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Devil's Pardon

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Steve woke up to the soft sounds of waves hitting the bow mixed with the creaking of wood. He had almost gotten used to his rough fabric hammock, almost. As he sat up and rubbed his eyes, he noticed that only him and old Follock was still sleeping. The others, whom he had shared his night watch with, was nowhere to be seen.

He silently cursed himself for being a heavy sleeper before soundlessly leaping down onto the floor. He quickly put on his worn cotton blouse and vest followed by his leather boots. If Captain Johnson found him sleeping again he would be abandoned at next port sooner rather than later. He limped his way out of the sleeping quarters, still trying to put on his left boot, when he saw Sam storming towards him.

“Steve! There you are! I thought you started work with the rest hours ago!”

Sam was the closest to a friend Steve had and he was whispering to avoid waking up snoring Follock.

“I bet the others let me sleep intentionally … and I bet it was Barton’s idea,” Steve answered while gritting his teeth. Sam patted his back as to hurry and calm him at the same time.

“The Captain is speaking to the entire crew and he will notice us missing.”

With those words, both men ran as silently as possible above deck. Steve squeezed his eyes at the bright sun as the fresh air surrounded him. When his eyes adjusted to the sudden light, he could see the large group of crewmembers assembled just beneath the quarterdeck in front of the doors leading to Captain Johnson’s private chambers. Above his crew stood the Captain himself, just beside the helm. Sam and Steve managed to stealth their way into the group just as Johnson started speaking. Steve mouthed a silent “thank you” to Sam before turning his attention to the announcement.

“You are all gathered to be informed of the reason to the sudden change of plans,”

Johnson started. Steve had heard whispers among the crew. After weighing anchor in Havana, Johnson had commanded his galleon, their partner galleon and the merchants ship they escorted east, instead of west around Cape Bonavista as firstly planned. Many the men had found this peculiar and the lack of information delivered to the crew even more so.

Johnson was a middle-aged stout man with grey hairs starting to taint his forming beard. He wore his uniform proudly as his galleon sailed under the Union Jack. As he stood there surrounded by officers and soldiers in red, Captain Johnson formed a great example of why Steve chose to join the English Navy, proud and commanding as he stood.

“Officer Collins informed me of the possible troubles of rounding Cape Bonavista, the seas are crawling with Spanish privateers and pirate activity has increased the last months.”

Steve did not know what goods they escorted, yet it was valuable enough for the King to send two of the English fleet's best galleons to guard it. The merchant ship, called Valiant, looked small and insignificant between the two large warships. Steve knew of the officer standing at the helm of the other galleon named Boudicca. His name was Officer Abbott, yet many the men in both crews teasingly called him Officer Redhead, when he’s not listening that is. The mocking nickname was birthed more from his hot temper than his flaming auburn hair, yet it fit both, as well as his reputation in battle. Steve was content with sailing under Captain Johnson on The Triumph after hearing of common practised floggings of unruly crewmembers under Officer Abbott.

“As you know we are now heading east to reach our final destination Kingston. Yet to reach the King’s city we must sail by infested waters.”

Everyone knew what that meant, the Captain continued his speech despite the tension and worried looks shared between the addressed group.

"We have the honour of sharing company with Officer Collins aboard The Triumph. Our English brothers aboard Boudicca are commanded by no other than Officer Abbott himself! I guarantee you safety in the name of the King and his sixty loyal soldiers aboard our caravan. Stand tall and take pride in your service men! I do believe you will find the option of desertion rather difficult..."

His last comment broke out a laugh among the soldiers and officers alike, yet the crew stayed silent. Steve thought the same as every other crew member. They did not tell us before leaving port. They knew the crew would not agree to sailing that close to The Bahamas, not when the Island of Nassau was a few leagues north of it. Worse, they also knew that no man would dare speak up in the presence of Royal officers and top trained soldiers, who did nothing else that standing in the way and kicking sweeping buckets over to make life harder for the men working. Steve heard at least one other man curse the high horsed redcoats as the group split to return to each their own errands.

Later that day, Steve helped Sam with the rigging at the forecastle, the rope needed repair and Sam was the best man aboard for the job. As his friend oiled the dry rope Steve made sure to notice the entire procedure. It was never too late to learn despite this being far from his first sailing contract. It was easy to find work on patrolling vessels not far from New York, even when the pay was no bigger than scraps.

When he started working for the Navy, he was sent south and each trip became longer and harder. He was lucky Sam had taken him in, otherwise he might have been more of a burden to the crew than he would have liked and that never made anyone popular with the Captain. Steve might not be an experienced sailor but hard labor was never a problem for him. Long work days and heavy cargo had made him strong as a bull.
He was also taller than most of the other men aboard, which sometimes seemed to bother the commanding soldiers. A Corporal might be cocky when kicking over his cleaning bucket if Steve sat down while sweeping the deck, but when he then proceeded to stand up he towered several inches over the high ranking soldier of his Majesty King George. Then their mocking smile somehow always faltered. At least this little trick gained Steve several points among the other pissed off members of the crew.

The working men grew more and more paranoid with each passing day. Every morning seemed more tense than the one before, yet the soldiers did not seem to feel less confident of the safety of the caravan. Steve desperately didn’t want to thing them ignorant, but the silent thought spread like a wildfire. Even Barton dared not fool around anymore while everyone was this much on edge. The Captain got annoyed when the third account of an anxious
"Ship ohoy off the port beam!" Sounded from the crow's nest above them. It was simply a small schooner, bigger chance being a bounty hunter than a petty pirate. Captain Johnson shouted a series of insults at the men near him asking them to "kindly inform the crow in the nest that next time he informs me of a suspicious looking, petty boat I will personally send him to The Locker without having bloody pirates doing it for him!"

Before the three false alarms Captain Johnson had been more bold, uncaring and patrolling the deck with his head held high. When the anxiousness of the crew first started to form he had assured everyone that the caravan would be sailing close to the shore, avoiding open waters. Yet many had glanced nervously towards the shore to the starboard broadside, thinking it too far away. The anxiousness of the crew only birthed conflict so Johnson had wisely commandeered The Triumph closer to the shore as the 4th day came to a close. It helped little and Steve caught himself thinking how the hell people could get used to sail in dangerous waters like these all the time. Piracy up north were less extensive and threatening. Down here, even the Navy feared black flags. Steve silently cursed himself for talking Sam into southern contracts. One let to another and now he had gotten them into this mess. He made a mental note to apologise later, even though he knew Sam would brush it aside with a scoff.

The 5th day brought fog and thick, moist air with it, not helping the crew on edge. Even the cocky soldiers seemed to pick up the state of the working men and started to glance towards the hidden horizon. Steve kept a close eye on the shore at all times when working above deck. He noticed the many small rocky islands and bays along the shore, yet he felt a spark of rising panic every time the rockfilled shoreline disappeared in the fog. Navigation in these conditions were tricky as hell and Sam had heard the navigator cuss a long stream of expletives over breakfast, he had told Steve as much. What if they accidently got too far into open water? Maybe the fog would clear then? But what kind of vessels would lurk there, ready to spot them? The bad visibility kept them hidden in a vulnerable place. Almost like a coffin, Steve thought gloomingly, before distracting his mind with work yet again.

The fog still hadn’t disappeared the morn of the 6th day. Steve tried to not get bothered by it when looking out of the open gun ports, which providing some fresh air to the lower deck. He was given the exciting task of painting the shutters on the inside, the tart smell of the paint not bettering his gloomy mood in the slightest.
The weather was slightly cooler than normal, yet the wetness of the fog surrounded the caravan was making the air seem harder to breathe in. Steve had been up early that morning, so his assigned painting job was executed with a fair share of yawning. He was relieved when he was finally replaced by another crew member, the man just as put down over the task as Steve had been. After patting him on the back for encouragement, Steve went up the stairs. When he reached the top deck, he immediately noticed the fog thinner cover of the fog. It was finally clearing and he a tiny piece of anxiety disappeared with the mist.

The front sails of Valiant and Boudicca could be clearly spotted behind them, the hulls sailing clean through restful waters. He went to help Barton with sail repairments amidship. Steve still had ambivalent thoughts towards his comrade. Barton could be funny and nice to have around when the days seemed to stretch on forever. Yet the man did have a habit of talking every other crewmember into letting Steve sleep on in the mornings, just for the fun of it. Sam was sleeping on the other side if the cargo hold and had other matters to attend than checking on Steve every morning.

"You have to learn the skill of light sleeping mate ... Sooner rather than later."

He had simply stated. Steve supposed he was right so he couldn’t stay angry at the man. As they sat down working, their fingers in knots trying to get each piece of fabric to comply, they heard a shout. They turned towards the sound coming from the galleons forecastle, simply giving each other a funny, unassuming look, but the shouting continued. At last they ran to the very front of the ship to stand beside the shouting man. His eyes were wide in fear and his panicked rambling made less and less sense with every passing second.

"Be quiet man the Captain is still sleeping!"

Barton scolded him. Steve knew the man although he had never spoken to him, like Follock, he was a regular aboard this vessel. Now he clung to Steve's vest like his dear life depended on it. Steve desperately tried to loosen the man’s grip on his clothes but the man was devilishly strong in his panic. Finally, the endless rambling was collected enough to be considered a hysterical statement.

"I saw a ship right ... right there in the fog!"

The man stammered while pointing frantically at the empty air in front of the bow. Steve and Barton looked towards his given direction trying to spot out the ship the man was ranting about. There was nothing but thinning grey mist.

"I saw a black flag I swear! It was right there in a straight line from the bow! I swear on my cold wet grave!"

Now shouting began from the crow's nest, which sparked a reaction from the deck below. Men were running and the sound of barking commands and frantic arguments were getting louder.

"Be calm! By the devil you just had to light the fuse! do you have any idea what Johnson might ..."

Barton was violently shaking the man back and forth by now, assuming the man an idiot, but Steve grabbed at his sleeve and pointed.

"Clint ...look"

The shouting man stumbled and ran as soon as Barton's grip on him loosened. Right in front of the bow a sailing ship appeared through the fog. The sails were dark brown and the ship was as black as the Jolly Roger dancing atop the tallest mast. The ship's bow carved through the water with deadly silence, as it almost hovered above the water in direction of their the port broadside of before vanishing again. Only now Steve became aware of the intensely cold chills travelling through his body, from his toes to his teeth. He clutched the railings with white knuckles and cramping fingers.

He looked to Barton and saw all colour drained from the man’s face. Gulping down air in spasmodic gasps, he heard more shouting behind them, as the crow's nest desperately tried to locate the vanished ship. The deck was in a state of panicked stillness. Fighting a soundless invisible enemy with limited visibility was nothing any of them had ever prepared for.

Suddenly a shot was heard from the port side, ringing sharply through traitorous stillness. Every man in ear-range jumped, some clutched their heads and dropped to the deck. Clint ducked instinctively and dragged the slower Steve down with him. Both men listened as the shot hit the water with a splash not far from The Triumph. After that, only their shallow breathing could be heard. A warning shot. From fucking where?!

"That's just ironic. Bloody pirates goin' to attack on the 6th day?"

He heard Barton whisper in steadfast dread. A thousand prayers hidden in his eyes. Steve felt his heart almost beat through his ribcage. They were both pressing their backs to the gunwall, trying to find assurance in the sturdy structure, even though both knew that wood would yield to metal and explosives.

"6 is the devil's number."

Steve gave Clint a stupidly astonished look. Why the hell was ironic symbolism the first thing running through this man's brain right now? Clint flashed a strained sarcastic smile, his breathing picking up. The fear in his eyes mirrored the horror in Steve's own as their ears filled with the shouts of men running to their battle stations.

Chapter Text

The next thing Steve noticed was Clint pushing him forward into a run. The Captain finally joined the shouting atop deck, demanding to know what was going on. Boudicca and Valiant was behind them due to the narrowness of the passage between mainland and the small islands close to shore, the cramped place forcing the ships into an arrow-formation. It would be impossible to sail the ships into a tactical battle-formation with this little visibility and maneuverability. Steve briefly let his panicking mind flow out of control before hearing yet another shot, which effectively cleared his brain. Yet this time the shot rang close to the starboard broadside of Valiant, which was sailing closest to the shore of Cuba. The sound of iron smashing and piercing wood could not be mistaken for anything else than a clear hit. The tinge of gunpowder and smoke swirled in the air, blocking airways and forcing the crew to look reality dead in the eye. They were officially under attack.

Now the Captain was shouting out commands faster than the crew could absorb. Steve finally reached his assigned battle position at a canon upon the top deck amidship. Chaos was evident and not only on The Triumph. Screaming could be heard from Valiant since the hit and the crushing silence of the fog left no hints as to where the enemy could be hiding. The blackness of the spotted ship and the silence of its hull imprinted in Steve’s mind as being like a spectre. A black ship from hell itself.

“Ready canons!”

Johnson shouted hoarsely and Steve frantically started working. There was something very wrong about this. There was no target to hit, they would only be shooting blindly into the crushing fog, which would swallow up their ammunition with minimal chance of a hit.

Without warning, a third shot rang through the air. Boudicca was hit from her port side. The stench of gunpowder and burnt tar became more prominent as Steve tried calculating the whereabouts of the attacking ships. His brain was working a thousand miles a minute and the same could be said about his beating heart. While his hands worked on the opening to the gunpowder sack, he eventually found that two or three ships were currently attacking. The first ship, which appeared in front of their bow, was heading towards the sea, which meant it technically could have opened fire at Boudicca when getting far enough behind. Yet another ship could be hidden there as well, only waiting for the perfect opportunity to open fire.

He silently cursed the fog to hell. One ship on their port side, possibly moving between the tall rock islands sticking up here and there from the ocean, and another hidden away in a small bay at their starboard side, blowing holes in the cargo ship they were supposed to protect. As he finally settled on two or three ships, the canon was ready to fire.

More shots could be heard from behind them, yet now the rest of their caravan had disappeared in the grey mist. Every ship for herself. Steve had never felt so vulnerable before. There he was, standing atop the deck of a ship being attacked by what seemed like the vessels of the dead. Maybe it was. They were scaringly smart, making the caravan split up like this, and hindering the heavily armed galleons in using their superior firing power. It was a hilariously simple move, but the complete calculated nonchalance in which it was done spoke of lethal practice.

Surely the next move was, if possible, more unexpected than everything that had happened so far. Without a sound, a third ship appeared. The fog was covering a lot but Steve measured it to be bigger than the ship firstly spotted. He also quickly noticed how horridly fast the ship was going and that its sharp metal braced ram headed directly towards their port broadside. He heard shouts and screams of fear, men running and jumping for their lives out of the way of the ram. Yet he could not move a muscle. He could only watch as the pitch black sails with white wing patterns came closer with a devastating speed and at last smashed directly into the hull of The Triumph with enough force to shake the warship all the way down to its bilge. Three ships. Now there was definitely at least three ships.

Steve could not recall how his back came to rest against the wooden deck or when his head had started to throb with pain. He desperately tried to sit up, still feeling disoriented with adrenaline burning through his veins. His precise circumstances had yet to return to him. As he shakily got up on his knees, he was violently knocked over again by yet another tremor travelling through the ship. His head started to spin and he had to blink and focus his vision on the patterns in the wooden deck beneath him. Did they get hit again? They couldn’t have been rammed two times this quick in succession, but how long had he been out?

Everything around him eventually stopped rotating and he looked up. He was at the other broadside, not the one who got rammed, others had not been that lucky. Yet the wood of the starboard broadside was now creaking and screaming. He got up on all fours and saw the reason for the second tremor. The Triumph had been rammed with such force that the enemy ship, still with its ram embedded into the bowel of The Triumph, made them drift directly into the high stone wall of the shore. They were completely and utterly trapped with no hope of escape.

Steve tried to stand on wobbly legs, but he only just got up on his knees when laughter and howling ripped through the deadly silence and filled his ears. They were trapped between the pirate ship at the port broadside and the stone wall at their starboard broadside, yet that was not their biggest problem thus far. What was however, very much a problem, was the fact that the howling came closer. They were being boarded. The sound of metal grappling hooks hitting their gunwalls filled Steve with fear so bad that his breathing stopped. Swishing sounds of rope being thrown and steel being drawn resonated in the empty air between the shore and cliff islands surrounding the battleship. Now the brave soldiers of His Majesty King George of England finally recovered from the shock. Officer Collins, Captain Johnson and the rest of the soldiers drew their steel to meet the boarding party. Steve didn't know how to wield a sword or a rapier very well. He could fire a gun, not that complicated, but reloading posed a serious problem.

Soon enough their attackers flooded over the gunwalls and atop their deck, heavy boots stomping and hoarse throats shouting. Steve leaned on a canon, still trying merely stand up. He was useless in this fight if his head kept being this woozy. The invaders were not wearing uniforms, but they were armed to the teeth. The sharp resonance of steel against steel soon cut through the air together with the booming sound of gunshots. Forces were scattered across the deck, fighting in blind rage and determination. Luckily, both fighting parties were engaged enough in their bloodshed to notice Steve still leaning on a canon. He crawled and dragged himself slowly along the gunwalls, towards the quarterdeck while high pitched clangs of metal colliding with metal deafened him. He knew of the Captain’s personal sword collection stored in his private quarters. As far as he understood, the collection was quite extensive and impressive, which might come in handy right about now. Luckily, no one noticed him hiding and moving quickly between canons and water barrels. The pirates were far too busy cutting down sword-handling resistance. He was almost at the doors beneath the helm, his mind suddenly providing him with doubt whether they would be locked, when he heard someone wheeze his name.

