Like that of many second sons, Mycroft's education had been broad and extensive. He had studied languages and mathematics alongside dancing, hunting and fencing. He had always liked the clear rules of fencing, the subtle strike of wrist to score a point.
He wished he was standing at the studio now, surrounded by peers if not friends, waiting for the signal to start the match.
Instead, he's barricaded within his quarters, sweaty hand grasping an unfamiliar sword, and listening to the sounds of fighting above deck.
The cannons have stopped now that the pirates have boarded the Voracitas. The booming roar of shots is silent, but the ship is overflowing with the noise of battle. Heavy footfalls running over the deck, the sharp clank of swords meeting, the occasional loud sound of a pistol. There are shouts and groans, human noises of anger and pain. If Mycroft listens carefully there are heavier thumps as well, splashes as weights go overboard.
He grips the sword tighter and eyes the bolted door. It's solid wood, heavy and well made. It will take the pirates some time to force it open. There is an open window behind him, but he cannot swim the open sea. He can only wait and hope the crew is victorious.
Above him, the sounds continue for an unbearable length of time. The battle takes so long to quiet that Mycroft is sure the Voracitas has been defeated. The pirates would have turned tail and run if the fight went against them.
Mycroft eyes the sword in his lap. It had belonged to one of the midshipmen, had fallen from his lax fingers after the first round of cannon fire. Mycroft had looked around at the chaos, had watched disciplined seafaring men run to ready the ship for an attack, and had decided he would only be in the way. So he took the sword and hid in his quarters.
Now he doesn't know if he'll have the courage to fight when they do find him. If he'll stand frozen in fear, waiting for his throat to be cut like a slaughtered lamb. If it would be better to climb out the window, to swim until he drowns of exposure and exhaustion.
He's saved from making a choice by a knock on his door. It's so unexpected that he calls back, "Mycroft Holmes," out of habit.
"Open up the door," says a rough voice, "and we'll take you to see the captain. If you're lucky, you'll fetch a ransom worth claiming."
It's a sudden hope, dashed just as quickly. Mycroft knows that Sherrinford won't pay a penny for him. He could bluff and pretend that his brother cares, and it might allow him enough time to escape to shore, but the money would never come. It's possible that Magnussen would pay a ransom for him, but Mycroft can't be sure.
He doesn't need to be sure, Mycroft realises. He only needs to be convincing.
"Very well," he says, placing the sword down and stepping over to the door. "The captain will need to contact my future husband."
Mycroft finds himself escorted by two burly boatswains, up to the deck and across a narrow plank to the pirate's ship. He has always been a fast learner but there's almost too much to notice it all. The sea breeze is starting to cut through the smell of gunpowder in the air. There are pirates already swabbing the decks of the Voracitas, throwing buckets of sea water across the wood to wash away the pools of blood. At the far end, there's a small crowd gathered, and a pile of bodies. Mycroft spots a Bible in one man's hand. Sea burials, then. In the pile of bodies, he spots the captain's jacket, the rank on his shoulder. There are another two officers in the pile, possibly the second and third lieutenants, but the rest seem to be sailors.
When he passes the railing, there's a fresh nick in the wood, a sword blade caught from a wide swing and quickly pulled back. There are ropes askew from men stumbling against them and reaching out to steady their balance.
Mycroft tries not to focus on the signs of violence and looks at the men they pass instead. The pirates are dressed like their own sailors: practical trousers and shirts, dirty and worn from hard work. Here, there's a man too fond of rum and there, one who favours his right side due to stiffness in his left knee. A few of the faces they pass are familiar, their own sailors already turned pirate.
When he steps aboard the Lydia, it's much the same. Fewer signs of fighting and bloodshed, but it's still a working ship, rigging tied tight and men busying about, adjusting sails and ensuring everything is put in its proper place. It is reassuring to know that pirates may be thieves and killers, but a ship is still a ship. There is order and method.
Mycroft is led below deck and he blinks at the sudden gloom. He almost loses his footing on the stairs, but there's suddenly hands tight around each of his arms, pulling him upright. He had wondered what would happen if he ran; there is his answer.
He's led inside a room and told to wait there. They don't bother to lock the door as they leave; that fact alone reminds him how powerless he is in this moment.
The room contains a dining table and chairs for eight. The marks on the table show it's been used for raucous meals, occasions where wine was spilled and the surface scratched with a fork. There are also fine, slight etchings, the edge of a coastline copied from a map.
Mycroft assumes it's a wardroom until he notices the dark blue curtain drawn across the far end of the small room. He steps towards it carefully and draws it back to find a wooden bed built into the ships' curved wall. There are large drawers beneath it, practical for storing clothes, Mycroft finds himself thinking as he lets the curtain fall back into place.
He takes a seat at the table and thinks. He's not a foolish child. He doesn't believe every terrible tale of evil pirates, their debauchery and vicious cruelty. They may be killers, but that is a matter of circumstance and necessity. There isn't a sailor in the navy who hasn't had to face battle, who hasn't dealt with the possibility of having to kill to protect King and country.
Still, he has been led to the captain's quarters. He is now waiting beside the captain's bed, and Mycroft can't entirely quell the fear low in his belly. He distracts himself with thoughts of home.
Not Sherrinford, because his elder brother would shed no tears for Mycroft's unfortunate demise. He would consider it a simplification of his concerns, a solution both easy and concise. No, Mycroft thinks of his younger brother, Sherlock, who is barely sixteen and already so impatient with the world. He will miss Sherlock's sharp mind and impudent questions; he will miss Sherlock's grand declarations of boredom or brilliance. Sherlock is curious about every subject, whether or not that subject should be of interest to a gentleman.
Sherlock is what he will miss most about leaving England. There are many parts of his previous life that he wishes he had not left behind, but Sherlock was the only part he considered taking with him. Mycroft decided against it because Sherlock is still at school, and seems content enough there. He is disorganised and unmotivated, but curiosity and pride keeps him attending classes and successfully passing any test he's set. Sherlock has no interest in government or in worldly possessions. He takes no interest in the family finances or the daily running of Musgrave Hall. He is young and wants the freedom to pursue whatever information catches his fancy.
In other words, Sherlock is no threat to Sherrinford and therefore, will be safe enough where he is. Certainly, he would be safer there than a long journey to the colonies. Or aboard a pirate ship, Mycroft thinks as the door creaks open.
The man who steps inside is confident and wears his authority easily. Clearly, this is the captain. Mycroft looks at him keenly, searching for any insight into the man. His dark eyes are clear and intelligent, not a man who overindulges in rum. His skin is dark with the sun, many hours spent out on deck, and sometimes wearing little more than a shirt. His hair is dark but starting to grey at the temples and at his crown, but there are no lines around his mouth, suggesting he's younger than he seems. Older than Mycroft, yes, but still young for command.
His shirt collar is open, and he wears nothing around his neck. He didn't grow up with formality, a labourer's son or a farmer's. His coat is well made but the colour has faded from the sun, the cuffs are showing wear. There are tell-tale calluses on his hands, a smear of ink on one wrist, the weight of a sextant in his pocket. If Mycroft saw this man in the street, he'd assume he was a merchant sailor -- too informal to be navy but clearly a man who spends his time giving orders at sea. It gives Mycroft hope that the man will be reasonable.
"I am Mycroft Holmes," he says as the captain closes the door behind him and walks over to the table. "I understand you plan to ransom me."
At heart, it is a negotiation. No more difficult than arranging stores to be delivered to Musgrave Hall. There is a price suggested by Mycroft and agreed by the captain, a prize worth the pirate's time but still less than half the sum Magnussen gave Sherrinford. Timeframes are discussed and then terms of delivery.
As long as Mycroft ignores that the chattel, in this case, is his own person, he can almost enjoy it. He is good at these conversations, at finding the right level of compromise for all parties so everyone is advantaged. Despite the captain's common accent, he is an intelligent man, able to see the benefits in the situation without Mycroft needing to explain them.
The entire thing is civilised and pleasant until they reach the topic of sleeping quarters. Then, the captain refuses to compromise.
"We're not a big ship. We don't have quarters for travellers."
Mycroft has spent the better part of the last three weeks in tiny quarters with a door that locked. He has no intention of sacrificing that small amount of privacy. "There must be spare quarters. Half your crew is manning the Voracitas to sell her."
"And while they're gone, we'll elect new men to their positions, and those men will have earned their own quarters." The captain shakes his head, leaning back into his chair. He slouches terribly. Mycroft's tutors would have struck him for less. "You'll bunk with the men."
"I will not," Mycroft insists. "My own quarters will be provided."
"Those quarters belong to men performing valuable roles on this ship. I won't undermine their respect by assigning quarters to someone who isn't even a member of the crew."
The captain is determined. Worse, he is calm and refuses to concede the point in any way. Mycroft has no choice but to be utterly plain.
"The ransom will only be paid if I am delivered unharmed," Mycroft says calmly, folding his hands across the table. "My future husband will not pay for damaged goods."
The captain should be clever enough to understand the implications. Mycroft had realised early in his journey that a paying traveller was an outsider, and vulnerable amongst crowds of rough sailors. It had taken one stroll below deck to notice the hungry glances, to overhear scandalous suggestions about the softness of his hands and the softness of his skin. He had quickly realised that it was best to stay in his cabin or walk beside an officer on deck.
The captain frowns in confusion. The frown deepens when he understands. "You're safe aboard my ship. You won't be harmed."
"And I should take your word for it?"
"Yes, you should," the captain says, sitting up straight and eyeing Mycroft closely.
"You seem very willing to risk the ransom money." Mycroft rubs his fingers across his forehead, hoping to stave off the headache he can feel building. He has never been the brave, brawny sort; he has no illusions about his ability to defend himself. He will not manage months at sea if he can't sleep for worrying about an attack. There must be a compromise. "What about the galley? The storerooms or the powder kegs? There must be some space that can be bolted safely, without any of your crew losing their beds."
The captain watches him carefully and for a moment, Mycroft thinks he will agree. Then he says, "You're safe on my ship. You could sleep with the men without harm coming to you."
Mycroft pinches the bridge of his nose. He really has no choice but to accept the terms. He will simply have to find an alternative source of safety. Perhaps he could find somewhere to hide below deck or sleep during daylight on deck, find somewhere too exposed to be truly dangerous. He is resourceful.
"I won't assign you crew quarters," the captain says as if there was still some doubt on that topic, "but you can stay in my quarters. If you trust that my word will keep you safe here?"
The captain is too level-headed to do something impetuous. He is too aware of the possibility of ransom money to risk it for a moment's satisfaction. "Acceptable."
The captain runs a hand through his thick hair, pulling a few strands loose from its tie. "If we're sharing a bed, you should at least know my Christian name. Gregory."
"I can hardly call you Captain Gregory," Mycroft replies.
"Captain Gregory Lestrade," the captain says, holding out a hand to shake.
Travelling upon the Lydia is much like travelling on the Voracitas. Instead of eating at the wardroom table, Mycroft eats at the captain's table.
The captain spends most of his time on deck or with his crew, but Mycroft is no more solitary than he was before. He spends the days inside the cabin, reading the books from his luggage and makes sure to thank the captain for bringing his trunk aboard. The most significant difference is that his room now has a window, so he doesn't have to read by lamplight and he can open it to hear the waves crash against the ship and smell the fresh sea air.
The only time he really sees the captain is at night, when they each shuck off their outer layers in silence, their backs turned to each other, and then climb into bed. The bed is large enough that they can both sleep in it without touching, and the captain keeps his word. There is no flirtation, no risqué advances. He simply rolls over and falls fast asleep each night.
Sharing a bed with a warm, snoring body makes Mycroft remember his childhood. Back when he had been ten or twelve, and Sherlock had been young enough to be scared by nightmares, his brother had sometimes spent the night in his bed. He refused to be held, refused to be coddled, but Mycroft never had the heart to tell him to go to his own room.
It makes him painfully homesick, a sharp ache caught behind his ribs. It's entirely foolish to long for something that has already passed, but nights are when his breath catches and the world feels overwhelmingly large.
The fourth day, the captain returns to his quarters in the early afternoon. Mycroft's used to him by lamplight, a presence to be politely ignored where possible. He keeps his eyes down, a flimsy pretence, until a shadow falls over his shoulder.
When he looks up from his book, the captain's smile is too bright to belong in this small, closed space. "Good afternoon, Captain Lestrade," Mycroft says warily.
"Mr Holmes," the captain acknowledges with a nod. "Say, a little lord like you, you'd know your numbers?"
"I'm not a lord," Mycroft replies. He would not be here if he were the first-born son.
"But there's a lord in your family, right?" Lestrade asks and then waits, forcing Mycroft to reply.
"My older brother," Mycroft admits begrudgingly. "But my point stands. I have no title."
"And you know your numbers and figures?"
"Well enough," Mycroft says, being humble if not honest. He's found there is no point in being honest about what he can do; too many people assume it's baseless bragging.
"Good, because I have supplies that need to be counted and you have an excess of free time."
Mycroft eyes the captain warily. He seems pleased and relieved, no sign of guilt or spite in his expression. As far as the captain knows, this isn't a task that will place Mycroft in danger. Still, Mycroft stalls. "Don't you have a quartermaster for that?"
Lestrade looks surprised. Maybe he didn't expect Mycroft to have any knowledge of how a ship should run. In theory, Mycroft understands it very well. "We do, but he was injured when we boarded. Leg should heal fine if he wakes up but right now, we need to know what supplies we have."
"Very well," Mycroft says. It's not as if he has a choice. At least the captain walks with him to the storeroom and hands him the key.
Before Mycroft's unfortunate engagement, before Sherrinford decided that the best place for Mycroft was somewhere far away from Musgrave Hall, he spent most of his days in London. Unlike Sherrinford, he had never seen the appeal of parlours and games of cards. He had instead found employment within the Admiralty Board. Sherrinford would have preferred he joined the Navy – had offered to use his influence to ensure fast promotion – but Mycroft had preferred his small desk and orderly figures, his lists of provisions and ordnance, his fastidiously filed charts and records.
The ship's storeroom is very little like his office. It's dark and cramped in the hold, casks swinging gently with the movement of the waves. There are shelves stacked to their limits, only roughly organized by type of provision. The first thing Mycroft finds is paper and ink, and then he starts tallying.
As much as he dislikes the entire concept of manual labour, there's no other way to order the supplies than move and sort them. Thankfully he finds a piece of chalk at the back of a shelf and has a way to mark the boxes as he counts.
The end of the day finds him still in the storeroom, quill scratching figures, when there's a knock at the door. Mycroft locked it behind him and he doesn't stand to open it until he hears the captain call out, "Mr Holmes?"
Mycroft gathers his pages and his lamp, and then opens the door.
"What's that?" Lestrade asks, eyeing the pages in his hands.
"Provision list," Mycroft replies.
A fleeting frown crosses the captain’s handsome face, but it quickly smooths to a polite smile. "Come eat before our meals get cold."
It's the first time the captain's shared a meal with him. The pair of them sit at a table better suited to eight, steadily eating in silence. Mycroft keeps his gaze firmly on his plate but from the corner of his eye, he sees how often Lestrade looks over at him, watching his hands or his plate.
The captain eats quickly, shovelling food into his mouth. When he's finished, he holds his glass of wine in one hand and stares at Mycroft.
Mycroft feels himself sitting straighter, his elbows tucking in closer to his sides. He might as well be a child at the dining table, his nanny perched over his shoulder and ready to punish him for a lapse in manners.
"There is a pirate code," Lestrade says as if he's been pondering it. "Every man on this ship has agreed to it. Fighting on board is a punishable crime."
Only if the man is caught, Mycroft thinks, but doesn't say it. He swallows and says, "Does it apply to every member of the crew?"
The captain nods. "Yes."
"Does your code offer any rules regarding how a captive may be treated?"
Lestrade frowns into his wine glass. "No." He takes a swallow and then adds, "You didn't need to lock the storeroom. You are safe on this ship."
At best, Mycroft thinks, he is as safe as any other piece of livestock or bounty, safe as long as he fetches a reasonable price. If the crew recognise him as valuable livestock. "As you said before."
"And you still don't believe me." The captain doesn't sound offended by it. If anything, he sounds curious. "Why not?"
"I saw enough on the Voracitas."
"What did you see?"
Mycroft considers keeping his own counsel. He can't imagine any good will come from sharing his suspicions. But the captain waits, lets him finish his meal in silence and keeps watching Mycroft, waiting for an answer.
"I didn't witness anything specific," Mycroft says. "But I saw signs that things happened while the officers weren't looking, and much of it was unwilling."
The captain sighs. "It's known to happen," he says, as if such an attack is like weevils, an unfortunate part of life on the sea. "You take a man to sea for months and then make pleasure a hanging offence, and it twists the act into something cruel."
It's a double-standard that a man in the London Admiralty could marry whom he pleases, but fornication within the sailing ranks is considered disloyal and treasonous. But laws are not based on what is fair for all. Mycroft long ago accepted that those in power have the legal means to keep all advantages to themselves. "And what would your pirate code say? Would it merely be ten lashes instead of the noose?"
"Nothing if it was done willingly. We live our lives at sea. I wouldn't punish my men for finding affection and pleasure where they could."
Mycroft watches the captain, but there's no sign of duplicity. His brown eyes are warm in the lamplight and the set of his mouth seems earnest.
"If it was unwilling," Lestrade says and something dangerously sharp flashes in his eyes, "it's an attack like any other. The punishment would be the same for beating another man on board: marooning or death."
It's very tempting to believe him. Mycroft doesn't know if he should. "I'm going to get ready for bed," he says, standing up.
"Then I'll take my leave. I need to see to a few things on deck."
Mycroft sleeps closest to the ship's wall since the captain always rises first. In the morning, he wakes up to find the storeroom key left on the table with a breakfast of ship's biscuits, cheddar cheese and a crisp green apple. Mycroft's pages have been left spread across the wooden surface, clearly studied by the captain while Mycroft slept.
Mycroft takes it as implicit permission to continue his stocktaking. Once he's dressed and eaten, he pockets the key and exits the captain's quarters. Carrying his pages in one hand, he keeps his other hand in his pocket, fingers wrapped tightly around the metal key. Of necessity in the confined space, he hunches his shoulders low as he walks across the hold. He doesn't scurry or rush; he doesn't want to draw any undue attention. Instead, he mimics the pace of the men around him: walking purposely but not hurriedly.
He is alone when he opens the storeroom door. He locks it quickly behind him.
Inside, the room is as he left it: one wall of shelves neatly organised and methodically stacked and the other is a work in progress. As menial as this may be, he appreciates having a task to complete.
For the last three weeks, he has sat in a cabin on the Voracitas, trying to distract himself with foreign dictionaries and books in foreign tongues. He has read scientific journals and farming almanacs, anything that would be useful to the spouse of a plantation owner or that might catch Sherlock's interest. He has composed letters to Sherlock in Spanish and Arabic, Latin and Greek. He has sat alone, a safe prisoner of his fate, and tried to ignore the life waiting for him with limited success.
Mycroft could do the same aboard the Lydia. He could sit trapped with his thoughts. He much prefers to be busy.
At the end of the day, the captain again visits him in the storeroom. This time, he doesn't knock but unlocks the door. Mycroft feels like a fool for not realising there were other copies of the key.
The captain closes the door behind him. He doesn't lock it. He looks around the storeroom slowly, from the organised shelves to the cleanly swept floor. The last piece of disorganisation is the casks hanging by the hull, oil and water barrels suspended with salted beef and salted pork, but Mycroft couldn't find a way to move those on his own. "You've been industrious," Lestrade says, walking to one of the shelves to peer closer.
Mycroft is dusty and sweaty. His hands feel sore from the rough surfaces of hessian bags and wooden crates. His shoulders ache from moving weights and the constant stooping if he tries to stand beneath the low ceiling. But he hasn't thought of Sherlock, Sherrinford or Magnussen for hours and his soul feels lighter for the reprieve. "I have the final count. If you could provide the number of crew, I could tally how long it will last."
Lestrade's eyes narrow, watching him. "Eat with me first."
Over dinner, Lestrade picks at his food, toying with the beef on his plate. It's more tender than anything served on the Voracitas, barely any hint of brine. "Tell me about yourself, Mr Holmes."
It's said casually but it's clearly an order. "I'm the second son of landed gentry."
The captain swirls the dark wine in his glass. "And?"
If the captain understood such matters, he would realise that is the most important aspect of Mycroft's life. Wealthy enough to suffer social expectations, but without any true means of his own. He considers what else might be relevant. "And I'm travelling to the colonies to marry."
"What's he like?" Lestrade asks unexpectedly. "Your future husband?"
