Ezra Fell didn’t particularly like being a purser, but he was good at it, and it paid rather well, and it gave him a chance to keep his hand in. Even on the small, fairly sleepy merchant ships he signed on with, there tended to be enough minor accidents – sprains, splinters, the occasional knock on the head by a wayward boom – that he could still practice. He could still help people, and no one had to know. Not the college, not the Royal Society, not anyone who knew that he’d been disgraced for trying to do a better job.
As long as he didn’t claim to be a physician, he could still help people. So he managed inventories and calculated salaries and argued the financiers into providing for some slightly less ghastly food, and spent the voyages reading in his tiny cabin or watching the endless waves slip by from the deck. It probably wasn’t what most people meant when they talked about ‘seeing the world,’ but the world was mostly ocean, and Ezra had always found the ocean rather lovely. It tended to look a bit the same to him, but so did trees, and grass, and buildings, and the other sorts of things that people tended to take interest in when travelling.
The shorelines, though – those were always so interesting, be they rocky cliffs or black sand beaches or verdant jungles or vivid salt plains, and by this point, Ezra had traced the edges of many lands and loved them all.
The only place he didn’t want to go was home, London, with all its faded ghosts and broken promises. Anywhere else, he could be happy. Anywhere else, he could be free.
In retrospect, when one’s ship has been boarded by pirates in broad daylight, and one has been backed into one’s cabin by a pistol-slinging young lady who is quite determinedly advancing on one’s personal collection of medical texts, “if you want to take my books you’ll have to take me, too” is an incredibly stupid thing to say.
He realised that as soon as the words were out of his stupid, unthinking mouth, but it wasn’t until much later, when he’d been ferried across to the other ship (the pirate ship) and locked in a (surprisingly clean) cell aboard said ship (said pirate ship, with actual pirates carrying very real, very deadly-looking weapons), and the heart-fluttering adrenaline of fear had faded enough to give his thoughts a little more clarity, that he realises he was incredibly lucky not to have simply been killed.
Or, well, not precisely hopefully, since being remembered would probably lead to all of those tortures and torments he’d rather avoid, but maybe the pirates are busy, and don’t have time for tortures and torments, and will just give him a mug of water and some stale bread, or whatever it is pirate captives are given to keep them alive until it’s time to have fun with them.
Then he gets quite cross with himself for being a useless, foolish sod who got captured by pirates simply because he didn’t want them to take his books, and for being so selfish as to completely fail to worry about what had happened to the rest of his shipmates. By the time the anger, the fear, the guilt, and the anxiety have cycled around enough to leave him simply tired, he still hasn’t seen a soul.
Or heard a soul.
Or felt any sort of action taking place through the planks of the ship.
They’re still moving, that much he can tell, but there doesn’t seem to be anything happening. Even on the little merchant ship, which carried no real weapons and had only two masts, the crew could often be heard practicing drills, or calling to one another from their stations, or singing as they worked to repair and maintain the ropes and wood and canvas.
This ship is larger, so perhaps the cells are just isolated enough that none of the noise gets through to them, but once he notices the unnatural silence, Ezra can’t help but keep noticing it.
It’s a little bit ominous, but mostly it just feels lonely. Lonely, and somehow sad.
Or maybe that’s just him.
It’s porridge and water, though the water tastes fresher than he’d expected, and there are little bits of nut and dried fruit in the porridge. It’s filling, if not particularly flavorful, and he scrapes the bowl carefully clean with his wooden spoon, sure to get every last bit.
He’s so engrossed that he doesn’t hear the woman approaching – he just looks up from the bowl, and there she is, the same one who’d threatened his books and subsequently kidnapped him. He should probably be afraid, or angry, but instead he finds himself feeling a stirring of sympathy for her. She’s clearly exhausted, and her gaze is more lead than flint, and she hadn’t killed him, after all, and had handled his books very carefully, so maybe…maybe she’s not so bad.
“Thank you for the food,” he says quietly. “And the blanket. That was— That was kind. I appreciate it.”
“Your books,” she says, voice flat and accent unusual. “They’re quite a collection. Are you a doctor?”
Ezra blinks. He’s not heard that question in some time, and is surprised to find that it still sets up an ache behind his sternum. “Not as such,” he answers carefully.
The woman huffs, and turns away.
“Wait!” he blurts out, before he can stop himself. “I just. What do you want with me?”
“Nothing,” the woman says flatly. “You were in the way. The captain—” her voice hitches a bit. “The captain doesn’t like unnecessary casualties, and we were in a hurry.”
“Ah,” says Ezra. That’s not something he would have expected from a pirate captain, and it doesn’t sound like the sort of view enforced by someone who routinely tortures prisoners. “I— Your captain, could I speak with them? About...terms, I suppose?”
The woman grimaces. “No. He’s not— No. You can’t. I’m the first mate, and acting captain. We can talk later, but I don’t have time right now.”
And with that, she turns and stalks away.
For a pirate, she seems rather a decent sort.
He learns very little that day, except that the woman’s name is Anathema, and that something isn’t quite right on the ship. He’s still seen no one else, and heard nothing beyond the creak of planking and the occasional low murmur of conversation. Anathema is the only one to bring him meals, despite surely having more important things to do as the first mate, and every time he sees her, she looks a little more harried, a little more worn.
He asks if she would be kind enough to return one of his books for him to read while he waits. She chuckles humourlessly, but agrees. She brings the book that evening, as well as a small lantern to read by.
“When I asked if you were a doctor, you said ‘not as such.’ What did you mean.”
The sleep fog clears quickly, and he sits up. Anathema looks like willpower alone is keeping her upright, and his anger drains away.
“Are you—” he starts to ask, concerned in spite of himself, but she cuts him off.
“I’m asking the questions. What did you mean?”
“I meant… I, well, I have some...practical experience, but I’m not—”
“What kind of experience?” There is, he thinks, something like desperation behind the exhaustion, and the shamefaced ache in his chest becomes sharp and focused, like light through a lens. There’s someone to help, here, someone who needs him, someone he could—
“I used to be,” he admits in a rush. “A physician, that is. I used to be a physician. I’m— I was expelled from the Royal Society, and my degree was invalidated, but, yes.”
“Good enough,”Anathema says, and produces a ring of keys from her belt. “Get up, and come with me. I need another set of hands, and yours will have to do.”
She leads him up to the deck, and he blinks, a bit dazed by the brightness of sunlight after days in the relative darkness belowdecks. There are people, he realises, as he hurries to keep up with her long, impatient strides, there are crewmembers, but they’re all subdued. They all have Anathema’s air of exhaustion. Their motions are rote, and there is no talking, no singing, no enjoyment of the beautiful sea around them. It’s strange, and worrisome, but he doesn’t have long to ponder it before Anathema has stopped in front of a plain wooden door set against the rise of the quarter deck. She knocks sharply, but doesn’t wait for a response before pushing it open and striding through.
Ezra follows her, and then stops short, realising several things at once.
First, that these are clearly the captain’s quarters;
Second, that the man lying in the bed must therefore be the captain;
Third, that although he’d never seen so much as a sketch of the man, the sharp features and long red hair of the person in front of him couldn’t belong to anyone but Captain Crowley, one of the most notorious pirates of the age;
Fourth, that he is – and has been – aboard The Viper, supposedly the fastest and deadliest ship on the seas, and therefore has almost no chance of rescue;
And fifth, and most jarringly, that Crowley is very, very ill.
There’s a young boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen years old, tending to him, but it’s clear that his efforts have been in vain. The man is soaked in sweat and tangled in the bedsheets, twitching weakly and breathing in hard, panting gasps. The boy is trying to hold a wet cloth to his forehead, presumably to lower the fever, but the man – Crowley – keeps jerking away from the touch.