“Steve…?”

His head snapped to the left and saw a man sitting with his back leaned against the sidewall of the quarterdeck stairs. It was Sam, he quickly realised. Steve ran to him dodging in the process when he heard a gunshot close to him, momentarily leaving his ears ringing.

“Sam! Oh god …”

Steve noticed blood, a horrifying amount of it dragging patterns leading to his friend’s current position and pooling, slowly seeping around his slumping form.

“Lie back!”

Sam was slowly falling forwards from his sitting position, so Steve knelt beside him and supported his back so he could lie down. Sam grunted in pain and his eyes were glossy and unfocused. Steve quickly glanced around to make sure no one was taking notice of them yet. Then he examined his friend. Sam had taken a gunshot to his thigh, which was where most of the blood came from, but Steve also noticed a long gash across his chest. With every wound discovered on his friend’s body, his heart rose another inch towards his throat. Steve took off his vest and used Sam’s rapier to cut out a long thick strip of the leather. He then put pressure on the gunshot and tied the leather strip tight around Sam’s thigh. Steve did not pay much attention to his surroundings while working on stopping the blood flow, yet his concentration was ripped away when hearing shouts from the quarterdeck. The noises prominent enough to steal his attention momentarily. He moved a little to peek through the railings of the stairs. Atop the quarterdeck he saw Captain Johnson fighting another man in a long dark blue coat. The Captain’s rapier had problems with keeping up with the constant swift attacks from his enemy, who were armed with a cutlass in each hand. The slight curve of these weapons were lethally sharp, the blades handled with such ruthless accuracy that made Johnson’s weapon-of-choice and skill falter in comparison.

Steve’s heart almost stopped when he saw his Captain make an attempt of piercing at the pirate’s abdomen but his rapier was swept away by one cutlass while the other pierced through his stomach, impaling him. Johnson gave a short lived shout of surprise, then a bloody gurgle, and his entire body seemed to curl inwards. The points of one cutlass was sticking out of his back, soiled in blood, which slowly got sucked up by the Captain’s clothes. This dark crimson patch of stained cloth grew in size with every second passing. Only then did the blue-coated man pull his sword back and as even more blood ran down, gushing at their feet, the body of Captain Philip Johnson fell to the deck with a hollow lifeless sound. Steve’s breathing had completely stopped. He felt fear rip through him yet again, tearing into him like a beast into prey, but he couldn’t avert his eyes. He could only see the back of his Captain’s murderer, his broad shoulders and the dark nuances of an expensive coat.

“Steve!”

Sam called out to him but his reaction was too slow. Before he could turn around, he received a well coordinated kick to his rips. The air was violently forced out of his lungs and he tumbled to the ground, his right side taking most of the fall. Steve ended up on his back gasping for air that refused to come. A second later, a boot was placed on his chest restricting his breathing even more. His hands instinctively shot out and wrapped around his attacker’s ankle, but when he looked up he was met with the face of a woman. The fierce red colour of her hair momentarily shocked him into stillness, her eyes burning holes into his own. Only now did he notice her sword being pressed insistently against the tender skin of his throat. Steve slowly let go of her ankle and dropped his hands to the floor, a clear signal of defeat. A small smirk showed at the corners of her mouth before she spoke.

“Here's a pretty one.”

Steve heard someone shout out. Just as suddenly as it had appeared, the boot on his chest was gone, but it merely took seconds for it to return and crash into his jaw with such force that his vision blurred, swirled and turned completely black.

Chapter Text

Steve woke up by a wet coldness splashed at his face. He tried to sit up frantically, but he was on his stomach with his hands tied behind his back, so his struggling and pulling only made him breathe in water. He coughed violently while strong unkind hands grabbed him and forced him upright on his knees. His dirty blond hair now clung wetly to his forehead and he could taste salt on his lips. He blinked several times before his vision became clear enough to take in his surroundings.
They were all on their knees with hands tied behind their backs, still on the deck of The Triumph.
In a long row they sat, yet Steve noticed how few they were, compared to the high numbers of the original crew. He could only spot half of the men he used to work with every day and he dared not think what had happened to the rest. As his brain started to work through the still present throbbing of his head and body, he quickly looked to his right and left in search of Sam. Firstly, Steve could not spot him, which sparked an immediate steadily rising panic in his chest, but then he found the man about 10 men longer down the row to his left. He was awfully pale, despite his dark skin, and he had problems sitting up by himself. A pirate was standing directly behind the wounded man, supporting him with a hand clasped tightly in the back of his shirt.

Steve's jaw clenched, if Sam's wounds were not attended to it could be fatal due to blood loss and he just the thought of his friend’s life hanging in the balance made Steve’s head a little clearer with anxiety and determination. He looked down the row to his right side. They were around 40 surviving men, from both crews, Steve assumed since he didn't recognize a big chunk of the fearful faces. He did spot Clint longer to his right, which relieved him more than he would like to admit. The guy could be an asshole but he was good at his job and Steve certainly didn't wish any harm upon the man. Their eyes met and Steve recognized Clint's tense expression, clenched jaw and the fear in his eyes. It mirrored the expression the man had worn once they spotted the first pirate ship gliding soundlessly through the fog. Clint seemed a tad beat up with a black eye and several bruises to show for it, but otherwise he didn’t look wounded. The eye contact was broken when something ripped away Clint's attention and whatever it was, it made his eyes go wide and, if possible, even more fearful. The source of this fear was located at Steve's left so naturally, he turned his head.

Close to the quarterdeck, a pair of brown leather boots started to make their way down the row of captured men. The owner of the boots had his sword in hand, cleaning the blood of it with a piece of cloth, which was swiped over the blade from handle to tip slowly and repeatedly. The man was tall and wide-shouldered, Steve noticed, but what he paid attention to in this very moment was the long and dark blue coat the pirate was wearing. The body of Captain Johnson was still imprinted in his brain and his jaw clenched in anger. This man, whoever he was, had cut down one of the British Navy’s finest officers like he was nothing but a young reckless buccaneer.

The pirate slowly eyed the prisoners one by one and with every step, he got closer to Steve's position in the row. When he got to Sam, Steve noticed the displeased calculating look on the pirate's eyes. Steve’s own gaze quickly flicked between the criminal and Sam, now fearing for the life of his friend. What if he got killed simply because they deemed him dead anyway? What if they decided that rations were easily wasted on a dying man? And while these dangerous and fatal thoughts might be running through several pirate minds, Steve found himself on his knees, quite literally bound on hands and feet, with close to no hope of helping the man he owed so much to. The thought alone made an anxiety-driven panic start to creep into every part of his body, making it tingle distressingly while sending his mind whirling.
Before he knew of it, the pirate reached his place in the row.

He looked nothing like how the British soldiers normally depicted pirates, sitting in the middle of bars and boasting drunkenly on this topic when their commanding Officers was nowhere to be seen. Steve had listened a little too often, scoffing at the clear exaggeration on bloodshed and other gruesome acts of violence coming from the men in uniforms, all clearly fictional if you owned half a brain. Yet Steve was aware of one thing. In a rumour one might find a single speck of truth if digging deep enough and pushing subjectivity aside. In this moment, kneeling in front of the main character in most of these stories, Steve found himself terrified by this specific tiny speck. Steve used several seconds making sure that the boots did indeed stop right in front of him, before carefully taking a closer look at said main character.

This man didn't look or smell foul, he was not wearing old dirty clothes or had rotten black teeth. This man had a sharp facial structure and a well carved nose. His jaw was broad but only so it framed the lower part of his face rightfully enough to call him handsome. The pirate’s dark brown hair just about reached to his shoulders. He also had a forming beard, a clear evidence of many days at sea. Steve felt fear and anger alike looking up at this man, a clear picture of his late commanding Officer still imprinted in his mind. Then the faintest of smiles showed at the pirate's lips as he dropped the piece of cloth he had cleaned his sword with, right in front of Steve, and continued his slow stalk down the row. Steve regarded the cloth in confusion before his eyes widened in shock and realisation. It was his vest, or rather what was left of it since he had cut it into pieces trying to stop Sam's bleeding. The vest was soiled in blood, with thin light marks slightly criss crossed over it where Johnson’s murderer’s blade had cut deep in long sweeps.

The vest was useless of course but why give it back? Was this man plainly mocking him? But more importantly, how did he know it was Steve's? He must have seen him take care of Sam during the fight somehow. Yet if he had why hadn’t he killed them back then? It surely wouldn’t have been a challenge for a man with his abilities in swordsmanship. They weren’t resisting of course, but still? Steve had thought them covered by crates and smoke at the time. The man could have made a wild guess as to the owner of the vest of course, after finding it besides Sam and Steve. Yet Sam was also not wearing a vest so it might as well have been his. His brain was working to find a reasonable explanation to this strange puzzle when suddenly the man was back. He was backing away from the row to finally stand still significantly farther away from the row now. He then cleared his throat and addressed the entire group of prisoners when he spoke.

"Gentlemen, welcome to the trial of Officer John P. Abbott! I am Captain James Barnes, at your service, and you are all witnesses to the crimes of the accused!"

Captain Barnes, as introduced, was speaking with a somehow twisted smile on his lips like the entire situation was one big joke to him. It was rather easy for him, Steve assumed, since his life isn’t in danger.

“And there he is!”

The Captain exclaimed loudly and with sarcastic boisterous enthusiasm. Now Officer Abbott was being dragged aboard and across the deck by a tall dark haired man and a woman with long red hair. Steve first thought he recognized her, but as she came closer he realised it was a complete different person. How many women did these people bring on board? Steve was completely dumbfounded as the redhead, with whom he already made a painful acquaintance, also climbed down, apparently from the crow’s nest of The Triumph. Steve had worked in the British Navy far too long, as his level of bafflement would suggest. Women aboard were strongly prohibited there, not to mention completely unheard of. The women had the same burning red hair, yet the woman with a mean kick only had hair to her shoulders, while the other’s went long past her chest. However, the complete look of disgust when faced with the Officer was equally measured in both their eyes.

Abbott was thrown down, heavily colliding with the deck, in front of the row. He was only wearing his undergarments, which Steve assumed was not volunteeringly. He was awfully pale, even for him, and fear was evident from the way his eyes flickered around constantly between the people handling him. Said people had little regard for his well being, dragging and throwing him like they would a sack of ruined flour.

“Officer Abbott you are accused of following, falsely accusing on behalf of self made evidence, cruel and inhumane execution due to said evidence and at last the unimaginable treatment and horrific conditions of your crew!”

Each word elegantly rolled of James Barnes’ tongue as if repeatedly practised and reconsidered, precise thought-through pauses between certain words making the accusations stick in the minds of the listeners. Steve’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. How did this man come to such knowledge and why was he holding a pretend-trial in the middle of all of this? This entire scene made less and less sense with every passing minute. Steve deemed it best not to get involved and hold tongue, his current kneeling position really unsuitable to demand answers in. Officer Abbott could not wear a more perplexed, confused or fearful expression on his face. All the different expressions blending together across his features, eventually making his face one of a scrambling desperate man. Captain Barnes walked up to the panicking Officer, grabbed him by his jaw harshly before spitting words in his face.

“What do you have to say in your defense?”

Abbott stuttered out several incoherent unfinished sentences before gathering himself enough to speak.

“What on God’s good Earth are you talking about?!”

Bad choice of words, Steve immediately gathered from the Captain’s face. He let go of Abbott, as his face changed from sarcastic humor to hatred and aversion, yet the cynical smile was still plastered to his face. He turned around, as to collect his thoughts, before squatting down uncomfortably close in front of Abbott.

“Do you not remember? Or are you just plain dense?”

Now the Officer’s pride was yet again awakened and he was outraged.

“How dare you even speak to me? You criminal! I am in the King’s service! You are merely a common unclean rat beside me! I have served my country …”

His patriotic prideful rant was however interrupted by the simple prompt statement from the Captain.

“Yes I know, I heard the stories … And I have lived them.”

Now the Officer's eyes widened in shock and something akin to recognition.

"Yeah you know me don't you? I suppose I’ve changed a bit since then so I don’t blame you for not recognising me. But you also knew Morita. Maybe you knew him as Jim like the rest of us? You did know him and you condemned him to die."

The Officer's expression changed from prideful to utter panic as the Captain continued speaking, his eyes wide and unbelieving as if he was witness to a dead man standing.

"This is why you are here Abbott. To answer for your crimes. You executed Morita without a trial and yet here we are."

The Captain arose and spread out his arms as to gesture to entire gathering upon the deck. The entire event equally a display of power as well as a trial.

"We might be criminals Abbott, but we are not coward dogs and we haven’t sunken deep like you and your kind!"

Captain Barnes spat out the words like it was venom in his mouth. Steve wondered if Abbott's kind included him and what was left of both crews. He silently prayed they’d be left out of this evidently personal vendetta. If not, then their odds looked to be less favourable.

"He stole the rations! I was Captain, I had to act!"

Abbott was clearly panicking now. His face reddening as he sputtered out excuses. They sounded meek, as if Abbott was trying to convince himself and not the pirate in front of him.

"He didn’t steal, but you made it look like he did. I am witness of this but since I am both judge and witness in this case, I will call on the word of your crew as well."

It was clearer than day that Barnes and Abbott’s acquaintance went far back. Steve had been almost spellbound, both in terrible curiosity and horror, to the scene in front of him, but when the Captain walked towards the row and eyed them calculatingly, he felt completely on edge again. Luckily the Captain walked right past Steve and he let himself breathe out in relief. This small comfort was short lived though.

"You. Can you speak man?"

"Aye"

Steve would know that voice anywhere. The Captain was addressing Sam directly, he realised and his heart started thundering in fear yet again. Despite the shortness of the answer, the single word sounded shaky and fragile besides the Captain’s steadfast voice.

"Name?"

"Sam Wilson, Captain"

"Wilson, you served under Officer Johnson correct?”

"Correct, Captain."

Now Steve was almost certain that the Captain had spotted him trying to stop Sam from bleeding out atop The Triumph.

"Despite not being in the service of Officer Abbott, have you heard of the atrocities happening aboard his ships?"

The Captain continued, as surefast as before yet more respectful in his approach than when addressing Abbott.

"Aye, I have"

"In what shape or size did these atrocities manifest?"

Sam hesitated before looking to the utter humiliating sight of the half naked Officer behind the Captain.

"I've heard of flogging. Keel hauling too, Captain."

"Is that so?" Asked the Captain, a clear rhetorical question. He turned on his heels and started walking back along the row, clearly content with the given answer.

"Would any men from Abbott's crew like to play witness?"

Captain Barnes then asked. A thick and tense silence fell over the deck. Steve was beginning to fear a burst of anger or desperation from the Captain, but he looked calm as ever. If he still possessed that burning hatred Steve had seen in his eyes at the beginning, then it was buried deep at the moment. At last, a man at the end of the row to Steve's right started to stir. The Captain swiftly picked up on the movement and started walking towards the man.

"Yes you? What is your name?"

"My name is Johnny Barrack, Captain"

Steve could barely see the man from where he sat on his knees. He could only get a glimpse of dark brown hair and a big beard now and then.

"In what way do you possess knowledge of the crimes committed by the accused?"

"I have been serving under him for some time Captain, not only aboard Boudicca."

The man paused slightly before continuing, swallowing hesitantly.”

"And he had my brother flogged and deserted on an island"

"Very well Barrack. What crimes did your brother commit to deserve these cruel punishments in the mind of the accused?"

"He slept on his night watch, Captain. I acknowledge that my brother went against his orders, yet I do believe the punishment of death was too harsh on his poor soul."
Barrack’s voice lacked composure in places, the words carefully and slowly pronounced in order to shield the touch of emotion in them.

"I believe you Barrack ..."

The Captain’s thoughtful expression was harshly broken by the small squeal from an accused and panicking Officer.

"I did no such thing! I did not condemn him to death I had him flogged! That is a normal procedure for defying orders!"

The Captain turned towards Abbott with disgust written all over his features and after that back to Barrack before asking again.

"Barrack did your brother have any chances of survival after he was deserted? Maybe someone could have seen him and picked him up?"

"With all due respect, Captain, my brother was already half dead from an unusual hard flogging and the island was short on vegetation and placed outside well used travel routes."

"There you have it Abbott. Deserting a wounded man in the middle of God knows where is the same as a death sentence."

The Captain said and started walking back to the Officer, who couldn’t collect himself enough to start a proper protest.

"And at last I call upon myself as witness."

Now the hatred returned to Captain Barnes' eyes as he yet again squatted in front of the Officer. The cynicality in his sour smile twisting his features almost grotesquely.