"I only know him by reputation," Mycroft says politely, wary of saying too much. He wishes he had Sherrinford's ability to lie convincingly, to be all affection and friendly concern while arranging someone's scandalous downfall. Mycroft has never mastered the art of conveying an emotion he does not feel.
He remembers Sherrinford's taunting smirk. Perhaps it is truer to say that Mycroft has never mastered the art of conveying emotions, whether he feels them or not.
"You've never met? Exchanged letters?" Lestrade asks and Mycroft shakes his head, busying himself with the task of eating. "Was it arranged by your parents?"
"By my older brother." Mycroft does his best to keep his face blank, to let nothing show in his tone.
"So no parents. Do you have any other family?"
"One younger brother, Sherlock. I have letters written for him, although I doubt you send post ashore."
"Rarely." Lestrade lifts his wine glass and takes a sip. "And you? What did you do before embarking for your new married life?"
The spectre of his impending marriage rattles Mycroft. He almost tells the truth, but realises that being honest about how much he knows is a risky proposition at best. It won't make his precarious position aboard the Lydia any safer. "A minor role in London's bureaucracy. It did involve a fair amount of tallying and filing."
The captain nods and lets the conversation drop.
After dinner, the captain asks to see the list of provisions. Mycroft hands the pages over and the captain spreads them across the table. He fetches quill and ink, and carefully reviews Mycroft's sums.
He works slowly and steadily, and bites his lip when he focuses. Mycroft is not in the habit of noticing anyone's lips, let alone a pirate's, but those very white teeth keep catching on his reddened lower lip.
Mycroft forces himself to look away, to remember that he cannot afford the slightest hint of interest. If the captain took a stray glance as an invitation, what would happen? If he refused, the captain could take offence and insist that he sleep in the hold with the men. If the captain ignored his refusal, there would be Magnussen to consider. Would he still pay the ransom? Would he still marry Mycroft? There is no way that a stray glance would benefit Mycroft, so he will watch Lestrade's quill and ignore the man himself.
"Twenty-seven," Mycroft says out loud, before he can think the better of it.
The captain's quill stops. He looks up at Mycroft, frowning. "What?"
"Not twenty-four," Mycroft says, nodding at the painstakingly steady number the captain was writing. "Twenty-seven. If that's the number of crew at a pound of flour a day, it will last twenty-seven days."
Lestrade frowns and does the sums again. This time, he gets the right answer. "Anyone would suspect you had experience with provisions, Mr Holmes."
"I daresay stocking a kitchen for a month is quite similar," Mycroft replies.
Lestrade writes a list -- weekly food provisions of flour, sugar, water, salted beef and salted pork -- and then adds the number of crew and slides the page to Mycroft. "If each man gets that per week, what will go first?"
Mycroft looks at the figures on the page. He imagines the scenarios and then says, "The salted pork. There's only two weeks' worth."
The captain has him write down how many weeks of provisions they have for each foodstuff. Mycroft notes it down easily, and then the captain slowly checks every sum. Mycroft hasn't made any mistakes.
Mycroft is not disappointed to return to his sedentary solitude. That would be foolish. He has safety and warmth. He has his books. He even has a window where he can watch the endless grey ocean meet the pale blue of the sky.
He has never been one to have a great many friends or enjoy crowds of people. He spent most of his years at school wishing for a quiet room where he could close the door and read. He has always valued moments of quiet peace, even if his current seclusion is not entirely by choice. Now, as then, his best distraction is to write to Sherlock.
He has been reading about winged insects -- bees, moths and dragonflies -- and the species common to Virginia. Where Sherlock has always excelled in music, Mycroft's artistic talents lay in drawing. As he tells Sherlock of the requirements of beekeeping, he sketches examples of the hives. He draws the common breeds of moths in fine lines of black ink. He has no way to colour it but the representation is accurate.
His letters from school were the same. Paragraphs interspersed with quick sketches of the view from his window, with the faces of teachers or disliked fellow students, the first daffodil of spring or the miserly fires banked low in winter.
He will never be a great artist. His teachers all agreed that his sketches are precise and accurate, but they lack the spark of emotion needed for true art. They lack passion. His sketches are informative and useful, so Mycroft will find satisfaction in being functional.
He even sketches the storeroom for Sherlock, the way he last saw it: lit feebly by two lamps, shelves stacked neatly and door steadfastly locked. It's a gloomy image, full of shadows from hanging casks; empty and closed at the same time.
Mycroft sets that page aside. He rewrites the text above it onto a fresh page, and ends it with a sketch of the captain's window, the edges of the open frame around the vast expanse of horizon outside.
In the morning, there are signs that his discarded page was unfolded and viewed, but Mycroft doesn't think any more of it until the captain taps on the door mid-morning.
He wonders what state the powder room is in. He doubts there’s anywhere else that could need stocktaking. "Good morning, Captain Lestrade."
"Mr Holmes," the captain says, "gather your coat. I want you up on deck."
Mycroft's fingers tighten around his book, mind racing for a reason for the strange order. They haven't sailed long enough to be anywhere. It could be for punishment; the Voracitas had had a man flogged and all crew and passengers were forced to attend. Mycroft had watched his hands the entire time and tried not to flinch at the sound of leather biting into flesh. At the animal grunts of pain. "For what purpose?"
"For fresh air. You've been aboard a week and you have the pallor of that parchment. It's not healthy to stay cooped up below deck." The captain's smile is bright and teasing, but there's a kind cast to his eyes. "Surely you didn't spend all of your last journey indoors?"
His last cabin had no window, and the air got humid and stagnant. At times, he had needed to breathe without smelling how many men were aboard. "Occasionally, I would stand on the deck with the officers."
"The breeze is pleasant and the sun is warm. Now get your coat, Mr Holmes."
After a week indoors, the sunlight is blindingly bright. Mycroft would have lost his footing in the glare if not for the captain's strong hand at his elbow, holding him steady as he squints into the light.
"Come now, Mr Holmes. Up to the quarterdeck," the captain murmurs gently, leading Mycroft to the stern railing. When Mycroft has a firm hand on the wooden rail, Lestrade releases his grip on Mycroft's arm and strides over to the two men at the wheel. He walks easily on the shifting surface, comfortable and confident on his ship.
Mycroft watches the trail of white-crested waves behind them, the swirls and eddies caused by their passage. The movement of the water is mesmerising. It's far safer than watching the captain, the deep sun-caressed tan of his skin is more obvious in the daylight. It makes Mycroft think of roasted chestnuts and the deep brown of over-steeped tea.
Far safer to watch the water and listen to the wind in the sails, the shouts of men following orders and the creak of ropes pulled tight. Far safer to think about the hot sunshine on his neck and the cold breeze on his face.
There are footsteps behind him. "I think you'll need this," the captain says. In his hands is a heavy felt hat, wide-brimmed and unflattering, but practical in the sun's heat.
"Thank you." Mycroft takes it. It fits well enough.
The captain seems in no hurry to return to his duties. He leans a hip on the railing, leaning casually as if there were no danger of falling overboard. "You're not a prisoner on this ship."
"I'm a captive to be sold," Mycroft replies. "I'm either a prisoner or livestock."
Lestrade's eyes narrow, then he looks out to sea. "Perhaps," he says to the horizon, "you are a passenger who will pay his fare when we arrive."
"I hardly consider this pleasurable travel."
"Perhaps you should." The captain drops his voice lower. Mycroft strains to hear; no one else could possibly overhear him. "Think of it as a taste of freedom. If there's one thing pirates believe in, it's a man's freedom to live his life."
"Freedom?" Mycroft scoffs.
"There's not a man on this ship with connections to a family like yours. Not one who would ever cross paths with your husband or his friends. However you act, there will be no consequences. No one will know but you."
Mycroft wants to object. Disgrace always has a way of being discovered. The world is never large enough to truly keep a secret. But the captain is right: there's no reason for his crew to ever talk to Magnussen. He could drink to excess and curse like the lowliest cur, and still step off this ship with his reputation intact.
There are limits, of course. He still has to marry Magnussen and share his bed: any debauchery would be too dangerous to risk. He takes a deep breath, wondering if he could let his gaze linger on the captain's handsome face, if the captain is attempting seduction rather than force.
"And what would you suggest? How should I use this freedom?"
"You could smile," the captain says, and Mycroft frowns in surprise. "You could enjoy the fresh air or you could draw as you like. The point, Mr Holmes, is that you can do as you wish. You do not need to hide in that cabin to do so."
The captain is true to his word. Mycroft is left in peace to spend his days as he will, with the condition that he appears on deck at least every three days. "Not healthy for a soul to be trapped indoors for months on end," the captain insists and Mycroft willingly agrees.
At first, he keeps mostly to the cabin, to his books and letters and only occasionally steals upstairs to feel the wind on his face and the sun on his back. He tries taking ink and paper with him, but the wind ruffles the loose pages and they nearly fly overboard.
He wants to sketch the ropes for Sherlock, the intricate pulleys and weights that allows ten men to hoist fifty yards of sail. The use of physics and mathematics to tame the seas and harness the air.
Then he wakes to find a bound sketch pad on the table. There's a small tin resting on top. Mycroft lifts the lid to find a dozen pastels lying inside, from bright white to vibrant cobalt to strong scarlet. Green, yellow, orange and brown all lie side by side in that small battered tin.
Mycroft closes the lid without touching the pigments. He gets dressed and goes to find the captain on the deck. When he asks the pirate manning the wheel, he's directed to the navigation room below the quarterdeck.
When Mycroft eases the door open, the captain is standing over a wide table, sailing charts rolled out across the surface. His usually friendly face is drawn in concentration, brows lowered as he stabs a finger at the map.
Mycroft studies the map. It's the Atlantic Ocean, along the coast of Spain. The spot under the captain's finger can't be where the ship is: Mycroft's watched the sun set, seen how far south-west they've sailed.
"Captain Lestrade?" he asks, stepping closer.
The captain turns, letting the charts roll closed behind him. He smiles when he meets Mycroft's gaze. "Mr Holmes. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"The sketch book left on your table. The pastels," Mycroft pauses, not sure how to ask if the items were meant for him.
"Do you like them?"
"Very much. Thank you."
"Then make good use of them," Lestrade says, something warm and mischievous in his eyes.
In his dreams, Mycroft walks down the aisle of a large church. It's built of stone, huge and cavernous, and he can't make out the faces of the people sitting in the pews. There's a man standing at the front of the church but Mycroft can't see his face either.
Surrounded by strangers, it's hard to keep walking but he knows he has to. He's had this dream before where the aisle in front of him stretches out longer and longer, where he has to keep walking but never manages to get there.
He starts running, heart pounding, knowing he must. And then suddenly, he's there. Standing at the front of the church beside a man he doesn't recognise. He can only make out sharp, beady eyes and a mean smirk.
Mycroft knows him. Knows it's Magnussen. He almost steps back, runs away.
There's a commotion behind him. He turns to see Sherrinford dragging Sherlock towards him. He has one of Sherlock's arms pinned behind his back. Mycroft remembers Sherrinford doing that to him as children, remembers Mummy scolding for roughhousing indoors.
Sherlock is wearing a dark morning coat, suit impeccable but his hair is long and wild, untamed. He's struggling against Sherrinford, but Sherrinford just smiles calmly and keeps walking them closer.
Mycroft turns back to the priest. There are words he has to say to fix this. Only a few simple words but he can't get the sound out. He opens his mouth, tries to say, "I do," but he's mute.
Sherrinford keeps marching Sherlock closer, and Mycroft needs to speak the words before he gets there. He keeps trying but Sherlock gets closer and closer, closer still, and suddenly there's a hand on Mycroft's wrist and hushing noises.
"Shh, it's only a nightmare," the captain murmurs, voice still rough with sleep. "Nothing to be frightened of."
Mycroft drags in a deep breath and opens his eyes. He's lying in the dark of the cabin, the curtain drawn round the bed to block off the moonlight. The captain has one warm hand curled around his wrist, thumb stroking back and forth over the thin skin. "Apologies for waking you," Mycroft says because he's too old to disturb others for nothing more than bad dreams.
The captain slides his hand up, callused fingers whispering across the sensitive palm of Mycroft's hand. He leaves his hand lying loosely on Mycroft's, palm to palm and fingers interlaced. "Do you want to tell me about it?"
Mycroft should pull his hand back but instead he curls his fingers and holds on to the captain. "There's nothing to be done about it." Mycroft has made his decision. There's no use voicing his fears.
"Then back to sleep," Lestrade says gently, but he lets Mycroft keep holding his hand. Mycroft is pathetically grateful for it.
The days pass easily, shown by the growing collection of used pages in Mycroft's sketch book. Some of them are small things, details of how the pulleys work or the detailed carving on the ship's prow. Some are full colour pastels, twenty tanned men dragging at ropes, pulling up the white sails as the blue seas rise to choppy peaks. He has a few sketches of the crew, too. The quartermaster, Williams, with his broken leg still bandaged, lying in the infirmary and checking over Mycroft's latest calculations. Old Doctor White, grey hair pulled back tightly, looking over his few medical books. His assistant, young Watson, only a few years older than Sherlock but as comfortable on board as any of the older seamen, sitting out on deck and carving a tiny boat from a spare piece of wood.
Mycroft even has one of the captain. Sketched under cover of observing the wheel mechanisms, he'd drawn Lestrade standing up on deck, looking out over his ship and his men with fond pride. Despite the worn coat and the rough tan, he made quite the dashing figure, hands resting behind his back and chin raised with pride.
Seen objectively, it's nothing more than a handsome man standing aboard a ship. There's nothing indecent to it, nothing that should urge Mycroft to keep it hidden, to keep it a secret pleasure for him alone. But once it's drawn, he takes to placing the sketch book in the bottom of his trunk while he sleeps. He no longer leaves the sketchbook lying around unguarded.
His other guilty indulgence comes in the middle of the night. When the ringing bells of first watch wake him, he frequently finds the captain has rolled towards the middle of the bed. He has discovered that if he shuffles towards the captain, Lestrade will reach out in his sleep. The first time was purely by accident, but subsequent nights were not. Mycroft intentionally rolled back towards the captain, simply to feel the man's strong arm wrap around him loosely, to feel his body curved around him, warmth pressed against Mycroft's back or side. Sometimes there is a thigh thrown over his.
It's a stolen embrace, Mycroft knows. It's an intimate comfort he has no right to ask for and if he were an honourable, honest man, he wouldn't indulge himself so. But when he wakes in the dark, to the creaking of the ship and the bells ringing out, he turns as if getting comfortable and falls back asleep in the captain's arms.
He knows his duty, knows what he must do. But he also knows his future is unlikely to include being held by a man who keeps his word and cares if Mycroft is happy, and he is greedy enough to take it while he can. He wants to memorize this: the feel of someone's warm breath against his shoulder, their chest moving with every breath, the way Lestrade will sometimes stir in sleep and pull him closer until they're pressed against each other from shoulder to knee. He wants to remember this feeling of safety and comfort, illicit as it may be.
The skies are grey and overcast when there's a sudden yelling from the rigging. It's Watson up there, yelling something that Mycroft can't make out. The captain understands because he pulls out a spyglass and looks to the horizon.
"What colours is she flying?" the captain hollers back at Watson, and Watson climbs fearlessly higher.
Mycroft squints in that direction, but he can only see a speck of white sails. A ship ahead of them, but still very far away. They keep sailing towards her, waiting for Watson to call down more information.
Mycroft is fascinated by the crew's response. Usually, the deck is full of chatter as the pirates go about their duties, men calling out to each other, laughing at ribald jokes. Suddenly, the ship is quiet. Men are moving -- gathering rope, checking the sails, hurriedly going below deck to fetch gunpowder for the cannons -- but no one's talking. Every man is doing his duty and waiting for the captain's orders.
"Mr Holmes." The captain turns away from the railing and strides calmly towards Mycroft. The ship is quiet enough that he doesn't need to speak loudly to be heard. "You should go below."
Mycroft almost asks if he can help, but he hasn't the skill or the stomach for fighting. Not to mention that piracy is a hanging offence. If that ship is a military vessel, if this encounter goes badly for the pirates, Mycroft doesn't want to hang with them. "Yes, Captain."
"Wait in my cabin," Lestrade says, pressing a key into Mycroft's hand. "The lock is solid."
So Mycroft waits. He can't help thinking of the Voracitas, the familiar feeling of hiding from battle. He waits for cannon fire, for the clash of swords and stench of gunpowder, but the ship remains quiet. He wishes he could see the front of the ship, see the other vessel approach, but down here, he's blind to the danger and unable to do anything of use.
There's a sudden cheer from above him, then a return to normal noise. Through the open window, he can hear men talking again.
He unlocks the door, tempted to go up and find out what happened. He's wary of possible dangers and hovers there, hand on the doorknob, until the captain's quick knock startles him to action.
"Captain Lestrade," Mycroft says, and then steps back to allow the captain to enter. "Good news?"
"Good and bad," the captain answers, closing the door behind him. "It's a pirate ship."
"Will they attack?" Mycroft asks, and the captain laughs. It's a low, gruff sound but Mycroft likes it very much.
"No, they're coming aboard. Want to discuss a joint venture." The captain pulls a face and adds, "That's the bad news."
"The joint venture?"
"That's likely to be profitable. The bad news is that the discussions will happen on my ship."
It's not the provisions, Mycroft knows. They have enough food and water until their next planned stop, not that the quartermaster will tell Mycroft where that will be. "You don't want them here?"
"I don't want them to know you're here."
"Ah," Mycroft replies. Clearly, honour amongst thieves only goes so far. That ransom makes Mycroft an expensive commodity and he doubts every pirate captain would allow him to spend his days drawing in leisure. "I could stay in the stockroom while they're on board."
"I don't know how long the discussions will last. And once the men have a few drinks, it will be mentioned that there's a little lord sharing my bed."
Mycroft feels his face drain of colour. The captain's tone makes it very clear what the men must think of him. "There has been nothing untoward. That is not the truth of it at all."
"We both know that. But it's a much safer assumption for you. That ransom might... overcome someone's common sense." The captain rolls his shoulders, looking surprisingly sheepish for a man who wears authority so easily. "It's a charade worth maintaining."
When Mycroft agreed to this ruse, he did so out of necessity. There was no mention of a costume being involved, but the captain insists upon a change of clothes. What he suggests is a pair of loose linen trousers and a white shirt of Indian cotton, so thin and fine that it's indecent. "You can't expect me to wear this," Mycroft objects firmly, holding the items up.
The captain crosses his arms. "I can and I do."
"My nightshirt is a heavier weave than this," Mycroft says, holding the shirt aloft. It's so thin, he can almost see his fingers through it. "No one would wear this in company."
The captain's mouth twitches, but he quickly controls his expression again. "This is how pirates dress. Put the clothes on."
"I am not a pirate," Mycroft replies hotly.
"If you dress the part, they won't look much further." The captain strides over to Mycroft's trunk, and opens the lid. He lifts the meticulously folded garments and pulls out a waistcoat. The silk is periwinkle blue, embroidered with sage green leaves and small red flowers. "Leave some of the buttons undone but wear this over it."
Mycroft eyes the vest in Lestrade's hands. It is one part of a formal suit, formal enough to be married in; it is not meant to be worn alone. "That would look ridiculous over such a mismatched outfit." Yet he takes it from Lestrade's hands. He doubts the captain will compromise any further.
"Clearly, you don't understand pirates. We generally don't care for rules of fashion." The captain watches him steadily. "We're simple men. We like good food, plentiful drinks and the freedom to live as we choose. If we come across an opportunity for gold or cargo, we'll take it. If there's a chance to enjoy someone young, healthy and pretty, we'll take that too."
Mycroft did not inherit the striking cheekbones or black curls of his brothers. His looks have been described as plain and unmemorable. "Let us hope two out of three is sufficiently convincing," Mycroft mutters. Young, healthy and gaudily dressed will have to be close enough.
"You may act as if the world rests on your shoulders, Mr Holmes," the captain says, "but believe me, you are still young."
Mycroft feels his cheeks heat at the unexpected flattery. He turns his face away and hopes his flush doesn't show.
Mycroft goes to the infirmary to help Williams up to the captain's quarters. Even with Watson propping up the man's other shoulder, it's a slow trip on constantly moving boards. By the time they arrive, food has already been served and there are four unknown men sitting around the table. They all have old calluses on their hands from handling ropes and the deep tans of lives spent beneath the sun.
"Our quartermaster, Mr Williams," the captain makes the introduction to the group, nodding towards the chair to his right. "This is Captain Morris and Quartermaster Simmonds of the Liberty. Captain Jackson and Quartermaster Davies of the Defiance."
