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Keep Yourself Alive

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The first whip crack sting lands between his shoulder blades and he doesn't do so much as flinch. No, hands tied tight to the mast in front of him, he does worse. Riding an adrenaline high, his lips cut into a sneer and he spits on the deck he’d swabbed to a shine just this morning.

"That's it?" He challenges. He doesn't know what he's thinking. What the fuck is wrong with him? Why can’t he just keep his stupid mouth shut for once?

Captain Morgan takes a fistful of his hair, yanking his head too far back, letting loose a deep pop hidden in his neck that Izzy hadn't been able to get on his own this morning. "No, I think we could do much better. Rackham, get the proper Nine-tails."

Izzy knew the one. Instead of blasted bullets or thick knots or bits of metal, there were shards of bottle green glass shoved pointy through the strips of leather. Hooks and nails and plenty of other nasty, dirty, rusty weapons tied to a flog. After a year worked sweating and bleeding on the Satisfaction, the crew got to add their own touches to the flog. A year ago Izzy had added a green-tarnished earring that he’d sworn was gold at one point. Fucker had turned his ear lime green on the back and nobody had told him.

Fucking shit.

"Come on, Iz." Ed's leaning against the foremast with his head in his hands, hair flying from its ponytail in the wind. "The fuck did you do that for?" He doesn't look up. He doesn't look at Izzy. He never does. Not in times like these.

Jack disappears into the captain's cabin without looking at Izzy.

What the fuck did you do that for? Izzy chastises himself in his own mind, glaring into Morgan’s age faded, yellowed eyes with a vindication he hoped the man could feel. Think about late at night. Ponder over as a candle burns to nothing on his night stand.

He knows why he did it. He did it so Edward’s pretty back wasn’t the one getting flayed in the morning sun. He did it to build credit with a man who was supposed to be his friend. A transactional kind of love. I’ll take this beating, you take the next dagger to the thigh. I skip this meal and you give me the next one. It was how they worked.

"How's that sound?" Morgan raises a thick, gray eyebrow. Waits a beat. Coughs into something that could be a laugh, as if this were all a funny joke. "Not so talkative now, aye?" Izzy shakes with the urge to spit directly into his face. His fists clench, fingernails cutting half moons into his calloused palms.

“I think 40 should do it.” Morgan sags onto a barrel and fishes his pipe out from his coat with a groan.

“Whoa, man. That's a bit excessive, don’t you think? The Navy doesn’t even give out more than 10.” Jack speaks up, but still tries to hand the flog to the captain. He refuses with a nod of his head towards Edward, who’s still leaning against the mast and still pointedly avoiding eye contact with any of them.

Now it’s his turn to spit. “I’m not doing that shit. Isn’t my mess.” Izzy can see under the cover of his mop of hair that his lip is curled in disgust, his nose wrinkled with the force of it.

“Oh, but I think it is.” the captain lights his pipe, skillfully shielding the tobacco from the wind and inhaling sharply. Edward’s arms cross in front of him and he glowers at his captain, pointedly not taking the flog from Jack who’s nudging the handle of it into his side at this point. Edward’s half gloved hands gripped into the meat of his arms, warping the sprinkling of black-ink tattoos smattered over his skin.

“Come on, Eddie.” Jack tried to reason.

“You’ll do it or you’ll split them. 20 each.” Morgan exhaled with a cough, smoke billowing from his mouth and nostrils in thick waves.

“No.” Izzy hissed. “Edward, just do it.” And finally, Edward looked at him, his eyes red rimmed with rage and something that could have glimmered like terror. Izzy caught his gaze, holding it for as long as he could. “I can take it. Just do it.”

“Iz-”

“Edward. Just fucking do it.” he gritted through his teeth. It set Morgan to laughing again.

“So fucking bossy.” his chuckles growled, smoke worn at the edges. “The longer we sit here waiting for this show to start the more lashes I’m addin’ on. I suggest you get to it, Teach.”

