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*

“Captains want to talk to you about some fucking… picnic food or something.”

Roach startled at the sound of Izzy Hands stomping his way into the galley. He didn’t like that - he’d never liked being startled. The fact that Izzy, who announced his presence at all times with footfalls that had no reason to be so heavy for a man so small, had managed to be the one to do it made things even worse. He’d gotten soft on Stede Bonnet’s ship.

“Picnic food,” echoed Roach, “what-”

Izzy held up a piece of paper and waved it in his face before slapping it down on the countertop, next to the carrots he’d been chopping. Roach resisted the urge to punch him in the face.

“It’s a list of things - for one of their date nights.”

The way Izzy hissed those last two words through his teeth made it sound like the very concept was an insult to him. 

Roach stared at the paper, not really paying attention. Stede and Edward were still making tentative, halting gestures towards each other since they’d reunited, and he supposed this was the latest attempt. It seemed like a fairly solid plan. They were certainly getting better at those ‘date nights’, because they were ending much more often in the Captains being suspiciously absent in their cabin and much less often in shouting, or awkward, wistful sessions of staring out at the ocean.

“Hello? Roach?” Izzy was tapping the paper impatiently, “I’ve got things to do. Is there going to be a problem with any of this?”

Roach blinked as he was jolted back to the present, then looked more closely at the notes he’d been given. It was a stupid thing to do; the black squiggles of English were as indecipherable to him as they’d always been. Stede did that sometimes - forgot about the fact that things that came as second nature to himself weren’t always the case for everyone on board. He had been getting better at noticing, though. At least until right now.

“I can’t fucking read that,” said Roach.

“Yeah, well,” said Izzy, tilting his head to the side as he looked at the paper, “Bonnet’s got a bit of a scrawl, hasn’t he-”

“No, I mean I cannot fucking read English, Izzy.”

Now it was Izzy’s turn to blink at him in surprise. 

“Hasn’t Bonnet taught any of you? Why’s he been collecting all those fuckin’ books to refill that fuckin’ library then?”

Confusion made the two of them silent for a while as they both mulled over this particular question. It was kind of weird actually, now that Roach thought about it. Maybe he’d teach them if he asked. 

Izzy swiped the paper off the counter, and for a moment Roach braced for some sort of comment about his lack of education, or perhaps the nuisance he was being. To his surprise, Izzy just held the paper up to his face, so close that his nose was almost touching the paper.

“Cucumber sandwiches,” he read out slowly, squinting at the writing.

He looked ridiculous like this, reading with his face all scrunched up. He vaguely remembered seeing little round glasses perched on Izzy’s nose at some point. He held the image in his mind for a little longer than was necessary, fascinated with the way they softened the prickly first mate.

“Well?” snapped Izzy.

“Oh! Yes, cucumber sandwiches, I can do that, we have everything we need-”

“Don’t need a whole fuckin’ commentary,” grumbled Izzy, “now, those… ‘lovely little egg squares.’”

“Aww, I didn’t know you thought my cooking was lovely,” said Roach, fluttering his eyelashes at him.

“I’ll fucking kill you.”

“I think we’re fresh out of that one.”

Izzy made a noise like a whistling kettle, and Roach held up his hands in silent surrender.

“Scones with marmalade and cream, if you have it. Christ, he’s written a whole essay here.”

“We don’t have cream.”

“Right, who gives a shit, they’ll live without it. The last thing on here is ‘biscuits’ with ‘surprise me’ written in brackets next to it, with an exclamation mark.”

“Yes yes, I will make him something nice. I think they like ginger.”

Izzy nodded, then scrunched up the piece of paper and tossed it over his shoulder. As he exited the galley, Roach called out a mocking “ thank you!” at his back, and received two middle fingers in return.

“What are you doing?” said Izzy, staring as Roach scraped the corners of the tin he was holding with a skewer.

“Trying to get the last of this tea out,” said Roach with his tongue between his teeth.

“We’re not out, are we?” said Izzy in alarm, “I could have sworn-”

“This isn’t everyone’s tea, it’s my own stuff. Gunpowder.”

Izzy screwed up his face in disgust.

“That’s just what it’s called,” said Roach with a small smile, “it’s not actual gunpowder.”

“Huh.”

It wasn’t exactly unusual for Izzy to wander in and out of the galley outside of mealtimes - from what Roach could tell, the man mostly subsisted on bread and various dried things that he grabbed either before or after everyone else was done eating. Roach allowed it, because the other option was that Izzy didn’t eat at all, and as much as Izzy was a difficult man to tolerate, the idea of someone on the ship going hungry was unthinkable. 