Mycroft stands awkwardly, not sure where he should sit and feeling out of place and half-dressed. The captain pats the chair to his left and gentles his voice. "Come now, Fancy, sit by me."
Mycroft follows the instruction and does not say a word. The captain had suggested playing shy and avoiding speech if possible. ("Your voice will mark you as a lord no matter what those clothes say.") The captain smiles when he sits, a mischievously pleased expression, and brushes the back of his knuckles along the edge of Mycroft's jaw. Mycroft does not flinch but he can't help a small, surprised hiss of breath at the contact.
"Don't mind Fancy here. He's new to the ship," Lestrade pauses, his eyes raking down Mycroft's underdressed form with unmistakable lust. To his mortification, Mycroft can feel his cheeks heat again. "And he's shy of strangers."
"Still green?" Captain Morris asks, and Lestrade laughs.
"As a meadow," Lestrade replies, grinning. "But you know me. I've always been fond of picking wildflowers."
There's something taunting in the laughter that follows. Mycroft is clearly the butt of the joke. He watches his plate and tries to ignore them while he eats. The conversation that follows is remarkably similar to any drawing room conversation between distant acquaintances. It's small talk of friends in common, of latest achievements and interests. In this case, those conversation points were of ships taken and cargo looted, that old Captain Bell had died from infection, that there was a new quartermaster on the Anna Maria. It's all smalltalk and idle gossip, but Mycroft listens carefully and doesn't look up.
After the desserts have been cleared -- a plum pudding that Mycroft knows wasn't in their provisions -- Lestrade pours a glass of brandy for every man. "Gentlemen, as delightful as your company has been, I believe we have something to discuss."
"Perhaps not in front of the lad here," Davies says, clearing his throat and taking a long drink.
It takes Mycroft a moment to realise they're talking about him. A lad? He's barely five years younger than Lestrade, he's sure of it. His face may be rounder and his skin might be soft and pale, but he's far from a child.
Mycroft is curious, although not curious enough to argue to stay. It's the captain who insists. "I'm not going to make him sleep on deck to hear you out. After that much wine, he'll be half asleep by now."
There's a moment of silence, and Mycroft makes sure to blink sleepily at the bare tabletop.
"The Spanish are sending a treasure ship with three gunships protecting her," Brown says.
"That's hardly new," Lestrade replies. "They've lost too much gold not to guard it. Not that it always works."
"What is new," Brown continues, "is that the gold isn't on the treasure ship. It's been swapped with the Maria Celeste, a merchant ship that's supposed to be carrying cotton."
Mycroft's head jerks up at the thought. A cargo like cotton isn't worth a pirate's attention -- it's too bulky and not valuable enough for easy trading. But if the Spanish are using the Armada as a diversion, there are British ships intercepting those armed vessels for no possible benefit.
"Oh, Fancy," Lestrade coos softly, a hand on Mycroft's wrist, pinning his hand sharply to the table. "Did you fall asleep in your chair? Come here." And then he pulls on Mycroft's arm, tugging him up from the table.
Mycroft stands, not understanding anything more than that he'd nearly ruined this unsophisticated ruse. The captain pulls him closer, so he steps nearer. He's not expecting the captain to pull him down, stumbling onto Lestrade's lap. He starts to struggle but Lestrade holds him firm with two arms used to years of climbing and hauling ropes. "Hush," he says, and then drops his voice to a whisper in Mycroft's ear. "Hide your reactions and listen closely."
Mycroft nods against the captain's shoulder. He draws his knees up to be more comfortable and the captain's grip softens to something that reminds Mycroft of guilty nights spent in the captain's bed. He closes his eyes to pretend to be asleep and buries his head against Lestrade's neck.
He ignores Lestrade's arm low around his back, the casual hand resting on Mycroft's hip, toying with the hem of his waistcoat. He ignores the warmth of Lestrade's other hand, proprietary and shameless on Mycroft's thigh. He ignores how comforting it is to be held by the captain, to almost taste the salt air on his skin and feel the movement of his every breath.
Mycroft ignores all of that and listens.
Afterwards, when the cabin seems quiet and empty with only the two of them, Mycroft sits at the table and thinks. The captain told him to listen and he did. He could chart out the suggested route and the point of attack. It's not a bad plan but it's far from certain.
Assuming the information is true -- which feels like a large assumption -- the Spanish Armada is well stocked with powder and cannons, and it's doubtful that they'd leave a ship carrying so much gold alone and undefended. It would be smarter to defend both the decoy and the true treasure ship.
Despite the risk, there would be a strong advantage for England if they succeed. Lack of gold means fewer pistols firing shots; it means hungry, tired, disaffected soldiers, prone to making mistakes. Better to see that gold in a pirate's hands than supporting the Armada.
This isn't a theoretical problem. Following this course would endanger the ship carrying Mycroft and men that Mycroft has become familiar with, albeit not especially friendly. It would add weeks, if not months to his journey to the colonies and he doesn't know Magnussen well enough to judge if it will make him more or less likely to pay the ransom.
But the sheer advantage of cutting off funds from the Spanish is worth the risk, Mycroft decides, fingers steepled before him. If only he can convince the captain to see it that way.
Shaking off the thought, Mycroft stands and removes his waistcoat, folding it away neatly. He pulls off his boots and nearly strips off his trousers before remembering how transparent the fabric is. He pauses, wondering if the captain is still awake. After so much wine, he's probably asleep.
When Mycroft looks, the captain is lying on the bed, both eyes open, watching Mycroft unashamedly. Mycroft swallows and decides to change into his nightshirt first. He keeps his back turned to the captain and pulls his shirt over his head. He tells himself it's foolish to imagine the captain is still watching but he doesn't dare turn to look. He changes as quickly as he can, and then walks over to the bed.
The ship creaks and sways with the waves as Mycroft walks closer. It's the first time he's gone to bed after the captain. Even if they retire at the same time, Lestrade always waits for him to get into the bed first. Mycroft has lost himself in thought before, has spent minutes or hours working through a problem, but not on this ship. He suddenly realises how long he must have been sitting at the table, thinking through alternatives and how the benefits would outweigh the cost, all while the captain changed, got into bed and then lay there watching him.
Mycroft has a sudden urge to apologise, although he doesn't know precisely why. He blows out the lamp and sits carefully on the edge of the bed. The captain shuffles over, drawing back the blankets.
Cautiously, Mycroft gets into bed and draws the curtain closed. He lies in the dark and listens to the captain's steady breathing, calm but not slow enough or loud enough for true sleep. Beneath Mycroft, the sheets are warm from the captain's body.
Mycroft lies on his back, looking up at utter darkness. “Will you follow their plan?”
“I'm considering it,” Lestrade says, voice pitched so low it's almost a whisper.
“It's the right thing to do.” Despite the piracy, the captain is honest. Despite flaunting the law, the captain believes in rules and order. Despite the thievery, the captain is honourable. “Taking that gold from the Spaniards will save English lives.”
“Tell that to the Spanish widows.”
“It will be very profitable for you,” Mycroft tries instead.
“I'm already travelling with profitable cargo,” the captain replies softly, drawing the blankets up higher. “The safest option is taking you to Virginia and getting paid. Aren't you keen to get back to your future husband, Mr Holmes?”
“This opportunity won't last forever.”
There's a rustle of fabric as Lestrade rolls to his side, closer to Mycroft. Not touching, not that close, but close enough that Mycroft can hear his hushed reply easily. “If I took you on that excursion, you might never reach the colonies.”
Mycroft flashes on the idea of the staying on the Lydia. It smells like salt air, warm like sunshine on his neck, freedom as bright as pastels smeared on his fingers from an afternoon spent drawing. It's a bright and shining temptation, if selfishly irresponsible.
That's not what the captain meant, Mycroft realises as Lestrade continues to speak. “Capturing a ship always comes with dangers. Even if we were successful, men could die in the attempt.”
The captain can't guarantee his safety. The Spanish ship might be a fortune, but the ransom on Mycroft isn't a sum to be risked lightly. “Take me to the colonies first, then go after the Spanish gold.”
The captain sighs. “It's unlikely we could make the trip in time.”
Mycroft could suggest marooning. They could leave him on some tiny island with provisions, keep him safely away from the battle and collect him on their return. He finds himself baulking at the idea of being so completely alone. Being so dependent upon someone remembering to return for him makes him uneasy.
“Unlikely is not impossible.” It's better to reveal what he knows and have the Spanish forces crippled than hide in safety and let the opportunity pass by. Mycroft sits up and climbs out of bed. He feels for the lamp in the darkness. “Fetch your charts. We will find a route that works.”
“It's the middle of the night,” Lestrade complains, but the bed creaks as he sits up. “Wait, what do you mean by we will find a route?”
“Get your charts,” Mycroft says.
The captain insists that they must go to the charts, so Mycroft finds himself once more dressing in loose, flimsy clothes and following the captain across the decks to the navigation room. Mycroft expects to pass a few men keeping watch at night, but the decks are full of men sprawled around, passing bottles of rum between them and talking in the calm night air.
The captain notices Mycroft's surprised glance and mutters, “Three pirate ships gathered means relative safety. Anyone not on watch will be renewing friendships with men they haven't seen in years. Half the crew will be up talking 'til dawn.”
Which leaves all three ships vulnerable tomorrow, Mycroft thinks, but also means no one is paying too much attention to the captain right now. Lestrade must expect the discussions will last for at least another day; sailing with an exhausted crew would be foolish and the captain is no fool.
In the navigation room, the captain unlocks a small wooden cupboard and shuffles through rolls of paper until he pulls out the correct chart. He spreads it out on the table, weighing down the corners with an empty inkwell and a few other trinkets from the drawers that line the room. “Tell me, what makes you confident that you can read this?”
Mycroft studies the map. The scale of the North Atlantic Ocean is accurate but the coastline of France is significantly incorrect. “I used to hold a minor position in London. I worked for the Admiralty Board.”
“You helped provision ships,” Lestrade says slowly. It isn't a true question but Mycroft nods anyway. “And helped plot routes?”
“I have a good head for figures.”
Lestrade studies the map for a moment and then points to a position. Mycroft takes a steadying breath for the inevitable testing that follows whenever he admits his skills, but the captain only says, “We're here, Mr Holmes. Try as you might, we can't make the colonies and be back in time.”
The captain moves one of the paperweights, a small brass bell with no ringer, to the spot and then sits down. He rests his cheek in one hand and points to the small bureau behind Mycroft. “There's ink and paper in there.”
It takes Mycroft nearly an hour to admit defeat. In theory, the journey could be made in that time, even avoiding the places where the captain insists there will be storms this time of year, or allowing for the ill winds the captain says will slow them down. The trouble is that the journey would only leave them a few days grace to make the rendezvous and if the Spanish ship gets fair winds and good weather, they would miss her entirely.
Six months ago, a Spanish gold transport was attacked by three naval ships; only two ships returned, one heavily damaged, and they lost over a hundred souls but it had been a victory because the gold ship was sunk. In the ensuing months, it should have undermined the Spanish forces and now Mycroft knows why it didn’t. The gold wasn't on the ship. Sinking it let the Spanish keep the fiction in place while the gold travelled separately. Now Mycroft has the knowledge to undermine the deception but not the resources or the time to see it done right.
Mycroft sits down carefully, dropping his head into his hands. No matter what course of action, he will fail somebody. If the Spanish gold makes its destination, he fails to protect his countrymen and his King, and he loses an opportunity that may never come again. If he doesn't arrive at the Colonies and marry Magnussen, he fails to protect Sherlock in the only way he can. The choice falls between one life he cares for and many lives he doesn't know, and there's no scale in the world for measuring between them.
“Don't take it so hard,” the captain says gently, dark eyes watching Mycroft with a kindness that has no place here. “If it can't be done, it can't be done.”
Mycroft sighs. There is always a solution, even if it is unpalatable. “Sell me to one of the other pirate ships. Your ship is faster and more heavily armed. If the treasure ship is truly unaccompanied, the Lydia alone would be enough to overcome her. Two ships places the situation firmly in your favour. Let the weakest take me to the colonies and collect the ransom.”
The captain shakes his head. “When I said you were safe aboard my ship, that wasn't a guarantee for all pirate ships.”
“Let Magnussen take his chances!” Mycroft snarls back, so suddenly angry at the lack of choices, the constant weight of what can't be done. “If it was so important to marry me intact he should have come to England, not sent for me like--”
Mycroft closes his mouth tightly on the rest of his tirade. Ranting about a situation has never solved it, and Mycroft agreed. He can blame Sherrinford all he likes, but he could have refused and he didn't.
Mycroft stands, paces away from the table and the journey that lies before him. “I'm sorry. I should not have voiced my frustrations.”
“You don't want to marry,” the captain says gently as if he already knows the answer.
Mycroft turns to the window and the endless dark sea outside. “If I am very lucky, I will be married to a man who ignores me and holds me in contempt. I will spend my days trapped on a plantation, away from any city or town, and my only value will be ensuring the kitchen is stocked and the house runs smoothly, and raising any heirs he chooses to adopt.”
There's the scrape of a chair and then footsteps behind him. “And if you are unlucky?”
“The rumours about him will be true and I will find my marriage bed distinctly unpleasant.” Mycroft has tried his best but those rumours are hushed and imprecise. They could be lies, told quietly so they can't be easily dispelled, or Magnussen could be a cruel man who ruthlessly protects his reputation. He won’t know the truth of it until he meets the man. “Either way, I will be alone and woefully useless, but Magnussen will have paid for my brother's influence and connections, for trade decisions to land in his favour. Marrying me was simply a way to make the transaction appear legitimate.”
For all that Sherrinford has the Holmes intelligence, he's blinded by his own avarice. He judges others by his own greed and ambitions. Mycroft is fond of Musgrave Hall but he had no designs on it or the family fortune. Yet Sherrinford sees him as the next in line to inherit and therefore a possible threat to Sherrinford himself. Sherrinford is cunning enough to gain payment for his influence and exile a supposed rival all in one socially acceptable engagement.
There's a careful hand on Mycroft's shoulder. He doesn't turn, doesn't trust what he might see on the captain's face.
“If I didn't agree,” Mycroft says, wanting to confess everything while the world is black and quiet, “he promised to send my younger brother in my place. Sherlock's only sixteen. He wouldn't survive such captivity.”
The captain doesn't say anything. Mycroft hadn't expected him to.
Mycroft sleeps late the next day, waking to an empty cabin and a curiously quiet ship. He dresses in the same ridiculous garments and heads to the navigation room.
When he gets to the open deck, the entire crew is standing around, watching the captain speak from the quarterdeck. Standing there, hat straight and shoulders square, he looks like a man who could lead others to fortune and glory. A man who could lead the motley crew of this ship with ease. It's clear why the crew put their faith in him.
“We have cargo onboard, expensive cargo that we can sell in Virginia for sixty pounds a share.” The captain pauses as the men cheer. He seems decisive and certain, so far from the kind, compassionate man Mycroft knows him to be. “But we have a chance at Spanish gold, to walk away with ten times that amount per man.”
The roar from the men is louder than before. Mycroft looks over to the other ships, floating a small distance away. Their crews are watching the Lydia, grinning at the excitement.
“That fortune,” the captains says and then has to yell to be heard above the noise, “That fortune doesn't come without danger! I won't drag unwilling men into battle, so vote clearly. Quartermaster Williams agrees with me, but every man must make his choice.”
The captain gives the crowd a moment to murmur amongst themselves. The men around Mycroft are grinning, hissing to each other about what that gold could buy.
“Show of hands,” the captain hollers out. “To the colonies to sell what we have?”
There are a few hands but not many, maybe a dozen. A few jeering calls from their fellows.
“To Spain,” the captain yells, “to steal the gold from under their noses?”
The noise this time is nearly deafening. There are too many hands in the air to count.
The captain grins widely. “Spain it is. We'll set sail tomorrow.”
Mycroft retreats back below deck. He should pack. He'll probably be changing ships very shortly. He tells himself it is the most practical way to achieve the best possible outcomes. It was his own idea, his own suggestion that the Lydia chase the Spanish gold while he heads to the colonies, returns to the life waiting for him.
This was only a short taste of freedom, something that would always end with his return. He cannot begrudge the captain following the most profitable course of action and he will not miss the captain's sunny smile or his warm arms at night. He will not miss a freedom that was never truly his.
He will change back into his own clothes and sail back to his own life. He refuses to mourn something he cannot change.
When the captain returns downstairs, he takes a long look at Mycroft’s trunk, the lid propped open with all his books and clothes stacked neatly inside. Mycroft left the pastels on the table. It felt like an abuse of hospitality to take them.
“You have a choice,” Lestrade says. “You could sign the charter and turn pirate. Sail with us to Spain.”
Mycroft thinks of the salt water spray off the waves in choppy waters, the warm glow of candlelight in a wooden cabin, the soft gust of the captain’s breath on his neck in the middle of the night. Then he thinks of Sherlock. “I can’t.”
“You have a choice,” Lestrade says, stepping close enough to rest a hand on Mycroft’s arm. “Either way, there are consequences but you have the freedom to choose.”
“Then I choose the consequences I can live with,” Mycroft says quietly, looking away. He glances back when the captain pushes that small, dented tin into his hands.
“Keep them,” the captain says. For a moment they stand there, the captain’s hand on his arm while both of them grip one end of the tin. Mycroft should step away but there doesn’t seem any reason to now. “Something to remember the Lydia by.”
“I won’t forget,” Mycroft promises, and then the captain releases him and takes his leave. Mycroft looks at the tin, thinks of the haphazard collection of colours inside, and then packs it carefully away.
It feels deeply ironic that the Liberty is the smallest ship and therefore the one that will take Mycroft to Virginia. Mycroft isn't the only man changing ships. The deck is full of men with their belongings in sacks over their shoulders, shuffling into rowboats to move between vessels. Most are heading for the Defiance or the Lydia, but a few go with Mycroft to the Liberty.
He thinks of the captain's last words to him, his polite offer to see his letters posted if he made the address clear. Mycroft copied out the address of Sherlock's school in simple, broad letters and tied it together with a burgundy ribbon.
“I'll see he gets them,” Lestrade had promised as if intention could make such a wish come true. Mycroft knows it's unlikely Sherlock will ever see them, but there was no reason to hold onto them either.
Mycroft's surprised to find Watson already on the Liberty, reaching a hand out to steady Mycroft as he climbs up the ship's side.
“Shouldn't you be with Williams? Or learning from Doctor White?” Mycroft asks as he steps up.
Watson shrugs. His hair is bleached by the sunlight, but when he tilts his head just so, Mycroft can see the true dirty blonde beneath. It's short and scruffy, as messy as Sherlock's wild curls used to be. “There's only so many men that can fit on those ships. I owed someone a favour.”
The only reason Watson caught Mycroft's attention was that he seemed the same age as Sherlock. Mycroft has since realised that Watson is in fact a few years older, if a head shorter than Sherlock, and he's been at sea for nearly a decade. He's a steady sailor when needed, and clever enough to see the value in the old doctor's teaching. Still, Mycroft is relieved to find a familiar face aboard this ship.
“We'd best take you to the captain,” Watson says. He walks through the hubbub easily, stepping around sacks and provisions. “Morris doesn't like to be kept waiting.”
When they knock on the captain's door, they find Captain Morris and Quartermaster Simmonds with their heads bent over a map. Morris frowns at him, his lined face settling into dismissive creases. “It's Lestrade’s boy. What are you doing here?”
Mycroft is not a boy. He's not even the youngest man in the room. He pulls himself up to his full height. “I am here to sail to the colonies.”
There's a speaking glance shared between Morris and Simmonds, before the quartermaster says, “And how are you at sailing, Mr…?”
“Mr Hughes,” Watson answers for him. “Michael Hughes. He's not much of a sailor, but the captain asked if you would give him passage West. We'll meet up with the Lydia later.”
Captain Morris chuckles in that mean way of his. “He won't last long on a ship if he can't stomach a little bloodshed,” Morris says to Watson, as if Mycroft wasn't standing right there.
Watson shrugs. “The captain can afford a folly or two. Also, the captain said you'd be meeting up again for a share so you can consider us a gesture of goodwill.”
“If any of the men didn't get a chance to see Doctor White, I can help some.”
Simmonds looks surprised but Morris looks pleased. “That's practical. Make sure there's a doctor alive afterwards. Very well. There's a hammock in the infirmary if you want to sleep there.”
The ship is too busy to enlist help, so it's left to the two of them to struggle with Mycroft's trunk. They manage it but it isn't easy. "What's in here? Rocks?"