Delirious, then, and likely has been for some time. His eyes are sunken enough to indicate dangerous dehydration, and his motions are clumsy and exhausted. He is days away from death, if that.
Ezra crosses the room in a few swift steps, shrugging out of his jacket and ignoring the boy’s questions and Anathema’s sharp protest. Murderous pirate or not, this man is dangerously ill, and Ezra won’t leave him to suffer, not when he can help. He gauges the fever with a touch – high, too high, might already be harming his mind – and plucks a limp wrist from the twisted bedclothes to feel the pulse. It pounds frantically under his fingertips, too fast by far but at least still strong, with none of the skitterings or hesitations of a body utterly devoid of strength. He is close to death, but not yet dying. There might still be time to save him.
“How long has he been sick?” Ezra asks, leaning forward to press his ear to the heaving chest in its sweat-damp nightshirt. No sign of fluid or congestion, but he can’t be getting enough air with breaths that shallow—
“He was injured two weeks ago,” Anathema answers from just behind him, and Ezra straightens up so quickly he almost stumbles back into her.
“His leg. Right leg. There was— It was bad, but it seemed to be healing, then last week he—”
Ezra is already peeling back the bedclothes, trying to untangle them without aggravating whatever injury they’re hiding. Crowley isn’t helping, but Ezra’s had a great deal of experience with uncooperative patients. At last he gets the final snarl untucked, and sees it: a thick layer of rust-stained bandages wrapped from midway up the thigh to just below the knee. He removes the bandages as gently as he can, bracing himself for what he’ll find beneath them, but he still flinches when the wound is laid bare. It’s a long, jagged gash, foul-smelling and worse-looking. The skin around it is furiously inflamed, red and swollen and streaked, and the edges of the wound are dark and stiff where they aren’t spongy and pale. He touches it lightly, barely brushing it with his fingertip, and Crowley flinches and gives a strangled shout. It looks deep, down to the muscle at least—
“I’ve searched it,” Anathema is saying, “I’ve searched it over and over again, and there must be something still in it but I cannot find it—”
He runs his fingers down the skin on either side, well away from the open wound (Crowley makes a sound between a groan and a sob), feels one spot that’s rigid enough to indicate an abscess and another that might just be a knot in the muscle—
“—hasn’t been conscious in days, and hasn’t taken any water since last night—”
“That’s the first thing to do, then,” Ezra decides. “We can work on that while we get the fever down. We’ll need a few clean rags and a cup of fresh water.” He looks up from the festering gash in Crowley’s leg and locks eyes with the terrified boy still holding the dripping cloth over the pillow. “Could you go and bring me those things?” he asks, more gently. “Anathema and I will take care of him until you get back.”
The boy glances to Anathema and must get some sort of confirmation, as he scurries out from the crevice between the bed and the cabin wall.
Crowley has stilled a bit, now that Ezra isn’t touching him, but is still straining against the miserable heat of the fever. He glances around the room, but doesn’t see what he’s looking for. “Is there a tub?” he asks Anathema.
She shakes her head. “We just use pitchers for washing, and the next best thing would be one of Cook’s big pots, which I am not going to put him in.
“Agreed. How about a change of bedding?”
“Might be a couple of sheets in here. The crew can spare some pillows and blankets if he needs them.”
Ezra takes a breath to ask her if she would go and fetch them, but the steely look in her eye stops him. She might have asked for his help, but he’s a stranger to her, and she has no reason to trust him yet. Fortunately, the boy returns just then with a tin cup of water and a stack of linen cloths.
“Just set those on the table,” Anathema directs. “Now, go see Cook about getting something to eat, then go to bed.”
“But what about—”
“Go to bed, Warlock,” Anathema says firmly, but there’s no anger or impatience in her voice. “You’ve been up with him all night, and you need a break. You know he would agree with me,” she adds, a little more softly, and the boy – Warlock – slumps.
“All right,” he mumbles, but casts a long, worried look at Crowley before he trudges out.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Ezra says quietly after the door has shut behind him, “how long have you been up with him?”
Anathema stares him down for a long few seconds, her dark eyes bloodshot but unblinking. “I do mind, actually,” she says at last. Ezra dips his head in acquiescence, but she’s already turned away. “Come on – we have work to do.”
Between the two of them, they get Crowley out of his clinging nightshirt (Ezra almost fancies he can see it steaming), Ezra doing most of the work of holding him up while Anathema strips the wet fabric off of him and gathers his hair into a loose plait. It’s dark and lank with sweat, and tangled from long days of febrile thrashing, but it still holds a suggestion of curl, and it’s likely to be a lovely shade of copper when it’s clean.
Ezra would normally try not to notice these sorts of things about a patient, but right now he’s trying even harder not to notice how hot Crowley’s skin is, even through Ezra’s clothing, how his face burns where it's pressed against Ezra's neck, and how his breathing has sharpened into something more like crying than panting. It’s been a while since he’s seen someone this desperately ill, and it pulls his heart in ways he doesn’t care to examine overmuch. The man’s a pirate, for heaven’s sake – a criminal, and in all probability a murderer. But he’s still just a person, still just a man, and right now he’s in so much pain that Ezra can feel it.
“It’s all right,” he finds himself murmuring to the trembling mess slumped against him. “It’s all right, I’ve got you. It’s all right, shhh. It’s all right.”
At last Anathema is done, and they ease Crowley back down to the pillows. His arms and chest are marked with scars, Ezra realises – some of them old and well-healed, others newer and still ropey – but what truly takes him by surprise is the tattoo over his left shoulder.
"He was an officer in the Royal Navy?" he asks, shocked. That's certainly never been included in the stories he'd heard.
Anathema grunts. "Ask him when he's drunk. It’s a good story. Now how did you plan on getting him to drink?"
Ezra shows her, dipping the corner of a cloth into the water and then resting it against Crowley's cracking lips.
"Adults still have a suckling instinct," he explains, as Crowley laboriously works a few drops from the cloth, "though it's really only observable if they're incapacitated in some way. It's slow, but he'll be more coherent once he's less thirsty, and he might be able to drink normally then."
Anathema takes over there, while Ezra strips the sodden sheets from the bed and puts them in the wicker basket Anathema had tossed the nightshirt into – this ship truly is much cleaner and more orderly than he'd expected of pirates – then gets to work trying to get Crowley's temperature down.
He goes through several pitchers of water and thoroughly soaks the mattress, but by the time Anathema has gotten Crowley to swallow most of the water in the cup, Crowley is resting a bit more easily. He's still far too warm, but he isn't gasping and thrashing the way he had been. He's still tense, though, and obviously still in pain.
"What kind of medicines do you have?" Ezra asks as he wipes Crowley's face and neck for the dozenth time.
"Pretty much everything that was on your ship," Anathema answers, and Ezra goes still, staring at her.
"You attacked us because you needed supplies," he realises slowly. "Medicine. Information." His books. Him, because he was in the way.
"We'd hit a storm," Anathema says shortly. "It's how he got hurt. Lost a lot of our stores during it – food, fresh water, my medical supplies, some of our cargo. We were going to try to get to port somewhere to restock, but then he— I knew he wouldn't make it that long, so. I made the decision, and there you were."
"And here I am," Ezra echoes quietly. "I. He's lucky to have you, I think. To have a crew that cares so much for him."
"He's a pain in my ass," Anathema mutters, "but he's a good captain. A good man. It's what he would do for any of us. It's what he has done."
Ezra pours a little more water on the cloth in his hand, then folds it into a pad and lays it on Crowley's forehead. Crowley sighs softly and presses up against the sensation, murmuring sounds without words.
"How was he injured?"