What was unusual, however, was the fact that today Izzy appeared to be trying to start a conversation.

“If you’re so good at cooking ponce food, what the fuck are you doing here anyway?”

The words sounded stilted coming out of his mouth, the kind of words one used to fill an empty space rather than ask a particularly pressing question.

“Look at me,” scoffed Roach, “do I look like I belong in a ponce kitchen?”

Izzy tilted his head at him, assessing.

“You’re good at what you do though, right? So what-”

“Why do you people always assume that the best places are the richest ones? I can think of nothing worse.”

Izzy looked away, tapping one finger awkwardly against the countertop. Clearly this conversation was not going the way he’d pictured it.

“Besides,” said Roach, “those guys make up completely stupid rules. I’d have to wear clothes I can barely move my arms in. And there’s no finger chopping, no cannibalism, no fighting, no fun of any kind-”

Roach watched with glee as Izzy’s lips silently formed the word cannibalism, but to his dismay he didn’t question him any further than that. He fiddled with the top piece of flatbread on the stack Roach had just made.

“S’pose that makes sense,” said Izzy finally, and apparently, that was that.

“Why are you so nosy today anyway?” said Roach, slapping his hand away from the bread.

“Just trying to make conversation.”

“Mm. No.” Roach waved his cleaver in Izzy’s direction, noting with glee that Izzy took a slight step backwards, “no, I don’t accept this answer. You never want to make conversation. You just scurry in and out like a rat.”

“How dare you,” hissed Izzy, “I don’t scurry , you stupid fucking-”

“How else would you describe what you are doing right now? In and out before mealtimes, always in secret, always ignoring everybody.”

Izzy looked away, and for a moment Roach thought he was going to bolt like a startled animal. Scurry away, like he insisted he didn’t do.

“I will let you in on a secret then,” said Roach, “I like cooking Captain’s ponce food maybe only half of the time. English cooking feels like it was created by people who hate eating. Your people make crimes against good food everywhere you look, or they make everything too fussy, or they just…” Roach flung his arms around vaguely, “ruin perfectly good ingredients! Sometimes when Captain makes a request of me I feel pain, right here,” he tapped his chest, “but I must do my job nevertheless.”

Izzy snorted at that.

“I can relate to that,” he said, “half of Bonnet’s orders don’t even make any fuckin’ sense. But, you know, food’s food. Fuckin’ inconvenience that we have to eat in the first place, if you ask me.”

“Ah yes, words from a little rat who gnaws on ship’s biscuits to feel better-”

The end of Roach’s sentence dissolved into a shriek as Izzy grabbed him by the front of the apron and dragged him over the countertop.

“Stop fuckin’ calling me a rat,” he hissed through gritted teeth.

Roach smiled pleasantly.

“No.”

And bit him on the nose.

He scrambled backwards as Izzy yelled and swore, grabbing his cleaver and holding it out in front of him as the first mate stormed through the door with his dagger drawn. He advanced on Roach, one hand on his nose and one pointing his blade directly at Roach.

“What… the fuck,” he hissed quietly. 

He levelled the point of his dagger at Roach’s throat. 

It was ridiculous. Izzy might as well have thrown his hands up in surrender for all that the threat affected him. Roach swiped his cleaver through the air in a swift arc, catching Izzy’s blade on its way and knocking the whole thing out of his hand.

“Stupid way to make a threat,” said Roach, patting Izzy’s cheek with the flat of his blade, savouring the stunned expression on his face, “why would you put your blade to my throat? You’re not such an idiot that you’d really slit the throat of the one cook on board, would you? The Captains would be so angry.”

Izzy snarled at him, but didn’t say anything more. And then - oh. His throat bobbed as he swallowed, and his eyes twitched, so quickly Roach nearly missed it, but it was a soft fluttering of his eyelashes that was very interesting indeed

Spurred on by his victory, Roach took a step into Izzy’s space, taking full advantage of the several inches of height he had on him. Izzy’s gaze seemed to take its time trailing up the line of his throat, over his jaw and face, before not quite meeting his eyes. He heard Izzy’s breath hitch quietly, and wasn’t that just delicious

“Was there something else you wanted?” said Roach, leaning over Izzy just that little bit further. 

This was, apparently, a step too far because Izzy turned and fled from the galley then, his footsteps echoing down the corridor.

Fascinating. Roach wasn’t entirely sure whether he genuinely liked Izzy, or if this buzzing in his chest was simply the thrill of gaining the upper hand. 