"Books," Mycroft replies. He could leave London behind. He could leave Musgrave Hall, the wide green spaces he had grown up with, the large cold rooms that felt empty after his parents died. He could even leave Sherlock in hopes that Sherlock would be safe and no less content with life than he's ever been. But Mycroft couldn't leave his books. Realistically, he knows he will be the spouse of a rich man and if Magnussen decides he shouldn't spend hours reading, he won't have any recourse. If Magnussen decides to burn them page by page, there won't be anything Mycroft can do.
But Magnussen is a wealthy man who has ruthlessly made himself wealthier. Mycroft hopes the value of those books will be enough to buy them safety.
To Mycroft's horror, the infirmary doesn't have a bed. There are two normal hammocks, nothing more than fabric hanging between two points, and a handful of ‘sickbeds’ as Watson terms them. They're thin wooden boxes suspended by ropes; Mycroft can't help thinking they look like half a coffin.
Watson eyes him, smiling at Mycroft's horror. “Never slept in a hammock?”
“I attempted it once,” Mycroft allows. “Getting into it was difficult and staying in it was a harder challenge.”
“Want to try it again?” Watson asks as if Mycroft has any choice. “Or we could untie one of the sickbeds, put it on the floor?”
“The floor, please.”
They set it up against the far wall, and move Mycroft's trunk to the foot of the bed. With an extra blanket to lie on, it's comfortable enough. Not as comfortable as the mattress in Lestrade's cabin but Mycroft has seldom slept as soundly as he did in that bed.
“Why didn't you give Captain Morris my name?” Mycroft asks carefully.
“The captain thought it best,” Watson says warmly, clearly talking about Lestrade. “He wanted me to keep an eye on you.”
“Why?” Mycroft asks dully and then he realises. It's unlikely another ship would have been carrying anything equivalent to the ransom sum. Rather than chance another captain claiming the money and Lestrade's men receiving nothing for their effort, better to hide Mycroft safely away from the action and collect the ransom later.
Mycroft allows himself to feel the relief of delaying the inevitable. He tries to ignore the small frisson of excitement at the thought that he'll see the captain again.
“Why?” Watson echoes, mocking him. “Why would the captain want to see you safe after having you in his bed for weeks?”
The knowing grin, the way Watson says ‘having you’... Mycroft suddenly realises Lestrade's fellow captains aren't the only ones making assumptions. As if Mycroft's only on the Lydia to warm the captain's bed. Surely the ransom would be common knowledge? What cargo do the men think they're selling in Virginia?
“Is that such common knowledge?”
“It's a small ship,” Watson says, amused at Mycroft's embarrassment. “And the captain's been very pleased with himself of late. Doesn't take a genius to guess what's happening.”
Mycroft can't tell if life aboard the Liberty is slower because she's a smaller ship with fewer sails and can't reach the speeds of the Lydia, or if it feels slower because he's waiting. He remembers the plan of attack. He knows it will be at least six weeks before he sees the captain again.
He wonders if news of the capture of the Voracitas has made it to the colonies yet. If they hit bad weather and ill winds, they could still be sailing to Virginia now. No one in London will know for months and Sherrinford won't act on rumours, so Mycroft can relax. Time is on his side. He can spend days adding a few new sketches, carefully using the pastels and remembering the captain pressing them into his hands before he left.
Quartermaster Simmonds has no inclination or need for assistance in the storeroom, so instead Mycroft finds himself talking to Watson. Watson's medical training is an apprenticeship of butchered Latin and superstitious home remedies. Some things are brutal necessities like being able to cut through a man's thigh in a few minutes or knowing how to pull a tooth with the root intact. Most of his training is more practical: how to relieve pain and reduce infection through the right herbs and poultices, how to make a man comfortable as he heals.
After the first few quiet days, a steady trickle of men come to see Watson. A vast majority ask for advice on venereal diseases and Mycroft learns more than he ever wanted to about various rashes and irritations.
When a man presents with a bruised arm from falling from the rigging, Watson quickly notices the swelling and deep colour of the bruise and declares it most likely fractured. “It's the bone here,” Watson says, pointing to his own forearm.
“The ulna,” Mycroft supplies and Watson stares at him. He shakes it off quickly, returning to his patient but Mycroft isn't surprised that he asks about it as soon as they're alone.
“How did you know the bone's name?” Watson asks.
“My brother was fascinated by anatomy when he was younger.”
“But how did you know it?”
“I took Sherlock to the Royal Academy to see the surgeons demonstrate their operations for students.” He still remembers Sherlock looking wide-eyed at the streets of London, trying to take in every detail he could see. Young Sherlock sitting high on the wooden bench, leaning forward to see the scalpel and the bone saws, fascinated by every gory detail. “If I didn't take him, I feared he might resort to grave-robbing to find out more.”
“Would have been a great way to learn,” Watson says wistfully. “First operation I saw was Doctor White amputating a broken leg. Blood everywhere and I was almost sick at the sight, but the man lived.”
After that, Watson asks more questions about Sherlock. Did he become a doctor? Was he still studying? What would he do with all that knowledge? It becomes his favourite topic when otherwise at leisure. Sometimes, Mycroft indulges him, lets himself wallow in nostalgia. He talks of Sherlock as a small child, knees stained with dirt and curls always in disarray. He talks about Sherlock at ten, a hellion obsessed with how the body worked and an appetite for reading how men had been tortured centuries ago. He talks about Sherlock as he last saw him, sixteen and suddenly grown into his arms and legs, suddenly a young man much like Sherrinford: dramatic dark hair and an elegant face made for captivating strangers at salons.
He doesn't talk about how cold and angry Sherlock had been, how he had insisted that marrying for financial comfort was small-minded and idiotic. He had felt betrayed by Mycroft leaving, that was clear to see. He couldn't understand why Mycroft had agreed to Sherrinford’s arrangements and Mycroft didn't have the heart to tell him. He'd rather Sherlock angry at him than languishing in guilt.
Some days, Mycroft has no patience for the subject. It makes him miss Sherlock too much. That's when he insists on tutoring Watson in Latin, promising to gift him a book on herbs and natural medicines if Watson can learn enough Latin to read it.
The days pass, but they feel very slow to Mycroft.
“Is that it then?” Watson asks as they both stand at the operating table. The ship's medicine chest is between them, wooden lid open to reveal the glass and pewter containers inside. They are carefully relabelling the contents and making a list of what should be restocked. “Just you and one brother?”
“Two brothers.” If it was the captain asking, Mycroft might be more forthcoming but Lestrade never questioned his past. Certainly not with such boundless curiosity. “And how many siblings do you have, Mr Watson?”
“Eight,” Watson replies cheerily. “Three older, five younger. It was why I joined the Navy.”
“To send money home?” Mycroft asks, remembering Watson talking about sending half his share home whenever they send letters back to England. He seemed certain that the captain would ensure everything sent was received.
“A powder monkey earns a pittance but it’s one less mouth to feed.”
Mycroft's never known that sort of poverty. He's never wondered how his next meal would be paid for, but Watson shrugs as if it's nothing important.
“Part of the reason I turned pirate, really. Every man earns a share, and that's a lot better than having your wages paid six months behind.”
Mycroft keeps count of the days, which is how he knows the Lydia has made excellent time when she's finally spotted on the horizon. Watson comes running downstairs to tell him and together they go up on the deck to watch her white sails grow ever closer.
It's been thirty-six days, just over five weeks, and the crew's excitement is infectious. Mycroft might not be hollering along with the rest of the men but he's certainly smiling as widely as Watson, watching the graceful curves of the Lydia draw nearer.
He watches her until he can make out figures on the quarterdeck, until he can see the captain standing there, no hat upon his head, dark hair tied back loosely, watching over his men and occasionally glancing towards the Liberty. He spots the moment Lestrade sees him: Lestrade tilting his head for a moment in surprise and then forgetting himself entirely to wave joyfully at them.
Watson waves back but Mycroft can only bring himself to nod, feeling too exposed on a ship of strangers. Even on the Lydia he would be too embarrassed to make such a display.
The captain laughs and dips into a formal bow instead, all mock seriousness as he straightens. Mycroft can feel the betraying flush in his cheeks. He doesn't need Watson's friendly shove to know they're both being entirely too obvious.
Most of the men dine aboard the Liberty. The captain has a brief discussion with Captain Morris and then comes to take Mycroft back to the Lydia. He's polite enough to offer Watson the same, but Watson demurs, claiming he wants to stay onboard and hear the stories.
Mycroft ignores the knowing grin Watson shoots him behind the captain's back.
“We'll send for your trunk tomorrow,” the captain says as if Mycroft hasn't noticed the way he favours his left arm, the careful way he keeps the right still.
It doesn't stop him from balancing easily on the gangplank between the ships, but it makes Mycroft hesitate before accepting the offered hand to steady himself. Watson may take to heights like he was born there, but Mycroft can't help looking down, calculating heights and rates of fall, knowing the slim possibility that he'd survive that distance without a broken bone.
There is a sense of relief to stepping into the captain's cabin. It's still a small room, dwarfed by a table in the middle and the bed curtained off on one side, but Mycroft feels himself relax within its wooden walls. There's a meal set out for them -- mutton and vegetables -- and glasses of wine. The lamp is burning low, casting the corners of the room into warm shadows.
“I'm glad you're well,” the captain says, closing the door behind them.
“You're injured,” Mycroft replies. “Show me.”
“The doctor's seen to it. It's only a scratch. Now eat before the meal gets cold.”
While they eat, Lestrade shares details of the encounter, the amount of gold retrieved, the Spanish naval officers pretending to be merchants and the few injuries to the boarding party. He still dismisses his own wound as a scratch but this time, Mycroft insists upon seeing it.
“You fuss more than someone's mother,” Lestrade grumbles but he removes his coat and starts loosening the buttons of his shirt. “Doctor White already saw to it, and it's had a week to heal.”
When the captain pulls his shirt open, Mycroft notices the honey gold tan, lighter than the dark skin of his hands and face but proof that he's faced the elements only half dressed. There are sparse curls of dark hair, thicker at the middle of his chest and trailing down. Occasional pale scars that glance along a rib or across the plane of his stomach.
Mycroft tells himself this is a medical enquiry only, and drags his gaze over to the captain's bare bicep. There is a small red line across the muscle, scabbed over and mostly healed. It cuts high across his arm and across his chest to stop at his collarbone. Caused by a sharp blade at considerable speed. Mycroft can see the trajectory of it in the angle of the wound.
“See?” Lestrade says, soft and teasing. “It's nothing.”
“A few inches deeper,” Mycroft says slowly, thinking of Sherlock's diagrams of veins and arteries, “and you would have bled to death. A few inches higher or a few inches lower, and Doctor White wouldn't have been able to help.”
“A few inches less, it wouldn't have even cut my shirt,” Lestrade counters.
Mycroft glares at the captain for his flippancy. “You were lucky.”
“I was caught by surprise,” Lestrade says as if that should put Mycroft's fears to rest. The thought that he might not have returned at all makes Mycroft's chest clench with dread.
Not that he knows how to say that. The fear might be clawing up Mycroft's throat, but all he can manage to say is, “You should take more care.”
The captain's eyes narrow, head tilted slightly as he watches Mycroft. He takes a small step forward and says, “I truly am fine,” hushed and gentle, like he’s settling a spooked horse.
“I know that.” The edges of the cut are still red and healing, but there's no sign of infection. He can see the captain's chest move with every inhale and exhale; he knows Lestrade is alive and well. It's ridiculous to let himself be upset by something that didn't happen.
Lestrade steps closer, breathing out, “Oh, Fancy,” and pulls Mycroft into an unexpected embrace. Suddenly, there are strong arms around Mycroft's back and the solid warmth of a body pressed against his. Mycroft doesn't know what to do with his hands. He doesn't know what to do at all, but Lestrade holds him firmly and Mycroft feels the fear retreat like the tide.
Lestrade turns his head, breath hot against Mycroft's neck. “I'm fine, I promise.”
Somehow, Mycroft's hands find their way to the small of Lestrade's back. Somehow, Mycroft finds himself holding on tightly, head dropping to rest his cheek against Lestrade's.
He breathes slowly and doesn't say anything. He doesn't want to spoil this, to say the wrong word and feel the captain pull away. He wants to stay here, safe and held, as impossible as that sounds.
Of course, it must come to an end. Lestrade loosens his hold, sliding his hands to Mycroft's shoulders and pulling his head back to look Mycroft in the eye. He watches, dragging the fingertips on one hand over Mycroft's cheek, and Mycroft holds his breath.
“If you were mine, Fancy,” Lestrade says wistfully, sliding those fingers up to tuck a strand of hair behind Mycroft's ear. He leans closer, close enough that their foreheads are touching, that Mycroft can feel his breath on his lips.
Mycroft drifts nearer, wanting to make promises he can't keep. It feels inevitable and impossible, caught on a knife edge between what he wants and what he must do.
“But I promised you'd be safe,” the captain says with forced cheer. He pulls his hands back, squeezes Mycroft's arms briefly. “Even from me.”
Reluctantly, Mycroft releases him.
That night, when they crawl into the same bed, shoulder to shoulder, Mycroft lies on his back and keeps to his own side. He tries not to think of the man beside him, of his quick smile and gentle sensibilities. Tries not to miss the warmth of Lestrade's arms wrapped around him. Or remember the firm press of Lestrade's body against his, the easy way they fit together. The way Lestrade had called him Fancy, voice warm and affectionate, as if he was beloved and precious.
He certainly doesn't imagine how it would feel to have Lestrade above him, weight pressing him into the mattress. The soft brush of Lestrade's fingers on his cheek, where else that hand might wander and explore.
It would be a careful exploration; he would be safe under Lestrade's hands, and that is a terrible thought in its own way. Mycroft knows he won't trade Sherlock's freedom for a few kisses, for a fumble in the dark, for some fleeting infatuation. Lestrade makes him want and feel wanted, makes him feel protected and daring, but it isn't enough to condemn Sherlock to misery.
Sherlock is not like Mycroft. He's never been able to recognise when he was outplayed by Sherrinford, when following rules he didn't like was the easiest way to survive them. Sherlock would struggle under strict social expectations. Would rebel until Magnussen controlled him by force or tried to break him some other way. Sherlock would be miserable and languish, or simmer in fury until he burnt himself out like the smouldering embers of a fire.
Mycroft fears Sherlock won't survive it. Or if he did, he would no longer be the brother Mycroft loves, impetuous and passionate, burning brightly for all to see.
Mycroft knows he will manage better. He's always been able to resign himself to things he cannot change, has always accepted that freedom is an ideal that no one truly finds. There is always some restriction, some cost, some compromise. The trick is knowing which costs you can afford to pay.
They wait for the Defiance for nearly a week. The men seem pleased enough with it, sitting around and talking amongst themselves, everyone working fewer hours while they're stationary. Mycroft helps the captain and Williams in the hold, counting box after box of Spanish gold. The coins are bright and clean, freshly minted, and watching the neat stacks grow higher and higher is mesmerising.
They count the loot twice and then divide it into shares. Mycroft is somewhat surprised to find Watson is right: every man receives an equal share. The captain and the quartermaster receive two, the doctor and the carpenter receive one and a half, but every other man receives an equal portion.
Mycroft's seen the calculation around naval prize ships, how only the officers receive any reward and the captain's share is vastly larger than anyone else's.
“Is that why you became a pirate?” Mycroft asks over dinner that night. “For a fair share of prize money?”
Lestrade shakes his head as he swallows. “I was a mutineer.”
“Mutiny?” Mycroft can't help the horrified tone in his voice. “Against your own captain?”
“The captain ordered two hundred lashes. They flogged a man until the flesh came off his back. He died days later from fever and infection. He died in pain, and all for the unforgivable crime of insulting a superior officer.” Lestrade's face is grim. Suddenly, he looks worn and weary. “The man only spoke in anger.”
“So you took over the ship?”
“We did.” Lestrade pauses, fingers curled loosely around his wine glass as he stares at the closed door. “I was a midshipman at the time but I saw officers turning a blind eye when it suited them. As long as the violence and cruelty came from a superior, it was allowed.”
“All in the name of order, I suppose.” The Voracitas ran that way, obedience through fear and punishment. Mycroft hasn't seen a man punished aboard the Lydia, hasn't seen suspicious bruising or the wary look of men trying to avoid inevitable trouble.
“Men shouldn't have to live like that.”
When the gold has been shared amongst the ships and each crew, the captain charts a course to Virginia. In truth, the captain points out where they are and Mycroft calculates longitude and latitude, travel speeds and journey length.
Once they take their leave of the Lydia and Defiance, Mycroft's days return to what they were. He sleeps late and rises after the captain. He spends most of his day at leisure, sitting out in the open air with sketchbook and pastels, recording whatever details catch his attention. He watches the captain on the quarterdeck, checking the sailing direction and keeping a keen eye on his crew.
He helps Williams in the storeroom, moving boxes and updating their list of provisions. He sometimes helps Watson and Doctor White with the medical inventory. He stands with the captain in the navigation room, reviewing charts and when provisions might need to be restocked, and finding contingencies in other courses.
At night, he eats with Lestrade, and falls asleep in his bed. Occasionally there is space between them, but more often than not, Mycroft falls asleep with the warmth of Lestrade's body pressed against his side or his back. It is a very pleasant way to pass the time and so the days pass quicker than Mycroft wishes.
The weather turns warm, and it's stifling in the cabin. The heat of the day has Mycroft sitting in whatever shade he can find, thankful for the breeze. The crew have taken to working in their shirts, sleeves rolled up. Even the captain follows suit, discarding his thick wool coat, and loosening the top few laces of his shirt. Mycroft has seen the captain's bare chest. There's no reason to find his attention caught by a flash of tanned skin as the wind catches the loose white cotton. There's certainly no reason to stare, but Mycroft does. And when he drags his gaze up, the captain is watching him too.
Mycroft swallows and looks away. He's already red with the heat, so he doubts his flush will be noticed. He turns his attention back to his sketchbook, drawing a quick figure standing at the helm, wind blowing his hair back from a handsome face. A few white smudges give the impression of cotton caught in the breeze. It's loose and imprecise, but it undeniably shows Mycroft's wandering thoughts.
His time upon the Lydia is limited. Every day, they sail closer to the colonies and every day is one less day Mycroft will have on this ship. One less night he can lie in Lestrade's arms.
He saw the opportunity of Spanish gold and had no qualms about making the most of it. There are opportunities here he will never have again. He could make the most of them if he only knew how much he could risk.
Mycroft startles at sudden footsteps beside him and turns to find Watson's friendly face looking down at him. “That's good,” Watson says, nodding at the open page. “It's a good likeness.”
“Thank you.” It's unfinished and lacks detail but Watson hasn't seen enough art to know it's mediocre at best.
The temptation plays on Mycroft’s mind through dinner that night. As he gets changed for bed, Mycroft wonders about the line between opportunity and risk. As he lies there, waiting for the captain to blow out the lamp and climb into bed, Mycroft thinks about his options. He doesn't know enough to choose, and the only thing he can do is ask. He doesn't want to; he hates feeling ignorant and he's not fond of being embarrassed, but there's no other way to navigate this opportunity.
After the captain has settled and is lying still, Mycroft asks quietly, “You've taken people to bed before?” He can already feel the heat in his cheeks.
“Not like this,” the captain says, joking. Mycroft can feel his own embarrassment grow worse. “But, yes, I've had lovers.”
“Were any of them…” Mycroft pauses, wondering if such mortification is worth the knowledge.
The mattress moves as Lestrade rolls closer. A hand rests on Mycroft's wrist. “Ask.”
Mycroft forces the words out. “Were any of them virgins?”
“Yes,” Lestrade says gently.
“How did you know?”
From Lestrade's sharp breath, he hadn't expected that question. “How--” he starts and then, “What's brought this on?”
“I want to kiss you and I need to know if there's a good reason not to. There are pirates on three ships who already think I'm warming your bed, so protecting my reputation isn't a reason.” Mycroft thinks of Lestrade holding him, of Lestrade's forehead pressed to his, those whispered words: if you were mine. He has no doubt that the captain's feelings towards him are warm and kind. The captain is a good man, and Mycroft doesn't fear reprisals or force from him. There is a greedy, selfish hunger within Mycroft and only one thing holding him back. “What would my husband know? That's the only good reason left: if he could tell that I wasn't the untouched spouse that I should be.”
“What could we do without him knowing?” Lestrade props himself up on an elbow. He slides a hand across Mycroft's chest, letting it rest on Mycroft's left ribs, a handspan below his heart. “And you trust me to be honest?”