"Like I said, we hit a storm. Warlock's usually the one to take care of the mizzen sail, because he's the smallest, but the wind was so bad Crowley wouldn't let him, and went up to do it himself. I didn't see exactly what happened – I was right there, but the rain was so thick. Something on the spar must have broken off as he was coming back down, and next thing I know he's on the deck, not moving, with massive splinters stuck through his leg."
Ezra winces. If there is indeed still wood in the wound, it's been rotting for two weeks, poisoning Crowley from within. And if he’d fallen from any significant height, he could have a head injury, as well, which would make it harder to judge the effects of the fever.
"How often have you searched it?"
"As often as he could bear it. But he's lost so much blood, and he's weaker every day, and I don’t want to risk anything unnecessary but I’m running out of options."
Ezra climbs off the mattress and shakes out his stiff limbs. "Where'd the medicines end up?"
"The chest on his desk," Anathema answers without looking up. "It's not locked, and everything's still labelled as I found it. The rest of my supplies are on the table."
Ezra goes over to the desk, and sees several of his medical texts along the way – some of them open to diagrams of muscular anatomy, and others showing images of lancing and bloodletting. Anathema has no small skill in the healing arts, or Crowley likely wouldn't have survived such a serious injury, but it seems that the most needful skills are always the ones one hasn't studied sufficiently. Fortunately, surgery is something of his specialty.
He picks through the chest, thumbing over paper packets and oilcloth pouches and clinking into small glass vials until he's found what he's looking for. Extract of willow bark to bring the fever down and ease some of the ache, oil of clove to numb the raw surfaces of the wound, and comfrey to soothe the inflammation and combat the infection.
"Have you given him anything internally?" he asks over his shoulder.
"Not since yesterday afternoon – I couldn't get him to drink anything."
"Ah, yes, so you'd mentioned. How's the water coming along?"
"Almost done, but I want to let it settle a bit before I try to give him more. And he shouldn't have willow until he's had something more than water, anyway. He hasn't had real food in a week."
"If the water stays down, I think we could give him some broth, if there is any. Beef would be best—"
"To replenish the blood he's lost, I know. We have some dried meat that survived the storm, and I had the beef set aside for him. I can have Cook steep a piece of it."
"That would do nicely."
Ezra takes the medicines back to the table and looks through Anathema's supplies – many of which are actually his, carried with him on his travels but given over to the use of any doctor that accompanies the ship. Some of the instruments are unfamiliar to him, though, so she must not have lost everything. But they'd still lost enough to justify the risk of attacking another ship in order to get what they needed to save their captain's life. Ezra's heart does not clench painfully at the thought, and there is no ache of sympathy for the sickly captain and his dedicated first officer.
He finds what he needs, fills another basin with water, and starts preparing his tools.
He and Anathema had scoured the wound with excruciating attention, finding two remaining splinters – which Anathema removed while Ezra held Crowley down – and an abscess – which Ezra drained while Anathema watched – and flushing the whole thing with round after round of saltwater until Crowley’s hoarse screams had faded into whimpers. It never hurt less to hurt a patient, but Ezra knew it had to be done. If they missed anything, anything at all, Crowley would die.
Even now, Ezra doesn’t know if he’ll ever walk again. The wound had been deep to start with, and searching it only added to the damage. The large muscles of the outer thigh had been badly torn, and sections been weakened further by the infection. By the time he’s well enough to be out of bed, the muscles may have atrophied to uselessness, and building them back up will be the work of months, if it’s even possible at all.
But he’ll probably survive. He’s still very sick, and in a great deal of pain, and will be very weak for quite some time, but he’ll probably survive.
As a consequence, Ezra’s exhausted.
Exhausted, and starving.
Once they’re both cleaned up, and Crowley is settled back in bed with new sheets and a fresh nightshirt, Anathema goes to the mess and brings back a simple meal of bread and dried fish. They take turns eating so that the other can keep an eye on Crowley, who hadn’t so much fallen asleep as lost consciousness by the time they’d started in on the bandaging. He’s doing as well as can be expected, which in this case isn’t well at all; he’s going to need a great deal of care if he’s to pull through.
Ezra feels a little better with something in his stomach and a few gulps of water to wash it down, and although he still wants nothing more than a full day of sleep, he knows that Anathema needs it far more than he does.
It takes some convincing, but she finally agrees to have a short rest on the floor while Ezra sits up with the captain. He makes agreeable noises without actually promising anything when she tells him to wake her in a few hours, so Ezra spends the rest of the day in relative quiet, periodically checking Crowley’s bandages, giving him water, and changing the cold compresses on his forehead and chest.
As afternoon fades into evening, he finds himself getting a little peckish, but doesn’t dare leave Crowley alone to go in search of food. Mostly because that would be irresponsible of him, with the man in such a precarious state, but it’s also a little bit because Anathema would skin him if she woke to find him absent, and he’s just started to accept that tortures and torments are not to be forthcoming. He could wake her, he supposes, though that would rather counter his aim of letting her sleep long enough to not be annoyed by it when she wakes up on her own.
But he is hungry – he hadn’t gotten anything for dinner the night before, and hadn’t had anything for breakfast today. The only meal he’s had in the last twenty-four hours had been the bit of bread and fish, and while it had been appreciated it, it had also been rather paltry.
Perhaps if he just popped over to the mess—
Except he hasn’t any idea where it is, and would most likely get hopelessly lost on the way, and he doesn’t know anyone. He’s been on this ship for four days and doesn’t know the first thing about it, beyond that despite it being the pirate ship most likely to send sailors into a cold sweat, it’s very clean and very orderly and apparently the dreadful Captain Crowley would do anything for his crew, who in turn would do anything for him.
He’s startled from his musings by the chamber door creaking quietly open to admit the boy from before. Warlock. His dark hair is pulled back out of his face now, but the worry hasn’t left his eyes.
“Warlock, is it?” Ezra greets softly.
The boy nods, eyes trained on Crowley, pale and motionless in the bed. “Is he… Is he gonna be all right?”
“I think so,” Ezra tells him. “You and Anathema have been taking very good care of him, and I’ve done what I can to help.”
“Anathema’s a witch,” Warlock says absently. “She’s good at fixing people. Can I sit with him? I slept, like Anathema said to.”
Ezra reminds himself to blink. “Yes, of course. Here, why don’t you take my chair? I’d like to find something to eat, and see about getting Crowley something as well.”
Warlock freezes mid-step, staring at Ezra where he stands. “You know who he is?” he asks.
“Well,” Ezra says, a bit flustered by his surprise, “I assumed— That is, I thought it obvious, but if I’ve made a mistake—”
“You know who he is and you helped him anyway?” Warlock presses. “Anathema said you’d refuse if you knew, so we weren’t to say anything.”
“Ah. Well. He is rather distinctive, I mean. The stories, and all. Maybe it was wrong of me to help, but…” He can’t just let someone suffer. It isn’t right.
“I don’t think it was wrong,” Warlock says, and oh, it shouldn’t be such a relief to hear a child say it, but it is.
“Thank you. That’s good to hear. Will you be all right with him for a bit?”
Warlock nods. “We’ll be fine. Mess is one deck down, just off the aft staircase. You can’t miss it.”
Ezra thanks him again, then slips out of the room and makes his way down to the kitchen.
It’s not a very large space, but neither is it cramped and dingy as he had come to expect from shipboard dining rooms. The wood is honey-blond and well polished, and the bank of porthole windows that lets light into Crowley’s rooms must have a twin row below it, as the rear wall of the mess looks much the same as the rear wall of the cabin, brightening the room without risking the rest of the elements. The galley is off to one side, and Ezra follows the wafting aromas to the source only to find his path blocked by a grizzled gentleman holding a thick wooden spoon in a defensive position.