He went back to his work, putting the finishing touches on the stew for that night’s dinner, when his gaze fell upon the piece of flatbread Izzy had dropped. His heart sank, and the feeling startled him.

Why should he care about a rude little man who barged in and out of his galley like the rules didn’t apply to him?

Why was said rude little man trying to make conversation with him anyway?

He resolutely ignored the ache that settled in his chest, and continued with his work.

Izzy went back to not speaking to him after that, and in fact became even more rat-like in the way he scurried in and out of the galley around mealtimes. It broke Roach’s heart a little to see.

Because it was so fucking pathetic. 

That’s what he told himself.

This led to a decision that he was going to make it easier for the two of them to have as little interaction as possible. He managed this by setting aside a little food for Izzy each mealtime. If he made sure that the small pile had enough in the way of everything to ensure a substantial meal, well. He was simply doing his job there as well. The victory he’d won over Izzy had long since soured, and he wished he hadn’t pushed the rat thing quite so much.

The uncomfortable stalemate lasted until their next brief stint at Nassau, a fairly boring one that was more parts carrying things to and from the ship than it was drinking or fighting. 

He returned to the ship tired and sore, wanting nothing more than to get all of his prep work out of the way and then faceplant into the nearest, softest sack he could find and sleep.

Instead he discovered Jim clambering out of a panel in the far wall.

They froze there like a startled cat.

“Uh-” they started.

“Explain this,” said Roach, “has this always been there?”

Jim turned around, as if only just noticing the secret passageway they were currently in.

“This?” they said, “er… it’s a passageway.”

“Why don’t I know about this? How did you find it?”

“It’s how Lucius survived while Captain was… Blackbeard. You know.”

Roach ran to the opening, waving Jim out as he stuck his head inside. There was a dim passageway in there, only just wide enough for him to stand in with both shoulders touching the walls. He shuddered a little at the thought; he’d never liked small spaces.

“Captain Bonnet had them built in,” said Jim, “there’s openings all over the ship.”

“Show me and I won’t cut off your hands for being a thief,” said Roach.

“I haven’t stolen anything!”

“Today. You’re telling me this is the first time you’ve snuck into my galley?”

Jim’s silence told him everything he needed to know. He got out, and pushed the panel, which slid shut with a click.

“Any requests? I’m here anyway, so you don’t need to make do with raw ingredients-”

“Pancakes.”

Jim spoke so quickly Roach couldn’t help but laugh.

“Alright. Here’s the deal - you help me with my prep work for tomorrow, I make you some baghrir. My own recipe. How’s that sound?”

Jim had known him for long enough to recognise what that meant by now, when Roach brought out one of his recipes. They smiled.

“Sure, can’t be that hard. Knives are knives, or so I’ve heard.”

“Wise words.”

Roach wandered to the kitchen to get everything ready. What he found, however, was a tin left on his countertop. There was writing on the front he couldn’t read, but recognised the shapes as something vaguely Asian. Chinese? 

He picked it up, and a slip of paper fluttered out from underneath. On it was drawn a crude image of a cannon, with a cross through it. Roach frowned in confusion, until he opened the tin to find little pellets of rolled up tea leaves in there. He held it up to his nose and inhaled, smiling to himself at the aroma.

“What’s that?” said Jim. 

Roach held the tin up to them and they inhaled deeply.

“That’s nice.”

“Gunpowder tea,” said Roach.

“Uh-”

“It’s not real gunpowder.” 

He decided that Izzy Hands wasn’t such an awful little man after all. He was just a complete, utter idiot.

Roach made up a teapot the next morning, with his new tea and fresh mint leaves picked from the pot he kept nailed into one of the shelves near the window. He waited until everyone was done with their breakfast, waited until the tea was cold, then a little longer after that. Finally, hours later, he sipped it himself with a frown that was only partially to do with how awful the cold tea tasted. Where on earth was Izzy?

He didn’t show up for the midday or evening meals either, and Roach tried not to worry too much about it. Izzy was a grown man, and the ship was a small one. He’d find something to eat if he needed to.

But then the next morning, Izzy didn’t show again, and Roach didn’t see much of him at all until around midday, when he brought a jug of coffee around to the crew currently on duty. The coffee run was usually an excuse to gossip and chat anyway, so he stood around with Jim and Oluwande for a while as they worked, smoking and trying not to look too obvious about surveying the deck.

“What’re you looking for?” said Jim.

Trying to be discreet around them was a bad idea. Roach should have known.