"7 years ago I served under you. We sailed these waters together Abbott, you and I. You might have been quartermaster and I a simple worker but we both sailed upon the same ship. Our Captain sadly died of scurvy so you were promoted, but that was not enough for you was it? You wanted more power and pride. When we weighed anchor from Havana you knew what was gonna happen. You set it all up. Spanish privateers were to attack our ship off the coast of Cuba and you would play the role as war hero. Except you hired them and Morita saw you. He saw you strike the deal in Havana and he saw how the "privateer Captain" purposely avoided hurting you when they attacked. You only pretended to arrest him of course, you set him free as soon as we hit shore, well away from prying eyes."

Steve's crew members grew uneasy together with Abbott's crew. If Captain Barnes spoke the truth this would be a scandalous revelation. To his men, Abbott had nothing but his reputation due to unsympathetic commandeering, but how much of the heroic stories were made up? Easily staged? How many of them truly spoke of the capability of this man before them?

“You knew you had been found out, yet instead of gathering the last threads of your honour and confess, you threw it all away. You had Morita flogged on the line of torture and afterwards you dropped him into the sea, unconscious and defenseless! He was my friend, my brother, and an honest man Abbott, your exact contrary! Of course you quickly disposed of me, since I knew the truth as well. A good flogging never fails to entertain you does it?”

“I … I d-did not, I didn’t mean to....”

The Officer was crying now. Somehow Steve still it in himself to pity him. The man was pushed to the edge of sanity, his composure simply waiting to snap.
“Oh yes you did, you meant every lash of that whip, Abbott. I was lucky. I got picked up and now I’m here! I have a crew of my own, a ship and no King to answer to!”
Barnes threw out his arms in a boasting gesture, scornful smile still in place. Steve was close enough to see the fear radiate off the Officer as the Captain’s eyes almost turned red with rage. The situation was slowly tipping off the edge of control and it created a tense stifling atmosphere. Steve even saw the men handling the prisoners tense up or fidget. Suddenly the Captain stopped shouting and turned around as to gather his thoughts and regain his control. When he turned towards the Officer again his anger was yet again contained and he was wearing a cold and hard expression upon his features. Steve almost wished the smile back. This cool mask of hateful indifference carved Barnes’ features into something inhuman and cruel.

“Officer John P. Abbott, by the code and creed of pirates, and by whatever God and King you serve, I condemn you to die and to repay your moral debts with your life.”

The entire deck fell, if possible, even more silent except for the now begging and weeping Officer. Steve wanted to turn away, yet he could not. Strong men were still holding him by his arms as the situation grew more and more dire. He could feel his stomach turn when the Captain grabbed a pistol from the belt on his hip and loaded it slowly, all the while walking towards the crumbling Officer.

“Please I beg of you! I can pay … I can pay you all the money you want! I … Please oh God mercy! Anything but that please I am begging you PLEASE BARNES I DID NOT MEAN TO …”

The Officer’s hoarse cry turned into petty whimpers as Captain Barnes put the pistol to his forehead and pulled back the hammer with a loud sounding click. Steve could feel his own breathing matching the quick hammering of his heart. The intense feeling of fear at the display, as well as all his senses telling him to flee, made him feel sick to his stomach. However Steve found his eyes fixed upon the Officer’s forehead where the cold metal of the gun met pale flesh. He wanted nothing else than to be safely back home up north. He should never have sailed fucking south.

“Any last words?”

The Captain asked the crying Officer. Steve could almost feel the coldness in the Captain’s eyes. His face where stripped off all emotion as he stood with broad shoulders, condemning a man to die in front of crew and man alike. The Officer stammered out some incoherent words at first before Steve could make out what he was saying.

“... God please have mercy I have a wife …”
However the Captain did not give him time for a speech. His coldness only became more prominent to an even crueler degree, hand in a solid and steadfast grip around the flintlock’s handle.

“May God have mercy on your soul”

He pulled the trigger, allowing the loud ringing gunshot to become an echo thrown back and forth between the tall and cold stone walls caging them in.

Chapter Text

The silence after the gunshot was a clear sign of death itself. Only the cry of startled birds from the trees stop the stone islands could be heard. Steve had averted his eyes in the last second and turned his head left and downwards. Now he did not know whether to look up again to look upon the face of death, or to keep his head down like a coward.

He ended up sticking with the first option of course. There he stood and there was his victim. Though Steve could not quite work out who exactly were the victim in this case, perhaps both men. The Officer was lying on the deck, his hands still tied up and his face turning away from the row. Steve was glad. He did not know how much more death he could face in one day. Another man from the row retched but besides that no sound could be detected from anyone.

Captain Barnes finally started to move. He threw the pistol on the deck and wiped his hand with a handkerchief from his pocket. He walked to the row and stopped, silently assessing every last man. The silence weighted deep on Steve’s nerves. He felt cold inside. Like his blood had frozen together with his heartbeat. He almost jumped when the Captain started speaking again. He cursed himself and his fear to hell.

“I have no quarrel with you my good men. For those of you who wish to serve aboard The Black Swan or the other fine vessels under my command might be able to do so. Although I will use a couple of days to make arrangements. If everything goes according you will all find yourselves safe in the city of Nassau in a week's time.”

Just as the Captain finished speaking a tall black haired man came up behind him and spoke.

“Barnes these men could give us away if we are not careful. Why spare any of them? They're the King’s men! Dead men cannot tell tales!”

The Captain promptly answered: “Yes and would that not be a shame? Some tales must be told to assure the discomfort of the King’s Governors. Besides Rumlow … I do not kill men for the thrill of it.”

Steve let out a deep breath. He felt as if the air entered his lungs a lot more smoothly than before. If the Captain spoke the truth they would all be safe. As safe as one can be in the hands of pirates at least. The man named Rumlow did not settle there. His gaze fell upon Sam, who were still looking like a rag doll in the grip of another pirate.

“James this man’s half dead already! He will just shorten our provisions for a couple of days before dying.”

Steve was not quite sure if he saw the Captain looking at him before he spoke up.

“Do what you want with him Brock.”

Rumlow’s face lit up in a cruel smile. Sam’s eyes were closed and his jaw tensed as he prepared himself for whatever was next. Before Steve had time to think he had already thrown himself forward with a shout of “NO”. He had caught the pirate crew off guard because his handlers nearly released him, nearly. Steve had no idea what he would actually do if he managed to get loose. In the end it did not matter, because the men behind him kicked the back of his knees and a sharp elbow to the gut knocked the air out of his lungs.

He hit the deck quite violently and his arms were grabbed painfully hard. Steve let out an involuntary pained hiss and bent forward on his knees, trying to breathe in the lost air without coughing violently. He only got a few seconds to collect himself before he felt cold steel pressed urgently against his skin just below his chin. He slowly uncurled himself and looked directly into the face of Captain Barnes. His sword was neatly placed with the flat side against Steve’s skin, yet the very end of the sword was still piercing sharp and uncomfortably close to his throat.

Steve met the Captain’s piercing gaze with stubbornness and anger. The silence grew uncomfortable as the tension of the situation escalated for every passing minute. Steve refused to let this man see his fear. He kept staring back as intimidating as his position would allow him to. The Captain was reading him carefully with a little amused smile tugging at his lips, which only served the purpose of feeding Steve’s anger.

“Did you want something?”

Steve had to mentally kick his brain into gear before being able to answer properly.

“Yes … Sir …”

Steve got interrupted by the Captain’s stiff bark of laughter.

“Sir? That name will only gain you that”

Captain Barnes gestured to the lifeless corpse of Abbott behind him. He swiftly dragged his sword to the side to put it away, cutting Steve slightly in the process. Steve winced silently at the sharp pain where the steel had cut him just below his chin. He knew the Captain had meant to do that, it was far to precise to be an accident.

“Do continue …”

Steve felt his anger grow but at the same time he feared for Sam’s life and he could not afford to be snappy.

“Captain … Let me take care of him. He only need a few days and he can start working again … I can work double if I must.”

Steve choose his words with care. If he needed to he would beg for his friends life without hesitation but asking nicely seemed more appropriate. He still held the Captain’s gaze as an angered Rumlow started to object.

“A few days? The man is half dead for God’s sake! He won't be able to stand for weeks if he gets that far!”

The Captain was still looking at Steve instead of turning towards Rumlow, so Steve kept looking at him too while answering.

“With all due respect Captain, he does not need to stand. He is the best repairman I have ever met, even Abbott said so. With the right tools he can make a rope last a lifetime.”

The Captain looked sceptical yet he listened and Steve took that as a good sign.

“That is big words coming from a dead man … very well. Try to keep him alive and see where it goes from there.”

Brock Rumlow was just about to protest but the Captain held up his hand to silence him before he could begin. Only then Captain Barnes turned away from Steve to give the final command while Rumlow stormed off.

“Get them to The Swan and throw them below deck”

Steve was hauled to his feet by a man at each arm. They grabbed him harshly when he almost tipped over. He wanted to tell them to go screw themselves but it might not be the best idea to cause trouble yet again. The prisoners were gathered in a long row as they got escorted to the pirate ship, which had collided with The Triumph. Steve saw Sam’s eyes filled with gratitude before he disappeared out of sight.

Steve were chained up on both hands and legs beside Sam. The chains were attached to a long metal bar nailed to the floor together with the other chains attached to other crew members. As soon as their handlers left the small room Steve sprang to Sam’s side and grabbed his friend by the shoulder.

“Sam? Hey! Are you alright how are you feeling?”

Sam were whispering so Steve had to lean in close, his heavy chains rattling.

“Thank you…”

Steve’s features turned softer when he heard the gratitude and honesty in Sam’s voice.

“No problem okay? Just lie back and I will look at you … I'll be careful I promise.”

Just as Steve was loosening the torn up vest strip from Sam’s thigh, he heard a key turning and the door swinging in. He quickly sat up as much as the chains allowed him and shielded Sam in case the intruder would be of the name Rumlow. It was a woman Steve recognised all too well. She carried a bag with her and Steve immediately turned suspicious. She stopped in her tracks in front of the two men eyeing Steve with a raised brow before speaking.

“Wow easy there tiger I'm here to help.”

Steve did not stand down and kept his shielding position with arms raised slightly along his sides, trying to make Sam as invisible as possible. The red haired woman simply sighed dramatically.

“Listen here bucko your friend is bleeding out and you just risked your life to save his, do you want that to go to waste?”

Steve stood down a little before asking.

“Who are you?”

“Romanoff, Natasha … I'm the closest to a medic we currently have on board.”

She held out her hand so he could shake it and he did.

“Steve Rogers.”

Natasha knelt on the other side of Sam and began grabbing things from her bag. Steve watched her closely and tensed up when she pulled up two long slender knives. Natasha noticed but she simply started explaining.

“We need these to get to the bullet. It has to be removed otherwise it will prevent him from walking in the future, cause internal damage or both. Hold him, it won't be pleasant. Give him this.”

She handed out a bottle of rum and Steve simply raised an eyebrow in question.

“Come on it will take the edge of the pain.”

Steve obeyed and supported Sam’s head while he drank. Sam was barely conscious before but now the strong alcohol made his eyelids glide downwards. Natasha eyes him out for a couple of seconds before looking back to Steve.

“Here we go … Hold him … He must not move or the knife might slip.”

Steve grabbed his friend firmly at the healthy leg and the shoulder, while Natasha cut open Sam’s pants on his right thigh to get better access. The other prisoners in the small room glared but Steve paid no mind to them.

Natasha started digging out the clotting dried blood to get to the bullet. She worked swiftly and with secure hands, this definitely was not the first time she had done this. The sight mixed with the heavy smell of blood made Steve want to vomit, yet he took deep breaths. He had to be able to help Sam in every way he could. It felt like an eternity before Natasha finally spoke again.

“I found it! It's deep though … Give me a couple of minutes.”

Steve’s attention shifted between Romanoff’s concentrated face and Sam’s body on the floor. Suddenly he started stirring and grunting. Natasha shot Steve a “hold him still or God help him” glare before returning to her work. Steve did his best at comforting his friend while laying himself atop Sam’s abdomen to restrict his movements.

“Almost got it…”

Steve grew more nervous at seeing the blood soak Sam’s pants.

“Finally!”

Natasha let out a little victory laugh before her features returned to grave and concentrated again. She threw the bullet away and Steve let out the air he had been holding.

“The worst is past us … This will hurt though, continue to hold him”

Natasha instructed and grabbed the rum bottle before pouring it in the wound. Sam’s gave out a hoarse cry in pain. Steve put his right hand on his neck and whispered softly to him. Natasha dug through her bag yet again and found bandages and some small flagons. She started soaking the bandages in some green mixture from one flagon. She worked in silence. Sam had stopped moving and was now unconscious again.

“Sorry about the kick …”

“No you're not.”

That earned him a snort of laughter. She raised her head and looked at him wondering.

“You really have a death wish do you not?”

“Perhaps.”

Steve appreciated the help but he did not have to appreciate her. However she kept eyeing him so obviously that he was forced to meet her gaze. He did so, annoyed and a slightly bit confused by her approach. She did not seem to care one bit though. A smile was tugging her lips into a smirk.

“Oh my, you will be fun to have around!”

“Excuse me?”

“Don't think you will get away with another one of those hero tricks. There's limits even to James’ patience.”

“If I'm such a pain in the ass then why are you helping me?”

It was an honest question despite his snappy comments.

“I'm not … I’m helping him.”

Natasha gestured to Sam. She was done bandaging up his leg and now she moved to take a look at the gash in his chest.

“You know what I mean.”

Natasha sighed like she already missed the tense silence between them from before.

“Captain’s orders, not much I can do about it.”

She fetched more bandages after cleaning the wound. Steve helped her lift Sam so she could wrap the white cloth pieces around his torso. Natasha knew Steve’s next question before he even formed it in his head.

“Please don't ask why he sent me … I have known Barnes for some time and it appears that he likes you, or at least he's amused by you.”

Steve did not know how to react to such knowledge. He didn't want to draw extra attention even though he already fucked that up for himself. Yeah laying low might be his best option from now on. Natasha finished up, packed down her medicaments and tools before turning towards the other 8 prisoners in the room.

“Okay so who is Follock?”

Steve only now noticed the elder grey man at the end of the row they sat in. He also saw his hesitating face.

“That would be me …”

Natasha walked up to him.

“The Captain have been told that you have close ties to your superiors.”

“I would say so yes.”

“If you spoke of the happenings today will they believe you?”

Follock looked perplexed and his thick grey brows were knitted together.

“I, ehm, I do believe so yes.”

“Good then please write today’s date on this letter concerning the death of Officer Johnson and Officer Abbott and hand it over to your superiors at first chance.”

She handed him writing material and a letter. He pressed the paper to the floor before writing 27th November 1715 on it.

“Keep the letter and make sure to deliver it.”

That was all she said before exiting the small cell and leaving the prisoners with their own thoughts.

Chapter Text

Natasha returned that afternoon to change the bandages. She forced Steve to take a wet cold cloth to hold against the black eye he did not realise he had. Sure it hurt but according to Sam’s horrid expression when he woke up, it seemed bad. Natasha also made sure to open a small shutter and Steve immediately felt better when the cool fresh air replaced the prior stuffed blood scented. He tried to get Sam to eat and drink a little. He even broke his own bread in half to feed his friend more and Steve told his grumbling stomach that Sam needed it far more than he did.

On the fourth day Steve really started to miss his cheap hammock. The chains seemed to get heavier each hour and his skin was red and thin around his ankles and wrists. His back also started to stiffen from the hard wooden floor he was sleeping on. Sam was, to Steve’s great relief, doing much better. He was still in pain most of the time even though Natasha gave him several things against it. Sam was the only great company of the cell. The others simply glanced at him at times and looked away when he caught them. They seemed afraid of being in his presence, if his stupidness and recklessness would anger the pirates further. He did not give it much thought though, Natasha seemed okay when she did not make snarky comments and she did save Sam’s life. Steve was grateful it was not that, yet the entire situation was still unclear and Steve could not wait to get off this damned ship. After many days of sitting he grew more and more restless.

“Steve?”

“Yes Sam?”

“How about you sit your ass down in the same spot for more than 2 minutes? The rattling of chains is driving me nuts here.”

“Oh sorry … I'm … You know … Having a hard time sitting still.”

“Yeah man I can tell…”

“Sorry…”

As Steve grew more and more restless his brain also started to go an awful lot of ways. He looked to Sam but the man was not trying to sleep anymore. Instead he just looked at Steve with a raised eyebrow before asking.

“What are you filling your brain with this time?”

Steve repositioned himself, back against the wood wall with bend knees and arms atop, before looking back to Sam and answering.

“I barely know anymore. This entire deal is quite crazy.”

“Yeah man I got you there … In these situations it's often best not to think about everything.”

“I don't know if I can do that…”

“Listen, these people gave us their word. That is the best we have so far and we aren't directly screwed.”

“We have the word of a single unlawful man who executed and humiliated The King’s Officer in front of an entire crew.”

At that Sam looked away and Steve immediately regretted his words. He put his hand on the other man’s shoulder as to lift off the false blame.

“Sam, you had nothing to do with that. You could not have prevented a thing.”

Sam let out a little huff of a laugh.