“Fuckin’. Jack twists the flog between his hands, leather squeaking against the sweat of his palms. “I’ll fuckin’ do it. Just-”

“Forty Five.” Morgan shouts.

“No.” Edward finally moves and Izzy finally exhales, wind whistling through his teeth. He leans his forehead against the mast and folds his hands together so that he could be praying. Praying to whatever god will listen that Ed pulls his lashings.

He listens to the sound of Ed snatching the weapon from Jack’s hands, the leather strips trailing along the deck of the ship with a horrid scratching sound that makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Edward doesn’t pull shit. There’s a whoosh and a whistle and then white hot pain dripping cold down Izzy’s back as his blood starts to seep through his shirt. He clenches his teeth so hard against any noise threatening to break from his throat.

“Two.” Edward counts.

“Ah, ah. First one didn’t count, remember?” Morgan tuts. “Best start over from the beginning.”

There's a beat. A small pause that gives Izzy’s pain a moment to cool before there’s another whistle and another whip across his shoulders and he can’t help but gasp as his shirt and skin rip open together. He hears his own blood dripping to the floor.

“One.” Edwards begins again. Izzy’s forehead is clammy as he rests it on the mast again.

It had started as a simple fucking prank.

Last night when the moon was full and heavy against the indigo-black sky and Captain Morgan was ashore for one matter of business or another, Izzy snuck the key he’d pocketed from first mate Bottle through the lock to the captain’s quarters and slid the door open with a creak that could wake the dead.

“Fuck yeah, Jizzy.” Jack pats him heavy on the shoulder and plods into the room, his boots heavy and uncaring. Edward follows and the two of them search high and low, turning over chests and barrels and crates and crates of loot.

Morgan had enacted some kind of impromptu prohibition rule aboard the Satisfaction. He’d read about it in a book or heard about it in a pub. “Drinkin’ dirties the mind. Makes ye less sharp.” he tapped his pipe against the side of his head as they all messed over bits of hard bread and cheese one night last week. “And we want to keep sharp, don’t we boys?”

The crew murmured their agreement and nobody mentioned that maybe Morgan wasn’t as sharp as he was before because he was a hundred fucking years old.

The crew of the Satisfaction being pirates and all, having nothing aboard to drink stronger than grog made them testy. There had been stabbings. Six of them so far. And a man or two had jumped overboard. The whole lot of them were at each other’s throats, aching for something, anything to do other than sit around and look for mistakes someone else made with the lines or the masts of the sails.

Jack and Edward had just been about to stab each other through the jugulars, locked tight into a brawl when Izzy came up with an idea.

He’d steal the key. They’d steal the liquor. Nobody would be the wiser. Just to clear their heads. Just for something to do.

“This is the best thing you’ve ever fuckin’ thought of” Jack chortled, pulling a bottle of French wine from it’s hiding spot beneath Morgan’s bunk. There were a dozen other bottles just like it. He popped the cork with his teeth and necked it back, shooting the wine like a handle of something much stronger. “Tastes like shit.” he snorted and handed the bottle to Edward who took three long, throat bobbing drags, eyes rolling into his head like it was the best thing he’d ever tasted.

“Gross.” he concurs, sticking his tongue out against the assault of the wine and hands the bottle to Izzy who only takes a sip. It’s not bad. Fruitier than he’d anticipated. Buttery. He takes another swallow with a shrug and takes his time traipsing around the room, a candle burning down to a nub in his hand.

There were shelves built into the walls that held outdated logs from a scribe who’d died just as Izzy made it aboard 2 years ago. Bags of mismatched gold and silver laid spilling out onto the floor along with other things that could be valuable. Iron coins, heavy with rust. Candlesticks in the shape of mermaids. Above the desk where piles of ledgers and maps laid strewn, a human skull was nailed to the wall, his eyepatch still affixed over the right socket.