“I trust you,” Mycroft says, knowing it's ridiculous. Knowing Lestrade is a pirate and a criminal. Knowing Lestrade will not suffer the consequences if he lies. Mycroft is risking his own future, and by extension Sherlock's, on the honesty of such a man.
Yet he has faith in Lestrade.
“Then trust me,” Lestrade says. “Don't do this out of desperation and dread the consequences. Don't make this something you'll be scared to even remember afterwards.”
“I won't see you again. After Virginia, I'll never…” Mycroft shakes his head as if that could shake the words away from the sentiment, could free them of the fear squeezing his throat tight.
Lestrade drops his head to Mycroft's shoulder, breathes the words into Mycroft's nightshirt. “I know, Fancy. But I won't be something you regret. A moment of weakness that makes you feel small and ashamed when you think of me.”
“That's not how I feel when I think of you,” Mycroft whispers into the quiet darkness. He wraps his arms around the captain and holds him close.
Mycroft wakes to the reassuringly constant sound of waves outside. He lies there with his eyes closed, listening to the ship creak as she moves and the muffled thud of footsteps far away, calls of voices too distant to make out. The first night he spent on a ship, he thought he'd never sleep for all the noise; now it's familiar enough to be comforting.
Mycroft rolls over, stretching out across the bed and pulling his hand back in surprise when he brushes the captain's chest. Mycroft opens his eyes, wondering if it's still the middle of the night. The captain always wakes and leaves before him.
The dark curtains across the bed are lightened to a cobalt blue by the sunshine. It's undeniably morning. And the captain is awake, lying on his back and staring at the wooden slats of the ceiling.
“Good morning,” Mycroft says, sounding calmer than he feels regarding the unexpected presence of the captain.
The captain rolls his head to look at him. His dark eyes are serious. He reaches a hand out and cups Mycroft's cheek. His touch is whisper gentle despite the rough calluses from years of ropes and wood.
“Consider staying,” Lestrade says.
Mycroft closes his eyes, pressing his cheek into Lestrade's palm. “I wish I could.”
“The choice is yours. There is a place for you, if you want it.”
“I doubt any ship has room for someone at leisure,” Mycroft scoffs.
Lestrade pulls his hand back. He sits up against the wall, his nightshirt loose and falling open to bare his chest. “I've seen you with a compass and sextant. I've seen how quickly you look at a chart and plot a course. A sailing master would be a valuable addition to the crew.”
Mycroft crosses his arms. “More valuable than the ransom?”
He doesn't expect Lestrade to laugh and say, “If any of the crew knew what you can do, they wouldn't release you for ten times that sum.”
“If that was true, you would have already told them.”
“No, I wouldn't,” Lestrade replies firmly. “I said it was your choice and I meant it. If you choose to marry a man who won't love you, so be it. If you choose to barter away the rest of your life to protect your brother's freedom, so be it. It's your choice and I won't take it from you. But I'm asking you to choose me and this ship and a life that you will enjoy.”
Mycroft wants to say yes. He wants to pull the captain into his arms or crawl into the captain's lap; he wants to hold Lestrade tight and agree, find out how this gentle, handsome man would make love to the susurrus of the waves. “If it only affected me, I would,” Mycroft confesses.
The captain sighs, running a hand through his hair. “Can't fault a man for looking after his kin.”
Mycroft wants to say something more -- that if not for Sherlock, this decision would have been made easily and far sooner -- but there's a knock on the door. It's hurried and speaks of worry.
“Come in,” the captain yells, despite the fact that neither of them is dressed for company.
“Sails spotted, sir.” It's Watson's voice. Mycroft is very thankful for the heavy curtains hiding the bed. “Starboard side.”
“I'll be on deck shortly,” Lestrade says. “Watch for her colours.”
When he gets on deck, Lestrade is using a spyglass to take a closer look. “She's French,” Lestrade says, handing the spyglass to Mycroft. “Look at her bow.”
“French construction,” Mycroft agrees. He can't quite make out her flags from here, but from the corners he can see, only one combination makes sense. “She's British. Merchant vessel.”
The captain orders them to give her a wide berth and keep their course away from her, but she adjusts her sails and comes close enough for them to read her flags. Mycroft was right: it's a British merchant ship. There is something about the shape of her that seems familiar but it's not until she raises signal flags that he makes the connection.
Two years ago, she was captured from the French and auctioned for prize money. The vessel belongs to one of Magnussen's companies. It feels far too coincidental to find her out here. Then the signals make it clear it's intentional.
“Searching for return of property,” Lestrade says slowly, as they finish the message. He sounds confused.
They continue sailing closer, no longer a small ship in the distance. Now, she's close enough for Mycroft to see her upper rigging, the extra sails for speed. Within four hours, she'll be close enough to the Lydia to fire upon her. “Can we outrun her?”
“Maybe. Depends on the wind,” Lestrade says, watching Mycroft closely.
Mycroft eyes the gun ports on the ship. “You'll be outgunned if they reach us.”
“She's a merchant ship. They avoid pirates. They don't chase them down.” Lestrade's voice is sensible, but he pulls out the spyglass and takes another look at her. “Why do you think she's a threat?”
Mycroft could lie. No one on the Lydia would know differently, but it would cause needless risk to the crew. “She's owned by Magnussen.”
“Your future husband?”
Mycroft nods. “I fear you have lost your ransom money.”
Lestrade calls out a few orders: hoisting their sails to increase their speed and adjusting course to keep the pursuing ship behind them. Then he ushers Mycroft to the navigation room and starts pulling out charts.
Mycroft steps back and lets him fuss with the long rolls of thick paper, carefully laying them on the table. To Mycroft, it seems like a waste of time. “She's faster than the Lydia?”
“And she outguns us,” the captain replies. “She'll hull us long before she's in range of our cannons.”
If they flee, she'll pursue. If they fight, she'll win.
The captain begins to carefully calculate their location. Mycroft drops a finger to the map to save time. “We're here,” Mycroft says. There's nothing around for miles.
Lestrade frowns as he studies it and points at a brown smear to the northwest. “There are sandbanks there. An old hidden island chain. It might be enough to ground her if we can get there.”
“It's three days away,” Mycroft says. “She'll catch you by tonight.”
The captain frowns at the map as if desperation can force another option to appear. In open sea, and so outclassed, their choices are limited.
“Perhaps we could negotiate a truce to hand me over,” Mycroft suggests and the captain glares harder at the map before him. “Or leave me in a rowboat and try to make an escape.”
“You don't trust them to honour a truce?”
“My future husband would rather attack the ship carrying me than pay the ransom,” Mycroft says, fighting down an inappropriate amusement. He is clearly worth more than the cost of sending another ship but less than Magnussen's pride. “I suspect the men working for him would prefer to take your ship and make a profit on this venture.”
The captain walks over to the window, eyeing the ship behind them. “She's not using her topsails yet. We have time to think on it.”
They do have time but they don't have other options. The other ship continues to follow them, pacing them easily and drawing slightly closer as the hours pass.
On the quarterdeck, the captain keeps a wary eye on them. “If we keep this up, we might make it to the sandbank.”
“If night falls, we might not see them draw close enough to fire,” Williams counters. Williams agreed to the captain's suggestion of waiting, but they can't wait forever. The situation hasn't changed.
“I should pack,” Mycroft says. They need to discuss this without him here and he knows that there's no gain in risking the entire ship only to delay the inevitable. He will be returned to Magnussen one way or the other. To have it cost the Lydia and her crew is unnecessary.
He goes down to the cabin and packs away his few belongings: clothes that smell like salt air, books that remind him of sitting in this small, safe cabin. The sketchbook that feels like sunshine on his shoulders. He considers it and then places it on the table, with the battered tin of pastels. It wouldn't be prudent to take them. It would feel too much like incriminating evidence.
It's a poor time to remember Lestrade's hand in his, the rough whisper of calluses and the gentleness that has always been in the captain's touch.
Mycroft banishes those impractical thoughts and busies himself until the captain knocks on the door. He waits for Mycroft to open the door before he steps inside.
The captain frowns, too grim for the news to be good. “A rowboat,” he says, as if it's a terrible predicament. “In two hours, so they'll have time to get you aboard before dark.”
“And they'll need to slow to collect me,” Mycroft says calmly. “You may have time to escape.”
“We'll head for the sandbank, in case they follow.” The captain reaches out, catching Mycroft's hand in his. “Mr Holmes--”
“Mycroft, surely,” Mycroft interrupts and the captain's expression grows darker.
“Fancy,” the captain murmurs, pulling Mycroft's hand towards him and pressing a soft, warm kiss to Mycroft's knuckles. It makes Mycroft's breath catch but the captain ignores that, breathing his words against the back of Mycroft's fingers. “We could flee. You could stay and we could make the attempt.”
It's foolish for Mycroft's chest to clench at such an unconsidered and doomed suggestion. “You already know my answer.”
“I know,” Lestrade says, stepping back and releasing Mycroft's hand. “But I needed to ask.”
From the vantage of a small rowboat, the other ship looms above Mycroft, casting him in shadow. It's been renamed the Imperium, a rather patriotic name for a foreign ship. A sailor scurries down the outside of her hull, moving quickly down a rope ladder to secure ropes to the rowboat.
There's a jerk as the ropes pull tight and then lift the rowboat into the air, complete with Mycroft and his trunk. It's tied off halfway up the hull and then Mycroft has to climb the rope ladder. The rungs are rough and wet in his hands but he lifts one leg and then the other, ignoring the distance he could fall.
He's greeted by a short, burly man -- too fond of rum, judging by his complexion -- and led to the captain. Where Lestrade's cabin is plain and practical, a bed for sleeping, a table for eating and talking over, the captain of the Imperium lives in relative luxury. The furniture is detailed and expensive, his chairs are padded and embroidered. There are chests with Oriental patterns in polished, inlaid wood. The wine glass in his hand is crystal. His curtains are thick velvet and silver brushes sit on his bureau.
It's entirely irrational to take a dislike to the man due to his taste in furnishings and the narrow, cunning set of his face. It's not this captain's fault that he can't match Lestrade's gentle ways and warm smile, his humble cabin and simple decency.
“Mycroft Holmes?” the captain asks, not bothering to introduce himself.
Mycroft keeps his face fixed and remembers his manners. He introduces himself and thanks the captain for his rescue. He queries their destination and is told firmly, “You'll know when we get there, Holmes.”
He is ushered into a small room with a narrow cot and no window. He hears the click of the door locking behind him. Given that he's been rescued, he feels remarkably like a prisoner.
What's truly remarkable is how the sensation is only distantly familiar. It's been a long time since he felt trapped aboard the Lydia. For weeks, he's felt like a very strange guest, different from the crew but tolerated by them. Warmly tolerated and questioned in Watson's case, like someone from a strange and fascinating world.
He will miss Watson's curiosity. He will miss Lestrade far more. Mycroft sinks onto the hard surface of the cot, and mourns for something that was never his to keep. It will be weeks before he arrives at the colonies and marries a man he doesn't know; he can be allowed a little time to grieve.
When dinner is served, the fare is finer than he's had in months: roast goose and generous trimmings, followed by a delicate berry soufflé. The captain clearly eats well but Mycroft suspects his crew does not. On the Lydia, every man ate the same fare, but it would reek of republicanism to say so. Not that Mycroft has any company he could share such thoughts with.
He eats alone, sitting on his small bed with his meal balanced awkwardly on his lap. He leaves the dishes on his trunk, the only other furniture in the room, and changes for bed.
He douses the lamp and climbs beneath the blankets, but he doesn't sleep. The bed is small and hard but he could forgive that if it wasn't so empty.
He counts the hours by the tolling bells as one watch ends and another begins. He tries to tell himself that it sounds like the Lydia, the soft crash of waves, the bells, the footsteps of those still working.
He manages to drift towards a restless sleep when there's a jangle of keys at his door. A visitor at this time of night cannot lead to good things. At one time, Mycroft might have stayed still and hoped he wouldn't be seen. Now he finds himself angry at the impunity of it, suddenly furious at the idea of someone forcing their way into his bed. He's spent too long lying beside Lestrade and denying his own desires to simply allow someone else the impertinence. Not without a fight.
There isn't much he can reach in the dark but he lifts up the lamp and holds its handle in two hands. He can swing it and the weight of the metal will do some damage.
He creeps to the far side of the door and waits with his makeshift weapon. The keys jangle as another one is tried, and then the lock clicks. The door is slowly eased open, quietly on old hinges, and Mycroft gets ready to swing.
He waits for the intruder to take a careful step inside, and then swings the lamp at him.
“Bloody hell!” comes a deep voice that Mycroft would know anywhere, and Sherlock drops low to miss the metal swinging at his shoulders.
“Clearly, being a pirate suits you,” Sherlock says, begrudgingly impressed.
“I'm not a pirate,” Mycroft replies but the important question is, “What are you doing here?”
“Did you think you were the only one who could run off to become a pirate?”
“I'm not a pirate, Sherlock.” Taking hold of Sherlock's arm, Mycroft drags him inside and closes the door. Quietly. “Stop being ridiculous.”
Mycroft fumbles with the lamp, but manages to light it on the second attempt. In the light, he can see that Sherlock has grown taller yet again, he's nearly Mycroft's height now. His hair is longer and tied back the way sailors do, a simple tie not quite managing to hold the messy curls out of his face. He doesn't have the deep tan of most of the crew, but his complexion is less fair than it used to be, especially obvious at the edge of his sleeves, where his wrists are still pale. He's broadened across the shoulders and his nails are short and worn from manual labour.
For a moment, Mycroft had feared that Sherrinford had kept his promise to send Sherlock to Magnussen, but his clothing is too worn and cheap for Sherlock to be travelling as himself. A stowaway would be pale and thin. Sherlock is clearly here in the guise of a sailor.
Sherlock has always been an excellent mimic of others.
“Tell me what happened,” Mycroft says.
Sherlock's frown is nothing short of petulant. “You decided to be incredibly boring and marry for financial comfort on the other side of the world.”
“And you apparently decided to leave a very good school to play sailor,” Mycroft replies. “Stop being difficult and tell me why you're here. And how.”
“I received your letters so I showed one of them to Magnussen's agent in London. Told him that I was so worried about you, that you'd been kidnapped by pirates.” Sherlock raises a mocking eyebrow to signal that there was no true worry involved. “After that, it took one forged letter of reference and a costume, and two days to find out which ship they were sending after you. It wasn't hard.”
“You are supposed to be in a very expensive and prestigious school right now.”
“And instead, you've been sailing for weeks to find me? Did you even bother to tell Sherrinford what you were doing?”
Sherlock's distasteful glare answers that question. As far as Sherrinford knows, Sherlock is still at school and won't return home for months. In most ways, that's probably for the best, but Mycroft still wishes his sixteen year old brother was under someone's supervision.
“I suppose it's too much to hope that you came here to ensure my safety and will return to school once I've been delivered to the colonies?”
“I read your letters. You weren't endangered.” Sherlock waves away any possible concern he might have felt for his older brother. Clearly, Mycroft's wellbeing was never under any significant threat according to Sherlock's view of the world. It is somewhat flattering to be considered so immune to the world around them, even if Mycroft knows it's untrue. “I refuse to be left behind in that dreary excuse for education.”
“Would you agree to a school in Virginia?” Mycroft asks although he doesn't know if there is any institution in the colonies that could hold Sherlock's attention, let alone his respect. “Or the northern colonies, perhaps?”
“No,” Sherlock replies stubbornly.
“In that case,” Mycroft says, sighing longingly for his books but knowing that the two of them won't be able to carry a trunk with any stealth, “we have no choice but to steal a rowboat and make for the Lydia.”
“Finally, he sees sense,” Sherlock mutters, shaking his head.
Sneaking below deck through the ship is easier than Mycroft expects. Sherlock walks quietly with a small lantern and Mycroft keeps to the shadows behind him, a canvas bag over his shoulder with the few books he couldn't bear to leave. They move slowly, wary of noise, and when someone calls for Sherlock -- or Tom Higgins, as he's known here -- Mycroft steps away, hides behind whatever he can until the man passes by. Then he hurries to catch up to the small glow of Sherlock's lantern.
Most of the men are sleeping in hammocks tied up everywhere, and a few of them curse Sherlock's light as they pass. Sherlock mutters something in a rough accent and gets a curse in response, but no one looks beyond Sherlock to spot Mycroft in the darkness.
At the steps leading above, Sherlock pauses and douses the lantern. “The Third Lieutenant is on watch tonight, but I let him win a bottle of brandy from me this afternoon, so he'll be asleep on the quarterdeck now.”
“And the rest of the crew?” Mycroft asks, knowing there's always a handful of men on shift to tend the ropes and watch the weather. At least, there is on the Lydia.
“Without an officer, they'll be playing dice on the port side.” In the faint light drifting down from outside, Sherlock's eyes glitter in excitement. He would make a good pirate. Certainly, he would be a better pirate than Mycroft, who can feel his heart pound and his palms start to sweat. “Stay starboard and stay low, and they won't see us.”
Mycroft could turn back. He could return to that little prison; he could marry and be comfortable and trapped for the rest of his life. Or he can take a breath and find a sliver of the bravery that comes naturally to his headstrong, reckless, younger brother.
He breathes and forces a nod of his head. “Starboard.”
He follows Sherlock up the dark steps, hand tight on the railing. When Sherlock freezes, he does too. He waits for seven impossible breaths, hearing his pulse thunder in his ears and then Sherlock moves again with quiet, careful steps.
As soon as they're on deck, they move quickly to the starboard railing. The moonlight feels bright and obvious, especially after the dark of being below. It makes it easy to see his footing, to step quickly and lightly after Sherlock, but all it would take is one sailor looking over. One errant glance and they'd be seen. Then Mycroft would be marched back to his stifling cabin and Sherlock… Sherlock is a member of the crew. He could be flogged for disobedience or hanged for mutiny.
That thought settles Mycroft's nerves. He's always been capable of meeting any challenge required to keep Sherlock safe. Failure would risk Sherlock’s life, so they won’t fail. If he needs to follow Sherlock to the railing, he will. He will copy Sherlock's actions and climb over the railing, then shimmy down a rough rope ladder that grazes his palms and leaves his hands feeling raw. He will grit his teeth and reach a foot down unseen because it needs to be done.
Of course, he's very relieved when Sherlock grabs his ankle and directs it back to the ladder. “Two more,” Sherlock says, voice a low rumble.
Two more rungs, then Mycroft steps down to wood. He's never been so grateful for a rowboat. Later, he will ask how Sherlock managed this, how he had the boat waiting for him, but right now Mycroft stays quiet and helps Sherlock push them away from the Imperium’s hull.
Sherlock slips the oars into the water silently, and he rows slow, careful strokes that don't splash.
He keeps that necessary yet tedious pace for the next twenty minutes, rowing in silence. Mycroft watches the Imperium grow further away, as Sherlock's posture becomes straighter, almost brimming with excitement.
Mycroft raises a questioning brow, and Sherlock grins brightly. “Pirates, Mycroft.”
“Only if we can find the Lydia before daybreak.” The Lydia should be at top sails, fleeing while they can. Twelve hours ago they were close enough to row to; they should be long gone by now. But Sherlock would know their negligible chances of survival on the open sea. He wouldn’t lead them out here without a plan and that plan clearly involved the Lydia, so Lestrade must not have fled as he should have.
It's an impractical choice but Mycroft finds himself wishing fervently that it's true. “Where is the Lydia?”
“She went west but she's stayed in sight,” Sherlock says, pulling the oars harder now. He's gritting his teeth as he does so, working against the strain of his muscles.
Mycroft reaches down into the canvas bag. He’d used a cravat to tie the books together and minimise noise as they left the ship but now he pulls it free. It's made of linen and lace, a fine thing that probably wouldn't survive a life at sea but it's still disappointing to have to tear it into two. He wraps the fabric around each of his palms, tucking it tightly.
“We should swap places,” Mycroft says. “I'll row for a while.”
Sherlock nods and docks the oars safely. Then they shuffle around to switch places without overbalancing the boat. With the oars in his hands and Sherlock at the other end of the boat, it feels remarkably like childhood. Sherlock had loved the lake on the estate, and when he was too small to row himself, Mycroft would take him out and ferry him about on the water while Sherlock pointed at ducks or counted the species of reeds. Sherlock would lie across the other bench and trail his fingers in the water, watching the patterns ripples over the surface.
The last time they did that, he had been Sherlock's age now. Sherlock had been nine and sullen, their parents were barely in the grave and Sherrinford was in London, signing the legalities of inheritance. Sherlock had been quiet and withdrawn that day, and when they got back to shore, he declared that he was old enough to row himself in future.