“Always need to be on guard, Jimenez,” said Roach, blowing out a puff of smoke in what he hoped was a nonchalant manner. Jim snorted in response, and Roach held back a grimace.

“Right, you lot! What’re you doing over there, coiling ropes and uncoiling ‘em?”

Izzy rounded on Lucius, who took a step back to stop the two of them from colliding.

“What the fuck kind of work do you call that, you useless fuckin’-”

“Izzy, babes, there’s literally nothing to do right now that me or my hands are qualified for, so if you could just, I dunno, leave me alone for a bit?”

Roach watched with interest as Izzy’s fists clenched tightly, and then released.

“Christ, he looks rough,” muttered Oluwande, “wonder if he’s gonna get seasick again.”

“You say that like he wasn’t throwing up over the side of the ship last night” said Jim, “I heard him, it was awful.”

Oluwande shuddered.

“Hate that sound,” he said.

“It hasn’t been that rough, has it?” said Roach, scratching his head. It seemed odd for someone who’d spent as much of their life at sea as Izzy had, to be getting seasick.

“Yeah, I mean maybe he’s just… sick-sick,” shrugged Oluwande, “don’t really care to get close enough to find out, to be honest.”

“Dare you to ask him how he’s doing,” said Jim, “see if he tries to stab you or throw you over the side.”

“Nah, no way in hell I’m going anywhere near that,” said Oluwande.

The three of them watched as Izzy wobbled slightly where he stood, grabbing at the railing to steady himself. He leaned over and spat off the side of the ship.

“I’ll do it,” said Roach.

Jim and Oluwande both turned to him at once.

“You’re a goddamn maniac, you know that?” said Oluwande.

Jim said nothing, but narrowed their eyes at him.

“What’s the bet?” said Roach, “c’mon. Stabbed, thrown overboard, bitten-”

“Bitten?” said Oluwande, “Izzy doesn’t bite, does he?”

I’d certainly like to find out.

“Not that we know of,” said Roach, “but who knows, this might awaken something.”

“Stabbed,” said Jim.

“I think he’s going to do that hissy thing,” said Oluwande, “you know, like an angry cat. Used to do it to Captain all the time. Bonnet, I mean.”

“Ah, your ideas are both boring and wrong. Watch this.”

Roach strode up to Izzy, settling with his hip against the railing so he could block Izzy’s circuit around the deck.

“Didn’t see you in the galley yesterday,” he said, quietly enough that he wouldn’t be heard by the others. He heard the creak of leather, which meant Izzy was clenching his fists again.

“Didn’t go to the galley yesterday,” said Izzy very slowly, like he was trying very hard not to strangle him.

“Why not? You don’t like my cooking anymore, little man?”

“Don’t fucking call me that.”

“You must be hungry-”

“Oh for fucks sake, leave me alone!”

Izzy stormed past him, and Roach followed behind with a skip in his step. He ran around Izzy, blocking his path again and stepping into his space, like he had that time in the kitchen.

“Got something that’ll help with your stomach,” he said, a little more gently this time. 

Izzy pinched the bridge of his nose and made a quiet, cut-off sound of irritation.

“Will you leave me alone if I take it?”

“You are not in a position to bargain. Come down in a bit, I will make sure you’re okay, hm?”

Not waiting for an answer, Roach took a chance and patted his shoulder before wandering off, leaving Izzy standing there, unmoving.

“What the fuck ,” said Jim when he returned. Roach hopped up on a barrel and spread his arms wide, bowing at the waist. 

“What did you do, offer to suck his dick?”

“I think maybe he would have tried to kill me if I did. No, I just asked if he was alright, and he said no, and that was that!”

“Looked like you were using a few more words than that,” said Oluwande, eyeing him suspiciously. 

Roach held a finger up to his lips and winked.

Sure enough, a little while later, Izzy slunk into the galley. Oluwande was right, he was a little pale, and he looked more tired than usual.

“Sit,” said Roach, gesturing at the communal table, “you look unsteady as it is.”

“I’m not-” Izzy proved himself wrong immediately as his stomach lurched and pressed a hand to his mouth. He sank down involuntarily and squeezed his eyes shut, rubbing at his temples. 

“Not fuckin’ seasick.”

“No, that much is obvious or you would be sick a lot more often.”

“Ironically, I think it’s something on land that doesn’t agree with me,” continued Izzy, “feels weird trying to stand on ground that doesn’t fuckin’ move. Feels wrong.”

“So you get landsick then?” said Roach. 