Izzy was holding the candlelight close to the bone, examining how there were still wisps of silvery blonde hair stuck to the cracked skull when Edward threw an arm around his shoulders, already smelling of yeast and a hangover. “Poor fucker.” he said, breath hot against Izzy’s ear.. He’d opened his own bottle of wine and was already down to a few fingers swirling in the thick base of the bottle.

A shiver passed down Izzy’s spine as Edward leaned his weight into him to squint into the eyes of the skull in the dark. He’s almost double Izzy’s weight, he’s sure of it. His skin is hot, even through the layers of their clothes, flushed with drink and with the heat of the summer day outside. Izzy inhales, trapping the scent of him close to remember later, whenever he wants. He takes a deeper swallow of his own bottle, wiping his lips with the back of his hand.

“Yeah. Imagine dying and than having to watch Morgan suck and fuck across the 7 sea.” Jack stumbles over to Izzy’s other side and tosses an arm over Edward’s. “This is nice, guys, really. Bring it in.” he tries to encircle the three of them into a hug, cooing and weepy and suddenly Izzy’s too warm. Too much contact. Too much affection.

“Fuck off, Rackham.” he ducks down from between them and leaves them in an awkward half hug thing that turns into Edward digging his knuckles into Jack’s nest of dirty hair. That then turns into an impromptu wrestling session that spills purple wine over the contents of Morgan’s desk.

“You idiots.” Izzy rolls his eyes and tries to use the end of his sleeves to mop up some of the mess. The two of them keep tussling. As they tend to do. Jack pulls Ed’s hair from the bun it was in at the crown of his head. Ed slams his head against the wall once, twice. “Alright, alright. Easy.” Izzy says just as there's another slam against the cabin wall and the skull is knocked from its perch.

A sickening crack echoes through the room like the sound of cannon fire.

It split in two right down the middle, like an ax had cleaved the skull in two. The three of them did their best to hang it back on the wall like nothing had happened. They replaced the piles of wine-stained papers on the desk with cleaner ones, spread out in a similar fashion. They locked the door behind them carefully.

It didn’t work.

Once Captain Morgan returned from shore the next morning it took all of two seconds before he burst back through his cabin doors, smoke pouring from his nose like an angry dragon.

“Which one of you was it?” he roared, a piece of the skull held in each hand.

The crew of the Satisfaction froze in the glare of the sun, pausing in their duties in fear.

“Don’t you all go singing at once! Own up! Be men!”

Still no answer. Diligently and quietly, Izzy returned to the knot he’d been tying. Edward and Jack were out of his eyesight, somewhere near the Starboard side. He could see them in his mind's eye, looking at each other with their eyebrows raised. Could they get away with it? Should they even try?

As is reading his mind, the next thing Morgan roars, spit flying from his chapped lips is “Teach! Rackham!

They still owe him. The fuckers still owe him for getting the key to open the quarters in the first place. And Ed owes him for a dozen times before then. So, he doesn’t know why he does it. He doesn’t understand why his own fucking mouth opens but with his fingers still entwined in loops of rope and without looking up at the fuming captain Izzy says “What if it were me?”

At this, the old captain chokes into an angry laugh. “Yeah sure. Stick up for the rotting bastards.”

Edward and Jack are just creeping guiltily around the corner when Izzy finishes his knot and rises to his full height, which is unfortunately much shorter than anyone else on board. “What? I’m incapable of splitting some bastard’s skull?”

Morgan darts across the deck and grabs Izzy by the front of his shirt, lifting him onto his toes. “That bastard is my wife.” he hisses, spittle landing on Izzy’s cheek.

“She must have been one ugly bitch.” Izzy says. Edward and Jack flinch even before Morgan knocks his head against Izzy’s with a sickening crack.

And so here he is, tied to a mast with his back being flayed by the only friend he has on board.

Two whips in quick succession split lines across the middle of his back and Edward counts out a dark “Two, three.”