Mycroft watches the stars above them, making sure they're heading the right direction on the dark sea. “I assume you have a plan for signalling the Lydia?”
“How would you do it?” Sherlock asks, watching him with interest.
Mycroft looks across their meagre pile of supplies. “Cover the lantern and keep your back to the Imperium. Use the light to get the Lydia's attention.”
Sherlock grins, bright and pleased, and holds up the unlit lantern and its cover. “We need to row for another hour. No good signalling if we're too far away for them to reach us.”
“Signal now,” Mycroft insists. “They need to know we're coming. The crew need to be prepared to set full sail as soon as we're onboard.”
They take turns rowing, swapping every half hour and using the lantern to signal. There's no response from the Lydia but any replying signal would be seen from the Imperium. Mycroft hopes they've been seen. He hopes the Lydia has slowed to wait for them, that the sails are ready to be unfurled the moment they step onboard.
It's his third turn at the oars and Mycroft has to grit his teeth against the discomfort in his shoulders and arms. If the Lydia hasn't seen them, they could be rowing for hours to catch her and Mycroft doubts he'll have the stamina to manage it. Sherlock is managing better but he's had weeks of playing sailor to develop strength at this sort of task.
“What will you do?” Mycroft asks quietly, more to distract himself from the ache in his arms than a need to know. “When we get to the Lydia?”
“Give my word to be a pirate,” Sherlock says as if the answer should be obvious. “Is there some kind of oath?”
“There's a charter that all men must sign.”
“Then I'll sign it.”
“You'd become a criminal so quickly? To be hanged when caught, or to die at the end of someone's sword?”
“At least I wouldn't be bored,” Sherlock replies sharply. “If living a good, honourable life must be so terribly dull, I'll happily join the criminal classes.”
In the darkness, there's a splash. Sherlock's head swivels towards the sound and Mycroft stills their oars. The splash comes again, quieter this time, but from ahead of them. In the darkness of black water and inky sky, Mycroft can only make out a distant shadow drifting closer.
As they both stare, it resolves into a rowboat. Coming from the direction of the Lydia, Mycroft realises with relief. He lets himself sag in his seat, overwhelmed by gratitude. Sherlock reaches for the lantern, opening the cover to give a little light and let the other boat know where they are.
There are eight men in the boat, all rowing to the same quiet speed, and at the front stands Watson, quietly watching the waters and marking a beat with the rise and fall of his hand.
Mycroft is genuinely pleased to see him but he stays silent until the other boat reaches them. “Mr Watson.”
“Evening, Mr Holmes,” Watson says quietly. “Captain thought you might want some assistance.”
“How thoughtful of him,” Mycroft replies, happily resting the oars and shaking his tender hands. With the help of a few steadying hands, he climbs onto Watson's boat and they tie their smaller boat behind. Sherlock steps across gracefully, no help required. When they're all settled, the men start rowing back to the Lydia, moving quicker than Mycroft could manage.
“I didn't catch your name,” Watson says as Sherlock finds a seat. “I'm John Watson.”
“Sherlock Holmes,” Sherlock replies, spine straight and voice imposing.
Watson grins, looking briefly to Mycroft and then back. “Mr Holmes’s brother? The one who set fire to the kitchen trying to improve the oven?”
Sherlock blinks, taken aback. “It was more consistent afterwards.”
“The one who dyed his hands purple for a week while testing the best way to preserve blackberries?”
“It was a valuable experiment.”
“The one who--”
“Mycroft only has one younger brother,” Sherlock interrupts. “You don't need to recount every dull story about me.”
Watson shrugs easily. His hand keeps rising up and down to time the strokes of the oars. “I didn't think you were real.”
“All these amazing stories about his brilliant little brother getting into mischief? I figured it was a tall tale.”
“All true, I assure you,” Mycroft says. When he glances at Sherlock, Sherlock looks oddly pleased by the whole thing. Of course his younger brother would love the idea of being too impossible to be true.
Sherlock spends the journey back to the Lydia questioning Watson on every aspect of pirate life: what's in the charter and is it enforced, what are the rations and the sleeping quarters, how often do they board other ships, how many of the crew have died in the last year. Sherlock's enthusiasm for any new subject is relentless yet Watson bears it well. If anything, he seems pleased to talk about life aboard the Lydia. He answers all of Sherlock's questions and still manages to smile.
It's strange to see Sherlock so animated and gleeful. It feels like every time he's seen Sherlock over the last few years, the boy has been more withdrawn and less interested in anything Mycroft had to say. He ascribed it to the melancholy of youth and hoped Sherlock would grow past it, but it's fascinating to see Sherlock grin and demand more answers, to see him excited and thirsty for knowledge like he was as a child.
The men make good time rowing and Mycroft allows his attention to drift with the dark sea around them. He nearly falls asleep to the rocking of the waves, and then the Lydia is suddenly in front of them. Against the star sprinkled sky, she's a graceful dark shadow curving up from the waters, the moonlight catching on her masts. Mycroft can see the black silhouettes of men on deck, ropes held tight and ready to set sail as soon as they board.
Mycroft loved Musgrave Hall as a child, every tree and every stone of her, but climbing onto the Lydia's decks feels much the same. Home and safety, the comfort of knowing where he is and that he's welcomed. He doesn't have the right disposition to be a sailor, let alone a pirate, but to stay here he'll make the attempt.
The captain is on the quarterdeck, standing squarely with his dark hair pulled back. In the moonlight, his features seem otherworldly, too faultlessly handsome to be anything but a mirage. Then the captain sees him and his expression softens to something warm and relieved. It's a fond and familiar expression, but the sight makes Mycroft’s breath catch. He can't voice the introduction he should give.
Lestrade nods at Watson and gestures towards the lower decks. Mycroft tugs on Sherlock's elbow and ushers him down to the captain's cabin.
“Captain Merrifield’s quarters are much nicer than this,” Sherlock says scornfully as he looks around the room. The furniture is plain, and the midnight blue curtains around the bed are old but functional. Nothing in this room is particularly luxurious or indulgent, other than the pastels and sketchbook still sitting on the table.
“So terrible conditions are fine as long as the captain's room is impressive?” Watson asks, sharp wit gentled by his tone.
“I said no such thing,” Sherlock replies. “I was merely stating an observation.”
“So was I,” Watson replies. “In a way.”
“Where is the charter kept?” Mycroft asks, restless to be left alone. “Sherlock will want to sign it immediately.”
“Has to be signed in front of the captain and the quartermaster,” Watson says doubtfully. He drags fingers through his short blond hair. “But I can fetch two out of three.”
“I'll come with you,” Sherlock insists, clearly curious to see more of the ship.
Honestly, Mycroft breathes a sigh of relief once they've both gone. He sits at the table and enjoys a little silence. The night has been too eventful already, and it isn't over yet.
When the door creaks open, he lifts his head from his hands but it's not Sherlock. It's Lestrade, face hopeful and serious all at once. “It's good to see you, Mr Holmes.”
“They've gone to fetch the charter and Williams,” Mycroft explains, getting to his feet. He takes a few steps toward the captain, and then feels foolish for it. “We're here to join your crew, if you'll have us.”
Lestrade closes the door behind him. He watches Mycroft closely. “Are you certain?”
“I have no intention of leaving again,” Mycroft says softly.
It's Lestrade who covers the last distance between them, who steps up to Mycroft with his arms open and pulls him into a tight embrace. This time, it's the easiest thing in the world to wrap his arms around Lestrade’s back, to let his head dip so he can press his cheek to the captain's. Mycroft’s even missed the scent of the man.
“I hated the idea of leaving you behind,” the captain breathes into Mycroft’s ear, possessive and warm. “Couldn't make myself do it.”
Mycroft can only hold him tighter in response.
It's a knock at the door that makes them finally pull apart. Mycroft steps away as Lestrade calls, “Come in,” so there's a respectable distance between them as Williams, Watson and Sherlock enter. Sherlock still narrows his eyes, glancing from Mycroft to the captain suspiciously, but Mycroft will deal with that later.
The charter is actually a thinly bound book. Williams reads out the rules of the ship -- all men have an equal share and an equal voice, no man will steal or fight with any other, all orders must be agreed between the quartermaster and captain and any order can be overturned by popular vote -- and asks carefully if they both agree to it. Then Williams writes their names and the date and they each sign.
By the end of it, Sherlock is all but bouncing in excitement. “So much better than school,” he hisses to Mycroft as he hands him the quill.
For a moment, Mycroft yearns for London, for the Admiralty board and that safe, easy existence behind a desk. He wonders if he could have organised this: stayed sequestered in London and helped Sherlock run off to join pirates. But he would have worried, constantly fearing that Sherlock had been killed in a skirmish or caught and executed. At least this way, he'll know if anything happens to Sherlock.
There is a small nagging thought that even if he had got Sherlock away safely, Sherrinford would have simply found another excuse to ship Mycroft away. The same small voice that has always found it suspiciously coincidental that Sherrinford had reached majority a week before their parents died. He would never voice such a thing but he suspects he and Sherlock are both safer out of Sherrinford’s grasp.
Mycroft signs and then Lestrade and Williams do as well. The whole thing is done quickly and without difficulty. Signing away one’s liberty is so easily done.
“Welcome to the crew, Mr Holmes,” Williams says, packing away the charter once the ink has dried, “and Young Mr Holmes.”
“Sherlock, I insist,” Sherlock says firmly. He's always hated being reminded he's the youngest.
Williams nods. “Sherlock here has some medical knowledge so I think he should learn with Doctor White.”
“I have been sailing for the last six weeks,” Sherlock objects. “I can be a useful member of the crew.”
“You can shadow Watson,” Lestrade says. “Assist the doctor with him, work on the decks when he does.”
From the way Sherlock and Watson both brighten at this news, Sherlock has made a fast friend. Watson nods, saying, “I'll show him around, captain.”
“Find a berth for him and get some sleep. It's going to be a tense few days.”
“We're sailing for the sandbank?” Mycroft asks.
“As fast as we can,” Lestrade says. “With the head start tonight and good winds, we'll make some headway before they start following. It could take a day before their cannons are in range.”
“Which would be more of a threat,” Sherlock says smugly, “if their powder were dry.”
“What happened to their powder?” Williams asks, but it's obvious to Mycroft. Sherlock must have found a way into the powder room before he freed Mycroft. It was the only way to be sure they wouldn't be fired upon if the rowboat was spotted. A very practical contingency plan.
Sherlock explains it in a lot more detail, with a few dramatic pauses as he talks about stealing the keys and fetching buckets of water under the crew's noses. Watson absorbs it all like he's listening to a favourite bedtime story.
“Nicely done,” Williams says at the end of the tale. “That turns the tide in our favour.”
Lestrade nods in agreement but he seems a little impatient. “It's well done. Now go get some sleep. We'll need to be up before first light.”
When everyone else has left, and it's only him and Lestrade in the room, Mycroft doesn't know what to say. He could speak of practicalities, ask what his duties should be on the ship or what the captain expects tomorrow will bring, but he doesn't want to think about the ship or tomorrow. The only other questions that come to mind don't need to be asked; Mycroft already knows the answer. Does the captain still want Mycroft in his bed? Is this how Lestrade means for them to go on? It's all plain in Lestrade’s expression, in the way he keeps watching Mycroft even as he peels off his jacket and boots.
Mycroft turns around, removing his own jacket and waistcoat before remembering that he has no clothes aboard. He brought books and a few small but valuable trinkets. He has a spare shirt and smallclothes, but that's all that would fit in that canvas bag.
He could sleep in his shirt and change into a fresh one tomorrow, but it's a great deal shorter than his nightshirt. He's frozen considering how indecent it would be to sleep in nothing but his shirt, given that the cotton falls scant inches below his hips, and he nearly startles at the captain's soft footsteps behind him.
A warm hand lands on Mycroft's shoulder. “There's no need for nerves, Fancy,” Lestrade says, stepping closer. Mycroft can feel the heat of his body along his back, the warmth of his palm. It's all Mycroft can do not to lean back and press himself into Lestrade's solid frame. “You're safe with me.”
It's such a simple, obvious truth that Mycroft huffs and admits, “I don't have a nightshirt.”
“I left it on the Imperium,” Mycroft explains. “I was debating whether to wear a shirt or wear more to bed.”
Mycroft has missed the captain's bright smile. “You were trying to decide on the appropriate clothing?”
“If something unexpected should happen, I can hardly run about with my shirttail flapping in the breeze.”
The captain looks hungry for a moment, dark eyes raking over Mycroft's face. “Leave your breeches by the bed. You'll have time to pull them on.” Lestrade wets his lips and Mycroft… Mycroft is sick of waiting for what he wants. He steps out of the rest of his clothing as quickly as he can and follows the captain's suggestion, leaving his breeches by the bed.
He pulls back the covers to get in and Lestrade takes a moment to lock the cabin door and douse the lamp. He joins Mycroft in darkness, hands carefully feeling out the shape of Mycroft's shoulders in the dark.
Lestrade's fingers trace over his shoulder, in towards his neck. His fingertips are light over the curve of Adam's apple, feeling the movement as Mycroft swallows, and then they trail up, over his jaw and chin, a slow drift that ends with Lestrade's fingers tracing Mycroft’s lips. In the dark, there is nothing to focus on but that small movement. Fingertips dragging over his skin until his lips are tingling with it, until he can feel the telltale flush heating his cheeks, until his breath is stuttering out and all he wants is more.
“Captain,” he says softly, not sure if he's pleading or demanding.
“Gregory,” Lestrade insists, leaning over Mycroft and letting their foreheads brush. He drops a kiss to Mycroft's jaw, sliding his cheek against Mycroft's.
With a hand behind Lestrade's head, Mycroft leans up and pulls the captain's mouth to his. It's a clumsy kiss and chaste, little more than lips pressed to lips, but Mycroft can't bear this teasing any longer.
The captain allows it. He stays still as Mycroft kisses him again, another chaste press followed by small kisses to his upper lip and his lower lip. Lestrade doesn't discourage him but he can feel the restraint in Lestrade's shoulders, can feel how cautiously Lestrade holds himself back.
“I thought you'd done this before,” Mycroft mutters peevishly.
Lestrade presses a kiss to Mycroft's cheek. It's both lovely and terribly frustrating. “I have no intention of rushing you. We have time.”
“Haven't we waited long enough?” Mycroft asks. “I've made my decision. Make good on it.”
The captain chuckles. His wide hand cups Mycroft's jaw. “How were you ever going to be the meek and obedient spouse?”
“By lying through my teeth,” Mycroft replies. He has only ever been obedient when the rewards justified it or the risks were too great. He is quiet and knows when to bide his time, but he is not meek. “You said I could be who I wanted to be on this ship, so don't ask me to be shy and retiring. I wouldn't be in your bed if I didn't want you.”
“One is not dependent on the other,” Lestrade says seriously. “You can be on this ship without sharing my bed.”
“I have no intention of sleeping in a hammock,” Mycroft says firmly. “You may, but I'll be sleeping right here. If you want to stay, that is conditional upon you kissing me as if you want to. As if you've imagined it. As if you missed me.”
“As if I called myself a fool for not taking every opportunity earlier,” Lestrade says, rolling his weight to lie between Mycroft's legs and press him down into the mattress. Mycroft draws his knees up higher and Lestrade's hand lands on his thigh, fingers kneading the muscle. “As if the idea of you in someone else's bed made me too jealous to think clearly. As if I've wanted you since the first time I woke up with my arms around you.”
“Yes,” Mycroft says breathlessly. “Kiss me like that.”
And the captain does. Mouth warm and wet and open against Mycroft's, the gentle press of his tongue against Mycroft's lips. Mycroft mimics the actions, opens his mouth and slides his tongue against Lestrade's. Hears his own low groan at how sinfully good it feels. Feel his fingers clutch at Lestrade's back, pulling him closer and squirming against him as Lestrade maps his mouth as thoroughly as any cartographer. He finds the places that make Mycroft sigh and shiver, the roof of his mouth or the sensitive edge of Mycroft's lips.
When Mycroft needs to turn away to breathe, panting like a racehorse, Lestrade continues the exploration along his throat, soft kisses below his ear, a scrape of teeth along his jugular. All Mycroft can do is hold on and remember to breathe.
Lestrade starts to pull away. Mycroft reaches up blindly, clumsily trying to pull him back. Lestrade presses him down with one gentle hand on his chest and uses his other hand to tug Mycroft's shirt up. It's rucked up past his stomach, and it should be ridiculous, but Mycroft can't care about that when Lestrade's hands are sliding up his legs. There's a dry scrape of calluses against his inner thighs and he spreads his legs wider in response. He feels shameless and wanton, lying exposed on the captain's bed, cool air on his heated skin.
Then Lestrade wraps one warm, strong hand around Mycroft's cock, and Mycroft makes a sound that couldn't possibly be English. When Lestrade slowly moves his hand up, thumb sliding over the head before sliding back down, Mycroft tries to say his name. Tries to say please or beg for more, but the words come out as an inarticulate groan.
Thankfully, Lestrade understands enough to move his hand faster. Mycroft can feel the sweat break out on his skin, and the urgent twisting of his hips trying to meet Lestrade's strokes. His breath comes faster until his whole body feels focused around Lestrade's touch, every inch of him drawing tight and pulling closer, the sensations sharply compressed until he's trembling with it. Everything hotter and sharper until it's too much, until he's drawn tight as a bowstring. Lestrade's hand keeps moving on his cock, the world narrowed to that exquisite pleasure, trembling on the edge of something else until he comes apart, flying free as any arrow.
Mycroft's breathing is ragged afterwards; his body loose and drained of tension. It's rare for his head to feel so empty and light.
“Next time,” Lestrade says, giving his knee a squeeze, “I'll leave the lamp burning.”
It would be a waste of oil but it would let him see the captain's handsome face. “You should.”
Lestrade leans over him, one warm hand on Mycroft's side, and presses a sweet kiss to his cheek. “What else would you agree to if I asked?”
“You'd have to ask to find out,” Mycroft says, sighing as Lestrade mouths the skin below his jaw. Right now, he's not inclined to refuse Lestrade anything.
“Let me remove your shirt,” Lestrade says, and while it's not a question, Mycroft nods in answer. Lestrade sits up to unclasp the few buttons and then push the fabric up and over Mycroft's shoulders. Then Lestrade reaches for his own clothes, and pulls his nightshirt up and off.
Mycroft suddenly longs for that lit lamp. He wants to see the captain's bare skin, wants to observe when he can look his fill without worrying who will notice or what they'll think. It's a pity that he can only see outlines in the dark. Without the white nightshirt, he can barely make out where Lestrade stops and the shadows begin.
Lestrade crawls over him on all fours and kisses him. At first, it's only the warmth of lips and mouths, shared breaths and slow, lingering kisses. But when he reaches up to hold the captain, his hands meet bare skin. The captain is a furnace, hot to the touch. Mycroft slides his fingers over sleek muscles and the occasional raised lines of old scars. He feels for the hard bone of shoulders and spine, the width of ribcage and the lean muscles overlaying it.
He traces those ribs around Lestrade's sides, the strong curve leading to his chest. Then Lestrade uses a scrape of teeth, and Mycroft gasps.
Tilting his head and closing his eyes, Mycroft allows access to his shoulder. Lestrade's mouth is warm on his skin, leaving a cool, damp trail behind him. It's different than before: less urgent, something languid and lazy. An unhurried pace that reminds Mycroft of summer afternoons rowing on the lake, warm breeze and knowing there was nowhere he had to be.
They're barely touching, Lestrade still kneeling over him as they kiss but Mycroft can feel the heat of Lestrade's body. He wants to reach up towards it like a cat stretching in the sunshine. “How do you want me?”
“In every way,” Lestrade mutters, mouthing at the joint of Mycroft shoulder.
That's flattering, if imprecise. Mycroft would prefer clear instructions but the captain seems content to nuzzle Mycroft's skin. It feels good, yes, but there are practicalities to consider. The captain will need to be up at first light and he will need some hours to sleep.
Lestrade drags the nails of one hand lightly up Mycroft's thigh. It makes Mycroft gasp as he shivers, skin breaking out in goosebumps. Mycroft takes a breath and steadies himself to ask again. “I was prompting for a preferred position.”
“And what would you know about preferred positions?” Lestrade teases affectionately.
The truth is very little in practice. Mycroft feels suddenly embarrassed by how little he knows. “I grew up in the country. I've seen dogs and horses copulate. I suspect there are notable similarities.”
“Have you noticed,” the captain says, settling to lie on his side and propping his head up on one arm, “that the more uncomfortable you feel, the more you use those long, formal words?”
