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There are some stories that are passed on generation to generation, until they're so twisted and turned that the truth becomes something lost, something that disintegrated out of disuse, like a long coat sitting in a dark wardrobe, unused and covered in dust for years, until one day a door opens and light comes through, and at the slightest touch, the jacket crumbles into pieces.

Once upon a time, a mother tells her child, there was a man who was still half a boy, who was a thief.

What did he steal? the boy asks, looking up at her. The mother smiles, cupping her son's cheek to whisper in his ear.

He stole a monster's heart.

Once upon a time, in a small coastal town in Spain, a woman gave birth to a little boy. He opened his eyes, the blue of them brilliant in the dark flickering candlelight of the cottage, and the woman went pale, sheet-white like the curtains fluttering against the window with the sea-breeze.

"No, no, no mi hijo. Dios, no."

And the baby looked at her, those blue eyes wide and knowing, bright as the sky and tumultuous as the ocean splashing waves against the rocky shore. Those blue eyes that the mother knew meant dangerous things, meant a claim from the sea. She would lose her son to a force bigger than she'd ever be able to fight. She pulled him to her chest, and breathed a sigh of relief when he closed his eyes and nursed.

Three years later, she'd be dead, and the little boy would have nothing left of her except the memory of long dark curls and soft, wrinkled fingers.

The first name he remembered having was Juan. With his mother, it had been soft laughter and nenito, ven aqui, que tu ves, ¿con esos ojitos del mar? ¿Que ves? and her gentle hands on his cheek.

"Once upon a time," John Silver says from where he's sitting at the window, ignoring the pain in his nonexistent leg. Captain Flint looks up from his desk, the scratch of his quill ceasing. "There was a boy from an orphanage."

He doesn't remember a name. But in the house for boys, they called him Juan. Little Juan, the nuns would say, as he spit out blood and a tooth, all of five years old. "Oh, Juanito," they'd sigh, hauling him up by the collar of his shirt, dry and starchy against his skin. "What did you do this time?"

Juan was a silent and unsettling little boy, who watched the nuns constantly, tracking them with his sharp eyes.

"Hay algo roto con ese niño," they used to say, and it was true. Juan would not sleep, sitting upright in his little bunk, knees to his chest. He'd stare out at the rain and when lightning flashed, his eyes seemed to glow from deep within, like that of an animal's in the bright light.

John Silver flashes the Captain a hollow grin. "And he went hungry. The hunger was a little like this, in a way. Where you feel something that you lack. And this boy was hungry until he met a priest." John Silver turns to look out the window.

In this time, Juan learned the meaning of the word hunger--the way it clawed at your belly like a howling thing, threatening to devour your insides in an attempt to satiate itself. Juan devoured his lumpy, grey oatmeal hungrily every morning, but still the hunger snarled inside him, pacing like a lion against his rib cage.

There was one day of the week where they received more than one meal--Sundays after mass. Juan liked the church, with its windows that dripped color along the dark brown pews, and the slow, deep lilt of the padre that would lull him to sleep. Padre Tomas liked him, too. A thin man with greying hair and a cheerful voice, he'd slip sweets into the boys' hands when he passed them.

Juan would slip it into his mouth and suck on it slowly, eyes sliding shut to savor the passion fruit and sugary stickiness bursting along his tongue.

"Did you like it?" Padre Tomas asked one day, smiling kindly at Juan. Juan blinked and looked around. "Yes," he said. "You." His eyes were dark and indulgent, and lingered on Juan's mouth.

"Is this story about you?" Flint asks, voice flatly interested.

John Silver's lips quirk. "Does it matter?"

"Yes, Padre," he said, clumsily working his voice around the harsh consonants of English. He hummed, a contemplative sound deep in his throat, and nods, squeezing Juan's shoulder as he passed by, thumb brushing along the back of his neck. Like a burn, the touch lingered for hours.

Once upon a time, a priest touched a boy. The boy, who had not known a kind touch in years, felt something besides that hunger inside him. Felt a flush along his neck and a heat along his veins, like a fever. The boy, who had not known a soft touch in years, did not know that this touch was not kind either. That soft touches are sometimes worse than beatings.

For years, he still wakes with the taste of salt and chalk on his tongue.