The curling sweet smell of Morgan’s pipe. The memorized scent of Edward as he leaned into him last night. Seawater. Leather. The sickly stench of Izzy’s blood as it drips onto the deck.

“Four” another whip crack and Izzy shouts as a rusty hook imbeds itself into his shoulder blade and is ripped out just a moment later, taking a chunk of flesh along with it. He inhales sharply through his nose, bile threatening to work it’s way up his throat.

He’ll die if Morgan carries this all the way to forty lashes. And it’ll be at Edward’s hand. For a drink of shitty wine. For something to do. To make Edward happy.

So he starts to laugh as Edward whips through five, six and seven in quick succession, gasping through the pain as his shirt and skin rip and tear to ribbons. His life is the biggest form of a cosmic joke he’d ever encountered and now he was going to die. If he didn’t laugh, no one else was going to.

“Izzy, shut the fuck up!” Edward hissed, stepping forward to speak into his ear.

And he’s laughing so hard he can’t tell if the tears are from that or the pain on his back when he inhales or exhales.

“Best keep whipping, Teach. It don’t matter if he’s going mad.”

He can’t stop the laughter bubbling up his throat. He giggles and guffaws and tears are streaming down his face until there's another crack and Edward’s open palm collides with his cheek. It knocks him off his knees leaving him hanging by the ropes around his wrists and he stops laughing, the deck eerily quiet.

Until the crew comes to their senses.

Just as Izzy comes to his.

His shirt is hanging open, torn in two down the back.

Panic burrows its way into his heart like the tip of a dull dagger. He tries to clamber back up onto his knees, press his chest against the thickness of the mast. But the crew is already talking.

“The shit is that?”

“The fuck are those?”

“Izzy, what-” Ed falters

“Untie him.” Morgan demands.

“Iz-” Edward starts again but Jack grabs his shoulder as two other members of the crew come forward to release the knots holding Izzy to the mast. He drops onto his back hard and lets out a scream. The crew rips his shirt further open and he shuts his eyes and starts praying again. Any god. Someone listen. Someone just let him die.

“Tits?”

“A fuckin’ woman? You know, I always had my suspicions…”

“That's the reason we ain’t got no good wind in a week, I reckon.”

He tries to turn over, to ease some of the pain from his lashes. His hands slip in the sticky wetness of his own blood and he loses the fight against his stomach, its contents spewing across the deck. Someone kicks his shoulder and he falls hard, his back scraping against the deck once again.

His vision swims as his eyes slide closed once again.

When he comes to, he’s below deck. Somewhere far underwater. Somewhere blissfully cool and dark. He’s topless, the scratch of burlap scraping against his chest as he tries to find his bearings. His back protests sharply. He smells blood and rot and grain from the sacks he’d been thrown onto. His mouth is dry, his tongue foul and shriveled.

At least they didn’t toss him overboard. The thought of the salt sea mixing with the slashes down his back brings a fevered shiver down his spine that hurts to high heaven and far, far below.

In his feverish sleep he remembers.

It’s the night of his seventeenth birthday and he was wiping a half dirty rag over the front bar top of the brothel he’d been born in. In one of the rooms upstairs, then in much better shape, he came screaming into the world, his mother weeping over the parts he was born with. It was a hard world for a woman, she knew from first hand experience and she’d hoped that a boy could one day save her from this place.

Izzy grew up under the hen’s wings of prostitutes, cooks, pimps and opium slingers. When he asked to dress in breeches and shirts and to cut his hair, they let him. When he asked to be called Izzy instead of his full name, they hadn’t fought him on it. When he murdered the man who’d fastened a belt over his mother’s throat and held it tight until she died, they’d helped him hide the body.

Tonight, as he’s tending bar and thinking about his mother, in plods Sir Henry Morgan, his hair wild and silver and his boots heavy on the wooden floor. A band of boys followed him inside, eyes wide and shining with wonder and Izzy snorted. He could imagine this place would be magic for someone his age if he hadn’t been raised in the darkness of it.

