand for his sword. Jungkook flew into battle in the front, blades swinging.
"Sorry, sorry," Taehyung said to every corpse as he blocked their weapons and shoved them out of the way. The corpse of a giant man carrying an axe lumbered into Jungkook's way in the front.
"Cut him down!" Namjoon yelled.
"Knock him over!" Taehyung said, and sliced right through a zombie's chest with a sickening gurgle. "AH! Fuck! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!"
The corpse tried to raise its sword again. Taehyung decided against trying to help it up.
The zombies were easy enough to defeat on their own, but while Jungkook fought the hulking mass at the front, the group swarmed deeper and deeper around them. Taehyung cringed, apologizing over and over as he sliced weapons out of their grips, so many swords and spears poking closer and closer, a wall of spikes closing in.
“Hoseok,” Namjoon said, “Please?”
“Fuck,” Hoseok hissed, and then bent down with his hands on his knees and took a giant deep breath, and then another. Jimin cut down a row of zombies in a wide arc over his back, sending their weapons clattering away and their bodies thumping heavily to the ground. Taehyung whimpered in horror. Hoseok kept breathing, body going tense, shaking. Namjoon pulled Taehyung back from Hoseok, waiting for him to let lose his warrior.
Hoseok drew up and roared, thin chest shaking with force, face like a mask of fury. He dove into the first line of zombies with his swords flailing.
Taehyung grabbed Namjoon’s waist from behind, watching in mute horror over his shoulder as Hoseok barreled through, still roaring, a whirlwind of swords, completely untouchable.
“Fuckin pay attention!” Jimin squawked behind them, and just barely disarmed a zombie before it could stick Taehyung through the ribs.
Taehyung apologized to it, voice cracking. “Help!” Jungkook yelled. Jimin jumped in, trying to dodge in under the ax and saw the giant zombie down by the legs. Slices already covered its body, but it stayed standing, dumbly wind-milling its ax around.
And Hoseok tore a hole in the crowd around them. Bodies littered the court. Namjoon took out a couple more, and Hoseok sliced through the rest. The monster by the gate finally fell to the ground, still trying to reach its sword, and as the fort fell silent, Taehyung let out one small little sob. All four men turned to look at him. He tucked himself against Namjoon’s chest and clung like a child.
Hoseok shook himself all over, blinking as if coming out of a trance. “Atta boy,” Namjoon said, “That’s our berserker.”
Hoseok grunted. Blood and rot dripped off his blades. His shirt hung off one shoulder.
“Jimin, Jungkook, find the highest spot in the fort and see if you can see anything. I’m gonna study this map a little more in case we missed something.”
They plodded off, panting heavily. Taehyung stayed against Namjoon’s chest, taking long, labored breaths. He nuzzled unhappily against Namjoon’s neck, so soft and gentle. Vultures began to descend out of the sky, walking over the sliced-up bodies. Hoseok watched them blankly, hands twitching as if itching to cut them down too.
Namjoon pulled the map out of his boot with some difficulty around Taehyung, and rolled it out behind his back, holding it up and studying it closely. That little, roughly drawn geometric shape could be a house on top of a half circle.
“Guys, can you see a house on a hill?” he yelled. Taehyung’s hands clutched at his waist, and Namjoon gave him a careful squeeze back.
“There’s an old foundation on that one over there,” Jimin yelled, pointing to a distant bright green hilltop over the trees.
“I think that’s what we’re looking for,” he yelled back.
“Sorry,” Taehyung whispered into his neck. Namjoon gave him another squeeze and rubbed his cheek against his hair. Zombies stirred feebly around them.
“Bad news,” Jungkook said, rushing down the steps. “The zombies from the field are gone. Do you think they’re coming here?”
“Fuck. Let’s get out.”
Off the path, the jungle grew terribly dense. They all hacked at the underbrush and shoved through. Taehyung moved sullenly behind Namjoon, peering back down the hill every few feet and reaching out to grab the back of Namjoon’s shirt.
Namjoon hefted the chest of books higher, back aching. “You okay, Taehyung?”
“We need to save them. It’d be so shitty if we didn’t do anything.”
“We have to keep ourselves alive, Tae. We’re here for a reason.”
“We need to lead them to the sea.”
“With our luck? I’m not going to let you or anyone else risk their lives for fucking—whatever those things are—”
“Captain,” Taehyung snapped.
“You did it,” Taehyung said sourly. “You admitted the existence of an unnatural being. Congratulations. Except the only person here who thinks they shouldn’t exist is you.”
“They really shouldn’t exist,” Jimin said.
“Shut up,” Taehyung grumbled, and grabbed one side of the chest from Namjoon, helping him heft it up the mountainside. “Not what I meant.”
After a long, hot, exhausting climb, they cleared the tree-line and got a gorgeous panoramic view of the surrounding sea, Spanish Hispaniola right across the straight to one side, and empty water to the other. The sun sat low and gold, sinking down into the west behind the Lucifer, bobbing gently on the waves on the western side of the island. Inside the old house foundation was a trap door in remarkably good condition for the rest of the house being rotted around it.
“I think we found it,” Jungkook said, and threw it open. A box dangled down into the hole, chained to the door. Jungkook pulled it up. “There’s the crest of the Five Kings,” he said, pointing to an upside-down arrowhead design. “Looks like we had to find a key.”
“Fuck it,” Namjoon said, “Let’s take it back to the ship and drop a cannon on it.”
Jungkook couldn’t get the box off the chain, so he smashed the door and looped the chain around one arm.
“Bad news,” Jimin said. “There’s a British Man O’ War flying the Union Jack on the horizon.”
Away in the far distance to the east, on the opposite side of the island from Lucifer, a little black dot with white wings floated their way.
“How the hell can you see what type of ship it is from here?” Taehyung said.
“Ugh, things just have to get worse,” Hoseok said, the first words out of his mouth for the past few hours.
“Speaking of worse,” Jimin said. “Zombies coming out of the jungle.”
“Path down this side,” Taehyung said, and led the way down. They plunged into the woods and wound down and down, skirting the edge of the mountain in zig-zags. Daylight dropped around them, dim under the trees, making footing dangerous. Every small sound seemed like the lumbering walk of zombies.
“I bet the zombies go straight through the jungle,” Hoseok said. “I hope they don’t beat us there.”
Namjoon’s chest of books bumped into trees and ripped his arms through branches until he started dragging it behind him again. Jimin picked up the back end for him and Namjoon gave him a tired, grateful smile.
When they broke onto the beach, the red-gold sunset was low on the water, rippling gently in the evening breeze. They jogged heavily down the beach.
As the dinghy came into view, Hoseok gave a small, distressed grunt and collapsed on the sand.
“Fuck,” Namjoon said, “Not this again.”
“He fell on his sword,” Jimin said, pulling him up. A long line of red bloomed slowly across the white front of his shirt.
“He was running with his sword drawn?” Namjoon yelped.
Jimin held the scabbard up. The blade had ripped right out of the worn edge.
“That’s fucking impossible!” Namjoon yelled. “The entire steel siding had to pop out of place!”
“Curse wasn’t gonna let us get out of this easily,” Jimin said. He hefted Hoseok up on his shoulder, blood trickling down his bare chest, and plodded on. Lucifer sat tantalizingly close. Seokjin waved from the deck.
“Wait,” Taehyung said as Jimin lowered Hoseok into the bottom of the boat beside Namjoon’s chest of book and the box and chain with the map. Jungkook pushed it out into the surf.
“Taehyung, we have to go.”
“But the zombies. We have to save the zombies.”
“We can’t Tae, we’ll die,” Namjoon said, “It’ll be night soon. That Man O’ War will get here.”
“Just wait,” Jungkook said.
“No!” Jimin said, “Hoseok just got cut on a sword that was in a bunch of dead bodies a little while ago! It’s lovely that you care about the fucking bodies, but we can’t do anything.”
Taehyung stood resolutely on the sand, facing the jungle, lit up in orange and red. Namjoon climbed out of the ship and tried to lead him in by the hand, but Taehyung gripped his palm and dug his feet in, holding him there.
“Just wait, Captain. Just wait. Please. Just until the sun sets. Please.”
Namjoon sighed and stepped up beside him.
“Hoseok though!” Jimin called out.
“The sun sets soon,” Namjoon said. “We can wait for a little while.”
Jimin sighed and pushed steadily at Hoseok’s wound to stop the bleeding. The rest of them stared back at the woods and waited.
After a long, slow moment, a single zombie popped out of the woods, the corpse of a young, black woman, emaciated and naked, maybe one of the corpses thrown overboard from the slave trade, maybe a starved woman from the local island. She stepped out and stopped. At first, she stared right at them, and then her eyes widened, jaw dropping. Namjoon gripped Taehyung’s arm. Until that moment, he’d believed they might all just be a diseased, drugged, nearly dead colony of slaves, but the life that entered her face, the awareness, shocked through him. He could see a hole straight through her stomach, and yet there she was, conscious and stunned.
She stared at the sea, raised up her arms and looked at her own rotting hands, and her face contorted with rage. She hobbled straight past them and into the water where she set herself adrift and let go of her animation. Her corpse became just a dead corpse, and she floated away.
“Returning to her grave,” Taehyung murmured, “She must have died at sea.”
The splashing sounds had slowed. Hoseok groaned harshly as he came to, wound stinging under Jimin’s hands, and then fell silent, eyes wide.
Zombies stumbled from the woods, stood there in shock and rage, and then trailed like ants in every direction, stumbling home. A large line walked towards the north end of the island, probably to swim for Hispaniola. Some walked into the sea and swam weakly into the distance. Others, like the first, just stepped into the surf and deflated. Wave after wave poured from the trees, dozens and dozens, until the last ones trickled out, and the sun had set. Only then did Taehyung drag Namjoon into the boat.
Jimin and Jungkook wordlessly paddled towards Lucifer as Namjoon sat in his seat, Hoseok propped up against his chest. The whole sea seemed to light up a little differently than a normal sunset, suddenly vast enough to hold giant secrets, broad enough to keep hundreds of little realities hidden in its folds, great, gorgeous, and unknowable. Pirates had carved out a little place on the water and called the sea theirs, but he’d never felt so foreign. Did he really understand this sea he loved at all?
“I’d never considered,” Hoseok slurred, staring back at the island, “that the corpses of the dead might have spirits of their own. I never thought about bodies being important like that.”
“The old crew,” Namjoon said, and buried his hands in his hair like he could pull the memories out by the roots.
Taehyung wound an arm through his and rested against his shoulder. “The dead need peace too,” he said. Namjoon leaned on him until they got to the ship. Yoongi and Seokjin met them on board, staring with huge, horrified eyes out at the corpses floating around them, the ones swimming sluggishly in every direction.
“What…” Yoongi said.
"Zombies,” Namjoon told him. “The entire island was covered in animated corpses. They…when they see the ocean, they become self-aware and try to find their graves.”
“Zombies,” Yoongi said blankly, and cautiously reached up to check Namjoon’s temperature. Namjoon sighed and let him. “Heatstroke?”
“Maybe some shock,” Namjoon said. “I’m not entirely sure I believe it yet. Am I crazy?”
Jungkook explained everything while Seokjin helped Hoseok eat something and Jimin mixed together salt and vinegar to try and wash out any infection.
“What is a naval office manned by zombies doing out here?” Yoongi said.
“How’d the navy get involved with black magic, more to the point?” Jimin said. “And the map wasn’t involved at all. Up on top of a different hill all together. Complete waste of time. Probably not something we wanted to get involved in.”
“Speaking of, we need to get underway,” Namjoon said, “I know everyone’s tired, but we have to be over the horizon by the time that Man O’ War gets here. We’ll chart a course through the windward passage and we should be in the Lucayos in a few days.”
“We’re too close to shore to sail at night,” Yoongi said, “It’s dangerous.”
“It’s all deep water from here,” Namjoon said, “We just have to stay pretty far out. The moonlight is still bright enough to see at least that much.”
“Next stop, Lucayos Islands,” Seokjin said semi-cheerfully, eyes still trained overboard, “I love the Bahamas.”
As the younger set got the ship ready to make-way and Hoseok passed out in his hammock with new bandages and a quarter bottle of rum in his system, Namjoon found Yoongi with a lantern, leaning over the side of the ship and watching a zombie straggle past with one leg and smashed-in skull. “Holy hell,” Yoongi said quietly, “What the fuck.”
“Yeah,” Namjoon said, staring down with him, “I don’t get it either.”
Yoongi stepped back from the railing and stared up into the rigging for a moment, and then sighed and got back to work like he didn’t care.
They sailed until the first watch was technically over, getting the most they could out of the cool night breeze, and when Jimin said he couldn’t see the island behind them anymore, Namjoon sent them all to bed while Seokjin took first watch.
He caught Taehyung before he went down though, wordlessly wrapped his arms around his waist, and buried his face in his shoulder. Taehyung kissed his hair and hung onto his shoulders. “You want me to stay with you tonight?” He asked.
Namjoon let out a deep sigh and relaxed fully against him, nearly knocking him over. “Yeah,” he said. Taehyung led the way, already pulling his shirt over his head. Namjoon fell asleep minutes after lying down, arms heavy around Taehyung’s thin chest and his cheek against his hair. Taehyung stayed for a long time, breathing against Namjoon’s skin and reveling in his warmth, before slipping away to stare at the sea.
Chapter 4: The Night Woman's Cloak
The map leads the crew to a beautiful monster in Havana.
"The fuck is this?" Jungkook said. Yoongi and Jimin trotted up the sand dune and into the stand of palms. "It's gone," Jungkook said, holding open the door to a little birdhouse nailed against the palm, door hanging off its hinges.
"Well, that explains why it was so easy to get to. No map piece, no supernatural guardians," Yoongi said.
Namjoon tossed his hat in the dirt and stared at the empty little house. The crest of the Five Kings was etched roughly into the back, like it had been inside the box with the first map piece when they carefully smashed it open. "Okay. Fuck. Someone else has it. How are we supposed to figure out who?"
Yoongi stared back down the beach. "I wonder what was guarding this place. Look at all the fresh grave markers in the dunes over there. I guess if there was a fight on the beach, it would have washed away already."
“My guess is giant crabs,” Taehyung said. “I heard a story about the Five Kings defeating an army of Spaniards using giant crabs. There are a lot of skid marks on the dunes like big things scuttled down them.” He sauntered away down the sand, poking at things.
“Giant crabs,” Namjoon said, staring across the dunes at the massive skids that were in all likelihood made by people sliding down them. While punching leg marks into the dirt beside them. “Right.”
"So what now?" Jungkook said.
"We go get the third piece, and then we ask around Havana for anyone who knows which other crews are going after the Golden Dragon."
Down on the beach, Taehyung was picking up shells and then throwing them on the sand. "Can you see the future like that?" Jungkook asked.
"I can't, actually," Taehyung said. "I keep trying to figure out how. I know there's a way, but I don't remember the rules."
"Maybe you need special shells," Jungkook said, kneeling down beside him. Taehyung almost looked pale next to his deeply tanned back, striped with a few rough lashes of scar tissue.
"Wear a shirt," Namjoon said, kicking his leg lightly. "Sunlight damages your skin, you know. You're going to be wrinkly by age thirty-five."
Jungkook looked up and said, quite honestly, "I doubt I'll live that long."
Namjoon shrugged. "Doesn't mean you should throw your health away though on the off-chance that you do survive. I mean, look at Yoongi. He's already, what, sixty? He's kept his skin nice and protected. He looks like he could be twenty-five."
"Oh, shut up," Yoongi said. Jungkook giggled. His lopsided headband made him look a little like a kid again. Namjoon adjusted it for him and put his own hat on his head.
"Let's go," he sighed.
Back on board, Hoseok and Seokjin had mixed themselves some drinks and brought their bedding up from below deck to settle in the shade beneath the sails. "Back already?" Hoseok said, tone dripping with disappointment. He had white bandages wrapped around his whole body and looked unusually pale.
"The map piece is already gone," Namjoon said, "We sail for Cuba immediately."
“Gone?” Hoseok said, frowning up at them.
"Aww," Seokjin said, staring down into his tankard. "I just made this."
"Drink as you work, then. Don't waste any rum."
"Sir, we found something," Seokjin said as Taehyung and Jungkook managed the sails. "There's writing on the back of the map piece."
Namjoon took it from him. The map depicted the lower edge of the Yucatan and the rest of the land bridge connecting Mexico to South America, as well as a large chunk of sea. The edge of a message showed along the top. "’ap him in the"'?" he read off the piece.
"Yeah, I have no idea."
Namjoon sighed. "Cool. Looking forward to figuring that out. We need the other fucking pieces first. Why does this shit have to be this complicated?"
"Do we really need the other ship?" Seokjin whined.
Namjoon looked over at Hoseok, sitting up very slowly with his very improbable and potentially deadly injury. “Yeah. Yeah, we do.”
Seokjin sighed and shook his head. “Fucking hell, Captain. We just can’t win.”
Namjoon rubbed his back. "Do you want to go ashore when we get to port?"
"Yeah," Seokjin laughed. "Sometimes I've just had enough, you know?"
The rest of the crew always rushed back to the ship after an evening in port and spent as little time as possible on land. Seokjin, like most sailors raised in a house and not on a ship, lingered, keeping dry land under his feet until he lost his sea legs. Sometimes he hired rooms overnight instead of returning to the ship, just to sleep without rocking.
The sea passed under them, the low, green Bahama Islands fading into grey lines, then open blue for a while, and then towards evening, the long, low line of green appeared on the other side.
"I see sugar plantations," Jungkook sighed, staring off at the Cuban coastline. "Should we disguise the ship at all?"
"Yeah, probably. They're all Catholics here. They won't like the name 'Lucifer' on our bow."
Jungkook spent the rest of the evening sitting on a swing over the side and carefully turning the name on the bow to a smashed-looking "Luck fury," with little strips of white wax and black tar. Seokjin got the Union Jack out of the cabinet in the galley and drew it up the mast.
"Should we split up?" Taehyung asked later that night, moored off the coast by about half a mile. "Some of us ask around in town and some of us go out and find the map piece? It looks like it's just outside Havana anyway."
"I'll go and try to find it this time," Seokjin said, "I haven't been on an adventure yet."
"I will too," Yoongi said, "since I haven't either."
"No offense," Namjoon said, "but neither of you are our best fighters. I think Seokjin should go, and me, and then Taehyung, since this has continuously been his area of expertise, and then one of the fighters. Yoongi, you and Jungkook speak Spanish, so you're should scope out Havana and ask questions.”
Yoongi grumbled and put his head down.
“I’m on guard duty?” Hoseok asked.
“I think that’d be best,” Namjoon said, looking at his damp, bloody bandages, the sweat clinging to his forehead and the way he propped himself over the table gently.
Hoseok nodded, grimacing as he shifted.
Namjoon examined the map with the magnifying glass Taehyung had picked up in the zombie fort. “Yeah, it’s on the outskirts of Havana. There’s a little moon by it.”
“Ah, it’s in an outhouse,” Yoongi said.
“Slightly south-east of the city. It says ‘Find the Night Woman’s cloak.’ Great. Real clear. Any idea what that could be referring to, Taehyung?”
“I doubt it’s prostitutes.”
Taehyung shrugged. “I’m not really good with land stuff. I get the feeling we’ll be out looking for a while though.”
“If you’re finding a night woman, you’ll be out at night,” Yoongi said.
“Night women are never a good sign,” Seokjin said. “I can think of several things that might mean and none of them are good.”
“What are some options?”
“La Diablesse comes to mind first. She dresses in beautiful clothing and then leads men to their deaths in the woods. The old hag is a shapeshifter who transforms at night and goes searching for blood. Or children in some versions. There’s the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth who attacks mothers and children.”
“Okay. None of those sound fun. I wonder if there’s anything in my new books about them.”
Taehyung poked at the books spread out across the table, pushing the cover open and handling it like someone with clearly no experience with books, grabbing each page with his whole fist and very carefully turning it over.
Yoongi and Seokjin discussed routes on the map. Taehyung set the book on end and watched the pages fan out, wide eyes bugging open and almost showing white all the way around, captivated. "There are so many words," he murmured.
"Want me to teach you?"
Taehyung hesitated, then shook his head and put the book back down. He continued to stare at it for a minute. "Jungkook, can you read?" He asked.
Jungkook opened one of the books and said, "yes..." slowly, squinting at the lines, "But only slowly."
"Oh," Taehyung said, deflating a little.
"It's okay. I can't read either," Hoseok said.
Taehyung looked relieved.
"Yes, you can," Yoongi said, breaking away from his conversation with Seokjin, "I taught you last year. You keep insisting that you can't, but you can, just not well."
Taehyung scowled. "I'm still smart," he said.
"You really are," Namjoon said. "Don't worry about that. I just think you'd really like reading."
Taehyung scowl softened a little.
"Keep it in your breeches, you adorable shits," Yoongi muttered.
"Seriously," Namjoon said later, pulling Taehyung into the captain's cabin, "I want to teach you."
"I don't want to look dumb," Taehyung said, glancing at Namjoon's book collection trapped behind a low bar across each shelf.
"You won't. You're very smart. That's why I think you'll like reading."
Taehyung settled in and Namjoon pulled an empty book that was supposed to be a future ship's log off the top shelf. "You know what the alphabet is, right?"
"Yeah," Taehyung said, "I just don't know what any of the letters mean."
"Okay, we'll start there."
He picked them up quickly, and Namjoon let him borrow the pen and ink and practice scratching weird, malformed letters out on the page. Namjoon scooted up close so he could rest his head on Taehyung's shoulder as he gave instructions.
"Could you spell 'red'?"
Taehyung blinked blankly at the shelves. "The letters sound like the sounds they make."
"R?" Taehyung asked, "Was that one of them?"
"Yeah. Do you remember what it looked like?"
Taehyung squinted at the page where Namjoon had written the alphabet. "Is it this one?"
"Two to the right. That one is 't'."
Taehyung made a "t" sound a few times, and then flipped the page back and wrote 'r' with the top part trailing up too high and the main stem bent. "Red," he murmured. "D."
"You missed one."
"You missed the 'eh' in the middle. "Red. Rr. eh. Dh."
"Eh. A, B, D, E... It's not that one, is it?"
"R, E..." he scrawled a barely recognizable "e" next to the "r" and frowned at them. "And then D, right?"
He checked the first page again. "Oh. There's a third letter before D. Which one was that?"
"A, B, C, D..." he flipped the page and wrote a small D next to the big R and E. "Red. Got it. Right?"
Namjoon kissed his shoulder. "Yeah. That's it."
"Why 'red'? Starting off with colors for the toddler?"
"I think it’s your color," Namjoon said.
"Because of my head scarf?" he giggled.
"Because you remind me of sunrise,” Namjoon said softly.
Taehyung flushed sweetly, eyes wide. "And because of this," Namjoon said, poking his blush.
Taehyung touched his own face gently, blush deepening. He smiled a little.
"Wanna stop for tonight?"
"Kinda, yeah." He rubbed the pages for a minute with his grubby fingers. "Why's this book empty?"
"I was going to write ship log entries in it, because it's pretty, but it works just as well for this too."
Taehyung stood up and pulled Namjoon to the bed. "Sunrise, huh?"
"Red sunrise," Namjoon said, sitting down on the side as Taehyung stretched lazily in the covers. "There's something a little dangerous about you, but you're still beautiful. You draw everyone's eye when you walk into the room. You should find a red shirt."
"Think I'd look good in red?"
"You'd look good in anything, of course, but yes, red especially."
Taehyung wrapped one arm around Namjoon's waist, keeping the line between friendship and lust carefully blurred. "Well you remind me of blue."
"What kind of blue?" Namjoon said, lying slowly down next to him, one arm stretched over his stomach.
"Deep blue, I think, like the middle of the sky on a clear day, or deep water in the sun. The color of mid-evening."
"You're so calming. You make me want to slow down. It’s wide, and deep, and safe. You feel…unreachable. Sometimes you're so cold. Sometimes you make me feel lonely and small."
Namjoon wrapped his arms fully around him, drawing him close. He nuzzled their foreheads together.
"Why do we have to keep this secret from the rest of the men, Namjoon?"
"I mean, we haven't," he said, "They all know."
"Then why do we have to act like it's not a thing? It's not like it's weird. Matelotage happens all the time. I don't think we're even getting fake-married anytime soon, and we’re definitely not having sex, so it's not that weird, right? Right! So I don't know why we can't be open in front of our best fucking friends."
"The ship’s articles," Namjoon said. "I'm the captain. The rules set in place to reduce power struggles and keep us all safe."
Taehyung sighed, pulled his red head scarf off, and shook out his hair. He looked oddly dulled in the lamplight, dark brown surrounding his head instead of his usual fiery halo. "So if I'd kissed you two weeks before I did, when you weren't our captain, we wouldn't have to hide this now, huh?"
"Don't look at it like that," Namjoon said. "Captains shouldn't show favorites. That's all.”
“Our crew isn’t like that. I get that the articles are supposed to keep us safe from your power or whatever, but we’re already breaking the rules and it’s fine. We’re seven friends. We trust you.”
“You know what happens when the crew gets complacent about their captain, Tae.”
Taehyung rolled his eyes. “No crew I’ve ever been in has had the perfect ‘pirate code’ thing down. Everyone makes it work in their own way. We can re-write our own articles if we want to, and what am I even here for, Namjoon? What are we doing? The captain isn’t supposed to use his crew for sex, but that’s not what you’re doing, is it? You care about me, right? Why do we hide it? Why do we always act like we’re in love?”
Namjoon rolled onto his back and scowled at the ceiling. "I can’t play favorites.”
“You don’t have to!” Taehyung said. “We’re all friends. We get it.”
“My friends call me 'sir,' and do whatever I say, and sleep in a different berth. Even with no bullshit hierarchy, a ship needs a captain and a system to run smoothly. The hierarchy makes sense. Just three days ago, Jimin almost dropped a canon on Seokjin's head, and if Jimin wasn’t ready to listen to my every command, Seokjin would have died. I need that distance and control. I've traded part of my relationships with all of you for a lot of responsibility over your lives, and that’s a power that can’t be taken lightly. You make me happy, Tae, but you also make an already difficult situation much harder. You have noticed that you’re the only crew member I ever fight with, right? What we’re doing messes with the whole dynamic.”
Taehyung stared miserably at the rafters. "I’ve always stood by ‘go with what feels right,’ but you always make me feel like an idiot with that, so..."
They sat in silence for a long time. Lucifer rocked gently. "I'm sorry," Taehyung said eventually.
Namjoon sighed and turned back towards him, sliding one hand over Taehyung’s flat, flat belly to hook over his opposite hip. The muscles tightened under his hand and Namjoon did it again.
“hm-mm,” Taehyung breathed, eyebrows pulled in, dark hair brushing down into his lashes.
Namjoon sighed softly and rubbed wide circles on his chest. "I'm sorry too. You're not an idiot. I just don't understand you."
"I don't understand you either,” Taehyung sighed, slurring, “How are you dealing with all this 'magic shit,' as you call it?"
Namjoon’s hand paused along Taehyung’s side, fingers curling all the way around to his back. "Whenever I think about it, I feel like I've stepped into a different world and I'm dreaming, and that I don't understand anything. It’s hard to think about. I’m so lost.”
Taehyung kissed his hair. "I'm here. I'll help."
Namjoon closed his eyes. He held still for so long that Taehyung tried to slip away again, but Namjoon grabbed him. Taehyung yelped and jolted, and then flopped back down on the bed, giggling. “Give me a kiss before you go,” Namjoon said, and they lay for another half hour trading sleepy kisses in the dim lamplight.
The bo’s’n came back aboard in Tortuga with two beautiful young men in tow, all sharp eyebrows and long legs, one with a bright red headscarf and gleaming skin. The crew stirred around him. “Saw them last night,” one big bear of a man said, Edgar, with a huge scar down his right cheek, “letting some old man put his hands all over them.”
The group around him stirred, some in distaste, others in interest. Jimmy, the ratty man with bad teeth said, “One’s a witch and the other’s a siren.”
“Well fuck. Them,” Edgar said. “No wonder they had a crowd.” The mood shifted from casual interest to fascination.
Namjoon sighed heavily and watched from a distance as the captain came up to the bo’s’n, had a brief talk with the smiley, beautiful men, and then led them away to his cabin, probably to sign their contracts.
The crew swallowed them up immediately. Namjoon sat in the background with Hoseok and watched Yoongi join the swarm. The one with the red head scarf got everyone quiet and told some story about a sea serpent swallowing their last captain.
“That is such bullshit,” Namjoon said, watching everyone lean in, faces horrified. Even the captain had come down to listen.
“No, I heard those rumors in port,” Hoseok said. “Some ship came in without a captain and everyone talking about a sea serpent.”
“That’s because he’s been spreading the rumor all over the town himself,” Namjoon said. “Sea serpents don’t exist.”
Hoseok frowned but nodded. “They’re pretty,” he sighed.
“No! The new guys.”
“Don’t appreciate not being the prettiest anymore?” Yoongi said.
“I’m quite happy not to be the prettiest anymore,” Hoseok said. “I’m tired of men staring at me like a piece of meat just because they’re sexually frustrated. I’m worried about these guys.”
“I’m the prettiest,” Yoongi said, pouting.
“You scowl too much,” Hoseok said. “Ugly, old man.”
“How long do you think it’ll take for the entire crew to sleep with one of them?” Yoongi snickered, “Even the ones that swear they’ll never get lonely enough.”
“Ugh. I hope there’s enough oil on board,” Hoseok groaned. “And all of them? Forever. I’d like to see them try to lure Jungkook out.”
Namjoon interrupted the story with how hard he laughed. The witch gave him a curious look with eyes even bigger and lovelier than Jungkook’s. Namjoon choked on his giggles until the pretty boy turned back to his story.
Their names were Jimin and Taehyung. Yoongi told Namjoon to introduce himself. He didn’t.
He met Jimin one late, drunk night when Jimin needed a quiet lap to sit on and Namjoon was sitting in his usual spot in the back of the room. Jimin settled on his legs and curled up against him without asking if he could. “Hi, I’m Jimin,” Jimin breathed against his ear.
Jimin gave him a long, alcohol-dazed look. “Sorry to get in your space, but I needed a moment, and if I’m alone people just find me.”
Namjoon arm wrapped protectively around his back on instinct, and Jimin smiled. “You’re gorgeous,” Jimin said. He smelled like sweet rum and something singular, like what sex should smell like but doesn’t, dark and enticing. “Why don’t you talk to us?”
“Maybe I’m not interested in sex with men.”
Jimin pouted. “Bullshit. Also, why is sex the only thing we’re good for?”
Namjoon hesitated. Jimin’s intent had seemed obvious, but maybe that was just how he was, always enticing whether he meant to be or not. “You’re good for fairy tales,” Namjoon said, glancing over at Taehyung, who had captured an audience again, telling a story about the Five Kings and a deal with a sea demon. “But I don’t believe in those, and it puts me off when people tell stories for attention.”
Jimin huffed, got off his lap, and went over to sit on Yoongi’s instead.
“Got some sour grapes there, buddy,” Hoseok said in his silly, nasally voice.
Namjoon drank his grog and tried not to feel like a shit.
Late that night, Namjoon climbed up on deck to sober up and Taehyung caught him as he walked obliviously past, literally caught him, wrapping his long legs around Namjoon’s waist from where he sat in the rigging. His head scarf was missing, smooth black hair feathered across his forehead. With his strong eyebrows hidden, he looked hauntingly, delicately beautiful, less handsome and more gently gorgeous.
“I don’t tell stories for attention,” he said, thighs tight around Namjoon’s waist, trapping him like a fly in a web.
“Then why do you tell them?” Namjoon said. He could smell the rum on Taehyung’s breath too, sweet and strong over his face.
“People like them. They’re interesting. They’re not all true, but some of them are.” Namjoon’s hands slid through the ropes to wrap around Taehyung’s waist so he could lift some of the pressure off his sides. He was even thinner and softer than he looked. “You’re Namjoon, right? Aren’t you supposed to be smart?”
Namjoon dropped him and stepped back, sending Taehyung scrabbling at the ropes with a yelp.
“Fuck. Okay. Fine. Touchy. Just…we’ve never even talked. Don’t be a shit to Jimin.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry.”
Taehyung paused, still hanging from the ropes like a little kid, looking like he’d expected more of a fight. He started wrestling his way out, legs too long to control. Namjoon walked around to his back and helped him down. Taehyung centered himself back on deck, barely shorter than Namjoon and now a little flustered.
“Did you wait out here just to confront me?” Namjoon asked, alcohol making him feel half asleep, like he was only dreaming the conversation and could say whatever he wanted. “Just because I said that to Jimin?”
“No! I came out here to look at the water. You came out and I thought I’d say something.”
Namjoon glanced out at the ocean, the moonlight casting a long corridor of flickering reflections towards them. “It’s beautiful,” he murmured.
“I was getting swarmed below. I needed to breathe and recharge for a moment,” Taehyung said.
“I feel that,” Namjoon said. “Sometimes I wish the ship was empty and I was alone out here.”
“Just come out here after midnight,” Taehyung said. “I’m out here with that almost every night.”
“It’s not quite the same,” Namjoon said. “I imagine having the water perfectly tranquil in mid-morning light so the world could be only an expanse of empyrean blue, and it’s just me sitting up at the bow in the center of it, everything simple and unified.”
“Talk about talking for attention,” Taehyung grumbled.
Namjoon looked up in surprise. “Oh. Sorry. That’s just…I’m drunk. I guess I get kinda weirdly idealistic sometimes. Just what my brain does.”
Taehyung hummed and leaned back on the rigging, letting him catch him like a net so he could bounce there and peer up at Namjoon. “I should have assumed that instead of assuming you were talking to show off.”
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t really blame you though.”
“Do me a favor and assume I believe the stories I tell instead of assuming I’m trying to pull one over on everyone I meet.”
“No,” Taehyung said in a voice so soft and low that Namjoon felt it pull in his ribcage.
“Sorry,” he murmured. Water tinkled against the hull. Men yelled below deck. Taehyung rested quietly against the rigging. “I’m gonna go sit on the bow,” he said softly.
Taehyung tilted his head and stared curiously at Namjoon. “Gonna go be tranquil or whatever?”
“Yeah. You too?”
Taehyung smiled. “Nah, I’m gonna go get drunk. Goodnight, Namjoon.”
He left, thin, young shoulders and narrow hips, black hair gleaming softly, and Namjoon sat right there by the rigging for another few hours and wished he didn’t feel so lonely.
The Havana port seemed a little confused when seven young men who were practically still children sailed a full ship into harbor with nothing to trade. Namjoon's group set off after lunch, trailing upwards through the streets of Havana and towards the outskirts.
"Okay," Namjoon said, "Let's go find a night woman."
Havana bustled. Markets lay open under the sun, and families walked through the streets. Carts and donkeys took up the narrow roads, and soldiers marched in orderly lines between their posts. Taehyung crunched in tight to Namjoon's side, staring around with his jaw open, white showing under his irises as he gaped. "It's not even nearly as big as London," Namjoon told him.
Taehyung made a face. "I hope I never see London."
"I miss London," Namjoon said. "All the bright colors and pretty women. And the old buildings!"
"There are pretty women here," Jimin said, nodding ahead to where a group of young ladies was crossing the street to walk past them, giggling behind their hands.
"True, but in London there are more."
"I'll bet that in London there are just more people," Seokjin said
"I keep forgetting that no one but Jungkook has ever been further than Florida," Namjoon said, "It's so different. I don't think I could explain. It’s really cold. You'd hate it." He let his eyes follow the women as they went down the street. A couple looked back and laughed to see him looking.
Taehyung pinched the inside of his arm. "Ow. What? They’re pretty."
"Look, I know you're not interested in women, but some of us really miss having them around."
"I love women," Seokjin sighed. “I miss them.”
Jimin shrugged. "Anyone can be pretty. I'm pretty, right?"
"You're pretty," Taehyung said, and pat him on the back. Jimin grinned bashfully.
"Say it again for him," Namjoon said.
"You're so pretty, Jimin."
"Stop!" Jimin laughed. They walked in silence for a few seconds until Jimin turned slyly to Taehyung and raised his eyebrows.
"You're gorgeous, Jimin. You'd turn the pope into a harlot if he saw you. Sirens sing about you to lonely sailors--" Jimin squealed and covered his face with his hands, "In fact, you'd get sirens swimming for the ship to get to you and not the other way around.”
"Taehyung!" Jimin said, flushing bright red and peering through his fingers.
"Every man, woman, and horse in Port Royal wants to fuck you, even if they won't admit it."
"Ah!" Jimin covered his ears, giggling. "Shut up!"
“It’s not like we miss women because they’re pretty,” Seokjin said. “I mean they are, but they’re also sweet and funny. They’re a little hard to figure out but they’re so fun to talk to. They’re just this whole other huge set of personalities. I love women.”
“Run off and marry one then,” Jimin said uncomfortably, “Since we’re not good enough.”
“You’ve been everyone’s replacement woman for a long time,” Namjoon sighed, “But that doesn’t mean you have to be one for us. We’re perfectly happy to enjoy your company as just you. Don’t resent women because you’re not one. You don’t have to be.”
Taehyung squeezed Namjoon’s arm thankfully. Jimin sighed and softened. They walked on in silence for a little while. “I like women too,” Jimin said quietly. “Maybe I should marry one. Do you think any woman would ever want me after everything I’ve let people do to me?”
Namjoon honestly didn’t know.
“If a woman doesn’t want you because of all the shit that’s happened to you, you don’t want that woman,” Taehyung said. “Find someone who’s also been through some shit.”
“Yeah,” Seokjin said. “We’re damaged. We’re gonna need a lot of love.”
Namjoon tugged gently on the end of Taehyung’s headscarf, and he gave Namjoon a thankful little smile, drifting close enough to bump shoulders.
"The problem with big cities," Namjoon said in the late afternoon as they reached generally where the map said they should be, outside the city squares and into the farmland and villages, "is that 'the outskirts' is an enormous amount of space. I have no idea how we're going to find what we're after."
"Are we supposed to find some woman’s cloak around here?" Jimin asked, peering around at the long dirt streets of a village, square houses bursting with greenery and surrounding a little church.
"I think this village is what the map is referring to, but it could be anywhere within a few square miles of here."
"Should we walk around and see if we see anything out of place?"
The market square seemed empty, businesses closed for the night, market packed up. Lights glowed in the back windows of the central church.
The surrounding neighborhoods began to smell like black beans and cooking meat. "I'm hungry," Jimin said, glancing down the pathway into a home bustling with family life. Seokjin peered in after him and smiled softly.
"Smells like Mom's cooking," he said. "She used to make the best slow-cooked pork. We couldn't have meat very often, but when we did..." He whistled. "She and Dad would dance around the kitchen while the pot simmered."
Taehyung bounced up beside him, smiling. "Did she make cakes?"
"Yeah! She made this awesome cake with rum! I don't even remember what it was called, but it was thick and there was rum involved. It was so good."
A couple girls peered through one gate, giggling at them. Their mother came to drag them away, and Seokjin gave her a dazzling smile. She smiled back before she realized what was happening then corrected herself with a scowl. Seokjin giggled and blew a kiss at the girls when their mother turned her back. Such a charmer.
As night fell, they still hadn't found anything that looked remotely unusual, just streets of little family plots with gardens and children. Taehyung stared around in wonder and asked Seokjin about everything. The entire evening began to feel like a comfortable dream, like at any moment the four of them would walk into a house, eat dinner with the family, and then settle in to sleep on solid ground.
"I don't get it," Namjoon said eventually as the moon rose and people started giving them suspicious looks, four strange sailors wandering domestic neighborhoods after dark. "Both other map pieces seemed really dangerous. There were fucking zombies in one, and graves in the other, supposedly from giant crabs. If there was anything that dangerous in a neighborhood this populated, you'd think people would have noticed."
"Oh!" Seokjin said. He looked around them.
"We need to find some housewives. If anyone has noticed something suspicious about the neighborhood, it's them."
They found a house without any young women at first glance, just a mother and husband, two sons, what looked like an aunt and uncle with their three young children, and one set of grandparents. “Hola,” Namjoon said, switching to Spanish to introduce them.
The grandmother’s name was María, and she ran the house. Anton, the man of the house, stood intimidatingly over them, introducing everyone and asking questions, but as soon as Namjoon asked if they knew of anything strange in the neighborhood, María shoved him out of the way and started ranting about the family down the way who didn’t come to mass every Sunday.
“And the old drunk that sleeps by the well,” her daughter, Carmela, said, coming in with four steaming plates of beans and fish.
“Begs for food,” María scoffed. “And of course, we give it to him. Who would we be if we didn’t, listening to the word of God every Sunday and never helping our neighbors. Of course we give him food, water, and a place to sleep at night. But does he ever do a thing to thank us? Does he help with the chores? Never.”
Namjoon chuckled. Taehyung listened intently, eyebrows furrowed as he worked through the conversation with his limited Spanish. Seokjin and Jimin stuck to their food, whispering to each other. A young woman with a long, dark braid and big brown eyes had emerged from the back of the house to eat and help her mother with dishes, pretty arms bare.
“Monstruo,” Taehyung prompted.
“We were thinking more of monsters,” Namjoon said. “We think one might have something of ours.”
“Monsters,” María said, squinting at them.
“La vieja bruja,” Carmela gasped.
María jolted in her seat. “Si!”
“The old witch,” María said, leaning forward. “She sheds her skin at night, transforms into a monster, and runs through the village looking for children to eat.”
The young sons both hid under the table.
“Abuela Isabel,” María continued, nodding. “She’s been living in a house by herself for the last thirty years, yells at people who come to bring her food. She is already so old. And so ugly! She was old when my grandmother was young.”
Namjoon turned to Seokjin. “Old hag shapeshifter who sheds her skin and hunts for children at night?”
Seokjin nodded. “That sounds about right. Do you think her cloak would be her skin?”
He turned to María. “We need to find her skin.”
María looked like he’d just said, “We’d like to eat pig brains for dinner, please.”
“We could use it to barter with her?” Taehyung said.
“Or she just has a real cloak that the map is in,” Namjoon said uncertainly, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
Jimin was trying to catch Carmela’s daughter’s eye, giving her a little smirk as she gazed lazily at him. She flipped her braid over her shoulder. Seokjin grabbed the front of Jimin’s shirt and yanked him face-first down into his food.
As Jimin shame-facedly wiped beans and fish off his nose, María told them where they could find Abuela Isabel’s house and loaded them down with bags of beans and a basket full of sweet potatoes and plantains, as well as a rusty lantern.
“We’re eating real good for a couple weeks,” Seokjin said cheerfully. “I need to buy some spices in the market before we go.”
“I feel kinda weird about this,” Namjoon said as they approached Abuela Isabel’s house, a tiny shack-like place with a dusty-overgrown yard on the outside of town. “In all likelihood she’s actually just some really ugly old woman who’s trying to live her life and the town has turned her into a kind of pariah to teach their children to stay inside at night and get married early.”
“Then we apologize and give her some plantains, I guess,” Seokjin said.
Taehyung lock-picked the door, and then crept inside, leaving all their food in the front yard.
The dusty kitchen stood empty, and in her little room at the back the window stood wide open. Everything stank of damp and rot. “Are those…bones? On the floor?” Jimin asked. Seokjin held their little rusty lantern up to see a small pile of human bones on the floor, and some bloody rags.
“Fucking murderess,” Namjoon said excitedly.
“Now what kind of little old woman vacates her house at night to murder people?” Jimin said. “Where’s her skin?”
“Well it wouldn’t be in here,” Seokjin said.
Taehyung nodded. “Wouldn’t it be at the crossroads?”
“What crossroads?” Namjoon said.
“The crossroads!” Jimin said, “Of course!”
“Where the devil’s servants hang out,” Seokjin said. “There aren’t many crossroads around here. There’s just one road going into the town. I bet if we kept following the road we’ve been on it’ll cross another road just out of town. She’ll have hidden her skin there. If she gets trapped in the daylight without it, she loses the ability to transform, so we have to hold it hostage until daylight.”