Izzy blew out a breath, which for him was as good as a laugh. Roach boiled some water and rummaged through his spices, picking a few out from memory. Cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, madder root, and dry ginger, tiny pinches of everything that he pounded in his mortar and added to the teapot.

“Sugar?”

“Hmm?” now that Izzy had sat down, his energy was flagging. He blinked slowly at Roach, trying to piece together what he’d been asked.

“Oh,” he said finally, “yes. One.”

“How interesting.”

“What’s so interesting about that?’

“Wouldn’t have guessed you liked sugar at all.”

“Don’t normally have it. Fuckin’ waste of resources if you ask me,” said Izzy, “but if Bonnet’s going to insist on it being a necessity you bet I’m having some.”

“Do you actually like it?”

“‘Course I like it you twat, it’s fuckin’ sugar, isn’t it?”

He said it like it was so obvious, Roach couldn’t help but smile. Then a wave of something seemed to come over Izzy and he ducked his head and sucked in a pained breath. Roach tutted at him and put the little glass of tea next to his hand, crouching next to him.

“Here, drink,” he said, “this will settle your stomach.”

With a great amount of effort, Izzy forced himself to look up. His usual ire was softened by how thoroughly, miserably ill he was and so he nodded wearily.

“Thanks,” he said. 

He was quiet as he sipped at the tea, and Roach busied himself around the kitchen. Though they didn’t speak, the silence today was easier. Roach found that he could breathe, and when he glanced over at Izzy he’d slumped sideways, resting his head on his hand. 

“Maybe I will make some tea of my own,” Roach said softly, “somebody so kindly bought me some last time we made port.”

The corners of Izzy’s lips twitched, and Roach smiled to himself.

Gotcha .

When he was a child, Roach won his first fight by biting a hand that was reaching for his throat. He was young, a stowaway, and it was the first of many important lessons on that ship: if you wanted to survive, you could not afford to fight fair. Rules were for people who could afford them. 

Without any guidance but his own, he began to toy with people, testing his limits with belligerent comments to his peers that would get him a swipe or two that he could dodge, or a headlock that he could practice wriggling out of. He made note of these things, giggled with glee as he discovered that he was, in fact, very good at getting himself out of a scuffle. 

When he grew too tall to rely solely on wriggling, he noted that the ship’s cook always had a knife in his hand, and an extra assortment of sharp items nearby. It was as good a reason as any to learn a new skill, and Farraj the old cook was more than happy to have a young boy to scurry around doing the lifting and peeling and shucking for him. 

By now, Roach fancied himself a dab hand at the art of the scuffle. He was fast, he was ruthless, and most importantly, he didn’t care at all about the outcome provided that it involved him being alive. He learned how to start a fight, to get it out of the way before the other person got the jump on you. He learned how to end a fight quickly, efficiently, and with enough theatricality that people might think twice before trying to do it again.

His judgement was always impeccable. Stay and fight or run away - he always made the right choice.

But then of course, Stede Bonnet happened.

Stede Bonnet, with his guaranteed pay and his talking it through as a crew , and his ship full of people he’d begun to think of as friends. He could breathe here in a way he’d never realised before, let go of some of the tension that had sat coiled in his shoulders ever since he’d first slipped into a cargo hold unnoticed and hidden himself in a barrel. For the first time since he’d set foot on a ship, he discovered what it meant to be recklessly happy.

Facing down the tips of two well polished swords, Roach realised that he had, perhaps, gotten too comfortable.

The two swords belonged to the hands of two extremely well trained Spanish men that he’d been unable to prevent himself from goading into a confrontation. Too late, Roach went over his usual assessment of the situation and discovered that there were no possible exits or distractions. The cleaver in his hand was a poor substitute for the reach and speed of the weaponry currently pointed at his face. 

It was fine. He would improvise.

All options screamed that he had found himself at an impasse, but he refused to simply lie down and accept that. He swiped his cleaver at them, and found it beaten out of the way with a sturdy blade. He turned to run, only to find the second Spanish man had circled and was blocking his way.

“Well gentlemen,” he said, shrugging at them, and then cursing himself for leading with English, of all fucking languages, “uh… sorry about all this-”

A flurry of black came barrelling out of the corner of his eye, and suddenly Izzy was upon them, sword in one hand and parrying dagger clutched in the other. Distracted, both of the Spanish men turned on him and he fended them off, twisting effortlessly between opponents, blocking with the dagger while he swiped with his sword. 