Morgan dropped an overfilled, velvet bag of golden coins and silver jewelry onto the bar and exclaimed with a pipe hanging between his lips and his arms flung wide that “these lads get whatever they desire tonight.”

Izzy had never seen so much money. Had never seen so many men his age. One by one he filled pewter tankards to the brim with the finest ale they had (which honestly wasn’t too terrible) and sloshed rum and vodka into tumblers and glasses slung towards him at lighting speed. The boys laughed and sang with each other, raising drinks and slapping cards on tables as Morgan sat proudly at a table in the corner, smoke pooling over his top lip.

After they were all almost sated with food and drink the women emerged from their corners and started draping and arranging themselves over the men like fine silk. Izzy rolled his eyes and turned to set his bar back in order. He almost didn’t hear the stool to his left scrape back for someone to sit in.

“What’s your poison?” he asked with a sigh, throwing his rag over his shoulder with a turn.

There sat Edward, younger, less windswept. His skin was golden brown, still freckling from exposure to the sun and his thick, black curls were piled into a bun at the top of his head, wisps spilling down across his temple and down the back of his neck. He was younger than Izzy by a few years, but he already had tattoo’s pricked into the skin of his chest where his shirt hung loose and open.

“Sweetest thing you’ve got.” he smiled and it reached all the way to his chocolate colored eyes. Izzy felt warm all the way to his toes.

“Sweetest thing we’ve got doesn’t have any bite to it.” Izzy warned.

“Doesn’t matter to me.”

“Suit yourself.” Izzy pulled the corked bottle of simple syrup from its spot where it gathered dust at the back of the bar and poured the boy a shot of the sickly sweet liquid.

He shot back the syrup and smacked his lips together with a cat's grin.

It made Izzy laugh. He didn't do that often.

“Edward Teach.” the boy stuck his hand out across the bar, palm pointed to the ceiling.

“Izzy Hands.” he shook his hand firmly, skin brushing skin.

“Iz. Iz wake up.”

He jolts awake, fists clenched and ready to fight. Instinctually his hand darts to his thigh where he keeps a dagger strapped on the inside of his pants and the bunching of the muscles in his shoulders scream their protest. A groan rips it’s way out of his throat and he digs his face into the sacks he’d been sweating and puking on for who knows how long.

“Hey, mate. Calm down. It’s me. It’s me.” Edward presses his knuckles against the back of Izzy’s neck. “That's a nasty fever you’ve got there.”

Izzy manages to crack his eyes open and see’s Ed’s face just inches from his, candlelight flickering against the darkness of the room. “What day is it?” he asks, his voice barely a whisper. His throat is desert dry, his tongue sandpaper against the roof of his mouth.

“Here, mate.” Ed scoops a ladle of water from a bucket he’d brought with him and brings the stale water to Izzy’s parched lips. He’s able to take a few sips, though most of it dribbles down his chin. “Easy, easy. You’ll make yourself sick. It’s Thursday. You’ve been out about 32 hours.” Izzy’s stomach protests to the water with a loud gurgle and Ed laughs, breath washing over Izzy’s face. “Yeah, that sounds about right. How you holding up?”

Izzy’s brows knit together and he opens them into a glare that could cut through the thickest bit of wood on the whole damn ship. Ed laughs again.

“I brought all kinda shit to patch you up.” he leans back on his knees and holds up a med kit, a few rolls of white bandages and two pails of clean water. “Cookie has this poker thing that’s got medicine or something in it that’ll help with the fever. Or so he says.” he holds up a tube with a needle stuck on the end of it and Izzy cringes. “Wouldn’t hurt to try.”

“You’re not sticking me with anything.” he protests.

Ed rolls his eyes. “Yeah, sure, okay Izzy I’ll just let you die down here like a dog then. No biggie.”