They say that men are created during war, that they are broken or pushed forward by what they see and do. But the truth is that men are created during the times they have nothing. They are created on the dark alley streets with tattered blankets on the ground, in the corners of orphanages, wasting away.

They are created smuggled in a fish barrel, smelling like rotted flesh and putrid corpses, and the shivering that goes down to the bones.

"Once upon a time, there was a ship," John Silver says to the men, voice low and rhythmic like the roll of the sea that gently rocks his hammock. Muldoon squints at him and Billy looks up. "On this ship there was a stowaway."

This is how Juan became Little. This is how Little learned the sea.

"There's a kid in here!" someone yelled, and Juan who was not yet Little winced at the sunlight, curling his small body away. A hand reached down to grip his collar and--and hot breath along his face and rough palms against the back of his neck, gripping, pulling--

"Let go of me!" he yelled, kicking out with a force that knocked the whole barrel over, spilling fish and guts and himself onto the deck.

"You little--"

"Enough," another voice said, and he peeked out from under his eyelashes. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a weather-lined face pushed through and knelt next to him. He had kind eyes. Juan had learned not to trust kind eyes.

"I'm Captain Martin. How old are you, kid?"

Juan was quiet. The Captain sighed.

"You want to go to London?" he asked.

"Away," Juan said, voice hoarse. "Away."

"What was he running from?" Billy asks, eyes faraway.

John Silver smiles, eyebrow arching. "What any young boy runs from. His past."

Captain Martin watched him for a long moment and nodded. "Well, you could be a good rigger," he said. "Tell you what--you help us out and I'll get you across the pond. How's that? ¿Comprende?"

Juan nodded eagerly. "Si--yes."

"Really? You're just gonna take that little stowaway?" The quartermaster asked.

"What else can we do? Throw him overboard?" The Captain's voice was hard and the man shrank back. "Give him some of Pete's old clothes."

The man sneered and jerked his head. "Fine. Little, follow me."

And so, Little was born.

Once upon a time, a boy learned to sail. And by learning to sail, he grew to know the sea. And the sea grew to know him, waves playing against the side of the hull, splashing against the deck. The spray of water on his cheeks like the gentlest kiss.

The boy grew strong and lean in this time, skin golden against the sun's rays. Later, the boy would think about this time as the happiest moments of his youth--when all he had to worry about were the clouds in the sky and the way the wind blew.

Something inside the boy wilted when they arrived in London, foggy and grey, his eyes the only color in the whole city. Something inside him cracked as he slipped through the thong of people, disappearing into the mist.

It went something like this--people can be whoever they want to be in cities, but for a slender boy with long curly hair and blue eyes, there were few options.

The first time he went down onto his knees he was, he thinks, perhaps fourteen years old. Afterwards, his jaw ached and he couldn't get the salty taste out of his mouth.

When he had been in London for a year, he met a boy, filthy and blonde and nearly half frozen to death. He was young, like he'd been in the home for boys, with the--priest. He wrapped him in his only blanket and pulled him into a corner, rubbing his shoulders to bring him warmth. The boy blinked up at him, shuddering.

"Hello," he said softly. The boy blinked. "What's your name?"

"Solomon," the boy replied.

"There was a boy named Solomon Little at the orphanage," John Silver tells the Captain as they sit on the beach, staring at the man o' war. It's a lie. Flint grunts, quirking an eyebrow. "He taught me the power of the right story." That's a truth.

"Hello, Solomon. Would you like to hear a story?"

The boy curled up and nodded, still shivering.

"Once upon a time," he started, voice low and soothing. "There was a prince. And, see, the thing about princes is that they're a bit stupid, aren't they?"

Solomon laughed, which then turned into a hacking cough. He pretended not to notice the blood on the corner of his mouth.

"The prince met a girl," he murmured. "He'd snuck away from his guards to run through the village and met a girl by the river. She had red hair and green eyes and the first thing she told him was--'Who the fuck are you?'"

Solomon pressed his face against the blanket, eyes crinkling with a smile. His breathing became more labored, shaky and slow.

"Of course, the prince loved her already. And when he was old enough, he went to ask her for her hand in marriage. She said no."

"Why?" Solomon asked, voice slow and slurred. He swallowed.

"Because she wanted him to prove his worth. She gave the prince two tasks. 'First,' she said, 'You must find the most beautiful gold thread in the kingdom. It is made in the cabin at the top of the world, nearest to the sun.' And so the prince climbed the tallest mountain, went through the deepest forests and the thundering storms, and found a woman there, with the most golden hair he'd ever seen.