“Who goes there?” he barks in a rugged Scots burr, then, before Ezra can answer, relaxes his stance and runs an appraising eye over him. “Ah, you’re the doctor then, are you?”
“Well, not quite—”
“How many nipples have you got?”
Ezra stares at him. “I beg your pardon?”
The man prods him in the chest with the spoon. “Nipples, man. It’s a simple enough question. How many?”
“Two,” Ezra says, batting the spoon away, “though I can’t imagine how that’s any business of yours.”
“Witches, laddie,” the man tells him seriously. “It’s a witchy part of the world, this is. Can never be too careful of witches.”
“Do you ask everyone about their nipples, then?”
“Oh, yes.” The man taps the side of his nose with a wink. “I’ve a keen mind, you see. Can’t be swayed by illusions or deceptions.”
“Quite,” Ezra agrees, feeling utterly wrongfooted. “Are you the cook?”
“Aye, that I am. Name’s Shadwell. And what might yours be? Name and occupation, laddie, don’t keep me waitin’.”
“Ezra Fell. And yes, well. I’m a doctor of sorts, I suppose.”
“You been helping the captain, then?”
“I’ve been trying to,” Ezra admits, suddenly unable to keep up this bristly confrontation. It’s been a very long day, and he’s so very tired.
“Eh, he’s a strong lad,” Shadwell says, finally turning back towards the kitchen. “He’ll pull through, what with you an’ the witch keepin’ an eye on him.”
“I hope so. It’s been— Hang on, the witch?”
Shadwell squints at him over his shoulder. “Yes, the witch. First mate. Woman. Dark hair. Knows things. Lord, it’s like you don’t have eyes in your head.”
Ezra takes a moment, trying to sort out every contradictory thing he’s heard in the last minute, but quickly gives up with a sigh. “Could I just have something to eat, please?”
Ezra eats at the table, wolfing the stew down quickly enough that he’ll likely end up with hiccups from it later, and sets the mug of broth next to the lantern to keep warm.
Warlock appears to be nodding off again, so Ezra shakes him gently awake, intending to send him back off to get some more sleep, but instead of leaving, the boy just climbs carefully onto the bed and settles down on Crowley’s left side. “I won’t bother him,” he promises in a whisper. “I won’t touch his leg. But it’s my fault he’s hurt. Did Anathema tell you that?”
Oh, dear. “It isn’t anyone’s fault,” Ezra tells him gently. “He wanted to protect you – that was his choice. It sounds like he cares about you a great deal, and I don’t think he’d want you to blame yourself for this.”
“It’s hard not to.”
“I know. It’s easier to look for blame than to accept that sometimes bad things happen, and no one could have stopped them.”
Ezra knows that only too well.
Later, Ezra will credit the tableau with saving him from a very violent chewing out when Anathema wakes up.
It’s entirely uneventful, except for one moment, when afternoon is turning to evening and the sun slanting to the west fills the room with warm golden light. Crowley stirs, and his eyelids flicker. It’s just an instant, there and gone before Ezra really notices. Crowley shifts again, and sighs, and murmurs something about an angel before drifting off once more.
A few days after the surgery, Ezra sees Crowley’s eyes clearly for the first time. They’re still heavily shadowed and clouded with fever, but they’re definitely open, and they’re the most stunning shade of amber Ezra has ever seen in a person.
“Who’re you?” Crowley asks thickly, almost slurring.
“My name’s Ezra Fell,” Ezra tells him softly. “I’m a— I’ve been helping Anathema look after you.”
“Oh.” Crowley blinks slowly, and lolls his head on the pillow to look around the room. “D’ we make it to port, then?”
“No, we’re still on the ship. Still at sea.”
Crowley looks back at him with a dazed confusion that might be amusing if he weren’t so sick. “Then where’d you…” His expression clears, and his eyes go wide. “Oh, Christ,” he hisses, then tries to sit up. Ezra stops him quickly with a hand on his shoulder, but Crowley falls back with a groan before getting more than an inch off the pillows. “Oh, God, Anathema kidnapped you.”
“Good to see you still have some reasoning abilities,” Ezra says lightly. “And I would like to speak with you about that at some point, though there really isn’t any hurry.”
Crowley makes an inarticulate noise that might be frustration or might be discomfort. Ezra dabs at his forehead, in case it’s the latter. The fever hasn’t been as high as it was that first day, but it’s still clinging stubbornly, and the sooner Crowley can shake it, the sooner he can start recovering.
Crowley makes a less disgruntled noise, so Ezra keeps doing it. Before long, Crowley’s breathing has slowed and his features have slackened back into sleep.
He doesn’t wake again the next day – at least, not while Ezra is with him – but the day after that he’s in about as much as he’s out, though not all of it is peaceful. He wakes up in pain, or too hot, or too cold, and he isn’t very coherent. He spends the next couple of days doing worse than before, muttering and groaning and tossing and turning, but just as Ezra is starting to fear that he’s truly taken a turn, things settle out for a bit.
He’s still feverish, and still too weak to sit up, and Ezra still spends a great deal of time patiently spooning water or broth into his mouth, but he’s more or less lucid when he’s awake, and if Ezra asks him questions about how he’s feeling, he answers them honestly. As honestly as Ezra can figure, anyway.
“Where’s Anathema?” Crowley asks one day. “Haven’t seen her.”
“She’s here,” Ezra tells him. “We take turns sitting with you, so the other can rest. Here, can you have another spoonful?”
Crowley gives him a fairly impressive glower for someone who can’t hold their own head up, but lets Ezra give him some more soup.
“Why haven’t I seen her?” he presses, once he’s swallowed.
Ezra shrugs. “You’ve been sleeping quite a lot. Perhaps the timing simply hasn’t worked out.” It does worry him a bit, because Anathema has mentioned Crowley being awake during her shifts, but memories are often vague and unclear when sick, and it’s not impossible that the fall had concussed him somewhat.
“I want to see her. I need to talk to her.”
“All right. Have a little more of this, and I’ll go get her.”
By the time he gets back with Anathema, Crowley’s asleep again.
“What did I tell you?” Anathema mutters, rubbing a hand over her face. “He’s a pain in my ass.”
“I don’t think the fever did any lasting damage,” Ezra says, “but if he’s having memory troubles, that might be a sign of a head injury.”
“No,” Anathema says, “he’s just doing it to annoy me.” It’s said with such absolute conviction that Ezra honestly can’t tell if she’s joking or not. “I’m going back to bed. If he wants me, tell him he missed his chance.”
Two weeks after waking for the first time, Crowley can sit up on his own, and the fever has finally – finally – abated. He still tires easily, and once abruptly falls asleep in the middle of Anathema washing his hair (which she again insists was done purposefully, to annoy her), but he’s becoming more of himself.
He’s quite rude, actually, which Ezra rather enjoys, especially since he’s so obviously fond of everyone when he thinks no one is paying attention. And Ezra is, for better or worse, almost always paying attention.
He is, in so many ways, not at all what Ezra had expected. The stories of a fearsome, bloodthirsty pirate had not at all prepared him for this. Part of it is that it’s difficult to find someone fearsome and bloodthirsty when one has spent the past two weeks trying very hard to keep them alive, but a larger part is that there is absolutely nothing menacing about him. (Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that every single time Ezra looks at him, he is struck by how tragically, gut-wrenchingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful he is, but Ezra is very carefully not admitting that to anyone, not even himself.)
He makes a show of it, Crowley does, with sharp words and golden-eyed glares, but Ezra has never seen any evidence of fear among his crew.
He hasn’t met the rest of them, having spent the entirety of his time on the ship either in the brig or in Crowley’s quarters, but he’s oddly eager to, just to see what sort of people they are.