There was an economy of movement to Izzy’s fighting, in the way he barely seemed to move but every step, every flick of his wrist was executed with such swift precision that he didn’t need to. 

He slit the first man’s throat with a quick slash, then turned and ducked a wide swipe from the other before slamming the dagger into his chest. He waited until he gurgled through his last breath before gripping the hilt of the dagger and giving the man a little shake so that he slid off, and landed on the deck. Then he wiped the blood off on the hem of his shirt and sheathed both blades.

“Thank you,” said Roach.

Izzy finally turned to him, panting slightly from the exertion.

“You provoked those two specifically, didn’t you?” he said.

“It’s a raid!” said Roach, spreading his arms wide, “so what if I want to have a little fun with it?”

“So what, you go around picking fights now? You absolute fucking-”

Roach caught a movement behind Izzy, and something in his expression must have alerted him because Izzy whirled, dagger in hand before Roach even had a chance to shout a warning. A bloodied, wounded Spanish man charged at him, and Izzy sidestepped him easily, blocking the man’s sword with the dagger while he drew his sword with his other hand. Roach saw his opportunity and surged forwards, grabbing a handful of the man’s hair and pulling his head back, baring his throat for Izzy.

“What the fuck ,” hissed Izzy, “what the fuck are you doing?”

“Getting him ready for you!”

“What the fuck for? I had him, you didn’t need to interfere!”

“What?”

Roach grabbed the man’s sword hand and wrestled it down to his side.

“This isn’t how you’re supposed to fight,” muttered Izzy.

“What, do we need to go by your fencing rulebook? Or what, your old master will come out and tell you off?”

“There are procedures-

“Show me the page they are written on, little man-”

“You can’t fucking read-

“Exactly! Rules were all made up by somebody at some point! Why don’t you go by Roach’s rules for once, live a little.”

“Excuse me,” said the man, “are you going to-”

“Shut up!” shouted Izzy and Roach simultaneously.

Izzy sighed, and he let his arms fall to his sides.

“You deal with him then,” he said wearily.

“With pleasure,” said Roach, and broke the man’s neck.

Roach thought perhaps that Izzy was done, but the first mate came and found him later that night, when the candles were burning and Roach was inspecting the new additions to his stores. As usual, his footsteps announced his arrival far earlier than he appeared, so Roach was prepared when he stormed in.

“Does this taste okay to you?” he said, holding out a spoonful of the jam he was currently checking. Izzy opened his mouth, presumably to tell him to fuck off, so Roach simply jammed the spoon in there instead.

Izzy’s eyes widened in surprise, but then he grabbed the spoon and pulled it out of his mouth (clean, Roach noted). It had done the trick though; Izzy needed to swallow before he could speak, and that seemed to force him to calm down. Just a little.

“How the fuck have you managed to stay alive as long as you have, the way you fight?” he said, tapping the spoon against Roach’s chest.

“I’m not an idiot,” said Roach, “I can get myself out of a scrape when I need to.”

“And today? Getting yourself sandwiched between two swords you haven’t got a hope in fuck of matching, let alone beating?”

“It was a miscalculation!”

“One that could cost you your-” Izzy’s anger took a brief, dramatic turn into something else - something that made his voice tremble and made him clench his teeth before he tried again.

“One that could cost this ship its cook and surgeon,” he finished.

“Ah, I am important to you then.”

“To the ship , you imbecile.”

It was hard to tell in the dim orange light from the candles, but Roach swore he saw a flush of pink creep across Izzy’s face.

“If you insist on being in the thick of it, we’ve got to get you up to speed on what to do if there’s a sword in your face.”

“You will teach me how to fence then, first mate? Show me your fancy footwork?”

Izzy crossed his arms, lifting his chin slightly to look Roach in the eye.

“If that’s what it fuckin’ takes.”

Roach could have kissed him. He was ridiculous. He was at once one of the most guarded and yet one of the most transparent people he’d ever met.

“Very well, First Mate Hands,” said Roach, “I will learn your style of fighting. If it makes you feel better.”

“It won’t make me feel anything except maybe less fucking annoyance at having to watch your ass everytime you go leaping headlong into a fight you can’t win.”

“You have such little faith in me,” said Roach, shaking his head teasingly, “I am deeply offended.”

“Yeah? Good.”

“Ridiculous man. Now help me finish trying these new ingredients. My mouth feels like the bottom of a chicken coop after tasting the spices, and you are getting too thin.”

“Alright, mother,” said Izzy, rolling his eyes.

“A joke! Don’t injure yourself Izzy, you’re doing very well.”