"'Hello,' she called to him. 'My cat is stuck in that tree and my bones are too old to retrieve it. Can you help me?' The prince, who was as good-hearted as he was handsome, acquiesced."

"What's that mean?" Solomon asked. His eyes could barely stay open, and he could feel the rabbit-soft fluttering of his pulse.

"It means, he agreed to do what she said. In exchange, he received a single strand of her golden hair, for there was nothing as close to the sun as that. When he went back to the girl, she granted him a smile."

Solomon's breathing became weaker and the boy leaned forward, whispering into his ear as Solomon took his last breaths. "The girl told the prince, 'Your second task is this--bring me a sliver a moonlight, for I would like to feel its kiss.'"

Just then, the moon broke out of the clouds in the London sky, and Solomon let out his last little sigh, just as the light touched his cheeks, casting his skin an unearthly glow. The boy cradled him close, running his hands through his hair. "And the prince did, Solomon," he said softly, brushing a kiss to his forehead. "And the moon loved them both."

"I saw a pirate hung once, when I was a sailor on a merchant crew," John Silver tells the crew, voice loud and clear. "His name was Solomon Little, and he was the first man I ever saw dead."

Once upon a time, there was a trickster. He had black hair that tumbled down in curls, and blue, guileless eyes. His teeth were straight and white and when he grinned you were blinded. He had a clever mouth and he called himself by many names.

He made his home in dirty streets and shadows, charmed his way, silver-tongued, into rich women's beds. He did not like to be touched. In a woman's home, there would be a girlish giggle into his ear and soft hands down his chest, and he instead thought of rough fingers twisted in his hair, the ground hard and unforgiving on his knees. An aching jaw and liquid pricking the corner of his eyes.

"There was once a thief," John Silver tells Captain James Flint, gazing at him in the light of the fire, at the way his eyes looked luminously green against the flames. "And he never got caught." Flint watches him, the shadow of sadness still lingering in his eyes. "Except once."

He was good between a women's legs, and that was usually enough to distract them from the way his teeth bared when they curled their fingers in his hair, moved him closer between their bodies. A pretty thing to be used until they fell asleep, sated and breathing softly.

And he'd tiptoe out of the bed, eyes catching the gold and silver adorning their mantels, in their drawers, fingers quick and silent, lips quirked.

Once--"What the hell are you doing? Who are you?"

A flash of big blue eyes and a beguiling smile. "Ah--John. A friend of your wife's," he said, slipping the silver fork into his bag behind his back. "She invited me to stay the night after a few drinks--you know how it goes, I'm sure."

The man--her husband, fuck, took a threatening step forward and he licked his lips, pressing himself against the wall. "Give me one good reason I shouldn't call the authorities right now," he said, voice low, bracketing John's head. John swallowed, tipping his head back just a bit, and the man's eyes dropped to his throat. Something deep inside him smiled.

"Well," he said, spreading his legs a little, smirking when the man subconsciously leans forward, his eyes dropping to his mouth. "I'm sure we can figure something out."

"And how did he get out of it?" Flint asks, voice low and heavy.

John Silver smiles faintly, eyes dropping to Flint's mouth. He can hear the hitch of Flint's breath. "Use your imagination, Captain."

Later, with his hands around his bag, he vomited until he could taste nothing except his own bile, body shaking.

Once upon a time there was a boy, and he fancied himself a trickster, but he was fooling nobody but himself.

Here's the thing about being a starving child--it's so easy to then be a starving adult. Even John, with his ever-shifting eyes and smile like a scythe, and mercurial, always-changing personality, could not survive on words alone. He stole and talked and stole and talked again, but one day, he would always be caught--one day he would always be thrown into a dark cellar with cold walls and a hard floor, and left to rot.

"Once upon a time," Long John Silver tells a young Jim Hawkins sitting at his feet. "I was caught stealing a pearl necklace. She was the daughter of a lord, you see, and I was a foolish boy. They threw me into a cell with thirteen men all older than me, with the lean look of men starved."

And it was here, he became reacquainted with the hunger he knew as a youth. The deep gaping maw of it, the way it seeped into your very bones. Staring at the fine bones on his wrist, how visibly they were showing against his skin.