The Viper is an interesting ship, long and sleek rather than bulky and wide, and she rides high in the water without the sort of pitching and tossing that lighter vessels tend to experience. She’s a three-master with a sharp steel-tipped prow and gunnels that house oars rather than cannons, though it seems they’re almost never used.
(“Have you ever rowed?” Crowley snips when Ezra asks about it. He’s able to stand for a bit if he doesn’t put much weight on his injured leg, and has taken to hobbling slowly around his quarters while leaning heavily on Ezra. His hair is, as Ezra had suspected, a brilliant mane of copper curls, and it catches the light coming in through the thick-paned windows rather nicely. “Damned hard work. Ruins your hands. Better than being stuck in a doldrums for days, but not by much. Emergencies only.” Each fragment of soliloquy is interspersed with tight, breathy groans as he drags his bad leg forward.
“There’s no need to torture yourself,” Ezra points out, somehow managing to take even more of Crowley’s weight. “If you push yourself too soon you’ll only do more damage.”
“I’m fine,” Crowley insists. Ezra can feel the arm around his shoulders shaking violently, but doesn’t press the issue. He needn’t coddle a pirate, after all.)
There are many other crew members, of course, but Ezra doesn’t get to meet them all right away. They’re busy, as is he. For all that Crowley is improving, he still needs looking after, and Ezra is loath to let Anathema shoulder all of that work again. As acting captain, she has other duties she needs to attend to, and while she’s certainly been well trained, she wasn’t made to stay locked in a room at all hours of the day and night. She breathes easier with the wind in her hair and the salt sun on her skin. Ezra, by contrast, has no qualms admitting that, for all he loves the fresh air and sunshine of the world, he’s more of an indoor sort.
Crowley turns out to tend towards restlessness, and is easily bored. He, too, belongs out in the world rather than cooped up away from it, and outlets his unspent energy by squirming around on the bed until he’s sprawled across it with his head at the foot and his feet at the head (as though he thinks that if he does it gradually enough, Ezra won’t notice), talking Ezra’s ear off, or trying to cajole Ezra into letting him out onto the deck. That last track is easily shut by pointing out that Ezra certainly isn’t stopping him from doing anything, and if he wants to go out onto the deck then he’s welcome to go out onto the deck. Crowley scowls at him for a bit, then rededicates himself to his other two pass-times by slowly contorting himself into a new pose on the mattress and launching into a lecture about various marine mammals.
It’s oddly charming, and even...endearing? He’s around Ezra’s age, perhaps a little younger, but there’s a fire in him that Ezra doesn’t think he’s ever possessed. Perhaps when he was a freshly minted physician, and saw himself trotting off down all the lanes of the world to cure all ills and ease all sufferings, not yet realising how much he didn’t know, and how severely he’d be stopped from trying to learn anything that wasn’t approved of by the right people.
There’s still the question of Crowley’s questionable military past, though, and his many scars, so it can’t be that Crowley is simply naïf and unbroken.
Ezra eventually decides to channel Crowley’s restlessness in a particular direction, and lets him wear himself out with exercises to keep his leg from stiffening overmuch as it heals. And it works – for a few days, that is, until Crowley convinces Ezra to let him try standing, and then walking, and hence the soliloquy on rowing. It takes quite a bit out of him, though, and a brief circuit of the stateroom is generally enough to earn Ezra a few hours of peace while Crowley sleeps off the exertion.
He snores, when he’s simply asleep and not insensible from fever – it’s a quiet little thing, and Ezra utterly fails to find it irritating.
The warning call goes up a little before noon on a cool, cloudy day.
“Sails approaching from port bow!”
Then, a few minutes later: “She’s flying a Roger!”
There’s a commotion outside, feet pounding and voices calling, and it’s loud enough through the cabin walls and door to wake Crowley up.
“What’s going on?” he asks, pushing himself up onto his elbows.
“There’s a ship approaching,” Ezra tells him. “Anathema has it in hand, I’m sure.”
Crowley sits up sharply. “Whose ship?” he demands, fixing Ezra with that amber glare.
“Don’t ask me,” Ezra says mildly. “How on earth would I know? Although I do believe they said it might be pirates,” he adds, rather reluctantly, knowing he ought to but very much not wanting to.
“Shit,” Crowley curses, throwing back the covers and grunting as he swings his legs over the side of the bed. “Get me some clothes. Boots too if you can find them, but I’m not picky.”
“I don’t think you should—”
“Get me some clothes,” Crowley hisses, and ah, yes, perhaps there is a grain of truth in the stories of his ferocious temper. Just a grain, perhaps, but still.
Ezra finds a pair of breeches and helps Crowley struggle into them. He can’t bend over very far without pulling the injured muscles in his thigh, but once the waistband is up over his knees he can manage all right, so Ezra leaves him to handle the lacing and goes around the room in search of boots. He finds a pair in the bottom of the armoire, and an embroidered frock coat draped over a hook above them, and brings them all over to Crowley.
“Should have a cane around here, somewhere, too,” Crowley tells him, raking his hands through his hair to pull it back from his face.
“You really oughtn’t be walking yet,” Ezra huffs, but looks for it anyway. It’s leaning in the corner made by the wall and a large footlocker, and as Ezra pulls it out, he sees that it’s decidedly military in style – simple, solid, with an engraved silver head. Another piece of the puzzle, then. Another question to ask when he feels courageous enough.
Crowley’s gotten the boots on (Ezra is relieved to see that they’re high enough to cover the raised hem of his breeches – if they’d been too short, Crowley would surely have made him find a different pair), and has the coat on over his nightshirt, which is still unlaced enough to show the vertical scar over his sternum. He beckons impatiently until Ezra hands him the cane and hauls him up onto his feet, getting him as balanced as he can.
The shouting on deck hasn’t died down, but it falters when Crowley bursts out of his room into the middle of the chaos.
“What the hell’s going on out here?” he snaps, and shakes free of Ezra’s grip to make his unsteady way across the deck to where Anathema is directing the sail handlers and shouting orders to a group handing out pistols and muskets. He can barely walk, and he should look ridiculous with a coat on over his nightshirt and his hair still wildly unkempt, but somehow this is the most threatening Ezra has ever seen him.
He can’t hear what they’re saying over the din of preparation, but he sees Anathema gesture to a ship looming up ahead of them, and Ezra balks. It’s still a league or two out, but it’s huge – four masts, and larger than Viper on every scale – and it’s heading straight for them.
There’s a military look to the cut of the sails and the shape of the rigging, but it is unquestionably flying a black flag, though the device on it is unclear at this distance.
He knows by now that The Viper’s reputation may be a tad exaggerated, but what sort of ship – what sort of crew – would pit itself directly against one of the most feared in the world? Unless they knew the rumours were unfounded, or were so confident in their superior strength and numbers that even the wildest legends didn’t faze them...
Viper tacks suddenly, swinging around to face the approaching ship, and starts gaining speed. They’ve caught the wind at a better angle on this heading, and are using it to charge down the approaching ship. Ezra almost wants to laugh. Of course that’s what they’re doing. Never mind that Viper is two thirds the size of the other ship, never mind that there are children on board, never mind that Crowley can hardly stand—
“Everyone to stern!” Crowley calls, voice rising easily over the wind. “Sail handlers, get the lines weighted and prepare to drop sheets! If they run, we let them; if they stay, we ram them!”
“Keep the helm until Crowley takes it!” Anathema shouts to Tracy, as she strides past him and bounds up the steps to the quarter deck. Ezra turns to follow her up, along with all the others, then stops. Crowley is still standing by the main mast, peering up with shaded eyes to watch as the children in the rigging connect the reefing lines into a complicated-looking pulley system that reaches back to the helm. Unsteady as he is, if he’s anywhere near the bow when they ram, there’s no way he won’t be hurt.