Izzy laughed at that, a single syllable of ha! that he quickly got back under control, but a laugh nevertheless. 

“You’re not going to make me fight like this all the time, are you?” said Roach. He felt a little silly in the strange half-squat Izzy had him standing in. The sword felt too large and unwieldy in his hand, and when he tried to move it he had none of the speed nor control that seemed to come effortlessly to Izzy.

“Think of this as an ‘addition to’ rather than an ‘instead of,’” said Jim from where they were perched on a barrel, watching him. 

Somehow, although Roach would never find out precisely how, Izzy had managed to wrangle them into helping out as well, trading in with their knife handling skills whenever it looked like Izzy and Roach were going to tear each others’ throats out. 

Izzy was a rigid tutor, constantly making adjustments to Roach’s stance and making him repeat every action until his legs and arm and wrist ached. Roach tolerated this only through a steady stream of suggestions, his mind whirring with potential improvisations with every new move he was taught. The subsequent clashes might have ended in disaster were it not for Jim, who seemed to exist in a happy medium between their two styles.

“I’ve seen people do this before,” said Roach, “aren’t you supposed to do a little pose before you start fighting?”

Roach demonstrated by wiggling his sword around a bit, and Jim ducked out of the way with a snort of laughter.

“Not anything like that, unless you want your opponent to think you’re an idiot,” snapped Izzy, “but if you mean this-”

He did what looked more like an awkward little dance, tapping his foot, advancing and retreating while he moved his sword around and mimed taking off and putting on a hat.

“- that’s a thing you do if you’ve got enough money to be able to swordfight for sport rather than to stay alive. Nobody’s going to stand by and watch while you dick around saluting people.”

“Ah, so it seems even the great Izzy Hands is not immune to rule breaking when it suits him,” said Roach.

“I break rules when the alternative is to look like an idiot ponce. Now pay attention, this is about staying alive-”

“I stay alive by improvising!”

“Oh for crying out loud-”

“Listen Izzy, if you’d just-”

Roach was cut off by Izzy grabbing a handful of his collar and jerking him downwards, bringing their faces together.

“Learn the fucking moves first, you stupid twat,” he hissed, “you can’t improvise if you don’t know the basics.”

“As much as I hate to say it, he’s right,” said Jim, “there’s a difference between improvising and just doing it wrong.”

“Of course you’re right,” said Roach sweetly.

He made a brief mental calculation of the odds of being stabbed, and then kissed Izzy on the nose.

Izzy recoiled like he’d been struck, and the look of horrified betrayal on his face made both Roach and Jim burst out laughing.

“The fuck did you do that for?” he growled, making a show of wiping his nose with the back of his hand.

“Because I like you, and you were so angry!” said Roach, “here, why don’t we make a salute of our own? It can be just for the two of us.”

“Stop it,” said Izzy, his voice whittled down to a hoarse whisper, and - oh. Too far again. 

“Jimenez. You’re up,” he continued, sheathing his sword, “I’ve got work to do.”

Roach was still getting a feel for Izzy, where his limits were, what kind of teasing would elicit one of his rare not-quite-smiles and what would send him away hissing and retreating. He wondered what had made the difference today. Jim pressed their lips together but said nothing, unfolding themselves from the barrel top and hopping down to the deck.

“Aye aye,” they said, frowning as Izzy stalked away.

Roach had an excellent idea for patching things up with Izzy: Take him along on his next resupply run. He went to the first mate with the idea, ready to bully him into agreeing, but discovered that Izzy was surprisingly - not pleased , but certainly agreeable. The reason he gave was to ensure that Roach didn’t indulge all of Bonnet’s ridiculous food requests, but once they were there, Izzy seemed content to simply hang back and watch Roach make his rounds.

Roach took them on the scenic route around the marketplace, showing off a little as he conversed with stallholders in Spanish, Arabic, Dutch, a little French. Izzy followed with his hands behind his back while Roach chattered away, silent while Roach passed him little things to try - roasted spiced almonds, a round of candied ginger to soothe his stomach, a glob of honey on a stick. He nibbled at these, seemingly content to be led around. It didn’t escape his notice that Izzy never stood to his side, though. He always stood slightly behind him, turned slightly so that they were facing away from each other. On guard, even here.

Roach remembered what he’d said about being land sick, and wondered if this bothered him too; the unending rabbit-warren of the market quarter, with unfamiliar people at every turn and unexpected surprises around every corner. Roach knew how he felt - there were too many people here, too many variables to keep track of. Normally, resupply came with a persistent itch between his shoulder blades, the phantom pain of a knife wound that was only a matter of time. But with Izzy behind him, he relaxed a little. He breathed a little more easily.