“Judging by that standard, I must be uncomfortable for the vast majority of my life,” Mycroft replies because it's easier to defend his manners than admit Lestrade is right. He is a little nervous.
“Oh, Fancy.” Lestrade runs a soothing hand along Mycroft's arm. “Don't get prickly.”
“I am not prickly,” Mycroft objects at the ridiculous term. “I am not a rose bush.”
“You are certainly a rose. Sweet and pretty, soft and delicate,” Lestrade says, kissing Mycroft's cheek, “and likely to draw blood if touched without care.”
“Only metaphorically,” Mycroft mutters, charmed despite himself.
“Well, I can take care of the literal side of it.” It's a strange thought but Mycroft thinks Lestrade would draw blood to protect him. He's not a savage man, not violent or cruel, but he'd risk his life, his ship, everything for Mycroft's sake. He already has.
“You make me feel safe,” Mycroft says. It feels like the type of confession that should be whispered in the dark between lovers. “I'm not used to that.”
“I'll keep you safe,” Lestrade replies, intense as any promise. Mycroft kisses him before either of them says anything terribly foolish or sentimental and Lestrade welcomes it, kissing back with enthusiasm. He loops an arm around Mycroft's shoulders and rolls back, pulling Mycroft on top of him.
Chest to chest, there's so much bare skin against his. Mycroft can feel the heat radiating from Lestrade. He can't help shifting, just to feel the slide of skin on skin as they kiss. Lestrade moves beneath him, hooks a leg around his hip to draw Mycroft closer.
“Don't you want--” Mycroft manages between kisses, and Lestrade hushes the rest of the question.
“We'll have time,” Lestrade promises. “We don't have to do it all tonight.”
If this were his wedding night, Mycroft doubts there would be any patience or restraint. “But--”
“This isn't a prize won once,” Lestrade insists. “We'll have time.”
The next morning Mycroft wakes slowly. He lies there with his eyes closed, listening to the creak of wooden beams and feeling the gentle movement of the waves. He stretches beneath the blankets, toes pointed and arm above his head, and then opens his eyes.
The captain is lying there, still asleep. In sleep, he looks younger, at peace; lighter without the responsibility of ship and crew weighing on his shoulders. There's no hint of his unwavering determination or his quick smile.
Mycroft shifts closer and Lestrade reaches out in his sleep, one heavy arm snaking around Mycroft’s waist and pulling him in. Lestrade’s hand on his bare skin reminds Mycroft that he's naked, that they both are. It seems impossible that he forgot last night for a moment, but it all comes rushing back to him: Lestrade’s sweet kisses, warm hands on Mycroft’s skin, the heat of Lestrade’s body rocking against his; skin sliding on skin until they were both desperate, until Lestrade took them both in hand to finish it. It had been messy and imprecise, and wonderful. It had been the right choice, no matter what the next few days bring.
“There's forty minutes before the next bell,” Lestrade mutters sleepily. “Back to sleep, my prickly rose.”
“It astounds me that you can both lead this crew and be so preposterous,” Mycroft mutters, burying his face in the captain's shoulder. He allows a smile, knowing it can't be seen.
They rise when the bell rings. They wash and get dressed, and eat breakfast together, and throughout it all Lestrade finds excuses to brush close to Mycroft, to rest a hand on his arm or his shoulder, to let their fingers brush when Mycroft passes the salt. Mycroft is not some lovestruck fool to be distracted by the briefest touch, but he has to remind himself of that fact. He has to focus on maintaining some semblance of dignity, otherwise he'd answer every smile of the captain's with a giddy grin of his own.
Apparently a good example is not enough to dissuade Lestrade. If anything, he looks amused at Mycroft's attempts to remain sensible.
Before they go above deck, Lestrade helps Mycroft into his coat. He steps around Mycroft to fasten the buttons with care, and then tugs Mycroft closer to kiss him. The kiss is warm and welcoming, and Mycroft leans into it. He slides arms around Lestrade's shoulders and chases the bitter taste of coffee.
Then the captain steps back, fetches his hat and they head out. On deck, Sherlock is nowhere to be seen. Mycroft had expected him to be standing on the quarterdeck, watching the Imperium, but he's not. The captain sends one of the crew down to Doctor White's infirmary to see if Sherlock and Watson are there, but he returns alone.
“They couldn't have gone anywhere,” Mycroft says because the only way off the ship is a rowboat and there's nowhere to row to but the Imperium. He can't see any possible reason for that so Sherlock must be here.
The captain steps beside him and passes him a spyglass. “Look up.”
When Mycroft follows the rigging up to sails, and higher to the upper sail, he sees two small figures holding to either side of the mainmast. He raises the spyglass to find it's Sherlock and Watson, both barefooted, standing at that terrifying height. “They'll fall to their deaths.”
“Watson has good footing and no fear of heights. Your brother seems steady.”
“Order them to come down,” Mycroft insists and the captain laughs.
“They'll be fine. Wait and find out what they see.”
It's very hard to be patient when Sherlock strides along the wooden beams carelessly, pointing at something for Watson's benefit and laughing at whatever Watson says. When one is defying the basic tenets of gravity, a modicum of respect and decorum should be shown. But this is Sherlock. Mycroft doesn't know why he expected anything else.
After a heart-stopping ten minutes where the captain watches the Imperium and Mycroft watches Sherlock's every clownish move, Lestrade gives a piercing whistle, and Watson waves in response. They both start shimmying down the ropes, hand over foot, apparently racing to the bottom.
“You do realise,” Mycroft says quietly to the captain, “that I would never be able to do that?”
Lestrade watches him, weighing him with a steady glance. “I have plenty of men who can do that. They can't do sums the way you can.”
“Sherlock can,” Mycroft says, knowing it's a slight exaggeration but their mental abilities are too advanced for most to see any difference between them. Mycroft is quicker, but it comes down to a matter of seconds.
“Then maybe he'll be captain of his own ship one day,” Lestrade says, shrugging. “Does it matter?”
“I suppose not,” Mycroft admits as Watson and Sherlock run up.
They both tip their caps to the captain and then Sherlocks says, “They don't know Mycroft’s escaped.”
Lestrade looks confused, and turns to Watson. “What did you see?”
“They haven't changed tack and they haven't changed headings. They're not coming after us yet.”
“Good. We'll make the most of this wind while it lasts.”
They travel as fast as they can and keep an eye in the Imperium. It's not until midday that the Imperium unfurls her sails and starts to give chase. Luckily, they have a head start and a strong wind but the afternoon is spent watching the Imperium sail steadily closer, from a speck on the horizon to a child's toy sitting in the distance.
They consult the maps more than once, Lestrade, Williams and Mycroft gathered around the thick paper, confirming what they already know. There's nothing but open sea until they hit the sandbank. Tomorrow, they could take depth measurements to track their progress but it's no use now.
The afternoon passes slowly. They know they're being pursued but so far the Imperium is only making small progress. The daily tasks of the ship continue. Sherlock busies himself following Watson around like an eager hound, helping him tie ropes or assist Doctor White, surprisingly engaged by his new companion. Given the uncertainty around them, the inevitable skirmish following them, it does Mycroft's heart good to see his younger brother happily occupied.
“He fits well here,” the captain says, standing beside Mycroft as Sherlock and Watson start climbing the rigging again. Again, it seems to be a race but this time Watson is clearly in the lead, experience besting Sherlock's longer reach.
“Better than I expected,” Mycroft replies. He'd never considered Sherlock in the life of pirate, but Sherlock's clearly pleased with the idea. To be honest, he'd never been able to imagine a future for Sherlock that would make him happy; Mycroft had only been able to anticipate what would make him miserable and work to avoid the worst. “If I'd realised, we could have sent for him earlier.”
Lestrade doesn't question the assumption that he would have agreed to help. Instead, he rests a hand on the small of Mycroft's back, leaning close to Mycroft's ear to murmur, “He's here now. Let's be thankful for that.”
It's still daylight when Lestrade suggests they retire for the night. “The wind's picked up,” Lestrade adds but that doesn't explain anything.
Mycroft looks behind them to the Imperium. She's still pursuing, very slowly gaining ground on them, but still far enough away that it will be hours before she's anything more than a looming threat. “Shouldn't she be gaining on us at a faster rate?”
“The wind,” Lestrade says, grinning happily. “They don't want to risk tearing her topsails in the wind. As far as they're concerned, we're on the open sea with nowhere to go. They don't need to rush to take us. It's not worth damaging their own ship.”
Mycroft dislikes relying on luck but he's grateful in this instance. He's even more grateful for the quiet of Lestrade's cabin and the late evening sunshine casting everything in a warm yellow glow.
He removes his coat and hat, and turns to find Lestrade doing the same. “You've caught the sun, Fancy,” Lestrade says, brushing a careful fingertip down the side of Mycroft's neck.
The skin feels hot and tender, so it's probably an angry red. Lestrade steps closer, pressing the softest of kisses to where his finger had been. His lips are cool against the heated skin and Mycroft doesn't try to hide the shiver it causes.
Mycroft slides his hands to rest on Lestrade's hips, hoping Lestrade will take that as a sign of encouragement but Lestrade steps back. Mycroft frowns. “Why--” he starts but there's a knock on the door and the smell of food.
Yes, they haven't eaten yet. Mycroft had forgotten. Lestrade is very distracting, Mycroft thinks.
After dinner, Lestrade gifts him a new nightshift. The cotton is worn and soft, and it smells of the harsh yellow soap used to clean everything onboard, but Mycroft is rather delighted by the present.
It's still early enough that they don't need to light the lamp. They change by the light of the setting sun. Mycroft faces the wall as he removes clothes. He's tempted to look over his shoulder, to watch Lestrade peel off jacket and shirt, but it seems ungentlemanly somehow.
The captain has no such concerns. When Mycroft turns, his clothes neatly folded on top of the captain's chest of drawers, Lestrade is watching him and smiling. Mycroft climbs into bed quickly and ignores the way his cheeks are burning.
Mycroft has never mastered the art of sweet words and delicate sentiments. He is too practical by nature, too prone to working towards solutions rather than voicing something as insubstantial as feelings. Returning to the Lydia may have doomed the entire ship for a selfish impulse, yet he can't regret it. Not when Lestrade gets into bed and curls up warm and solid behind Mycroft.
“Whatever happens tomorrow,” Lestrade breathes against his neck, “I'm glad you're here tonight.”
“Gregory,” Mycroft replies softly, hand squeezing around Lestrade’s strong forearm. He doesn't know the words that should follow.
“Get some sleep,” Lestrade says warmly. “We'll be up early in the morning.”
The morning starts dark and quiet, and the first thing Lestrade does is to open the door and call out to a passing sailor for an update on the weather. Mycroft pulls on his breeches and boots as Lestrade has a hushed conversation behind the mostly closed door. He's finished buttoning his waistcoat by the time Lestrade closes the door.
The captain looks dour but not dispirited. The news isn't good but it’s not dire enough to be catastrophic. He rubs a hand along his cheek, rasping over the last day's stubble, and eyes the razor wistfully. There won't be enough time to wash and shave as the captain usually prefers.
“I take it the Imperium has started to gain on us,” Mycroft says, pausing before pulling on his coat.
The captain glances at the dark window, although it shows nothing but inky sky and black water. “The wind held steady most of the night, but it's started to die down. She's unfurled her topsails.”
She will travel faster than they can. They will have to find a way to the sandbank before they're caught. “Perhaps we should breakfast in the navigation room,” Mycroft suggests, and Lestrade nods in agreement, pulling on clothes quickly.
The quarterdeck is dark and hushed as they walk through it. The men are on edge, waiting for the fight to come. (A fight that will be avoidable, Mycroft hopes.) Lestrade confers with Williams, talking wind direction and the ship's speed. On the far horizon, the east sky is lightening. Once the sun rises, they'll be able to use a sextant to get their bearings but for now, they keep south-southwest to make the most of the wind.
In the navigation room, Lestrade stares at the charts and picks at his food. Mycroft has always been prone to eating when nervous or uncomfortable; his plate is cleared long before the first sextant reading is reported.
The captain records the numbers and slides them over to Mycroft. After a glance at the figures, Mycroft points to their location on the chart. It's an easy thing to factor their heading and speed, to show Lestrade where the Lydia will be in two hours or four hours. “Another six hours and we'll reach the sandbank, if we adjust course by ten degrees now.”
“We need the wind while we can get it,” Lestrade replies. “Better to have the extra speed now and correct course later.”
“It will make the journey longer,” Mycroft points out.
“But it might surprise them.” The captain swallows his last piece of cheese and stands up. “I need to go on deck, Fancy, but you could stay here.”
“Very well.” Mycroft wonders how much gratitude shows on his face. He dreads standing on deck for hours, watching the Imperium grow closer and closer. It was hard enough the first time, when the result felt inevitable. Now it's far more uncertain, too much depending on weather and good fortune. The scrutiny of others would only make it worse.
Lestrade cups his cheek in one hand and graces Mycroft with the softest of smiles. “I'll send you information as we have it.”
The first report comes in twenty minutes later, delivered by a homely boy of twenty. Mycroft thinks his name is Doherty, but he's not certain.
The winds have stayed the same so Mycroft notes where the ship is now, and asks for news as soon as the Lydia changes direction.
Doherty scrambles back outside and Mycroft is left to his own company as the sun rises. He stares at the windows, watching the dawn paint the sky in oranges and pinks. The clouds glow as if they're on fire, caught alight from the sun.
It makes Mycroft think of fire ships, those deadly Spanish inventions that cause remarkable damage.
The next time Doherty stops in to confirm wind speed and bearings, Mycroft asks him to fetch Williams.
Williams visits a short while later, only a slightly uneven gait showing which leg had been broken. Doctor White knows his art well.
“You wanted to see me, Mr Holmes?” Williams asks grudgingly.
“Thank you for coming so quickly.” Normally, Mycroft might worry about overstepping social etiquette and the importance of hierarchy aboard the ship, but today he cannot bring himself to worry about that. “I never saw the inside of the powder room. What munitions do we have?”
“Did you want a list?” Williams asks sarcastically.
“What sort of shot are we carrying?” Mycroft asks, ignoring Williams’ tone.
“Round shot. Chain shot.”
“Could we use the galley oven to heat the shot?” Even as Mycroft asks it, he knows the answer. The galley is too far from the cannons to be carried back without incident. The chances of it dropping and setting the Lydia alight are too high to risk. “No, it would be too far to carry safely.”
The next report comes from Watson, with Sherlock close on his heels. It seems to be a game for them to see who will be the first to relay the information. Hence Mycroft hears most of it in duplicate, the two of them talking over each other and occasionally elbowing the other to gain some advantage.
For an uncharitable moment, Mycroft wonders if sharing a ship with Sherlock will be too close to bear. His life might have been easier with Sherlock on the other side of the world.
Still, Mycroft notes the coordinates and their heading, makes an update to their expected arrival time. “What of the Imperium? Has she changed her heading?”
“Still following steadily,” Watson says.
“At least a knot faster than us,” Sherlock adds, “and from the way the men are gathered around the rudder, they're trying to amend their course without us noticing.”
“Angling south or west?” Mycroft asks. The Lydia will have to turn south to reach the sandbank, but if the Imperium heads there first, someone on board must be aware of the danger. West would suggest the Imperium is trying to flank them, to line up her broadside to attack with cannons, suggesting they're not aware of the state of their gunpowder.
“West,” Sherlock says smugly. “Another hour and they'll fire a warning shot. You should drag yourself out of your little cloister to come watch.”
“To watch a cannon be loaded and refuse to fire? That hardly requires an audience.”
Sherlock stares at him as if he is a misbehaving chemical reaction, as if Mycroft stubbornly refuses to follow the laws of physic and consequence. “What's the point of being a pirate if you're going to spend your days sitting inside? You could do that anywhere, Mycroft.”
“Much as I could watch incompetence and failure anywhere. It isn't such a novel concept to warrant any effort to observe it.”
Before Sherlock can say something truly childish, Watson hooks a hand into his elbow and tugs him towards the door. “We'll let the captain know you won't be coming, Mr Holmes,” he says, and Sherlock hisses something to him as they leave.
In some ways, life was much easier when Sherlock was on the other side of an ocean.
Mycroft waits nearly an hour before making his way onto the quarterdeck. Not because Sherlock insisted upon it. Mycroft goes outside to make a clear sketch of the Imperium. He knows enough about French construction to guess where the powder room would be, but Sherlock's had weeks onboard and it's always best to have the most reliable information possible.
Of course Sherlock is climbing along the foremast like there's chimpanzee in his genetic heritage. Mycroft looks away before Sherlock's careless footing makes him worry. Seeking a distraction, Mycroft wanders over the railing to stand beside the captain.
“All well, so far,” Mycroft says in greeting, and Lestrade gives him a terse nod.
“The wind's starting to change,” he says. “If it turns, we'll have to lose speed or be too far off course to make the sandbank.”
Mycroft nods. It's an accurate assessment and he can't add anything useful at this time. He simply has to stand around and wait for Sherlock to descend to the deck.
He does not enjoy waiting.
When Sherlock does finally come down, he announces, “They're pulling out the long nine for a warning shot. This will be fun.”
Lestrade uses a spyglass to watch the other ship and then hands it to Mycroft. When Mycroft looks, the ship is too far away to see the expressions on the men's faces but he can make out their stances and general gait. They're moving slowly, without a sign of panic. If anything, they seem determined to do everything in the right order.
With a sinking feeling, Mycroft watches the powder monkey bring along a small bucket, carried cautiously as dry gunpowder deserves. “They had more stores of black powder,” Mycroft says quietly but Sherlock's already standing by the railing, waiting for the spectacle.
There should be panic and anger, the frustration of men trying to force the block of powder into the cannon and then loading the shot, already knowing it won't work. Instead the cannon is loaded with care and men step away. The fuse is lit, but instead of an anticlimactic silence, there's the distant thunder of a single cannon. The heavy splash of shot hitting water, a few hundred yards away from them.
There's quiet aboard the Lydia and then a sudden cacophony of voices all talking at once. Over the din, Mycroft hears Lestrade yell towards Sherlock, “I thought their powder was wet!”
“It was,” Sherlock says, stepping quickly back from the railing. He's scowling, personally offended at the world not following his scheme.
“Not wet enough.”
“They must have had more stores,” Mycroft says. He passes Sherlock the ink sketch he's make of the Imperium.“A second stockpile. Sherlock, where would it have been?”
Sherlock marks out a space with one finger, saying, “This was the powder room,” and pointing at another place, “They must have had more here.”
“We'll need pitch,” Mycroft says, wanting Sherlock redirected quickly. “Go find some. Or make some.”
Sherlock nods and hurries off, grabbing Watson on his way past. When Mycroft looks at the captain, his face is drawn in confusion.
“Because we're outgunned and can't outrun them. But if we're clever, and very lucky, we might survive this.” Mycroft wonders if he should explain his idea. It's probably better to wait until it works first. Best not to waste time justifying and explaining every detail. “In the meantime, we should keep running and stall for time.”
The Imperium gains the advantage as the winds turn west. Lestrade adjusts the heading of the Lydia, turning to the sandbank but they lose speed with the weaker winds. The Imperium finally makes use of her topsails, turning every scrap of wind into an extra ounce of speed.
She's coming up fast behind them. Their only advantage is that the Imperium isn't wasting powder on wild, inaccurate shots. Sherlock's stunt must have cost them, at least enough that they aren't willing to test how far their cannons can reach.
Mycroft excuses himself to the captain's cabin, gathering a razor blade and that obscenely thin cotton shirt Lestrade made him wear. The thin cotton will be the best choice for their needs, yet he's almost hesitant to cut it. Quite ridiculous. Honestly, it's not suitable to be worn in public.
Mycroft had imagined wearing it again, if only in the privacy of Lestrade's cabin. He'd wondered what expression Lestrade would wear if Mycroft left the lamp burning, if he came to bed wearing only the flimsiest of layers, that sheer white cotton showing everything underneath.
It was a foolish thought, he tells himself, pulling out the razor and cutting the shirt into strips. Such an impractical whim. It's doubtful he'd ever be bold enough to do it.
With such thoughts in his head, no wonder he doesn't hear Lestrade enter the room. He's caught entirely by surprise when Lestrade's hands land on his shoulders. He starts to turn, but Lestrade holds him steady and steps closer to blanket his back with a comforting warmth.
“We'll be within their cannon range in twenty-two minutes,” Mycroft reminds him firmly. He doesn't mean to relax back into the captain's embrace but he can feel himself unwind and soften. “You should be on deck.”
“Tell me what you're planning.”
“It might not work.”