“Yeah … The man was a bastard but getting shot like that? I don't know … At least it was quick.”

At that Steve nodded and they returned to silence and thoughts for a little while before Sam spoke up again.

“I never got to thank you properly for what you did…”

“Don't mention it.”

“No seriously … That guy wanted to turn me into shark bait. You made sure that did not happen and … I owe you one pal … Hell I owe you thousands!”

Steve smiled warmly at his friend who smiled back with eyes filled with gratitude.

“You are very welcome.”

They both drifted off in comfortable friendly silence after that and at some point both men fell asleep.

___________________________

All men in the cell woke suddenly to the sound of hinges creaking. Natasha entered the cell but this time she was not alone. Two men accompanied her and when they started to walk towards the chained up men, Steve sat up abruptly, ready to throw punches if he was forced to. Natasha was wearing her ever knowing smirk and Steve kept looking between her and the two men, trying to deem the situation hostile or not.

Natasha grabbed a big set of keys from her belt and started rattling with the heavy metal. Her voice was light and cheerful.

“Sleeping time is over lads, time to go to work!”

Romanoff threw different sets of keys to each of the other men, who then grabbed the chains of each prisoner and unlocked them.

A man with a big light moustache unlocked the chains around Steve’s ankles and wrists. Hell he even reached out a hand to help him up. Steve hesitated shortly before accepting and getting pulled up in a hand-to-wrist grip.

They also released Sam but Romanoff stopped him from walking out the door like the of the newly released prisoners.

“Hey mate you still need to rest. I will have repair kits brought to you and maybe even a hammock but no hard work. Doctor’s orders, which means my orders and you do not want to defy those I can tell you.”

Sam just simply nodded before locking eyes with Steve. Both men gave each other a take-care look before the group got escorted out.

At the staircase leading to the deck Romanoff spoke up and divided the group.

“Dum Dum you take Rogers and these other 4 men and get them to work on deck. Jones take the rest, stay below clean up the mess down here and do it quickly, I would like to get back to my own ship as fast as possible.”

Steve immediately felt the heat from the sun as they stepped upon deck. He let himself turn his face upwards marvelling in the sun and fresh air. The man with the big moustache, also called Dum Dum as it turned out, gave them each different tasks and they all started working.

Steve was happy to use his hands and strength again. To be able to walk and pull the stiffness out of his limbs never felt so good. He secured the rigging, swept the deck and repaired battle stations for hours. The sun was low when they got fed and Steve’s stomach sounded more whale than human with it’s loud protests. He gulped down the food quickly while sitting in a group of part pirates part known crew members. The pirates was in no rush it would seem. The ships mostly lay anchored at night and they kept a steady pace, no rush. Just as Steve tried to massage a knot out of his shoulder, the soft splash sounds of an approaching boat could be heard. The pirate crew simply acknowledged that fact and kept on eating. This confused Steve. Shouldn't they be helping the approaching people on board? He assumed it was pirates from the other ship lying still a few hundred meters from The Black Swan.

After a couple of minutes two persons jumped aboard and walked across the deck. One was a man, fairly short and about the same high as the woman walking besides him. He was wearing tall boots and a light brown jacket. His hair was dark brown and partly covered with a dark red bandana around his head. Only some bead adorned strands was visible. There was something a little off about this guy, although Steve could not say exactly what. The woman was the other red haired on board besides Natasha. She had longer hair than Romanoff and a few braids started at her temples to end at the back of her head. Steve was eyeing the pair quite intensely and Dum Dum picked that up and started explaining.

“That is Mark Read, or James Kidd depending what you would like to call him, and Anne Bonny. They are friends and allies of our Captain.”

“James Kidd?”

“Yeah he pretended to be the illegitimate son of William Kidd. Eventually the cover shattered but the name still sticks.”

Steve nodded. Dum Dum seemed like a good enough guy, especially considering the crew he was a part of. Steve deemed it a good enough situation to get some answers.

“Anne Bonny? She kinda looks like …”

“Romanoff? Yeah that is because they are sisters. Natasha is the younger.”

“So is Romanoff the family name?”

“No, the family name was Cormac, they both married before they ran away to sea. Natasha joined Anne after some years. The husband was … Well … A bilge rat as she calls it herself. They don't call her the Black Widow for nothing. She got rid of him quickly.”

Dum Dum chuckled lightly at the thought. Steve was kinda impressed he had to admit that. Read and Bonny disappeared into the Captain’s quarters but Steve had more questions.

“There were more ships when you … You know … Attacked us right?”

“Yes there were.”

“Where did they go?”

“Captain Barnes commands three ships in total. He is Captain aboard this vessel, The Black Swan, but the two other Captain’s respond to his orders.”

“Who are the two other Captains then?”

Dum Dum smiled to himself before answering.

“Well you've already spoken to her quite a bit…”

Steve’s eyes widened. Only now he remembered Natasha’s remark from the morning about “getting back to her own ship”.

“Romanoff?!”

“Yup … She commands The Scavenger, you can see her pearl lying over there.”

The big man pointed slightly to their left and Steve saw a silhouette of a ship against the setting sun. Steve had never imagined that pirates could be that different to the norms. Women aboard was a scandal in the army, but a commanding female Captain? That was way off curve. Steve wondered what the Governors would think about the caravan being taken down partly by a female Captain, he found himself smirking at that a little too much.

Dum Dum continued his tales and snapped Steve out of his thoughts.

“The third ship is commanded by Brock Rumlow. Yeah you already met that guy. He gets jumpy when waiting for an attack for that long. He's a decent guy once you get to know him and not to mention, him and the Captain are like brothers.”

Steve still cringed at the mention of the name Rumlow. He let it drop though, he still did not feel safe about these people and insulting them just seemed plain stupid.

“Where did the third ship go then?”

“Rumlow got impatient and angry. He said he would rush to Nassau as fast as his sails could muster and I would say he arrived about a day ago with The Hydra.”

“When will we get to port?”

“In a few days time I would say. Eager to get away eh Rogers?”

“Ehm … I wouldn't say …”

“Don't you worry I'm not blaming ya’ for anything. You aren't here of own free will I get that.”

Dum Dum seemed so down to earth that Steve found himself liking the man. It was hard to believe that he sat here, watching the setting sun, with a pirate teasing him and laughing about it. Well wonders will never cease to exist.

Chapter Text

Steve was working below deck the next day. He rearranged cargo and rolled countless barrels in countless directions and securing them with countless knots. He was happy to work again though, it kept his brain from thinking too much about the situation he was in. He even saw Clint again. The man still had a healing scar on his forehead but besides that he was fine. Steve was glad really, he only just realised how in need he was of the sight of familiar faces until he saw the man. Clint had been making comments about his black eye of course.

“Holy shit Rogers she got you good! That has to be like … 36 shades of blue. Damn that colour suits you actually.”

Steve had just showed at him and told him to fuck off with a tiny amused smile.

As they were both working in the lower gundeck and cargo storage, Steve heard someone call out his name vaguely . He turned his head and saw Sam standing behind a half closed door. Steve looked around, his eyes meeting Clint’s as he whipped his head to signal the man to follow. The two blonds slipped into a little separate room with a desk and a low bed, tools were scattered and rope was lying in piles on the floor. So this was where Sam had been the last two days. The brunet quickly closed the door behind them and met Steve’s and Clint’s questioning looks.

“Listen here you two, we need a plan.”

Steve and Clint looked at each other, brows furrowed. Sam looked to each of them before elaborating.

“I overheard some workers, we will be in Nassau port at midday tomorrow and we need to know how to get away from there.”

“We can get hire on a ship to Havana surely, maybe even find men of the English Navy.” Steve said, regretting it immediately.

The two other men were looking at him like he was growing two heads. Clint and Sam then shared exasperated looks and Clint sighed dramatically.

“Sam you explain this, his ignorance is giving me a headache.”

Clint pinched the bridge of his nose and turned away for extra effect. Steve wanted to punch him.

“Listen Steve … Nassau isn't Havana or Kingston or any other harbour you've ever seen. There's no Governors, no English Navy and no law … Nassau is the pirate republic of the Caribbean and right now we might be sailing with some of the most dangerous people without even knowing it.” Luckily Sam was more patient toward Steve’s limited time and knowledge at sea.

Clint turned back, facing them again before asking:

“Does anyone know who we are sailing with exactly? I know the names Barnes and Rumlow, those are nasty people and I can't rest as long as they are near.”

“Rumlow sailed quicker than us, he should be in Nassau already.”

“How do you know?” The other blond asked him.

“I know a couple of names too, I spoke to a member of the crew.”

“Are you chatting up pirates now Rogers?”

“Go to hell Clint I got information and that's what matters.”

Sam stepped between them, tired of their bickering.

“Calm down both of you. Steve what names are we talking about? Low or high ranking pirates?”

“I don't know of any rank but I saw Mark Read and Anne Bonny yesterday evening, they were meeting the Captain.”

Sam nodded promptly.

“I know of Bonny, she is known for being quite fierce and she's often seen together with Jack Rackam. I don't know of any Mark Read.”

“Dum Dum spoke of him, he said he also went by the name James Kidd.”

Clint had managed to stay silent but now the words seemed to burst out of his mouth.

“That's another high ranking pirate for us, right there. Aren't we a lucky bunch?”

Steve was not calmed by his friends’ reaction at all. Evidently they were surrounded by legendary pirates, people with a sky high death count and smudged honour. Steve continued.

“He also told me about the Black Widow being on board, I think I heard that name in a shanty somewhere…”

At that his friend’s eyes widened in realisation. They looked absolutely dumbfounded. Sam was the first to bring together the pieces.

“Please do not tell me that …”

Steve didn't have to answer his question.

“Great, just great. The Black Widow saved my life … No one will ever fucking believe me.”

Clint was laughing with a shocked face of realisation.

“Okay back to the real world, how are we not dead yet? These people own Nassau and the surrounding islands and not even King George can take it from them, not that he hasn't tried.”

Neither Sam nor Steve had an answer to that question. Silence grew between them while they all tried to think their options through individually. Steve was the first to speak up.

“So we should expect these people to let us go, but we can't get out of Nassau without taking hire on a pirate ship?”

“Something like that.”

Sam said, Clint adding a detail a few seconds later:

“If we're lucky maybe we can find a privateer ship? Not as illegal.”

“Still puts a noose around your neck if caught though.”

Sam reasoned. Steve now realised how limited their options seemed to be. Just as he was deep in thought, he heard someone call out his name from outside Sam’s little work room. He froze on the spot and exchanged anxious looks with his friends. If they got caught slacking from work their luck might run out completely. Steve moved before thinking and swiftly pushed himself out the door, closing it behind him. He heard footsteps approaching quickly and he barely got to grab a rope and pretend to be working, before Jones turned the corner.

“Rogers?”

“Yes?”

“The Captain wants to speak with you in his quarters.”

That took Steve by surprise and not the good kind.

Shit … Shit shit shit

He quickly collected himself before answering.

“Yeah I'll be right up.”

Jones seemed content with that answer and he disappeared around the corner again. As the sounds of footsteps dies down Steve’s heart picked up speed. He knocks on the door lightly to let his friends know that the danger passed. Clint and Sam peek out through the narrow opening in the door. They both send him looks that further confirms his own thoughts. Yeah he was pretty screwed.

 

He slowly ascended the stairs to the deck. Steve could feel the fear buzzing beneath his skin, yet he refused to let it show. Trying to act calm as ever, Steve walked over to the decorated red and black doors to the Captain’s quarters all the while the crew attended to their own normal business around him. Firstly he did not know what to do. Should he knock? Yeah knocking is a good idea, just not too hard that would send the wrong message. Steve tried to stop his brain from running down the path of extreme over thinking while he, softly, knocked on the door. It took merely a second before he heard a prompt “enter”, so he did, carefully as if he was avoiding interrupting those inside. The interior of the Captain’s cabin was pure luxury compared to the hammocks and rough beds the crew was normally sleeping in. Steve’s eyes immediately fell upon Captain Barnes standing in the middle of the room front facing Steve while bending over a table filled with maps, eyeing them thoroughly and marking certain spots with ink. He wasn’t wearing his long blue coat anymore, no reason for that attire in his own private rooms. Instead his upper body was kept warm by a deep red, loose hanging shirt half-way tucked down into his brown leather pants. He was, however, still wearing his tall boots and his hair was hanging loose, reaching only just to his shoulders. Somehow Steve found this weird. He supposed he just didn't expect this man to look so ordinarily human. Stupid really. Truly stupid. Of course he wouldn't wear a full outfit when not attacking ships and of course he wouldn't be armed in his own chambers.

Only now Steve noticed more than one presence in the room. The woman and the man he saw last evening is also here. Mark Read, or James Kidd, was standing to the Captain’s right also eyeing the maps and pointing to certain spots. Anne Bonny, Natasha’s sister, was placed comfortably on a large bed in the very back of the room. She was sitting on the edge, drinking from a glass of wine and eating an apple, while eyeing Steve with a small smile after he entered the room. He stood awkwardly still after walking down the three steps to the floor. Only then the Captain looked up briefly. Their eyes met shortly before Captain Barnes returned his eyes to the maps, just barely acknowledging Steve’s presence.

Steve didn’t dare to shift his weight between his feet, so he just stood  there, while trying to ignore the rather obvious up-and-down looks he was receiving from Bonny.

The men eyeing the maps seemed to come to some sort of conclusion and they both straightened their back and took their eyes off the table. Now Steve was the centre of attention. He felt like a deer who just walked into a cave full of hungry wolves. His stubbornness was still standing strong though and he refused to let his fear travel to his face.

Steve felt like hurriedly justifying why he was there in the first place, so he started by stating the obvious, forcing his tone slow and steady.

“You called for me Captain?”

“That I did”

Came the answer. Steve didn’t know where to go from there, but luckily Barnes glanced around shortly and picked up the talking. Then he pointed around, stating and introducing names.

“Bonny, Read, Rogers.”

And at last he pointed at himself and promptly said.

“Barnes”

The two other people in the room nodded to Steve as a greeting, so he returned the gesture.

“Now that that's over with …”

The Captain didn’t really finish his sentence as he started to gather together the sprawled out maps, a mess of paper and pens. The sounds of ruffling maps filled the air. As on cue, Bonny stood up from the bed and put down the empty glass on the nightstand. She glanced nonchalantly to Read and Steve was pretty sure that some sort of secret communication happened in those scarce seconds, because they both make move to leave the room completely in sync.

“I will go find my sister in the crow’s nest, Captain.”

Bonny simply stated before leaving through the door with Read by her side. She only got a small ‘mmm’ sound in response before closing the door behind herself and her companion.

Steve couldn’t decide the worse scenario. Being trapped in a cave with 3 wolves, all distracting each other or being alone with a single wolf with a severely lethal bite.

The single wolf eventually tamed the maps and scrolls into a pile on one end of the table. Now Steve felt even more alone with only a table between himself and the man still holding his life, together with the lives of his friends, quite realistically in his hands. The fact that he had no idea why he was called for didn’t help ease his nerves. The Captain, however, seemed calm as ever when speaking up.

“We will be in Nassau in a day's time and I figured I would return your confiscated belongings. All men from Boudicca has been given their sacks already.”

The Captain motioned to a pile of random things. Some books, some letters from loved ones, a few pieces of clothes etc. Barnes then picked up a black sketchbook, that Steve immediately recognised as his own.

“I do however, believe that this belongs to you.”

Captain Barnes held out the sketchbook for Steve to take in disbelief. This man had no way of knowing information this personal, yet somehow Barnes had just proved that statement horrendously wrong. Steve’s brows knitted together in confusion and before he stopped himself he put words on the feeling.

“How did you know?”

The Captain simply continued to spread out the rest of Steve’s crew’s belongings. He suddenly became aware of Steve speaking.

“What?”

“How did you know this was mine?”

“You sign your initials S.G.R. on each drawing, I simply guessed that R should stand for Rogers.”

Firstly, the Captain shouldn't know Steve’s last name since he had never told him, but Steve assumed he got it from Romanoff at some point so he let it drop. No the problem that really rubbed Steve’s nerves was the fact that this man had looked through his most personal and prized possession. He only ever showed any of his artworks to the people closest to him . His mom, while she was still alive, and a few friends at home, Sam once too.

“I am not the only man in my crew with a surname beginning with the letter R.”

Steve simply stated as a matter of fact. The Captain seemingly dismissed the clear incredulousness behind the words.

“I take your word for it.”

He simply continued to flip through the pages of books, trying to find initials. His carefree response started to awake Steve’s anger. He took deep breaths. Barnes wasn't getting out of this one.

“Rivers, Rayne and Richards.”

Now he had finally captured the Captain’s attention as he finally looked up from the book he was studying. He put it down and planted both of his palms steadily on the dark wood of the table. He was now standing with his full front to Steve, his face unreadable. Steve continued when the Captain made no move to speak.

“They are all surviving men of the crew aboard The Triumph, their surnames start with the same letter as mine, their names start with the letter R.”