“Come on,” Ezra calls, hurrying towards him. “The children will be faster than you are, they’ll beat you back to the stern anyway—”
The other ship is half a league away now, looking larger and more terrifying than ever, but he still can’t make out the device on the flag, until a gust of wind snaps it out flat, and—
Everyone stops. In the sudden silence, Crowley gives a very loud, very put-upon sigh, then raises his voice again.
“It’s fucking Beelz. All right, regular stations for everyone except the muskets, I want you to shoot their idiot hats off.”
The sails slacken, slowing the ship’s headlong charge, and the crew trickle back to their usual places as Tracy swings the bow so the two vessels are on parallel headings rather than intersecting.
“Who is Beelz?” Ezra asks Crowley, then has to steady him as he sways.
“Old friend,” Crowley answers shortly. “All bark, no bite. Well, unless you’re with the navy, then it’s the other way around. Don’t know what they want, but they’re not gonna fight us. Now get back, and let me handle this.”
Despite the assurances, and despite his own reluctance to leave Crowley to face what’s coming, he takes a few steps to the side to stand with the rest of the crew. They seem to agree that the other ship doesn’t pose a threat, but they’re not totally at ease.
A few minutes later, the two ships draw up alongside each other, and a short figure in a long coat stands up on the rail to shout across the distance. “Permission to come aboard?”
Crowley makes an irritable gesture with his free hand and leans a little more heavily on the cane with the other. “Yes, fine, sure. Whatever.”
Lines are tossed across to pull the ships together, and a plank appears to bridge the narrow gap. The short one, who must be ‘Beelz,’ comes across with two men behind them, one strikingly pale and the other strikingly dark. All three of them are, indeed, wearing rather extravagant tricorn hats.
“Quite the welcome,” Beelz observes dryly as they drop to the deck of The Viper.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Crowley says, not sounding sorry at all. “Didn’t recognise the new ship, thought you were someone we’d have to take seriously.”
“This is you taking someone seriously?” Beelz asks, gesturing at Crowley’s haphazard outfit, then seems to notice the cane for the first time. “What happened to you?”
Crowley snorts. “I’ve been sick. When’d you get the ship?”
“Few months ago. When’d you get sick?”
“Few weeks ago. ‘S nice, I like it. Suits you. Clearly not compensating for anything.”
“Handles like a dream, though. Got it from an old friend of yours.”
“Lucius still in the business of selling stolen ships, then? Glad to see his taste is finally improving. Though I can’t say the same about you two,” he adds, raising his voice to address the men behind Beelz. “Hastur, Ligur, horrid to see you, as always”
“Fuck you, Crowley,” says the pale one, then breaks into a odd, lopsided grin. The dark one just rolls his eyes.
“Right, so, that’s pleasantries done with,” Crowley continues breezily, pulling a hand through his hair. “Mind telling me what you want, so we can get on with things?”
“Just a message,” Beelz says. “From Lucius. Wanted to let you know he’s thinking of you.”
The silence around them turns from cautious expectation to barely restrained hostility. Ezra has no idea who Lucius is, but the crew clearly know of him, and whatever they know isn’t good.
Crowley wrinkles his nose. “Lovely. Tell him I’ve forgotten him entirely.”
Beelz laughs, but it’s a grating sound. “You know he wants you back, Crowley.”
“And he knows I want nothing more to do with him. That’s his answer, and it always has been. Always will be.”
“I’ll tell him we missed you,” Beelz says, after a pause, and Viper’s crew relaxes somewhat. “Whenever we see him again, that is. Find me in port sometime, we’ll have drinks.”
“Don’t forget you still owe me at least four rounds,” Crowley reminds them, and Beelz flourishes a bow.
“Better not die before you can collect them, then,” Beelz says, then turns with a snap, and the three visitors stomp back over the plank to their own ship. Mooring lines are cast off, and poles come out to push the hulls apart before retreating back aboard.
“Well,” says Crowley to no one in particular. “That was a thing.”
“You foolish man,” he mutters, though it’s only half to Crowley. He himself had certainly been a fool, letting Crowley push himself too soon, thinking it wouldn’t turn out like this. “It was just starting to heal and now you’ve torn half of it open again.”
Ezra looks up at him and glares, then softens. He’s to blame as much as Crowley is, if not more, and projecting that blame onto Crowley won’t do either of them any good.
“I’m angrier at myself than I am at you,” he admits. “I knew it was too soon – I should have stopped you, or at least not encouraged you so much. I’m the one who should be sorry, and I am.”
“Don’t. Don’t be. I’m a terrible patient, I know that. Always have been. Point of pride, really. Always going too fast.” He smiles, just a bit, and Ezra’s soft heart splits wide open.
“I wouldn’t say ‘terrible,’” he murmurs. “‘Infuriating,’ yes, but not ‘terrible.’ I just wish you showed a bit more care for yourself, that’s all.”
Crowley starts several words and doesn’t finish any of them.
Ezra looks back down at the wound. Aside from being reopened in a couple of spots, it seems to be healing all right. The inflammation has settled, and there don’t seem to be any abscesses lurking under the skin. “I’ll have to clean this again. It’s not as bad as it could be, but it’s too wide for stitches, so you really must keep off of it until it closes or it won’t ever heal properly.”
Ezra gives him something to lessen the pain, then cleans and rebandages his leg in silence. By the time he’s done, he thinks Crowley might have fallen asleep, but a glance up the bed shows him to be watching Ezra with heavy-lidded eyes.
“I’d die for my crew,” he says, in that same low, slurring voice as when he’d first woken up. “Happily. If it would save them.”
“I know,” Ezra says, and means it. “But you don’t have to.”
Crowley hums, then appears to drift off, going loose against the pillow.
Ezra has been aboard Viper for almost two months, and for the first time in twice that long, he sees land on the horizon.
When he’s on a ship intentionally, he makes a habit of tracking their progress. He’s no navigator, and his results are often a little off, but it helps him feel grounded in the vast reaches of water, and it seems a useful skill to have. But he hadn’t known precisely where they were when Viper had attacked them, only that they were headed south off the western coast of Africa, making for the Canary Islands. Then he’d spent four days in a cell belowdecks with no way to judge speed or direction, so even though it’s been weeks and weeks since he was allowed topside, he hasn’t given a thought to trying to pinpoint their position.
He could just ask Tracy, and she’d almost surely let him take a crack at it himself with her charts and compasses, but he hasn’t felt the need to know. He’s just a passenger, this time. There are no accounts to keep, no ledgers to balance, no inventories to tally. Just the sea and the air – though it has been a bit cooler lately; either autumn is getting on, or they’ve been heading north – and the pirate crew that have slowly but surely been becoming his friends.
He hasn’t exactly sat them down and asked how they’d gotten involved in piracy, but he’s been given a bunk in the berthing deck, and gotten to know everyone rather well at meals and such, so he’s heard rather a lot. Certainly enough to know that everyone on the ship wants to be there, and would rather be there than anywhere else. There was something missing in their lives, and they’d found it here, and stayed with it.
He’s starting to understand what that something might be.
Crowley slips up beside him at the rail, where he stands watching the line of green. He still relies on the cane to get around, but his gait is smoother, and he’s standing straighter, and somehow he manages to be devilishly quiet.
Ezra startles a little, then can’t help but smile. Crowley really does look very dashing like this, profile catching the sun, with his hair half pulled back and spilling like flame over his shoulders. Wrenching his attention away before it turns to staring, he nods towards the landmass. “What is that? What country, I mean.”
“If it’s not, I’ll have to find a new navigator, and I’d hate to fire Tracy after all these years.”
“Ah, yes. Right. Are we headed there, or just passing by?”