“Tell me,” Lestrade says again, unrelentingly firm but still something kind there.
Past experience tells Mycroft that something done alone, without relying on others, is most likely to succeed. That the fewer people know, the less chance of being betrayed by incompetence or spite. It's been proven true by strangers and his own brothers.
But Lestrade has been kind. Kinder than he needed to be, Mycroft thinks, recalling clasped hands to stave off nightmares. Lestrade promised he'd be safe and kept that promise so well that Mycroft only vaguely remembers how it feels to be constantly wary, forever guarding against the next manipulation and metaphorical knife.
“They have additional stores of gunpowder in the galley,” Mycroft says. He doesn't mention that the powder room would be reinforced for the safety of the ship, or the danger in storing dry powder so close to the hull. “If we can hit the right place and the shot is burning hot enough, we could ignite their powder.”
Lestrade hisses in a breath, fingers tightening on Mycroft's shoulders. “The entire ship would go up,” he says, blank and horrified. “There'd be nothing left of it but splinters. And the crew--”
“Would not survive,” Mycroft finishes for him. He knows the damage will be catastrophic. “There may be a few unlikely survivors but not many. But if we run, they'll catch us and if we stand and fight, they'll win.”
There's a long moment of silence. Mycroft measures it in Lestrade's steady breaths, two out, three in, and then he says roughly, “How are you using the pitch?”
“We'll cover the shot in pitch, and wrap it in damp cotton so it doesn't explode within the chamber.” If it doesn't explode in the chambers, doesn't backfire and send shrapnel of metal and wood exploding through the Lydia's below deck, they still have the problem of accuracy. They need to breach the hull and then fire a second shot through the exact hole. Possible, but far from guaranteed. “If it works, it will keep the Lydia safe.”
Lestrade insists on Williams being told every detail. It's a waste of time they can't afford to lose, but Lestrade still insists.
“You're the captain,” Mycroft replies in annoyance, knowing they'll be within the Imperium’s firing range within ten minutes. “Give the order.”
Lestrade shakes his head, jaw set. “This is a pirate ship. No man is lord and master here. You signed the charter yourself.”
Yes, and Mycroft remembers that the captain and the quartermaster must both agree on orders. Lestrade's authority is only absolute in the heat of battle. “This is a battle tactic,” Mycroft says.
“A charter doesn't mean much if we skirt it when it suits us,” Lestrade says, plain and certain. If he did not find Lestrade so easy to respect, Mycroft is sure he could manoeuvre around his objections. But the captain has a valid point; Mycroft capitulates, on the proviso that Sherlock be included in the discussions so he doesn't have to waste time explaining it twice.
Lestrade frowns. “Are you sure you'll need him?”
“Yes,” Mycroft says, and at least Lestrade doesn't belabour the point.
In the navigation room, Williams queries everything. The location of the powder, the exact place they intend to hit, how the pitch will applied to the shot, how the cannon will be loaded. His questions are relevant but feel endless, and if not for the steadying comfort of Lestrade standing beside him, Mycroft would have no patience for the man.
Sherlock, on the other hand, is silent. It's unnerving. His foolish enthusiasm for impossible experiments would be welcomed right now.
“And you, brother mine?” Mycroft asks sharply. “What is your opinion?”
Sherlock steeples his fingers in a mockery of prayer. “Timing will be an issue. We need two shots to hit, but we'll need at least four guns loaded.”
“Loaded before we start shooting,” Williams says. “Won't have time to load them as we go.”
“Then we're agreed?” Lestrade says, pushing for an answer.
“It's bloodthirsty.” There's something in the look shared between Williams and Lestrade, warning and censure, an underlying concern that Mycroft can't read.
“Better that than hanging,” Lestrade replies. “I can live with a terrible reputation, and right now living is the important outcome.”
“Then it's agreed.” Williams takes a breath, and then adds, “I'll get them to run the guns out and pack the powder.”
“Exactly the amount specified,” Mycroft reminds him. Williams shoots him a sour look but he nods as he leaves.
“I'll get John,” Sherlock says. “We need another pair of hands to apply the pitch, and his are steady.”
It leaves Mycroft alone with Lestrade and the heavy knowledge that Mycroft is about to sink a ship with over two hundred souls. If he succeeds. “In hindsight,” Mycroft offers, staring at the charts on the table, “the Veracitas probably wasn't a prize worth taking.”
Mycroft can't honestly regret it. If not for that skirmish, Mycroft would probably be stepping onto a foreign land right now, about to spend the rest of his life as little more than a purchased commodity. But he can regret putting Lestrade in this position, even if he knows he'd repeat every action if he had to do it over.
The gentle hand on Mycroft's cheek makes him meet Lestrade's gaze. He finds no sign of the recriminations he'd feared.
“Maybe the ship wasn't worth it,” Lestrade allows, his smile a faint shadow of what it usually is.
Mycroft doesn't know what to say so he turns his head and kisses Lestrade's palm instead. Perhaps Lestrade understands what he means, because he leans closer and says, “I’ll get the ship where you need her,” and then he steps back with a soft, “Take care, Fancy.”
It's almost an order.
They prepare five shots to be safe and carefully load the cannons. Keeping the hatches closed for as long as they can, they wait for the sound of cannon fire above deck before making any visible sign of fighting back.
Waiting is the worst part. Mycroft knows they're within firing range now. The Imperium is waiting, drawing closer to allow some accuracy when they fire. Above, Lestrade is directing the crew, keeping them moving until the Imperium catches up, until they can drop their sails and let her pass close enough to hit.
In the dark gloom below deck, Mycroft and dozens of quietly worried men are waiting for the fight to start. It's horrible.
To his right, Sherlock stands by the first cannon. As Mycroft's knowledge of firing is purely theoretical, they decided that Sherlock should fire first. Mycroft will line up the next shot as Sherlock runs to the next canon, and then continue as needed.
Sherlock is calm, eyes wide as he listens to the waves outside and the men above them, lips twisted into a close-mouthed grin. If Mycroft dies today, if this doesn't work, if his calculations are wrong and the cannons backfire, at least he'll meet his maker knowing that Sherlock enjoyed being a pirate.
There's the distant thunder of a cannon and then a loud smash of wood as the shot hits the deck above them. Then Sherlock and Watson are yelling to open the hatches, to run out the guns, and everything is loud and hectic.
Beside him, Sherlock is calling out angles, insisting the cannon be tilted higher and Mycroft has to yell back to correct him. “Too high. Three degrees lower, Sherlock!”
And then he's calling instructions for adjusting his own cannon as the Imperium sails beside them. Mycroft holds his breath as Sherlock squats down, cheek pressed to the cannon as he checks the angle, and then he dances back three steps, yelling, “Fire!”
Mycroft closes his eyes against the roaring shock of noise and smoke. He blinks through the haze to see Sherlock's shot hit but didn't penetrate the hull. The shot's too small and the Imperium is still too far away. Mycroft only has a few seconds to judge the swell of the waves, the movement of both boats and the required trajectory, and then he's hollering, “Fire!” and scurrying back to safety as the noise echoes through the galley.
His shot hits just above Sherlock's, where the timbers are already weak from the last attack, and they break beneath the force. There's a jagged, ugly hole high in her hull. Smaller than Mycroft hoped but a definite target.
Sherlock's already at the third cannon, leaning over it to see the angle clearly. It takes a count of four for the smoke to clear, for the Imperium to sail past and allow Sherlock to line up the shot, and then there's another yell and another thundering blast.
Mycroft watches the cannon ball fly through the air, a dark streak whistling as it sails over the water between the ships to land perfectly through that jagged hole. Time slows for a moment as Mycroft watches, waiting for the inevitable reaction. For a whole breath, nothing seems to happen and then there's the roar of the apocalypse. A ball of flame so hot Mycroft feels it on his face. When he blinks his eyes open, the smoke is as thick as London fog.
Beside him, Sherlock says something but he can't make it out. Mycroft steps closer to the hatch, watching the seabreezes stir eddies through the smoke until he realises there's nothing there. Where there was a large ship, rising proudly out of the water, now he can see the blue horizon. Where she was is just a pile of floating flotsam, planks of wood and floating casks, white sails twisting underneath the water's surface. There are darker shadows among the wreckage. No, not shadows, Mycroft realises, bodies. Bodies floating amongst broken bits of wood, blackened in places and red raw in others. Sometimes, it's not even a body, just a leg or an arm.
Mycroft takes an unsteady step backwards and another, until his back hits a beam and he can sag against that. He tries to lock his knees in place but he's not sure if he does.
Sherlock's yelling something, hands waving above his head as he runs upstairs. The men follow, rushing up to the deck but Mycroft can't. He can't see that in any more detail. Closing his eyes, he wishes he could forget what he's already seen.
He counts his unsteady breaths. When he gets to ten, he forces himself to open his eyes. To take a step forward. To take another step into the dark, empty space because it is one thing to execute such a plan but it is unacceptable to hide from it. He will walk forward with his head held high, he will walk up those stairs and face the destruction he has caused. As soon as he can get his trembling hands to fasten the loose buttons in his waistcoat.
He clenches his hands into fists but it doesn't help. He tries flinging his hands, flicking them from the wrist, but that's no use either. His fingers still shake too much to force a button through its hole. It's ridiculous and he nearly pulls the button off in spite. Instead he curses, and decides to do without being properly dressed. He can march upstairs in whatever state he's in, he thinks, as he notices legs coming down the stairs.
Not just legs. The rest of Lestrade follows. Lestrade's shoulders are tight, worried, until he sees Mycroft standing there, still only a few steps away from that beam but at least he's standing on his own. Lestrade says something but it sounds like a low mumble.
“Temporary hearing loss,” Mycroft says, carefully modulating his tone to a hopefully normal volume. “I didn't expect the blast to be so loud.”
Lestrade walks over to him, and leans close to talk directly into Mycroft's ear. “Let me,” he says and it still sounds muted and far away. Lestrade reaches down, making quick work of fastening the buttons of Mycroft's waistcoat, and then fastening Mycroft's jacket over it.
Then he reaches down and takes Mycroft's hands in his own. There's no way for Mycroft to hide the way they won't stop trembling. Lestrade brushes his thumb across Mycroft's knuckles and leans in to say, “It's done now, Fancy.”
He's not fancy, not prone to flippancy and flirtation. He's not some meek, wide-eyed boy to warm the captain's bed and sit prettily on his lap. He is Mycroft Holmes, who calculated how to destroy a ship with three shots, who killed hundreds of men rather than return to his life and fulfill his obligations. He is sharp and hard; as ruthless as Sherrinford has ever been, as heartless as any Holmes before him.
“That's not my name.”
Lestrade only crowds closer, one hand around Mycroft's and the other wrapping around Mycroft's back. He kisses Mycroft's cheek and says, “Mycroft.” He makes the word sound gentle and sweet; if Mycroft was ever gentle and sweet, it's so long ago that he can't remember.
“Mycroft,” Lestrade says again, low and tender. There's another kiss to Mycroft's cheek, and then slower and almost possessive, Lestrade says, “Mycroft,” and pulls him in tighter until their hands are trapped between them and Mycroft's breathing against Lestrade's neck. He smells of sweat and sunlight and salt air.
When Mycroft's hands stop shaking, Lestrade leads him out into the open air. The deck is full of activity. Men moving back and forth to set the sails and see to any damage the Lydia sustained; other groups hauling things out of rowboats and onto the deck. There are casks and bits of wood lying in piles.
“What are they doing?” Mycroft asks quietly.
“Searching for survivors. Scavenging for anything useful. No need to let the sea take it all.” Lestrade looks around, nods towards Williams on the quarterdeck. “They know what to do.”
Mycroft scans the moving crowd, searching for Sherlock's messy dark curls. “And my brother?”
“With Watson, helping Doctor White,” Lestrade replies.
“Of course.” That possibility hadn't even occurred to Mycroft, yet it's the most logical place that Watson would be needed. Mycroft feels unforgivably slow. But that is no excuse for standing around uselessly; slow or not, he can still count. “I'll speak with Williams and start taking stock.”
The captain gives him a long look. “No. Come downstairs with me.”
“I can be useful here.” Mycroft signed the charter. He's part of the crew. If the rest of the men are working industriously, he should do something. “I can still--”
“Mr Holmes,” the captain's voice is soft but it's clearly an order, “come with me.”
The captain doesn't say another word until they're back in his cabin. When the door closes behind them, there's a sense of relief so strong Mycroft's knees give way. Luckily the captain is there, arms around Mycroft to stop him falling. “Steady now,” Lestrade says, easing Mycroft back to lean on the table.
Mycroft digs his fingers into the smooth wood, needing something solid and reliable. “It has been an eventful day,” he allows and is rewarded by a wry smile from Lestrade.
“That it has.”
For once, Mycroft finds himself grateful of Lestrade's tendency to touch. For the way he can simply lean closer and Lestrade will brush a stray strand of hair from his face, will let his hands linger on Mycroft's cheek.
“If I'd stayed aboard the Imperium,” Mycroft says softly, “those men would be alive right now.”
“You left the Imperium of your own free will.”
Lestrade's tone is gentle but Mycroft hears the truth in it. A truth he already knew. “It was my choice. The blame lies on me, no one else.”
A quick shake of Lestrade’s head as he says, “Not my meaning.”
“They had you under lock and key, and you left. They weren't following to rescue you from pirates, they were pursuing a prisoner. They'd be alive if they'd let you leave.”
Mycroft thinks on that for moment. Their captain would have been under orders to retrieve him. In reality, pursuit was his only option. If the winds had been favourable, the Lydia would have left them temporarily stranded on the sandbank and escaped without any deaths. Circumstances forced both their hands.
“I regret the carnage,” Mycroft says, looking at the calm blue seas through Lestrade's window, “but if I could live the day again, I wouldn't choose differently.”
Another careless touch, this time Lestrade's fingers sliding against his own, a light dry brush that seems far too suggestive. “There's always a cost, Fancy.”
Clearly, that foolish pet name will endure. Mycroft can't bring himself to truly begrudge it. “And what cost have you paid?” Mycroft asks and Lestrade looks confused. “When Williams mentioned bloodthirsty, he was worried for you. What did he mean?”
Understanding lights in Lestrade's eyes. “A pirate makes his fortune by stealing, not by killing. It's far more profitable to have a ship surrender, knowing their men will be safe, than have them scared and fighting for their lives. A smart man won't follow a bloodthirsty captain. Williams was concerned I could lose my position.”
“Surely not,” Mycroft says, the idea unthinkable. “Who could they possibly elect to replace you?”
“There are a few onboard who could do the job well enough,” Lestrade says as if he could be so easily replaced. As if he would follow the wishes of the crew without complaint. To Mycroft's mind, that trait alone should mark him as an excellent captain. “Don't fret, Fancy. If anything should come of it, we'll insist that as sailing master, you should have private quarters. You won't be forced to sleep in a hammock.”
Mycroft eyes him narrowly. “Precisely what did Watson tell you?”
“That you were so scared of hammocks you chose to sleep on the floor,” Lestrade replies, eyes dancing with mischief.
“I am not scared of hammocks.”
Lestrade leans forward. “Care to prove it?”
“Not at this time,” Mycroft says quickly. He glances at the door to be sure it's locked, and then closes the small gap between them, dropping a light kiss to Lestrade's lips.
Lestrade looks delighted and says, “Maybe you should prove you're not scared of my bed.”
“That,” Mycroft replies, pausing for another brief kiss, “I am willing to do.”
It feels sinfully decadent to lie in the captain's arms while the cabin is midday bright. Mycroft is certain that he should feel ashamed for losing himself in pleasure while the rest of the crew worked, but he doesn't. He can't feel bad while Lestrade is wrapped around him, broad chest to Mycroft's back, strong arms curled around Mycroft's chest.
Perhaps he should have thought of the others earlier but when Lestrade's fingers are sliding over his sides and lifting his shirt free, when Lestrade leads him into bed with a soft, sweet smile, Mycroft forgets the rest of the world entirely. With the blue curtains closed around the bed, it's only them. The world is quiet and safe, made of the warmth of Lestrade's bare skin on his and the delightful weight of his body above Mycroft. Mycroft wants to memorise the touch of Lestrade's hands, every inch of Mycroft caressed and adored, every kiss bestowed and every scrape of teeth.
He want to keep every detail greedily locked away, held perfectly safe to remember years from now. How it felt to be looked at, to feel beautiful and desirable, to see the hunger in Lestrade's eyes. How his pulse thundered as he reached over to run a hand through Lestrade's thick, dark hair to say, “Gregory, I would give you anything.” How much he meant it and how vulnerable he felt, and how easily Gregory held that trust in his hands.
How sweetly Lestrade kissed him and touched him, and made that same promise: “We'll have time.”
For the first time, Mycroft believed. Felt that belief grow from something tremulous and wishful to something steady enough to bear weight, something that could hold the promise of tomorrows, the possibility of months and years to come.
As much as Mycroft might wish otherwise, they can’t hide in the cabin all day. It’s late afternoon when they emerge, dressed neatly and clean-shaven. Mycroft knows there is no physical sign of their activities, yet Sherlock makes a show of looking them up and down while smirking.
“Be civil,” Mycroft warns before Sherlock can say anything. Not that Sherlock has ever paid much heed to warnings.
Luckily, Watson speaks first. “We have twenty nine survivors onboard, captain.”
It’s more than Mycroft expected to survive the explosion. “What will happen to them?”
“Ten of them have already elected to join the crew,” Sherlock reports, clearly approving this choice. “Seven of them have been promised safe passage to the next port.”
Mycroft frowns. That leaves a dozen unaccounted for. “And the rest?”
“We’ll take them to port if they live that long,” Lestrade says gently. It’s an obvious conclusion. Mycroft should have anticipated it. “Doctor White will do his best.”
“Where is the next port?” Mycroft asks, looking around the deck. There are extra coils of rope, thicker than the weave the Lydia uses, and an extra rowboat stacked on top of the Lydia’s two, but all other signs of extra provisions have been moved to the galley. Everything will be stacked out of harm’s way; Mycroft might offer to confirm Williams’ count later.
Lestrade looks thoughtful. “That is a very good question, Mr Holmes. There's no longer any reason to sail to Virginia."
“We could sail to the Caribbean,” Sherlock says, sounding far too excited. “There are settlements there that have been known to harbour pirates.”
Clearly, his little brother has read a few too many tales of privateers and adventures in piracy. “There may be higher priorities than places you wish to see firsthand.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Lestrade allows indulgently. “Spanish gold spends easily there and we can restock the ship. The hull needs cleaning, and we might be able to use a dry dock in the right port.”
Mycroft sighs, ignoring Sherlock’s clear excitement. “Jamaica or Barbados would offer the higher trade rates for Spanish gold.”
“How do you know that?” Lestrade asks, surprised. Not surprised by the information, Mycroft notes, but surprised at the source.
“Mycroft knows everything,” Sherlock says, as if that fact is so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said. Mycroft can’t help but feel flattered. Then Sherlock adds, “Well, everything dull.”
“Go check the rigging,” Lestrade replies and Watson nods at the casual order, tugging Sherlock away by one arm. Even so, Sherlock starts talking about pirate ports and asking if Watson’s ever seen one, and if so, when was it and what was it like. Amazingly, they keep the chatter up even as they start climbing up the ropes.
“You know,” Lestrade says as Mycroft watches his excitable sibling, “you could have sailed away and left him in England.”
“I am aware.” Mycroft drags his gaze away from Sherlock and Watson scaling the mizzenmast, and finds the captain watching him with an irresistibly bright smile. A smile Mycroft feels himself returning. “Shall I plot a course for Barbados?”
Lestrade shakes his head. “Not yet. We’ll let the men have their leisure and put it to a vote tomorrow. There's no need to rush.”
“And in the meantime?”
“You could return to the cabin and read,” the captain says, “or you could fetch your sketchbook.”
Lestrade gestures across the quarterdeck, to the portside railing where Mycroft usually sits to sketch. It’s strange to think that he has already carved out a place here. A spot where he can watch the ship, her crew and her captain, or stare at the endless blue horizon around them. It’s strange to think how easily this ship has become a home of sorts.
“Or I could stay on deck and keep you company,” Mycroft suggests instead, taking a few steps to stand beside Lestrade. Lestrade shifts a little closer, close enough for their arms to brush as they look over the deck.
Mycroft's gaze settles on the stern, the splintered pieces of wood damaged in the attack, signs the Lydia has withstood battle and defended her freedom. He settles a hand on the wooden railing, feeling a certain kinship with the ship: both of them drifting free in open waters, trusting the captain's steady hand to guide them.
As strange as it sounds, Mycroft can't recall being happier.