Steve did not even know why he was making such a big deal if it all. He got his belongings back that was something right? Somehow, not really. This man had a way of turning his gut in opposition and he hated it. Steve Rogers was never one to step down from a challenge, but this was bordering stupidly close to suicide and he knew it. While he looked daringly into the icy eyes in front of him, Steve saw the man as the predator who killed two Officers in front of his eyes all over again. Oh god this was stupid.

“Again, I take your word for it. I suppose you just looked like the sketching type.”

Steve didn’t know if that was a compliment, an offence or simply a mere statement. Somehow, it could be all and none simultaneously. However the answer took him slightly by surprise. Drawing sword and slicing him in half had seemed like a reasonable thing to do for a pirate Captain, yet the wolf of a man did not even blink.

“Excuse me?”

Steve mentally kicked himself for letting those words slip out.

“When you live with this many men on many different ships you learn to see the small differences. Most of this crew was half raised at sea. They never handled anything more delicate than a rough rope. You simply didn’t strike me as that type.”

Still Steve had no idea what to say to that. Luckily,or not? the Captain kept talking.

“Where you from Rogers?”

Whatever little game this man was playing, Steve wanted no part in it. So what did Steve Rogers do? He simply raised one questioning eyebrow because he's cocky like that.

The Captain still eyed him. Steve found that his reluctance seemed to amuse the Captain further. Barnes raised his brows in amusement and the slightest of smirks tugged at his lips.

“Brooklyn?”

Steve couldn't help to frown even more as his eyes shone in annoyance of being figured out.

“No I'm not lucky guessing anymore, I recognized the buildings and the harbour from your drawings, they're quite good. I was born there, didn't stay for long though.”

Even though Steve would never admit it, he definitely felt intimidated by this man. He also did not know which little game he was playing. He was giving Steve personal info now? Compliments? Steve is stubborn but he also has manners and those are telling him to say something to avoid awkwardness.

“Neither did I.”

Simple enough answer. Cuts off questions without verbally spitting in the Captain’s face, even though Steve would have no problem doing exactly that. Sadly Steve finds out that once you get this man talking, unfortunately he won't stop.

“What does the rest of your initials stand for? S.G.R …”

The Captain faked a thoughtful expression, at least Steve thought it was fake. When the man got a face carved in stone instead of an answer he simply started guessing.

“Sheldon? Stanley? Stan?”

Steve cringed internally every time a new wrong name rolled of Barnes’ tongue and eventually he gave in.

“Steven Grant Rogers … If you must know.”

The Captain looked pleased with that answer.

“J.B.B, James Buchanan Barnes. Nice to meet you Steven.”

Steve cringed even more before simply snapping involuntarily.

“Steve.”

Captain Barnes’ smile only grew together with Steve’s annoyance. Now it had turned into a toothy grin and Steve’s anger flared. This man knew exactly how to rub him up the wrong way and Steve hated him for it.

Just as he thought it couldn't be worse, Barnes started making his way around the table, before leaning against the front of it with crossed arms. They just stared at each other for several moments. Steve was far from comfortable with nothing but a few meters between them, yet he stood his ground and kept his face emotionless. Again it was the Captain who broke the silence in a genuine, or at least that's what it sounded like, question.

“You don't like me very much do you?”

“Not particularly, no.”

“Hmmm … Why?”

“I tend to not like people who slaughter men in cold blood. It doesn't agree with me.”

“No this goes deeper, more personal than that. I can tell.”

Something inside Steve snapped. If this man kept looking straight through him like he was merely a piece of glass, he was going to punch him in the face, pirate or not.

“You left my friend to die by the hands of Brock Rumlow. That in particular does not agree with me.”

It started with a small huff of air but soon enough an entire chuckle erupted from the Captain. He briefly looked down continuing the laugh before returning meeting Steve’s eyes again. Steve almost saw red. His hands were clenched into fists at his side and his jaw started to ache from tensing too much.

“I wasn't actually going to let Rumlow kill him you know? He served as witness in my little court case and I don't kill men who helped getting rid of that bastard.”

Surprise and confusion made its way to Steve’s features before he could stop it.

“Honestly I just wanted to see what you'd do. I saw you on The Triumph trying to save your friend. It was merely a test but I don't punish loyalty.”

The Captain turned away and walked toward the bed in the back. He grabbed his long coat and threw it over his arms and shoulders before continuing.

“And if my final decision had been to let your friend die, your little act of recklessness wouldn't have changed my mind. You would simply have joined your friend.”

The Captain walked towards Steve again but instead of stopping this time, he went past him and ascended the few steps to the door.

“So long.”

He then walked out, closing the door behind him and leaving Steve to gather the crew’s belongings into a sack.

 

After collecting the belongings of crew and friends, Steve left the Captain’s cabin quickly. He kept his eyes glued to the deck right below his feet as to avoid eye contact with either of the three he had just met up with in case they were still close. He went straight under deck and searched for Clint and Sam. He found them outside and in Sam’s workroom, Clint counting and checking barrels and boxes and securing them to the walls while Sam worked with an open door. Clint was the first to notice his arrival.

“Steve! You're alive! I seriously thought he had eaten you alive!”

He took Steve by the shoulders and made him turn around himself a couple of times as to check if he was cut open somewhere.

“What do you have in the sack? Please do not tell me it's your intestines.”

Now Sam joined them and he looked just as surprised to see him alive as Clint had. Oh how huge faith his friends had in him.

Steve answered while digging through the sack for a book he knew was Clint’s.

“It's not. He gave me the confiscated belongings taken from our crew on The Triumph.”

Clint’s eyes widened when Steve pulled out the book. It was a dark red old one, with papers and letters sticking out from in between the pages. Clint took it and caressed the smooth front.

“Thanks I eh … I'm really happy to have this back. Thanks for risking your life for it.”

Clint had a cheeky smile plastered across his face but it was clear to see how important these pages were to him. Sam sent him a small smile.

“Letters from a sweetheart in Havana?”

“Nah man, it's from my wife.”

Both Sam and Steve were kind of taken aback by the honest to God answer. Steve spotted the sender’s address when Clint opened the book and revealed a yellow paged letter.

“Boston? You're a long way from home aren't you?”

“Yeah I know but someone has to put food on the table and clothes on the kids’ back.”

Another secret that had Steve smile softly. Not a secret per se but he didn't know that Clint had a family, mostly because the man had never talked about them before. It simply hadn't crossed Steve’s mind before now. He knew that Sam was without family and well, his own went to hell at some point so he left, or rather he was forced to.

They all went back to their own tasks after that. Their hopes was raised though, they would finally feel ground under their feet tomorrow and even though it might not be the safest ground to stand on, they knew they would figure something out. Hell, they've survived far worse as fate had it.

Chapter Text

Steve never felt as relieved as when he saw Nassau in the distance. He knew that the city was inhabited by far more pirates than those aboard this ship, yet he didn't have to live shoulder to shoulder with them. He felt uncontrollably excited to finally dig his feet into warm sand. He had gotten all his belongings back and he felt ready to leave this ship and it’s crew behind and never look back. The Black Swan glided elegantly into port while her crew worked to secure her to the dock with strong thick rope. When the work was done, everyone was called atop the deck. Captain Barnes was placed at the helm, both hands resting on the rail in front of him. He waited patiently until every man had gathered in the large group under him.

“Gentlemen! Welcome to Nassau!” At that the pirate crew cheered, the rest of the men from Boudicca and The Triumph mostly stayed silent.

“You have all served aboard The Black Swan for several days now and I thank you for your contribution. May you all have a pleasant stay!” Steve almost panicked when walking down the wood plank unto the dock. He felt like every second he could be hauled back and put in chains all over again, only to have every damn pirate on that ship to stand and laugh at him for believing he would ever be free again. Steve’s boots hit the dock and finally he felt solid ground beneath his feet. It felt safe yet he knew it was a false and short lived feeling. Steve picked up his pace walking towards the city in front of him. He knew that Sam and Clint were close behind him and when they walked down the Main Street of the city, his friends caught up to him. There they stood. Three workers, three men, formerly employed aboard one of the pride vessels of King George's Navy, which was appointed to protect and serve the King's interests across the Atlantic all the way from every American citizen's Motherland: England. They were so very lost in a totally different world. The city buzzing with life around them did not seem much different from the outside, yet the inside was rotten. On the market a man could buy food with stolen money and the pirate Governors roamed the street to beheld their town. They searched through the crowded dusty streets for a place to stay. Their money wouldn't get them far, especially not to a room at an inn. First priority was food, comfort was a thing they could not afford. After searching in the outskirts of the city for hours, Sam finally found a small tool shed, which looked abandoned. They settled there for the night. The straw roof of the shed was old, dry and dusty and only barely held up in the air by the messy rotting constructions of planks. The entire side of the shed had already collapsed, so all three men could fit their upper bodies under the roof while their legs laid spread outside. They could see the colours of the sky, dyed by the setting sun but the houses and farms around them blocked the view to the sun itself. Steve tried to get comfortable in the dusty sand while using his sack as a pillow. He ended up resting on his side, looking towards the fields with sugarcane besides them. For the first time in more than a year, he wished he was home. Steve was woken up by Clint the next morning. Sam was still fast asleep and judging by the low sun and the rare coolness in the air, it was quite early on the day. They left a message for Sam on one of Steve’s book papers and silently got up. They roamed the streets for some time, trying to map out the city in their heads.

They found a tavern in the middle of the main road along with a small stand, where they bought a little bread and some fish. They walked down to the harbour and wandered there for a bit, trying to spot ships that seemed to be leaving the island shortly. They noted a few before sitting down on a big rock looking towards the sea while eating a bit of the bread. The city was slowly coming to life behind them and the peace and quiet they both had enjoyed slowly seeped away. Steve was so lost in thought about home that he almost missed Clint speaking. “We need to find hire as quick as possible. Let's avoid the big guys. A small privateer ship or maybe a cargo one we’ll see. We don't have much money left and no money means no food and I'm certainly not going to steal. Wouldn't want to end up in one of those” Clint motioned towards one of the several hanging human-sized metal cages on the beach. Luckily they were empty - for now at least. Steve nodded, they had all gotten enough of big ships and danger.

“Let's get back to Sam shall we?” Clint agreed with that and the two men walked back to the outskirts of the city. Sam was sitting in the shade of the shed when they returned. He was braiding long pieces of leaves from palm trees like he was already restless without rope nearby. Steve had taught Sam to read a little since the man had shown him other sailing skills. He made sure that the message they left had been simple to make sure that Sam understood it.

“You really know how to scare a man! I thought you'd been fed to the sharks when I woke up!” Clint grinned and made a little dance while spinning around as to show he didn't have a scratch. Steve let himself smile a little.

“No we are good, still in one piece. Didn't you see the message?”

“I did but my first reaction after discovering you were gone wasn't to look at your sack and in your sketchbook Steve!” Sam was shaking his head and grinning wide. Steve held up his hands in surrender.

“Hey sorry man, we brought food though.” Steve tossed the last of the bread to Sam who ate it willingly after both Steve and Clint demanded that he ate it by himself and didn't share with them, they already ate their share. After that, they tried to come up with a plan. They all agreed upon finding the quickest but also safest work and slowly they planned out what their next step would be. The entire day went by with walking around on the docks asking several different people if any ships were to leave soon. Whoever they asked seemed to give them the same short cut answer:

“No, no ships are leaving before in a week, maybe more.” Steve’s jaw began to tense when he got the exact same answer out of the third man he’d asked within two hours. Their money wouldn't last that long and they would have to starve, unless they could find work and get paid in advance of course, but as the day came to an end that possibility seemed less and less realistic. That day had been unusually warm, even for the Caribbeans and the dust from the streets got whirled up by many the feet. As Steve was about to turn in for the night in their small shed he tried to cough a bit of that dust up from his lungs. He saw Sam walking towards the shed and greeted him.

“How are your wounds?” Sam had taken off both shirt and bandages. He had washed the latter, Steve could see and now he was trying to tie them back on his torso again.

“I don't really know I mean … It still hurts but looks almost healed, there's still a gash though.” Steve sat up when Sam planted himself in the dirt besides him. He inspected the healing gash. It looked okay to Steve’s non-professional eye. The gash seemed to be closing and no dirt seemed to be hindering that fact.

“What about your thigh?” “Still hurts like hell when I walk properly, but it seems fine as well.” Steve was content with that answer. Hereafter a silence spread out between them. Both of them were tense and anxious after an entire day of nothing but disappointment. At last Steve asked the question on both of their minds.

“Will we be able to get away from here at all?”

“Yeah we will … Might take some time though.” Sam was staring out into the fields with furrowed brows and a grave expression. “I am not looking forward to starve for the next week…”

“Me neither …” Steve laid back down again and tried to get comfortable. He let himself drift into deep thought for a while, before Sam ripped him from it. “Do you know what Clint is doing?”

“He is still at the docks I think, at least he was the last time I saw him.”

“Hmmm…” Steve laid on his side facing away from Sam. He needed to be alone with his thoughts for a little while but he was also so exhausted. He was tired of this place’s old and weary looking houses. He was tired of the hotness in the air and the smell of dust and salt. He was tired of the people’s constant buzzing and he was mostly tired of the nagging anxious feeling that would never go away while he still had his feet on this island. Steve has a faint memory of Clint coming back some time after, still empty handed, before he let himself drift off entirely.

 

 

 

 

Steve woke up with the immediate feeling that something was wrong. It was still quite early and the coolness of the morning air was still present. He could hear quick rasping breathing and without further thinking he turned around. It was Sam. He was awake but his eyes were glazed and staring at nothing but air. His breathing was quick and strained. Panic hit Steve instinctually and his hand flew to his friend’s forehead. It was warm and sweaty, not only his face but his entire body was covered in a thin layer of cold sweat despite it being the coldest hours of the day.

“Sam? Hey! Talk to me!” Steve shook him by the shoulders and besides them both, he could hear Clint stirring slightly. Steve poked the sleeping man at his sides till he sleepily grunted out a few swear words.

“What the heck…?” Clint turned around and his face quickly shifted from annoyed to concerned when he noticed Steve’s panicked expression. “I found him like this merely seconds ago…” Clint replaced Steve’s hand on Sam’s forehead with his own.

“Damn it ... he has a high fever…”

“What are going to do?”

“I don't know Steve do I look like a pirate redhead to you?!” Both blonds were definitely panicking. Steve yanked Sam’s shirt up high enough to get to the bandages on his chest. He pushed the white cloth aside and it didn't look too good. The gash was red and swollen, clearly infected. Steve’s entire body tensed as he simply refused to acknowledge how bad it looked, even to his uneducated eyes. Clint’s view of the gash was limited due to the bandages blocking, so the man slowly asked:

“How bad is it?” His voice was full of dread, like he suspected the worst possible outcome. Steve tensed up even more. He kept his eyes fixed at the wound but his brain ran in a thousands directions all at once. Most of the outcomes he could think of included him losing his best friend and he simply refused to acknowledge the possibility. Yeah Steve Rogers is damn stubborn like that. Like hell he would let his friend die this close to freedom. He tried to strip his voice and face from emotion before trying to answer Clint flatly.

“Check his bulletwound.” Steve could feel Clint’s inspecting gaze on him for a couple of more seconds before the man did as he was told. Steve forgot how to breathe in the few seconds Clint took to move Sam’s trousers to get to his thigh.

“Nothing to see here… It looks like it's healing just fine.” Steve let out the breath he was holding. Only one problem to deal with. Only one big perhaps fatal problem of course, but at least it wasn't two. Sam woke up after a couple of hours. Clint was out to find cheap food while Steve refused to leave Sam’s side, unless it was to wet the cloth he held pressed to his friend’s forehead. When Steve saw Sam open his eyes, which seemed to be glossed over but present, he put a hand on his friend’s cheek and gently shook him.

“Sam? Sam can you hear me?” The dark haired man blinked a couple of times before letting his eyes transfix on Steve’s face. He then squinted them, as if he couldn't quite see sharply through blurry vision.

“Aye I hear you.”

His voice was weak and raspy. He was merely breathing out the words.

”How are you feeling?”

“Like I'm half the way to hell.”

“We will get you help okay? Clint is out finding food right now. We can still try to find work on…” Sam closed his eyes slowly. Steve almost thought he had passed out but he opened them again.

“Steve can we just stop pretending … please?” Steve’s eyes changed into ones of confusion and his brows furrowed.

“Wha..?”

“I will not get off this damned island I know that. I know because that's the truth. I'm too sick …” Sam was speaking with a surprisingly strong tone despite the sickness weakening him. His eyes were stern but Steve could also spot fear in them. The small voice that Steve had frantically tried to keep locked away in his mind was now released. The small voice that told him reason and the fact that he would be leaving without Sam. But it was so much worse to hear the words from outside his head. That little devilish voice now sounding like Sam’s voice and Steve could do nothing but be filled with dread.