“Headed in. We’re aiming for Lisbon – it’s a very chaotic port, so we’ll blend right in. Supply run, that’s all. Couple of days, then we’ll be moving on.”
Somewhere along the line, Crowley’s habit of speaking in partial sentences had become familiar, like the voice of an old friend. Abruptly, Ezra realises that he might not be hearing it much longer.
He swallows. “Is that where we part ways, then?”
“Suppose it must be. You’ve got a life to be getting back to, haven’t you? Can’t spend the rest of your days cavorting with pirates. ‘S not respectable.” Crowley shifts, setting the cane aside and dropping his elbows to the rail to take some of the weight off his leg.
“I suppose so,” Ezra admits. The thought doesn’t hold much happiness, though. Has anyone even noticed he’s gone? Anathema had assured him that his ship – the other ship, the one he’d started out on, which certainly had never been his – hadn’t been damaged and none of the crew had been harmed, and that they’d been left with plenty of water and rations to reach the Canaries, so that’s no longer a weight on his conscience, but was he ever a weight on anyone else’s? He’d been friendly with the crews he worked with, but it was at its heart a business relationship. He did his job and kept himself to himself, and friendliness had never turned into friendship. After he was taken, did anyone so much as lift a glass to his name or shake their head sadly and think ah, that poor fellow, captured by pirates and like as not murdered, what a shame, what a shame? He doesn’t think so.
It doesn’t upset him, really it doesn’t, it’s just that he doesn’t particularly want to go back to living that sort of forgettable life. And that’s what he would be doing, wouldn’t it? Walking away from the one place he might actually feel he belongs.
“Oh, please,” he says, trying for levity. “I was hardly respectable before.” Crowley scoffs.
“Right, of course. A real renegade, you are. An absolute menace. Going around saving people’s lives — it’s only a matter of time before they pack you off to Australia.”
“I’ve told you,” Ezra tries to explain for what may actually be the hundredth time, “my degree was revoked. Under those circumstances, practicing medicine is highly immoral.”
Crowley leans even more weight on his elbows, tilting his face up into the sun. “So some prick thinks he knows everything and sacks you for disagreeing, we’ve all been there. Doesn’t make you a criminal.”
“It does, in fact, in this particular case.”
Crowley makes a noise that sounds like myeh.
“I do wish you would take me seriously, Crowley. I know it’s hardly impressive to someone like you, but it matters to me.”
“I take you plenty seriously, angel,” Crowley says absently. “About all sorts of things. I just don’t think a piece of paper can make a good person into a bad one or a bad one into a good one. If you want to flog yourself over it, I won’t stop you, but I can’t recommend it. Hurts like anything, and doesn’t make a damn bit of difference in who you are or who you aren’t.” He puts his head down on the rail with a muffled thump, and that’s when Ezra notices he’s shaking.
“Are you all right?” he asks, suddenly concerned, and his hand appears on Crowley’s back.
“Cramp,” Crowley grunts. “Walked too much. It’ll pass.”
“Oh, dear. Sit down, I’ll help you stretch it out.” It’s stiff and awkward, but eventually Crowley’s sitting on the deck with his back against the rail and his legs stretched out in front of him, the right one tense and twitching and locked in a bend. Crowley hisses as Ezra starts pushing his knee down, straightening the leg and pulling the spasming muscle tight. “Deep breaths,” Ezra reminds him, “almost there.” He can’t go too quickly, but the sooner the joint is stretched out, the sooner the cramp will ease. “That’s it, just a bit more.” At last, the leg is lying flat, and Ezra shifts his grip to hold the knee with one hand and press the heel of his other hand against the still-healing scar. It takes a minute, but at last the cramp eases and Crowley relaxes with a long, unsteady sigh.
“Can’t say I’ll miss this when it finally stops happening,” Crowley says.
“I’m sure you won’t,” Ezra agrees dryly. “All right, you need to sit for a while, and not here. Quarters or mess?”
“Quarters,” Crowley decides, and only groans a little when Ezra pulls him carefully to his feet. “Think I’ll have a bit of a lie-down.”
“I’ll come back for your cane, just lean on me, that’s it.” They’re well-practiced at this by now, and although Crowley isn’t all that much taller than Ezra, his arm over Ezra’s shoulders and Ezra’s arm around his skinny waist fit as perfectly as if they’d been designed as a set.
“I’ll have you know that I was a right terror before you met me,” Crowley insists as they make their way across the deck. “When I had two working legs, I was an absolute menace. The scourge of the seas. And now look at me.”
“Now you’re a menace who needs to rest a bit more often, that’s all. Your days of scourging are hardly over, I’m sure.”
“God, I can’t wait to get back to scourging. After Lisbon, I’m gonna be scourging all over the place.”
Ezra’s spirits sink again. “I suppose I’ll have to take your word for it,” he says, and Crowley goes silent.
Once in Crowley’s rooms, Ezra gets him settled on the bed then goes back to get his cane. Portugal can’t have gotten all that much closer in the last few minutes, but the line on the horizon looks darker, somehow, than it did before.
It takes a few hours to cycle through everyone, and Ezra waits until the very end to take his turn. He won’t be coming back aboard, after all. Crowley hadn’t gone either, and the two of them spend those hours sitting on a couple of barrels on the quarter deck, talking idly and taking in the sights and sounds of the port.
At least, that’s what Ezra is doing; Crowley’s probably been here many times before, and doesn’t find anything novel in the surroundings. It’s new to Ezra, though. At first glance, port towns all rather look the same, but each is unique in myriad small ways, and watching them is fun. Not as fun as exploring them, perhaps, but he’ll have time for that later.
So he watches, and listens, and enjoys the strengthening sun on his skin while Crowley sits in silence beside him, and pretends that he isn’t going to leave.
“I have something for you,” Crowley says, without preamble, and stands. Ezra follows him across the deck and down the steps to his quarters. He’s spent much less time there, recently, as Crowley no longer requires his oversight (nor is he confined to them himself), and he has the whole of the ship to wander. The rooms are still familiar, of course, to the point that Ezra could probably navigate them blindfolded, and he’s grown quite fond of the way the light comes through the slight waves in the glass of the portholes.
Crowley makes his way across the stateroom to his desk, where rectangular basket is sitting, and circles behind it to drop into the chair. He gestures Ezra forward, then makes a vague motion towards the basket. “Yours,” he says shortly, studiously keeping his eyes fixed on something out the window.
“Oh,” Ezra says, surprised, and starts looking through it. Most of the space is taken up by clothing – creamy soft shirts, a waistcoat similar to his own but with pearl buttons and designs picked out in brilliant gold thread, a silk cravat in a lovely shade of deep blue, and a pair of buttery leather gloves – but nestled amongst the fabric is a leather pouch that clinks suspiciously when handled and proves to be quite heavy when he lifts it out, eyes wide.
Crowley has his chin on the back of his hand and is leaning back in his chair, still avoiding eye contact.
“Crowley,” Ezra says softly, and gets a flinching sort of glance in reply. “I can’t. It’s too much. The clothes are lovely,” he adds hastily, lest he be misunderstood and Crowley swipe the whole thing away in a snit, “and quite welcome, but I don’t want your money.”
“It’s not my money,” Crowley mutters, and Ezra sighs.
“You know what I mean.”
“You’ll need passage back to England,” Crowley points out. He’s running his nails along his lower lip, now, a nervous habit he doesn’t seem to know he has. “And food and lodgings in the meantime. And reparations for the whole kidnapping business. Anathema’s getting your books packed up,” he adds, swiveling in an instant to fix Ezra with the whole weight of his earnest, intense gaze. “And your medical supplies. She wanted to take some final notes on them, or I would have given them back to you earlier. And anything else. Anything you want, just name it, it’s yours.”