"Do you know what human flesh tastes like, young Jim?" Long John Silver asks, and Jim, eyes huge, shakes his head. He bares his teeth in something that would be a smile on a different man, all bright white teeth and gleaming bone. "It doesn't taste much different than a rat when you're hungry," he says.

The men had a feral look to them, and two of them turned to gaze at John with deadened eyes, and one leaned over and sniffed him, deep, hungry intakes of air. John scrambled backwards and hit the wall, breathing hard.

"Lots of meat still on this one, Jones," the man said, leering at him with rotted teeth.

"You know the rules, Davis. Only the ones who won't live."

John spent long enough in the cell that his body wasted, skin sallow and pale and ribs sticking out gruesomely. He watched and stayed quiet, the guards who come in and throw them one pot of gruel for fourteen men (or thirteen, twelve, ten...). His fingers curled against the iron, head leaning against the wall. And he watched, and waited, and planned.

"Did you eat any?" Jim asks, leaning forward.

Long John Silver just hums. "The smell is not something you forget. Like a parody of pork."

"How did you get out?"

He laughs, a dark, humorless noise. "Oh, young Jim. That was easy. I made friends with a guard, a young thing, with big hands and strong shoulders. He was new." Long John Silver smiles that shark's smile again. "I took his key, my fingers so thin then he couldn't even feel it, and let the men loose on him."

John ran, nearly slipping on congealed blood, but the squelching sound of ripping flesh and sharp chewing, the desperate grunts and the gurgle of blood in a throat--those noises followed him long after he was gone.

Once upon a time, a man who was half a boy nearly starved. He didn't speak for a year, hearing the tear of flesh in his waking hours and his dreams. He lived like a rat, in the gutters and alleys, garbage and filth. He slept in a small wooden church near a less busy road, until one day someone shook him awake.

"Tell me a story, John Silver," Madi says, running her fingers through the curls of his hair.

Silver smiles, his head in her lap, and keeps his eyes closed. "There was once a boy who became a priest. He had no real love for God, but he had a knack for speeches and sermons. He had a knack for making people listen."

John startled awake, banging his head against the pew and wincing as he blinked up into the kind brown eyes of a pastor. Immediately, he was wary, and it had been years, but nothing could dim the memory of a smirking mouth and a hand against the back of his head, forcing him closer.

"You've a fever," the pastor said, and John shuddered, feeling cold and hot all at once, his teeth chattering. The last thing he saw before the darkness closed in on him was a hand reaching out.

"The priest was a poor orphaned boy himself, so he took in children in need, ran himself an unofficial house until the children could find something better. One day, he found a little girl sleeping under a pew. Like all the others, he took her in, but she left a week later in the middle of the night, and when he woke up, he noticed that the pearled rosaries were all gone." Silver shifts his head into a more comfortable position in Madi's lap, and sighs.

When John woke next, he was under three warm blankets and next to a crackling fire. He coughed, a rattling thing that shook his bones, and a steaming mug of tea appeared at his eye level.

"Drink," the pastor said, and he did, too weak to do much else, even if his skin crawled when the man touched the back of his head to keep it level so the drink wouldn't spill. His eyes slid shut again, and he welcomed the darkness again.

John dreamed of fire, crawling up his legs and swallowing his fingers and toes. He dreamed of the searing heat crawling up his throat and he choked on smoke and ash, trying to scream. He dreamed he was trapped, chained against a wall in a dark, cold cell, muscles aching and tender and wrists bleeding. A dark, wolf-like creature snarled at him, with fangs gleaming against the moon, and he screamed as it began to gnaw at his leg, the pain shocking his system.

When he woke again, he felt sweaty and cold, trembling.

"The fever has broken," the pastor said, and John sat up, wiping a shaking hand on his brow. He flinched when the pastor stretched his hand out and then froze, breath shallow.

"I was just going to take the mug," he said softly and John forced himself to relax.

The pastor was genuinely kind, which confused him to no end. He would wait, constantly, for the eyes to turn dark and predatory, for his hands to fist in his hair. He was much older now, but he was still slight and pretty, with wide blue eyes and tumbling curls. He knew what he looked like. The tension ratcheted up inside him until he couldn't stand it, a low buzz that began in his lower back that spread upward, threatening to choke him. He spent two weeks with the pastor, and in the dark of night, slipped out of bed and grabbed the two golden candlesticks on the altar.

