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Israel Hands is six when he learns the most valuable lesson of his life. 

His sister helps him clean himself up afterwards, wiping the blood and snot and spit and tears from his chin with a damp cloth, pinching his elbow when it looks like he might start to cry again, pushing her hand up against his jaw, smashing his teeth together to stop any sound from coming out when he does. 

His cheek and chin will not scar, since the skin has only broken; he will be bruised for a few weeks, but those will fade too. He wipes his nose with the back of his hand. 

“There will always be someone bigger and stronger than you, Iz,” she tells him, her hand holding his trembling lips shut, their father still in the next room, “You have to be like the sea. You have to roll over, pet, and take the punches.”

That night, he lies in bed with his sister, her chin on his shoulder, tucked into the warmth of her. She is nine. 

Their father kills her when she’s ten, by accident, slamming her so hard into the stone fireplace that her head cracks like an egg, the yolky brain spilling out onto the flagstones. Israel, seven, flees.

Lesson learnt.

*

Israel Hands is fifteen when he meets Edward Teach. 

Edward is seventeen, and the most compelling man Israel has ever seen. They’re both deckhands on a Dutch merchant ship, and at night Edward keeps them both up long past midnight with talk; they sleep in two slung hammocks beside one another, Israel curled up like he used to with his sister, Edward slung out with long limbs and dark skin, his black hair short yet and still about his ears, his arms, his fingers untouched by ink. “I’ve got plans, Iz,” he says in that soft voice, “I’ve got big plans. Bigger than spice trades and pigs.”

Israel watches his booted foot swing the hammock side to side. “I know you do.”

“I’m serious. I’m bored of this shit.”

“I know you are.”

“I’m sick of being pushed around.”

“I know you are.”

“Nah, Iz,” Edward wriggles around, his fingers around the edge of the hammock, his eyes peering out from on the top of the rough fold, “I mean it. There’s more out there than going all over the world and smelling the same old barnacle shit.” 

Israel hasn’t got anything to say to that. His dreams, and his ideals, began and ended with Francesca’s insides leaking through to her outsides, and the quick scramble from the window to the door to the docks - everything after that has been a lucky bonus. 

But Edward isn’t like that. Edward’s full of hope, and plans, and bright eyes. 

They work on that same ship for another six months, until they’re raided by British privateers looking for stolen goods; they don’t find anything, of course, but that hardly seems to matter. 

“Dirty fuckers,” says one of them. He shoulders Israel.

The crew, deckhands and all, have been lined up against the side of the ship while the British search the place, top to bottom, digging through the brig, one of them rifling through the captain’s quarters to the hapless protests of the captain himself, an inoffensive merchant called Flanders. Edward stands beside Israel, looming over the navvies without even trying, dressed even as he is in thin cottons and hobnail boots; he looks effortlessly menacing, his hands tucked behind him, rocking on the balls of his feet.

“Did you hear me?” The privateer that had bumped Israel knocks into him once more, “Dirty fuckers, the Dutch.”

“I’m from London,” Israel says, and the privateer punches him hard in the gut. 

Israel is both surprised and not; he doubles over, spitting out air, as the privateer follows up with a foot to the shoulder. Israel is the smallest man on the ship, and the youngest, still spotty and growing into his bones, and the privateers are on shaky ground boarding a legal merchant ship anyway. Now they can say they were provoked - now they can say he insulted them, that this young Dutch idiot called their mothers a pack of whores or somesuchlike.

Israel blinks the dotty stars from his eyes just in time to see Edward deck the fucker across the jaw. 

The ship explodes into action. 

The British surround Edward, bayonets prodding, and someone puts their boot on Israel as though he can do anything more than cough and try to clutch his throat. But Captain Flanders, much like the mild-mannered mongoose of tradition, has had enough; with a roar in Dutch, he springs from his cabin and dashes one of the beribboned British with the butt of his pistol. A gun fires - several guns fire - someone screams. 

“C’mon, Iz,” says Edward, leaning down, hand outstretched. His fingers are covered in blood. 

There will always be someone bigger and stronger than you, Iz. 

Israel reaches up and takes his hand. 

*

Israel Hands is nineteen when the woman he’s fucking slaps him hard across the jaw.

They’re off-ship, and Edward is elsewhere, fighting or fucking someone else. Israel met this woman in the bar nearest the docks, after she slipped into his lap, puddled her fingers in his whisky, and let him lick it off her thumb with a purr of pleasure. She’s beautiful; she isn’t cheap, but Israel’s got money and nothing else to spend it on; best of all, her hair is long and black and thick, and she’s taller than him.

She pulls him across the bar and up the narrow staircase to the room she must have leased from the publican. The curtains are red and thick, pulled across and pinned with a brass clip; the bed is unmade, vulgar with how wide the mattress is, how rumpled the sheets are, how soft it is when Israel sinks into it, pushed rather than pushing. 

“You’re a sweet little thing,” she murmurs, straddling him again with whisky still wet on her lips, “Aren’t you pretty?”

“Fuck off,” Israel mumbles into her mouth, “Take your dress off, c’mon.”

She bites his throat when they rearrange themselves, and he presses his lips together instead of shouting; she laughs at him and calls him a brave little pirate, and he wants to die. 

He’s fucking her when she slaps him - he’s not doing it hard enough, or something, and when she hits him something goes wrong in his brain and he jerks twice and comes right there and then with a punched-out groan of pleasure.

She laughs at him. She’s wearing rings on every finger, one of them shaped like a star, and it’s ripped an uneven, jagged tear in the skin of his cheek, from the tip of his lip to the corner of his ear. She pokes the cut, and smiles when he flinches. “I know your secret, little pirate.”

“You know jack fucking shit about me,” Israel snarls. 