The entire day went by like that. Steve sitting at Sam’s side while Clint got food, searched for work and tried to find anyone with just a little knowledge of medicine. Sadly he only succeeded in his first task. Sam didn't get better. When the day slowly ran out, the last time Sam had been conscious was at midday. Steve started to think of that was the very last time he would ever talk to his friend. He still refused to let him go, he couldn't die, but if that was the bitter apple in which fate would force Steve to bite into, then he still had a thousand things to say to Sam. Maybe his friend would never get to hear them and that tore Steve apart from the inside. The night was spent in the same way. Steve only let himself get a little rest when Clint simply stated that “if you don't get some sleep then I'll knock you out myself” followed by “he won't gain anything from your misery and your eyelids are hanging between your kneecaps”. Steve had only given in when Clint had promised several times to wake him if any change was to be spotted. In the end it only resulted in a couple of hours of sleep. When the sun finally showed above the horizon, Sam’s condition had only gotten worse.

He was breathing in small wheezing gasps and he broke a constant sweat all over his body. As the day went on it proved harder and harder to keep Sam cold and he was burning hot with both sun and fever. Sometimes he was yelling and throwing around his arms and kicking with his legs like someone was trying to attack him. Steve’s heart felt heavy and hollow. His eyes had lost their usual spark of positivity, despite every situation the world had thrown at him so far. Steve remembered the time when his mom was dying. She was very sick but at least she was awake and they got to say how much they loved each other before she passed away. Steve had been with her to the very end. Now it seemed like fate or God or whoever choose these happenings also wanted to take away his best friend and Steve could do nothing about that. He felt helpless, useless, empty and every other feeling between. His heart still ached when he reluctantly agreed to go to the tavern for information. Clint had been walking around the island countless of times the last two days and Steve refused to acknowledge it but he needed a break from sitting in dust all day. His legs were stiff when he forced them to carry his weight for the first time that day, but every step served to loosen his muscles. It was a rather chilly afternoon. Clouds blocked the view of the setting sun as Steve passed the small old houses towards the harbour.

He found the tavern quite easily. It was more of a bar really, only the sky served as a roof and the tables and chairs were placed on a high podium raised from the ground by a thick wood construction, probably to prevent rats from gnawing at the boots of passed out drunk men. Very few people were sitting at the tables surrounding the bar, it was beginning to get late after all. Steve spotted three men sitting at a table in the corner. They did not wear cheap clothes like the rest of the sailors on this island. These men looked to be the kind who employed for their own ships. Pirates or merchants, Steve had no idea but he had to at least try. He owed Clint and Sam that. He quickly glanced around just to satisfy his mild paranoia before approaching slowly. Steve really had no idea how he had managed to fuck up that badly this quickly. It's got to be a record in the history of Steven Grant Rogers. The worst part is that he truly cannot fathom where it all started to go to hell. As he recalls, he just approached the men slowly and when they looked at him, he had greeted them and asked if they knew of any employing Captains. They had started out with making fun of him. They laughed and called him all sorts of humiliating things but Steve could not bring himself to care. He did not understand why these men held anything against him; he had just asked them a question.

Normally the things they called him would infuriate his anger and damage his pride but not today. Steve Rogers was exhausted, both mentally and physically. His hair was tousled and dirty. His clothes were sweaty and filled with dust and sand. Most importantly, his eyes had lost that particular fury and spark that defined him as a person. He did not care what these people said to him. He stood by passively, not really listening to the insults the three men were throwing at him. He simply waited for them to finish so he could find other people to ask. What he only realised too late was that his passiveness simply fed the men’s anger. The man in the blue and red coat did most of the talking. He had black hair and a beard only covering his face from the ear and down to the curve of his jaw, leaving most of his cheeks and the rest of his face shaved. Now this man seemed angry, outraged even. Steve did not know why and he did not care. That was until this man quickly stood up, grabbed him by his shirt collars and pushed him backwards. Steve almost stumbled backwards when his legs and lower back collided with the low fence at the edge of the veranda but the man’s firm grip in his clothes steadied him. The wood construction of the bar was not all that tall, but tall enough to seriously hurt your head if falling. The man was holding Steve against the fence, tipping his abdomen backwards. One little push and this man could have him fall at least 3 meters down into the hard ground. Finally, Steve’s brain seemed to realise how grave his situation had become. He instinctively grabbed the man’s coat to prevent falling and his brows furrowed. Steve gathered the small amount of rage he had left towards the world and glared daggers at the man.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you boy!” Had he looked away? He could not recall. It does not matter. Steve was prepared to fight. A couple of more seconds and he could try to find footing and shove this man out of the way. He could try to get away from the edge. This man was properly armed, so a fight might not be the best option. Running seemed an appropriate plan no matter how much Steve hated the idea; he needed to get back to Sam. The second before Steve took action, a voice behind the attacking man stopped him.

“Go easy on him Vane he’s new around here.” In a split second Steve actually considered just flinging himself down from this shit bar. He could recognized that voice anywhere and it would not be a surprise if it still haunted his dreams in several years to come. The man loosened his grip on him and turned his head. Right there, leaning against the bar and drinking from a bottle, stood Captain James Barnes.

Chapter Text

For a brief moment no one said a thing. Steve had no idea how this situation could unfold, he knew nothing of these three men and only a little of the pirate Captain, with a grin plastered across his face, at the bar. One thing he was certain of though, was the fact that merely minutes ago Barnes hadn't been at the bar and Steve couldn't quite fathom how the man could have sneaked up the stairs without being detected by the three other pirates. A couple of seconds passed and the black haired man, who Barnes has just addresses as Vane, finally let go of Steve’s shirt, but he didn't move much so Steve could only keep on standing at the edge.


“For fuck’s sake James are you climbing the damn roofs again?”


Steve had no idea what Vane meant by that. Barnes simply shrugged as his grin got a little wider. Vane seemed to let it drop.


“Do you know this guy? Because then you should know he's in for a beatin"


Barnes drank the last in his bottle before leaving the bar.


“He was aboard my ship when sailing here. I know he can be quite the troublemaker”


“Do you want me to teach him a lesson for ya’ then?”


“Vane, be calm man. Look at him.”


Barnes stepped closer and looked Steve up and down with a judging look that made Steve uneasy.


“I don't think he’s had his first sea legs yet. He will just be a waste of your time, which is precious already by the second.”


Vane’s nose scrunched up. He looked to Steve as if the only thing he wanted in the world was to rip him apart.


“What do you mean “precious”? I'm in my own city for God’s sake!”


It dawned on Steve that Vane was far from sober. He wasn't smashed and gone, he could still control his movement quite precisely but calling him sober would be a direct lie. Now Barnes also greeted the two other men still sitting at the table and spoke to them.
“Gentlemen I'm afraid your spare time for the evening is over, Thatch wants you at the mansion.”


The dark haired man at the table grumbled.


“If it about his damn medicine or the fuse stunts again I'll give him a piece of my word.”


The last man at the table followed suit when the two dark-haired ones made a move to leave. Steve received one last deadly and drunk stare from Vane, who cussed out a “Devil curse you Barnes” before disappearing down the stairs. Captain Barnes simply chuckled at that before returning his attention to Steve. A couple of seconds pass where they just looked at each other. Steve was just waiting for an opportunity to go back to Clint and Sam. If his friend was truly dying then he would do anything to be with him till his last breath.

Steve’s stare was cold and uncaring for anything this man wanted from him, even though he was not quite sure what that was. The Captain however, still seemed quite amused. He seated himself on the table in front of Steve.


“Those men were Charles Vane, Ben Hornigold and Stede Bonnet, they're all sitting in Nassau’s pirate council with me, and you managed to piss them off by simply asking them one petty question … I gotta say I'm quite impressed.”


“I don't care.”


“Yes I can see that. That was why you were almost pushed of this damn veranda.”


If the circumstances had been different, Steve would probably put up a bit of a fight. He could sass his way through most conversation, he knew that already, but this man could go directly to hell. He was wasting his seconds and paranoia was taking over. What if he didn't get back to Sam in time? Clint would simply have to watch him die alone, knowing that he couldn't do a thing to prevent it. Steve had to get back as quickly as possible and Barnes was in his way.


“I need to get going.”


It was barely above a mumble and sounded stupid rolling if his tongue Steve knew that but again, he did not care.


“I know about your friend …”


Steve stopped dead in his tracks. His long strides had carried him several meters past the Captain and halfway to the stairs.


“I know he's sick …”


Steve wanted to punch the guy now more than ever, fancy pirate council or fucking not. Steve slowly turned around. It took all of his self restraint not to do something stupid, so he settled on the first question that popped into his mind that wouldn't get him killed on the spot.


“How do you know that?”


The Captain was still sitting on the table, yet the amused grin from before had faltered. This was the closest thing Steve had ever seen to seriousness on the Captain’s features. Even when he had shot Officer Abbott clear in the face, he had almost always kept his pained fake smile plastered across his lips. Steve knew it was fake, why would this man give two shits about Sam? Yeah he had the wounds looked at when they were aboard the ship, but they weren't any longer. Barnes answered like it was the most simple question in the world.


“This is partly my city, I know of most things happening around here, as to not say everything.”


Steve looked away briefly. This man was too full of himself. When he met the pirate’s gaze again he forced a strained smirk of disgust.


“And why would you give a damn?”


The Captain ignored his snarky remark and kept talking, nothing new there.


“Because I give a damn about this city and the people living here.”


Steve raised an eyebrow mockingly. The Captain kept staring at him, or through him depending on how you interpret the look upon his face.


“You look like you're halfway to hell … And you didn't even try to fight back when attacked. You don't seem like the man I saw less than a week ago Rogers. You look like you're giving up on life itself.”


Steve huffed out a bitter laugh. He probably was when thinking it through. The anger he thought was dying with his friend suddenly flared up and some of that spark that always got him into trouble returned. He looked to the side briefly, before returning to stare directly into the Captain’s eyes, shooting daggers in the process. Steve almost snarled.


“Sick? He’s dying and if you and your bloody ships hadn't shown up this wouldn't be happening and we wouldn't be stuck on this horrible excuse of an island with the sake of you!”


He spit out every word like it was venom in his mouth. The Captain didn't look guilty at all, just calm, a little too calm for Steve’s taste.


“It's not personal pal”


Steve huffed out a strained bitter laugh.


“Sam is dying in a broken tool shed, I take that a little personal”


That remark made the Captain’s eyes leave from the floor, where they had briefly rested, and up to Steve’s face. The blond thought he could see a flash of sympathy on Barnes’ face but he knew better. This man cared for no one but himself and maybe the persons helping him profit from stealing other people’s property.


“I came here to make a proposal…”


“I want nothing from you.”


“I get that by now… But maybe your friend wants his life back.”


Now Steve was listening intensely. Even though he told himself not to get hopeful, a small part of him still refused to give up. There was a catch, of course there was. Nothing else was to be expected from a government-hunted pirate Captain that's for sure. Steve was ready to take that risk, even if it only provided him with the smallest chance that Sam might not die here, of all places.


“I've got one of the most skilled physicians in all of the Caribbean at my direct disposal, I just thought that might interest you.”


Steve’s fists clenched at his side. He was more than ready to give up his pride if it meant saving Sam, hell he would give up far more. Still he had to ask, even though he knew the answer would be unpleasant.


“And what do you want in return?"


Barnes smiled a small sideway smile now that he knew he caught Steve’s attention.


“Not money for sure, you don't have any of that…”


Steve wanted nothing more than to plant his fist between Barnes eyes, but that's nothing new.


“You were searching work I heard, I could use a strong man.”


Barnes were standing now, slowly walking towards Steve but still standing a considerable distance away as to not press him further. Being indebted to this man was the most reckless and straight up stupid thing any man could ever put on himself, Steve knew that and the last ounce of his rational mind screamed at him to get out of there as quick as possible.

Sam was his family, he was all he had. He couldn't let him down and he couldn't let go. Instead of following his basic instinct, Steve bowed his head in defeat.


“Will Romanoff be able to save him?”


The Captain’s smile widened, he looked smug as hell standing there with his arms crossed.


“I won't promise you anything pal but if she can't, no one can.”


The expression on Steve’s face was one of pure hurt and defeat. The words burned their way up his throat.


“She needs to hurry then, he's almost gone…”


“No time to lose then. You'll go before the mast in not long, find me in a couple of days and I'll tell you the details.”


Barnes walked past him with long strides but Steve still had questions.


“How will I do that?”


The Captain sent him a smug smile before answering.


“The corner girls mate. They know everything.”


Barnes descended the stairs three steps at a time and Steve had to shout his next question at him.


“How long do I have to work?!”


“We’ll see… Depends if my head gets ripped off when I try to pry Romanoff out of Kidd’s arms, which i strongly suspect will happen!”


With that, Captain Barnes disappeared out of view behind rows of houses. Steve cursed this damn island and all its people but mostly himself. He had just signed up for his own death hadn't he? Yeah that sounded like the inevitable outcome of this deal. Steve was too tired to think about the outcome of his own future, he needed to get back to Sam. He prayed silently that it wouldn't be too late.

 

 

Chapter Text

Steve hurried back and found Clint still pressing the wet cloth to Sam’s forehead. A deep crease had appeared between the man’s eyes, he looked worn and tired, Steve assumed that his appearance mirrored Clint’s fully. He knelt on the other side of Sam, taking in his condition.

Sam seemed weaker now, he didn't move around or tried to punch the air like before. His breathing consisted of short small gasps and his nose was scrunched up in pain and discomfort. Steve placed one hand on his friend’s chest, while the other replaced Clint’s grip on the wet cloth. He murmured softly and relaxing.

“Hey you just need to hold on a little longer, help is on it’s way. Just a little longer …”

Steve could feel Clint tense besides him.

“Steve?”

Clint’s voice was stern, yet Steve refused to meet his eyes. He bussied  himself with softly pressing the cold cloth to Sam’s forehead while whispering soft promises.

“Steve, what did you do?”

Steve’s jaw tensed as it always does when he gets stubborn. When he forced himself to meet Clint’s suspicious glance, he looked just as scared as he felt. He had to clear his throat to keep his voice from quivering.

“Romanoff is on her way.”

“What did you do!?”

“What I had to!”Steve snapped back. His feelings threatened to spill over after several days of being pent up. He refused to let it happen, he needed to concentrate on Sam. If Romanoff would just hurry just a little that'd be nice. Steve’s heart was racing and he didn't know if he imagined Sam’s breathing getting more strained every minute. He scanned their surroundings for Romanoff every two seconds but so far she hadn't shown up. Clint still eyed him with a worried expression but tension was heavy in the air around them so he let it drop for now.

Steve was hectically trying to calculate how long it had been since he struck the deal with Barnes. How long could it possibly take for the Captain to find Romanoff? Had it been 30 minutes ago or two hours? He had no sense of time whatsoever. The adrenaline made his eyes snap up when he heard the crunching sound of boots approaching. A young woman with shoulder-length red hair walked towards them, a bag thrown over her shoulder, and Steve felt relief wash over him. He quickly glanced to Clint, who looked far from comfortable with having one of the most wanted pirates of these islands this close, before leaving Sam’s side to meet her halfway.

Romanoff didn't look too pleased. She had without doubt looked forward to spending the night in a bed instead of in a horrible excuse for a shed. She looked him up and down a couple of times before speaking up in her characteristic sharp way.

“You look like hell Rogers.”

If Steve hadn't been half out of his mind with worry, he might have managed a sarcastic laugh.

“He's worse…”

“So I've heard.”

Natasha looked behind him, then to him again before walking the rest of the way to their little hideout. Her brows furrowed deeply and her movements got more and more hectic the closer she got. She let out a string of curses in a foreign language, one Steve obviously didn't know, before kneeling at Sam’s side, pulling at the bandages and digging down in her bag for supplies with stressed movements.

“How in the seven hells did this happen!?”

Steve, a little taken aback by her sudden shouting, merely gaped and shrugged, not his proudest moment. Romanoff concluded him to be a lost cause and returned her attention to Sam. She sheathed a small throwing dagger and cut the bandages off Sam’s chest before eyeing the swollen half healed gash thoroughly. She let out a tired sigh.

“I need fresh water for this…”

Clint, God bless him, got to his feet and Natasha handed him a bottle cut out skilfully from a coconut.

“Follow that path through the fields and turn left towards the harbour when you reach the tailor. A few houses down you will find a small carpenter shop, behind it runs a small stream with clean water.”

Clint nodded promptly and broke out into a steady jog in his appointed direction. Steve saw the direction Clint took and finally a small part of the rational thinking part of his brain caught up to him.

“There's no clean water supply that way?”

He pointed in the direction he had seen Sam come back from with pieces of cloth still dripping with water. Natasha was still assessing the infected wounds and have him a look that, if Steve hadn't been so damn stubborn, would have killed him on the spot.

“The only thing you'll find that way is fields, livestock and swamp…”

The gears connected inside Romanoff’s head and her expression shifted from startled, to horror stricken and at last to quiet acceptance. She finished overlooking the wounds before meeting the blond man’s eyes once more.

“There's a well in that direction. The water is used purely for crops and animals, certainly not to keep any wound clean.”

“He came from that direction after having washed his bandages the day before he fell ill.”

Steve’s eyes lowered to Sam’s barely moving body. He gave Romanoff a pleading look.

“Can you save him.”

The redhead took a deep breath.

“I'll do my best Rogers but I can't promise a thing.”