A voice called out from the other side of the pathway, shouting the prices of his food in English, then Arabic, then Tamazight. Roach’s head snapped towards the sound of his mother tongue.

These dates look good,” he said in Tamazight.

He and the old man grinned at each other as he split one of the dried fruits in half, popping the pit out and handing half to Izzy. 

“Well?” he said.

Izzy grunted and nodded, his gaze skittering away to check behind them.

Don’t mind him, that means he likes it,” Roach said to the old man.

Your friend is very silent,” the stallholder replied, tilting his head in Izzy’s direction, “ he does not wish to accompany you?”

Trust me, if he didn’t want to be here he would not be,” said Roach, handing over a coin.

Ah, he is the kind of man who guards his heart with a sour face. Much like my wife.

The woman sitting at the back corner of the stall stuck out her thumb and jerked it up and down at them.

I love her,” said the stallholder sincerely.

Roach beamed.

“I think I might love this man too ,” he said.

“Are you two talking about me?” grumbled Izzy.

“Yes!” said Roach, “he says you smell bad and I told him wait until you are crammed into the galley with him and he won’t take the hint to fuck off.”

The stallholder chuckled and scooped a few extra dates into Roach’s waxed bag.

Since he likes them,” he said with a wink.

Roach gathered up the bags and nodded his thanks, then nudged Izzy with his hip.

“Come on, stop standing around. We’ve got work to do.”

“You’ve got the be fuckin’ kidding me,” grumbled Izzy, but he followed Roach out of the market nevertheless.

The majority of their purchases were being brought down to the docks for them, but Roach’s special purchases - dates, nuts, honey, the spices he liked but Stede was politely “still building up a tolerance for” - he kept in the little waxed bag, to be squirrelled away in the galley where they wouldn’t be found by a pirate looking for a midnight snack.

He fiddled with it on the way back, securing it to the sash around his waist, untying it and slinging it over his shoulder, retying the sash around it as a strap so that it bounced against his hip as he walked. Anything to keep his hands busy while his conversation with the vendor rolled through his head again and again. 

I think I might love this man.

Roach had felt it for a long time now, even if he hadn’t been able to admit it to himself. But his shoulders loosened when Izzy was around. Sometimes a meeting was not the discovery of something new, but a recognition of the familiar.

Izzy Hands walked into his galley, and his thought was not the how are you of an acquaintance. When Izzy walked into the room, Roach wanted to smile and say “ ah, there you are!”  

He felt a quiet thrill at Izzy’s poorly concealed enjoyment of the things he’d eaten today, the bits and pieces of himself that Roach had found in the market and handed over. He wanted to cook something for Izzy that was so good he wouldn’t want to conceal how much he liked it. He wanted to hear Izzy groan with pleasure. He wanted to whisper his name into his ear, the one he’d been given at birth that he kept tucked away in secret, and relish in the knowledge that somebody else knew.

Izzy rolled his eyes and sighed and tutted loudly.

“D’you have to keep fucking with that thing?” he muttered, “just carry it like a normal person.”

“Would you rather I were a normal person then?” said Roach, nudging a little closer to him.

“It’d certainly keep you out of trouble,” said Izzy, but his heart wasn’t in the barb.

Emboldened, Roach threw an arm around his shoulders as the two of them turned onto the path towards the docks. He felt Izzy stiffen under his touch, but after a few moments, he relaxed. Leaned into Roach’s side, and slowed a little.

“I’m awfully fond of you, little man,” whispered Roach. 

His heart sank as he realised, too late, that it was another miscalculation. Izzy struggled out of his hold and took several steps back. His eyes were wild and angry, and his lips twisted into a snarl, then a grimace, then his jaw slackened into confusion.

“What the fuck,” he said, his voice quiet and raw.

“Izzy,” said Roach, taking a step towards him. He felt himself break a little when Izzy took an answering step back, his gaze skating around as he searched for an escape. The thrill inside his chest grew suddenly, decisively cold, and it hurt , like Izzy had carved a slice right out of the core of him.

Then Izzy’s eyes grew wide as he stared at a point somewhere beyond Roach.

“The ship,” he gasped.

“What-”

“Can you swim?”

“I-”

“The fucking ship’s leaving!”

Roach whirled to see what he meant, and panic gripped him as he realised that The Revenge was indeed setting sail.

Without them.