Namjoon stood blankly beside the pile of bones and watched the conversation bounce back and forth.
“Isn’t she dangerous though?” Taehyung said. “If the village people are scared of her. She killed whoever that was and it definitely wasn’t a child. Look at the size of that leg bone. He had to be bigger than the captain. Don’t Soucouyants transform into balls of fire or something?
“The beans!” Jimin said. “We spill the beans on the road!”
Taehyung and Seokjin joined Namjoon in staring blankly at Jimin.
“So she’ll have to count them?” Jimin said.
“Oh!” Seokjin said. “We’ll trap her there counting the beans and then we’ll make her tell us where it is.”
Jimin rushed out of the house with Taehyung and Seokjin in tow. Namjoon glanced at the bones and bloody rags, and then followed them out. “But what if it’s just a regular cloak and it’s in the house? How do you guys know all this stuff?”
“It’s not really obscure knowledge,” Jimin said. “Everyone knows devils have power on the crossroads.”
“You didn’t know that?”
“I don’t really pay attention to stories like that.”
They grabbed all the food and followed the road out of town. They reached a crossroads with cornfields on two corners, a grazing patch on another, and a small stand of jungle on the last. They put their things down and started searching through every bush and under every rock.
“I found a snakeskin,” Jimin said, popping up from behind fencepost by the cornfield.
“Um…keep that until we find something more promising,” Namjoon said, scratching his head. “Are you three honestly sure we’re going to find some old woman’s skin here? This seems remarkably convenient. And arbitrary. And stupid.”
“I think it would be in here,” Taehyung said, poking into the jungle corner. “There’s a lot of places for it to hide.”
“Just inside the cornstalks too,” Jimin said.
“I almost think that wandering around the village looking for an ugly old woman prowling around at night would be more effective,” Namjoon said. Seokjin opened one of the bags of beans and prepared to dump it on the road.
“Wait till we’ve found the skin first,” Jimin said.
“If it was this simple, the village would have figured it out a long time ago,” Namjoon said.
“Maybe she’s clever, sir,” Seokjin said. “Maybe she only kills travelers and drunks so the village never has enough panic and evidence to go through with confronting a monster and killing it. Maybe they’re just content to leave it there as an unwanted village pet that makes things a little more interesting and serves as a good lesson for the kids.”
“Ugh. I think I found it,” Taehyung said, and emerged from the jungle dangling a long, leathery pelt from one hand and a large wad of gray and brown rags from the other. Grey hair curled in a mass above several wrinkled, gaping holes that must have been the face,
Jimin dropped his snake skin and cringed into the cornfield.
“Yup. That’s it,” Seokjin said, and dumped a bag of beans all over the middle of the road.
Taehyung spread the skin out and examined it inside and out, the perfect pelt of a human woman with buttons up the front. “No map piece,” he said. “She must have it.”
“This is fucking ridiculous,” Namjoon laughed weakly.
“And now,” Seokjin said, picking up his bag of beans, “we hide in the cornfield until dawn.”
“So why the beans in the road?” Namjoon asked after they’d all settled in amongst the cornstalks and blown out the lantern.
“She can’t resist stopping to pick them up one by one,” Jimin said. “At least, that’s the version I know from growing up in Yucatan.”
“Same in Port Royal. We called them old hags.”
“Same in Haiti,” Taehyung said, “but we called them Soucouyants.”
“I thought that was a name from Trinidad folklore,” Namjoon said, “Not that I knew what it was.”
“There’s some crossover nowadays,” Taehyung said. “As more and more ships cross the sea, more and more creatures and stories do too. Some people wonder if it’s the stories that create the creatures to begin with.”
“Well that’s one way of putting it.”
The dim moon started making her way down the other side of the sky as the four of them sat in the itchy cornfield and stared out at the road. Jimin shifted and lay down across Seokjin's lap with the remaining bean bags as his pillow. "Someone else can take first watch," he said, "I'm tired."
Seokjin giggled and pet Jimin's chest. "This big man did a lot of work today. You, uh, carried...hm, no you didn't. What have you done today besides wander around and flirt with the local women?"
"I think walking all afternoon is enough," Jimin said, "And I helped charm the local family that helped us, thank you very much."
"I think that was the captain," Seokjin said.
"Well he doesn't flirt with the local women, so someone has to, just so they know that we're serious about being no-good sailors. People might mistake us for decent people and we can't have that."
"I'm pretty sure being decent people just got us enough food to last the week."
"You're serious? We're not gonna eat anything but sweet potatoes, beans, and plantains for a whole week?"
"Oh!" Namjoon said, "That's something else we need to get in port tomorrow. Spices, and a cat for the ship. The rats are getting ridiculous."
Taehyung perked up. "I get to choose the cat."
"No way. You got to choose the goat."
"We ate that goat and it was delicious! I've got a really good sense with cats! They love me. Let me choose the cat! You love me, right?"
"Captain! I get to choose the cat!"
"Shh," Jimin hissed. "But Tae, what if Jungkook wants to choose the cat?"
Taehyung pouted for a minute, and Namjoon didn't doubt he would absolutely let Jungkook choose the cat. "Wait," Taehyung said, "Jungkook doesn't even like cats. It's a moot point. I'm choosing the cat."
"Okay. You can choose the damn cat."
"Thank you!" Taehyung squealed and hugged him around the waist.
"Spoiled," Jimin said affectionately, patting Taehyung's leg.
"I love all of you so much," Taehyung said. "Thank you for the cat."
"He's not gonna be your cat," Namjoon grumbled.
"Can we get two cats, Captain?" Seokjin said. "Can I choose one?"
"Either two girls or two boys. No fucking litters of kittens."
Jimin dropped off to sleep, hands across his chest, snoring very quietly. When the breeze blew, they couldn't hear anything, but if the corn stopped rustling for a moment, they could hear tiny rumbling sounds as he breathed in.
"Did you know," Seokjin murmured to Namjoon, "That you snore like a dying hog?"
Namjoon sighed heavily. "Yes. I know that's part of the reason why you guys were so happy to banish me to the captain's quarters too."
"How do you stand it, Taehyung?" Seokjin said.
Taehyung sighed, "I wouldn't know. He doesn't let me sleep with him very often. And when I do, I don't stay all night."
They all sat in silence until Taehyung petulantly tucked himself under one of Namjoon's legs and made a pillow out of the opposite one, pinching him as he lay down as if challenging him to have a problem with it. Namjoon undid his headscarf for him and tossed it on Taehyung's shoulder, a little puddle of cloth next to his suddenly soft darling Tae.
He looked up and met eyes with Seokjin, who still stroked Jimin's hair.
"Jin, you'd make an excellent father."
Seokjin smiled. "I'd love to be a father. You'd make an excellent housewife. Want to get married?"
Namjoon winked at him and Seokjin giggled. Taehyung pinched his thigh hard. "It's just Seokjin. Chill. You're so possessive."
"You'd make a shitty wife," he grumbled against Namjoon's leg.
"Okay, fair," Namjoon said, and leaned back on his hands to stare through the corn at the pile of beans in the middle of the road, untouched and nearly invisible in the low light. "I hope she is a ball of fire," Namjoon said softly, "Because otherwise we won't be able to see her even if she does show up."
"We have the fucking skin, and you still don't believe?" Taehyung growled.
"Yup. Guess so."
Taehyung rolled over a little under Namjoon's leg and pulled his arm into his hands. He started carefully wrapping his own red headscarf around Namjoon's hand. "Some weird foreigner told me once that people in Europe fight bulls with red capes."
"He must have meant Spain," Namjoon said. "The bullfights. And no, people in the bullfights fight the bulls with swords, but they use to red capes to distract the bulls and make them charge towards them because bulls hate the color red, I guess? I haven't read up on that in years."
"I don't believe you. Bulls fighting capes? That's stupid."
"It's not that unbelievable, Tae. It's not as unbelievable as 'let's find a magic woman by stealing her hidden skin and making her count beans in the middle of the road at night.' This is stupid as shit, and you know it."
"If you can call me Tae, why can't I call you Namjoon?"
"Christ. Don't change the subject, you bitter little asshole," Namjoon said. "I don't know why you're being so confrontational this evening."
"I'm sick of watching you declare ignorance of things that are right in front of you."
"Your vocabulary is getting a lot better," Namjoon said.
"That's what happens when I hang around pretentious, over-educated pricks like you," Taehyung said.
"You two are both really good at re-directing the subject when it strays towards something you don't want to talk about," Seokjin said. Namjoon tried to figure out a way to snap at Seokjin for that comment while simultaneously keeping the conversation on target, but Seokjin was remarkably good at stopping the flow of conversation, and sometimes that really was a good thing.
"Here's a fun game," he said instead, "What's the alphabet, Taehyung?"
Taehyung glared at him again.
"A, B, D, E--"
"You missed the third letter again," Namjoon said softly.
"Fuck. A, B...." He sighed and rolled onto his back under Namjoon's leg, adjusting the headscarf tighter on his arm. "A, B, C, D, E, F..."
He and Namjoon continued quietly for a while. He started over every time he got it wrong, shaking his head and swearing under his breath, but he never seemed to want to give up, just started over and starting in again, staring into Namjoon face and whispering letters in his deep, breathy voice as Namjoon stroked the shape of his jaw with one thumb and corrected him every time he got it wrong.
Seokjin dropped off to sleep to the sound of Taehyung starting the alphabet over yet again with a small sigh of surrender. Namjoon sat very still and watched Taehyung pull the headscarf in different patterns around his arm while he muttered the alphabet, and eventually he didn't need Namjoon to tell him if he was wrong or right.
"A, apple. B, banana, C...Cherry is a fruit, right? The ‘ch’ sound counts as starting with ‘c,’ right? Berries are fruits?"
"D, Dragonfruit. E, shit. What's a fruit that starts with E?"
Namjoon did not have enough flexibility to lean down and kiss him, but he wished he did. Taehyung's lips looked delicious as strawberries, even in the moonlight, and Namjoon hadn't eaten strawberries in so many years.
"G, Guava. H...H. Crap."
"Crap starts with 'C'," Namjoon said.
"Crap starts with C for Captain," Taehyung muttered.
"You're just out for blood tonight, aren't you?"
"How much longer do we have to sit here, Captain? Taehyung asked. "The ground is really hard and itchy."
"We're probably going to be here all night, babe. The moon will probably set before our woman shows herself, which is bad, because we need to be able to see, so I really hope she is a ball of fire."
"Good thing there aren't any clouds," Seokjin murmured sleepily.
"Yes, sir," he murmured, and lay back awkwardly between the cornstalks, smashing one down a little. Jimin rolled over on his lap, which probably made things much more uncomfortable, but neither seemed to care.
And they sat and stargazed alone again. "Pegasus," Namjoon said, pointing, "I think. I can't see much through these damn stalks right now, but that one is huge."
"Congrats, sir," Taehyung slurred sleepily in his lap. "Are the stars really that different on the south side of the globe?"
"Yeah, they are. That side of the earth is facing a different side of the sky, you know. Different stars."
"How do sailors down there know where to go?" Taehyung said, yawning.
"They've worked out a different system of navigation based on the stars, the same way you and I know the stars differently."
"But they don't have the North Star."
"I think they have something called the Southern Cross, which is basically the same thing, but over the south side of the earth, and not the north. So they're just turned around and they focus on the south more than the north."
"Maybe I'm just tired, but I'd be really fucking confused."
"I think you'd be fine. You're just tired."
"I'm glad you think I'm smart," Taehyung said, and his face was way too close to some very sensitive areas on Namjoon's body. He shivered. "Because I think if you didn't think I was smart, I would probably hate you, and neither of us would like that very much," Taehyung finished.
"I'm glad I can recognize your intelligence then," Namjoon said. "I love watching you play tricks on people."
Taehyung grinned. "I'm glad. Most people don't notice. It's really fun. You should join Jungkook and I sometimes when we're fucking with drunks in port."
Namjoon let him drop off to sleep after that, thinking that he'd never be caught dead, as captain of a serious ship, fucking around with drunks in a port where people knew who he was and what ship he captained. People already stared at them enough. But he found that he really did regret that. He would have loved to fuck with drunks with the two youngest members of his crew.
He breathed deep. There'd been cornfields in Port Royal, and in Tortuga in the brief few months he'd lived there between voyages as a child, little cornfields that grew enough to keep the locals alive while all the new people coming in and out of the town relied on trade staying steady. He and Zico would run up on summer nights and play in the corn, completely unworried about ghost women eating them. If they had been worried, would they have been in more danger? If he didn't believe they were there, would they ignore him like he didn't exist? Or had he been putting himself in terrible danger all along?
He wished he could sleep. The wind in the corn rustled in his ears like a childhood lullaby. Taehyung breathed steadily against his inner thigh, eyes so huge they barely closed when he slept, long lashes fanned out on his cheeks, a feminine kind of beauty. Maybe that was a subconscious reason for the fascination most sailors had with him. Maybe it wasn't subconscious at all. Sailors grew desperate for feminine bodies after months and months keeping their hands to themselves. That’s how Jimin managed to rake in so many paying clients in port.
Namjoon tightened his legs protectively around Taehyung, ran his fingers through his hair and wished he was flexible enough to bend over and kiss him, wished he could lock them together and never let anyone else try to possess him.
Night grew darker as the moon dipped below the trees and hills on the horizon. It still glowed over the sky in a dull silver, but everything grew dark. Namjoon's eyes trained towards the spot where he thought there was a gap in the corn. Nothing. He sighed and felt blindly for the skin. He touched it, and shuddered so wildly that Taehyung stirred.
"Sorry," he murmured.
Away in the dark, a villager walked past the last houses with a lantern, and came down the road towards them. Namjoon smirked a little. They'd be so confused by all the beans in the middle of the road. He stared away at the moonlit sky again. One confused bird chirped in the woods and another confused bird answered it. Dawn would come soon.
He looked back at the road. The lantern light had grown into a fiery ball hovering over the pile of beans, suspended in air. It hissed and popped. Namjoon kicked Seokjin awake and shook Taehyung's shoulder. Just as Seokjin jerked awake, the light went out. Namjoon bit down his shudders and grabbed the skin. The men stirred around him. Seokjin tried to light the lantern.
They stood. The grumbling in the road continued. Seokjin managed to light the lamp, and there in the middle of the road sat a gorgeous woman, hair flowing gently over her shoulders, shawl and dress hanging wide on her frame. She had flowers braided into her hair.
"We have your skin," Taehyung said, getting right to the point. "Tell us where the map piece is."
"I don't know what you mean," she said, though her eyes widened in terror, "Would you please help me pick up these beans?"
"N-no," Namjoon said, feeling a little silly, "We, um, have your skin and we won't give it back till we have the map piece. It'll be dawn soon."
"It'll be dawn soon," she repeated quietly, still picking up the beans one by one and dropping them into her apron.
"Where's the map piece?" Soekjin asked.
"What map piece?" She snapped. "Give me my skin back, or I'll suck all your blood out through your toes."
"Eesh," Jimin said.
"Not giving you your skin back," Namjoon said. "Keep counting those beans till the sun rises."
She started picking them up faster. "Not my skin," she said frantically, "no map piece. Just dropped my beans. I'll have them up in a minute, and then I'll come burn you alive and get my skin back."
"How'd you like us to take it down to market tomorrow and get a nice big tub of salt to dump inside," Jimin said.
"NO!" she screamed, eyes bugging in her skull, jaw gaping. Her long, sharp teeth elongated and retracted.
"Holy fuck," Namjoon said and had to sit down.
"What would that do?" Taehyung murmured.
"Burn like dumping salt in an open wound," Jimin said.
"This is nothing," she said, sweating and yanking the beans into her apron. "I'll have this done in no time. Dawn isn't for a while yet. Glad I returned early. There's nothing you can do."
Seokjin took a handful of beans out of the next bag and tossed it on the pile.
"Shut her up. She'll wake the whole village," Namjoon said.
"Why should I do what you want," she hissed, "You humans are all the same. You take what you want, and then you go back on your word because I'm just a monster. You'll go down to the village and throw salt in my skin anyway, won't you, so they'll make you food and say you're good men. You're not good men! I am a murderer, but you are bullies!" She yelled, still furiously picking up beans and scowling at them like "bully" was the worst term she'd ever hurled at anyone.
"I mean, we're murderers too, technically," Seokjin said.
"Not even technically," Taehyung said. "I've stabbed men in the back before. Hell, I've stabbed men in the front before. So many men."
"I drowned my stepfather in the town fountain," Jimin said. The woman and the other three men all gaped at him. "What, have I never told you guys that before? That's why I had to run away and become a pirate. They'd been trying to figure out a way to get rid of me for years anyway, because I'm a bastard, you know. No one ever knew who my real father was."
"I'm sorry," Seokjin said, patting his head.
He shrugged. "It's fine. Mom's probably okay. She's a tough woman who never really cared about anything, not even me. I kinda never found fault with her for that though. My existence put her through hell."
"I'm glad you're alive," Taehyung said.
"Cute," she said, shoveling beans faster and staring at the sky in worry. "I'm glad we've all bonded. Please help me pick up these beans."
Jimin knelt down to be on her level, stared her directly in the eye, and started softly, slowly singing an old sea shanty in a haunting, lilting voice.
"Fare thee well, my lovely monster,
A thousand times adieu.
We are bound away from the Holy Ground,
and the girls we love so true."
Her hand slowed on the beans as she stared, wide-eyed, at Jimin's face. "Oh," she murmured.
Taehyung gripped Namjoon's arm, and Namjoon gripped his hand back, dizzy and disoriented.
"We'll sail the salt seas over
and we'll return once more,
And still I live in hope to see
the Holy Ground once more."
They'd heard Jimin sing many times. He sang when he drank. He sang when he ate. He sang when he walked, when he worked on the rigging, when he used the head, when he was dropping off to sleep, sea shanties and Spanish lullabies, nursery rhymes and ballads. He liked to act bashful when anyone listened, so the crew had learned to ignore it, to go about business as usual and pretend not to hear in order to continue listening to his pretty, gentle voice. That was how he roped in men at the bar, how he'd charmed Jungkook into finally opening up to someone in the crew and letting them befriend him. His voice had never sounded quite like this.
"You're the girl that I adore,
And still I live in hope to see
the Holy Ground once more."
Namjoon realized he was reeling, vision spinning. Visions of London flashed in his head, the lyrics drawing up out of him such a yearning for home, and not just for home, but for family, for the people he really loved, lying in his hammock while the old crew bustled quietly to sleep and Seokjin muttered about life through the ropes of the hammock above him and Yoongi grumbled about everyone being too loud from the hammock below. He thought of holding Taehyung in the moonlight, of teaching Jungkook how to read music.
"Now when we're out a-sailing
and you are far behind
Fine letters will I write to you
with the secrets of my mind."
"Enough," the woman said, "The map is in my house, inside the pot under my bed. The last man to sing to me told me to keep it for him. To think someone would try to kill me for it."
"We're pirates, Ma'am, and so were they. We don't always keep our words," Jimin said. "Now you can keep counting those beans, because I don't trust you not to rip into our toes or whatever and suck us dry, but we'll give you the skin." He threw it over her body, and she struggled to fight her way into it while still counting the beans into her apron. She transformed into an old hag before their eyes, and the apron disappeared, spilling all the beans back onto the road. She sighed heavily.
"I'll take some of those back," Seokjin said kindly, creeping forward and shoving large handfuls back into the sack.
"You're not going to kill me for the villagers?" she asked.
"Nah. We have a track record of not caring about other people and we're not going to stop now," Jimin said. "You gave us what we wanted."
They found the map piece right where she told them it would be, in a pot under her bed with the Five Kings crest on it. "You know, we could have found this when we were in here the first time," Namjoon said tiredly. The map piece showed the right corner of the Caribbean, just a large chunk of landless, routeless Atlantic Ocean. He turned the map over. “’Admiral W’ it says. That’s it. No answers there.” He sat down on her filthy bed with his head in his hands, brain still reeling from Jimin's singing. He figured he was just tired.
"I had fun," Jimin said. "Let's get back to the ship and see what the other guys found."
He continued to sing all the way down the road with his pot in his hands, voice back to his normal sweet, breathy tone, pronunciation weirdly delicate for a sailor.
"The secrets of my mind, my girl,
you're the girl that I adore,
And still I live in hope to see
the Holy Ground once more.
"Gotta finish the song," he said, and sang all the way through as they walked in and out of the village and down towards the city. People stared as they walked past, half enchanted by his beautiful voice. Namjoon stared at his back. He'd had a mom, but those rumors about him having a siren mother made a lot more sense suddenly.
The early morning markets bustled. "Aren't the markets more interesting here than they are in London?" Taehyung asked as they passed between stalls with fresh fish and huge, weird vegetables.
"In London markets there are stalls selling things from all over the world," Namjoon said, and Taehyung frowned. "I like these better anyway."
Taehyung managed to slide four bananas off a table without anybody noticing, and they ate while they walked.
Seokjin knew exactly what he wanted. He travelled from stall to stall, eyeing the spices and listening to the merchants calling, until he reached the end of a row and led them back to one they'd seen much earlier. Namjoon translated. The man tried to swindle them. Namjoon calmly reiterated how much they would be paying while Seokjin smiled cheerfully and Jimin cleaned his nails with a dagger.
They found the kittens right next to the stall with honey. As Seokjin and Namjoon bartered for that, Taehyung and Jimin got well acquainted with every single one.
"Did you find them?" Namjoon asked when the sun was much higher in the sky and they'd bought enough food to replace everything they'd eaten since Port Royal.
"Well, Captain," Taehyung said with two wriggling kittens trying to fight their way out of his arms, "we have some good news and some bad news."
"Lay it on me."
"Good news. Three of them are perfect. They're old enough that they've already proved themselves to be good rat catchers. They're sociable. They're fluffy and adorable. Two of them are really smart. Those are the two Jimin wants, but I want the dumb one too, because we could have some fun with that." He held up his two favorites, a solid gray one with fluffy cheeks, huge, vacant eyes, and a bright orange one that kept almost getting away with a little, twisting squirm.
"Well, first, we need to choose two and I'm in love with all of them. Second, they're obviously far and away the most expensive."
"Well the advantage of not staying in port for weeks and blowing all our money on grog is that we have some extra cash. And they can't be that expensive. They're just kittens. I think we should get the smart cats."
"I think Jungkook would like the dumb one better." He gazed innocently up at Namjoon, pouting just a little with his pretty pink lips, one kitten still twisting around in his large hand and peeping angrily.
"Can I have this one?" Jimin said softly, with a fluffy, perfectly black cat nodding off to sleep in his hands. She matched his all-black attire perfectly, a glossy, sweet, little thing. "She's not a rat catcher. She's just so pretty. And she's cheap."
"We're not buying the whole litter of kittens," Namjoon said. "Honestly, I feel like I'm raising spoiled children sometimes."
"My question is why are we buying kittens at all when we could kidnap stray cats off the street?" Seokjin said.
"We don't want cat-scratch fever from diseased dumpster cats," Namjoon said.
"Get the smart one and the dumb one if that's what you want, but Jimin, you're buying that with your own money."
"I'm okay with that," he murmured, kissing her head.
They arrived back at the ship mid-morning, laden down with packages and three kittens trying to get out of their bag.
"Fuck, there you are," Yoongi said, popping out of the hatch the minute their feet hit the deck. "It's been nearly a whole day." Dark bags hung under his eyes. "I've been awake all night."
"Me too," Namjoon said. "We have kittens now."
"Fuck. What? Kittens? Jungkook!"
Jungkook's head popped up. "Yes, sir?"
"They brought back kittens."
Jungkook's face fell. "I don't like cats."
Taehyung giggled. "One of them is really dumb, Jungkook. You'll love him."
"C'mon. Why don't you like cats?"
"It's because he's actually a bunny," Namjoon said. Jungkook's scowl deepened, which had the adorable effect of making his cheeks puff out just a little bit. Taehyung dropped a kitten into his arms and climbed down the ladder.
"Taehyung, I'm gonna start passing packages down. Are you ready?"
"There's a scary woman on board."
Jungkook and Yoongi had found her waiting for them as they quickly and discreetly exited a bar early in the evening when too many people started asking awkward questions.
Of course even their simple job of picking up tavern gossip couldn’t go over well. Some asshole came in ten minutes behind them and started telling wild stories of a pirate ship letting loose an army of the undead all over the coast of Hispaniola, and before Yoongi had a chance to get the crowd laughing at the sorry idiot, an ugly man with an eyepatch stepped to the front and asked if they were the Yoongi and Jungkook from that crew that nearly got wiped out just a few months ago. Were they mutineers? Why were they asking about crews going after the Five Kings ship? Wasn't someone in their crew a Haitian witch? Yoongi wished they’d used fake names.
"I have some answers for you," the strange woman said, stepping out of the shadows behind the bar as they caught their breath and checked around the corner for anyone who might be listening in, "But you'll need to do something for me."
Which is how they found themselves sneaking into a closely guarded house at the top of the city, picking locks and slipping silently from room to room. Yoongi shook with nerves. They'd taken off their conspicuous white shirts outside to slide through the dark house in relative invisibility, and Yoongi pressed nervously up against Jungkook's side as he peered around a doorframe. Jungkook rubbed his back soothingly and Yoongi froze up further. When, exactly, had shy, little Jungkook gotten taller than him?
"Stay here," Jungkook whispered, one hand sliding gently down Yoongi’s arm. He slipped away, acting before thinking like always. In the dim light, Yoongi could just see the long, harsh scars from an old lashing across Jungkook’s back. Just five blows with the nine tails. Yoongi remembered it, Jungkook barely tall enough to be more than a child, caught stealing extra water during a storm when the roiling waves had everyone on board puking into buckets.
Those five lashes had nearly killed him. Yoongi had been the only person on board willing to put down his bucket and fix up his back. He stayed up at night with a bottle of rum, petting Jungkook’s hair and making him drink the painkiller. If infection hadn’t gotten him, dehydration would have. He got his own, matching scars nearly a year later, and Jungkook had come to him late every night after everyone else was asleep to give him more rum and a couple shaky, tentative, head rubs.
Jungkook rummaged through desk drawers with quiet thumping noises and Yoongi just wanted him back. People spoke downstairs, footsteps all over the house. Yoongi hugged his bare body and tried to even out his breathing. If they got caught, they'd be locked up before midnight, probably dead at sunrise. They wouldn’t bother with lashings, torture, or any kind of imprisonment. The Spanish had no patience for pirates.
Jungkook appeared back around the corner and Yoongi nearly jumped out of his skin. He gave Yoongi a respectful bow. He'd always been carefully deferential, a shut-down, silent boy that was never underfoot, always right where the crew needed him, bowing to whoever addressed him, and hiding in the hold whenever people might ask too much from him. He'd grown tall and thick, jaw sharp and hands strong, more capable than anyone else on the ship.
"You got it?" Yoongi whispered.
In all his time knowing Jungkook, Yoongi had never seen him fail at anything. Not once. He let Jungkook grab his hand and lead him back out of the house, not properly breathing till they’d made it back to the woman by the bar.
"My name is Hwasa," she said once they had her on board. She dressed like a local woman, ruffled, flowing skirts and a gorgeous blouse, all old and dirty. She carried herself like a queen. "Maybe you've heard of me?"
Hoseok and Yoongi shook their heads. "That sounds familiar," Jungkook said softly.
She smiled at him, looking him up and down. "Good."
Jungkook, who had not put his shirt back on yet, slowly reached for it.
They'd stolen several items for her: a book filled with a language they couldn't read, a gold watch, and a spindly, broken telescope. She rubbed the book fondly. "I'll wait for your captain to get back, and then I'll tell you everything you paid me to."
"Yoongi," Hoseok said, "Once they find the stolen items, the first places they'll look are the new ships in harbor."
She shook her head. "Nobody will miss these. They don't know what they have. If they even notice they're gone by the time you all leave port, they’ll question the servants first, and then their own family members, and then they'll probably assume that it was lost. If they'd caught me trying to get them back, however, that would mean big trouble. They'd assume I was practicing witchcraft, and I'd get burned or hung."
"Why send us then?" Yoongi asked.
"Better you than me."
She waited there in the middle of their sleeping quarters all night. Jungkook eventually lay down in his hammock and went to sleep. Hoseok and Yoongi sat there awkwardly and played cards until morning while she sipped out of a flask that never seemed to empty.
"The ship that has the map piece from the Lucayos is the Bloody Marlin," she said when the whole crew had assembled in the galley, three new kittens stumbling around underfoot.
"That's such a stupid, stereotypical name," Namjoon sighed. Taehyung sat just behind him, arms around his waist, resting his face against Namjoon's shoulder like he was scared to face her directly.
"Oi, we know who they are," Yoongi said, poking him with a boot, "remember? We were in port with them once. They got drunk and threw someone in Zico's crew over a balcony and broke a few of his ribs."
"That was them?"
"They stick to the Atlantic most of the time, along the southern colonies. They’re notoriously brutal and bloodthirsty. I think they're one of the reasons the Navy has been cracking down on pirates recently. They're attacking English ships instead of sticking to Dutch and Spanish ships."
"Fuckers," Namjoon said. “Why do they have to make things complicated for the rest of us? The system works until people start fucking around with how much they can get away with. What kind of shit captain do they have?”
Hwasa leaned back into the conversation. "They're looking for the Five Kings ship because they keep killing off members of their own crew, and can't kidnap people who are actually good enough at sailing to make up for the people they keep killing off. And no one is going to sign on to a crew like that. It's poorly managed. They've only found the Bahamas map piece.
"That information was for the telescope," she tucked it into a pocket in her skirts. "Very useful. This book pays for something far more valuable, which is advice. Lots of it. Firstly, my sister has moved the map piece on the coast of Mexico. It is on the land south of the Yucatan. Right here, upriver between Nicaragua and Costa Rica." She jabbed the point of a drawing compass right into a spot along the shore. "The Yucatan piece is still where it always was. Jimin, that one is yours." Jimin sat up a little, looking worried and hugging his little, black kitten close.
“Also your curse is getting worse, but I bet you’d already figured that out,” she said, giving Hoseok a look up-and-down as he sat hunched over and breathing carefully in his seat.
"And for the gold watch," she said, "You're buying my silence on your little secret. Speaking of the curse. I'm sure there would be interested parties. Many people come to me for information, and they won't be learning that from me."
All seven men sat stock still and stared at her with wide eyes.
"Who told you," Namjoon said.
Taehyung made a small noise of protest. "She's a Mother of the Water. She just knows."
"A seagull told me," she said airily. "One last piece of advice before I go. You work well solo, but you may need to team up with others in the future. Don't ruin everything by insisting on self-sufficiency. Related: there’s writing on the back of that map. I’ll need to know what it is when you finish. That's all. Thank you for the trinkets. Good luck on escaping your curse." She swept out her skirt behind her. The new gray kitten jumped after it and ruined the drama by falling over his head and skittering under the stairs.
"Baby," Taehyung cooed and ran after it.
“We need to get out of port,” Yoongi said.
“Restock the water first,” Namjoon said, and peered above deck.
Namjoon watched her leave the ship. She went the wrong way down the dock, straight out towards the end instead of back to shore, and stepped right off, disappearing into the water.
“Sir,” Jungkook said quietly, “The fake name I gave the ship somehow fell off. It’s pretty obvious what the name of our ship actually is.”
“How the hell did that happen?” Namjoon said.
“Bad luck,” Jungkook said with a grave nod. “The curse.”
“Yup. Water and then make way,” Namjoon said. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”
Chapter 5: Cenote
Jimin goes looking for his father.
Jimin and Taehyung kept their novelty for a few months. Men catcalled and motioned them over, and they’d grin and sit down on any offered lap, following any beckoning hand deeper below deck. A month or two in, they seemed to get bored and started waving away offers.
Namjoon loved getting night watch on clear nights, sitting in the crow’s nest with the full moon dressing him in silver, but for the second time in a month, Taehyung crawled up into the crow’s nest right as Namjoon had reached the top for his watch. “I’ve got it. You should go back below to sleep.”
“But it’s a nice night. I’d rather do it now,” Namjoon said.
“Seriously,” Taehyung said. “I just want to do this watch. You don’t owe me.”
Namjoon went below, grumpy about the pretentious eccentricities of their new younger crewmates.
“Couple of bitches,” Edgar growled from his hammock as Namjoon climbed into his one row over. “Night watch. How many times has he used night watch as an excuse. Just doesn’t want anything to do with me. Fucker.”
“I don’t really like the skinny one anyway,” Ratty Jim said. “Too mouthy. He can go hide in the crow’s nest if he wants. Jimin’s got a nicer ass.”
Either the crew stopped coming to Taehyung for stories in the evening, or he stopped telling them. He developed big, dark circles under his eyes from taking so many night watch shifts, making his face permanently puffy and young, and someone tripped over him one day when he fell asleep while swabbing the deck.
Sometimes Namjoon went down below with food for Jungkook—Hoseok had long since migrated to the deck with Namjoon and Yoongi—and walked in on someone with Taehyung or Jimin half undressed and slick with oil, but it became more and more unusual. Men on deck would get rude. Jimin would roll his eyes, then smile sweetly and draw them below. Things would calm down for a few days, then the men got bitchy again. Taehyung got eye bags and fell asleep hunched in the shade by the bow, and Jimin would draw them back below again, placating and tired.
They couldn’t please everyone. Namjoon doubted they’d want to anyway, but they pleased less and less.
But once, he found them fully dressed and crouched by Jungkook’s hideaway. “What are you two doing?”
Taehyung put his finger earnestly to his lips, eyes flashing in a dim streak of sunlight shining through the damaged coaming and two layers of decking. Jimin lay face-down with his head turned towards Jungkook’s barrel hut, crooning a sweet, little lullaby and tapping his fingers gently as if coaxing a cat out from under a bed.
Namjoon bristled. “Don’t—”
Taehyung rolled quickly towards him and grabbed his leg, eyes imploring from about thigh height, on his knees like Namjoon had seen him in front of the bo’s’n a week before. It was distracting enough to snap Namjoon out of his defensiveness and re-read the situation.
Jimin’s eyes never left Jungkook’s hut, cheek pressed to the dirty floor, gaze steady. He sang gently through another verse and Jungkook’s hand emerged from his hiding place to bump gently against Jimin’s. Jimin kept singing, but his eyes drifted shut, and he pulled Jungkook’s fingers to his mouth and sang with his lips brushing the backs of Jungkook’s hand.
Jungkook rarely let even Yoongi touch him, avoided interaction with anyone, flinched when Namjoon spoke too loud. But he unfolded slowly from his hiding place, crawled out, and nestled right into Jimin’s waiting arms. Here he was snuggling up to the crew’s whore like Jimin was his own mother.
He’d gotten bigger, body longer, features sharper, but he crowded up on top of Jimin like he was still a little kid, forcing him onto his back and wrapping around his chest. “Honey,” Taehyung murmured, and slid up behind him, snuggling happily. Jungkook gave one long, shaky sigh and allowed it. How many years had it been since anyone held him kindly?
“We’ve got you now,” Jimin murmured into Jungkook’s hair. “We’ll take care of you.”
Namjoon forced down the choking lump in his throat. “The crew’s gonna be so shitty about it,” Namjoon said, “to all of you.”
“I don’t care,” Taehyung said. “I’m sick of them.”
“They’re so small,” Jungkook said. He and Taehyung lay on the deck and watched Bourbon and Scotch tumble across the deck. Jimin’s Licorice sat on the small of Jungkook’s scarred back and licked his dainty paws.
“Have you ever had licorice?” Taehyung asked Jimin, sitting slightly up the rigging nearby.
Jimin pulled him mouth away from a sweet potato on a fork. “Huh?”
“Licorice. Have you ever eaten it?”
“It’s a food?”
Taehyung snickered. “Yeah! I mean, I think so. Hey Captain!”
Namjoon stepped up to the top of the quarter deck. “Yeah?”
“Licorice is a type of food, right?”
“It’s an herb. People use the root in teas and stuff. I think you can make black candy out of it.”
“So that’s why you’re Licorice,” Taehyung said, petting his glossy, black fur. “Pretty kitty.”
Licorice moved further up Jungkook back to get back in the sunbeam, and curled up. Jungkook visibly gulped, holding very still.
“You don’t have to be scared of the kitten,” Taehyung giggled. “He really likes you.” He scratched Jungkook’s scalp, right behind his ears where he liked it. Jungkook’s eyelids drooped a little “You’re a little bit of a kitten too.”
“Bunny,” Jungkook corrected. Taehyung giggled and scratched behind his other ear too. Jungkook hummed happily and then surged forward and rammed his head into Taehyung’s chest, rubbing affectionately. Licorice fell off and toddled away across the deck to find a more stationary warm spot. Taehyung squealed and tried to protect himself through his giggles as Jungkook flopped down on top of him and snuggled close, knocking all the breath out of him.
Jungkook was a lot like a big dog who had never realized that he wasn’t a puppy anymore, demanding all the same cuddles and coddling that he’d gotten when he was small and adorable. Taehyung figured he was just making up for lost time, because people hadn’t loved him enough when he had been a cute puppy. He settled on Taehyung’s chest and closed his eyes, much like the kitten had just been doing to him a moment ago.
“I think you don’t like cats because they hit too close to home,” Taehyung said.
“Shut up. The last ship’s cat and I had a territory war all over the hold. She’d come up and bite me in my sleep.”
Licorice came back over looking for his heating pad, but was too short to jump up onto Jungkook’s back now that he was on Taehyung. Jungkook helped him up and went back to pretending to sleep on Taehyung’s chest.
“Little prince,” Taehyung said affectionately. Jungkook hummed. Jimin finished his potato and brought the two other kittens over to cuddle, trapping them in his shirt and giggling as he snuggled up against Taehyung and Jungkook. The two kittens wriggled against his chest. They eventually squeaked out and got away, and Jimin fell asleep on the wood next to them.
Yoongi leaned over the crows next and screamed “Land ho!”
“What was that?” Taehyung yelled back while Hoseok yelled “Louder!” and Seokjin yelled, “Didn’t catch that!”
“I fuckin hate you bitches!”
Jungkook did an odd little giggle, little puffs of air through his nose, barely there, endeared more than anything. He and Yoongi had been treating each other a little oddly since Havana. They’d always treated each other a little oddly though. They’d been taking care of each other much longer than any of their crew had been friends.
Namjoon came down on deck, boots clunking awkwardly on the stairs, looking thoughtfully off at the shore. "Here comes your man," Jimin said with his ear pressed to the wood, not even bothering to look up.
"Oh, shut up," Taehyung giggled. Jungkook picked his head up and looked curiously down at them. Taehyung brushed his hair back from his forehead. "You can just ask, Kookie."
Jungkook shrugged. He didn't like asking questions. He didn't really like answering questions either. Or talking much. A product of being the old crew's favorite toy for years.
"They're fucking," Jimin told him so he wouldn’t have to ask.
"We're not though."
"You sound disappointed."
"Big man on board won't get his head out of his ass?" Jimin asked.
"He's got this overblown sense of duty or something."
"Sh," Jungkook said, "He's getting closer."
Namjoon walked past them, dropped a kitten on Jimin's face, and then headed off towards the bow to talk to Hoseok.
"Is Seokjin at the helm?" Jimin asked.
"Guess he'd have to be," Taehyung said, "Good for him."
"I don't think his sense of duty is overblown," Jungkook said quietly.
Jungkook shook his head. "Namj--The Captain's."
"See?" Taehyung said, "You can't remember to call him Captain because he's still our Namjoon. And he's trying to be the big captain, but it's making him unhappy, and we all take him seriously whether or not he acts cold and in charge. He's just forcing himself and now we're all unhappy."
Jungkook shook his head again. "I think we need that. You don't think you do, and that's what causes all the problems, but we all butt heads to much. We need someone in authority, and if we treated each other perfectly equally, we’d never get anywhere."
Taehyung frowned, but scratched Jungkook's head reassuringly. He'd been getting more and more tense the longer he talked, scowling and ducking apologetically without realizing it. The moment Taehyung's hands ran through his hair, he melted back onto his chest with a sigh. "He's so lonely though. He misses us. There's a balance here, and I don't think we're hitting it yet. I'd push back less if I wasn't so worried about him."
"I almost voted for you as Captain," Jimin said.
"I'd make a terrible Captain."
"Oh, I know. I would have been able to get away with anything."
Taehyung laughed. "I like being far enough down the ladder that I'm not officially responsible for anyone."
"No one except us," Jimin said.
"My cronies," Taehyung said.
"Speaking of cronies," Namjoon said, walking up, "You three are going ashore with Yoongi tomorrow morning to find the next map piece."
Jimin sat up, "Can I make some requests, please, Captain?"
Namjoon sat down on the deck beside them and leaned against the mast. "Yes?"
Jimin sat up nervously. "The lady back in Havana said this map piece was gonna be my thing, and I think I know why. Can--can I only bring these two along? I don't think we'll be in too much danger. I just...it's private. I just want these two."
Namjoon pulled his "I'm not sure that's a good idea" face, somewhere between spooked and confused. "Are you sure? We've been dealing with a lot of...monsters."
Taehyung loved the vague panic in his face whenever he mentioned magic stuff.
Jimin nodded. "We'll be fine."
Namjoon still looked unconvinced, but he was a good captain. he wouldn't outright refuse a request like that. "Can I know why?"
"I'd rather not say."
"Jimin," Taehyung said, "It's an awful big risk for us to make on something you won't tell us about."
"Okay. You guys know I grew up just a day or two south of here by ship, right?"
"So family shit, is what I'm getting at. This is personal. But it's a kind of personal that I avoid, and I'd like to only have these two idiots along."
"Oh," Taehyung said. "Jimin, I'm siding with Captain on this. That's still a big risk."
"Does this have something to do with the magic singing?" Namjoon said, which was a little too direct. Jimin's face lost all its sincerity and went back to his resting bitch face. Jungkook bit his lip against all the bursting questions he didn't want to ask, looking back and forth between all of them with huge, confused eyes.
Jimin stared Namjoon down. Namjoon sighed. "Jimin..."
"I won't go. And then you'll never get the map piece. And you'll all probably die."
Namjoon sighed heavily. "Okay. Compromise. Would you be okay with Yoongi and I coming ashore at least? Maybe coming as far as you're comfortable? In case you end up needing backup?"
"That seems like an even bigger risk to me."
"Jimin, please tell us what we're dealing with."
"I don't know," Jimin said softly. "I honestly don't. I just have a theory, but I don't want to say it in case I'm wrong. Sir, is it really that big of a deal to just send the three of us? We're all strong fighters. If I'm wrong, we'll still be okay. If I'm right, a small group is probably better, and a group on the ship that's bigger than two people is probably a good idea too."
"Taehyung," Namjoon said, "Do you know what he's talking about?"
Taehyung shrugged. "I have a theory, but I don't actually know how this whole thing works, so I'm going to defer to his judgement on this one."
"Yeah," Jimin said, "you have some pretty skewed ideas about what this is. You've been listening to too many European stories."
"Sirens?" Taehyung said.
"Not sirens. I can at least tell you that. No sirens involved."
"Again, the compromise. Yoongi and me on the beach so we can go in either direction if people end up needing backup."
"That's just dividing us into three groups!"
Hoseok wandered down to them, moving slowly. A pale pink line soaked slowly through his new bandages, wet and yellow-ish around the edges. "Sir, I’ve been thinking about the map. 'Admiral W.' Isn't there a British Admiral right now with a last name that starts with W? Do you think the message is about him?" He looked around the little group. "Oh sorry, did I interrupt something?"
"You can sit on the stupid beach if that makes you more comfortable," Jimin snapped, "but for the record, I think it's a bad idea."
"I'd feel better if I knew Yoongi and the captain were on the beach," Jungkook murmured. "We've been running into scary shit. Backup is probably a good idea."
"Okay," Jimin said, petting Jungkook's back. “We can do that."
"You're so spoiled," Namjoon laughed.
"I deserve it?" Jungkook said softly.