Crowley hasn’t blinked, but Ezra has to, and tries to reel himself in a bit. “That’s quite the offer,” he manages, and tacks on a breathy little chuckle. “What if I wanted something ridiculous, like— like, the figurehead?” The sleek, striking serpent at the prow, mirroring the coiled pose of Crowley’s device. “Or the ship itself?” The closest thing he’s had to a home in years. “Or—”
“There’s nothing you could ask for,” Crowley cuts in quietly, with something like sadness in the curve of his mouth, “that I wouldn’t want to give you.”
“Well, that’s—” Ezra drops his gaze. “That’s very kind of you. But I think— I think I have everything I need, and more besides.”
“Right. Well.” Crowley pushes himself up, and when Ezra looks up, his expression is utterly impassive. “Best let you finish packing, then. Last shore group’ll be back any minute, if they know what’s good for them, and you’ll be free to go. Don’t forget to get your things from Anathema.” He limps out of the room, leaning heavily on his cane, and doesn’t look back.
Crowley won’t even look at him. He just leans against the main mast with his arms folded tightly over his chest, staring into some unseen distance and looking tragically, gut-wrenchingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful.
For one wild, insane moment, Ezra wants to go to him, wants to press him up against the mast and kiss him, but he doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t. He hefts the satchel containing his gifts, his books, and his money onto his back, gives one last nod to the assembled crew, and walks off down the gangplank, leaving Viper behind for good.
He makes his way back to London in something of a daze, unable to even enjoy the new and beautiful scenery passing by. Upon returning, he donates all of Crowley’s remaining funds to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and starts looking for a crew to sign on with.
About a year later, a passing naval frigate spreads the news that the notorious pirate Crowley has finally been captured, and will soon be brought to justice.
Three months after that, he’s in Amsterdam, indulging perhaps a bit too freely in a waterfront tavern, and his unfocused eyes pick up a flash of fiery red moving through the crowd. He’s barely had time to process it when an achingly familiar figure drops onto the stool next to him.
“This seat taken?” Crowley drawls, and Ezra nearly bursts into tears. Instead, he makes the much more sensible decision to throw his arms around him.
Crowley almost topples backwards off the stool with the force of it. He makes an alarmed sort of noise, but Ezra can already feel how thin he is, how strangely delicate in his arms, and pulls back enough to balance them again and get a good look at the man. Then he— well, he doesn’t quite burst into tears, but his vision does get a bit swimmy.
“Oh, Crowley,” he says, with enough of his wits about him still to say it quietly, at least, and lets go of Crowley’s shoulders to take his face into his hands. “Oh, Crowley,” he says again. He sweeps a thumb across the too-prominent ridge of Crowley’s cheekbone. “I thought— I’d heard—”
“As you can see, rumours of my capture have been somewhat exaggerated.”
“But only somewhat,” Ezra agrees quietly. “Are you all right? Are the others all right?”
“Everyone’s fine.” Crowley lifts a hand to wrap pale, spindly fingers around Ezra’s wrist. It’s a cold touch, but a comfort nonetheless. “A bit worse for wear, but no lasting damage.”
“Where have you been? What happened? Where are you going? How did you find me?”
“So many questions,” Crowley murmurs, and turns his head to brush dry lips against Ezra’s palm. There’s something uninhibited about his motions, something hazy and languid, but Ezra suspects it’s exhaustion rather than intoxication. “Too many to answer.”
“Are you staying?”
Crowley’s eyes flutter closed. “No. We’re on our way north. In a bit of a hurry. Just had some business to take care of.”
“And did you? Take care of it?”
“Are you going back to your ship, then?”
Crowley nods against his hands, a lock of hair falling across his face as he does. Ezra tucks it back behind his ear. “Let me walk you there, at least. You’re dead on your feet.”
At that, Crowley sits up, unlocks his fingers from around Ezra’s wrist, pulls his face back from Ezra’s hand, and opens his eyes. It’s all still slow, all still stiff, but all very deliberate. Ezra tucks his hands away in his lap to keep them from reaching out again.
“Better not,” Crowley says with the tiniest, saddest smile Ezra has ever seen. “Might end up kidnapping you again.”
“Would that be such a bad thing?” Ezra asks before he can stop himself. “I’ve missed you so much. I didn’t think I would, but I do. Every day. I’d be happy to go. With you. Anywhere you like. Just take me with you.”
“You don’t mean that,” Crowley tells him softly.
“I do, though. I do mean it.”
“It’s no life for you, angel. Things’ve changed. We’re always on the run, now, always trying to stay one step ahead.”
“But I would be happy,” Ezra insists. His voice wobbles a little, cracks in a fine line. “I would finally be happy.”
“Then why not?” His eyes are wet again, brimming up.
Crowley sighs. “Because you deserve better.”
“I don’t want ‘better,’ I want—” His throat closes up, cuts him off. Crowley’s stool scrapes against the floor as he stands.
And he leaves.
Ezra doesn’t follow.
As though a bucket of cold water has been sluiced down his back, he is suddenly awake.
She looks just as bad as Crowley had, and a bit unusual in skirt instead of trousers, but it’s her, and she’s there, waiting for him.
She meets his gaze, holds it for a moment, then tips her head out towards the quay and turns on her heel. He hesitates for an instant, unable to be totally sure that this is what she intends, but then the moment breaks and he hurries to catch up to her. He follows her through the streets and pieced together docks until there’s no dock left, only a little dinghy moored loosely to the last post, and out – out on the deeper waters, half shrouded in the early morning mists, is a long, sleek ship.
Anathema rows them out with powerful strokes, watching the receding town while Ezra sits in the bow and stares with hopeful, disbelieving longing at the shape growing closer and clearer.
There’s a rope ladder already hanging down over the side, waiting to be climbed, so he climbs it, and finds himself clambering over the railing only a heartbeat later. He stumbles a bit at the drop, as he always does, but then he lifts his eyes, and there’s Crowley.
Pale and wan in the muddy light, his hair a mess of copper and damp with dew, clutching a pile of books to his chest like they’re the only solid thing on earth, and staring at him with such longing.
“Oh, my dear,” Ezra breathes, and goes to him.
Crowley offers out the armful of books. “I thought,” he says, unsure and unsmooth and Ezra loves him, “I thought you might want these, if. If you’re coming with us.”
They’re his, his books, the ones he’d brought with him when he sailed from Anvers to Rotterdam to Amsterdam, and now they’re here, in Crowley’s arms. Ezra takes them from him carefully, reverently, looks them over and sees them all, every one of them beloved and familiar, then carefully lays them on the deck. Crowley’s arms have gone back over his chest, empty this time, his hands grasping at the edges of his open coat, and he’s so thin, he must be freezing, how long has he been standing out here, so Ezra gathers him up just as he is, wraps him up safe and warm and holds him close, and rests his chin against Crowley’s shoulder, and holds him and holds him and holds him.
Crowley is shaking. Ezra rubs a hand up and down his back, and he only shakes harder. Ezra pulls away, but the moment there’s space between them, Crowley’s hands come up to cup his jaw, and then they’re kissing, and Ezra feels tears on his cheeks and doesn’t know whose. Then Crowley draws back with a shuddering breath, silver tracks glistening under desperate eyes, and Ezra wipes them away.
“I meant it,” he whispers. “I meant every word of it. Anywhere you like, Crowley. Anywhere at all. Just don’t go without me.”
Crowley swallows. “I couldn’t. Not anymore. I tried.”
“I know. So did I.”
“I’m so glad.”
Crowley chokes on a wet laugh, then wraps his arms around Ezra and tugs him in again, their arms around each other this time.
They stay like that for some time, until Ezra realises how close they are to the mast.
And then, well. If he pushes his beautiful pirate captain up against it and kisses him breathless, can he really be blamed?