Steve nodded. Eventually Clint returned with fresh water and Natasha’s skilled hands were mixing herbs with the water to soak the new bandages she brought while the two conscious men kept a respectable distance to let her work. They always made sure to help wherever they could though.

That's how most of the night passed. Clint and Steve ran for water when needed and Romanoff's hands only stilled after hours of work. She declared that now there was nothing more she could do. After that, there was only waiting. In the very earliest hours of morning Clint got a little sleep while Natasha and Steve guarded the sleeping man in the shed. The silence grew heavy when only slight breathing and soft snoring from outside the shed could be heard. Steve found himself deep in thought, he found the silence relaxing but the steady breathing coming from Sam even more so. Natasha was the first to break the silence.

“So I guess I'll see much more of you from now on?”

It was as much a statement as a question. Steve nodded slowly but kept his gaze down.

“Yeah I guess so…”

“Let's start out with a simple little thing: you'll have to learn to keep your head low.”

A confused, and slightly annoyed, glance was all Steve could muster. Even through tiredness, that small characteristic and amused smirk stayed on the redhead’s lips.

“James told me you barely avoided a bar fight with not one, not two, but three of this island’s pirate Governors.”

Steve gave a weak shrug. Natasha was leaning on the wall of the shed farest away. She looked fairly comfortable, considering, but Steve suspected that was merely one of her personality traits: easygoing but with more to it. Romanoff yawned.

“You see Rogers, we don't see people like you here. Vane, Hornigold and Bonnet, they're all used to everyone quivering at their feet. So when you simply walked up to them, head held high, and asked them a question? They lost it. Naturally so.”

That comment earned her a small smile from a very tired Steve Rogers.  

“Not a great first impression huh?”

“Well not to them at least.”

Steve met her gaze for the first time in hours, with raised eyebrows in a non verbal question. Now it was Romanoff’s turn to shrug, with a little amused smile. They sat in a comfortable silence for a while, just listening to the sounds of the jungle surrounding the town.

“You're from a rich family aye?”

Steve visibly tensed up as an answer. Romanoff held her hands up and quickly backtracked.

“Be calm sailor I won't interrogate you, we all have strange and messy pasts here, you're not used to people looking down at you that's the only clear thing about yours.”

Romanoff wasn't going to poke around, Steve realised, and it made him relax again. Certain things he wouldn't talk about, not even to Sam and he still had his doubts about Romanoff. However he couldn't help being interested when she, after taking a deep breath, started her own little story.

“I was born as the youngest of me and my sister Anne. Our parents both died, one of scarlet fever, the other of measles when I was 4 and Anne 7. We lived on the streets for some time until we got taken in by a gang of thieves.”

Romanoff's voice was monotone, yet she had a thousand-yard-stare, like her entire life was playing right in front of her. Steve listened intensely.

“We were pretty children, we could get in rich people’s pockets easier than any lad could. We didn't get the profit of course … We only got enough food to survive and enough clothes to keep warm.”

She met Steve’s eyes with a little nostalgic smile playing at her lips. Steve didn't think she was going to continue but after a few minutes of silence, she did.

“We weren't separated until my sister was married off when I was 12. She was considered a good catch and her husband offered the gang leader plenty of escudos for her. She married a struggling merchant named James Bonny. She traveled with him for about 4 years until they moved here, where she met Jack Rackham.”

Steve knew that Romanoff’s history was meant as a peace offering and it did make him feel calmer. He wasn't ready to talk of his own past, at least not in detail, but there was something about Natasha that made him feel understood.

“My sister left her husband and married Rackham at sea. Jack already had many ties to pirating and he was often seen in the company of either Edward Thatch or Charles Vane. My sister joined him in his plundering and she was soon accompanied by James Kidd. That trio still stands today.”

Originally Steve wanted nothing to do with these people, but seeing Natasha speak of Anne and Kidd in a fond voice spurred his couriousness. He supposed he hadn't expected one of the most wanted and feared pirates, an enemy of state and his Majesty himself, would seem so … human? He wasn't completely stupid, he knew what Romanoff was capable of, he still wore the evidence in form of his fading black eye. Natasha cleared her throat and moved her shoulders a bit to get more comfortable against the rotting wooden planks.

“I was finally married like my sister when I was 17. By that time Anne had made quite a reputation for herself. My husband was nothing big, only a hopeful coronel in the King’s army who wanted a pretty prize to show off. He kept rambling about him soon climbing the ranks, yet after a year anything had yet to happen. I was never allowed to talk or to even look at him sometimes, I was a piece of relic simply to please the eye.”

Her smile had faltered and was now replaced by a grim and cruel expression. It made small chills travel down Steve’s spine. Natasha’s voice dropped low and almost came out in a whisper.

“I got rid of him … and no one suspected the poor little widow who barely said a word. I inherited a little money and i used it to go find my sister. She had been looking for me but, due to her reputation, it was easier for me to find her than her finding me. I met all the current Governors through her but I ended up joining forces with Barnes after meeting him back in 1711. When we took over this place and formed the Council a little over two years ago I got a seat.”

She ended her tale with a little shrug, like her accomplishments were nothing to write home about. Steve was truly impressed. He made a mental note to never get on Natasha’s bad side. Now it was Steve’s turn to eye her with an perplexed expression.

“Why did you keep his name?”

Romanoff lifted her head slightly, thinking it over a few times before getting comfortable with her legs crossed in front of her.

“As a reminder I think … well that and people started recognizing me when I made a name for myself. The red hair is one hell of a personal trait and people always stick by it.”

The last sentence was accompanied by a sly smile and a humorous undertone. They fell into silence again until Steve surprised himself by speaking up.

“You're right … My family was wealthy. That fact allowed me to go to school and get an education and I might have taken that a little too much for granted, at least until I came out here…”

“Why did you leave?”

“My step dad never liked me much … And it came to a point where he was just looking for a reason to throw me away. I was careless and stupid … I gave him the perfect opportunity for leverage and … Here I am.”

Steve shrugged. Natasha however seemed pleased with receiving an answer. They shared light smiles before Romanoff got that mischievous glint back in her eyes.

“You ain’t  going to play snitch on me Rogers I have a reputation to keep up.”

Steve pretended to be outraged, widening his eyes and gasping fakely.

“Me? I would never!...”

He barely got to brace himself before a dirty piece of cloth wound have hit him directly in his grinning face. However, he was clever enough not to throw it back. They had settled a silent agreement and hell, Steve knew that if he went and broke that promise, if he started telling everyone what Romanoff had just shared with him, he suspected she would show him that the term “backstabbing” could have more than only one meaning. They continued their guarding of Sam in silence, only broken by the sound of a broken yawn here and there, while the sun slowly started to rise above the horizon and paint a sharp contrast between the countless fiery colours of the sky and the dark and sharp edges of the rooftops.

 

Chapter Text

The very first thing Steve became aware of was the heated sand beneath his fingertips and the sharp smell of some of Natasha's herb concoctions. The latter he was used to by now but the sand was usually cool in the morning… He sat up suddenly, drowsy and disoriented before rubbing his eyes. Apparently be managed to startle an equally tired Clint Barton as the very first thing of the day.


“Yezz Rogers, you can't just …”


Steve sat up and stretched as much as sitting down allowed him. He cut Barton off with a question.


“How late is it?”


“Late enough that's for certain, but you needed the rest…”


Steve glanced towards the sky, immediately regretting it when he was blinded by the sun, high and clear on it’s blue canvas. He squinted and looked around.


“You're probably right … Where's Romanoff?” 


“The Widow? She left a couple of hours ago, said she would be back in the evening. We should try to get food in him before that happens.”


It had been 3 days since Steve had struck the deal with Barnes and he soon needed to get hold of the man, however much he wanted to do anything but. Romanoff had been guarding Sam almost non stop since the first day, only leaving for an hour top to change clothing or get something to eat. Steve was indescribably grateful for her hard work and he made a mental note to properly thank her later.
Sam hadn't gained consciousness yet but he was a lot better. He was barely sweating anymore and his skin wasn't cold and clammy.

"I'll go get food then."

Clint simply nodded and made a small agreeing humming sound. Their money had slipped up days ago but yet again they were saved by Romanoff.

"Go to the farest end of the market. Just besides the weapon shop you'll find a stand held by a tall dark man with grey beard. Tell him your name is Jicotea and that I sent u."

She had told Steve the second day of her staying with Sam. The name Jicotea had rolled of her tongue with a foreign accent and mischief had shone out of her eyes. Steve had been suspicious of course, it was Romanoff after all. He had expected the stand keeper to laugh at him and send him away but the man had simply snorted a barely audible laugh, trying to hide the small smile behind a long beard before he gave Steve both fruit, dried fish and bread. Steve's mouth had watered and since that day they hadn't grown hungry once.
He had tried to ask Romanoff about the name. It hadn't gotten him further than a smug smile and a mischievous wink and quite frankly Steve couldn't decide if he wanted to know the meaning of it. Sadly, once Natasha had started calling him Jicotea, she wouldn't stop. Every time she addressed him with the nickname, his lips would turn into a tight line and his eyes would squint in suspicion, not that it hindered Natasha from using it and finding his reaction amusing. One day he had to find out the meaning but right now he had more pressing matters to attend to: The corner girls.

Wait no, not like that, he simply needed to get information regarding the whereabouts of Captain James Barnes. So when they finally managed to make Sam eat a bit of the food Steve brought, he headed out in his errand. Clint stopped him by grabbing his arm before he had the chance to stand up. Steve was prepared for a heated argument but the look of worry and thoughtfulness in Clint's eyes only made him feel guilt.

"You're going to go find him aren't you?"

Steve merely nodded and swallowed visibly. Clint blinked a few times, like he tried to process that fact and calculate his answer. Finally he met Steve's gaze with a determined expression.

"You don't have to go ..."

"Clint, I do. I struck a deal and Barnes kept his word. Sam is going to recover thanks to Romanoff and ..."

Clint shifted his foot and suddenly blurted out his thoughts.

"No, I'll go...."

Steve's features softened. He looked at the other blond man with a baffled expression and Clint further elaborated.

"You belong with him, you two are like family."

Barton gave a small tilt of his head towards Sam's unconscious being. Steve sighed and looked away, trying to get hold of both fear and fondness, then he shook his head gently.

"Clint ... You need to get back to your wife and kids, they need you ..."

Barton gave a fond huff of a laugh.

"Nah ... Laura always managed everything without me, both kids and house."

"She sounds quite remarkable."

"She is indeed..."

Steve could see the longing in Barton's face as he spoke of his wife. It made him yearn for home too, except now Sam was the closest thing he had to that and he had managed to save him, or rather Natasha had. Before Steve could think about what he was doing, he hugged Clint tightly and the other man hugged back. They broke it and Clint grabbed his shoulder a squeezed reassuringly.

"I know that expression Rogers... It's a sign of you being determined and no one can change your mind."

"I appreciate your effort none the less..."

"Be careful."

"I will."

They stood there and looked at each other. They'd been through a lot the last couple of weeks and Steve realised how incredibly happy he was that Clint had survived and stayed with both him and Sam. He didn't know if he could have done it without him. Clint took a deep breath and squeezes his shoulder again with an almost hurt expression.

"You completely sure about this Steve?"

"It's me he wants Clint, I struck that deal myself and I won't coward out of it ... Besides I don't think he's the man you should demand negotiation from."

"You're probably right..."

They smiled sadly at each other. When Barton spoke up again it was barely above a whisper.

"I'll look after him."

Again he gestured to Sam with a small nod of his head. Steve's lips curled in a strained smile but the gratefulness shone out of his eyes.

"Thank you Clint."

"No problem man, I got your back."

Steve found a cluster of ladies near the east end of the harbour. Their dresses only covered from a little over the knee and up while their cleavage was deepened with tight tie-dresses, which exposed most of their chest. He could see five ladies but one particular one was standing in front of the others trying to lure potential customers over. Steve took a deep breath before approaching. The woman in front wore a deep green dress and her hair was up in, what looked like, a complicated braid which was spun around her head gracefully. She quickly picked up on him looking at her and she started to coax him to come closer.

"Hello there handsome! Does the sight please you soldier?"

Steve had stopped in his track, suddenly remembering how awful he was at conversing when he felt uncomfortable. He stood there, opening and closing his mouth like a dying fish who had been washed up on the beach. His eyes flickered nervously and he tried to get his voice to cooperate by clearing his throat but he seemed unable to create any coherent sentences. He realised that she had started to make her way to him and he practically panicked.

"Eh ... UHM ... No?"

Pathetic Steve pathetic beyond even you, he kicked himself mentally. He was frozen in place and soon enough the beautiful front lady with the exquisite black hair and alabaster skin stood right in front of him. She raised her eyebrows in a questioning motion.

"No?"

She asked like it was the very first time anyone has told her that. She looked him up and down a couple of times with a calculating look.

"You're a handsome lad, at least one if us think the other attractive even if the feeling isn't mutual..."

"No ... Nonono you're attactive ... UHM I mean, not like that... Wait yes like that, very beautiful - truly I mean ehm..."

Steve gestured weakly to her hair, blinking frantically, desperately trying to keep his breathing from coming in small gasps. Her eyebrows just raised further up, a thing Steve didn't think possible at first, and she planted one hand on her hip, tilting her head slightly.

Damnit damnit damnit, chanted Steve's brain over and over again. He sighed finally and let his fists clench, angry at himself.

"I mean I'm not here to buy ... You? Wait stop no you're a person not a thing, I'm sorry ... Yea uhm I want information not ... Anything else ... Really."

A small amused smile tugged at the lady's mouth. She kept eyeing him like a cat who had just found the most delicious looking mouse in the world. It really didn't help Steve, at all.

"What a shame really ... What information are you after sailor?"

Steve took a much needed deep breath, happy to finally get to the point.

"I need information regarding Captain James Barnes... You know him right?"

"Oh darling everyone knows dear James. I can blow the gaff I suppose. What's your name sailor?"

A few of the other ladies was standing behind not far away. They seemed interested and amused at his horrible attempts to talk.

"Steven ... Ehm Steve, Steve Rogers ma'm."

She let out a light laugh.

"You certainly kept you manners running Steve I'll give you that. I'm Christine by the way. Now listen closely Steve ..."

Christine looked briefly behind her and smirked at her fellow ladies. She leaned in closer to Steve and he forced himself not to bolt.

"Our dear James always takes good care of us I'll tell you that, always pays handsomely. Most men can learn quite a lesson from him. He has this wonderful way with his tongue ... And other parts of him is just as lovely and he knows how to use them! Am I right ladies?!"

The women behind Christine started giggling and hollering, all the while Steve turned a colour as deep red as Christine's lipstick. The ladies laughed while Steve desperately tried not to melt into a puddle of embarrassment right then and there. No, he definitely did not need that info or those mental images. Christine took pity on him after a little time.

"James told me you would come here, follow me and I'll lead you to him."

Steve muttered a sly thank you before following Christine down the main road of the city. They walked for at least 10 minutes and Steve didn't recognise anything after the town was behind them and they had passed the sugar fields. Outside the city the grass grew wild and crooked trees had roots beside the path here and there. Not far away Steve spotted the swamp Natasha had briefly mentioned, the crooked trees grew in far larger numbers over there and their many branches reached out towards each other and the sky above them.

The path got divided into two, one leading to the swamp and the other leading to the white wood mansion that Steve could spot easily on its blue sea background. They had crossed the island Steve realised when he saw sea again. Christine walked with him almost all the way to the big veranda but she motioned for Steve to wait there. She walked up the few steps and across the veranda. Steve felt indescribably misplaced just standing there, arms by his sides. He tried to heed Romanoff's words and keep his head a little bowed, if Barnes were here then some of the other pirates from his so called Counsil wouldn't be far away. Steve would like to prevent running into Vane again.

Christine's knock got answered by none other than James Kidd, who took a single look at Steve behind the raven haired woman before shouting for Barnes.

"James you've got company."

Christine turned on her heels and walked past him, she put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Just wait here darling he'll be out in a minute."

She winked at him before strolling down the path towards the town. Kidd left the door wide open, revealing a bit of expensive interior to Steve's observations. He then made his way to Steve in long confident strides and held out his hand. Steve took it.

"Happy to officialli' meet'ya Rogers. I'll sail with'ya the first coupl' o' weeks."

Only now Steve noticed Kidd's heavy yet smooth accent that he couldn't quite figure out where was from. It didn't matter though, the man seemed friendly enough and now Barnes was stepping out from the mansion. He walked over and gave a prompt nod.

"Rogers."

"Barnes."

Steve nodded back, happy at the lack of a handshake. He followed at Barnes' heels back towards the town. They took a turn so instead of walking through town to the harbour, they walked besides it until they reached the sea on the opposite side of the island. Little was said during the walk. Yet Barnes had never been able to stay quiet.

"How's your friend, Rogers?

"He's recovering, Romanoff says he should soon regain consciousness."

"I'm glad to hear that."

Steve choose to keep his tone neutral and stripped of all emotion. His brain finding a sharp snappy reply was an almost certainty if he didn't. He was supposed to work for this man for God knows how long and snapping at a pirate Captain, who will be your commanding officer in not long, is far from a great idea given the circumstances.