"Yeah, you do," Taehyung said, "but could you please get off my chest? You're a lot heavier than you think you are and I'm gonna be sore tomorrow from trying to breath."
"Sorry," Jungkook murmured, and slid off, hesitating to lay his head on Namjoon’s lap. Namjoon tugged him closer and pulled a hand through his hair, and Jungkook shut his eyes and snuggled against his hip.
"I don't know why we just got more kittens when we already have three," Namjoon said, nudging Taehyung's shoulder.
"Yeah. Watch me catch a rat with just my teeth," Taehyung said, "New trick."
"Do it. I dare you." Namjoon said.
"They're already working," Jimin said. He'd somehow wormed his way into the Namjoon cuddle with Jungkook cradling him. "Bourbon dropped three dead rats off under my hammock overnight. Fuckin nasty. I’m so proud."
Taehyung knocked on Namjoon's cabin after dinner, and found him with his hair down out of his headband and his shirt untucked and hanging to the middle of his thighs, boots off, sleeves unbuttoned. "Letting lose a little, Captain?"
"Dinner filled me up. I've been lying down."
"I don't have the heart to tell Seokjin that I don't really like sweet potatoes," Taehyung said.
"He'd probably find that hilarious, actually," Namjoon said, opening the door wider and ushering Taehyung in. "It's not like he bought them."
"I love the plantains though," Taehyung said. He breathed in deeply. They'd cleaned out the cabin thoroughly a week after the old Captain passed away, replacing the sheets and curtains, scrubbing every surface. They'd replaced a couple panes of broken glass and polished the lanterns.
They'd cleaned the rest of the ship too. It took two whole weeks in port, turning the ship around to be less of a shadow of the old crew, throwing out everything they didn't want and repurposing everything else, spending the old crew's money on new sails and plenty of polish. They'd left port a new ship, and there wasn't a single spot on her that they worked on more than the Captain's cabin. It had begun to smell like Namjoon, dark and sweet like rum, sweat, and comfort. Whenever Taehyung walked in, he wanted to take all his clothes off and climb into the sheets, soak up all that smell. His own shirt didn't smell like Namjoon anymore, but sometimes, when he stayed in Namjoon's bed long enough, the smell came back a bit.
Namjoon pulled Taehyung's reading lessons book off the shelf. He'd been coming in almost nightly, loving the excuse of reading to spend more time alone with Namjoon. He broke down further and further every night, pulling Taehyung onto the bed sooner and sooner, keeping him there longer and longer.
"Want to try to read again today instead of just copying letters?"
"Ugh," Taehyung snorted. “I'm awful every time though.”
Namjoon handed him a book and sat down. "You're fine. Read that. Remember that I don't have any good reading material for you. This is all really hard stuff. Don't get discouraged because you have no idea what any of it means.
Taehyung pulled the map pieced towards himself. "ap him in the?"
"I have no idea. "'Wap him in the face'? 'Lap him in the pool'? 'Trap him in the dungeon'? Who knows. Doesn't matter right now, I guess."
Namjoon got him reading locations off a map. "Why do the s's and f's look exactly the same?"
"Just the way it is, I guess. Why do o's, e's, and c's all look so similar?"
Taehyung loved the way the lamplight turned Namjoon's skin even more deeply bronze. He could see straight down the front of his loose shirt with it untucked. Taehyung considered letting his own hair down and undoing his own shirt, but that seemed too obvious.
"Want to try to write stuff?" Namjoon said, pushing the ink bottle and pen towards him. Taehyung uncapped it and wrote 'stuf' on the paper. "'Stuff' has two 'f's at the end, but close," Namjoon said.
"Like the color?"
"That one is weird. p-u-r-p-l-e. Purple."
"Still colors? B-l-u-e."
"Fuck, spelling shit is fucking impossible."
Taehyung wrote it down on paper, stared at it a minute, mouthing it slowly, and then burst into giggles. He got out his pen and wrote something else. Namjoon leaned forward. "Is that two words?"
"Why'd you say that with an 's' sound?"
"Oh! 'Kiss' is spelled with a K on the front, and two 's's. 'Me' only has one 'e' in it."
Taehyung fixed it, feeling his cheeks heat up. He drew a wobbly question mark on the end and then turned hopefully to Namjoon, who leaned back in his chair with his legs wide and comfortable, smiling softly. "Come get it."
Taehyung climbed quickly over Namjoon's lap and settled in with his thighs tight around his waist. The material of his tight breeches trapped his own thin thighs from spreading too wide, but he pressed as close as he could and cupped Namjoon's jaw in his hands. Warm palms brushed around his waist and over his lower back, huge and hot. "How are you so thin?" Namjoon asked.
"Feel my stomach," Taehyung giggled, "You can feel how much I ate. I've got a food bump."
Namjoon's palm ran over Taehyung belly, fingers trailing behind, the other big hand pressed against his back to pin him in place. A jolt of heat bolted through him. How did he always forget how sensitive his tummy was? And Namjoon kept stroking over it with his fingertips. Taehyung's fingers dug into Namjoon’s shoulders and he breathed deeply, trying to stay normal, but Namjoon gently pulled his shirt out of his breeches and reached under. He pinched Taehyung's little bit of belly fat between two fingers and scratched gently with the others. Taehyung gave in and shuddered, dropping his head back and letting his little, broken moans squeak out.
"You ha-haven't kissed me yet," he said. Namjoon's hand sank just a little lower for a second, teasing, and then he had Taehyung's chin in his warm hands, Taehyung's lips tilted down against his, and one hand under Taehyung’s untucked shirt to touch his skin.
"My man," Taehyung murmured against his lips, and Namjoon grinned.
"Pretty boy," he murmured back.
Taehyung sucked on Namjoon's thick lower lip, hands curling in the back of his hair. Namjoon got his hands under Taehyung's thighs and stood, walking him over to the bed. Midway there, the boat rocked with a wave and Namjoon had to put him down fast before they both toppled onto the floor, but then Taehyung had a warm Namjoon blanket over him and the plushest lips pressed to his. They tasted like sweet potatoes.
Taehyung giggled, shimmied so his shirt rode up, and bit Namjoon's ear. He grunted.
"Joon," Taehyung said, pushing him up a little so he could pull his shirt off. "Joon," he said, voice fading into a whisper.
Something banged on the door and they both jumped and looked up. "Hello?" Namjoon said. No response. They waited a second.
"I'm so fucking paranoid about this shit these days," Namjoon muttered. "Who--"
The door banged again, slamming against the doorframe like someone with no knowledge of latches was trying to get in. Taehyung gripped Namjoon's shoulders.
"Fuck," Namjoon said, collapsing on top of Taehyung.
The door banged against the frame again, but now Taehyung could see the little orange paw hooked around the underside. "Prrow?"
"It's Scotch," he said.
"Fuckin kittens. How the hell did you talk me into getting three whole kittens? I wanted one cat."
Taehyung sighed sadly. "I love them though."
"Yes, they're very cute." The door banged again. Namjoon got up, opened it enough to let the kitten in, and then picked him up and put him on one of the low rafters. Scotch sat down in complete confusion and examined his predicament while Namjoon came back over to the bed and bit Taehyung's belly.
"Hah-ah! Hnng! Fuck." His hips bucked up under Namjoon's chin. Namjoon kissed the dim bite mark, licked it gently, and then crawled up Taehyung's body. His hands slid under his shirt the whole way. Taehyung shook with excitement. The cool air hit his chest, and then his arms, and then Namjoon pulled his shirt off over his head, taking his head scarf with it. He kissed the underside of his jaw. "Joon," He murmured. His hips were right there, right above him. He bucked up just a little and brushed tantalizingly against the front of Namjoon's breeches. His head spun.
"Please, Joon. Please. Please."
Namjoon's brain clicked back on, conscience interrupting and asking questions. His mouth slowed a little on Taehyung's neck. His body stiffened above him.
"Joon," Taehyung whispered, kissing him harder like that might fix it. Namjoon slowed to a stop and sat up. He looked scared.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I'm really sorry."
"Please?" Taehyung said, voice cracking.
"I know. I"m sorry. When it gets into my head that I'm being a shitty captain, I just..." He shrugged helplessly. "I can't. I'm sorry."
Taehyung bit his lip and stared at Scotch up on the ceiling, anger seeping through his head and falling out like a sieve and leaving him with nothing but frustration and guilt. "Taehyung?"
Taehyung pulled Namjoon's pillow over his face to give himself some privacy, and Namjoon's scent flooded over him. His plan backfired. He held his breath and choked on the sob, chest aching with desperate want, feeling disgustingly exposed. "I'm sorry, Tae," Namjoon said. "We lost so much when we got this ship. I don’t want to fuck it up. Maybe we should…try to calm down with this. Take it easy for a while."
They’d been taking it easy since they started. "Hmph," Taehyung said, very quietly, and managed to tamp down the aching need to cry long enough to get a few breaths in.
Namjoon lay down on his side and peered under the pillow. "I'm sorry.”
Taehyung nodded, took the pillow away, and fumbled for Namjoon's hand, but something small and fluffy with very sharp, pointy little feet pelted right into his exposed stomach from six feet above them, and Taehyung squawked and curled up, nearly slamming his forehead into Namjoon's.
"You bitch!" Taehyung yelled, curling around his stomach and groaning. Scotch scampered away to inspect the cabin. Namjoon sat up in surprise, giggling sympathetically.
"I'm gonna kill you, Joonie. Why the hell did you ever think it was a good idea to let cats on board, huh?"
"They catch rats? They're good luck?" Namjoon tried.
"Is that what is takes to get lucky around here?" Taehyung said.
"Taehyung, I'm sorry."
"Jungkook's gone dry on me recently, you know. I'm running out of options."
"Jimin?" Namjoon guessed.
"Oh hell no. I'm not having sex with that mess. He's strictly a no-strings-attached type, and that fucking hurts from a best friend. No way."
"I think he's what's hanging Jungkook up. Why do you want me to have sex with other people anyway? I don't want to have sex with people that aren't you. Would you have sex with people that aren't me?"
"If it meant staying healthy, yes. I know how you get when you haven't been laid in a while," Namjoon grumbled.
Taehyung sighed and gripped Namjoon's hand tighter, frustration pushing tears into his eyes again. He stood up and started tucking his shirt back into his breeches. "Goodnight, Captain," he said, "Thanks for the reading lessons. I'll see you at breakfast tomorrow."
"You're just gonna leave?" Namjoon said.
"I hate being treated like a weakness or a mistake, sir," Taehyung said, not meeting Namjoon's eyes as he dragged his headscarf out from under Namjoon.
"Take the cat with you," Namjoon sighed, and Taehyung sobbed before he could stop it. "Taehyung," Namjoon said softly.
Taehyung glared at him with all the malice he could muster, which wasn't very much with tears streaking down his cheeks, and marched out onto the cool deck with Scotch clutched against his chest, terribly embarrassed and more than a little crushed. He curled up by the bow and glared at Namjoon's cabin door. Scotch struggled. "I don't blame you," Taehyung said, "No one wants a crazy, needy, crybaby around."
Scotch just buried his needle-like claws into Taehyung's knee and finally pulled himself free. Taehyung stayed there until he saw the watch switch out of the crow's nest, and then followed Jungkook down into the fo’c’sle. "Taehyung?" he said.
"Can I sleep with you tonight?" Taehyung said.
"I've gotten kinda big for that.”
"Oh, now you notice?"
Jungkook was already holding one side of his hammock out for Taehyung to roll into.
"Fuck," Jimin muttered from the hammock right below them, bracing for a quick escape in case something went very wrong.
Taehyung crammed in next to him, and after a little bit of dangerous swaying and Jimin squeaking in terror, they settled in, Taehyung crammed in sharply against Jungkook's side with Jungkook's arms around him.
"You okay, Tae?" Jimin whispered.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Sorry," Taehyung said. Jungkook hugged him tighter, big and brawny and safe.
"Tell me about it tomorrow," Jimin yawned.
"Yeah okay. Get some sleep though."
"G’night, my dearest idiots," Jimin said lowly. Jungkook giggled.
"I hope Scotch slams his door around all night," Taehyung muttered to keep him going, because Jungkook giggles were as rewarding and magical as fairy dust. Jungkook squeezed him closer with his freakishly strong arms, still giggling, and then dropped off to sleep in seconds. It only took Taehyung a half hour and a few more tears to follow.
"If you run into any trouble," Namjoon said, sitting down on the side of the dinghy and looking extremely worried, "Just scream, I guess. Scream a lot." He had dark circles under his eyes, and Taehyung felt a little bad, because he'd saved Bourbon from tumbling overboard that morning, stopped Jungkook from having a mild panic attack over knocking a whole plate of breakfast onto the floor, and tied Taehyung's head scarf for him, being the best, clumsiest, most attentive group Dad ever. Or captain. Just the best captain.
"I'll scream for you, don't worry," Taehyung said, and Namjoon actually grinned fondly before looking terribly guilty again.
Yoongi glared at Taehyung, who muttered, “Not my fault.”
"Okay," Jimin said, leading them into the jungle, "I think I know what we're looking for."
"Yup," Taehyung said, "A map piece."
"Oh shut up!" Jimin giggled, "Like, location-wise. It'll be in one of those sunken freshwater ponds that are all over the place out here. Cenotes."
"What's your theory if it's not sirens?" Taehyung asked.
Jimin shrugged. "I think it might, um, have something to do with my dad? I'm not sure. Mom used to tell stories, but I have no idea if they were true, or how much of them were true, or if a colony of magically sexy men really live out here in the ponds. She could have just been making up for an embarrassing drunk hookup that left her with a stupid kid that chased away every other man that ever showed interest in her.
"Yikes," Jungkook muttered.
"Magically sexy men?" Taehyung said doubtfully.
"Yeah. That ‘grant you gifts or bestow great evil' on you. She always said she couldn't figure out if he was seriously trying to bestow a gift or on her or if he knew he was cursing her from the beginning. She also wouldn't shut up about how hot he was and how I look like him. Kinda creepy. I think she gave me his name, or something similar, which I hate."
"And you think your magic, sexy dad is out here."
"I wouldn't, except Hwasa said this map piece had something to do with me. This is the only semi-magical thing that's ever had anything to do with me, and it would be, according to mom’s stories, right around here. It all fits."
"Five pieces of eight says he's a lunatic that lives in the woods and pretends to be a witch doctor that blesses pretty women with sex," Jungkook said.
"You think I haven't thought of that?" Jimin grumbled, "He's probably, like, sixty by now. We'll take him out easy. I just don't want to go through the embarrassment of having Yoongi and Namjoon see my fucking dumbass father. I can stand it if it's you two though. That's fine."
The deep woods hummed with life around them. "I wonder how many bugs are within a ten-foot circle around us," Jungkook said quietly, pointing at a line of ants climbing down a tree.
"Probably literally thousands," Taehyung said.
"Uugh," Jimin said, and walked a little faster, ducking low under a palm frond instead of moving it out of the way. “I’m glad Hoseok isn’t with us.”
“Really wish he could be though,” Taehyung said. Hoseok didn’t move far from his hammock these days, drinking more and more rum to try and numb the pain from the red infection festering on his chest. He needed to get better soon and improve the mood of the entire crew. They’d gotten kinda grumpy without his input.
The sun was still fairly low, making the forest damply misty and gold lit. Taehyung picked a flower off a bush and gave it to Jungkook, who giggled and put it in the back of his breeches where it stuck out like a little bunny tail. Jimin and Taehyung both smiled like proud parents and loaded him down with more as they wandered wide circles through the woods. He looked adorable until the sweaty shirt came off, and then he just looked weird, muscles and flowers everywhere.
"Wish Yoongi could see you now," Jimin muttered.
"Me too," Jungkook said, and then blushed.
"Oi, is that why you take your shirt off all the time?" Jimin said. Taehyung cackled.
"We've walked a long way," Jungkook said, blushing even brighter and refusing to look at them, "Do you think they'd even be able to hear us if we screamed now?"
"Nah, probably not. The map mark is right on the side of the water," Jimin said, pointing. "We'd better circle back a bit."
They finally ran into a pond, a deep depression in the ground full of clear, blue water, white sand on the bottom. Dark, black tunnels headed off underground a little way below the bank.
"What's down there?" Taehyung asked.
"Namjoon says there are a lot of tunnels between ponds out here," Jimin said. "We talked about it once. I said there are no rivers on the Yucatan, and he said there might be. They're just all underground. Some tunnels lead all the way out to the sea."
"So basically don't swim into them?" Taehyung said.
"No way. No swimming down there. You'd drown. You'd probably hit your head and sink pretty far."
Jungkook jumped right in.
"Kookie," Jimin screeched, falling to his hands and knees to stare in terror down into the hole. Jungkook floated to the surface with both hands behind his head, smiling up at the morning sun as it fell lazily through the vine-choked trees and angled down into the hole. "Come for a swim, Jimin. The water's so nice."
"I could use a break," Taehyung said. He stripped off his boots and jumped in. Jimin brushed his sweaty hair out of his face and then frowned at his dirty, sweaty hand.
"Fucking fine," he said, "We're wasting so much time, but fine." He jumped in.
Taehyung floated around on his back, ears down with the bubbles making musical sounds next to his ears like the water was singing to him. Jungkook floated gently into him and Taehyung could hear his fairy-dust giggles under the water, more bubbles ringing in his eardrums. The sun warmed his front and water cooled his back. Jungkook and Jimin got in a shrieking splash-fight and Taehyung didn't have it in himself to give a shit. The splashing and screaming made the bubbling even more enticing. He didn't want to move. He could just let his breath out, sink to the bottom, and know nothing but peace for the rest of his life. Something pulled in his chest, sparking up into his head, the little sense of magic.
He sat up suddenly.
"Jimin, are you fucking sure about the sirens?"
"S-sirens? I've never heard any stories about sirens in the Caribbean, Taehyung."
"Yeah, they’re Mediterranean. They’d be powerless here, but are you sure? Because I was listening to the water just now and got a peaceful urge to sink to the bottom and drown. You say all these ponds are connected? I think they're singing through the water."
Jungkook and Jimin both immediately floated onto their backs to put their ears in the water and listen. Jungkook came up quickly. "Yup. I feel that."
Jimin came up a minute or so later. "I didn't hear anything. Are you sure?"
"I got the pain. The magic pain," Taehyung said, tapping on his sternum.
"Oh," Jungkook said, and started swimming for the edge of the pond. Jimin bit the inside of his cheek and followed him. Taehyung snorted. Jimin was superstitious as Jungkook or Taehyung, but he'd always resisted it with thinly veiled scorn for his mother.
Jungkook easily walked up the sheer side of the depression, hand over hand up the hanging vines. Jimin needed a little more time, climbing it like rigging with his hands and feet. Taehyung went up with all feet and tore right through the vines. "Bigger handfuls," Jungkook said. "Use your arms."
"I don't have arms," Taehyung grumbled. "You have arms."
Jungkook and Jimin coached him up the slope as he yelled about his wet clothes weighing him down and how he was too delicate for this shit.
"Just a couple more feet, Taehyung."
"I’m tired. My arms are gonna give out."
Jungkook sighed and lay down. "Grab my wrist."
Taehyung reached up tentatively. Just as he grabbed Jungkook’s wrist, all the vines tore out from under him at once. Jungkook yelped and yanked him up. Taehyung felt air whoosh past him and burning pop in his shoulder. He landed on his feet and fell face-first into Jungkook, who caught him and lowered him to the ground. "Tae? You okay?" He asked gently.
Taehyung tried not to whine, panting and carefully touching his arm. It lit up a little with pain. "Not to be a little bitch," he grunted, "but I think my shoulder is on fire."
"You're okay," Jungkook sighed.
"I'll survive," Taehyung said, "but I'm not sure about handling a sword or swimming very well."
"Can I saw it off?" Jimin said cheerfully. "I haven't had a chance to be the ship surgeon yet."
"Oh, fuck off." He tried to move it and nothing happened but pain.
"Should we scream for backup?" Jimin asked.
"Let's just find the fucking pond you think we're gonna find."
"Got any premonitions?" Jimin said. Taehyung scowled. "Grumpy Tae. Okay. You look like a soaked cat."
"I'm really sorry," Jungkook said quietly. "Is your arm okay?"
"Well, no it isn't, but maybe it'll be fine in ten minutes. Don't sweat it. Thanks for getting me out. Don’t know why those vines ripped. They felt perfectly steady."
“Bad luck,” Jimin said, nodding gravely.
Jungkook dutifully walked ahead of Taehyung and cleared plants out of his path as they moved forward.
"Here's another one," Jimin said as they arrived at the sheer drop into another deep blue pool, this one just a small hole in the jungle floor that widened out into a much larger, rounded cave, water deep and dark at the bottom. The edges shimmered a little. Taehyung blinked. The hole felt like it wasn't all visible, like something else about the hole sat threateningly just beneath the surface. "This reminds me of the blue hole with the luscas," Jimin said.
"If this isn't it, we're at least heading in the right direction," Taehyung said. "There's magic all over this place."
Jungkook narrowed his eyes, trying to feel it. This was the point where Jimin, and really anyone who wasn't Jungkook, scoffed at him a little, rolled his eyes or looked away like they were a little embarrassed for him. Jimin nodded slowly. "I feel it."
"You do?" Taehyung said.
"Yeah. It's like the hole is watching and, like, waiting, I guess."
"I feel it like more of a...second depth," Taehyung said, "That you can still fall into, but not physically, if that makes any sense."
"It doesn't," Jungkook said sadly, pouting a little.
"Don't like being the one without the special talent, huh?" Taehyung asked. "Welcome to the fucking club, babe."
Jungkook half-heartedly punched his shoulder, the injured one that Taehyung had been trying very hard to shrug off and act like it wasn't bothering him. He yelped and clutched it, gritting his teeth and waiting for the pain to die down.
When he could open his eyes and breath again, Jungkook was helping him sit down, apologizing over and over, looking like he might just start crying.
"Kookie, it's okay," Taehyung said. "I'm not mad."
"That was kind of funny in a really worrying way," Jimin said, rubbing Jungkook's back. "It's fine."
"Are you okay?" Jungkook asked, voice shaking, one hand tentatively rubbing Taehyung's leg softly like he was scared to touch him.
"I'm fine," Taehyung said, even though his teeth were chattering just a little and his shoulder was going numb. "You didn't hit me that hard, right?"
Jungkook shook his head. He looked like he was shaking too. Made sense. The old crew hadn't been too sweet to him whenever he made a mistake. Taehyung couldn't imagine what they would have done to him if he punched one of their injuries so hard they collapsed from pain.
Taehyung sat up on his own, head spinning as his shoulder throbbed. "Maybe it's just dislocated," he grunted.
"So we can punch it back into place?" Jimin said.
"Why are you the surgeon, you sadistic little shit?"
Jimin frowned. "I'm not sadistic. I'm trying not to freak out by using humor."
"Whatever you say, surgeon."
"Just let me look at your shoulder."
They pulled his wet shirt off the one arm and Jimin held it gently. "Definitely dislocated. I can see where it popped out."
"Fix it!" Taehyung grunted.
"Give him a vine to bite down on or something," Jimin said. Taehyung felt a little whine slip out of his throat and extended it into a long, frustrated groan to save himself the dignity.
Jungkook shoved a stick into his mouth and let him grip his wrist, the other hand steadying around his back. "Lay him down," Jimin said, and Taehyung lay back on the forest floor, gasping. Jimin pulled the arm out gently and braced one foot against his side. He pulled. Taehyung yelled around the stick, and Jungkook grabbed his chest to hold him down. His shoulder popped back into place, but the pain radiated through him. Jungkook pulled the stick out from between his teeth and pulled him upright. "Shirt off, Tae," he murmured.
"No. I look five-year-old next to you two."
"We don't care. We're the only ones here. Please."
Taehyung let them pull his shirt off the other arm, leaving him skinny, pouting, and in pain between them, feeling like a baby stork without its feathers. "Keep that safe. It's Namjoon's."
"We might have to make a sling out of it," Jimin said softly.
Taehyung tipped his head back so none of his tears would fall out, and nodded. "I'll use mine," Jimin said softly, and pulled his own favorite black shirt over his head.
"No, don't," Taehyung said. "I've got the one I stole from the zombie fort."
"You can ask him for another one," Jungkook said.
Taehyung shook his head nervously. "The more attached I get the more he pushes me away."
"We can't keep going like this," Jimin said. "We have to go back to the beach. I'll bring Seokjin tomorrow instead."
"Could you use my headscarf?" Taehyung asked as Jungkook handed his shirt over.
Jimin shook his head. "That's way too small."
Taehyung nodded and buried his face in Jungkook's neck while Jimin ripped up his shirt for a sling.
Jungkook trembled almost as much as Taehyung, petting his hair softly. Taehyung could almost feel the panicked apology coming off him. "It's okay, Jukkie," Taehyung said, "Bad luck. Just the curse. I forgive you."
Jungkook nodded sadly. Taehyung did his best to pull himself together and stop moping. Jungkook couldn't emotionally handle that. Jimin pulled his shirt back on and led them both back through the jungle. "Beach is this way, right? Fuck, we should have brought a compass."
"The beach is this way," Jungkook said confidently. "Look at where the sun is in the sky."
"Directly overhead?" Jimin asked.
"It's still a little towards east," Jungkook said. "We're heading the right way."
"There's magic everywhere," Taehyung said, hobbling along between them with his jelly limbs, "I can feel it underground. There's some up ahead. We're coming to another pond—oh god." He tripped over a root and his arm jerked forward. He stopped and leaned on a tree for a minute to catch his breath, eyes watering with pain.
Jungkook touched his shoulder very softly.
"Hug me?" Taehyung squeaked. Jungkook wrapped both arms around his bare chest and kissed the back of his neck.
"You're really sweaty," he said.
"I feel kinda cold," Taehyung said just as another bout of shivers ripped through him.
"It's the shock," Jimin said sympathetically. "I feel the magic too, by the way. This is really bad. Maybe we should try to go around.”
"N-no, please," Taehyung said, "No more walking than we have to. I need to lie down."
Jimin led them slowly forward again with Jungkook and Taehyung right behind. Jungkook looped his good arm around his shoulder and practically carried him over the uneven ground. "Jimin, we've gotta move faster."
"Ah!" Jimin stepped right off the bank and into the shallow edge of another blue pond, edges hidden by trees. "Why's it so high up?" he muttered. There were no deep sides. The pond stretched in a wide circle, water up at ground level, bottom lumpy and shallow all the way across. "This isn't a cenote," Jimin said, "This is just a pool."
"Is that what they're called?" Jungkook said, and took a couple steps forward to see better. Taehyung stumbled into the in the water. Relieve shot like a cool mist up his legs. He moaned. "Tae?"
Taehyung pulled out of his grip and stumbled forward. "Magic...water..." he broke through the trees and knelt down till his shoulder was beneath the water and the pain disappeared completely, leeched out of his shoulder and completely gone. "So much magic. Pain is gone. Holy shit. I need to stay here. I'm not moving."
"Taehyung we've gotta get back to the ship."
Taehyung shook his head clear. "Yeah. Yeah. Ship. Okay."
Jungkook pulled him up out of the water and all the pain crashed back, throbbing like it was making up for lost time. He screamed and pulled out of Jungkook's grip, sinking back into the water. "Please, just a little longer. Please."
"I don't like this place," Jimin said.
"Holy shit. What if it's the fountain of youth!" Taehyung said, and tried to take a big gulp. Jimin grabbed him by the head scarf.
"Do not do that," he said. "Jungkook, what are you doing?"
"Feel like...I wanna...walk to the middle."
"Don't!" Jimin yelled, "This place is weird! You're gonna get yourself killed. Taehyung!"
Taehyung pulled out of his headscarf and disappeared under the water. He blinked in awe. He could see perfectly like he was still in the air, no blur or burn in his eyes. The bottom of the pool was riddled with wide holes. Sunlight streamed through a network of tunnels in the white rock, and they called to him, not in the way sirens did, where they sang of your deepest desires and you went to get them, but the tunnels said "come" and Taehyung wanted to go. A familiar mark sat etched into the entrance to the nearest tunnel.
Jimin yanked him up above the water and slapped him. Jungkook stood nearby rubbing his cheek and looking offended. "It's bewitching you!" he yelled.
"The Five Kings crest is on the floor right there," Taehyung said, pointing.
Jimin glared at it, and then ducked beneath the water. He came up looking pissed. "Fine. We'll get the dumb map piece while we're here. But you two need to pull yourselves together." He grabbed them both and waded towards the middle. "Our swords are gonna rust," he whined.
"They're steel. They'll be fine," Taehyung said groggily.
"Taehyung, can you swim or not?"
Taehyung moved his arm. It worked perfectly. "I can swim. Maybe."
"Okay. We're going down there." He stepped closer to the hole. The water was up to their chests now. The depth from the surface to the bottom of the hole was deeper than Taehyung had realized. "You're not okay," Jimin said, pushing Taehyung to the side. "Stand here. Do. Not. Move."
Jungkook shook his head like a dog. "I'm ready," he said, sounding much more clear-headed than Taehyung felt.
Jungkook and Jimin dove down and Taehyung stood there, crouched with his shoulder under the water, and listened to the tunnels call him closer. Jimin and Jungkook popped out of the floor further down, checked to see if Taehyung was still there, and went down again. His dark hair felt hot in the sun without his headscarf, which Jimin still had. The water seemed deliciously warm around him, much cooler down towards the floor. The shock shivers came less and less frequently as Jimin and Jungkook came up, talked for a moment, and dove again.
Taehyung's eyes closed. If he focused hard, he could still feel a dim stiffness in his shoulder. He walked a little deeper so he could stand straight and stay underwater. His eyes wouldn't stay open. He tilted his head back on the water and stared at the clear blue sky.
Someone in the water yelled, quick and urgent. He put his head up. Way across the pool, some huge, brawny man in an enormous feathered headdress stood with Namjoon trapped in his arms. A gold and silver collar sparkled on his neck like a Mayan king’s. Namjoon struggled, red blood pouring down his arm and clouding the water, and the man just tightened his arms and stared Taehyung down.
Taehyung blinked and wondered how on earth Namjoon had gotten all the way up there from the beach. "N-nam--"
Someone grabbed him around the waist and hoisted him all the way up out of the water like a child. His shoulder jerked at the same moment it left the water and pain exploded across his right side. His arm burned. A huge face surrounded by blurry, brilliant color loomed into his vision and he screamed, tried to reach over and hold his arm steady, thought that ripping it right off might help. He kicked and wriggled, but the man held him firmly. Jimin shrieked across the water.
The throbbing pain faded a little until he was aware of his own constant low wailing, cut with sobbing breaths, drool sliding down his face. His waist hurt. His head pounded. His shoulder felt like someone had shoved a knife through it. The big, blurry face lowered him slowly back down into the water and it all faded into a heady fuzz. The man holding him said something in a deep, melodious voice in a language Taehyung didn't recognize.
"Yoongi!" Jungkook yelled. “No!”
Taehyung's legs bumped into a giant, solid column under the water, breeches catching on the rough surface. He looked down and saw silver and red fish scales. “I thought mermaids were women," he groaned. The man with a fish tail crushed Taehyung up against his chest, and he could see out across the water again. “Not in this sea,” the merman said. “We’re old kings here.”
Jungkook and Jimin stood in the middle surrounded by four men with spears. One man had Namjoon pinned. Another carried Yoongi, who stared vacantly at the sky, blood gushing from a wound on his head and running vividly over his pale skin.
“¿Hablan Inglés, Español, o Francés?" The fish-man holding Taehyung said.
Jimin hesitated. "Inglés?"
"Who do you work for?"
"Th-the captain?" Jimin said, pointing at Namjoon.
Taehyung struggled to twist around and see the man holding him. He pulled Taehyung's shoulder above the water just a little, and Taehyung broke into sobs. The man lowered him again.
"Let him go!" Jimin said. Taehyung couldn’t fathom why. He was wonderfully comfortable.
"What do you want with us?" the fish-man said.
"Map piece," Jimin said, "please let him go."
Fish-man dropped Taehyung and he sagged down into the water, struggling to get his legs to support him. The water kept calling him down, peaceful and gentle, asking to enter his lungs. He gave up and sank. Fish-man dragged him above the water again. Jimin and Jungkook were both screaming. He managed to raise one arm and wave, and then dropped his head back onto fish-man's chest and closed his eyes, shivering.
"You're the leader here?"
"Not by a long shot, no," Jimin said.
Jimin started shakily singing his favorite lullaby. "No no," fish-man said. "You know what I mean. Really sing."
"I have to be trying to do something. What do you want me to do?"
Fish-man shrugged. "Try to get your little friend here to drown himself. I don't care."
"You suck," Taehyung muttered, and fish-man chuckled.
Jimin started singing, the same lullaby, but this time the water felt cold. Throbbing pain came back to his shoulder. His head cleared. Taehyung picked his head up and stared wide-eyed at Jimin. He stiffened up, heart pounding. Some fishy beef-cake had him and Namjoon trapped. Yoongi looked like a corpse, pale, vacant, and bloody. Jimin and Jungkook were seconds away from being stabbed to death with old Mayan spears. Cause for panic. He struggled and fish-man laughed a little. "I think I know who your father is." The water turned back to magic, the spells re-established. The pain vanished and a comfortable fog took over Taehyung’s head. Jungkook slumped lazily into the water and Jimin struggled to hold him up.
"Please just let us have the map piece and leave. I don't care who my father is."
"We can't just give that away," fish-man said. “Can't have it falling into the wrong hands. What do you want with the Five Kings ship?"
"We want a ship we can actually sail with seven people."
They waited. "Is that it?"
Jimin looked warily back at Namjoon and then at Taehyung, who were in no condition to be offering any advice. “We’re…escaping a curse?”
"What connection do you have with the English Navy?"
Fish man drew Taehyung up with the edge of a dagger at his throat.
"I swear! No connection! None!"
"Admiral W," Taehyung said sleepily.
Fish-man twisted the point under his chin a little. "Keep going."
"On the back of the second map piece, it says Admiral W. Is there someone in the navy messing with black magic?"
"How do you know about that?" Fish-man said. Taehyung studied his sharp eyebrows and heavy cheekbones.
"Wow, you're gorgeous," he said. The blade pressed into his neck.
"O-on the island off Hispaniola. We found a fort with navy stuff in it. With all the zombies. Someone in the navy was using zombies."
"An island of zombies. What happened?"
"We freed them," Taehyung said. "They were following us, so we just waited on the beach for them."
The mermen shifted around them, muttering to each other. "And the back of one of your map pieces says ‘Admiral W’?"
“You. You freed a whole island of zombies?”
Fish-man shook his head, lip curling. “Humans saving zombies. Right.” Before Taehyung could protest, he lifted him into his arms, and Taehyung wailed and writhed until he set Taehyung down on the rock beside Jimin and Jungkook and Jimin shoved his shoulder under the water again. The others dropped Namjoon off beside Taehyung and Yoongi right into Jungkook's arms. One disappeared into the tunnels.
Namjoon wrapped one strong arm around Taehyung from behind and touched his neck. “You’re bleeding,” Taehyung mumbled and rubbed his head against Namjoon’s jaw. Jungkook frantically tried to wake Yoongi, dipping his hurt head back into the water. Yoongi remained unresponsive.
“He’s not breathing enough,” Jungkook whimpered.
"You’ve entered our pond with weapons, searching for our property. We’ve spared you up till this point, but now I will fight one of you. Who will challenge me?" Fish-man said.
“Can we just leave?” Namjoon said. “Without the map piece?”
Fish-man shook his head. “One man fights, and the rest go free whether he loses or not. No men fight, and we kill all of you.”
The obvious choice was Captain Kim, who was breathing raggedly in Taehyung’s ear, pale and shivering like he’d lost a lot of blood. The second choice would usually be Hoseok if he was there, or Jungkook. Jungkook gripped Yoongi to his chest and swayed under the force of the spell.
"Me," Jimin said, voice shaking, “We really did free those zombies though.”
Fish-man snorted, looking him up and down. "You’re fighting me? You're about the size of my left shoulder."
Jimin gulped and flushed, hand shaking on his sword.
"If you can defeat me, we'll give you the map piece," Fish-man said, still chuckling.
"Holy fuck, Jimin," Taehyung muttered, "He'll kill you."
Jimin looked at Taehyung in Namjoon's arms and Jungkook clutching Yoongi like a baby, suddenly conspicuously the only one without somebody clinging to him. He swallowed hard. "Maybe I can...with my voice...I'm the only one not affected," he said weakly.
Namjoon pulled Jimin into his arms with Taehyung and hugged them both. "Maybe we can all fight at once?" he said.
"They'll kill us all. You guys have to get back to Hoseok and Seokjin. This makes the most sense."
"I'm the captain," Namjoon said, "It should be me."
Jimin looked up at Taehyung and sighed. "I'm not gonna make you guys die because I thought we could handle this on our own. I can do this. You've seen me fight."
"The water is nearly up to your neck," Taehyung said. "They have fish tails."
"I can do it," Jimin said, but pressed against Namjoon's chest anyway, scratched a hand through Taehyung's hair. He stood on his toes and pulled Jungkook's head down to kiss his forehead while he squeezed Yoongi's limp hands. Jungkook blinked and watched him wade out towards fish-man, arms held carefully above the water, and realized what was happening.
"Namjoon?" he said softly.
"It's not like any of us are in any condition to even try," Namjoon said bitterly.
"What's your name," Jimin said, stopping about ten feet from the merman.
He made some sort of bizarre burbling noise. Jimin glanced back at Namjoon like he actually expected him to be able to translate that. "Call me whatever you want, little minnow," the merman said, smirking lazily as he leveled his spear at Jimin. Jimin's shoulders hunched defensively.
Jimin stepped cautiously up onto higher ground. His black shirt and wet hair clung to him, making him look even smaller than he was, especially next to the giant, inhumanly bulky bodies around them.
"It's like a pufferfish fighting a shark," Namjoon said grimly. Sharky the fish man jabbed at Jimin playfully and he barely deflected it, stumbling into deeper water. "Oh god, please don't play with him," Namjoon muttered, "Don't make us watch that." His arms tightened around Taehyung's waist. Taehyung felt vaguely thankful that his own brain wouldn't let him focus, caught on the way the sunlight sparkled on the water and how warm and soft it felt on his skin. Jimin tried to fight in under the reach of Sharky's spear, but he ducked under the water with a splash. Jimin gave one small squeak of alarm, and then threw his head back and screamed.
Taehyung shook the haze out of his head a little. Red bloomed under the water as Jimin stumbled back, face screwed up in pain. Sharky swam in a wide circle around him, one huge body and a ten-foot tail looping just out of Jimin's reach. He braced himself, gasping and moaning in pain as he turned to face him. Sharky's face rose a few inches out of the water and laughed when Jimin raised his sword threateningly. The mermen around them chuckled.
"Oh god," Jungkook whimpered. "We have to do something."
Jimin stumbled back, trying to edge his way towards the shore. Sharky surged towards him and the surface of the pool frothed. Jimin disappeared beneath the water. Taehyung tried to pull towards him and the mermen nearby jabbed their spears threateningly against his chest. His shoulder pulled out of the water and flamed to life, and he collapsed back into Namjoon's arms.
"You can't do anything, Tae," Namjoon whispered.
"I can't sit here and watch my best friend die for us," Taehyung growled.
Jungkook stumbled into Namjoon's shoulder and held on tight, Yoongi crushed up against all of them.
Jimin hadn't come up yet. Taehyung could see the lazy wave of Sharky's long, silver tail, his huge torso, and maybe a bit of black under him that could have been Jimin.
He rose out of the water finally, much closer to shore, and hauled Jimin up, only his feet still splashing weakly as he gasped for breath. He gripped Jimin’s wrist, one hand big enough to stretch a long way down his forearm. They could all see it now, a deep, bloody hole right in the middle of Jimin’s thigh, turning the water red.
Jimin choked on air, coughing and shuddering. His sword dropped weakly out of his grip. "Here's your little champion," Sharky taunted as Jimin hung there from his hand, comically dwarfed. "Be proud. He did better than most. Where's my spear?" He turned around to look and Jimin tossed a dagger out of his belt. It sunk into Sharky's chest.
"Ah!" He jumped a little, shaking Jimin like a doll. Namjoon and Taehyung gripped each other, not daring to hope. Sharky pulled it out with a chuckle, then turned it around and pressed it gently to Jimin's stomach, who squirmed, trying to yank out of his grip, beginning to look a little pale. "Shame to kill you," he mused, "after such a quick fight."
"You would kill him before I even get the chance to see him?" said a new voice, smooth and high like trickling water. Burbles paused, eyebrows raised, and nodded respectfully at the speaker.
The new merman came up out of the water beside them wearing no headdress or battle armor. He ran his hands through his wet hair, sunlight glittering on his rings. He looked like Jimin: droopy eyes, a strong jaw, and plush lips. His face was harsher, angles a little stronger, expression colder than even Jimin could ever manage, and his hair was silver-gray, but they were unmistakably related. The newcomer sighed heavily. "They're saying he's my son."
They looked exactly the same age. Jimin's mouth fell open, and then shut. He looked back and forth between Sharky and his look-alike, hand limp in Sharky's grip.
"You're sure he's your son?" Sharky said, tail relaxing and lowering them both a bit deeper. "He does look like you, but he's a little small."
The look-alike nodded. "He looks like his mother."
A couple of the mermen whistled and hooted, and he smirked back at them. Jimin scowled.
"He's done very well in this fight. He's brave."
Jimin's father looked indifferent. "I wouldn't expect otherwise."
"I was about to kill him. You've seen him now. Can I continue?"
Jimin's father hesitated. "I don't know..."
"Ugh. I'll kill both of you," Jimin muttered.
"You can't stop at one damning crime?" Jimin's father said, addressing Jimin for the first time, "You'd commit patricide too? This entire crew is already cursed. If I didn't kill you, that probably would."
Jimin gulped. Namjoon squeezed Taehyung hard, groaning unhappily into his ear.
"Cursed for desecrating zombies?" Sharky asked.
"No, no. Much worse," Jimin's father said. "They desecrated a couple zombies, but they freed the rest. There's no bad luck on them from that."
Taehyung stood a little straighter. "You know all that?"
"I have a little extra magic," he said, fixing Taehyung with a stare that made him feel like his entire soul was dissolving in the water, "like you, minnow."
Jimin's father drifted across the pool, shoulders just above the surface, all intoxicating grace. It was a completely different kind of beauty than the rest of the warriors, and a different kind of power. He could clearly see where Jimin got most of his charm, and his occasional wicked cruelty. He gently touched Jimin's face. "You really look like your mother," he said.
"What's your name?" Jimin asked. "She never told me."
"She couldn't pronounce it. Neither can you. She just called me Asshole…or Chim."
Taehyung snickered. They both turned to look at him. "Sorry. It just doesn't suit you at all."
Namjoon laughed weakly.
"They told me you could sing," Chim said.
"Sing something for me," he said, now bringing Jimin's injured thigh carefully above the water.
Jimin bit his lip and took a deep, broken breath through his nose, trying to get over the pain, then started singing the same little lullaby he used whenever he was trying put Jungkook to sleep, the one he sang when Taehyung was hungover and gagging over the side of the ship, and though Jimin's voice shook now, quiet and unsure of himself, the tune shocked power through their bodies. The magic lifted off the water and Taehyung sank back into his exhausted mind, shoulder throbbing hard. Namjoon's knees gave out, but Jungkook caught them both and held them up.
Chim smiled with Jimin's smile, and then smiled up at Sharky with what looked a little like pride. Jimin's song came to a gentle close and Chim opened his mouth and sang in his own, beautiful voice. The forest seemed to float away, everything dissolving into sound, pure power and magic flooding through Taehyung's head, buzzing like a tuning fork against Taehyung's sternum. He would do anything this voice told him to. He would follow it to the edge of the sea. When Chim stopped, the spell had settled back over the water, but Taehyung felt a little more alert, more aware of the ache in his shoulder, aware that it felt a little better. Even the other mermen looked awed.