"Stealing from the House of the Lord?" a voice said, and he froze, a fine shiver ratcheting up his spine.

"I--" He looked at the pastor with wild eyes and he smiled, sad.

"It's not stealing if I give them to you," he said, soft. "Go. Be safe. May the Lord be with you." John hesitated, then dipped his head in an aborted nod, heart pounding, and sped off.

"John, are we talking about you?" Madi asks softly.

Silver snorts, burying his face against her stomach. "I hate priests," he says, muffled.

There was once a thief who talked his way onto a merchant ship, bright-eyed and willing and strong. He wanted to leave a terrible city and worse memories behind. Little did he know that this ship would have the schedule that would lead to his fate, that would lead him to a life that would define him. That would lead him to the name John Silver.

"Now, John Silver, I have a story for you," Max says, in the darkness of the room, eyes gleaming and clever.

John Silver looks at her with interest.

"Once upon a time, there was a boy who was watching his sheep on a peaceful slow day. He ran across the field and shouted 'Wolf, wolf!' and all of the villagers came to help, only to realize they'd been tricked." She looks at him, unflinching, twisting her hair into a plait. "He did it twice more, thought it was great fun to entice the townspeople out to see him."

The part inside him that was still Little remembered the sea, and the sea recognized him now too, and he smiled when the water splattered the deck and kissed his cheeks in greeting.

"Hello," he said softly, lips quirking. "No offense, but I never wanted to be back here again." The waves rocked against the ship like they were speaking to him and John shook his head, staring out at the broad expanse of horizon, endless and terrible and free.

Max leans forward, hair falling in front of her eyes. "But then, one day, a wolf did come, snarling and angry, and the boy ran to the village and cried, 'Wolf, wolf!' and not one villager came out to help. All his sheep were eaten, snatched up in front of his eyes." She pats John Silver's chest with the tip of her nail and he swallows. "All because he cried wolf too many times."

"Is this a threat?" John Silver asks, quiet.

"It is a warning," says Max, sliding into her slip and walking away without a backwards glance.

It was hard to forget the first sight of green you see in months. A man with hair like flame and eyes like the shiniest emeralds he'd ever stolen, strode his way along the bridge, hips and legs and muscles moving to push him at the same pace that the wolf prowled in his fever-dreams, those gleaming white teeth ready to swallow him whole. The paper in his jacket burnt a hole in his skin, and he felt that if he looked, it would leave a scorched mark.

"Once upon a time," Long John Silver says softly, leaning his head against the wall. Flint lifts his head, eyes deadened, wrists flexing in the shackles. Silver watches blood run down Flint's wrist to his fingers, and drip down to the floor. "There was a thief who became a pirate. Everything he had he stole, everything he gained was fake, placed upon him like the crown he never asked for."

Flint shifts, the chains moving along the floor in a slow rattle, like a cough Silver had felt long ago.

And then those eyes met his, and his belly swooped, his heart stuttering, a gasp catching tangled and dying in his throat. He turned. And jumped.

"But the one thing he wanted, he never sought to steal, never was brave enough to ask for." He leans forward, dipping his head to meet Flint's eyes. "You see, what he wanted was a heart." Flint's eyes flare, a small spark turning them effervescent green, like the leaves on Skeleton Island, like the acid feeling in his stomach. "But his heart was already taken," Long John Silver says. "And it was the one thing the thief could not steal."

"You asked me once about my past," John Silver says, leaning on his crutch as he stares out at the view.

"I did," Flint says, a solid, tangible thing next to him. Silver can feel the heat from his body against his own.

"I have told you things, Captain," he says. "All you have to do is untangle the story. Unspool the thread and Long John Silver will be no more."

Flint looks at him, eyes warm and bright and unbearable. Like the fiercest of blazing suns against his skin. "Are you now giving me the tools to unmake you?" he asks.

Silver smiles, catches his eyes and feels that heavy heated line of connection, the band that links them together growing taut. Soon, it will either snap back, or shatter. "Perhaps I am, Captain. If you care to look."

Once upon a time, there was a boy, who became a thief, who became a pirate king. He loved a man who became a monster, who became a tyrant. Who became just a man again, when the thief who stole his heart opened his bloody hands and let it go. His story goes on, they say, if you only know how to listen.