(Where’s Edward right now? He’s been here before, this town, this island - has he fucked this woman? Has he paid to be in her bed - has he hit her, his eyes as wild as they go when he fights, full of passion and fury? Is he fucking someone else right now, someone else in the front of his mind, somebody else at the mercy of his ministrations?)

“I know plenty, honey,” she says. She rolls over, her breasts glistening with sweat in the hot cloister of the room, her dress lying unlaced on the floor. One long, dark leg emerges from under the sheets, splays instead over Israel’s thighs. “It’ll cost you less for a round two, sweetheart; you’re ever so pretty.”

Israel bares his teeth at her, but she just laughs at him. Naked as the day she was born, she knocks on the floor and calls through a knot in the wood for the bottle of whisky and a glass; when it’s brought up to her by the publican, she pours a sedate drink, swilling it from cheek to cheek.

She kisses Israel, passing the liquor from her mouth to his, and then fucks him again with the drink running down his neck.

“What the fuck kind of fight did you get into,” Edward demands of him, when they meet on the docks ready to hitch a lift with the next hiring crew that comes along. His gloved hands - he’s started wearing them, and they suit him - prod at Israel’s face.

Something hot twitches in the bottom of Israel’s stomach, and he jerks his cheek away. “Nothing,” he says shortly.

The leather, cold and impersonal on his face, lingers a moment longer. “Huh,” Edward says. “Okay.”

*

Israel Hands is twenty-three when he becomes Blackbeard’s first mate.

Edward’s been Blackbeard for a few years now, his bushy beard thick and dense, his hair long and dark, his arms gleaming with fresh ink and seawater, already the scourge of the seven seas. Israel takes a break from it all for a while, vanishing inland, but Edward is like a magnet - like a heavy hot iron on copper sheets - and Israel keeps coming back, keeps falling down from the edges towards the beautiful centre.

“Izzy!” Edward hollers and slaps him on the back when he sees him. He’s taller, broader, more muscular; when he roars, the men around him pay attention, and that turns Israel into someone worth watching too. “How the fuck have you been, man?”

“Blackbeard,” Israel greets, letting himself be slapped. “Better. How’s the plans?”

“Aw, man - you’ve gotta come back to me,” Edward enthuses, bright as a spare penny, “Iz, be my first mate. All these people… they’re so sycophantic - you give it to me how it is. You tell me the truth.”

“With pleasure,” Blackbeard,” Israel says, and when Edward slaps him again he feels the sting on his skin for hours later.

*

Israel Hands is thirty when Blackbeard sets fire to a French naval ship and they sit out on the deck of their own, listening to the screams from sunset to sunrise. Occasionally a red-white-and-blue body leaps from the side of the ship and makes a break for the open ocean; when this happens, Israel aims his pistol and fires, and the little bodies splash no more. 

“There were sixty men on that ship this morning,” Blackbeard says, turning his knife over in his fingertips, the moon pooling thick and liquid along the length of the blade.

“There were,” Israel says.

Blackbeard threatened to slit a man’s throat with that knife today, pressing it tight and hard to quivering, feverish skin. Israel shifts where he sits, clenching his leather-gloved fists, wishing he could look away, utterly unable to do so. “They scream so loud when they die.”

“They do,” Israel says. 

He has been beside Edward for more of his life than he hasn’t. He’s killed for him; he’s been wounded for him; he would die for him, if Blackbeard asked it of him, and sometimes he wishes he would. 

Blackbeard lies back on the deck of the ship, the stars glimmering above them both, the only light in the sky, somehow shining even without the beam of light the burning ship affords. The screaming is less now, but still present, and Israel thinks about being ten years younger and lying swinging in two twin hammocks, Edward Teach insisting it would all be different when he had a ship of his own. 

"Edward," Israel says, and like lightning Blackbeard springs at him, hands, fists, teeth; he's pinned by his throat to the deck, his head rattling against the bloodslick wood. 

Finally.

"My name is not fucking Edward," he snarls, throttling, Israel's vision turning starry with more than just the early morning sky, "My name isn't fucking Edward." 

Israel chokes.

Someone leaps from the French boat with a wail; Blackbeard laughs very close to Israel's face, a mean thing with all thumbs and pressure. 

"Say my fucking name," he instructs. He shakes Israel a little, like a folded shirt. "Say it. Say my fucking name, Iz."

"Blackbeard," Israel rattles with the darkness clawing around the speckles of his vision. "Blackbeard."

Blackbeard laughs. He lets go and Israel lies there for a long minute, coughing and massaging his throat, phantom fingers pressing on the length of his windpipe while the boat burns on the horizon.

Finally.

*

Israel Hands is forty-two when Blackbeard meets the Gentleman Pirate and it all goes to hell in a handbasket. 

He has lived, at this point, so long every year that he survives is a bonus. He leaves Edward for months, sometimes, and finds his solace in a string of dark-haired women across every coast in the ocean, women who laugh at him and insult him and let him drink whisky from their fingers. He has live long enough to see Edward every way it is possible to see a man - he has slept by his side, two hammocks slung in two corners, a pair of gleaming eyes full of vision for the future, and a born hanger-on ready to fulfill his dreams. 

He wants - in the depth of him he wants - but he cannot have, demand, or take. Edward dispenses scraps and Israel scoops them up and keeps them. 

When Edward slices his initials into the chest of a Commonwealth man, gleaming red BB, the only letter he knows how to write, Israel is covetously jealous. 

And when he sees him - 

Blackbeard, unwound - 

The look on his face when Bonnet is around, his eyes open, his face slack and kind - 

Israel knows he has finally lost the man he desperately tried to have, and to hold, for so many years. 

"Edward," he calls him,

And Blackbeard just smiles.