Chim healed Jimin's thigh with a brush of his hand and then pulled him down out of Sharky's grip and into his own arms. "These men saved an island full of zombies," he said, "They want the Golden Dragon to escape their curse, not to help the navy. I think we can give them the map piece and let them go."
Sharky frowned and called the rest of the mermen over. Jimin looked rather alarmed to be suddenly so surrounded, looking absolutely dwarfed in his father's arms, and even smaller next to all the brawny warriors. Chim kept petting his hair like the proud owner of a new puppy. A couple of the other men pet his hair too. Taehyung nudged Namjoon and giggled drunkenly at his disgusted face.
When the mermen returned to the rest of the boys on the rock, they brought the map piece with them. Chim still hadn't let go of Jimin. "We’re in the habit of bestowing blessings on those that visit us," Chim said.
"Mom always said you cursed her," Jimin muttered.
"Ha. I did," Chim said, "She came at me with all sorts of demands, so I gave her you."
Jimin scowled heavily. "You've proven yourselves well enough," Sharky said. "But your curse prevents us from blessing you with good fortune. The map piece goes to your captain." He pulled it out of the front of his belt and handed it to Namjoon, who took it gingerly. Chim touched Yoongi’s head and his eyes slid all the way closed.
“He won’t die now, at least,” he said. "You," Chim rocked Jimin in his arms like a newborn baby, "have a lovely voice. I grant you a little of my power. Don't use it lightly."
"Thanks. But fuck you for what you did to mom," Jimin said.
Chim laughed brightly. "I'll drown you if you say that again."
The mermen swam around them, buffeting them with underwater currents and chattering excitedly, pinching Jungkook's cheeks and ruffling Taehyung's hair, squeezing Yoongi's thin arms. Taehyung, still dizzy from the magic in the water, didn't fight as Sharky pulled him from Namjoon's grasp and carried him deeper into the water. His sling floated around his neck. "Here's your sword," Sharky said, handing it to Jimin. "And you're dagger. Good trick. Would have gotten me with a bigger knife."
The gash in Sharky’s chest had completely disappeared. Taehyung patted it thoughtfully and Sharky laughed. "Take a deep breath and hang onto me," he said. Taehyung breathed in deep and wrapped his legs around Sharky's waist without thinking about it. Sharky plunged beneath the water and shot into one of the tunnels. Taehyung stared around in awe at the white arches and little underwater coves slipping past them, peaceful and bubbly, until Sharky dove into a black hole in the side of the pool.
The caves darkened. Water pressed down and hurt Taehyung’s ears. He gripped Sharky tighter and struggled for air. They shot through an underwater cavern twinkling with light. He could see a surface of water below them, like the bottom half of the cavern was filled with air, but when Sharky dove through the surface, the water turned cold and salty. His lungs began to burn. More mermen watched them from alcoves in the rocky walls.
They dove into another dark tunnel and Taehyung struggled, ears aching, lungs screaming. He wriggled in Sharky’s arms, trying to push him away. Sharky squeezed him tighter. Taehyung could no longer see through the water. Pain flowed steadily back into his arm. He shut his eyes against the stinging blur, and thought he saw light behind his lids. His head swam. Sharky yanked him upwards suddenly and he huffed out all his held air into the water, ears popping painfully. Just as they broke the surface, he gasped.
"How was that, little minnow?"
Taehyung heaved in giant gulps of air and started hacking wildly over the water.
"Huh. Didn't think it was that bad," Sharky grumbled. Taehyung weakly patted his arm and looked around. They'd reached the ocean. Lucifer bobbed a few hundred meters out. Some mermen had ropes around the dinghy and were dragging it into the water for them.
At the ship, Sharky rudely tossed Taehyung up onto the deck. He landed on his feet and then immediately sat down hard on his ass. Namjoon and Yoongi hit the deck beside him, Yoongi limp weight and Namjoon stumbling, Jungkook landed on his feet like he’d jumped up there himself, and ran immediately to Yoongi’s side. Color returned slowly to Yoongi’s face, and he breathed deeply.
“What happened to him?”
Namjoon scratched the back of his head. “Oh, that wasn’t the mermaids. He just fell and hit his head on a big, sharp shell on the beach. What happened to your arm?”
“I was climbing up some vines and they broke. Jungkook pulled me up too fast.”
Namjoon nodded. “Our accidents keep getting worse. Yoongi really could have died. Where’s Jimin?”
“His dad still has him,” Taehyung said.
“His dad?” Seokjin squeaked, and ran to the side of the boat just as Jimin flew up over the side with a scream. They collided and rolled onto the deck.
Hoseok hung gingerly over the railing, keeping the weight off his chest. “Holy shit, Jimin. He looks like your evil twin.”
Seokjin shoved Jimin off onto the deck and ran to the side to see.
Namjoon helped Taehyung sit up and carefully maneuvered his arm back into his splint. “You’re going to need another shirt,” he murmured.
Taehyung blushed and mumbled. “I got one in the zombie fort. I’ll wear that.”
Namjoon pursed his lips. “You could always have another one of mine,” he said. “I have a bunch.”
“I-if you’re okay with that, I’d rather have the old captain’s shirts than some evil guy’s shirt.”
“I mean, who are we to say the old captain wasn’t evil,” Namjoon said. Taehyung laughed weakly. “Sorry. Tasteless,” Namjoon muttered, “God rest his soul or whatever.” He ripped an edge off Taehyung’s old shirt to wrap tightly around the gash on his arm. “All our clothes are going to be stained bloody soon. I’ll get you a new shirt.”
He walked quickly away, leaving Taehyung with warm, fluttery feelings in his stomach.
Yoongi woke up around sunset with a pounding headache and no memory of the entire day, grumpier than ever and a little nauseous, but coherent. Namjoon used his hurt arm to get out of dishes, and Taehyung could hardly eat because he was so distracted with pain. Hoseok still looked worryingly unwell, the gash in his chest red and sticky with pus. Jimin started his nightly ritual of holding him down and washing it out with salty vinegar and hoping for the best.
“Can’t really amputate your chest,” he said with a weak grin.
“It’s definitely infected, isn’t it?” Hoseok said quietly.
“On to that woman’s sister, right?” Seokjin said, “South of here?”
“Hopefully she doesn’t try to kill us like everything else,” Namjoon said. “We did okay with the last strange woman.”
“Mother of the Water,” Taehyung said quietly. “Mama Dlo.”
“Whatever she is,” Namjoon said.
“Shouldn’t she have two fish tails and a pet snake?” Seokjin asked. “That’s what I heard.”
Taehyung shrugged. “That’s what I heard too, but she didn’t, and that was obviously what she was. Making bargains with her is dangerous. Be careful what you agree pay her.”
Yoongi put the small flap of map piece on the table. “The new piece is Jamaica, Haiti, part of Cuba, and the stretch of sea all the way south of that to South America, and it says ‘n’s power. Tr’ on the back. So we now have ‘Admiral W,’ ‘ap him in the,’ and ‘n’s power. Tr’ But if we put the map pieces together, it looks like we’ve gotten a huge chunk of the South Caribbean completed, because the first piece we got and this one match up and form the bottom left corner, so we have ‘n’s power. Trap in in the—.’ Any ideas?”
Namjoon mournfully shoveled another piece of sweet potato into his mouth and shook his head. Yoongi sighed and put his head down, groaning.
After dinner, when Jungkook had gone off to do everyone else’s chores since so many people were injured, and Seokjin washed dishes for the second night in a row, Taehyung lay against Namjoon’s side and watched his scribble long lines of text in his ship’s log, trying to pick out individual letters and tried to make sense of the words. Namjoon turned the page before he got far, and Taehyung nuzzled his shoulder instead, his own arm throbbing painfully under his new shirt. “Starting off first thing tomorrow?” he murmured.
“Yeah. First thing.”
“Can I…” he broke off. He’d never invited himself into Namjoon’s bed before, always waiting for him to do the asking. “Can I stay in your bed tonight? I’m going to have a hard time with my arm in a hammock.”
“Only if you practice reading with me first.”
“I am practicing. I’m trying to figure out the words as you write them.”
“How are you doing?”
“Really fucking badly.”
Namjoon turned around and shifted his shoulder out from under Taehyung’s head. “Jimin?”
Jimin stood at the door with a blanket around his shoulders, staring forlornly at the floor. “I should have listened to you when you wanted a bigger group to go. Today was a mess, and that’s my fault. I’m sorry.”
“And I should have put my foot down and gone with you,” Namjoon said, “but I didn’t know what was going to happen, and neither did you. It’s okay.”
“I didn’t want anyone to meet my dad,” Jimin said, “And then everyone did, so it didn’t matter anyway. You probably would have been able to get us there uninjured, and then get us out.”
Namjoon smiled. “Thanks. I’m not sure you’re right, but it means a lot to hear you say that. How are you doing? Was he better than expected? Worse?”
Jimin looked away. “I’ve always wanted to hate him. I don’t know how I feel. He’s this weird…thing. I’m not fully human. I don’t know. He’s…better than expected, but I’m not sure I like that.”
Taehyung’s arm throbbed. He put his head down on the table and watched Jimin and Namjoon talk with his eyes watering slightly. Jimin came up and sat close to them both, and Taehyung wrapped his good arm around his waist, guiltily wishing Namjoon’s attention was back on him.
Jimin finished the conversation with a tight hug, tucking himself into Namjoon’s chest with his head under his chin. Namjoon smiled softly and squeezed him tight, and Taehyung felt like a selfish idiot for wanting to claim Namjoon as his when the entire crew needed him so much. Maybe he was right about everything. He should back off, shouldn’t demand so much with everything still hanging uncertainly in the balance.
“Want to go to bed?” Namjoon said softly. Taehyung nodded and followed him back to his cabin. He tried not to feel it to hard when Namjoon left a few careful inches of space between them in the bed, though he lay awake for hours with his arm throbbing, wishing he had Namjoon’s warmth a little closer.
Chapter 6: Mami Wata
They find a witch in the jungle and make a few new enemies.
Some summer days, storms came quickly up across the water. The Lucifer sailed on for as long as her crew thought she could, and then they pulled in the sails, lay anchor, and played cards below deck for an hour or two until it passed. These storms left the deck wet and cool, and they enjoyed the rest of the day drying out in the sun and splashing rainwater on each other.
But more and more frequently, a storm came slowly, starting with grey clouds low over the water, and turning into a solid slate sky with curtains and curtains of water streaking over the frantic waves. They huddled below-decks, sitting against the walls and yelling over the rain pounding on the deck, drinking rum for lack of anything else to do, barfing into buckets if the waves got too high. The Lucifer rocked powerfully to and fro.
And sometimes it lasted for days.
“This storm feels unnatural,” Seokjin said on the fourth day, groaning on the ground. They’d mostly passed the point of seasickness, but Seokjin’s misery always lasted the longest. Yoongi hadn’t eaten a full meal in days either.
“It’s coming up on hurricane season,” Namjoon said.
“It’s been like this for months,” Seokjin said. “I know it didn’t used to be like this. Half the old crew would have deserted. Some of them were worse in bad weather than even me.”
Namjoon rubbed his shoulder. Across the floor, Jimin hunched beside Hoseok’s hammock with Licorice tucked into his arms and blending into his black clothes. He stared blankly down at the kitten’s little paws and sleepy face, scowling and exhausted with boredom.
“How’s he doing?” Namjoon said, nodding at Hoseok’s gentle swinging.
“Bad,” Seokjin said without looking up.
Namjoon rubbed his hands over his face and tipped his head back towards the ceiling. “We need to get that ship.”
“You believe in the curse now, Captain?”
“I don’t know about a curse…”
“We may be way too late,” Seokjin said softly. “It’s going to take another month at least to find that ship, and probably much more. If Hoseok doesn’t get better, he has…”
“Tell me,” Namjoon said softly.
“A couple weeks?” Seokjin said.
Namjoon buried his head in his hands. “There’s no way he’ll just get better. Not with our luck.”
Seokjin rolled over to face the wall, curling into himself. “I can’t believe we’re fucking cursed. Fuck the old crew. Fuck this. We can’t lose Hobi.”
“I’m sorry,” Namjoon said softly.
“It’s not your fault, Namjoon.”
“Yes, it is.”
Seokjin shifted and lay his head on Namjoon’s thigh, rubbing his knee. “Should we try blood-letting?” he said. “Jimin doesn’t want to, but it might help.”
“I honestly don’t think that works,” Namjoon said. “I have never seen it do any real good to anybody. Maybe if we get desperate, but not yet.”
Jungkook staggered up with two kittens dwarfed in his veiny hands and settled down with his head on Namjoon’s shoulder. The ship rolled back and they all tipped against the wall, and then forward. Namjoon leaned on Jungkook’s legs as the floor sloped suddenly down and away, leaving them atop a long slide.
Jungkook shifted subtly against his side, edging his shoulder in under Namjoon’s arm without seeming to realize it. Namjoon cautiously raised his elbow and let Jungkook slide closer, kittens wriggling against Namjoon’s side. “Kook, why’s there a bandage on your thumb?”
“Knife slipped while I was cutting plantains. It cut pretty deep.”
“Take care of yourself,” Namjoon said. “We don’t want any more infection.”
“I’ve never seen any man survive after the infection gets that far,” Jungkook said softly, nodding at Hoseok.
Namjoon pulled Jungkook arm through his, kitten and all, and laced their fingers together. “We don’t know if he’s gonna die yet.”
“We’re all gonna die,” Jungkook said, half laughing, “Soon, too, if this curse keeps up.”
“We’re not cursed,” Namjoon said softly.
“I’m okay with it,” Jungkook said, “I never expected any of us to live that long.”
Namjoon swallowed around a lump in his throat. “Jungkook, have you ever considered the possibility that you’ll live past age twenty-five?”
He shook his head. “It’d be nice if I got to live longer with you guys,” he said. “But I don’t want to be too disappointed if I don’t.” On his other side, Namjoon heard Seokjin grunt out a sad little sigh.
The first time Namjoon ever saw Jungkook, they’d just watched a man bleed out on the operating table. As the doctor gave up, Jungkook just nodded and chewed steadily right through the core of his apple, peering with mild interest through the crowd until the man finally died. Then he disappeared into the background before anyone bothered him.
The ship rocked sideways and Namjoon pressed heavily back against Jungkook’s strong chest. He’d grown up beautifully, still their youngest, but no longer the child they used to visit as he hid in the belly of the ship.
“I hope this storm stops soon,” Jungkook said before Namjoon’s mind could spiral into its ‘Oh, the frailty of life’ monologue. “Hoseok probably wants one last adventure before the delirium really sets in and we have to mercy kill.”
Seokjin stiffened angrily. Namjoon put a hand on his shoulder.
Jungkook noticed though. He sat up, hugging his kittens with his head ducked down towards his chest and his eyes wide. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, probably not even knowing what he’d done wrong.
“Just don’t talk like he’s gonna die,” Seokjin growled.
“But he is,” Jungkook said, looking questioningly at Namjoon, who felt his face screw up before he could help it, and tipped his head back against the side of the ship to let the tears slide back into his throat. Jungkook sucked in a deep breath, and then got up and walked quickly away. Namjoon heard the hatch close as he slipped down into the hold.
Taehyung stomped up. “What did you do? He can’t go down there with the waves throwing everything around. There’s too much opportunity for the curse to act up.”
Namjoon shook his head just a little, still staring at the ceiling. Seokjin sniffled.
“Jimin,” Taehyung said, “Can you go—oh never mind.”
Yoongi had tossed his book down on the table where he’d been struggling to read it through his mild concussion, and slipped quickly down the hatch. Probably for the best. Yoongi knew every hiding spot Jungkook had ever made for himself down there. Taehyung came and took Jungkook’s place by Namjoon’s arm. “What happened?” he said, not quite leaning on him. Namjoon appreciated his effort at making a distance, but it hurt a little to have Taehyung so close and so hesitantly cold.
“He’s just too casual about death,” Namjoon said.
Taehyung shrugged. “He’s seen a shit ton of men die since he’s been on this ship. Didn’t we used have one of the worst mortality rates in the Caribbean?”
“It was on the worse side of average. Now it’s shit, of course, since four-fifths of the crew died at once. Now Hoseok,” Namjoon said.
“What about him?”
Namjoon looked cautiously down at his cheerful face and realized that the possibility of Hoseok dying hadn’t crossed his mind yet. “Nothing, nothing. I’m just worried.”
“I wonder if Yoongi’s laying any smooth moves on Jungkook down in the hold right now. I swear, they need to get their heads out of their asses and do something about that sexual tension.”
“Nothing,” Taehyung said quickly, “nothing.” He side-eyed Namjoon a little. “And we’re running low on rum.”
“Fuck,” Namjoon said. “We’ve been using it as painkiller too much.”
“Better than using it to get Jungkook drunk every night,” Taehyung said, giggling. “That’s why we ran out of rum last time.”
“Wait, what?” Namjoon said. “Every night? That’s why?”
“He’s cute when he’s drunk,” Taehyung whined. “And that takes a lot.”
“We’re trying to keep him alive, not lead him to an even earlier death.”
“Get me a bucket,” Seokjin groaned.
Taehyung, who had never been seasick in his life as far as Namjoon could remember, slung a bucket within his reach and then leaned his head gently against Namjoon’s shoulder as they listened to him barf. Namjoon wrinkled his nose at the smell.
The ship lurched to the side. Yoongi’s book shot off the table and Jimin’s chair fell over, sprawling him across the floor. All three of them giggled as he rolled and settled face down with a thump and a tired sigh. Licorice scampered away, weaving from side to side as the ship rocked.
The hatch to the hold opened and Yoongi led Jungkook out. They curled up together in Yoongi’s hammock, Yoongi smashed under Jungkook’s bigger body. Jungkook tried to jam himself close in under Yoongi’s arm. It was a normal scene. Jungkook did that with everyone. But his shirt rode all the way up his stomach, and Namjoon caught Yoongi’s pale hand lingering on his narrow waist.
“Sexual tension, huh?” Namjoon murmured in Taehyung’s ear. Taehyung shuddered subtly and finally slipped his arm through Namjoon’s. The boat tipped back again. Thunder boomed nearby and Jungkook jumped and frowned at the ceiling like he’d like to fight it.
Hoseok groaned quietly in his hammock, cheeks bright pink, elfin features twisted up in pain. Namjoon felt the presence of the map pieces burning in his pocket. He pulled it out. “ing control of,” was written on the back of the most recent piece.
“Can you read this?”
“That’s not a word.”
“It’s the back half of a word.”
“’Of,’ but close enough. –Ing control of.”
Taehyung shrugged. “Maybe the Mami Wata can tell us.”
“Mother of the water. Men used to talk about her all the time when I was a kid. The first one said this was her sister. I hope she doesn’t demand a life in exchange.”
“Like, kill someone?” Namjoon said, gaze sneaking to Hoseok.
“I’d say it’s worse than death,” Taehyung said, “but that’s just me. Most people would consider it an honor.”
He didn’t elaborate, just carefully maneuvered his body under Namjoon’s arm and cuddled up happily in his lap. Namjoon tugged Taehyung’s headscarf loose and he smiled softly and rubbed his fingernail along the inner seam of Namjoon’s breeches.
“I’m…gonna go,” Seokjin muttered, and carried his barf bucket off towards the head.
“We’re such a dysfunctional crew,” Namjoon said.
“Might as well embrace it, no?” Taehyung murmured, flattening his hand against Namjoon’s thigh and rubbing. His accent came out more when he was sleepy, the little touch of Haitian and French tinging his speech. Namjoon tipped his head back against the side of the ship and let his hands settle on Taehyung’s body, feeling the warmth of his breath as it moved in his lungs, so poignantly alive as Hoseok took another labored sigh in his hammock.
“We’d better get the ship soon,” he murmured.
Taehyung hummed, hand already limp against his leg, half asleep with the rocking of the ship.
Seokjin arrived on board during a stop in Port Royal with a large bruise across his jaw, dazed and lost, but heart-wrenchingly handsome and terribly young. The crew relegated him to kitchen duty within an hour and ate the best meal they’d had in months that night.
Their patched-together group of six tentatively made their way back into the kitchen where the new guy and the cook, a massive, scowling, bald man, were putting away dishes. It took one smile to win him over.
That evening, the seven of them sat together in a corner of the fo’c’sle, having the best conversation Namjoon had experienced in years. Seokjin fell asleep against Namjoon’s shoulder, soft and trusting, and Namjoon hurt for how out of place he was.
“We’ll keep him safe,” Taehyung said, “Safer than us at least.”
“I’ll gut anyone who tries to pull something over on him,” Jimin said cheerfully, “like a fish,” he added with a giggle. Taehyung snickered and jostled him like it was the funniest thing he’d heard all day. Hoseok and Jungkook sat comfortably with their backs to the wall, hemmed in and protected by their friends and murmuring to each other. Yoongi angled himself half out to the main room. Ginger Joseph handed him a jug of ale, had a quick chat, and walked away.
“You don’t always have to hang out with us, you know,” Namjoon said.
“I wouldn’t if I didn’t want to,” Yoongi said. “I like this unit we’ve made. You and me. The originals.”
“Shouldn’t Jungkook and Hoseok get that? They’ve been here the longest.”
Jungkook bumped his head against Hoseok’s jaw. “I remember when you got here.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’ve been here forever.”
“Nearly ten years now. I think I’m almost eighteen.”
He must have been one exceptional eight-year-old to be impressed into duty, or especially pathetic. Namjoon nudged Jungkook’s leg with his foot and he smiled sleepily. “I’m happy,” Namjoon sighed to Yoongi. “Didn’t think I’d ever get there.”
“There’s still time,” Yoongi grumbled. He nodded at Seokjin. “How long do you think it’ll take before he figures out this crew is not what he signed up for?”
“No room for democracy here,” Namjoon grumbled, “not with our kingly captain reigning over us and a crew of thoughtless nutjobs to perpetuate it. Who needs free will?”
Taehyung glanced around hurriedly. “Some drunk told me recently that Captain Bullard gets all his battle tactics and good ideas out of random crewmates,” Taehyung said, “Do you think that’s true?”
“That’s true,” Yoongi said, “Those random crewmates are Namjoon and me. And the Bo’s’n, sometimes, but the Bo’s’n doesn’t mind.”
Taehyung’s eyes shifted back to Namjoon, admiration flashing in his little smile. “Ah,” he said softly, “I see why he hates you both so much.”
“Hell yeah,” Yoongi grumbled, “He’s scared we’ll steal his fire.”
“More like he’s scared we’ll convince the crew to stop letting him steal ours. That’s why he tries so hard to make us look like idiots.”
“I bet he never even killed those sea monsters he said he killed,” Taehyung murmured. “I bet someone else did it and he took the credit.”
Namjoon blinked and shut his mouth.
“Right,” Yoongi said slowly. Jimin smiled fondly at Taehyung and shook his head. Taehyung just nodded to himself, hopelessly adorable.
“Let’s jump ship in the next port,” Namjoon said softly, “find somewhere better.”
“You didn’t read your full contract, did you?” Hoseok said. “We’re tied to this ship for the next eight to ten years or they can come at us with full intent to torture and kill.”
“I think that’s just your contract,” Yoongi said. “And mine. I read over Namjoon’s myself. He can leave whenever he wants. Jimin and Taehyung are here for another four years at least. Jungkook doesn’t even have a contract. He’s basically a slave to this ship.”
“I don’t want to leave,” Jungkook said quickly. “I’m fine.”
Namjoon scowled at his boots. Eight to ten more years. He’d be thirty. He’d probably be dead. “You can leave, you know,” Taehyung said, “If you want.” He had such beautiful, big, black eyes, even with his puffy eye-bags and the bruises mottled across his cheek and neck. His eyebrows were set bravely, but his lower lip trembled just a little.
“I’m staying,” Namjoon said, and heard both Hoseok and Jungkook let out a deep, relieved sigh beside him. “I won’t leave until I can get us all out at once.”
“Don’t promise that,” Yoongi said, smiling. “Get out if you want to.”
“I don’t want to without all of you.”
“You’re too noble or whatever,” Taehyung said, “It’s gonna get you killed one day.”
The jungle grew densely green along the shore, crowding over the white beach and nearly all the way across a shadowy river pouring brown water out into the blue ocean. The crew lowered the dinghy slowly into the water, Taehyung working one handed. He’d put his arm back up in a sling to remind himself to be careful. Jungkook’s thumb was still carefully bandaged, but he used it without flinching. Jimin gave Licorice little goodbye kisses by the railing.
“Hoseok, ship guard duty again?”
“I’m coming with you,” Hoseok said. He’d already gotten dressed, belt buckled, sword and pistol at his hip, and a long, black headscarf tied around his hair.
Hoseok stood up straight, posture perfectly natural, but his eye twitched with pain. He ducked in close to talk quietly, glancing around to make sure the other guys weren’t listening in. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, Captain, but I might not last much longer.” He swallowed hard. “I know this isn’t going to feel good, but I can’t sit here all day alone again.”
Namjoon sighed and looked far left and right down the shore. “I don’t want to leave anyone alone right now anyway.”
Nobody said anything as Hoseok climbed down the ladder to the dinghy, but Taehyung and Yoongi shouldered him into the middle of a bench and let him lean back against their arms, holding him up as they rowed slowly upriver, their three injured, about half the crew. Jungkook carelessly slipped his shirt off over his head. Yoongi’s eyes flicked down his front. So did Taehyung’s. Namjoon’s eye twitched.
“Are there any big snakes here?” Jimin asked, peering over the side of the ship. “People in the village used to tell stories of snakes as long as ships back in the jungle. I always figured they were just trying to scare the children”
“Not as big as ships,” Namjoon said, “but huge. Definitely big enough to eat you whole. I doubt we’ll run into one. I’d be more worried about vipers that like to hang out in trees by the river.”
A branch hit Jimin in the back of the head. He yelped and ducked, swiping frantically at his hair. The boat aimed itself slowly towards the bank without Jimin paddling. Taehyung snickered and winked at Jungkook while Jimin scanned the trees for snakes. Jungkook carefully took one hand off the oar, still pulling easily with the other, and trailed his fingertips up Jimin’s spine.
“AH! Fuck!” Jimin smacked himself in the back of the neck as Jungkook pulled his hand away. Jimin turned around in his seat, saw Namjoon and Seokjin struggling to keep a straight face on the back bench, and then whipped around and whacked Jungkook’s shoulder. Taehyung cackled brightly over Jungkook’s soft giggles.
The river wound further and further up into the woods, brown water and long roots stretching out of the forest on either side. Fish blipped above the surface to catch bugs. The sun passed into the middle of the sky and became swelteringly hot. “Are we sure this is the right river?” Yoongi grumbled.
“Yes,” Taehyung said immediately.
“We are?” Namjoon said.
Taehyung nodded. “I can feel her presence.”
Namjoon coughed a little. Taehyung narrowed his eyes threateningly. The rest of the crew shifted uncomfortably. “Captain,” Taehyung started.
“We’re going up the river, okay?” Namjoon said, pulling his paddle up out of the water. Seokjin took the moment to rest. “What else do you want from me? I didn’t say anything, did I?”
“Fuck you for not believing in magic and making our hunt for a magic ship all the much harder, but fuck you even more for acting like I’m an idiot all the time.”
Jimin and Jungkook shrunk down in their seat between them, still paddling hard.
“When have I ever acted like you’re an idiot?” Namjoon said. “I’m trying to readjust but it’s a lot all at once.”
“Bullshit!” Taehyung hissed. “You’re so fucking condescending all the time. You don’t even think I’m smart, do you? What am I to you, huh? You just think I’m pretty like every man in port, right? You’ll let me in your bed but you won’t treat me like an equal—”
“I always treat you like an equal! Where the fuck is this coming from?” Namjoon yelped. Yoongi and Hoseok leaned slowly away from Taehyung.
“You fucking saw mermaids and you still don’t believe me, you stubborn bastard. You act like you care and then you get so cold, and what am I supposed to think? If you think you’re letting me down gently, you’re not! Just tell me to fuck off if you’re never going to let me closer. Stop dragging it out.” His voice cracked. He buried his head in his one functional hand. Namjoon sat with his oar clutched in his lap and stared off into the trees, trying to be a good captain and keep his emotions to himself.
When was the last time he really treated them as friends and not subordinates? Where had his best friends gone? Why had he left them?
“Are there crocodiles on this river?” Jimin asked very quietly.
“Probably,” Namjoon grumbled.
Jimin’s oar clattered against the dinghy and the boat angled towards the shore as Jungkook was the only one left pulling. “What happens if we run into one?” Jimin said, voice even higher than usual.
“Shoot at it and pray.”
“I should have stayed on the ship,” Hoseok said softly.
Namjoon sat up and started rowing again. The rest of the rowers followed suite. Taehyung scowled angrily at the forest as Hoseok cautiously rubbed his back.
They reached a fork in the river. Without turning, Taehyung picked up a hand and pointed down the left stream, and they pulled in that direction. Jimin and Hoseok fearfully watched the low branches and gazed across the sluggish river. “I see a house,” Hoseok said, “In the trees.”
A rotting wooden house sat halfway up the trunks of several trees as if jammed there, a rope ladder dangling towards the forest floor.
“That’s it,” Taehyung said.
Namjoon held his tongue until they’d pulled the dinghy up onto the shore, and then grabbed Taehyung by the shoulders and pushed him back into the woods away from the others. Taehyung glared with alarmingly red, watery eyes. The other five men stood behind Namjoon’s back in full view of them. “Gonna do this here with witnesses?” Taehyung hissed, “Since you’re so ashamed of me.”
“Do you honestly believe I don’t care about you?” Namjoon said softly. “You’ve known me for years. Do you honestly think I’d string you along like that?”
Taehyung opened his mouth, looking like he wanted to say yes, and stammered into silence, looking guilty. “You’re so hard to read these days. Why aren’t you mad?” he asked. “It’s easier when you’re mad.”
Namjoon tentatively swallowed his reservations and brushed his hand over Taehyung’s cheek. “I’m trying, Tae. There’s just decorum, and the ship’s articles, and I just don’t want this crew to fall apart.”
Taehyung rubbed the heel of his palm over his eyes, trapping Namjoon’s hand against his thin cheek. His waist felt so delicate through his shirt. Namjoon pressed gently against his lower back until he stepped forward and curled up against Namjoon’s shoulder and let Namjoon clutch him close, his injured arm trapped delicately between them. He molded to Namjoon’s chest with a shaky little sigh.
“So sweet,” said a woman’s voice right above them. Namjoon jumped and almost let Taehyung go, but Taehyung’s hand tightened on his shirt.
A young woman hung out the window of the tree-house, smiling like a crocodile. “Come on up, kids.”
Taehyung nudged Namjoon in the direction of the ladder and the rest of the men followed slowly, climbing up under the rotting, moss-laden floorboard. Jungkook lifted Taehyung up as high onto the ladder as he could and Namjoon pulled him the rest of the way up, letting the injured arm rest. They came up in the middle of a house filled with jars of pickled things and strings of weathered herbs. The woman sat on a wide wooden table covered in the waxy stubs of old candles, grinning as she waited for them. "Captain Namjoon Kim. I hear rumors about you all over the seas."
"Fuck, that can't be good," Namjoon said.
"Watch your language," Seokjin hissed.
"I'm sure she can handle it.”
He knocked a hanging bundle of snake skins out of his way so he could approach her. Jimin moved warily around it. Hoseok just never got on his feet, crawling across the weathered, warped boards till he got to a bench. The whole house baked in the sun, windows thrown open to the jungle. Bugs crawled right in and out the windows. A parrot waddled past a curtain and into another room.
"I'm Wheein," she said, dimples appearing on her cheeks, eyes narrowing, fox-like, when she grinned. "Lovely to meet you. Hwasa told me she found you in Havana a few weeks ago. You're after the map piece then?"
"Can we have it please?"
"Oh, aren't you polite," she giggled. "No. You'll have to prove to me that you deserve—well hello. Who are you?"
Jungkook had just crawled up through the floor and stood beside Namjoon. He wrapped his arms around his body like he regretted leaving his shirt in the dinghy. When he opened his mouth to answer, he let out a soft, gravelly whine.
"Jungkook. Our youngest," Namjoon said. "He's kind of shy with women."
Jungkook scowled at Namjoon’s boots since he couldn’t pull his head up far enough to scowl at his face.
"What a sweet young man," Wheein purred, hopping off the table, "And look at these arms." She ran a thumb down the curves of his bicep. He held still and let her, flexing just a little to give her what she wanted. "So pretty. So well behaved," she praised. Jungkook's eyelashes fluttered a little. He turned bright red, leaning slightly into her touch as it trailed up to his face. Taehyung clutched Namjoon's shoulder. Yoongi's jaw locked tight.
Wheein kept a neat little house, cramped and cozy. The curved, humidity-warped wood made the whole building feel out of balance. She sat them down and started cooking before Namjoon could wrestle her into an argument on payment.
"What have you been doing since Havana?" she asked.
Jimin cautiously told her all about meeting his father and dealing with the mermaids. She did things with her hands as she listened, one stirring the stew, the other playing with a little knob of wood. Each time it turned over in her hand, it looked a little different.
"What brave boys," she said, stopping behind Jungkook to run her hands over his shoulders and down his chest, fingernails scratching lightly on the way back up. Jungkook probably didn’t mean to push his chest further into her hands, eyes big and round, waiting for more praise. Yoongi pulled his hat off his head with a little squeak of leather and ground it between his hands in his lap. "You have a tough curse to fight," Wheein continued.
"Will finding the Golden Dragon really get rid of it?" Namjoon said. Hypothetically, of course. If they assumed curses existed.
Wheein stepped back towards the stove with a last rub to Jungkook's hair.
"The Five Kings are friends of mine. They dove beneath the surface of this sea to get to know its magic. Very few foreigners, even among pirates, manage that. Taehyung could," she said, smiling fondly at him. "The Five Kings bargained with my sisters and me, sought out the monsters, befriended the very energy of the waters. The sea itself gave them their beautiful ship. And so, that ship has a destiny. The Five Kings have disappeared, leaving that destiny and the ship, but if you take up both, the sea’s blessing is greater than any curse you’ve brought on yourselves."
“We’d have to take up the ship’s purpose?” Namjoon said. “What if we just want to keep doing what we’ve always done? What if it’s too dangerous?”
"What's the destiny?" Jungkook asked quietly.
"Find your map pieces and figure it out."
Namjoon huffed. "I don't want to go chasing some mission our ship puts us on. We already get enough weird attention for all the shit we're pulling. Those rumors back in port have to be getting worse and not better."
Wheein pulled the front of Hoseok's shirt out and glanced down his collar. "You'll be dead in ten days," she said sharply. Hoseok face fell flat. Taehyung straightened suddenly on the bench next to Namjoon and grabbed his knee. "You’ve had your head fixed recently,” she said, tapping on Yoongi’s forehead. “Lucky. That would have killed you. And I’ve heard storms follow you everywhere." Wheein raised a sharp eyebrow at Namjoon, giving a soft, little squeeze to Taehyung’s shoulder. He twitched in discomfort, fingers digging into Namjoon’s knee. "That ship is your only way out. Nothing else will lift that curse. Hoseok, the most innocent, will be the first to go, and everyone else will follow. You'll be last."
"Captain?" Taehyung whispered. "Hobi..."
"I know," he murmured.
"You're bound to the destiny of that ship now if you want to escape the rest of the curse."
Hoseok glared bitterly down at his lap and Namjoon felt sick. Even if they did escape the curse, it was too late for Hoseok. "The map piece?" he asked. "How can we pay you?" Namjoon said. "We don't have much."
She shrugged, not looking at them. "I like cursed objects. Strange creatures. Artifacts. Favors. The easiest thing, though," she turned to face them, looking right at Jungkook, "my favorite thing, I only need one of you for."
Namjoon heard the squeak of leather as Yoongi gripped his hat under the table again.
"What is it?" Jungkook said.
"I want your loyalty. That's all."
"My loyalty?" Jungkook said softly.
"Be mine. Do what I say. Come when I call. Pledge yourself to me. I'll bless you with wisdom and skill. You'll be feared and respected by the entire sea, and I only ask for fidelity."
"And the crew will get the map piece?" he asked.
"Don't," Taehyung said. "You know this means romantic and sexual fidelity too, right?"
"I-I'm okay with that," Jungkook said.
Taehyung jerked his head towards Yoongi, staring blankly at the candle wax dripped at the edge of the table. Jungkook murmured "oh," very softly, eyes wide on the top of Yoongi’s head, and blushed bright red again.
"He can't," Taehyung said to Wheein.
"Is that your final choice?" Wheein said.
Jungkook peered at Yoongi for a moment, who finally glanced up from under his bangs, more worried and vulnerable than Namjoon had ever seen him. "I can't," Jungkook said. "I'm sorry."
"Well then," she said. "Any other takers?"
"I will," Hoseok said.
"You'll be dead in ten days," Wheein said. "I'm afraid that's not a fair trade."
Hoseok’s gaze flicked out the window, away from the rest of them. Sweat still tracked slowly down his face and he looked so tired.
"There's a camp of British soldiers about a mile from here to the south," she said, "On the other side of the peninsula, so you wouldn't have seen them coming in. They have a Tumi that I want. Get it for me."
"Tumi?" Seokjin asked.
"Ceremonial knife," Namjoon said.
"How do you know everything?"
"Made of gold with inlaid rubies,” Wheein said. “You’ll be outnumbered, so don’t let them see you. Hoseok, you'd better stay here."
Hoseok nodded slowly, not looking anyone in the eye.
"Lunchtime," Wheein said brightly and started putting bowls of stew on the table. "I heard you met my lusca a while ago. How are they doing?"
Taehyung launched into his dramatic description of their fight with the lusca. Hoseok ate a little bit and then put his head down on the table. Jungkook ate slowly, occasionally gazing over at Yoongi.
They left Hoseok behind after lunch and walked south, Yoongi and Jungkook walked a couple feet apart without touching or looking at each other, and Namjoon hoped the he and Taehyung didn't make everyone else deal with their sexual tension like that.
"What did she mean that Hoseok is going to die in ten days?" Taehyung asked quietly.
"The infection," Jimin murmured.
"It's not that bad, is it?" Taehyung said weakly.
Taehyung stopped walking and stood still, the dappled jade of the forest around him, lips twitching downwards. His dirty sling pulled tiredly at his neck. He stared back into the jungle.
"We have to hurry," Jimin said, "You'll see him when you get back."
Taehyung took a deep breath and kept walking forward, jaw locked tight and eyes filling with tears. "No one told me," he murmured.
"It was better that you didn't have to dwell on it," Namjoon said. "I think he prefers that we act normal around him."
The old crew used to tease Taehyung about how easily he cried. They got angry, frustrated tears spilling down his cheeks more times than Namjoon had been able to stomach. He'd gotten sick of watching Taehyung break down.
They’d been wrong. Taehyung didn't cry easily. He never cried from pain. He hadn't cried when he learned of his old Haitian friend's death. He hadn't cried when the crew died. He cried when he felt helpless, and he cried for other people.
Taehyung hung onto Namjoon's shirt as they walked because he couldn't see through his tears. Namjoon felt so sick of seeing Taehyung cry.
"Don't blame yourself,” Taehyung said, reading his face.
"Too late for that."
Fresh bout of tears.
"I really hate to say this," Seokjin said, "but can we put this conversation off till after we have the Tumi?"
Taehyung sniffled tiredly and wiped his eyes with the trailing end of his headscarf. Jungkook hung to the side, blinking his big eyes at the somber group and looking confused. Yoongi patted his bare back affectionately, hand pale against Jungkook's dark skin, and urged him forward into the jungle.
The camp sat up right up by the forest on the beach, nestled in the slim shade of palm trees. Sailors wandered around half-dressed, playing cards and staring at the clear blue sky. “I don’t see a ship,” Yoongi murmured. “Must have been dropped off here. They look bored enough to rot.”
They snuck around through the woods, trusting in the shade to keep them hidden. Nobody watched the forest. At the back of the campsite, some superior officers sat around a little table, formally put-together even in the heat of the day, and set apart from the other men. Sweat dripped out of their wigs.
“Do you think the Tumi is in the tent?” Seokjin said, pointing to the biggest tent beside the officers.
“Anybody else seeing the ritual alter on the ground?” Taehyung asked.
Taehyung pointed to a little box in the sand with a sheet draped across it, covered in symbols that looked like they’d been drawn with blood. Candles stood on every corner. “Fucking shitty alter, but there it is.”
They edged closer.
“—set off in the center of Jamaica,” an officer in a crooked wig said. “Whitacre has it all planned. Don’t worry. We’re not the only team out doing this nonsense.”
“I’ve seen it work, Lieutenant,” another man said, the only one without a wig, hair cropped short and wispy. “Whitacre knows things. You should have seen the army of undead he pulled up in Haiti.”
Taehyung snorted. “This is ridiculous. They don’t know what they’re messing with. Anyway, Tumi. Probably in the big tent.”
“I don’t know about any armies of undead, Robertson,” a man with a white wig said, “but his methods are working on the trade routes and with the local savages. That’s enough for me.”
Taehyung grunted indignantly in his throat. Namjoon frowned and pulled the whole group quietly back till the breeze and waves covered the sound of voices.
“So, it’s in the tent,” Jimin whispered. “Probably. There are tons of people around.”
“We could lure a couple of them out here and then dress in their clothes,” Seokjin hissed.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Jimin whispered. “There are only, like, twenty of them. We could walk in there in what we’re wearing now and be less transparent than that. Maybe if we waited till night time…”
“I really don’t want to do that,” Yoongi said. “Please let’s just pick ‘em off one by one.”
“There’s a high risk of one of us getting hurt though,” Namjoon said. “It’d be better to do this with stealth.”
“I like the running in and swinging swords idea,” Jungkook grumbled.
“We’d definitely die,” Namjoon said.
“I’ll do it,” Jimin said.
They all looked at Jimin, who sighed and pulled of his belt and untied the sash around his waist. “I’m part siren-ish-thing, right? I can lure them all out.” He tugged his shirt off over his head.
“What if they just shoot you?” Taehyung asked.
“They won’t. I’ll be singing.”
“You’re not that powerful.”
“I do this all the time,” Jimin said.
“You do this to single, drunk men in loud bars in the middle of the night. Do you really think you can lure twenty upstanding men of the British navy away on a beach in the middle of the afternoon? Where this shit is flat-out illegal?”
“Yeah, I really think I can,” Jimin said, tugging his boots off.
“Then what?” Yoongi whispered.
“Then send Jungkook in with his shirt off to distract anyone left behind and sneak into the tent,” Jimin said, and yanked his breeches down, leaving him only in tight, dark red drawers that laced up the front. The whole group recoiled slightly, eyes flicking down his long, dark legs. “How do I look?” Jimin asked Taehyung.
Taehyung ran his hand carefully through Jimin’s hair, combing it back off his forehead, and parting it down one side. “Delicious. Go knock ‘em dead, baby.”
“Bad idea—” Namjoon said, but he’d already left them
Jimin crept slowly through the underbrush, keeping behind as many palms as he could, dark skin blending into the woods around him. He stopped behind a palm right by the campsite and shut his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath, and then crouched and crept up to the edge of the group. He perched his head on his arms on an empty stool, and they all waited for the men to stop staring at their map and notice him. His bare back stayed turned towards them, spotted with freckles. He looked sharply other-worldly next to the starkly clothed, wigged men sitting straight on their stools. The crew watched, barely daring to blink.
The wigless man noticed Jimin first and jolted, and then the other men jumped back, yelping in shock. Jimin’s back shook a little with giggles, and he seemed to say something. The men glanced at each other, and then the wigless man knelt slowly down to be level with Jimin’s height, a small smirk sneaking onto his face.
Taehyung’s long fingers wrapped around Namjoon’s arm and squeezed.
“He’ll be fine,” Namjoon said.