“It’d be less painful than that thing looks.”

“Since when are you worried about pain?”

“Fuck you, Teach. I hate needles.”

“You’re such a pain in my fucking ass, Hands!” Ed tosses his ladle into a pail with a splash and stands to pace the room, the glow of the candle bouncing with his steps.

A moment passes, two, three, and then at the same time the both of them groan and shout “Fuck you. I’m sorry, okay?”

“What the hell are you sorry for?” Ed sits back down in front of Izzy and gathers a hand into both of his, stroking at the callused skin of his palms. “Saving my skin?”

Izzy let his eyes flutter shut again, his heart racing deep in his chest. His cover was blown, his secret was out. “For not telling you.”

“Shut up, man.” Ed squeezes his hand. “Man?” he asks after a pause. Izzy nods. “Man.” he confirms. “Same man I’ve known for the past 2 years. Nothing’s changed. I mean, I guess I’ve always known there was something going on. You’re a scrawny fucker and you can’t grown a beard for shit.” He laughs and Izzy exhales through his nose. It’s about all he can muster. “But you’re still Israel Hands. You’re still my best mate and you’re still a fucking idiot.”

“You and Rackham are the idiots. Wrestling in the captain's quarters? We were supposed to be sneaking around!” Izzy argues.

“Fuck, I know Izzy. I’m sorry.”

“What are they gonna do with me?” Izzy sighs into the question. He’s lucky to have Edward. Lucky to have someone that understands him this deeply.

“Morgan won’t speak to anyone about it. Says women are bad luck. The rest of them seem to agree. They sent me down here to see if you were dead.” Ed rubs circles into Izzy’s hand and it’s the most comfort he’s felt in days. He melts into the touch, his body sagging onto his makeshift bed.

“I’m no woman.”

“Mate, I know that. I’ve just got to work on a plan.” Ed drops his hand and shifts back onto his knees to drag a rag through one of the pails of water and wring it out. “We’ll be in Nassau by morning. Do you think you can move?”

“Just let them turn me over to the Navy.” Izzy grinds his face into the burlap, wiping sweat from his brow.

“Me and Jack aren’t going anywhere without you. Get that thought through your fucking skull right now.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Edward, I’m in a bit of a bind right now.” He tries to lift his head and is met with the resistance of the weight of his own body. With a grunt and determination he lifts his chin onto his arms and the skin on his back stretches taught, leaking more blood and pus. Edward grimaces, eyes dark.

“Let's just get you cleaned up and see how you do, aye?”

He doesn’t wait for a response before bringing the wet rag to the ribbons of raw skin on Izzy’s back.

It took hours. Izzy’s back had crusted into a turtle’s shell of dried blood and infection. He gritted his teeth against Edward’s onslaught as he cleaned out the wounds, drawing his rag across the lacerations as carefully as he could, letting the water dissolve the filth. Once cleaned, Edward opened the med kit and smoothed fingerfuls of a menthol smelling salve over the wounds which seemed to numb them a bit.

Izzy sighed in relief. He felt hollow. His forehead was clammy and he could feel the fever, persistent behind his eyes.

“You need stitches.” Edward concluded. “Probably a proper doctor.” he held the back of his hand to Izzy’s cheek, wiping the fingers gently to the other side. “Still have a fever.”

“I’ve beaten worse.”

“Yeah, I’m sure. But just to be certain…”

“No.” Izzy shouts. “No. No! Edward, I swear to fucking god!” Izzy tries to fight him off but he’s weak and Edward has always used his size to his advantage. He shoves Izzy’s pathetic, flapping hands away and shoves the needle unceremoniously into the flesh just above Izzy’s ass and pushes the plunger. “Oh, fuck you!”

“Yeah, yeah. Fuck me.” Edward chuckles. The edges of Izzy’s vision go fuzzy. His head spins. And then the room goes dark.