They heard the dim sound of a high, singing voice, and all the men’s expressions blanked. Some nearby sailors looked up suddenly, dropped whatever they were doing. Namjoon felt suddenly a little floaty, a little lost and wanting.
Taehyung bit lightly at Namjoon’s right earring and jolted him back to the present.
Jimin stood slowly, still singing. His whole body moved with the song, little sways, head lying back. Namjoon could picture the blissful, distant look on his face, like he’d been enchanted by his own voice. He slowly led the men through the camp, snowballing as many men as he could, and then headed off down the beach. The wigless man went first, eyes a little more alight than the rest of the men, hands a little bolder.
“What happened to the British navy condemning sexual relations between men?” Namjoon muttered.
“It’s Jimin,” Taehyung said. “Even the most morally uptight assholes give in for Jimin. He’s not even part siren. He’s the real thing.”
Before the group left, the officer with the white wig turned to two younger sailors and vacantly pointed to the camp, apparently ordering him to stay. They seemed confused, but nodded and went back to their seats, rubbing their heads, military training overpowering the spell. The group disappeared around a curve in the beach and the rest of the crew crept slowly forward.
One of the sailors shook his head like a dog trying to get water out of his ears while the other stood and stared down the beach, one hand on his pistol.
“Fuck. They’re on edge. They’ll just shoot us if we come close.”
One man picked up a musket, staring down the beach with a determined expression.
“He’s going to hunt Jimin,” Taehyung said.
“Easy fix,” Yoongi said and pulled his pistols out of his sash.
“Don’t shoot them!” Seokjin said. “They’re just soldiers! They have families to go back too.”
“And they’re a danger to us and Jimin right now. If they didn’t want risk they shouldn’t have joined the navy.”
“You don’t know what their situations are. Their families could be starving. There have to be better ways of doing this. We could send Taehyung in acting like a hysterical local or something, and he could feed them some story about Jimin being a monster and needing help, and then send them running off on some bullshit goose chase to save their crew or something.”
“Or they might just shoot him,” Yoongi said. “You don’t know if they’re assholes or not.” He stepped forward. The rest of the group shuffled forward with him.
“Wait, Yoongi,” Namjoon said, “As your captain, I say don’t shoot. You have to listen to what your crewmates say.”
Yoongi nodded. “As quarter-master, I’m putting it to a vote,” he growled. “Should I shoot?”
“Aye,” Jungkook said.
“Nay,” said Seokjin, Namjoon, and Taehyung.
Yoongi grit his teeth and took another couple steps forward. “Ya’ll are too soft. We should kill them before they ever have a chance to kill us. They want to shoot Jimin, and you don’t want me to shoot them?”
“What happens when they all come back and find two of their men dead?” Taehyung said. “They’d find our ship fast enough.”
“They don’t have one of their own,” Yoongi said, stepping forward again, getting almost close enough for the men in camp to hear them. “It’s fine.”
“Yoongi, I will hang you upside-down from the yard arm if you disobey me.”
Seokjin suddenly stepped in a hole and fell with a yelp. The two men whipped around quickly, guns up.
“Fuck!” Yoongi said. Shots fired, blisteringly loud. A bullet slammed into the palm beside them. The two men in camp fell dead. Namjoon’s ears rang. Yoongi dropped both his pistols and sat down on the ground, gasping in pain with his head clutched in his hands.
“God damn it, Yoongi,” Namjoon said, crouching to check if he was okay. Yoongi moaned, injured head pounding. “We didn’t know if they were going to shoot us. We could probably have saved that.”
“I think that was me actually,” Jungkook said softly. He had both his pistols out and pointed at the camp. He was a better shot than Yoongi. He swallowed. “I panicked. I’m sorry.”
“You’re fine,” Namjoon sighed. “Let's go get the Tumi.”
“I have a problem,” Seokjin whimpered, gingerly pulling his foot out of the hole. “Leg. Fuck.”
Jungkook and Namjoon carefully helped him pull his boot off. “Looks fine for now,” Namjoon said. “We’ll have to wait and see. Can you move it?”
Seokjin nodded, slowly twisting it back and forth while grunting through his teeth. “Fucking curse. Ow.”
“Sit here. We’ll find bandages in camp.”
“If you guys have to run, just leave me,” Seokjin said.
“Fuck that,” Yoongi groaned from where he sat with his head in his knees.
The knife was rather carelessly thrown on top of someone’s bed roll, spade shaped on both ends. A figure with a half-circle crown formed the hilt, studded with rubies. Taehyung grimaced and threw a blanket around it, carefully cradling it in his arms. “Fuck that’s a dangerous thing to just have lying around.”
“We shouldn’t touch it?” Jungkook said with wide eyes.
“Absolutely not. We’re cursed enough already.”
“I’m more interested in this map,” Yoongi said from outside. They walked out to the view of Jungkook hefting one of the dead bodies onto his shoulders and walking off into the jungle with it. “The island with the zombies is marked with a little tombstone. I think there must be some temple ruins in the woods near here. There’s a drawing on the map.”
“They’re stationed in Jamaica,” Taehyung said. “Near Port Royal.”
“Well obviously. They’re British.”
“They really like Trinidad and Tobago,” Yoongi said.
“That’s where a lot of Caribbean monsters and magic come up from,” Taehyung said. “A lot of the stories that circle around originate from there.” He bent over the map, hand braced on a stool, and the oversized hem of his breeches popped out the bottom of his sash. Namjoon tugged it gently back down and trailed his fingers over Taehyung’s tiny waist, almost cinched in by his belt. He caught Yoongi eyeing his hands, and pulled them off.
Taehyung reached back and grabbed him by the belt looped over his chest. “Captain, look at this.”
He pointed to a spot on the island of Trinidad that had a stylized goat next to it. “That doesn’t look good,” Taehyung said.
Namjoon didn’t think it looked bad either. The lines were clean. The artistry was good. Well-designed. Even a nicely colored ink. “I don’t know. I think it looks…pretty nice.”
“Not the craftsmanship, you idiot.”
“Don’t talk to your captain like that,” Namjoon grumbled, blushing.
“Do we have time?” Yoongi said. “Can we rob them?”
“Yeah, we probably have time to rob them,” Namjoon said. “I really should have asked Jimin how much time we have.”
“How’s he going to get away from them?” Taehyung said. Jungkook shrugged and hefted the second body up onto his shoulders.
“Taehyung, grab some new shirts for me. All of mine keep going to you.”
Taehyung smiled and started pawing through someone’s tent.
“This Robertson guy is shady,” Yoongi growled from inside a nearby tent. “I found his stuff. He’s got a whole bunch of weird shit he shouldn’t in here.” He tossed a couple skulls out the door, each painted intricately. “And there’s a stuffed lizard. This shit is weird.” He came out with a shrunken head on a stick. “But he also has a hella nice coat. Captain?” Yoongi held out a dark brown coat with faded gold piping lining the buttons on the side, red cuffs and lining and wide lapels. “I think you need a good coat, sir.”
“I need a good hat too,” Namjoon said with a smile, and slid his arms into the sleeves. “Damn this looks great.”
Taehyung stepped back to look with a wide smile on his face. “You definitely need a better hat to go with that awesome coat.”
“I’ve got a lot of food,” Jungkook said, lugging a huge bag up the beach. “They’ve got a lot of fresh jungle fruit. And rum.”
“New pair of boots?” Yoongi said, holding up a pair of ridiculous, thigh-high black leather boots. Taehyung snorted.
Jungkook shook his head. “I don’t really wear mine as it is. They’re not nearly worn out yet. Save those for Jimin though. He’s been getting holes in his.”
“Speaking of Jimin,” Taehyung said, looking back down the beach. “I’m a little worried that he hasn’t come back yet. I imagine he’d knock them all out or kill them and then run back here. Maybe he’s trying to give us some time.”
Namjoon frowned up the beach and picked up two more discarded pistols and a big bag of gunpowder and shot. “Let’s go wait for him in the woods.”
Namjoon brought medical gear back. Seokjin’s leg had swollen up just a little, hardly enough to even see, but he couldn’t move it much, breathing heavily. Yoongi made a clumsy splint out of little strips of palm fronds and cotton gauze from the camp while Seokjin bit his lip and tried not to make a sound.
After Soekjin had been settled, Yoongi and Jungkook stood a little apart from the group, Jungkook with his arms crossed self-consciously across his chest. Yoongi facing awkwardly away. As they talked, slowly and softly with lots of large pauses, they turned further towards each other.
Taehyung walked back to camp and stole a deck of cards. They played through several rounds of gin. Namjoon lovingly studied his new coat.
“There are little anchors on the buttons.”
“That’s adorable, sir,” Seokjin said around a mouthful of fruit, propped up against a tree and looking tired.
After a while, Jungkook’s arms wrapped tightly around Yoongi’s back and Yoongi stroked his hands steadily through his hair. He murmured in Jungkook’s ear and Jungkook swayed them gently, eyes shut. Sometimes they heard Jungkook’s little giggles or Yoongi’s low laughter.
“Hey Captain. You might have a matelotage to officiate here soon,” Seokjin said with a nod. Taehyung looked wistfully at them, and then resumed staring down the beach, Jimin’s clothes folded up in his lap.
“It’s been a really long time, Captain,” Taehyung said. “Should we send someone for him?”
“Let’s give him another hour. I trust him. Sending someone else in might make things difficult.”
“What if I went to scout just to make sure he’s not hurt.”
Namjoon hesitated. Taehyung shifted nervously and peered back through the woods, head scarf twitching as his eyebrows tightened. “Fine. Be careful.”
Taehyung took off his garish red headscarf and white shirt, and then his sling, leaving his skin dark under the trees. He trotted away through the jungle in his natural camouflage, injured arm held gently in his other hand.
“Can captains officiate their own marriages?” Seokjin asked softly.
“No idea. Not like we need to find out.”
“We all know you’re together, Namjoon. The old rules really don’t apply. There are only seven of us, and we trust you. Don’t cut both of yourselves off from being happy just to uphold some arbitrary rules.”
“I really value the arbitrary rules,” Namjoon said. “The arbitrary rules are what keep us free.”
“You don’t seem very free.”
Captain of a cursed crew on a dysfunctional ship, locking himself away from his own love, one man days from dying, supposedly about to undertake some other ship’s destiny just to stay alive. “I don’t feel very free, but very little of that has to do with Taehyung.”
“Love helps us find happiness even when our lives suck,” Seokjin said. “Being open with Taehyung will help this crew, not hurt it.”
“It always makes me feel like the worst kind of captain.”
“You’re dumb, Joon,” Seokjin laughed, pulling Namjoon down into his lap and scratching his hair. “Get your nose out of the ship’s articles and start responding to the actual crew. We’ve all got your back.”
Namjoon hummed softly as Seokjin tugged gently on the hair at the back of his head, cheek resting against his thigh. “Isn’t that coat too hot?”
“Yeah. It’s awesome though. Everything’s warm and comfy.”
“Oh, shut it.”
Seokjin giggled. Namjoon slowly drifted out of consciousness with the forest bug’s rattle and bird squawks. Eventually he opened his eyes to see Yoongi sitting against a tree with Jungkook propped up against his chest, his bunny smile showing all his white teeth. “Matelotage on the horizon,” Namjoon muttered.
“Ah, young love,” Seokjin sighed.
Bright gold sunlight crawled through tiny cracks in the canopy and poured warmly over the forest floor, slanting sharply down through the humid forest. “It’s getting a little late, isn’t it?” Seokjin said. Yoongi and Jungkook sat lit up in a halo of light, gleaming off Yoongi’s dark hair and Jungkook’s skin, the glitter of their weapons. After a little while, the light tracked across the ground and left them in shadow.
Namjoon sat up. “If they don’t get back here soon, we’re going to have trouble rowing back to the ship before dark. I don’t want to spend the night in that house.”
Seokjin pouted. “I thought it would be nice.”
Namjoon pulled Seokjin down chest first onto his lap. “Your turn.” He rubbed between Seokjin’s shoulders and smiled went he melted limply against Namjoon’s thighs. “How’s your leg?”
“Throbbing. It’s bearable though. The splint helped.”
“This shirt used to be purple,” Namjoon said, rubbing the faded fabric.
“It’s gray now,” Seokjin sighed.
“It’s more pink, I think,” Namjoon said. Seokjin turned to smile up at Namjoon, hair messy across his forehead. He’d always been too proud of his hair. A year ago, it had been shorn off short and ugly, and Seokjin spent months hiding under hats and scarves till it grew back. Even at that point, Namjoon doubted any prince had ever looked more handsome.
“I’m pretty hot, right?” Seokjin said with a laugh, but his voice faded a little, beseeching.
“You’re beautiful,” Namjoon said. “I’m proud to have the prince of the Caribbean on our ship.”
“It’s all I have going for me,” Seokjin said softly.
“You’re forgetting what a good chef you are.”
“I’m okay,” Seokjin said.
“Seokjin, if I were to list all your virtues, we’d be here till tomorrow morning. You don’t have to be down on yourself. You have a lot to be proud of, and we’re not going to think badly about you if you own up to it a little. We’re not here to put you down. We’re not the shitty friends you used to have.”
Seokjin rolled over, nearly snapping Namjoon’s knees in the process, but he gritted his teeth and let it pass. “You’re right. I have the friends I deserve, but I could stand to be a little nicer to myself. I’ve come a long way, right?”
“Remember when you couldn’t tell a jib sail from a mainsail? Remember when you tried to climb the rigging and fell into the ocean?”
“Oh god, don’t bring that up,” Seokjin said, putting his hands over his face.
“Yeah, you’ve come a long way,” Namjoon laughed.
Voices came from the camp. They froze. Namjoon threw a stick at Jungkook and Yoongi to get them to shut up. The mutterings were hard to hear over the racket of birdcalls and rustling palm fronds around them, but they got steadily closer. The four men got up and hustled quickly behind trees.
“I swear this is where I left them.”
Taehyung’s voice. Namjoon rushed immediately out from behind the tree and they yelped. Taehyung jolted into a tree. Jimin’s knees gave out. Namjoon caught him and lowered him gently to the ground. “Fuck, Captain, you scared the shit out of me.”
“Where were you? Are you okay?”
“Well…” Jimin looked down at himself. His body was covered in little oblong bruises and red spots, neck bright red with burst blood vessels. His drawers had been ripped along one side. The insides of both thighs were shiny and red. “I’m a little…used up.”
“Let’s get your clothes.”
“We got you new boots,” Jungkook said brightly, holding up the ridiculous leather things. Jimin’s scowl softened immediately.
“Thanks, Kookie. Are those thigh highs?”
“Yeah. They’ll probably fit you since they’re made for sailors, but if your thighs don’t fit we can just saw the tops off.”
Jimin gratefully pulled his clothes back on, leaning into Taehyung’s good arm. “Jimin knocked them all out, but we have no idea how long it’ll last, so we should probably high-tail it back to the ship as soon as we can manage.”
“Seriously,” Namjoon said quietly, “Are you okay?”
Jimin nodded. “It was kind of fun, actually. I’m just a little overwhelmed and really fucking tired.” Jungkook got Jimin up on his back. Jimin moaned quietly as Jungkook jostled his thighs around, and hid his face against the back of Jungkook’s neck. “We’ve gotta watch out for that Robertson guy,” Jimin said. “He’s got a shit ton of willpower and he’s fucking sadistic.”
“I’m afraid we’ll be dealing with him a lot in the future,” Taehyung said. “I can feel it. He’s important.”
“Damn. Spoiling the fun,” Jimin muttered. Namjoon and Yoongi propped Seokjin up between them and they trudged off into the woods. Taehyung carried the blanket with the Tumi gently inside his sling.
Wheein greeted them from Hoseok’s lap when they arrived through the trap door in her kitchen floor. “You have it? Good job. And no one seriously hurt, either?” Hosoek smiled brightly, arms around her waist, looking like he’d been mid nap.
“Um.” Namjoon swallowed. Hoseok sat tiredly against the seat, sweat streaking his face, hair mussed, but with such a peaceful look on his face. She lay limply against his chest in a loose nightgown, feet bare. The air stank of sex. She stood slowly, cringing as she flexed her hips. Jimin giggled a little. She winked at him.
Taehyung handed her the blanket, and she unfolded it on the table to examine it. Taehyung went right to Hoseok, sitting down against his legs.
“Hobi! Wow!” Seokjin said as he sat carefully down, propping his foot up on the bench. Now that Wheein wasn’t leaning against his chest, they could see the wound, a long, clean scar across his skin. “She healed you?”
He nodded, smiling softly, bright eyes softer and face clearer than Namjoon could remember seeing it. “Yeah. I’ll live for now.”
Namjoon plopped weakly down on the bench, letting all the air rush out of his chest as his very soul seemed to lighten.
“What did you pay her?” Taehyung asked.
Wheein shouldered her way in with two big cups and handed them to Jimin and Taehyung. “His mind, body, and soul. Jiminie darling, drink that. It’ll help with soreness.” She tipped an identical cup up and sucked it down. Jimin cautiously followed suit, made a face at the taste, and then heaved a huge sigh of relief and lay down on the floor. “Oh damn, my ass,” he groaned.
“Did you take them all bare?” Taehyung said like this was a common thread of conversation. He was still wrapped around Hoseok’s legs, cheek mushed against his knee.
“I made one of them bring oil, thank god. Not much, but it helped. Otherwise I’d be a lot bloodier right now. Robertson was...” Jimin trailed off, puffing out his cheeks and blowing all the air out of his lungs. “He was rough.”
“Captain Roberston is there?” Wheein asked casually.
“Yeah. You know him?”
“Just rumors. He’s an ex-pirate. Got recruited into the military a few years ago. Typical sell-out.”
Namjoon felt his lip curling.
“Don’t like pirates who abandon the lifestyle, do you Namjoon?” she said.
“I don’t like people who actively chose dictatorial and oppressive systems over democratic ones. Power-hungry bastards.”
“You do know that you’re a career barbarian, right?” she asked.
“Democracy is important,” Namjoon grumbled. “Human rights, you know?”
“Been reading Hobbes?”
“Yeah. And Calvin. Aristotle. Kant.”
“Sounds like a swear word,” Seokjin muttered to Yoongi. “Kant.”
“What are they talking about?” Jungkook asked.
“Philosophers,” Yoongi said knowledgably. “Great political thinkers.”
“Philo…what?” Jungkook said. “Pol—litic—al?”
“I’m talking about the way we pirates reject censorship and scorn society that’s held down by arbitrary class systems and stupid rules about behavior. The way the rich continue to feed off the poor.”
“Oh,” Jungkook said. “That’s why I hated England. My parents kept…” He realized everyone was looking at him and trailed off. “…kept beating the servants.”
“So you became a pirate who kills people,” Wheein said.
“I ran away and it just kinda happened. I was eight,” Jungkook said. “I didn’t think it through.”
Yoongi gave his shoulder a gentle little kiss and the whole house looked respectfully away. Jimin wrinkled his nose and shifted uncomfortable. “I feel really impure and dirty, suddenly.”
Yoongi rolled his eyes. “You won’t later when you hear us fucking in the hold.”
Jungkook snickered as Jimin wrinkled his nose.
“We should go,” Namjoon said. “We need to sail away before they see the ship.”
“Probably impossible,” Wheein said, jamming her way down into the chair beside Hoseok. They snuggled up, temple to temple. “Are you sure you all can’t stay the night?”
“That would be a dangerous, self-indulgent thing to do,” Namjoon said. “Can we have the map piece?”
She pulled it out of the front of her nightgown and handed it to him, and then went back to stroking Hoseok’s cheek. Hoseok nuzzled her like a happy cat. Namjoon grinned and looked at the map piece. Atlantic, the Bahamas, and a tiny piece of Cuba. He flipped it over. “Oh look. ‘—hitacre is tak—.’ It’s about Admiral Whitacre after all. That’s two of our map pieces. ‘Admiral Whitacre is tak—.’ And then we also have ‘—n’s power. Trap him in the—’”
“Admiral Whitacre is taking someone’s power, and we have to trap him somewhere,” Taehyung said, looking kind of awkward from his spot by Hoseok and Wheein’s feet. “Is that what the Golden Dragon’s destiny is about? Seems kind of lame.”
“Then maybe you’re still missing something,” Wheein said.
“Yeah. The map piece from the Bahamas, the map piece from Puerto Rico, and the map piece from Trinidad and Tobago. We’re missing nearly half still. There’s a phrase the length of two missing pieces between ‘Admiral Whitacre is tak—’ and ‘—n’s power. Trap him in the—,’ so we have to assume it’s more complicated than just someone. And the Bahamas map piece. What do we do about that?”
“Tortuga,” Wheein said. “That’s about as far south as you’ll find the Bloody Marlin unless they’re going for a rum run down to Port Royal, which is rare. They’ve been straying south more and more these days, supposedly looking for the pieces of a map leading to the Five Kings ship. I’d check in at Tortuga first and see what you can hear.”
“Thank you. What do I owe you for that information?”
“You, nothing, but Hobi owes me a kiss.”
“Gross,” Yoongi muttered as Hoseok turned her in his lap so he could stick his tongue down her throat, hands roaming unashamedly over her body.
“The sun is getting low,” Seokjin said softly. Namjoon stacked all the thick map pieces together and stood. “Alright kids. Let’s get going.”
The dinghy seemed more sluggish on the way back as they raced the sun down the glassy river. Hoseok tiredly took Seokjin’s spot so he could take a turn resting between Yoongi and Taehyung. Jimin forgot about the snakes and crocodiles in favor of choking on little grunts of pain as he shifted on the bench until Yoongi shuffled him onto the bench of the injured and took his place.
“Don’t push yourself,” Namjoon said.
“Rowing a boat doesn’t take a brain.”
They got back to the ship with a few hours before the light failed completely, though it still hung lower than Namjoon found comfortable. They took a moment to eat and breath, and then set sail and began to drift slowly east.
“Bad news,” Jimin said from the back deck, the spyglass to his eye, Licorice already nodding off to sleep in his arms. “Robertson.”
Namjoon took the glass from him and looked back east. The wigless man stood at the end of the little peninsula that separated the river from the camp’s beach. He also held a spyglass to his eye. Namjoon watched as he tossed it on the ground and stomped aggressively back and forth before whipping out his sword and slashing it against a tree. He took the glass carefully away from his eye. “Yikes.”
Jimin shuddered and turned his back. “Can I give someone else my watch tonight? I really need to sleep.”
“Hobi?” Namjoon said, turning to the man at the helm.
“Of course,” Hoseok said with his flashy grin. “I’m feeling fresh.”
“How do you feel about…you know, being bound to servitude, I guess.”
“I definitely prefer it to death,” Hoseok said, and glanced at their worried faces with a grin. It faltered a little. “I’m fine, guys. She’s a smart, powerful, beautiful woman who saved my life and says she’ll always come help me out. I think I’m okay with this. I don’t need constant sex to survive, you know. I was kind of planning on being single forever anyway.”
Namjoon started to say, “Your freedom—” but Jimin cut him off with “Will you miss her?”
Hoseok looked back at the shore, a little sad. “Yeah. I’ll be okay though. I’ll see her again soon.”
If he didn’t die first. Namjoon could almost feel it now, the curse dogging their steps, latching on to Seokjin’s leg, Yoongi’s head, Taehyung’s arm. The crew climbed the rigging more carefully these days, sparred less, used knives in the kitchen only when they couldn’t rip their food apart with hands and teeth.
Taehyung climbed onto the quarterdeck. “How’s your arm?” Namjoon said.
Taehyung shrugged. “Better, actually. I was careful today. It’s just tired. I could probably sleep back in my own hammock tonight if you wanted me to.”
Namjoon leaned forward and kissed the center of Taehyung’s forehead, right between his eyebrows. “No. You should stay another night. I’ve been enjoying how warm you keep the bed.”
Taehyung snorted and shoved him. “Oh, you big softie.” He skipped back down the stairs, hair bouncing.
Jimin gave him a little nudge with his kitten. “Just fuck him. He’s a good lay, I promise.”
Namjoon laughed and shook his head incredulously. He followed Jimin’s gaze back towards the shoreline shrinking behind them. “Do you think he saw the ship’s name?”
“Yeah,” Jimin said, “I think he knows who we are.”
“We’ve got to ditch this ship.”
“We’ve got to ditch this curse. Even the cats can feel it. They won’t go anywhere near the railings and they stick to high surfaces where no one can step on them.”
Namjoon looked down at Licorice’s dumb, sleepy, fluffy face. “You know you’re stupid when a mentally addled cat reads the signs before you do,” Namjoon sighed.
“You’re not stupid,” Jimin said, “just distracted. I’m stupid.”
“I just let twenty men fuck me at once. That’s how you get syphilis. People die from syphilis. I’m stupid. Watch me be the one to die first just because I keep jumping into things that are way over my head. I’ve nearly died twice in two weeks.”
“Don’t say that.”
Jimin pressed Licorice to his face. “Right. Sorry. My two best friends have both just matched up with someone else, and maybe I’m selfish, but I feel like the odd one out. Hobi too. Now it’s just Seokjin and me, the old maids. Only he’s going to find some perfect girl and settle down at the edge of a small village and raise five perfect, beautiful children, and I’m going to keep fucking ugly, dirty men in the worst bars in Port Royal until I die of syphilis.”
Namjoon wrapped his arms around Jimin’s thin shoulders, closing his eyes so he didn’t have to see the red and purple marks scattered across Jimin’s neck and back.
“Or I’ll be dead before then,” Jimin said, voice wavering.
Namjoon clutched him tighter. “If you think any of us would ever let you live alone in Port Royal, you’re stupid. We’d miss you too much.”
“Will I always be welcome in you and Tae’s home?”
He thought of sharing a house with Taehyung. Not just a bed, but a kitchen, a fireplace, a garden, Taehyung waking beside him in the morning to get up and feed the animals, Namjoon washing dishes as Taehyung practiced reading at the counter. It was so ridiculous that he snorted even as his heart seized up a little. “Who says Tae and I will live together?”
“Will I be welcome or not?”
“Of course you will,” Namjoon said.
Jimin let out a tiny groan against Namjoon’s shoulder and let go of all his tension, letting Namjoon hold him up. “You know, it’s the moments where you don’t act like our captain that make you a good leader, Namjoon.”
“Oh,” Namjoon said. The sunset turned Jimin’s black hair and clothes deep, bloody red, but his skin turned pink and orange like a bruised peach. Licorice jumped down and scampered away, and Jimin finally wrapped his arms back around Namjoon’s waist under his new Captain coat. “Thank you,” Namjoon said. Jimin patted him on the back in response, but didn’t take his face out of Namjoon’s shoulder. “Really. Thank you.”
Jimin and Licorice came to find Namjoon the minute they docked in Tortuga. "He wants to say hi," Jimin muttered and waved Licorice's paw at him. Licorice sat pliantly in his hands, waiting for pets.
"Just came to say hi?" Namjoon asked, scratching Licorice's ear.
Jimin took a minute to answer. "Yeah. Just saying hi."
"Okay," Namjoon said, and quietly scratched Licorice behind the ear, waiting for Jimin to cough up what he was really there for. Licorice caught Namjoon's finger and bit it, then licked it apologetically, paws softening. Jimin pouted. Namjoon stopped rubbing Licorice's cheek with his thumb and rubbed Jimin's instead, trying not to grin and coo as he squished his puffy cheeks.
"So normally whenever we're in town anywhere, you send me off to get information because I'm good at it, right?"
"Yeah," Namjoon said.
"I'm supposed to do that here too, sir?"
Namjoon nodded. "I was going to ask you to. Is that okay?"
Jimin sighed and stared down at the busy, smelly pier, considering. Licorice bumped his little head against Jimin's chest. Another crew of pirates walked past in their knit caps and garishly bright rags, one loudly teasing their rosy-cheeked captain as the crew roared with laughter. Namjoon smiled. Those were the types of pirate crews he'd seen for years while sneaking up to the port with Zico. The pirate captains had seemed so noble, chosen by their crews out of merit rather than nepotism. His own father's cold rule over his crew left Namjoon with no friends but his books.
"Normally it would be fine," Jimin said quietly, "but the way I usually get information and money wasn't by bargaining and stealing like I told you, and considering the circumstances...well…" He swallowed, gazing overboard, eyebrows pinched.
"You're very good at seducing people, Jimin," Namjoon said gently, "I know how you get information, but I figured I'd let you lie if it made you more comfortable."
Jimin's cheeks flushed a brighter pink. He squeezed Licorice a little tighter.
"If you're feeling uncomfortable about it now, I'll—" His first instinct was to send Taehyung, but it tripped over in his chest, the thought of Taehyung luring some strange man back to his room and getting information in exchange for lying on his back in some dirty bed seemed sour. "We'll, um...just have to get some people drunk and go about this the normal way, I guess."
"Jimin, don’t have sex with anyone just for this crew," Namjoon said softly. "You never have to do that. Never again." Jimin took a little step forward and tucked his head under Namjoon's chin, Licorice mushed up between them. Namjoon wrapped both arms around his neck and snuggled against his hair.
"I'm good at it though," Jimin said quietly. "It's an asset at our disposal. We should use it when we need to."
"You are not a body at anyone's disposal," Namjoon said.
Jimin gave a little emphatic huff against Namjoon's sternum. The kitten wriggled.
Behind Jimin, Taehyung climbed up the gangplank and looked on for a second, jaw tightening like a good protective best friend, eyes on Jimin's back. He came cautiously over. "Everything okay?"
"I'm taking Jimin off the role of chief interrogator," Namjoon said, "for everyone's personal comfort."
Taehyung nodded softly. "Good. That’s good. Does that mean I'm the chief interrogator?"
"N-no," Namjoon said. "We're just going to do this the normal way."
“What, get people drunk and hope for the best?" Taehyung said doubtfully.
Namjoon nodded. Taehyung grimaced. "Can we afford that? We need that map piece."
"Why would we need to go to extremes?" Namjoon said, aware of Jimin's guilty shuffle in his arms. "It's not like we're asking for any secrets that people won't want to give up."
"We’d rather not ask our questions in public. If we ask them in the context of sex, they’ll be disinclined to spread around what we're asking. Being everyone’s guilty pleasure works in our favor here. While nobody is trying to keep the location of the Bloody Marlin’s secret, people might start asking question if they know we're going after them. And then people might wonder if we have more map pieces, or if we're just hunting them down for fun, or in a worst-case scenario, assume we've been planning this since we lost the old crew. People might come after us with tar and feathers if they thought it was our fault."
Namjoon cringed. "Okay. Hm. Well. Uh..."
"I'm okay with doing it if Jimin isn't," Taehyung said softly.
Namjoon’s jaw clenched.
“If you won’t fuck me, why should you stop anyone else?” Taehyung said. Jimin looked curiously between them, alarmed but delighted to be caught in the middle.
"I could do it, Captain," Jungkook said.
They all jumped a little and looked back at Jungkook, who almost folded up under the sudden attention, not so much shrinking away as shutting off, shoulders squaring in, face blanking. He forced his shoulders back down. "I'm not...as good at this as you two, but I could do it."
"Can we just try plying them with alcohol first and then go to extreme measures if need be? Also, what would Yoongi say if I just sent you off to seduce someone?" Namjoon said.
"He'd probably think it was pretty hot," Jungkook said quietly, "If I managed it."
"Have you ever even had a man fuck you before?" Namjoon said, baffled. Jungkook flushed.
"Oh, he has," Taehyung said with a small chuckle. "A lot. He's let women fuck him before too. He loves it."
Namjoon blinked at the deck for a moment. "Oh."
"Tae used to fuck him a lot actually," Jimin said, finally looking up at Namjoon's face, chin propped on his chest.
"I always...just assumed...Jungkook topped. Because I know Taehyung likes bottoming."
"I did sometimes," Jungkook said, arching an eyebrow at Namjoon with the careless confidence that seemed more and more natural to him as he got older and happier, "but I also love attention and someone else doing all the work, so..."
"At least he's self aware," Jimin muttered.
Namjoon felt like a granddad. "How did I never notice this? You crazy kids," he muttered. Jimin giggled and snuggled close. Licorice peeped in his arms. "We'll figure it out. Don't break your backs for it though."
"Or your ass," Jimin giggled.
Taehyung rounded up a huge crowd as soon as they walked in the door, tugging the room into his orbit. "It's been months," someone yelled at him, "Tell us a story." So Taehyung tugged off his cautionary sling to get his story-telling gestures ready, and perched himself on a table in the middle.
For the first time since the earliest days of knowing Taehyung, Namjoon sat back and actually listened. Taehyung became the eye of a storm, bright-eyed and beautiful, soft and sharp, voice deep, figure light, ethereal and riveting.
With his words, the mermen's pool became a hive of magic, the spell over the water an enchanting elixir. The mermen themselves felt huge, god-like and terrifying, pieces of another world. Taehyung never once spoke a word that wasn't true, but the colors seemed brighter, the songs more enchanting, the danger more immediate. Jimin basked in it off to the side while Taehyung told the story of Jimin stepping up to fight on behalf of the crew. The men gathered around them murmured in awe. When Taehyung finally revealed him as half-mermaid like all the rumors had said for years, the huge, growing audience burst out into a hundred whispers. Namjoon felt a rush of pride.
Taehyung had a magic of his own. All the odd stories Namjoon had scoffed at for years, the sea monsters, ghosts, and curses, lost a little of the filter he’d put on them. Through Taehyung’s respectful veneer of awe and mystery, the stories really did feel like they could exist as little, undiscovered pockets of the sea. Taehyung just wrapped up in magic what Namjoon would write off as a curious discovery.
Taehyung told them about their trip to the small island off Haiti. The week when zombies filled the sea and showed up on island after island seemed to have been a huge story already, and the rest of the story was filled with excited questions from everyone who had heard various pieces of rumors.
"Are you cursed?" someone asked during a quiet spot as story-Hoseok tripped and fell on his sword.
Taehyung paused. "What?"
"The guy fell on his sword. Your arm was in a sling when you walked in. Your crew-mate is on crutches," he pointed to Seokjin in the back of the group, sitting tiredly in a chair with Hoseok on the armrest. "You must be cursed."
"We're seven people on a full-sized ship," Taehyung said. "It's hard. Accidents happen."
Some sleazy guy slid forward on the table, head level with Taehyung's hip. "Now, you’ve said the rest of your crew died because of the curse, but I’ve heard that you’re cursed because the rest of your crew died. What did you do to them, huh?"
Namjoon's hand shifted to his pistol as the whole bar burst into yelling. Taehyung's tried to answer over the din.
"Which is it, you filthy murderer?" screamed one, as someone else yelled, "Leave my baby alone!" Namjoon flinched for both.
Jimin stood up on the table beside Taehyung and fired a warning shot through a glass on the counter. The entire crowd shut up. The barkeeper threw down his rag and put his head in his hands.
"We're not fucking cursed. We're young and clumsy."
"Your crew didn't drown in a storm! You killed them! You hung them or shot them or something! My best friend was in your crew!"
"Our best friends were in that crew too!" Namjoon roared, "Shut up!"
"Do you want to hear what happened with the zombies or not?"
"Sorry, sorry. Continue."
The crowd rushed back in. Namjoon sat back and found Jungkook and Yoongi both wedged in behind his shoulders, Jungkook shaking in fear and Yoongi wiping tears bitterly on Namjoon's shirt.
The story finished with everyone lost in thought, silently going back to their drinks while they contemplated hundreds of dead people swimming angrily back to their graves. Jungkook and Yoongi stood close together in the corner, Yoongi trying to get himself under control and Jungkook still shaking, eyes darting towards every nearby movement.
"He doesn't look very ready to seduce anyone, does he?" Jimin said in Namjoon's ear.
"No, he doesn't."
"I'll do it."
"Jimin, are you sure?"
Jimin smiled grimly. "After the story Tae told about my dad, everyone's going to up to fuck me. I'll find someone that probably knows something and take him upstairs."
"But are you okay with that?"
Jimin tugged distractedly at the front of Namjoon’s coat, smoothing down the lapels and squishing his knuckles against Namjoon’s stomach through his shirt. "It's enough that you gave me a choice, sir. I'm doing this because I want to help save us, not because it's my purpose in this crew. Thank you for that."
"It was never your purpose."
"It was to our last captain. Did he ever tell you how he got the map to the bullshit secret treasure that they died trying to find? The one you deciphered to get to Barbuda? I swindled that off someone as payment for, uh, services. Captain ordered me to. Bet he never told anyone that."
Namjoon carefully fixed Jimin's hair, leaving it elegantly brushed off his forehead. "He never told anyone much of anything. Go forth and conquer, I guess."
Jimin smiled warmly. "I'll see you in the morning. Don't wait up. And fuck Taehyung so hard he can't think straight tonight. He's going to be in a nasty mood after getting interrupted so many times."
"We don't—oh Jesus," Namjoon muttered, rubbing his reddening cheeks. Jimin giggled, patted him on the head, and sauntered off, drawing eyes all over the room.
"Still as pretty as ever," someone sighed in Namjoon ear. He jolted, pistol halfway out of his belt in an instant.
"FUCK Zico. Fuck."
Zico nodded at Jimin's back, eyes dark and guarded under his hat. His clothes looked a little worn. A dark stain tracked down one arm. His hair fell in his eyes. "What did you just send him off to find out?"
"We're tracking down the Bloody Marlin. Don't tell anyone though."
"Scared they'll find out you're hunting for the Golden Dragon? How many pieces of that map do you have already?"
Namjoon hesitated. Just because he trusted Zico didn’t mean he should be so loose with the crew’s secrets. "Could be none. Could be nearly all. Could be just two or three. We’re keeping it quiet."
Zico matched his suspicion with such a familiar challenging glare, that brotherly look from childhood he’d grown up dreading. "I've been trying to put in a good word for you all over, but I keep hearing things. The zombie story, for one. And then people spread rumors about you turning up in Havana of all places. Now they're saying you're cursed? Good job keeping your head down."
"We are cursed. That's why we're going after this ship."
"You said it was because Lucifer was unmanageable."
"I didn't believe in curses at that point. I believe in all the supernatural stuff now, by the way. I've seen some shit."
"Namjoon, if you’re cursed, What. Did. You. Do."
"Nothing! I don't know! Maybe the whole crew was cursed and that's why they died! Most of them had abandoned the code or whatever it is. It was a crew of degenerates even by pirate standards. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were cursed first."
Zico glanced around the seething crowd, at Taehyung lying amidst a mess of admirers, letting their dirty hands wander a little over his slim waist and thin legs. His gaze glassed over a little. Namjoon swallowed. "Zico, you don't actually think we did anything to the old crew, do you? You saw Yoongi. Look at him."
Yoongi was curled over a flagon in the corner, eyes closed, lips curled down. Jungkook had pulled his head against his chest, arms around him, glaring at anyone who looked like they might come too close.
"I'm having a hard time, Namjoon. The evidence is pretty incriminating."
"Okay. Fine. Yeah,” Zico said, rubbing his forehead with a tired sigh. “I know how intense your code of ethics is. It's still as intense as it always was, right?"
"If it had changed, they wouldn't have kept me as captain."
"Fair enough," Zico said. "I'm sorry. I don't know what to think anymore. Remember that small crew I told you about that defected from the military?"
"Well I did, back in Port Royal a month or two ago. They were fucking military dogs so I expected to hate them. But I kept hearing weird rumors, like that they're making deals with witches and taking out some of the most notorious military vessels, dealing with things I'd expect your crew to be dealing with after hearing all Taehyung's crazy stories."
There was that distant look again, the little, hungry glint whenever he glanced at Taehyung's table. "Ever heard of a Captain Robertson?"
Namjoon automatically searched for Jimin in the crowd, but he'd already vanished amidst the taller figures. "Yeah. Met him a couple weeks ago, kind of."
"Do. Not. Get on his bad side."
"Stop taking that tone. Freaks me out. Too late anyway, but why not?"
Zico took his hat off his head and scrubbed a hand tiredly through his hair again. "Damn. You really are cursed. He's just holds nasty grudges over small things and has the power to fucking destroy you.”
“Ugh. No pressure or anything, right? Zico, are you sleeping these days? At all? You look terrible.”
“The military is doing something sick to the sea, Namjoon. The deserter crew told me some things." He gave a low whistle. "Everything's weird now. The currents don't run the right way. There are too many storms. So many ships go missing. Crews turn up half dead. Monsters everywhere. I thought the rumors were just interesting before, but I've seen a lot in the last few months too. Something is really wrong."
The bar roiled happily with life, free men drinking beer and making merry, the blessed undesirables in a giant, beautiful, Caribbean haven, every organized government still too far away to tie them down.
"We've gotta keep it safe," Zico agreed, sounding like that hopeful kid from their days running through the cornfields, sneaking down to the docks to watch the crews come in and out, idolizing their reckless freedom, their unspoken code of mutual respect. They'd grown up with need for it in their bones.
"Okay," Namjoon said.
"I think it has something to do with the Five Kings retiring," Zico said. "Without their control, everything falls apart."
Namjoon got a little brush of fate prodding at the back of his mind.
Zico looked more distressed than Namjoon had ever seen. "If you do find the Golden Dragon, please go find the navy defectors. They're calling themselves EXO. You might be able to help them do whatever it is they're doing, and someone has to do something. They've got a plan. I don't really understand what's going on, but they know a bit more."
"Aren't you going to help?"
Zico shrugged. "I'm doing all I can, but the rest of my crew isn't that interested, and I have to do what they want. I'm considering stepping down so I can run off and do my own thing, but I'd need a crew to pick me up."
Namjoon opened his mouth to offer.
"One that isn't cursed. Sorry, Namjoon."
"The deserters wouldn't take you?"
He rolled his eyes. "They don't trust pirates yet. They'll come around, but it'll take some more time.
Taehyung appeared out of the crowd, headscarf hanging around his neck and hair loose and beautiful on his forehead. A couple admirers followed like they thought Taehyung was their property for the night, a big, bearded man with his huge hands spanning most of Taehyung's waist, and some wily little creep with an arm around his shoulder, whispering loudly in Taehyung's ear. He just leaned into their grip.
"Where's Jimin?" he asked.
"Off doing what he wants," Namjoon said. "Says he'll meet us tomorrow morning."
Taehyung's eyebrows went up. "Oh! Well...good for him, I guess." He laughed a little and both his disgusting remoras guffawed with him. Taehyung had the good grace to look a little uncomfortable. Namjoon straightened his coat and scowled at him. Taehyung gave a tiny, very expressive, frustrated eye roll.
"Hey Tae, want a better option?" Zico said.
Taehyung snickered with delight as the two guys hanging on him bristled grotesquely, sputtered, and yanked him between them. "He's coming home with--let the fuck go of him, you giant hog."
"What the fuck are you planning to stick him with, a toothpick?"
"I’m going home with you? Are you saying you weren't just totally enthralled by my stories?" Taehyung said.
The two men continued to blather and Taehyung pulled himself away with a shake of his head and walked right into Zico's arms, lips already inches from his mouth.
Namjoon could practically feel the straw breaking his metaphorical back. "Okay," he said, straightening his coat and shouldering the two ugly idiots out of the way. "I give up." He pulled Taehyung gently back out of Zico's arms and turned him around. "You little tease."
"Fucking finally," Taehyung grumbled. "I was beginning to think you were more interested in Jimin."
"How long have we known each other? How many times have I stuck my neck out for you? Why don't you trust me yet?"
"Where are your balls, you moody asshole?” Taehyung responded. “Why is your head so far up your ass?"
Over Taehyung's head, Zico snorted. Taehyung regarded Namjoon for a moment through his lashes, lips in a subtle, dangerous smirk.
“That you’re not gonna run away again.”
Namjoon kissed him softly and the two remoras honked in distress behind him. “How?”
“Fuckin sleep with me, Joon.”
“That isn’t proof,” Namjoon murmured.
“You’re not going to prove anything in one night,” Taehyung said. “It’s at least a start.”
Taehyung turned around, pressing back against Namjoon's chest. "Zico, right?"
"Yeah," Zico said, looking a little disappointed, but proud.
Taehyung leaned in terrifyingly close and Zico held his ground, fingertips sliding against Namjoon's hands as he brushed them over Taehyung's waist. "Not tonight, gorgeous. Sorry.”
Zico shivered a little at Taehyung’s subtle accent, his deep, sweet voice. "Maybe another time," he said, looking carefully at Namjoon, who let Taehyung lean up and give Zico a slow peck on the lips.
Then Taehyung pulled Namjoon away. He felt way more drunk than he was, reeling unsteadily with the din of sailors around him, Zico’s dazed grin before he turned away, and Taehyung's thin hand in his. "Darling," Taehyung said softly. He pulled him onto the street, the bar’s denizens spilling out into the night and into the overcrowded, understaffed brothel. "Back to the ship?"
The town passed around them like the swirls of a child's painting, little bits of light throwing windows into relief, sparkling in puddles on the ground. From the port, distant sounds of night life came softly over the tinkling water, and the lamps lit Taehyung up in oranges and yellows. On deck, Hoseok sat on duty and stared out over the water, whittling knife forgotten in his hand. He grinned when they came aboard and turned politely away.
Taehyung dragged him to the kitchen first for oil, and then pulled him into his cabin, quickly lighting the lanterns in their little glass bulbs.
"Tae, your hands are shaking," Namjoon said. Taehyung threw his headscarf over the rafters and it dangled down in front of a lantern, casting a dim red glow over the room.
Taehyung spun and leaned against Namjoon's desk with his arms crossed. "Wanna start with some reading practice just to make sure you don't get cold feet?" His usual challenging stare looked far less effective without his eyebrows in view.
"I won't. Fuck the ship's articles. I want you."
Taehyung grinned. "Good captain." He tugged the ties off his overlarge sleeves, letting them drop down below his hands. Namjoon stopped him before he could pull it off, wrapping Taehyung's hands in his and pressing their foreheads together.
Taehyung’s lips tasted like spiced rum. "Joon," he moaned, body already rolling closer, head already falling back to let Namjoon lead. His shaking hands tugged the hem of his shirt out of his breeches. Namjoon stopped him again.
"I wanna do it."
"Then fucking do it. When's the last time you fucked anyone, Joon?" Taehyung groaned.
"Not in a while," he said, feeling the angle of Taehyung’s jaw with his teeth and lips. Every inch of his skin tasted like salt, and the smell of him, and Namjoon could barely breath through the thirst for every inch of his skin. "There was one woman in Port Royal a few months ago."
Taehyung pushed a little against Namjoon's mouth so he forced him back. Taehyung shoved gently against Namjoon’s chest so he tugged him forward harder to keep him close. Little moans stuttered out of Taehyung’s throat. Of course he’d be the type to love a little struggle.
Namjoon let go and slid his hands down Taehyung's back instead, and like two magnets clicking back together, Taehyung stopped resisting and wrapped his own arms tightly around Namjoon's shoulders. Namjoon pressed indents into his soft little ass though his breeches, and Taehyung shivered, pulse jumping, arms locked around Namjoon’s neck so he couldn’t get away.
"Joon," Taehyung gasped, the breath shooting right into his ear. He yanked Namjoon's coat off.
Namjoon tugged the hem of Taehyung's shirt out, pulled it up, and paused, thumbs rubbing over the soft skin of his tiny tummy, and felt a hard shudder against his hands. Taehyung’s head fell back. Namjoon pressed gently with his fingertips, trailed them around his sensitive sides and over his back, and watched him positively shake.
"How can you be so pretty,” he breathed, trailing his fingers right under his belt line. Taehyung writhed, clinging to Namjoon's shoulders.
"Tickles a little," he gasped. Namjoon yanked Taehyung's drawers and breeches down below his balls to free up some room, and went back to teasing the soft skin of his hips and the wide space below his navel. Taehyung, finally quiet and pliant, stretched out long and gorgeous in Namjoon's arms. Namjoon didn't like the silence. "Didn't think I'd be this much of a tease, did you?"
"You finally let my dick out," Taehyung gasped, "after months, and you're not touching it."
Namjoon ran his thumb nails down the V of his hips. Taehyung's knees gave out and Namjoon caught him, cradling him tightly in his arms, the beautiful shape of him. He grabbed him by the back of the thighs and lifted. Taehyung gasped and hung on until Namjoon lay him gently on the bed.
Taehyung held his shirt demurely down over himself as Namjoon pulled their boots off.
"Your feet smell terrible," Namjoon grumbled.
"I bet you anything yours are worse," Taehyung said, looking dreadfully innocent with his head tilted just so, hands between his legs, and his knees cocked together. "Take your vest off."
Namjoon pulled it off. "And your shirt.” That went too. Namjoon slid over him and pushed his shirt up over his red-flushed cock, soft and darkening from the gold of his skin to a dark, rosy pink at the tip.
"Fucking finally," Taehyung breathed, dragging his shirt up the rest of his chest. His front rippled with his small, soft musculature, body hardened from sailing and sword-fighting, but not nearly as sculpted as Jungkook or Jimin.
"I should get my crew working harder," Namjoon said and pressed the softness under his fingers down. "Look at this. No wonder it takes so long to hoist the sails."
"Ugh. I'm sorry," Taehyung said, putting an arm over his face.
"When did I let you all go soft, huh?" He bit gently and Taehyung squirmed, feet shuffling under Namjoon's body.
"I'm so lazy," Taehyung whined.
"Believe me, I know."
"You love me," he said, tone teasing, but eyes wide and pleading.
"I do," Namjoon agreed, and finally, finally wrapped his lips around the pink tip of his dick. Taehyung arched like a happy cat, back stretching lazily up as his knees pulled in.
Namjoon hummed and Taehyung trembled, gripping the bedsheets. "Don't stop," he said, voice as high as Jimin's normal tone, "Please don't stop. You owe me. You owe me so much."
Namjoon popped off with as lewd as sound as he could manage. "Getting close?"
"Why’d you stop?" he snapped. Namjoon sucked him down again, swallowing and swallowing until he had to grip Taehyung's hips and hold him down.
Namjoon pulled off with a pop and started kissing a little trail up his chest.
"You're an ass," Taehyung growled. "You're gonna edge me all night, aren't you?"
"You're too pretty to just have all at once."
Taehyung's cheeks flushed a gentle pink and Namjoon patted his inner thigh, his pretty boy spread out on the sheets and already looking a little blissed and annoyed. Namjoon tugged Taehyung's breeches gently down his long legs, and then his shirt over his head.
Taehyung pulled in a little, arms over his chest.
"Don't hide, Tae. You're so pretty."
"Thought you just said I was too soft," Taehyung grumbled.
"You are. Pretty doesn't sail a ship."
"You're terrible," Taehyung laughed, but opened his arms to let Namjoon closer.
Namjoon trailed his thumb over Taehyung's wildly sensitive skin. His hips twitched fretfully. A clear bead of precum swelled from the tip of his dick. Namjoon brushed fingers reverently over it and Taehyung bucked, eyelashes fluttering.
His little pink hole opened easily around Namjoon's fingertip, sliding in with the precum just enough to tease. He went cautiously with the friction, but Taehyung seemed used to it, relaxing easily.
"Oh fuck. It's been a while," Taehyung breathed, letting his entire body sag into the bed, legs wide and hips propped up on Namjoon's knees. "Oil," he ordered softly.
"Isn't that Seokjin's special oil?" Namjoon gathered more precum as the going got tough and carefully pushed back in.
"The other stuff is gross," Taehyung said. "I used to get all kinds of issues when the old crew used it to fuck me with it all the time. Seokjin will just be happy I'm being healthy."
"Uh-huh. I promise I won't tell him," Namjoon said, using his own precum to press in further. Taehyung's breath stuttered and he whined softly, head thrown back in the red lamplight. He gaped easily around Namjoon's fingers, relaxing, face hazy with trust. His head rolled lazily to the side as the ship rocked.
"I can't believe I've been missing this," Namjoon murmured. "Fuck."
Taehyung sighed, low and gentle. "Moody Joonie, lost in his blue dream-world out alone on an endless ocean."
Namjoon hummed and stroked steadily along Taehyung's walls, pulling out old techniques from the few times he'd let someone else in during desperate months away from port. That little plush button swelled steadily against Namjoon's fingertip till Taehyung's hips twitched and his head strained back against the pillow.
"Fuck, you found it," he groaned. "That's...wow."
"Doesn't happen very often?"
"People usually just shove their dick in as fast as possible and don't bother with the fine points," Taehyung said. "Usually they don't want to be reminded that they're fucking a man."
"No not Jungkook, but Jungkook likes getting topped," Taehyung snorted. "Good thing for Yoongi, I guess. Damn. That'd be fun for us to get in on. Jungkook and Yoongi at once. Ugh." His dick twitched. “They’re both so fucking gorgeous. Jungkook’s arms. He can…the things he can do…”
"I'm right here," Namjoon grumbled. "Don't forget about me."
"You'd be there too," Taehyung said, grinning. "I wanna see Yoongi bottom for you." Namjoon drew a slow circle around the hot, little pleasure spot and he squirmed, hips rolling. "I'd like to see you bottom for someone," Taehyung said.
"You can top me," Namjoon said. “Any time you want.”
Taehyung's dick twitched again, this time with a small moan. Namjoon tongued gently at the head of his dick and waited for his moans to pitch up and break.
He pulled off right as Taehyung tensed to come and got up to grab the oil off the table. Taehyung's hips flexed desperately for a moment, rolling into the air. He made a tiny grunt of frustration. Namjoon smirked. Taehyung scowled and rolled slowly over onto spread knees and low shoulders, arms stretched way out in front of him. He propped his ass up for Namjoon, chest on the bed, a pillow clutched under his head.
"You coming to finish this or not?" Taehyung grumbled.
"Give me a minute. I'm admiring the view."
"This view is about to roll over and go to sleep," Taehyung said, wiggling so his cock bobbed against his belly.
Namjoon poured just a little oil on his fingers and thrust them back in, working him easily back up, much faster and deeper with more slickness to work with.
“There we go,” Taehyung said. “That feels better.”
Namjoon covered his cock in the slippery oil. He wiped the excess off over Taehyung's warm skin, leaving the curve of his ass shiny, catching the light in a red-gold glow. Taehyung spread his long legs and smirked back, cocking an eyebrow.
Namjoon pressed his cock slowly, slowly in, and finally linked them together. Taehyung giggled breathlessly, eyes drifting most of the way shut. Tremors ran through the muscles at his waist as he stayed bent open for Namjoon to take. "How's it feel?" he groaned.
"Hot," Namjoon said. “Tight.”
Namjoon laughed. "What did you want me to say? Heavenly? Glorious? Like my brain is about to melt out my ears? You want me to write a poem?"
"I can't believe I'm letting you fuck me," Taehyung grunted. Namjoon started thrusting and Taehyung's voice melted into soft, breathy, little moans. Namjoon reached around his hips and brushed gently against his stomach and Taehyung gasped and tried to pull away, shoving himself back on Namjoon's cock.
"Careful," Namjoon said, leaning forward a little and re-establishing the rhythm, but he kept dragging his fingers slowly over Taehyung's waist. "You feel..."
"Gonna try a little harder, Mr. poet?" Taehyung said, still breathlessly giggly and grinning from ear to ear.
"No seriously," Namjoon said. "It feels like I could do this every day for years and it'd never be any less comfortable."
"Huh," Taehyung grunted, grinning into his pillow, "Cheesy. I’ll have to stick my dick in your ass so I can feel it sometime."
"Sooner rather than later, I hope."
“Why so giggly?”
“Namjoon is finally fucking me!” he yelled into the pillow, cheeks round and happy. "Fuck me good, Captain," he said. "Little harder, please."
Namjoon leaned over him and pumped in quick, firm pulses, as even and steady as he could manage with his shit coordination. Taehyung pushed patiently back. The ship rocked gently from side to side, Taehyung captured under Namjoon like he'd somehow roped in the sun. He reached a hand forward and pressed down on Taehyung’s upper back, pinning him to the bed, and he groaned hard, trembling with the effort of keeping his ass cocked up.
It struck Namjoon suddenly, as his orgasm tightened and Taehyung started stuttering and clutching his pillow, how incredibly, terrifyingly in love he was.
He pulled out.
"Joon," Taehyung whined, squirming. "I'm so close. Please."
"More," Namjoon breathed. "Can't be over yet."
He turned Taehyung over and pulled his hips into his lap. "Give it a minute," he said, and pet soothingly over Taehyung's belly. Taehyung's eyelashes fluttered, pink lips parting. He wrapped his legs around Namjoon's back and waited, rubbing the sweat out of his eyes and the hair off his forehead. Namjoon pushed slowly back in and leaned low. He stayed close, breathing in the sunny, salty smell on his gleaming skin until Taehyung guided him in for kisses, clutching his hair in his long fingers.
“Love you,” Taehyung whispered fondly against Namjoon’s temple, a smile curling against his skin.
Taehyung’s hips worked gently in Namjoon's lap against his thrusts, unable to get a whole lot of movement, but steadily helping out with graceful little rolls that left Namjoon dizzy. He sucked one small nipple into his mouth to hear him groan, feel his thin chest arch up against him.
He felt that tightness again. "Nearly there, Tae. I'm bout to--"
Taehyung put a foot on his chest and pushed him off. "What? Tae!"
"We're not done yet," Taehyung said. He held them still for a moment, then dropped his foot away and pulled himself slowly, teasingly off Namjoon’s cock. “Give me a minute. I wanna…wait just a little longer.”
“How’s it feel?” Namjoon said.
“Like I’m safe, Joon,” he sighed.
Namjoon leaned forward, chasing, and pinned Taehyung’s shoulders so he could trap him between his arms and lap and slide steadily in. Taehyung moaned, hips stuttering helplessly.
Out on deck, Yoongi, Seokjin, and Jungkook returned, chatting quietly. The evening felt like any other evening, like they could be sitting at the desk practicing reading or down below deck player cards. Taehyung's steady rolls and Namjoon’s stuttered thrusts worked them both back right to the edge until Namjoon felt ready to burst. As the ship creaked and someone laughed out on deck, water licking at the hull and lamplight swaying peacefully, Namjoon pulled out and came into the subtle divots of his abs. Taehyung shuddered. "Lick it off," he murmured.
"Gross," Namjoon laughed, but held Taehyung’s waist in his hands and laved over his stomach, ignoring the taste in favor of the way Taehyung panted and groaned, wickedly hard and struggling to come. Namjoon dipped his tongue into his navel, pet along the veins running between his hips, and Taehyung bit his hand and tried to stay quiet.
"Joon, please. Please touch me. I can't..."
Namjoon slid his fingers back in his ass and Taehyung arched against him, breath catching, right there on the edge. The swollen spot inside him had him clenching hotly and he let out a high, needy whimper, body rolling onto Namjoon's hands. It took only Namjoon’s tongue flicking gently over that little spot below the head of his cock before he thrashed and came hard over his stomach.
"So pretty," Namjoon murmured, pinning his twitching hips with a hand and lazily licking over the tip. Taehyung arched again and a little spurt of cum hit Namjoon's chin and dripped down. Taehyung's thighs shook. Namjoon slowly, slowly pulled his finger out.
"Time for sleep?" he said.
"I gotta wash myself out first," Taehyung said, voice slurring a little. "Don't wanna...leave the oil in me."
Taehyung had a basic system with a bar of soap and a wet rag, which was apparently all he usually had after a round in the seedy back of a bar or in the belly of the ship. "It works," he grunted, two soapy fingers up his own ass with an embarrassed flush on his cheeks. Namjoon carefully took over, Taehyung's hips hooked over his lap as he lay on the floor. He fingered oil and soap out of his oversensitive hole as Taehyung squirmed in discomfort and helpless arousal.
He moaned so quietly against the floor. Directly below them, the other men chatted in the galley, voices clear and close.
"This seems like more trouble than it's worth," Namjoon grumbled as Taehyung panted against his arm.
"You two finally fucking up there?" Seokjin yelled. Taehyung moaned graphically into the floorboards to answer. Namjoon chuckled and aimed for his sweet spot, and the graphic moans turned frantic and very real.
"Okay, we get it. Sorry for asking!" Seokjin yelped. He could hear Jungkook's little fairy dust giggles and Yoongi's quiet laughter. Namjoon didn't let up, working harder to keep Taehyung whimpering and struggling against the ground. "Jungkook, don't have sex in here," Seokjin yelped. "There are knives! Yoongi, don't encourage him! Oh my lord. Fine. I'm leaving."
For a couple minutes, Taehyung's occasional moans and little, muffled noises from the kitchen matched the sounds of water and creaking dock.
"Hey Tae. Who has to top? Me or Yoongi?"
"You can't decide who tops?" Taehyung gasped.
"It's usually Yoongi," Jungkook whined.
"I'm feeling lazy," Yoongi said.
"Jungkook, you top."
Namjoon laughed. They heard some loud banging and then a groan in Yoongi's gravelly voice. Taehyung whimpered, hips rocking as he tensed. "Hurts. Joon."
Namjoon paused. "Don't stop!" Taehyung gasped. Namjoon gave him his fist to rut into until he spilled over with a gasp. "I think you're clean," Namjoon said. Taehyung shuffled tiredly off Namjoon's lap and onto the floor.
Once they were in bed, Namjoon curled up around Taehyung, really curled around him instead of leaving a distance. Taehyung pulled his arms closer, pressing back against Namjoon's chest. "My captain," he sighed. "Keep me safe."
He probably meant something about staying warm, happy, and close, but Namjoon felt it swing hard inside him. Taehyung felt so warm and delicate, every inch of his slim body vulnerable and under the gun. He lay with his injured shoulder up, head tilted to the side, long neck exposed. Namjoon brushed his lips up below his ear, and Taehyung moaned so softly.
"Darling," Namjoon said.
"Oh, say that again," Taehyung murmured.
"Darling," Namjoon whispered, stroking his smooth chest, the soft layer of muscle over bone. Taehyung shivered, completely limp and open, so trusting and relaxed. Namjoon's heart picked up, breath coming faster. They were all in a guillotine, waiting for the blades to start dropping.
"Don't squeeze so tight," Taehyung murmured. Namjoon relaxed reluctantly. "I'm not going anywhere, big man. Don't freak yourself out."
Namjoon kissed the back of his neck and murmured goodnight, then lay awake for a long while, imagining himself onto a calm, blue sea, morning light filtering through the hazy sky, nothing but bright blue to the very horizon, and nothing but blue above. He dreamed of lying on his back on deck with sails flapping lazily overhead, nowhere to go. Nothing to run from.
Seokjin sat staring in horror into their last barrel of potatoes. “Fresh baked potatoes for dinner tonight, pretty-boy,” the bo’s’n had said. “Or else.”
The last barrel sat rotting with maggots, stinking brown water filling up the cracks. He put the lid back on and crouched on the floor, hugging his knees to his chest and trying to steady his breathing. Not your fault, not your fault. Take a deep breath. Don’t let them see you’re scared. Don’t be the pathetic, stupid city-boy. Not this time. Hide it this time.
He wished Hoseok was there, or Namjoon, someone who’d hold him and swear angrily about the crew in his ear, make him feel like he was worth something.
“Bring ‘em out,” the cook roared. He never knew what he was doing, but Seokjin was only an assistant anyway. “Can’t lift ‘em, princess?” he said, and cackled. Seokjin flinched. Jonah used to call him that on days when he felt particularly superior. These days, Seokjin had only to walk off the ship in port and be the most desired man in the crew. They didn’t forgive him back on the seas.
He took another deep breath. “They’re rotting. You didn’t seal the barrel properly.”
Seokjin walked to the door. “The potatoes are rotting. You didn’t seal the barrel properly.”
“No, I think you didn’t seal the barrel properly,” the cook said carefully. The Bo’s’n looked on, smile twitching on his lips.
Seokjin had plenty of practice hiding his fear and saving face. “The bo’s’n knows that I was with him buying goats when you dealt with the potatoes when we were last in port, sir.”
“It’s true,” the bo’s’n said with a sigh. “The potatoes are on you.”
“It’s not the first barrel you’ve fucked up either,” the bo’s’n said, snickering, and Seokjin stood carefully still, a little hopeful. “Can’t be helped, I guess. Buy everyone a drink next time we’re in port instead.”
The cook sighed heavily and nodded.
“So, pretty-boy, I said potatoes or else. Looks like we’re in the ‘or else’ scenario.”
Seokjin held his ground, trying not to let his voice shake. “Wasn’t my fault.”
“Doesn’t really matter. I said potatoes. There aren’t potatoes. I’m not about to go back on my word, am I?” he grinned down at the cook, who laughed and shook his head.
The bo’s’n dragged Seokjin out on deck by his glossy, black hair, and tied him to a chair. The rest of the crew crowded around, drunk on grog in the low sunset and roaring for entertainment. Through the crowd, Seokjin saw the other six boys standing back, grim looks on their faces. Hoseok and Jungkook held onto the others reassuringly. They’d both been here far too many times.
With a rusty razor, the bo’s’n slowly shaved all of Seokjin’s beautiful hair off. In front of the entire crew, Seokjin sat proudly and patiently still. Lock after lock scattered on the dirty, wet deck until Seokjin’s vision blurred with tears. “Gotta have potatoes one way or another,” the bo’s’n said when he finished, roughly petting Seokjin’s stinging scalp. “Not so pretty now, are you, potato boy?”
Namjoon untied him, barely waiting for the crowd to disperse, and pulled a hat over his head. “You’re still the most handsome man on this ship,” Namjoon said, obviously having never seen himself before. “I wish we had a mirror on board. You’d put baldness in fashion.” He kneeled in front of the chair and Seokjin sobbed brokenly against his shoulder, his whole body burning with shame. Yoongi gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder before retreating below deck to do what he could on damage control with the rest of the crew.
“I hate them,” Seokjin said, “Why did I ever leave home? I wanna go home. Even Jonah would never…wouldn’t have done that.”
“I’m so sorry,” Namjoon whispered. “I promise I’ll fix this. I promise.”
“Don’t promise that,” Seokjin said. “It’s not on you. Please don’t promise that.”
Namjoon said nothing, and Seokjin could tell he wouldn’t be giving it up.
"Good morning, Romeo and Juliet."
The smell of Taehyung's sweat pushed at Namjoon's nose. He rolled away, chest uncomfortably sticky.
"Up and at 'em. How was the honeymoon? Marriage consummated?"
"Go away," Taehyung groaned. Jimin's little giggle filled the room.
"Fucking shameless, Tae. At least pull a blanket up."
Namjoon heard a loud, smacking sound, and Taehyung jolted next to him. Then moaned. When Namjoon opened his eyes, Jimin grinned down at him with one hand back between Taehyung's legs and Licorice sitting on his shoulder like a parrot. "Hey," he grunted. Taehyung squirmed over and clung to Namjoon's arm, gasping softly against his bicep as Jimin smiled his little doll smile down at both of them, wrist working behind Taehyung’s ass. Namjoon contemplated the possibility of Taehyung bringing many, many friends to their bed down the line. Zico, then Jungkook and Yoongi, now Jimin too. He rolled onto his back and lay staring at the low ceiling. He supposed having a veritable army of hot friends had its perks.
"Well, enough of that," Jimin said, smacking Taehyung's ass again. "I have info to report back."
He threw the sheet up over Taehyung's waist and pulled up a chair.
"Jiminie, now I'm hard," Taehyung whined.
"Get your man to take care of it," Jimin said. He looked radiant, black clothes loosely done up, face glowing. He twisted a new silver ring on his finger and dragged a hand through his hair. "So I found out a lot of stuff. Should I bring in the rest of the crew to talk about it?"
"Jimin, what?" Namjoon said, a bit distracted by Taehyung rocking his hips against his thigh. Jimin strode to the door and yelled for the rest of the crew to come up. "Fuck," Namjoon muttered, rolling Taehyung back to face forward and turning on his side so his own now semi-hard dick couldn't be seen through the blankets. Seokjin and Hoseok arrived looking fresh and cheerful.
"How are you two feeling this morning?" Hoseok said, wiggling his eyebrows and jumping up onto the desk.
"Fucking fantastic," Taehyung groaned into his pillow, hugging it the same way he'd hugged it while Namjoon pounded into him from behind. Namjoon slung an arm over his back and snuggled up against his shoulder, eyes drifting closed.
"Is that...my best olive oil?" Seokjin said.
"The other stuff gives me infections," Taehyung slurred.
"You used my best olive oil," Seokjin said slowly, "to fuck each other. You did that."
"Yup. Felt so fucking good. Thanks for the input."
"So that’s where it was," Yoongi said from the door, “We couldn’t find it last night."
"That's where all my oil has been going?" Seokjin squeaked, "It's been being defiled?"
"Gotta stay healthy," Jimin grumbled. "The other stuff is a bitch to deal with. And lamp oil? Not even worth it. I'd rather tear."
"Yeah, we didn't use anything extra," Yoongi said. "Had to go real fucking slow. It's a good thing Jungkook drips a lot."
Namjoon laughed. This was how it used to be, all seven of them cheerfully together, talking over their plans, naked or not. "I've learned entirely too much about Jungkook recently," he said, sitting up just a little to see his whole small crew. "Jimin, what did you learn from town?"
"The crew of the Bloody Marlin were in port just a few days ago," Jimin said, slouching in his chair with his knees wide. He had the distinct posture of someone who did the fucking the night before instead of taking it, and looked damn proud of himself. Licorice bumped fondly against his ear. "They had a lot to say about the Five Kings. Say they're going to be the next rulers of the sea or whatever, and that the ship is gonna give them a ton of power. It looks like they have a central clique of about ten people, and then thirty to forty poor idiots who got impressed into servitude without consent, and can barely fight or even sail. They're incredibly dysfunctional, have a weird power structure, are drunk all the time, and..." he paused, raising his eyebrows, "They headed off to the Virgin Isles yesterday."
"Ah," Namjoon said, smiling, "That's just about perfect."
"How so?" Seokjin said.
"We get to follow them in there, wait for them to capture the piece from the Virgin's Isles, and then we ambush them and get both pieces at once."
Yoongi clutched Jungkook closer, legs tight around his waist and lips against the back of his neck in a grin. "Sounds safe enough. That way we don't have to face them in a battle at sea, which we would definitely lose."
"Let's go shoot some bastards in the face," Namjoon said.
"After you suck me off," Taehyung muttered into his pillow.
"What?" Seokjin said.
"He said after Namjoon sucks him off," Hoseok said.
Yoongi and Jungkook grinned lasciviously at each other. "Oh great," Seokjin said. "Them too. Hoseok, wanna go engage in unsavory activities below deck with me?"
He shook his head. "Wheein would quite literally kill me dead. Probably you too."
"What's got you so happy?" Namjoon said to Jimin as he rocked back on the legs of his chair and grinned at his crew-mates.
"Got a new tactic. I don't know how I didn't think of this before. Nobody in the bar looked like they'd have any idea what was going on, so I went across the street to the brothel and spent all night hanging out with the girls. They know every secret of every man who's ever walked into the town, of course, and they say I'm a better fuck than anyone else," he wiggled his eyebrows, stroking Licorice sweetly as he leaned against the side of Jimin’s face, "so they chased a lot of the other guys out and spent the night hanging out with me. They've got some quality wine in there." He peeled his collar back a little and showed off a patchwork of hickeys running from his neck down his chest and across his shoulders. "They love how I let them treat me."
Namjoon laughed softly. "I'm so proud."
He laughed. "Me too, sir. Feel free to leave me as chief investigator in the future. I like this job."
Hoseok's smile had softened a little. He stared distantly out the back windows and across the port. "We'll get you back to your woman soon enough," Namjoon said.
"You won't have to," Hoseok said. "She'll come find me when she wants to."
"Can we kick everyone out?" Taehyung said. "My dick is still kinda hard. Sex and then set sail?"
"Sounds good to me."
The rest of the crew vacated the room, Jungkook carrying Yoongi on his back. Namjoon rolled Taehyung over and swallowed his pink and gold dick down while Taehyung groaned sleepily in the sheets. Taehyung got on his knees and lazily returned the favor as Namjoon plotted a course to the Virgin's Isles.
"Should take us a few days," he groaned, "but not that many oh fuck just like that. Jesus, that's nice."
He leaned on the table and Taehyung swirled his tongue in just the right way again.
"Thanks," Namjoon breathed after Taehyung had swallowed everything and just sat with his face pressed against Namjoon's softening dick, grinning and so adorable, even with cum at the corner of his mouth and face greasy with sleep. "Go tell the crew we sail before the busy morning is over so we don't have too many people watching us struggle with this goddamn bitch of a ship."
"Yes, sir," Taehyung giggled, and tilted his head up to let Namjoon kiss the extra cum off his mouth and smear it on the end of his nose. And if the crew would fall apart because Namjoon let himself be happy, well, it hadn’t yet. Three map pieces to go, and then safety, at least until the Golden Dragon’s destiny kicked in.
A storm dogged them all the way to the Virgin Isles, not the kind that had them hovering below decks, but the usual tiresome squall that had them all soaked through and squinting as they manned the sails. Nothing could be seen through the telescope but a grey-blue blur towards the horizon. But as soon as the island came into view, the sky cleared and left them coverless under the bright evening. The Bloody Marlin sat on a broad beach to the west side. Through the spyglass it looked completely empty, left on its own and listing sideways on the beach, the hull a shell of barnacles and black seaweed. They snuck quickly around the curve of the little island to hide in a shallow cove to the south, moored in the deep water between two protruding cliffs.
"We're definitely leaving people on the boat this time," Namjoon said. "We need guards, maybe more than normal. I'm leaving at least one warrior here."
"It's me, isn't it?" Taehyung said, still staring out at the thin, short jungle straggling up from the beach.
"You are the injured one," Namjoon said. Taehyung sighed sadly. "You sure you're not just doing this because you want to keep me safe? Don't play favorites."
"I've been playing favorites by taking you out on every single adventure we've had so far. We’re just beating the shit out of some people this time, so we don’t need you for magic stuff. It's time Hoseok came out with us again. Besides, your shoulder hasn't fully healed yet."
"And your ass took a pounding last night," Jungkook said solemnly. "We all heard it."
"Yours did too!" Taehyung said.
"I recover from that shit a lot faster than you.”
"It's true," Taehyung sighed, cringing. "Who's staying with me?"
"Definitely S—...um," Namjoon said, looking at their softest, least battle-worn crew-mate who still couldn't quite stomach the stress of blood and death.
"Gotta save the cook, right?" Seokjin gumbled. He was back on his foot, well wrapped in strips of linen, but usable, but that didn’t mean he was any more use to them in a fight. He still preferred to use his crutches just in case.
"You're indispensable, Bo's'n Jinnie," Namjoon said, "but that means I actually want someone else on board. Jungkook, you stay."
Jungkook nodded sadly. "Okay. I'll load all the canons just in case." Yoongi glanced thankfully at Namjoon. Taehyung's eyes narrowed.
As the remaining five crew members boarded the dinghy and set off for the shore, the sun set steadily over the trees, setting them in a deepening, orange glow.
The jungle was a little less bold on the small, rocky island, roots less deep and resilient, trees a little thinner. They crawled through the buzzing brush, watching for snakes. Yoongi went in the front with a palm front, clearing the path of spiders as they walked. Just as the light faded completely, they found the camp.
Either the Bloody Marlin was a hellhole of a ship, even more cursed than the Lucifer and twice as cruel, or the challenge for this map piece had been particularly deadly. Men sat on the ground around their fires, bandaged and dirty, hunched low and whispering to each other. Most of the crew looked too old to sail or too young.
"The fuck is this," Jimin muttered. "These twerps couldn't sail a ship. How do they get anything done?"
The beaten-down crew carried torches to and fro, glancing worriedly off into the jungle. A couple clutched rosaries in their hands, whispering meditatively over them. A large pot sat on the fire. Someone had laid bandages and surgical equipment out on a blanket nearby, ready for use.
“You think the big guys are off getting the map piece now?” Jimin said.
“We need a torch,” Hoseok said.
“They’ll see us if we use a torch,” Namjoon said. “Seokjin and Yoongi, you two stay here and watch. If you think it’s a good idea, try to find some allies. We’ll go follow the rest of the group.”
Seokjin and Yoongi settled onto the sandy ground, whispering to each other and peering out, and Namjoon lead Jimin and Hoseok away into the jungle. Enough sparse moonlight shone through the trees that they could at least move along the path, hands out and stumbling slowly.
“What do we do when we find them?” Jimin whispered.
“Circumnavigate,” Namjoon said.
“Go around them. Try to find the map piece while they’re dealing with whatever is guarding it.”
“Better not be monsters,” Hoseok said. “Or magic. Or, like, other people. Nothing like zombies again.”
“That doesn’t leave many other options,” Jimin said.
Light flickered ahead in the jungle, and sounds of shouting, a loud clang, and lots of chittering and squeaking like an avalanche of rubber scraps. The mouth of a cave opened on the side of a cliff rising menacingly out of the trees. In front of it, a small group of men, all much bigger and more imposing than the men on the beach, fought flickering black shadows that swooped through the air and pelted down at them.
“It’s a gateway to hell,” Hoseok whimpered, slinking behind Namjoon’s back.
“Bats,” Jimin said in awe. “They’re giant bats.”
“Vampire bats,” Namjoon breathed. They were half the size of Jungkook, some bigger. Their eyes glowed red and their wings gleamed with intricate, geometric patterns.
Namjoon pulled them off the path and around through the jungle, keeping just barely in sight of the clearing until they crept forward at the cave entrance. Dozens of dog-sized bats with long, white fangs chittered and shot through the air. The men in the middle slashed wildly, dripping with blood from puncture wounds and claw scratches, their pistols abandoned on the ground. In the middle of the fray stood what must have been their captain in a heavy leather coat and a now-shredded, feathered tri-corner.
“I’ve seen him before,” Namjoon murmured, eyeing the collection of elaborate earrings displaying his wealth along his ears. “Captain Hammerhead.” Zico and Namjoon had once joked around in port about those manic blue eyes, how rotted his teeth were. They’d found him less funny when he threw a member of Zico’s crew off the bar balcony. Big Ugly ripped his torn hat off his bald head and cackled madly into the cloud of bats, swinging his torch through them in a blazing arc.
“They’ve netted most of them,” Jimin said, pointing to the wriggling lumps on the ground. Wide, round nets with weighted edges held down a dozen bats or so each. Two big men suddenly swung another off the ground, scooping a cloud of bats out of the air and slamming it to the dirt. It thumped like it was lined with chunks of lead. Bats still fluttered wildly around, but the flock thinned somewhat.
“Quick,” Namjoon said, and pushed Jimin towards the cave entrance, dragging Hoseok with him before he could flake out.
The bats had left the cave empty, but their chittering picked up, alarmed as the intruders slipped inside. The remaining bats swooped in dizzy lines around the clearing, darting between the two groups of invaders, unsure of who to attack.
At the back of the cave sat an old, damp chest with the Five Kings symbol barely visible in the rotting wood. Jimin put his foot through it and took the map piece out. “Well, that one was easy,” Jimin said, and then turned around and yelped. Claws raked along the back of Namjoon’s coat, and he flinched forward in time to feel wet fangs graze the back of his neck.
Hoseok went berserk with no wind-up, shrieking and twirling through the cave like a banshee, swords ripping the bats the pieces. Blood spattered the walls, splattered Hoseok’s shirt and hair.
“There goes the stealth method,” Jimin said over the shrill, echoing roar around the inside of the tunnel. They stood still and watched their whirling dervish do his work and then pause, spattered with bat blood and panting wildly.
“Thanks,” Namjoon grunted, rubbing the stinging back of his neck. Hoseok snapped his gaze around, eyes flickering between their faces. He shrugged.
Jimin stomped quickly towards the front of the cave. “We’ve killed the bats,” he said. “The crew’ll be coming in after us.”
“Fuck,” Namjoon said, but Jimin just leaned around the rock with his two pistols, shot twice, and chittering exploded outside.
“Run!” Jimin said. They raced from the cave just as the new horde of bats burst through the entrance. One of the nets had burst open, Jimin having shot the base out of it. The men outside scattered in panic, some running into the woods, others still trying to swing their way through the mass. A couple men lay dead on the ground, and one dying, gurgling as a bat dragged the blood from his neck.
Captain Hammerhead locked eyes with Namjoon, and his hand went unconsciously to his breast pocket, giving himself away. His eyes narrowed, then as a huge bat swooped between then, he ducked into the woods and disappeared.
“He has the other map piece,” Namjoon said, distractedly slicing the frantic bats away from his head, who seemed less interested in attacking people now that their prize had vanished. “In the pocket of his coat.” They raced back down into the woods.
“Don’t you ever,” Hoseok panted as they ran, “Lead me into a goddamn bat nest again. Fucking…ended my life. Like… just fuck, Captain.”
“Sorry, Hobi,” Namjoon said, hurtling down the path. Jimin had grabbed a torch and ran gingerly along behind them, squeaking for them to slow down. “Desperate times, you know?”
“I’m gonna sleep well tonight,” Hobi grumbled.
“Seriously! Slow down! We’re cursed and I am running with a torch. Please just…”
Namjoon slowed to a stop and leaned against a tree.
“I didn’t mean stop completely!”
“Oh,” Jimin said, chuckling.
“And I was just…giving Taehyung shit…for not being in shape…” Namjoon panted. “I’m fucking useless. God damn.” His crewmates waited patiently.
“Water bottle,” Jimin said, pushing it into his hand. “You can have the rest.”
Namjoon shook his head. “You both have some too. I’m fine.”
Jimin coaxed Hobi to drink and then they ran off at a light jog. Namjoon groaned and followed.
By the time they got down to the camp, everything had been thrown into panic. Even the occasional monstrous vampire bat was no match for the fury of the weakling crew as they pressed their advantage and came at their already beaten-down captors, surgical tools swinging.
“Didn’t take a whole lot of convincing,” Yoongi said. “Namjoon, this is the potential new captain, Seungcheol.”
“Hello,” Namjoon said, shaking hands with a rather capable-looking young man with big ears and a wide smile, about their age. “You don’t look like a captain.”
“Neither do you,” Seungcheol said.
“Good,” Namjoon said. “That’s good for both of us. Keep it up. Don’t ever…Fuck, sorry. Just ran through the woods, you know?” He propped his hands on his knees and panted heavily for a minute. “Lungs fucking burn. Jesus.”
Seungcheol laughed agreeably and ducked as a bat swooped over his head.
“Don’t ever put yourself above your crew.”
“Good. I’ll, um, I’ll stop lecturing.”
“That’s okay, Dad. I know it’s coming from a good place.”
“I like you,” Jimin said, grinning.
“This is my apprentice, Jihoon,” Yoongi said, putting his hand on top of a short, scowling kid’s head. They looked exactly alike.
“I never agreed to this,” said the apprentice.
“He’s perfect,” Yoongi said in matching deadpan. “He’s going to be their quartermaster too. He’s my mini-me. I will teach him everything I know.”
“Captain Namjoon, please get your quartermaster off me.”
“I don’t force my quartermaster to do anything,” Namjoon said loftily.
The little, angry quartermaster grumbled viciously.
“The old captain passed through here a few minutes ago,” Seungcheol said, puffing up importantly. “We had him outnumbered, so they ran right through and headed towards our ship. You should tail them there.”
“Lead the way.”
“Captain,” Yoongi said, “Before we do that, we have a problem.”
On the far side of camp, several of the young men had captured a huge, hulking man, one of the in-crowd, and Seokjin held him at gunpoint, leaning tiredly on his crutch. “Captain,” he said as Namjoon approached, “meet Jonah. He’s been my best friend for most of my life.”
“The man you were looking for in Port Royal?” Namjoon said, pulling out his gun and clicking the safety off.
“Don’t shoot him, Joon,” Seokjin said.
"If you didn't know him, we would have killed him already," Namjoon said.
Seokjin made a soft, sad noise, staring down at the pathetic, whimpering brute on the ground. "He was my entire childhood, Captain."
They looked down at him for a moment, the desperate pleading, whimpering mess on the floor, old scars and scared blue eyes. "Do you want to let him go?" Namjoon said.
"We shouldn't," Seokjin replied.
"Would you really be happy with us killing him though?"
"No. Not at all."
“Pussy,” Jonah squeaked, glancing in fear at all the men with surgical equipment around him. He settled his glare on Seokjin, fearful sweat dripping down his face. “I’ll get you back.”
Seokjin sighed sadly. “He’s not very smart.”
“The more you threaten us, the more likely we are to kill you,” Namjoon said.
“Your crew killed my friends. After all the years we’ve spent together, Seokjin.”
“We should go check out their ship,” Seokjin sighed. “Minghao, tie him up and take him with you. I don’t care what you do with him. If you guys decide to kill him, I guess…” he hesitated, shuffling on his crutches. He swallowed. “I guess I don’t have a problem with that.”
“You sure you’re okay with it?” Namjoon said as they traipsed cautiously towards the Bloody Marlin, guns out and waiting for someone to jump them. The island seemed deceptively quiet, a vampire bat flitting over their heads every few minutes. Seungcheol and another boy named Vernon guided them.
“I’ve had enough of people I’d classify as friends dying,” Seokjin said, “even terribly abusive friends. I’m careful with curses nowadays, you know. I think killing someone who is practically my brother would be a bit too much for me.”
“We’re about to get that ship, aren’t we?” Namjoon said. “No more curses. You can stop worrying about that.”
“Is that what this is about?” Vernon said. “I heard you guys were cursed. Are you just trying to find the ship to get rid of it?”
“Well…okay,” Vernon said.
“Don’t be rude,” Seungcheol hissed.
“I’m not! That’s a fine reason! I’m just not sure it’s enough.”
“Not enough?” Namjoon said.
“Apparently, we know where the treasure is already,” Vernon said. “We have the map piece with the coordinates on it, but the captain insists on getting the rest of the pieces too, because there’s an important message on the back, and we have to intend to fulfill the mission in the message, because otherwise the ship won’t let us find it. He doesn’t care about the mission, so he’s trying to fake it.”
“Some sort of destiny that the ship fulfilled,” Hoseok said. “We talked to Wheein about this.”
“It’s obvious, right?” Jimin said, “What did the Five Kings do?”
“I know next to nothing about the Five Kings,” Namjoon said uncomfortably.
“They protected freedom,” Jimin said, “And the pirates that respected each other. All the monsters they fought and evil people they defeated were evil because they threatened freedom. As soon as they left, monsters started eating crews, the military started taking over, the slave trade picked up. To take on their ship would be to keep doing that.”
Namjoon suddenly felt that this would have been a much better job for Zico, how fiercely he had always defended piracy, how attached he’d grown to the happiness of his crew and his people in the last two years.
Freedom. The way of piracy in this sea. Namjoon could get on board with that.
The Bloody Marlin, now bobbing a short way out into the water on the shallow tide, looked almost like a ghost ship in the moonlight, dark and worn down.
"It's smaller than I thought," Jimin said. "I think it's smaller than ours."
"Doesn't even have a crow's nest," Yoongi mused. "No wonder they can shuffle through so many unexperienced crewmen." They found a dinghy pulled sloppily up on the sand, one that the four dead men had probably used to get to shore, and paddled out.
The decks were silent. No one stirred behind the windows or down in the hold. Hoseok absently began climbing the rigging for a better view.
“Thought for sure they’d be here,” Seungcheol said, popping back up above deck and shrugging. “The ship is empty.”
“They’ve got to come back here at some point,” Namjoon said. “Maybe we should set up an ambush.”
“You could figure out how to get inside the cabin,” Seungcheol said. “They’ve got it really heavily booby-trapped because they’re scared we’ll kill them in their sleep, but if you managed to get inside, they’d never expect it.”
“Sounds like a puzzle,” Namjoon said, cracking his knuckles. “Just my kind of thing.”
“Hold on!” Hoseok yelled from up in the rigging. “I can see our ship from here.”
“Those idiots lit torches,” Hoseok yelled. “On the yard arms too.”
“Fuck,” Yoongi said, already rushing to the side of the ship.
“What’s going on?” Seungcheol said.
“Our crewmates lit torches on our ship,” Namjoon said. “All the men we’re trying to ambush will have run straight at them.”
“Ugh, Jungkook, what are you doing,” Yoongi groaned weakly, tugging at his own hair. “Those men are huge. They’ll die.”
“It was probably Taehyung’s idea,” Namjoon said. “Jungkook goes along with everything he says.”
They left Seungcheol and Vernon back with their camp still fighting vampire bats, everyone packing up and ready to race back to their own ship and hide until daytime chased the bats away. Seokjin couldn’t keep his gaze away from Jonah, watching with worry as they bundled him in ropes and carried him on a stretcher back to the ship. He bit his lip and hobbled away, leading the charge back through the woods, and they all quietly matched his pace.
Halfway back, Jimin slammed headlong into a low-hanging branch. “Fucking curse,” he groaned, shaking his head out as he sat up. “World’s spinning. Oh my god. Where are we?”
“Woods,” Namjoon said.
“Virgin Isles,” Seokjin squeaked, “Jimin, how much memory did you lose?”
“I know where we are, but are we between the bat cave and the camp, or the ship and the other ship, or the ship and beach camp?”
“Going…what? We’re headed to the Lucifer.”
“I feel like I’m dreaming a little bit,” he murmured, pushing himself to his feet against a tree. “You sure I’m not asleep?”
“I know that feeling,” Yoongi said, sighing in relief. “I think he’ll be fine, Captain.”
“Oh, this might hurt really bad in just a bit,” Jimin said breathily, stumbling. “Got some serious dock rock right now. Need to sit down on the ship.”
Taehyung and Jungkook were out there in the dark, possibly facing down one of the most vicious pirates on the sea, and they were stuck out in the woods dealing with a curse that had them stumbling into things like drunks on Sunday morning.
“We have to keep going,” Namjoon said, pulling Jimin to his side where he latched on warmly and became dead weight. He and Hoseok lugged him through the woods. Yoongi paced up ahead of the group, then back, then ahead again. Jimin struggled to move faster and collapsed on his wobbly knees.
“Take it easy,” Namjoon said. “They’re warriors. They can handle it.”
A canon boomed ahead of them. Jimin jolted. “Keep moving,” Namjoon said, gritting his teeth and hauling faster. Another canon fired, then another, then a little pop from the mini canon on the top deck. An alarmed scream.
Jimin giggled. “I feel bad for the Bloody Marlin crew,” he muttered. “That’s gonna hurt.”
“You can’t aim canons at people,” Namjoon sighed. “They’re nowhere near accurate enough.”
“It’s Jungkook and Tae,” Yoongi said. “They’d find a way.”
Sure enough, when they slid down a cool sand dune and onto the beach, they found a big, burly corpse with a canon ball making a nest out of his ribcage. Another man down the beach had gotten his skull smashed in with the mini canon. The Lucifer herself floated serenely in the middle of the cove with only four men scaling her side. “She’s never going to forgive us,” Namjoon said.
“You don’t believe in curses but you think the ship has feelings,” Jimin slurred. “O-kay.”
“I don’t actually think—never mind. They took our dinghy. We’ll have to swim.”
They all looked at Jimin.
“I’ll stay with him,” Seokjin said, tossing his crutches into the sand and sitting down. “Put ‘im here.” He motioned to his lap. They lay Jimin gently down on top of his legs, threw their heavier clothing down in the sand beside them, and dashed into the water just as the clash of swords and howling echoed out over the water, a couple gunshots. A body flew into the air with a rope around its ankle and hung there screaming.
As they swam, the yelling cut out voice by voice until only one blood-curdling howl was left, the occasional thin shriek from either Jungkook or Taehyung, and the occasional tooth-grinding clash and slide of swords.
By the time they got to the ship, there was silence over the lap of waves at the hull.
Yoongi caught up with them slowly, struggling and panting in the waves behind them, and then pulled himself up onto the ladder. Namjoon followed him. Hoseok gulped hard, and then began scaling the bulwarks, long fingers digging into the gaps and finding the portholes and notches. His lean frame had more than enough muscle to carry him up the side, but he didn’t dare look down.
The top deck had a body hanging from the rigging, blood splattering on the deck from a dripping head wound. Another body lay in a crumpled by the mast. The shadow of a third man sat against the cabin, sitting up like he might still live, but a bat swooped down as they watched and ripped into the side of his throat. Hoseok gagged.
“We’ll go down below,” Namjoon said. “Yoongi, take the fore hatch.”
They slipped down into the galley. A light thump bumped hollowly back in the ship where Yoongi had jumped down into the fo’c’sle. A couple lanterns sat around the deck in their normal places, one in the galley, one back by the hammocks.
“Found him,” Yoongi said suddenly, startlingly loud.
“Oh, it’s you guys,” Taehyung said, popping out of a trunk along the wall with a deep sigh. “Thought you were his backup.”
“Big Ugly,” Yoongi said, backing into the main passage between the hammocks and pointing. “They’ve tied him up here.”
“I don’t think he has backup left,” Namjoon said, lifting Taehyung out of the chest and refusing to let go. “Why the fuck did you light all the torches and get them on our tail, huh? You wanted to take on the entire crew? Why?”
“Shouldn’t have left us together on the ship, Captain. We’re too rambunctious to sit still and too stupid to listen to orders.”
“I’m your captain, dammit,” Namjoon growled. “This was precisely the shit I was worried about when I was keeping my distance from you. You can’t choose which of my orders to follow just because you sleep in my bed.”
Taehyung pouted apologetically. “Right. Yeah. Sorry.”
“Big ugly is gagged,” Yoongi said. “Should we try to talk to him or shoot him in the face?”
“I have a question for him, so take his map piece and then we’ll talk.”
One of the hammocks creaked and spun, and Jungkook fell out of it where he’d been clinging like a bat to the underside. Yoongi abandoned the other captain to go pull him off the floor and check him for bruises or stab wounds.
Big ugly, Captain Hammerhead, lived up to his name, skin marred with scars and burn marks, face a little lopsided, teeth uneven and falling out. “You look like you’ve had some scurvy in your time, huh?” Hoseok said cheerfully and nudged his cheek. Big ugly lunged like a dog even with a gag in his mouth, and Hoseok yowled and fell over a hammock with a loud bang.
“Fuckin! Christ!” he said, a little pile of spindly limbs on the floor with his hand to his chest. Taehyung doubled over with giggles.
Namjoon dug another familiar-feeling scrap of canvas out of Big Ugly’s coat and then pulled the gag over his shaved head. One eye was completely webbed over with scar tissue, a nasty downward tilt to his mouth. He wore a dirty Spanish captain’s hat, a Dutch coat, and English shoes, probably all trophies. “Get the fug off my island!” he shrieked. “I’ll beat you dead!”
Namjoon flinched back a little. “Ugh. He spit on me.”
“My crew’ll rip you apart!”
“You don’t have a crew,” Namjoon said. “Your goons are all dead and the rest are taking the ship for themselves.”
"Mutineers!" the captain roared, flailing in anger. "They’ll never be the kings of the sea! They’ll never find the map pieces without me. I picked them up out of nothing and gave them wealth, those ungrateful little assholes." Anger bubbled in Namjoon’s stomach.
“They didn’t seem to want it. Those map pieces all go to us now.”
“You don’t deserve that fucking map,” he growled, frothing a little. “I spent weeks on those bat nets! Weeks preparing for that cave! That’s what they’re all going to take, and if you can’t commit to doing shit for yourself, you’ll never get them!”
“As of this piece, we have every piece but one of them,” Namjoon said. Big Ugly’s stammered, jaw hanging open. He threw his weight against the back of the chair in frustration and hit his head against the wall.
“You know there’s some kind of destiny on the Golden Dragon,” Namjoon asked, needing to make sure, “What is it?” He pulled out his pistol to add some incentive.
"I’m on the Lucifer, right? Crew of fallen angels, huh? I heard about your curse. Did you murder your own crew for power too?" He cackled furiously. "Captain fucking Namjoon, the secrets I learned with that map piece. You thought you'd jump the gun and whittle down your own crew long before you even got the map to the Golden Dragon. I know where your crew died and we all know what's hidden there now. Couldn't find it the first time, huh? Going back again? Wait till I tell the ports what you've done."
Namjoon hesitated. "What?"
“Think killing me and freeing my crew will help your case with the Five Kings ship? Let go of your fucking moral high ground, idiot," he said. "Preaching about the ‘pirate code’ when we all know what you've done. You can murder your crew and I can mistreat mine, and the only rules we're breaking are fake ones made up by pussies who can't stomach competition, and at the end of the day, neither of us deserve that ship."
"I didn't murder my crew."
“You murdered them on the fucking island and it wasn’t enough so you sailed off to find the map pieces! I’ve been there too and the ship didn’t show for me either! But I wasn’t so stupid that I killed them there! How’s that curse feel now, idiot? Should have grown some balls and looked them in the eye as you killed them instead of taking cheap shots like your hunt for the Golden Dragon could justify cowardice—”
Namjoon shot him straight through the forehead with shaking hands. Dim lamplight glinted on his eyes, the flashes of gold in his teeth and ears, the red shine dripping down his nose.
For a while, the ship creaked. Namjoon’s ears slowly stopped ringing from the gunshot. He stared at the open wound in Big Ugly’s head and waited for him to speak again. He pulled himself away. “We need to go get Seokjin and Jimin,” he said.
“Think he’s been spreading those rumors about us in Tortuga?” Yoongi said.
“Absolutely. What the hell kind of evidence does he think he’s found?” Namjoon said.
“Jungkook and I will go get the other two,” Hoseok said hesitantly.
“You and Taehyung will go get the others, actually. Jungkook needs to throw those bodies to Davy Jones.”
“We need to know what the destiny of the ship is, don’t we?” Yoongi said, watching Taehyung and Hoseok swim out to their single unmoored dinghy, floating away towards the shore.
“I think we do,” Namjoon said. “I think Vernon was right about it being protecting freedom in the Caribbean. I wanted to make sure.”
“Just protecting freedom the Caribbean?” Yoongi said. “Seems a little too easy. I’ve heard plenty of stories about the Five Kings fighting with slave ships, but it’s not like they’ve declared war on slavery. They pretty much let people do what they want.”
“They are still pirates,” Namjoon said. “I doubt they have any great manifesto about the inalienable rights of humans. I think pirates have integrated into this sea’s energy somehow, mostly be being pretty uninteresting in destroying or claiming the land and more interested on praying off the people who would destroy it. I think the Five Kings protect that, the people who would live with the sea and not try to conquer it.”
“Makes sense, I guess,” Yoongi said.
“Remember what Wheein said. She kept talking about how the Five Kings got to know the magic of the Caribbean, and that’s why the sea granted them the ship. The destiny must be about defending the connection between the old magic of the sea and its new inhabitants.”
Yoongi blinked, lips pouting, and raised his eyebrows. He nodded slowly.
“I mean, even if that’s all just a metaphor,” Namjoon grumbled uncomfortably. “And not, like, actual magic.”
Yoongi laughed out loud. “Look at you,” he said tiredly, “mixing reason with magic. I’m impressed. Welcome to the superstitious side of piracy, sir.”
Jungkook came up beside them and tossed a body into the water, blood dripping down his chest and back and splattered across his face. “You’ve been listening to Taehyung for years,” Yoongi said, “What do you think the destiny of the Five Kings Ship is?”
“I don’t know,” Jungkook mumbled, wrapping his arms around himself. “Keeping monsters in check? What does the back of the map say?”
“Oh right,” Namjoon said. “I guess we’ll know when we get my coat back. I stored one of the pieces in there.”
Across the water, Jimin and Seokjin climbed into the boat with all the things they’d left on the sand. Jungkook narrowed his eyes at the shore and then turned curiously to Yoongi, hesitant to ask.
“He whacked his head on a tree branch. Probably slightly concussed. Just dumb bad luck as usual.”
They settled below deck with Jimin in one hammock and Seokjin in another, holding up a lantern and leaning over their map pieces, much like the first day when they’d just gotten out of their fight with the luscas and had, for the first time, the map to all the pieces. Only one spot remained now, a small, bottom-right corner piece.
“Those bats!” Taehyung was saying. “Camazotz! I’ve never seen them before. They’re Mayan monsters, which are really uncommon now. If the Five Kings are bringing out those old powers too, that’s really cool. I wish I could meet them.”
“I’m not sure if I’d want people who can control those bats on my side, or never want to be anywhere near them,” Hoseok said, shuddering. “It’s been a bad night. Must be tomorrow morning by now. I’m ready to sleep.”
“We’ve got things to talk about first,” Namjoon said. Flipped over, the new map pieces read "—ing control of—” and “—the Caribbea—."
"Admiral Whitacre is taking control of the Caribbean's power. Trap in him the--" Yoongi said, and scowled. "Well that's scary and unhelpful. Trap him in what? We need that last piece."
"The navy is trying to take control of the magic in the sea then," Yoongi said, and turned to the others. “Namjoon and I were just theorizing that the Golden Dragon’s destiny probably has something to do with how they integrate magic and new inhabitants, keeping the balance so one doesn’t destroy the other. The Five Kings used to do that and now they’re gone, and everything is going wrong, so if we commit to that, we should be able to find the ship.”
"That probably has something to do with what the navy was doing on that beach near Wheein's place,” Taehyung said, “Remember the sacrificial alter? All the stuff that Robertson guy was saying about chaining the Caribbean gods or whatever?"
“Shouldn’t be a hard mission to follow,” Namjoon said. “Don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m more than happy to stop the navy from taking what it shouldn’t.”
Namjoon flipped the pieces over. One was Florida and the Gulf of Mexico on the top left corner of the map. The other was the middle of the right side, the region of the Caribbean on which they floated now. Puerto Rico, the Virgin Isles, and there, with a big, red diamond on it, signaling loud and clear where the Golden Dragon was to be found, was a tiny island to the north of Barbuda.
"Fuck," Namjoon said, stepping away from the map and running his hands through his hear. "Fuck. Fuck."
“Barbuda,” Yoongi breathed.
Seokjin sat up in his hammock.
The doom of the curse weighed heavily on the spars, seeming to creak in the very belly of the ship as her miniscule crew stood in the deck and stared in horror at their only hope of survival, and their greatest chance of death and terror.
"So that's what the secret treasure was all along," Taehyung said softly. "No wonder the Bloody Marlins thought they'd figured us out. Our crew died while the captain was trying to find the Golden Dragon and we didn’t even know it."
"Oh my god," Hoseok said, sitting down. "We have to go back and face them."
"Face who?" Namjoon said softly. "They're dead."
"Give it up," Seokjin said. "You know as well as we do that they’re still there."
“We can’t go,” Taehyung murmured.
Yoongi rubbed a hand gently over Namjoon’s back. He hardly felt it, still staring down at the little red diamond. "Well either we die trying to get the ship now, or we wait for the curse to kill us off," Yoongi said. “Should we take a vote?”
“Someone get me Licorice,” Jimin groaned.
“All for heading to Barbuda?” Namjoon said.
Yoongi, Seokjin, Hoseok, Jimin, and Taehyung raised their hands, and after a moment, Jungkook too.
“All against,” Namjoon said. No one raised their hands of course.
“What’s your vote, Captain?” Seokjin said.
He looked down at his boots. “Wheein said I’d be the last one left alive if the curse started picking us all off. I’d really rather die with all of you.”
“Don’t blame yourself,” Taehyung murmured.
“Don’t tell your captain what to do,” Namjoon said with a small smile. Taehyung tugged him over and snuggled against his hip. “Let’s go give the crew our regards.”
They all felt that shadow again, the lonely, humiliated feeling of being the castaways at the bottom of the barrel, fearing for their safety aboard their own ship. Jungkook sat there with his hair in his eyes, frowning at the floor with Scotch in his lap. Yoongi gazed worriedly at him from across the small room. Hoseok stared out at the stars. He’d been so happy and free for not even a year yet.
“Well. Tomorrow morning, we’ll start maybe our last trip together, so I want everyone to get enough sleep,” Namjoon said. “It’s already way too late. Everyone get to bed.”
Yoongi and Jungkook piled into a hammock together. Hoseok tumbled into a hammock with Seokjin. Jimin was already nodding off to sleep in his own hammock, Licorice curled up on his chest.
Taehyung followed Namjoon up to his cabin and kicked his boots off. He stood at the table as Namjoon got ready and flipped all of the map pieces over one by one. “Ad-mi-ral Wuh-hit-acray—acre?—is tacking—taking-- control of the Cari-beans—Caribbean’s? power. Trap him in the—”
“You’re getting better and better at that.”
Taehyung beamed. “Thanks, Joon. So the Five Kings protected the balance of the Caribbean, huh?”
“You’d know better than me.”
“I think a lot of the first stories I learned came from them, before I started making my own. They did a lot of defense of the pirate way of life, I think.”
Namjoon pushed him back onto the bed. “Seems like a lot to handle. Do you think we can protect the Caribbean like they did? Lots more magical misadventures?” If they lived, of course. Namjoon groaned and buried his face in Taehyung’s shoulder. “I suppose there are worse things,” he said after a while, and Taehyung pulled his hands gently through Namjoon’s hair.
“Protecting people is your entire wheelhouse, Namjoon. Magic is mine. We’ll manage.”
“I thought we were going to negotiate,” Namjoon said faintly. The canons fired. He heard more screams over the water, some gunfire. “We always negotiate.”
“This is more fun for the boys,” the captain said.
“I doubt that,” Namjoon said. Many men hung back, glancing as fearfully at their own bloodthirsty crewmates as they did at the opposing ship. Lucifer ground up alongside the merchant vessel. They crew scrambled over the opposite railing, screeching, swords flailing. Namjoon stayed where he was and watched with his heart in his throat the bo’s’n dragged Hoseok by the hair onto the other ship and tossed him into the mess where he had no choice but to go crazy.
Taehyung and Jimin had been shoved to the front lines, young, worthless little warriors that they were. Jungkook was already in the thick of things with a dripping red sword. He couldn’t see Yoongi through the heavy smoke, but he always hung back, getting to a high spot and sniping through the haze. Seokjin would be hiding out in the kitchen. “They would have given the ship over,” Namjoon said softly. “These ships are always insured. They would have given us what we wanted.”
The captain giggled gleefully beside him. “Move,” he said, shoving past Namjoon to go join the fight now that it looked like they would win. “And get down there!” he yelled behind him, “you fucking coward!”
It occurred to Namjoon, as he stared at his bloodstained blade after the battle, the body of a young man at his feet who looked about as old as Jungkook, that this was not a life he’d ever imagined himself living.
“Five,” Jimin told Taehyung as they gathered all the ship’s stores that they wanted.
“Four,” Taehyung said.
They used to have a friendly competition over how many kills they could get per raid. The two of them. Hoseok, and now Jungkook usually took out easily a third of the other crew whenever a fight was necessary. Or unnecessary. They still kept track.
“Eleven,” Hoseok breathed. Taehyung pried the swords out of his hands and bumped their foreheads together. Some of the blood on Hoseok’s face smeared off onto his forehead. Seokjin slowly cleaned the smears of blood off Yoongi’s arms, hands trembling.
“You’ll get used to it,” Yoongi said.
“I don’t want to,” Seokjin said, tone high and trembling.
Edgar stomped up to their group, blood stuck deep in the ruts of his scar, a bottle in one hand and a wild look on his face. He grabbed Taehyung’s elbow and yanked him away. Taehyung went with a tired whine, stumbling towards the hatch down into the hold.
“Let him go!” Namjoon yelled.
“Don’t,” Yoongi hissed. Namjoon rushed after them.
“I said let him go, you bastard!”
“It’s fine!” Taehyung gasped.
Edgar turned, wheeling Taehyung around with him. “What?”
“He’s not your fucking toy. If you have to drag him, he doesn’t want you. Let him go.” Namjoon still had his sword in hand. Edgar glanced at it warily for a moment, then glanced back at Namjoon’s face and scoffed.
“What are you going to do about it, coward?”
“I’ll slit your fucking throat,” Namjoon growled
Edgar snorted. He tossed his bottle away. Ginger Joseph caught it with a yelp and the crew circled excitedly around them like a hive of bees. “Fucking try it, you slit-eyed little shit.” He drew his sword. Taehyung gave a strangled little yelp and tried to pull out of his grip.
Fear and fury burned up Namjoon’s chest. He gritted his teeth and held his sword up, waiting. Edgar had at least six inches on Namjoon, could wield a heavier sword, carried at least fifteen years more experience. Beside them, the bo’s’n chuckled and crossed his massive arms, perching on the edge of a table.
Taehyung kicked Edgar in the back of the knee and pulled away, drawing his own sword. “Stop it,” he said, eyes wide and wild, “both of you.”
The crew stirred. Taehyung in a fight was always a spectacle. Beside his stunning technique, he fought dirty. He could probably best them both at once. The favor shifted suddenly away from Edgar.
“That’s enough,” Captain Bullard said, stepping suddenly out of the crowd with a grin. “Swords away or I kill all of you.” They all slowly slid their swords back into their sheaths. The captain grinned at Namjoon. “Not such a coward with a princess involved, are you?”
Taehyung gave an indignant little shout. Edgar dragged him back up against his body.
“My good able seaman,” the Captain said to him, “please release my warrior.”
Edgar reluctantly let him go.
“For now,” the Captain said. “Mr. Kim, I don’t think little Tae needs someone like you to defend him. You’re causing trouble.” His eyes flashed with crazed glee. “Fifteen lashes.”
Namjoon’s stomach inverted. He could feel the force of his pulse through his chest. The captain’s supporters roared in approval. The rest of the crew glanced around uneasily but said nothing.
“Captain, he was perfectly justified—”
“Taehyung, if you don’t shut your mouth, I’ll be givin’ it a different use in my cabin when this is over.”
The captain’s thugs howled with laughter. Namjoon isolated a little moan of horror behind him that must have come from Jimin. Taehyung looked murderous.
“That’s against the ship’s articles,” Namjoon said, knowing that no one would be brave enough to care, but wishing that it mattered.
“Tie him to the mast,” the Captain said.
“You can’t just order someone to get flogged!” Namjoon yelled. “It’s supposed to be put to a vote by the quartermaster.”
“Quartermaster, should we put it to a vote?” Captain yelled, the oldest drunk with white hair and a beard brown with spilled ale grunted from atop a barrel, waving a bottle.
“Let’s vote!” The captain yelled, “All in favor?”
The thugs hollered their approval, blood-splattered, smoke-blackened, and senseless, and the rest of the crew resignedly raised their hands. The Bo’s’n hauled Namjoon to the center of the main deck, and the crew crowded after them.
The merchant ship still lay alongside, scattered with dead bodies and smoking steadily. Someone strapped Namjoon face first to the mast, shirtless. To the side, Yoongi stood stoically with his arms crossed tight over his body, eyes locked on the ground near the mast. Seokjin stood behind him, face hidden against his nape, hands over his ears. Jungkook and Hoseok just looked on. They’d been in his place before. He’d seen their streaky scars.
The first blow had him yelling, yanking at his ropes and panting for air. The second stung across the first, giant lines of pain burning across his back. In the periphery of his vision, when he could crack his eyes open, Taehyung had his face buried in Jimin’s shoulder. He’d gotten taller, his shoulders broader than they had been two years ago when he boarded. A slicing sting raked over his back again and he couldn’t bite back the scream.
Tears flooded his vision, or maybe just sweat. Something wet and hot ran down the back of his breeches. The crew laughed around him and Namjoon felt sick with hatred, sick with the humiliation of whimpering against the mast. None of these men how many times Namjoon had gotten them out of battles they couldn’t win, how many times over they owed their lives to him. The Captain was their god. His word was infallible.
The lashes came without rhythm, landing on fresh skin, overlapping in different directions. Namjoon’s knees gave. He pressed forward against the mast, trying to escape the numbing, freezing burn enveloping his back and spreading down his limbs, the way the pain just swamped him.
He’d forgotten to count. Every blow felt like it had to be the last, and then another one came. Air tripped in and out of his throat, whimpers tearing at his chest. Eventually, the blows stopped. Someone let him down. He stiffened as the movement ripped through his stinging back, groaning loud and long.
“Deep breaths, Joon,” someone said. He cracked open his eyes and saw Hoseok, brows pulled tight. “This is gonna fucking sting. Gotta get rid of infections.”
“No,” Namjoon grunted, “Oh god, fuck, no, please don’t, please, please, please—” Behind Hoseok, the crew swept Jimin and Taehyung down below decks. They went weakly, heads bowed. Taehyung caught his eye as they disappeared, face blank with shock. Jimin pulled him down.
“They’re distracting the crew so nobody kills you for fun, Joon,” Hoseok said.
“They know what they’re doing,” Yoongi said, hefting a bucket. “And they’d rather not see us dump this salt and vinegar all over you. Now hold still and try not to scream too loud.”
Cold liquid poured onto Namjoon’s back, and the bloody welts burst into flame. He lasted a few seconds before the world blinked out and he woke much later in the dirty, loud, hostile belly of the ship, guilty, defeated, and still in mind-numbing pain.
The storm hit their dinghy halfway between their ship and the small, foreboding island, coming out of nowhere as if dropped into the sky like ink in a water glass.
“We have to turn around,” Taehyung said.
But the waves carried them irresistibly towards the shore, even as they hauled powerfully on the oars, and they hit the beach amidst driving rain. The Lucifer sat rocking out on the water, pitching in the rising waves.
They climbed into the island, soaking wet and hardly able to see through the curtains of water dumping over their heads.
Taehyung grabbed Namjoon around the waist, clinging desperately. “It’s them,” he muttered. “They know we’re here. They’re trying to kill us.”
For the first time, Namjoon hoped it was just the curse. “We have to find shelter.”
In a hollow behind the first ridge up the hill, they found a field of skeletons, no proper gravesite of men in any comfortable position to protect their dead, but a shallow pit of scattered bones. No skeleton was completely whole or undamaged, just a bunch of human bones thrown in together like a mass grave under the sky. Namjoon shuddered with guilt. Ahead, Yoongi hunched over and looked away, pale and shaking. They passed it quickly, rain soaking them head to foot and making the steep paths treacherous.
They scuffled into the dark of a deep overhang and let rain force them back and back into one of the many caves that dotted the island. The cave floor ended on a ledge where it dropped into a boiling, rushing tunnel, water from the sea soaking the walls. They huddled together, shaking with fear and cold. Jungkook clutched Yoongi’s violently trembling body against his, trying to keep him warm. Jimin stared out into the rain, arms clutched around his stomach. Seokjin and Hoseok sat still against the cave wall and looked down into the torrent beside them.
Namjoon sat with Taehyung crunched up in his lap, and Taehyung stared deep back into the cave with his hands close to tearing Namjoon’s vest with how hard they clutched, panting with fear.
“What’s do you see?” Namjoon whispered.
“The old crew.”
Namjoon nuzzled against his head, trying to get his body folded into his arms, to fold them as close together as he could.
“Are they mad at us?”
“Of course they are,” Taehyung murmured.
“It would be nice if you gave me a little credit sometime,” Namjoon said. “I could just not help you.”
“Oh the crew knows you help me,” Captain Bullard left. “They wouldn’t believe you if you told them how much, but they know. They just don’t like you. You’re say you’re pretentiously ethical for a career thief.”
Yoongi stared down at the table, pale cheeks coloring in embarrassment, but he didn’t say anything.
“You’ve brain-washed them into thinking you’re infallible, or they’d care about how much you control them too.”
“I’ll keel-haul you straight to Davy Jones if you keep talking to me like that,” he growled.
“You’d die or face mutiny within a month,” Namjoon said. “You depend on me too much now. And I’m not required to respect you if you don’t give me my due. Which you don’t.”
Yoongi stirred uncomfortably.
“What do you have to say about all of this?” Captain Bullard asked him with a smirk. Yoongi’s shoulders tightened as if remembering his scars. He didn’t answer. “Yoongi’s learned to keep his mouth shut,” Bullard said. “I’ll be teaching you that lesson soon. Jungkook’s grown up nicely, right? Bet he’d fetch a nice price in a slave market. Hoseok too.”
Namjoon felt that shock right through his chest. Captain Bullard smiled knowingly, a disturbingly fatherly expression on his jolly face. “I value you, Namjoon. I really do. You’re smart. You never do anything wrong where the crew can see it. Can’t find any real reason to openly punish you, so someone else is going to have to take it eventually.”
Water started pouring down through the cave and into the submerged river past them. Namjoon wedged himself between a couple big rocks and the oncoming current, shivering in the water with Taehyung clutched to his chest. “We’re gonna die,” Taehyung whispered. “Namjoon, we’re gonna die.”
On the opposite side, Jungkook had jammed himself onto a ledge with Yoongi on his lap, lifted a little above the current. Jimin, Seokjin, and Hoseok huddled further towards the mouth of the cave. Jimin had already tried to pull himself up out of the rainwater and into the daylight, and nearly slid down into the river. Thunder shook through the cave and Hoseok cringed back against the rock.
“We’re going to be fine,” Namjoon said. “It’s a summer storm. It’ll stop soon.”
“It’s the crew,” Taehyung said. Namjoon tugged gently at his wet headscarf. He looked a little dazed, eyes huge and unfocussed, staring at the middle distance past Namjoon’s shoulder as if waiting for something to appear.
In an alcove towards the front of the cave, a skeleton lay jammed into the rocks, mostly white and bleached, but some skin and rags clung to the joints. A tattered Captain's hat sat trapped in the rocks beside it. Bullard, probably the last man left alive, staring into the cave like he was still awake and watching. Chills rocked Namjoon. He made sure Taehyung wasn't looking that way and hadn't seen. He wished they'd picked a different cave.
“We’ll be okay,” Namjoon murmured because he had to. Taehyung didn’t seem to hear.
Night came hours early, clouds blotting out the late afternoon into twilight. “We have to get out of here,” Namjoon murmured. Taehyung shook like a leaf in his arms, crunched up and trying to squeeze closer, eyelashes fluttering. “Baby, you’re so cold.”
“Captain, do you believe in sea monsters?” Taehyung asked drunkenly.
“Huh? Tae, what?”
Taehyung rubbed his face against Namjoon’s chest and then looked up, eyebrows scrunched together, eyes flickering through the air around Namjoon’s head before settling on his face. “You’re a stubborn, intentionally blind idiot sometimes. Do you believe in sea monsters?”
“I take offense to that,” Namjoon said softly, brushing water off Taehyung’s eyelid and watching closely as his eyes fluttered shut and then open again, big, dark, and beautiful. “And no, I don’t yet. Giant sea dragons that attack ships? Yeah, that might be out there somewhere. Who knows? I just don’t believe in sea monsters.”
“I think we believe in the same thing,” Taehyung said, “after all this bickering. We both believe in what we know. I’m just open to calling the unexplained magical, and you’re more willing to call magic just unexplained.”
Namjoon couldn’t help the smile creeping onto his face. “Thank you,” he said, “I think you’re right.”
“I love you,” Taehyung said. “I need you to know that, just in case…”
“Don’t say it,” Namjoon said, tipping Taehyung’s chin up so he could press a kiss to his lips, feeling almost afraid to with Captain Bullard's skeleton staring them down. “There’s nothing we can do right now. Just don’t think about it.”
“What am I to you?” Taehyung murmured, eyes still closed, head tipped back against Namjoon’s chest. “I wanna hear it. Lie if you have to.”
“I don’t need to lie,” Namjoon said. “I love you too. I’m sorry for everything.”
The crew got tired of Hoseok after about a half hour. They left him panting and shaking on his hands and knees by the forward mast, blinking drunkenly and coming down from his craze with new bruises blooming across his body. Every minute, he looked less and less like a demon and more like a beaten dog.
“How long till we sell that one into slavery?” The old cook muttered to his ugly friend.
“He’s useful. He kills more than the rest of us combined. He’s with us until he gets killed.”
“He’s crazy,” the cook muttered. “What if he let loose on the crew late one night. I keep suggesting we keep him locked up in the hold unless we need him, but people keep telling me it wouldn’t be ‘fun.’ I don’t care about fun. I don’t wanna die. Every time we’re in a fight I think about taking him out myself, but then Bullard might get pissed and I’d never want that.”
“Yeah. Don’t piss off King Bullard, our Captain and God,” the friend said bitterly.
The cook looked around quickly, eyes lingering on Namjoon’s profile as he re-read his last battered novel, still undestroyed. “Don’t just say that,” the cook murmured quietly. “Don’t want anyone to hear. Don’t want any…unrest.”
“The only person here is Mr. Most-Likely-to-Mutineer. I think I’m safe.”
“You’re never safe,” the cook said. “Anyone can hear right through the floors.”
“Honestly I’d lock the captain in the hold before I locked the crazy kid down there. This ship could do with some changes.”
A week later, the cook’s friend disappeared overboard in a storm.
The next time Taehyung wondered aloud how many monsters the captain had really killed, Namjoon cut him off. If the captain’s ears really had grown so big, they’d be the first people he’d be happy to get rid of.
Sure enough, a couple weeks later, they locked Hoseok in a cell and started talking about his starting price in a Tortuga slave market.
Taehyung looked earnestly up at him in the dim light, gaze clearer than it had been in hours, still shuddering with the cold water washing across his body. “This curse isn’t your fault. You have to know it’s not your fault. We all chose this. You can’t blame yourself,” he clutched Namjoon’s shirt, voice barely audible over the roar of the water.
Taehyung pressed his lips urgently to Namjoon’s, icy cold and shaking. “I don’t regret it,” Taehyung said. “So you can’t either.”
“Regret what?” Namjoon said.
“You know why we’re cursed, Joon. They’re coming for us.”
“It hasn’t even been a year,” Namjoon said. “Was it worth it? We’re all gonna die.”
“But we’re going to die with dignity, surrounded by people who love us.”
“We’re gonna drown in a cave surrounded by the ghosts of the old crew,” Namjoon said.
Taehyung grinned weakly. “Hey, you just said there were ghosts, Mr. Skeptic. Good job.” He pet Namjoon’s chest, fingers as cold as the water. His lips looked blue. The smile faded. “They’re nearly here, Captain. Oh God, they’re nearly here.”
The light in the cave dimmed and Taehyung jerked hard in his arms, throwing his head back against Namjoon’s shoulder, mouth wide. He made a small noise of surprise and then his eyes rolled back in his head and he gurgled. His whole body shook. A scream echoed through the cave.
Standing still in the water in front of them were the rotting, white-eyed corpses of their crew members, hair hanging lank and wet on their tattered cheeks. A harsh, blue light filled the cave, coming from their eyes. Hoseok screeched and fell from his hiding spot. He swept backwards through the water and tumbled over the ledge.
Namjoon’s heart stopped. Seokjin screamed. Hands reached out and pulled him in too. One of the corpses had Jimin by the throat. Yoongi and Jungkook tried to catch Seokjin on the way past, and a wave swept them out of their cove. They all tumbled down into the seething, white currents below. Jungkook shoved Yoongi behind a protruding rock at the last moment and fell as Yoongi hung on, blearily blue and reaching for Jungkook’s hands.
Everywhere around them were sets of glowing eyes. Ginger Joseph rose out of the water and caught him Yoongi in his bony, green hand, pale and scaly, flaking off. In one horrible moment, Yoongi’s face twisted with hope, and then the corpse lifted him up out of the water, shrieking in fury, foam dripping from his rotting teeth.
The world spun. Namjoon panted, clutching Taehyung too him, watching the friends he’d doomed to death tumble down into the cave and disappear. Yoongi choked and sobbed. The corpses strode forward, throwing Jimin into the torrent, and Ginger Joseph tossed Yoongi roughly over the edge. Namjoon’s heart lurched again, shock pounding into his head. Just like that, after struggling for so long, his crew was gone.
Taehyung came back to himself, blinking weakly and panting, and the bo’s’n strode up out of the darkness and pulled him out of Namjoon’s frozen arms.
“You last, Captain Kim,” he hissed in a horrible, slurred voice, clutching Taehyung’s body possessively to his chest. Taehyung sobbed in horror, twisting in his arms. Slimy flesh peeled off and clung to Taehyung’s clothes. Namjoon’s body wasn’t working. His mind blurred. He was dragged through the water. He was looking at the rocky ceiling. He was plunging into the water below. All around the corpses jeered and roared like when they’d hung Jungkook from the rigging, when they’d whipped Namjoon, when they shaved Seokjin’s beautiful hair off as he cried into his hands, and when they’d locked Hoseok in the hold.
Namjoon had had enough. He’d thought they’d never have to hear this again. His crew, his best friends, his Taehyung, had all disappeared. They pulled him underwater.
“Just leave the kids here,” Edgar yelled to the Captain. They all stood on deck, facing the captain. “We can’t fit them in the boats and we don’t need any fighters. We’re not fighting anyone.”
They’d come to this tiny, uninhabited island north of Barbuda to lay claim to some nameless, formless rumor of treasure. The sun had just risen in a bright orange glow to the east, coming up over the shoulders of the hills.
“Yeah, leave the kids here. They won’t help anyway. Don’t give them a share of the treasure.”
From the back of the crowd, Yoongi scowled. It had been Namjoon who figured out the cryptic puzzle that told them the location of the treasure to begin with. Namjoon just sighed tiredly. Honestly, he would have paid his part of the treasure just to get a day without dealing with the rest of the crew.
“I’m okay with this,” he said as the loaded dinghies pulled for the shore. “I fucking doubt there’s any treasure anyway.”
“There is,” Taehyung said sadly, “That puzzle was loaded with magic.”
Namjoon pursed his lips. If Taehyung hadn’t prophesied magical treasure and a huge aura of fate around the puzzle, they never would have come out here. Seokjin’s rubbed a hand self-consciously through his over-short hair, just beginning to grow comfortably back. “I’m just glad they’re off the boat,” he said. “Fuckers. I’m thinking about jumping ship in Tortuga. I can’t watch them sell Hobi.”
“You’d leave us?” Taehyung said.
“I don’t want to leave you,” Seokjin said, “I just don’t want to have to worry about them breaking my fingers the second I mess up a meal.”
The dinghies reached the shore and the crew disappeared into the trees. Jimin and Taehyung went down to check on Hoseok and then came back up looking grim. “He doesn’t want to talk,” Jimin said quietly.
A little after mid-morning, a chilly wind blew up over the deck. He shivered, taking a deeper breath. Deep gray clouds billowed threateningly away on the horizon, sliding in fast, frothing steel sea in a dark like evening followed under the cloud’s edge.
“Crap,” Seokjin mumbled beside him, but Namjoon felt a little spark in his head. The crew had long since vanished into the barren island, crawling down into the cracks of the caves to explore.
“Hey crew,” Namjoon said. Jimin and Taehyung looked up from their cuddle pile on the deck. Jungkook paused in re-wrapping a bandage around several gashes in his arm, courtesy of some drunk asshole with a knife and a taste for blood. “How many people do you think it takes to sail this ship?”
“We’ll there’s usually something like fifteen people working at any time,” Yoongi said, “And it gets crowded once there’s more than about twenty-five.”
“What’s the minimum?” Namjoon asked.
“Six,” Jungkook said. “A couple years after I got here there was a bad flu outbreak and at one point it was down to six people, including the captain.”
“Did it work?”
Jungkook shrugged. “Not perfectly, but we got around.”
Namjoon looked back at the island. The front edges of the storm came steadily up over the Atlantic from the back side of the island.
“There’s a bad storm coming,” Namjoon said. “They won’t have realized that yet. They’re in the caves.”
“Namjoon,” Yoongi said softly, already realizing what his thoughts were.
“Wouldn’t it be tragic if they tried to escape the storm by rowing back here and the waves smashed them all to death against the rocks. Freak accident.”
“They could still make it back if they swam though,” Jungkook said.
Namjoon looked at him carefully. “Wouldn’t it be tragic if the anchor came unmoored right now and the storm pushed us back west and we left them there without water or rations and they all died. According to the ship’s articles, we’d inherit her.”
“They could row to Barbuda,” Seokjin said, pointing at the line of gray in the far distance. "Antigua might even be close enough."
“But they couldn’t swim. Not after hiding out without food or water all day.”
Yoongi sat back. “You’re suggesting we kill the whole crew.”
Jimin sat up. “We’d just be running away with the ship and leaving them die. I like it. Let’s do it.”
“That’s not just mutiny,” Jungkook breathed. “That’s marooning everyone. That’s murder.”
“Pretty sure that’s the kind of shit that gets you really badly cursed,” Taehyung said quietly.
Namjoon huffed. “Well if superstition is the only thing stopping us—”
“Superstition and a conscience,” Seokjin said, “That’s over thirty men we’re just condemning to death. Most of them aren’t even that mean. They’re as trapped as we are.”
Namjoon sighed. “You’re right. We should sit here and wait for them to come back in the evening. They’ll be wanting dinner as soon as they get back though. You should get on that pretty soon. That’s a lot of food to prepare.”
Seokjin swallowed and stared towards the galley.
“If they found something, they’ll be excited. They’ll get drunk and start messing around. You know how they get. They’ll want entertainment.”
Jimin and Taehyung both flinched. Jungkook shifted nervously too. He’d gotten big and beautiful, and hands had started straying in his direction too. Yoongi gazed worriedly down at the deck. “Entertainment,” he said. “They’ll be wanting Hoseok.”
“You already know I’m in,” Jimin said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“I’m in,” Jungkook said. “I don’t care if they die.”
“Namjoon, please don’t,” Yoongi said, “Some of those men have been my friends for years.”
“Yoongi, you deserve so much better. You could captain this ship. You practically do.”
Yoongi scowled at his bloodstained, ripped-up shoes that he hadn’t been able to afford replace in years. “They’ll sell Hoseok.”
“I’m in,” Seokjin said, staring down at his hands.
“I’m in,” Yoongi whispered.
Taehyung stared out at the island. The wind from the oncoming storm whipped his red head scarf out behind him and he sighed heavily. “No curse could be worse than this,” he said. “Let’s kill em.”
And so Namjoon, Jimin, and Jungkook paddled the last dinghy out while the rest of the crew set the sails, and smashed holes in the bottom of each dinghy before dragging them out into the deep bay and letting them sink to the bottom.
Only seven young men fought the rigging. Seokjin had never learned the ropes. Yoongi tried to take charge and just faded off into silence as he manned the mainsheet, gazing back at the island. Namjoon took over. Clouds blew steadily in overhead, wind tightening the sails as the first raindrops spattered the deck.
When they’d gotten far enough away, Namjoon raised the captain’s spare spyglass to his eye and saw the crew standing on the beach, frozen like statues as rain poured down on them.
Yoongi threw up over the stern. Seokjin resolutely faced forward, pale and breathing shallowly.
But Jungkook sat on the bowsprit, shirt discarded on the deck, and watched the sea pass under the bow. The rain hit his bare, scarred back as he sat there like a figurehead. Hoseok ran wildly around the deck, finally free and shrieking with laughter. Jimin and Taehyung hung in the rigging like monkeys, cackling as the rain soaked through their clothes.
The sick, shocked feeling stayed heavy in Namjoon’s chest, but the ship under his hands, the rain pouring down on the deck, the way the wind at their back forced them forwards, made him so free and light he felt like floating up to the crow’s nest.
The crew would die. They’d die on the abandoned rock behind them. The ship felt cold and angry on the waves, conscious of the light weight on her back, the new hands on her helm. Taehyung, high in the rigging, already felt the weight of doom sinking over her crew, and maybe Namjoon would have too if he hadn’t been so lost in the freedom he’d always longed for.
It was two weeks before Taehyung kissed Namjoon for the first time up by the helm under a full moon, a month before the accidents started happening, and two months before Taehyung finally told them they were cursed. Still, in the blowing wind with the sea gurgling happily under the prow, finally free to get injured under their own power and no one else’s, they found it hard to care.
Namjoon tumbled through the water until he jammed between two rocks, waves crashing harshly over him. Whenever he could breath, gasping in pain from where he hung from a twisted leg, he could see Captain Bullard closing in, dead flesh bubbling with seawater. The rest of the living crew had vanished into the dark surf.
“It was me,” he gasped. “Let them g—” Saltwater swept stinging into his eyes and mouth, and he held his aching lungs closed for a long, panicking moment, gripping the rocks to keep the force off his leg.
“Let them go,” he sobbed as soon as he could. “I’m the mutineer. I just wanted them free.”
Bullard opened his mouth, throat clicking wetly open, and roared. Rot and brine stuck to Namjoon’s face. “Please!” he sobbed.
“Joon!” he heard dimly, an echoing scream above the waves.
“Taehyung!” he sobbed. Bullard bludgeoned him across the face with the hilt of his sword, and Namjoon almost forgot to hold his breath as the next wave swept over him. The force of the water didn’t seem to bother the corpses. They floated, feet dangling in the frothy surf, powerful even as sea sprites. The dead crew surrounded their captain, floating a little under his level.
“What were you going to do with the Golden Dragon anyway?” Namjoon gasped, “Kill everyone but your best four men and sail around like you own the seas? Is that why you didn’t tell us what the treasure was?”
“Look what you’ve done,” Captain Bullard gurgled. “We drank festering rain puddles and ate the weakest ones before the last of us died of disease. Look what hell you gave us. There’s no ship here.”
“You’re missing so many pieces. The ship can’t be found except by people who would commit themselves to protecting the sea, and I know you wouldn’t. You controlled the whole crew like a tyrant and they let you do it.”
The captain slapped him, leaving cold slime across his cheek. Namjoon gagged.
“It was still you who killed us,” Bullard hissed, and raised his sword.
“The navy wants to take control of the sea,” Namjoon yelled, “At least let everyone else go if you have to kill me.”
Captain Bullard swung again. Namjoon lost his grip on the rocks and his leg jerked between them with a rough snap. Pain shocked him worse than the frigid water.
Bullard laughed and raised his sword, “There’s the curse,” he growled, “Beautiful.” Something deep and loud boomed through the tunnel. Namjoon thought it might be his heart bursting in terror. Behind the crew, out the entrance of the tunnel, golden light burst out of the water. The Captain ignored it and swung his sword down heavily on Namjoon’s forearm.
His vision blurred from the sudden light, from the shock of the second wound. Slimy hands grabbed at him, blood pulsed out of his arm. His leg tugged out of the rocks and he wailed. Water gushed down his throat. He curled up into a ball and sank.
Something tugged him deep. The corpses howled, water thrashing over them. Water pulled unbearably at Namjoon’s wounds, twisting and ripping. His head went underwater, pulled down so suddenly his ears popped. His leg twisted again and in a white-hot flash of pain, he slipped out of his head, just a broken body under the water, far from the air, alone, broken, and helpless. His lungs filled. His leg twisted. He hit the floor of the cave and stuck there, crushed under foaming seawater, but through the cave entrance streamed brilliant, golden light, and he knew that his crew would be free.
Taehyung saw Namjoon caught between two rocks, sword in hand, and then he had swept out of the cave. Out in the ocean, wooden remnants of the ship scattered the waves, stinking of rot and magic. The sprites had gotten to the Lucifer before they’d come to find them. He clung to a beam and fought the angry waves.
“We’re doing this for you too, you know!” he shouted at the sea. “You want the fucking admiral to own you? Fine!”
A deep, bass boom thrummed through the water, jarring him on his perch. The cave entrance slosh with water. Namjoon screamed, then cut off suddenly.
“No! Namjoon! Fuck!” Magic poured from the cave, but the current swept him, sobbing and clinging to his beam, out into the water and around the steep cliffs. He tried to feel Namjoon, to somehow know if he was alive, but the deep, ugly magic of the island covered everything and Namjoon had disappeared. He held on, crying desperately, until his feet hit sand hours later and he stumbled to shore in the pitch dark.
Taehyung came to hours later halfway up on the beach with light little waves licking at his boots. The sun rose, pale yellow and blue in the east. He sat up, head reeling. A low, gray island sat away to the right of the island. Barbuda. He’d somehow ended up on the Atlantic side of the rock. His hair clung to his forehead and he reached up to fix his red headscarf and found it gone. Namjoon would be so disappointed.
Taehyung stared around at the lonely spit of beach. He’d seen Namjoon caught with swords around him. He’d heard him scream. He ran his hands harshly through his hair and stood there, trying to wish it away. Namjoon didn’t appear. His horrible scream echoed steadily in Taehyung’s head like a clanging bell.
The sun rose slowly into the clear sky now, the morning already hot on his black hair. He groaned and stood, stomach rolling with fear. The thin, white beach stretched around the curve of the island, and he followed it around the thin southern curve, trying to head back to the side with the cave. Wooden planks drifted up out of the water. He found Bourbon tipping drunkenly along the sand, mewing frantically.
“Me too, baby,” he muttered, stumbling along with the kitten in his arms. More and more beach passed with wreckage and nothing else. If the crew hadn’t drowned, they might’ve used the shrapnel to survive, or it could have knocked them out and drowned them.
Around the curve of the island, he found Jimin sitting grimly in the sand. “Tae!” he got up and stumbled shakily towards him, face streaked with tears, a little rag of black fur in his arms. “L-licorice,” he said, and dissolved into heavy, childish sobs, the little, drowned cat lying limply in his hands.
They wrapped their arms around each other, each holding a cat, one alive and sleepy, the other dead, and continued to stumble down the beach together. Jimin’s sly eyes stayed wide and scared as they ran into more and more pieces of the ship. “There’s the sails,” Jimin said softly.
“Namjoon’s books!” Taehyung said, and rushed forward into the surf. A ship’s log bumped against the sand, and Taehyung grabbed it and let it fall open. The pages tore in his hands, words washed out and smudged beyond recognition, Namjoon’s words no longer readable, no matter how hard he tried. Taehyung sat down hard on the sand, staring through blurry tears at the waterlogged pages. Jimin set the cat down and hugged Taehyung as he rocked back and forth, hugging the book to his chest and sobbing.
“We’ll find him,” Jimin murmured. “It’s okay.”
“I heard him scream,” Taehyung wailed, “They had him. He was trapped in the rocks. I heard it when—” The cut-off end to the scream echoed worse than the sound itself. Jimin’s arms tightened on his shoulders.
“Are you two okay?”
“Jungkook,” Jimin sighed, voice rumbling against Taehyung’s ear as he sobbed. “We’re okay, I think. Licorice died and—”
“Licorice!” Jungkook gasped and dropped something big and heavy onto the beach. Taehyung blinked tears out of his eyes and saw Yoongi sitting on his ass, disgruntled. He glared at Jungkook for a moment and flopped onto his back in the sand. Jungkook picked up Licorice’s waterlogged body. “No,” he breathed.
“We think…” Jimin turned to Yoongi. “We think Namjoon might be…”
“I don’t feel cursed anymore, do you?” Yoongi said.
Taehyung shook his head, sobbing harder.
“Oh good!” Jungkook said.
“Not good,” Yoongi said, pulling himself up. “I think Namjoon took that bullet for us.”
Jungkook blinked slowly, Licorice slipping out of his hands and into the sand where Bourbon nosed sadly at his body.
“Hate to be blunt,” Yoongi said softly, “but he probably didn’t…survive,” Yoongi said, voice trailing off. He swallowed and threw an arm over his eyes, lips pursed.
Taehyung crushed himself closer to the ship’s log, rubbing his face against the wet cover and choking on his sobs.
They sat silently on the sand for a little while. Jungkook stared off into the waves, mouth open just a little, perfectly still, eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
“Water,” Jimin said eventually. “We have to find water. Let’s keep moving.”
“There’s no water on this island,” Yoongi said. “And all of our water is probably on the bottom of the ocean now.”
“Let’s keep looking,” Jimin said. “Seokjin and Hobi might still be alive.”
“Gotta find Scotch," Jungkook murmured. “Gotta…find Namjoon.”
Hoseok and Seokjin stood on top of the hill above the cave they'd taken shelter in the day before, staring down into the ravine on the opposite side.
"Guys!" Jimin called.
Hoseok and Seokjin saw them, and then both practically fell off the cliff in over-exaggerated motions of relief, but refused to come join them, motioning for them to come up instead. Jungkook heaved Yoongi onto his back and started to climb. Jimin and Taehyung followed slowly, two cats and a ruined ship's log in their hands.
"There's a ship," Hoseok said as they crested the hill, arms already wrapping around Jungkook and Yoongi.
"Our ship? Isn't Lucifer a little smashed up?"
Seokjin shook his head and pointed. Out on the blue water floated a full-sized ship, a little smaller than the Lucifer, light brown and streaked in gold and red, the figurehead of an elaborate dragon on the front. Her clean, white sails flapping loosely in the wind. She sat at anchor as if waiting for her crew to return.
"The Golden Dragon," Jimin said quietly, "Found her."
"Our dinghies are still here," Hoseok said. "We could go out to her. What if she has water?"
"Namjoon and Scotch," Jungkook said quietly.
"We buried Scotch on the beach," Hoseok said. "I'm sorry. We should have waited for you, but we weren't sure you were alive."
Jungkook made a despondent little noise. "And Namjoon?"
Hoseok and Seokjin glanced at each other. "We went back in the cave. It's completely empty at low tide. We found one bloody boot trapped in a rock, but that's all. We've looked all over this side of the island."
"We have to find him," Jungkook said.
Jimin shook his head. “We need to get on the ship and go find water. We're not going to last another day days without it, not in our condition and not with all this sun."
"Namjoon," Jungkook said softly.
"I heard him scream," Seokjin said. "And then nothing. Jungkook, we can't waste time here looking for his body."
Jungkook stared out at the ship, then down at Taehyung, crouched on the ground over the ship's log and staring desperately over the side of the cliff with dry sobs wracking his chest. "I'm gonna go check out the cave," he murmured, and scampered down the hill like he wasn't horribly dehydrated and exhausted. Jimin helped Yoongi nearly fall down the hill. Jungkook rejoined them when they were down by the dinghy and pushing off into the water.
"Find anything?" Soekjin asked.
"Two of the map pieces and a scrap of his breeches," Jungkook said quietly, setting them down on Yoongi's knee beside the weak kitten. "Some blood."
They pulled away from shore, Taehyung clutching his book and Yoongi holding the two cats, everything they had left in the world. Halfway out to the ship, Jimin wrapped Licorice in his favorite black shirt and set him adrift on the waves, shrouded and buried at sea, and rowed the rest of the way to the ship with his face screwed up against his tears. In all the years Taehyung had known Jimin, he’d never seen him cry. Yoongi hunched over the cats, looking hollow.
The ladder dangled against the side of the ship, and Jungkook went up first, hand over hand up the smooth wood.
"There's no room for another dinghy up here," Jungkook called down. "They already have one. Just let that one go."
So they set it adrift like a last tribute to the Lucifer.
The decks practically glittered, smooth and gorgeous, the railings, masts, and spars carved into scenes of Caribbean monsters and heroes.
"I know this one," Jimin said, touching the carvings on the main mast. "This is the story of how the Five Kings got their ship. It was a gift from the gods of the sea. I never thought that one was true, but oh man, it feels like it is."
"I almost feel like we're intruding," Yoongi said.
"No way. We're hers now."
"We should figure out how to man the sails," Seokjin said regretfully as a spar swung overhead and the jib sails snapped comfortingly in the breeze up at the front.
"It's a five-person ship, right?" Hoseok said, "Should be easy. Look at how the ropes are laid out." A system of pulleys and ropes stretched net-like around the ship, making many sails easy to manipulate at once. Jimin stepped up to one set of ropes and tugged. The sail tightened steadily till it settled against the wind and filled. The entire ship shifted on the water. He pulled the next set of ropes and that tightened too. "This is amazing," he murmured. The net of ropes seemed to re-adjust themselves to what he wanted, pulling ingeniously together. Jungkook dragged himself up to the front of the ship to pull in those sails too.
“Check for water,” Yoongi said. “If there’s water on here we can stay a little longer and look for Namjoon.”
There was no water. Seokjin and Jungkook searched the hold and found a network of private rooms and everything a ship could need, rope and carpentry supplies, extra sail, wax and oil, even several bottles of rum, but no food and no water. The other men got the ship underway as Yoongi and Taehyung sat against the railing, Yoongi staring up into the sails and Taehyung still clutching the ship’s log and staring desperately back at the shore.
Hoseok bounded up the steep steps to the quarter-deck beside them, and froze. The mainsail billowed loosely around the top deck, breezing low over the wood and catching on the helm. A patch of red lined the bottom edge. In the middle of the deck, behind the helm, lay a body.
Yoongi glanced up at the quarter deck. “Who’s the captain?” he grumbled. Hoseok pounded back to the railing and nearly threw himself over.
“Namjoon! He’s here!”
Blurry, white sails. Did the gates of heaven look like the deck of a ship under a blue sky? Here Namjoon was on that never-ending expanse of mid-morning blue, breeze toying with the hair on his forehead.
Someone lifted him. Excruciating pain radiated out of his leg. He managed a weak, high, groan.
“Oh, fuck. He’s awake. Shit.”
The pain didn’t stop, spiraling tighter into his leg and pounding shockingly up his body. His stomach rolled. He made a noise. It sounded like a whine.
“Should have stayed out. Damn. This is gonna suck.” Jimin’s voice. Jungkook’s answering hum rumbled against the other side of his body. Two sets of arms held him up. The world rolled around. He stiffened, and pain shot through his arm and leg again. That noise was definitely a pitiful whimpering. He didn’t stop. They bumped steadily down a whole set of stairs, pain thumping steadily stronger. They needed to put him down. He couldn’t take it.
“Hold on, sir. Just a little further,” Jimin said. They bumped down another set of stairs. By the time they hit the bottom, his throat hurt. Had he been screaming?
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Seokjin’s voice. Swearing sounded so nice in his voice. He felt uncomfortably awake, head spinning, pain dragging him into delirium. His butt hit a surface, then his shoulders. Had Jungkook and Jimin put him on a table? He squirmed, pain intensifying as his mind came around, heart pounding with panic. Why did his leg hurt so badly? There was nothing that didn’t hurt.
As his eyes finally cracked open, Taehyung leaned over his head, staring down with his beautiful black hair hanging around his eyes like a child’s, soft, little lips parted with worry, huge, beautiful eyes wide and shiny. Maybe they’d all gone to heaven together. Perfect.
“Darling,” he said, half a moan, and tried to lift his leaden arm to brush against his cheek.
“Captain,” he breathed, smile quirking gently at the corner of his mouth.
“Ugh,” someone grunted.
“Painkiller,” Jimin said, tipping his head up and pressing a bottle of rum between his lips. Namjoon drank till his eyes watered and his throat burned, scared to move for fear of jostling the pain harder.
“Joon, bite on this.” Taehyung shoved a stick of soft wood into his mouth, salty from seawater.
“Huh?” he said, already taking the wood between his teeth. Jimin moved blurrily back into his line of vision, a saw clutched in his hand.
“Can’t save your leg,” Jimin grunted, face set in steel, “Gotta amputate. Should have stayed under, Captain.”
Someone straightened his leg, shocking pain right up into his head, and in a small moment of mercy, his consciousness blinked out.
Chapter 10: The Five Kings
And so the Golden Dragon is back on the water.
It has taken me way too long to get this last chapter up. Thank you so much for your patience.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Our ship is back on the water,” Jiyong said. “It’s been pulled up.”
Daesung, just passing in the hallway, looked in with half a chicken leg in his mouth. Jiyong hunched over his divining bowl, ostentatious blue coat hanging from his arms and shirtless underneath.
“Finally. I was about to suggest we hire someone to go get it,” Daesung said.
Jiyong swept past him and down the hallway, Daesung trailing behind. “Captain?” Seunghyun said as he entered their grand sitting room, frescoes bright in the orange, evening glow. It overlooked the sea, curtains flapping like loose sail, and Seunghyun sat there in his usual spot, feeling the breeze.
“The Golden Dragon is back on the water.”
“Really?” He sat up. His claw-foot chair scuffed slightly on the slippery tile. A tall, powdered wig, ostentatious and awful, lay carelessly on the floor beside his chair. “But no one visited the fort.”
Jiyong kicked the wig. “Wasn’t that the governor’s?”
“What governor?” Seunghyun said innocently.
Jiyong’s eye twitched. “The crew found the piece with the marker on it first, but if they want to finish the message, which they should if they were able to raise the ship, they’ll be here in a few days.”
“Finally back in action,” Taeyang said from the door, dressed in a similarly lazy outfit, disrespectful to the original design and hanging open over his tattoos. Someone had left deep red scratches down his chest and over his shoulders.
“Not quite,” Jiyong said. “I hope this crew is good enough to get the job done.”
Seungri finally joined them with a wine goblet and a bed head, a woman’s scarf tied around his waist. “What’s up?”
“Someone found the ship,” Jiyong told him. “They’ll be here for the last piece in a few days.”
Seungri nearly dropped his plate. “Who? The Exodus? Bloody Marlins?”
“You’re kidding,” Seungri said, eyes lighting up. “They did it?”
“The sea sprites destroyed their ship, so we’ll have to find them a new name. They overcame their fall from grace, you could say.”
Seunghyun pulled a face. “Cheesy.”
“It was clever,” Jiyong grumbled, crossing his arms.
“You always think you’re clever.”
“Send a message to the Exodus,” Seunghyun said after Jiyong had snapped them both into silence ten minutes later. “We’ll force them to work with us if they have to.”
“I’ll go get a message ready,” Taeyang said, “please don’t have aggressive argument sex on the furniture.”
“Haven’t had sex in years,” Jiyong grumbled and Seunghyun flinched.
Daesung and Seungri booked it out the door behind Taeyang as Seunghyun stammered something about girls in town and Jiyong threatened to chain him to his bedroom.
“I had a dream last night,” Sehun said the next morning. Half the crew of the Exodus sat groggily around him, choking down hard tack for breakfast. “I think the Five Kings sent it. The Golden Dragon is on the sea with a new crew.”
Kris sighed tiredly and took off his hat. “Great. More pirates. Why do the kings want us to know?”
“Same old thing. They want us free them.”
“We’re not going to, right?” Yixing said. “The last thing we need right now is more pirates on the seas.”
“You’re pirates,” Sehun muttered, “It’s not that bad. The longer you deny it, the stupider you look.”
It was getting to be a bit much, all the magic, the navy on their tail, Sehun’s master giving them demands in her sweet, threatening voice. For a defecting crew claiming their freedom and seeking to fight battles on their own terms, they spent a lot of time following orders. “Just for arguments sake, what would they be making us do?”
“They want us to work with the crew of the Lucifer,” Sehun said.
“Those pirates that Zico told us about, remember? Crew of seven on a full-sized ship because their crew died?”
“The cursed mutineers?” Kris said, “The ones they were talking about in Port Royal?”
“No one knows that for sure. They just got ahold of the Golden Dragon and Jiyong thinks they might be able to help us out. They’re probably trying to get us both to work together to break them out.”
“That’d be another reason for Admiral Whit-fucker to keep targeting us. If he hears that we’re trying to free his prisoners, they might double down even harder. We’re already having a tough enough time with those bastards. And we have crew members to rescue. We don’t have time for this.”
Sehun snorted. “If I know anything about how this works, the Kings will just send them to us if we don’t go to them.”
“What does Hwasa say?”
“You know she’d want us to do this.”
Kris glanced around the room at the rest of the crew. Minseok and Luhan sat with their heads tilted together in a corner, whispering to each other. Chanyeol, Baekhyun, and Jongdae ate their food with unusually subdued voices, Kyungsoo right behind them, casually leaning against the wall with two knives in his hands. Jongin, as usual, sat close behind Sehun like a bodyguard, and Yixing frowned, arms crossed and lips pursed with worry. They all showed more curiousness and attention than Kris was used to seeing in the early morning.
“I think that’d be fun,” Chanyeol said. “I like working with pirates.”
Kris sighed heavily. He should have suspected the worst when he walked in on Chanyeol in Tortuga with the brightest, most ridiculous outfit he’d ever seen, surrounded by whores and brandishing a bottle of whiskey at the ceiling while screaming nautical slang. The son of a Lord. Oh, how the mighty fall.
“Doing what the Kings want might give us some direction,” Jongin murmured. “We still don’t know where Zitao and Suho are.”
“Teaming up with the best ship on the sea might give us an edge,” Luhan said.
“We already have the best ship on the sea,” Kris said, cautiously petting the wall.
“Not anymore,” Sehun snorting. “Not with the Golden Dragon on the water. You haven’t seen her yet, sir, but she’s like a sea goddess even without a crew manning her.”
Kris pouted at the smooth, oak walls. “I’ll think about it.”
“The Golden Dragon was spotted off Antigua, sir.”
Admiral Whitacre lifted his gaze from his desk. Robertson stood before him, eyes careful. The scar on his left cheek was finally out from under its bandage, still a nasty wound, disgusting to look at. Whitacre had given it to him after he came back without his job done, missing one very important sacrificial knife, and raving about some siren and a ship called the Lucifer.
Outside the office, a very small contingent of zombies stood around the fort with their rusty weapons. Admiral Whitacre had heard enough about the Lucifer to last him the rest of his career.
Speaking of, “The wreck of the Lucifer has been discovered washed up on the beach on an island outside of Barbuda,” Robertson continued. He still looked the admiral directly in the eye without shame, even after his relative disgrace. He’d shifted all the blame onto the crew that had caused it with no responsibility weighing on his conscience and no injured loyalty, a dangerous and valuable quality in a subordinate. “It is likely that the crew of the Lucifer is now on the Golden Dragon.”
“That crew mustn’t be very big then,” Admiral Whitacre said, looking back to his paperwork.
“According to my men in Tortuga, there are seven of them, all of them young and unintimidating, but one is a witch, and one is the son…of a mermaid.”
“I assume so.”
“A witch. Hm. And the other five?”
“The Captain and Quartermaster are known to be good strategists. They have what others described as a berserker, and at least four of them are dangerous warriors. They managed to navigate a full-sized ship with only seven people for months. And now they’re on the Golden Dragon.”
“You seem to think we should be worried,” Admiral Whitacre said.
“Immanuel Robertson, I have captured monsters the size of islands, drowned gods, and faced the devil himself. I sank the Golden Dragon and cursed its crew when it was manned by five powerful sorcerers, not a crew of plagued miscreants. I’m not worried.”
“They’re not a threat,” Robertson said quickly, “Not to you, at least. To the rest of us, they may be pesky.”
Admiral Whitacre’s wig itched. His coat felt too hot. He’d spent a month in Cuba and now his pants were too tight. Robertson had been annoyingly sulky after his failure. “Let’s not beat around the bush, Captain. You want permission to take a crew and hunt them down, but I need you to keep tracking down Exodus.”
“I understand, sir,” Robertson said, not bothering to hide his resignation or his annoyance. “But the Exodus isn’t a magic ship.”
Well, that was a good point.
“We don’t know how ‘pesky’ the new crew on the Golden Dragon is going to be,” Whitacre said. “Keep on the Exodus until they show us they’re more annoying than Exo is.”
Robertson ripped his wig off his head and scratched his hair in frustration. “Sir, they caused us enough damage on accident with a ship they could barely control.”
“That’ll do, Robertson. I don’t make rash moves. I can afford to be cautious about reallocating resources right now. Give it a rest. I may put someone in pursuit of the Golden Dragon before too long. It might not even be you.”
That was a lie though. The little siren aboard the Lucifer had destroyed Robertson’s honor, and if Whitacre knew anything about controlling men, he knew to exploit a good grudge. Robertson dared a single, quick glare. Once he gave it a little more thought, he would be able to catch the bluff.
In the meantime, Whitacre could just let him stew.
Zico learned of two things in one night. First, someone had found the wreck of the Lucifer on the same island they’d marooned their old crew. Zico knew. Of course, he knew. Namjoon could deny it all he wanted, but Zico had practically raised him. He knew what it looked like when Namjoon wanted to hide something. He knew how far Namjoon would go when he got angry. So the ghosts had gotten him, still so young, and he had no one but Namjoon himself to blame.
Halfway through a full bottle of rum, he heard that the Golden Dragon had been sighted at sea, and was sure he’d dreamed it, liquor melting his brain and turning the world into a half-dream where his little brother and the rest of that beautiful crew was still innocent and alive. When the girls in the brothel woke him up to toss him back out on the street the next morning, he asked frantically for news. Yes, they’d heard the rumors too. The Bloody Marlin came into Port Royal under new leadership with very interesting news about the Lucifer’s last journey, and some fishermen had seen the Golden Dragon just a week ago near Barbuda.
Hope came back into port. The Golden Dragon, their luck and protection, had been sighted. Half the docked crews sailed away within two days. The free Caribbean came alive again with all the activity and joy that had drawn Zico when he was still a child with Namjoon at his side. Zico’s own crew sailed without him. He bartered passage on a rum runner’s ship straight south.
Captain Kris definitely didn’t like him, but he could see him getting along with Namjoon, and the Exodus had been last seen along New Granada.
Namjoon woke up drunk. Small mercies. He didn’t have to wait the fifteen minutes for his alcoholic painkiller to set in. He did feel rather sick, every rock of the ship sending a wave of numbing pain up his leg and sloshing the liquor through his stomach and head.
“Water, Captain?” Taehyung held a cup to his mouth. “How do you feel?”
“Better,” Namjoon groaned. “I could probably stay awake today if you needed me too.”
“Carpenter Jimin made you some crutches. They looked like shit so Jungkook stepped in and fixed them.”
Namjoon shifted his legs and shuddered. They’d cut it off above the knee. He felt dangerously out of balance every moment he was awake. He sat up. The new room was, as always, depressingly empty of books. While Jimin mourned Licorice, Namjoon mourned his old journals and novels, his textbooks and poetry books. All the philosophical treaties he hadn’t quite managed to understand yet.
It was a room meant for one person, but Taehyung slept beside him every night, waking when he screamed and forcing more rum down his throat, wiping the sweat off his forehead and talking him through the pain and terror of the first couple days. He assumed it was the Captain’s cabin. Huge windows lined the back wall. The beams were carved into shells and coral, fish and dolphins. The ship rolled gently sideways and Namjoon tried to lean his weight down on his left leg, flinched hard, and sagged against the wall.
“Think you can manage a peg leg soon?” Taehyung said, pulling him back upright. Namjoon cringed. Taehyung kissed his nose. “Can you smile for me, sir? I feel like I haven’t seen your dimples in weeks.”
Namjoon forced a smile. Taehyung poked his cheeks, glowing with happiness, and pressed a small kiss to both of Namjoon’s dimples. The smile stuck.
“We’re about a day out from Tobago,” Taehyung said. “Last map piece. Quartermaster Yoongi insists you stay on board this time.”
“Who’s staying with me?”
“Not me. I’m the magic expert, remember? I’m going with. It’ll probably be Seokjin.”
“Do you want a tour of the ship?”
“Might as well get some exercise, I guess,” Namjoon said.
The ship was a little smaller than the Lucifer, so there wasn’t quite as much to tour. There were five cabins, not rooms full of hammocks like the Lucifer, but five personal rooms on the first two levels of the ship, which explained why Taehyung was living with him. Yoongi and Jungkook had taken the second largest cabin together, and the remaining three had their own. Namjoon halted the tour the moment they arrived on deck, breathing in moving air for the first time in days.
A low, green island passing away to their left. Storm clouds lined the horizon, but over their ship, they broke away into fluffy, harmless streaks, banding over blue and coalescing into gray on the other side.
“Well that’s a change,” he sighed happily, and sat clumsily down on the stairs, sun on his face. Jimin immediately left his post and crawled up behind him, wrapping around his back. “Welcome back, Captain.”
“Just call me Namjoon.”
Jimin took a little breath in, and stayed still for a moment like he was scared to believe it, and then said, “Namjoon?”
Namjoon sighed and relaxed back against his chest. “Yeah. None of that ‘captain’ bullshit anymore.
“Missed having real friends that much, did you?” Yoongi said from the helm. Namjoon nodded.
He passed the rest of the day with his friends around him, always having someone new to lean on. Seokjin rubbed his back for an hour. Jungkook pulled him into his lap for a nap and made him feel young and small. Yoongi sat hip to hip as they ate a lunch of fruit together, pilfered off an island they’d passed a day or two before. Hoseok went to sleep with his head on Namjoon’s chest and had to be carried to his own quarters. Jimin held him like he’d held Licorice, like a kid’s doll, like he needed to be cared for. All the while, the sea tinkled against the hull, sun beaming warm on his face. He could close his eyes and drift to the sound of creaking boards and the dull snap of wind pulling on ropes and sails. He wished he could climb up into the crow’s nest and feel the ship rock, but he would have needed two legs for that, so he closed his eyes and pretended.
In the evening, Taehyung put him back in bed and pulled out the rescued ship’s log. It was brittle, swollen, and stuck together, the pages ripped, smudged, and unreadable, but Taehyung treated it with such love that Namjoon’s throat closed. He fell asleep clinging to both Taehyung and his ship’s log, hiding his tears in the pillow.
The Golden Dragon was a beautiful ship. Yoongi took the rest of the crew out to ambush a beautiful, gleaming fort on the cliffs of Tobago. They watched for nearly a half hour as the crew battled the strong tide and pulled steadily across to the fort. Afterwards, Seokjin helped Namjoon walk for an hour around deck, examining every intricate carving and every clever mechanism that allowed the ship to be controlled with only five people. He carefully studied pulley systems and foot-pedals set into the deck, large contraptions set into the masts. The anchors were so well balanced that they could be raised by one person.
“I’ll make diagrams,” Namjoon said. “We’ll need to repair something eventually, and I don’t think I could figure this out on my own.”
“I’ll get Jungkook on that,” Seokjin said. “You should take it easy.”
“I feel like a broken toy,” Namjoon said to Seokjin after he’d gotten too tired to keep hobbling around on his crutches.
“No really. There’s a mirror in my cabin. It’s been…years. Solid years since I’ve looked in a mirror.”
“See anything that surprised you?”
Namjoon lay down on the deck. “I was probably fifteen or sixteen the last time I saw a mirror. I look very different now. I look older and thinner. And more tired.”
Namjoon smiled. “I wasn’t going to say it. How are you enjoying the mirrors?”
“I could lie, but I don’t think you’ll judge me. I’ve spent several hours in front of mine. It’s been too long. My face used to be my only joy, you know.”
“You should see Taehyung,” Namjoon said softly. “I was delirious, but I remember this. I woke up one evening, and it must have been several nights after our first night there, but he was sitting in front of the mirror and just staring. He might have cried a little.”
“I don’t blame him. He’s beautiful.”
“He told me he hasn’t seen a mirror since one night before he joined our ship when he was in a brothel, and he thought it was magic. That was the first and only time he’s seen himself. He’d forgotten what he looks like. He hasn’t ever seen a mirror this clear. He said he finally gets why people treat him the way they do.”
“Hobi is scared of mirrors,” Seojin said. “He covered up the one in his room. He says he doesn’t like how it looks like there’s another room there, and when he sees himself moving in it, it makes him jump. Yoongi doesn’t really care one way or another, of course, but he was a little stunned at what he looked like.”
“Good or bad?”
“I think he’d assumed he was the only plain member of the crew. He was pleasantly surprised to find out that he’s just as pretty as the rest of us.”
Seokjin sighed and squeezed Namjoon’s waist. “You know him. Has no problem with mirrors, but he can’t look himself in the eye and if you try to make him, he hides for hours. He has no problem looking at his scars though.”
“Ugh. That kid,” Namjoon groaned. “He needs help.”
“He’s getting better.”
“The scars thing though. I’m the opposite. I can look myself in the face just fine, but the minute I see the missing leg or I turn around and see how ripped up my back is, I just feel destroyed. I’m not a whole human, anymore. I’m never not going to have my whole, undamaged body again. I’m stuck like this till I die. I feel sick all the time. Every time I look at my leg I get vertigo.”
Seokjin squeezed him again, knocking their heads together. “You always had two left feet anyway.”
Namjoon laughed weakly. “It’s only gonna get worse. I can promise you—oh hello. The dinghy is coming back. Already? It can’t have even been two hours yet.”
Seokjin pulled out the spyglass and peered out over the water. “Huh. Only three of them.”
“Fuck,” Namjoon said, lying back on the deck. “That’s not good. I hope they’re okay. Gotta pull myself together before they get here.”
“You really don’t though,” Seokjin said. “None of us care if you act particularly dignified or not. We know you pretty well, you know. Just be yourself. And Yoongi is smiling, so don’t worry.”
“Good news and bad news,” Yoongi said, hopping up on deck excitedly. “We have the map piece, and we’ve met the Five Kings.”
“Holy—what?” Namjoon sat up, the deck spinning like a potter’s wheel around him.
“We were supposed to sneak into the chapel of an actual fort guarded by real humans and steal the last map piece, but the Five Kings told them to clear out and just handed it to. So we have it now. It says “goat’s eye.”
“Trap him in the goat’s eye? Hold on. Five kings?”
Yoongi shrugged. “Taehyung says it sounds familiar. They won’t tell us anything else. Here’s the bad news. They want to see you, but they’ve been cursed by Admiral Whitacre and can’t travel over water. So we’re going to have to get you into the boat and all the way over to them.”
“Oh god this really couldn’t get any worse,” Namjoon groaned.
“Get up, you big baby,” Seokjin said.
They got him carefully down the ladder, one foot thumping on the slippery rungs as he clung on tight with his fingers and everyone yelled at him to be careful. They’d sent Jungkook and Jimin, the fastest rowers, who helped him down into the boat with careful hands and made him blush to feel so helpless. Seokjin and Yoongi picked up oars on the way back while Namjoon sat in the stern and enjoyed his view of the hot, blue sky and the water close to his ears.
They finally reached the top of the long stairway up the cliff to the fort, Namjoon grunting and exhausted, armpits sore from the crutches and thumbs blistering, remaining leg hurting and the other one feeling distressingly, well, missing. The Five Kings hung over the side of the fort gazing longingly out at their ship like love-struck teenagers.
“Yeah, that’s them,” Yoongi said, sounding a little disappointed.
They were decades too young, and all bickering like they’d been married for years. Hoseok and Taehyung sat to the side with blank grimaces on their faces.
“Captain Namjoon,” one said, finally turning around, a richly embroidered blue coat dangling from his thin arms over a frilly, pale pink shirt. He absolutely dripped with jewels, eyes glittering like a snake’s. He had an aura, an imperceptible glow that made him hard to look at directly, but when Namjoon managed it, he looked ridiculous, like a sparrow in a parrot costume. “I’m Jiyong. I’ve been keeping an eye on your ship. We’d hoped you’d be the ones to find her,” he motioned towards the Dragon, “but we’d pretty much given up on that given your history with the island. I’ve been dying to meet you. How’s your, ah, leg?”
“To be blunt, it’s gone.”
“Haha. Blunt,” Jiyong said, glancing down at where the stump hung tied up in his pant leg. “Sorry, sorry. Um. I’ll try to do something about that. This is my crew, Seunghyun, Daesung, Taeyang, and Seungri.”
“You’re the captain?”
“Technically speaking, yes, but it’s not a strict hierarchy. We’re all massively powerful, after all, except Seungri.”
“I am massively powerful,” Seungri grumbled.
“He’s a pretty bad-ass warrior and damn good at sailing and designing things, but he isn’t magical. Oh well. I know you have a pretty little witch aboard.” He winked. Namjoon stammered into silence. Taehyung smiled cautiously.
“Not what you were expecting?” Jiyong said. For such a slight, pretty person, he carried a lot of power, moving with so much self-assurance. His little, imp-like face looked dead threatening one second, and delightfully sweet the next, a smirk never quite leaving his lips.
He glanced at the rest. Seunghyun was the only one who looked anything close to what he expected, tall and strong, carefully tamed black hair and piercing eyes, a beautiful suit, peacock bright like the rest of them, but rich and put-together. The rest of them looked like young, garish sailors.
“We’re much older than we look, I promise,” Jiyong said. “I’m fifty-seven.”
“Ah,” Namjoon said, skepticism flopping over and giving up. “Of course.”
“You’re a good captain, Namjoon. Not too stubborn. I like that. It’s unfortunate you’re so tied down,” he glanced back at Taehyung as he said so. Taehyung’s face fell from admiring to downright challenging. Jiyong giggled. “Cute. Anyway, here’s the deal. That ship was a gift from the sea. You have our ship, so you must use it to free us.”
“Admiral Whitacre is a powerful black sorcerer, more powerful than the five of us. He knows a lot of magic specific to land, so he’s trapped us on this island, and while we’re here, we can’t do anything to stop him. Meanwhile, he’s out there playing the Caribbean like a giant game of chess. If he had it his way, he’d enslave everything.”
“That’s…can we actually do anything?” Namjoon said. “Not that I don’t want to,” he said quickly, seeing the steely look on Jiyong’s face. “This sea matters a lot to me. We’re just…not five powerful sorcerers.”
“You probably can’t do anything on your own. Unfortunately, many of our most powerful allies are currently trapped or cursed, but you have a good start. You have Jimin and his interesting family,” Jimin stood up a little straighter. “You have Taehyung’s magic, which may need a little work. You have Hoseok’s girl and her powerful sisters. You’re also fairly influential with all sorts of pirates. They’ll respect you even more with our ship. You should probably just free us though. We’ll take care of it.”
“What happens if we free you and you want your ship back?” Namjoon said. “Do you have another ship for us?”
Jiyong paused and looked back at the rest of his crew. They all shrugged. “We hadn’t thought that far,” Jiyong said.
“But by that point, we will owe you for our freedom and for doing our duty for us, and probably for a lot more things. We will make sure you’re well taken care of. The sea may owe you by that point too. That’s really all we can promise for now.”
Namjoon sighed. They’d earned the curse that destroyed the Lucifer. Beggars can’t be choosers. “I’ll take it.”
“Good boy. Yoongi has your map piece.”
“What’s the goat’s eye?”
“Not entirely sure,” Jiyong said. “Not my area of magic. Sounds like some kind of trap. Others will know more. I would suggest you seek out Wheein or Hwasa right away, but their prices are always pretty steep. Better to go through a middle man. You’ve heard of Exo, right?”
“Find Exo. Got it.”
“They’ll be very useful to you. Now,” Jiyong leaned down and grapped Namjoon’s stump thigh with both hands. Namjoon shifted uncomfortably on his crutches. “Chill, kiddo.”
“Daesung, bring me the whalebone,” Jiyong said. Daesung sauntered over with a large, thin, leg-sized chunk of ivory. “I can’t give you a new leg,” Jiyong said apologetically. “That was the curse’s last blow, and I have no power over it, but I can give you this.” He pulled Namjoon’s breeches up past his stump, and Namjoon’s stomach swooped. He looked away.
All the tense, aching pain around his knee dissolved into blissful nothingness. Something smoothed gently over the stump and then clamped painlessly onto his leg. He looked back down.
The ivory stood where his leg should have been. Jiyong smoothed his hands firmly down the wood, and as they passed, the ivorychanged, carving itself into a base, then what looked like a knee joint, then a sleekly carved peg-leg. He could see a few details, what looked like mermaids, lusca, a dark sea cave, a woman counting beans at a crossroads, seven men at the helm of a ship, a beach full of freed zombies. It must have been Jiyong that made all those carvings on the Golden Dragon.
“You heard me.”
Namjoon lifted his leg, and suddenly he could feel it all, not like actual flesh with sense and warmth, but a dull sense of presence all the way down to the bulb at the end, he bent it at the knee. “Oh shit,” he whispered, and then fainted.
He woke up to Jiyong’s voice again, “So brave of you, stepping forward to fight for your crew like that, even when you clearly couldn’t win. I know you don’t think you’re noble and virtuous and you’re lying to yourself.”
“Jimin, he’s right,” Namjoon murmured.
“Such a good captain,” Jiyong sighed. “Stop it. My crew will ditch me and hire you.”
He opened his eyes and saw Jimin, flushed red and curled in on himself, softly pleased.
“I passed out.”
“Perfectly normal reaction, especially from a guy who only recently accepted that magic exists. Seokjin caught you. Oh, and Seokjin, speaking of being noble, letting Jonah go was very admirable. I hope it doesn’t get you killed in the end.”
“Oh,” Seokjin said sadly.
“Jimin, watch out for Robertson,” Seunghyun said.
“Yes, sir,” Jimin said.
“Drop the doe eyes for a second. I’m serious.”
Jimin dropped his gaze to Seunghyun’s pants.
“We’ll definitely see Robertson again,” Taehyung said grimly.
“I can look out for myself, you know,” Jimin said. “You should see me work a sword.” The rest of the crew knew Jimin’s type well enough to give Seunghyun a little eyebrow wiggle.
“I’m nearly sixty,” Seunghyun challenged.
“You’re damn nice for sixty,” Jimin muttered. “Hell, you’re a damn nice twenty-five. Let’s be real. Don’t make me start singing.”
“There’s no way that’s going to work,” Seungri muttered.
“We’ll be back in an hour,” Seunghyun said, dragging a delighted Jimin up by the arm. They stomped off into the chapel offices. There was a moment of awkward silence while everyone took notice of Jiyong’s murderous expression.
“I promise I’m not mad at Jimin,” he said when he noticed everyone staring at him. “He’s just a child. I’m above that. Seunghyun, however…”
As Jiyong stomped back and forth and snapped at his crew, Namjoon went to sit on the wall above the ocean. He lifted his leg experimentally up and down. It felt a little numb, still quite a bit wrong, but the adventures of the last few months stood out beautifully on the sides. There were Jimin and Hoseok facing down the giant bats and the captain of the Bloody Marlin, and there was a small figure of himself and Taehyung sleeping in the crow’s nest.
Taehyung joined him on the wall. “Off to find Exo then?”
“How are we supposed to earn money if we’re spending all our time breaking curses?” Namjoon grumbled.
“We nearly die almost every time,” Namjoon said.
“We’re not cursed anymore. I’m looking forward to taking risks again.”
“Like trying to make it from one end of the ship to the other along the spars like a monkey? Still not allowed. Use the rigging like you’re supposed to.”
“There’s my captain,” Taehyung said, dropping his head onto Namjoon’s shoulder. “Good man.”
A breeze blew in from the sea, pulling the Golden Dragon against her moorings in the distance. “We’re the crew of the Dragon now,” Taehyung murmured. “It doesn’t feel real.”
“You’re a legend, baby.”
“All I’ve ever wanted.”
The breeze smelled like brine and the wet rocks along the shoreline, afternoon shining brilliantly blue off the water. “I’ll get you a new headscarf,” Namjoon murmured softly.
“You know that’ll be ruined in two days. It’ll be cotton or nothing.”
“How about a silk one for special occasions?”
Namjoon laughed softly and tilted his head onto Taehyung’s shoulder, not caring that the Five Kings were behind him and his crew milling about, peering over the parapets and letting the wind through the trees clean the salt from their lungs. “Special occasions like what?”
“Friday night dances on the deck. Raiding a fancy church. Sucking your dick under candlelight to the sound of a string quartet.”
“Exactly which island do you think you’re the governor of?”
“The Golden Dragon. Joon, we’re gonna be so rich.”
Namjoon gazed off at their ship, smaller and more graceful than the Lucifer, a little more buoyant and gleaming. “It’ll be a while,” he said, pulling the last map piece out of his pocket. “Sounds like we’re not out of the storm yet. Gotta fight the goddamn English navy before we get to settle down.” Eventually Hobi would miss his woman. Jungkook and Yoongi would keep trying to fix each other. Jimin had made a powerful enemy. Seokjin’s best friend might have it out for them. Taehyung had powers. They had a map. They’d lifted their curse and put a target on their backs instead. Namjoon would no longer be able to climb any rigging, trapped to the deck before he hit twenty-five, a piece of his freedom lost for good.
But Taehyung leaned on him. Their beautiful ship lay at anchor in the blue breeze, and the whole sea lay at their feet, free to be sailed. Let the sun rise red. They would weather it.
Yes, there will be a sequel. There are still a ton of loose ends to explore. Thank you for reading!