Barnes explained Kidd's presence shortly.

"James is here to witness your vow and pledge."

Steve nodded to the smaller James with the strong accent, who nodded back. There was too many James' in this game already. They finally reached the harbour and Barnes let them to the dock of The Black Swan. He jumped the gap between dock and ship before climbing the rest of the way up till he reached the deck, while loudly exclaiming.

"Aboard mates!"

Kidd chuckled at that before he also climbed up to the top deck like it was the easiest thing in the world. Steve cursed the dock for being so low and he clumsily pulled himself up by the railing. When he planted both feet solidly on the ground, Barnes was heading for the Captain's quarters and Kidd was leaning on the rails of the ships beside Steve.

"Com'on, it's not called before the mast for nothin' ya know"

Steve followed Kidd to the mast closest to the Captain's cabin and stood with his back almost against it, facing Barnes, who emerged from the doors with a simple rapier and its sheath. Barnes placed his feet a little over an arms length away, facing Steve. He then grabbed the rapier just over the hilt at the very bottom of the blade and let the hilt turn up at the sky above them. Barnes held it out in an almost stretched out arm between them both. Luckily the blade rested in its sheath otherwise the Captain would have a nasty cut in the crease between his thumb and the rest of his fingers. When the Captain spoke up it was with a voice of control, completely lacking emotion.

"Steven Grant Rogers, do you wish to serve under command aboard The Black Swan?"

Steve found the word "wish" to be a little ironic given the circumstances. No he did not wish to, no, but he managed to save Sam and that was everything that mattered. He stood up straight and met Barnes' gaze.

"I do."

"Place your right hand below mine sailor."

Steve grabbed the rapier just below Barnes' solid grip. The eye contact was never once broken.

"Do you vow to uphold rules and follow orders given by your Captain in command or your Captain's chosen quartermaster given the first is unable to deliver orders?"

"I do."

"Do you vow to serve the interests of your Captain in command and by this sword protect and pursue his or her goal together with your future crew of brothers?"

"I do."

"Do you vow to respect the fair election of Captain aboard this vessel and serve the Captains, to whom I will be predecessor, as faithfully as you would have served the Captain to whom you firstly gave your vow?"

"I do."


"Finally do you vow to follow the code of pirates by which we sail these seas and breathe this air as brothers bound?"

"I do."

Barnes released his grip on the sheathed rapier and left Steve with the full weight of the sword in his hand. The burning eye contact didn't stop.

"Then I welcome you aboard The Black Swan, may she keep you safe from the Locker."

Barnes offered his arm and Steve shifted the sword over into his left hand to take it. He mimicked Barnes' solid grip and shake on his forearm to return the gesture. Steve let a deep breath inflate his lungs fully. He realised now how shallow his breathing had been while pledging to the dark man in front of him. The arm shake was repeated with James Kidd, who had a slight knowing smirk plastered to his lips as a personal trait, Steve assumed, except Kidd gave him a solid pat on his bicep.

"Welcome to the bunch Rogers, you won't grow bored I'll guarantee it!"

Kidd's heavy accent and easygoing attitude pulled a small ironic smile from the blond. Barnes turned to him again, his long dark coat blowing softly around his legs in the faint breeze.

"We'll have to teach you to fight with that first, before you'll partake in the fun."

Steve brows furrowed.

"I can fight."

Barnes chuckled softly and Steve squared his shoulders defensively.

"Maybe holding a sword a swishing it around in the air is called fighting where you come from, but it won't keep you alive on these waters."

The Captain looked to Kidd, who needed a few seconds to understand exactly what the commanding officer was implying.

"Wha'? ... No ... No I'm no' teachin' im' a thing with tha' petty sewing needle!"

Kidd backed away a couple of steps, holding his hands up to get his point through. Steve unsheathed the rapier and took a closer look at it. It was a cheap one, uneven some places in the metal of the thin blade. The hilt was wrapped in leather which once had been dark but intense use had left it thin, thawed and in lighter colours. He adjusted his grip slightly, fully aware of both men's inspecting gazed resting on him. The balance of the blade was, as expected, not very good. It had a closed knuckle guard about the broadness of Steve's thumb, attached at the pommel and the quillion. Not a very impressing blade but Steve assumed it fit with his skills in the craft.

"If it's merely sewing needle then why give it to me?"

Barnes gave them both an exasperating look, raised eyebrows and all.

"Well it looked like your style. That and we did confiscate a shit ton of good weapons in our ambush of The Triumph and Boudicca, yet this swab claimed em' all for his own little "crew"."

Kidd snorted loudly.

"Go fuck urself' Barnes. We 'ad an agreement."

"You're a Captain as well? You've got your own crew?"

Steve asked, while Barnes turned around to partly hide his snicker.

"Nah not really mate, not the kind'o crew you're thinkin' abou' anyways."

That raised more questions that it settled but Steve chose not to dig around. The light joking tone had calmed a big bunch of his nerves and Kidd seemed fun to have around in case he pissed of more pirates counsellors.

"Why don't ya' teach 'im ur'self huh?"

Now it was Barnes' turn to snort mockingly.

"I got a crew to command Kidd! I ain't got the time!"

"Aye bad excuses is all you're made off Barnes, a' per usual!"

Watching two of the most feared pirates on these waters taunt each other like small shepherd boys should not be this amusing, Steve thought.

"Well he needs a good teacher don't he? I thought you wandered around drunkenly on the beach a couple of days ago, claiming you could fight off the King's men as easy as nothin'!"

"No' with a fuckin' rapier Barnes you' arse! You think I'm fuckin' royalt'e or somethin'?"

The Captain wore a shit-eating grin on his face when he merely shrugged and pretended to think the possibility over. He barely dodged the heavy flintlock being aimed at his face. The gun went over the rail and hit the water's surface with a loud splash.

"Now that's just a waste."

"Go get it ur'self, you lubber. I've got plen'y"

Steve had no problem feeling excluded in this argument, he knew for certain that he wouldn't be able to dodge as swiftly as Barnes just had. Instead of simply starring at the quarrelling parties, he tried to hide his amused smile while tying the belt, with the sheathed rapier, around his hips. When he looked up again, belt now tightly secured, he saw Kidd looking him over wonderingly.

"You're familiar with Natasha ain't ya' Rogers?"

"I would say so."

Kidd turned to the Captain with a broad mischievous grin. Barnes' expression turned grim, like he had just tasted something foul.

"No ... If we ask Natasha then she'll rip our heads clean off. I already asked her to treat Wilson ..."

"She'll rip your 'ead off, no' mine!"

Barnes glared harshly at the smaller man.

"Now that's just having unfair privilege!"

"You bet!"

Barnes hid his face in his hands and groaned loudly. He then let his fingers brush through his loose dark hair, which immediately feel down in his face again when his hands released their grip.

"Talkin' of the sun, I be'er get back to 'er."

Kidd turned towards Steve again and raised two fingers to his forehead in a farewell salute. Steve returned the gesture with a small smile. Kidd then swiftly and elegantly leaped over the railing and a loud bump could be heard when his boots hit the dock.

"Good luck Barnes!"

"Go jump in the harbour Kidd!"

The sound of cackling and resenting footsteps cold be heard. Steve returned his gaze to Barnes, who looked deep in thought about how he could possibly survive the oncoming conflict. Steve ripped him from his line of thought.

"So Romanoff and Kidd? Are they..."

"Married? No. Just sweethearts, have been for years and sometimes it's unbearable."


The Captain drew out the last word into a rasp sigh. Steve huffed out a laugh. Barnes eyed him questioningly.

"What?"

"Nothing, just ... They kinda have the same smile and give-em-hell attitude."

Barnes seemed to think it over for a second before agreeing.

"Yeah I suppose they do. Look at you ... Being all observant."

"Says a man who observed me being an artist and giving me a shitty rapier because "it is my style"."

The Captain barked out a laugh. This was the very first time Steve found himself smile a little merely in this man's company.

"You can vouch for yourself Rogers, that can be useful at right times. So the rapier was a missed shot?"

"Yup... Well not entirely, I did practise with one a bit but I kept feeling that the blade would snap midfight."

"I know that feeling. So what's your weapon of choice?"

"I did prove to be a quick learner at longswords but never had much skill."

The Captain actually looked quite impressed at that, even though he tried to hide it.

 

 

Barnes leaped over the railing just as easily as Kidd had while Steve needed a little more climbing. His landing was also rather clumsy and Barnes tried to hide his amused expression. Now Steve wanted to punch the man again. Barnes was clearly an arse no doubt about it but Steve now knew that he could be tolerable, at times.

They parted where dock met land and the Captain informed the blond that they would set sails in 5 days. The reality of having to leave Sam and Clint hit Steve full force. He sauntered back through town, shoulders sagging and brain thinking almost audibly. He only looked up when the shed turned visible behind the last houses of the street.

Clint was leaning over Sam, who was still lying down in the sand. Steve's heart leapt into his throat. Was Sam worse? But Romanoff said he was on his way to recovery! Steve picked up his pace while his stomach dropped with worry. Clint turned around when he heard footsteps.

"Steve! Hurry up!"

Steve was close enough to see Clint's face. It wore an expression of joy, not sorrow. He broke into a run. A tiny voice in his head reminded him of the sword stripped to his hips and he mindlessly unbuckled the belt and threw it aside while Sam's view was still blocked by Clint's frame. Steve spotted Clint eyeing the sword warily in his peripherals before falling onto his knees and Sam's eyes were open and widening at the sight of him.

"Steve!"

Sam's voice was still weak and raspy but his eyes were far less glassy now. Steve let out a noise between a relieved sigh and a joyful laugh. Clint was also smiling and laughing but Steve could see a few tense muscles in his forehead. Steve suspected he wore the same expression himself but it didn't matter in this very moment. For the first time in what felt like years, Steve Rogers let himself feel the happiness that felt like it threatened to burst him wide open.

 

Chapter Text

From there of, Steve started to count the days. If you asked him why, he wouldn't have been able to give you a proper answer. Sometimes he imagined a clock ticking away inside his head, slowly letting him know that his uncertain future slowly sneaked up on him for every passing second. Besides the big old clock ticking away merely, there was another clock. One that ticked much quicker. Sometimes Steve thought the clock would stop ticking, sometimes he thought he would finally collect the last ounce of strength left in him, only so he could use it up telling Sam.
Every time Sam had been awake, he'd make a half hearted joke about Clint and Steve still being here.

“Why haven't you run off to sea yet, you sorry bunch?”

They would laugh, they would be so very happy that Sam still was with them. But that tiny worried crease in Clint’s forehead never disappeared, especially not when Sam proceeded to ask if they managed to find passage aboard a vessel. Clint always told him no, not yet, while Steve’s smile grew a tiny bit strained. Steve knew the clock was ticking, he knew he was running out of time but he couldn't gather the strength.

Romanoff had been over checking on Sam a couple of hours after Steve had returned with his rapier strapped to his hips. She deemed him on the path to recovery, so by the third day Sam was up and walking around a bit, trying to stretch out his sore and unused muscles. Steve had supported him, an arm around his waist and Sam's arm around his shoulders.

The past few days Clint had been checking up with both of them. Every time the two blonds sat alone during the evenings, where Sam usually would be exhausted from moving around during the day and therefore asleep, Barton would always ask him different versions of the same worried question. Sometimes it would be:

"You faring okay there Rogers?"

Other times he would ask:

"Have the nerves kicked in yet?"

Steve knew Clint was trying to help the best he could. However he continued to shrug off the man with simple short answers, usually falsely confirmed that he was faring fine and no, no nerves yet. Steve only let himself stare directly in the face of truth when he was alone. Clint hadn't asked questions when Steve had grabbed the sack with his few belongings and marched off on the evening of the first day.

He felt like a coward for continuously being in his best friend's presence without telling the truth. He needed to run from that if only for a few hours. He had left his boots in the shed so he felt the gravel being replaced by sand as he walked from city to waterfront. A few boulders, scattered around, raised above the sand of the beach. He avoided them deliberately, only wanting the softness of the still warm sand under his feet. Steve passed the docks and the anchored ships on his left, continuing his walk longer down the beach. The cold metal cages dangling in the air was still empty, so he paid them no mind. Instead he headed for a tall watchtower longer down, almost standing against the tall stone cliff which cut down through the sand, ending the beach in a stone wall.

The tower in itself was a fairly simple wood construction, used by the harbourmaster or his apprentice to spot ships arriving and leaving. It would without doubt offer a great view of both docks and ships. Steve walked around it, trying to find a ladder of some kind. He eventually did, short planks were tied horizontally to the side of the foundation-logs with short strong rope and secured with stubborn knots. Swinging his sack over his shoulder, he grabbed the first step and gave it a harsh tug. Neither the rope or the wood budged.

Content with the stability of the ladder, Steve began his climb. The tower was clearly easier to ascend if you knew exactly how. Halfway up, the self made ladder stopped. Confused, Steve looked up, no more steps, and then to the side, same result. Grunting slightly at the effort, Steve left the ladder and scooted sideways on a horizontal plank, reaching from one end of this side of the tower to the other. He reached the corner and tipped his head slightly to look around it. As he had expected, the ladder continued on this side of the tower. Not wanting to fall the considerable amount of feet down, he carefully manoeuvred himself around the corner. After having continued his climb up the other side of the simply constructed watchtower, Steve could finally pull himself up on the platform, shaded by a thin roof made of hay and palm leaves. It didn't matter though, the sun was almost down anyway.

He sat down, legs crossed in front of him, and pulled out his sketching book. He needed the silence desperately. To forget about everything but how the line of the pencil wobbled slightly when the waves of the ocean slowly appeared on paper. The straight precise lines of masts and rigging followed soon after. Bowed planks and rounded hulls were represented in curved lines and their shadows were cast long on the water. Somewhere behind him, nesting birds on the cliff side started to quarrel and exclaim high pitched screams but he barely noticed.  

By the time he was finished, the sun had almost disappeared completely. With the darkness in mind, he made sure to be especially careful in his descent from the tower. The shadows of the drawing had been unnecessarily dark and gloomy. The detailing on the ships was far from his usual standards, in fact it made the ships look almost unreal, ghostly, like in an unpleasant dream. Steve couldn't help that his sketches always reflected his mood without him intending them to do so, it just sort of ... Happened.

And despite him reassuring Clint exactly how fine he was, it was as far from the truth as possible. Steve felt fucking miserable. Like his world was being snatched from him again, piece by piece and he could do nothing but watch. It had happened when Sarah Rogers died. It had happened at home small two years ago and finally when Sam and the Royal Navy had given him a bit of footing in this slippery world, he chose to throw it out of the window. If he was given the same choice of trying to save Sam, he would have made the exact same call without doubt, he knew that, he wasn't regretting a thing.

Steve felt incredibly powerless, scared and all through exhausted. The problem being that the average life expectancy of a pirate often wasn't very high and piracy is a clouded and uncertain road to go down. Damn, just surviving one boarding might be the biggest challenge so far and nothing had prepared him. If he was to die then, at least, he hoped to be granted a quick death. The wounded and dying from The Triumph still haunted his dreams sometimes. He stopped himself from shuddering when a grim image of himself showed itself for his inner eye, bleeding out slowly among strangers he wanted nothing to do with in the first place.

His muscles were finally allowed rest when his feet hit solid sand. Slowly making his way back, he let himself take a detour around the smaller streets of the city. The few people in the streets paid him no mind whatsoever, which was a relief and a curse. It made him feel more alone, good one part of him said, you'll be left in peace. Bad said the other part, you're already alone and they don't care. It made him feel small and petty, out of control.

Steve breathed in, trying to force warm evening air to replace ice cold anxiety deep in his gut. Eventually the small alleys he followed, filled with palm trees and broken wooden fences, slipped up and he stood at the edge of town. Following the outer roads he soon spotted the shed in the distance. Both of his friends were sleeping by the time he got back. He didn't mind one bit. He wandered around the back of the shed, lying down beside the small stack of palm leaves, with his rapier hidden underneath. He let himself try to get some rest.

__________________________________



The inevitable eventually happened. It's all kind of a blur if Steve is being honest. There's a gap in his memory but it can't compete in scale with the gap in his very gut. It felt like ice. Ice in his blood, ice in his lungs and ice in his stomach, making it drop with the weight.

The sun was blinding him without mercy and the humid air made his hair cling to his forehead and the nape of his neck. The air was thick and hot, making it hard to breathe. So the ice melted and it melted fast. Steve almost missed the feeling of unyielding ice-cold and numb weight in his gut because now the ice had melted. Water now filled his lungs and he gasped for air but he got nothing. His chest felt constricting, his lungs were squeezed from every angle making them small and useless. He wanted to clutch at something, anything. He tried to get a grip on reality itself but his hands were numb, they didn't feel like his at all. Like a caged animal he could only take in his surroundings and hope for the best and the best was as far away from Steve Rogers as possible in this very moment. These small minutes it took for Sam Wilson to walk up to him, a little wobbly as expected, with hope in his eyes and an elated grin on his face. That's exactly the second the ice started pooling. Seeing Clint hurry after him, trying to ... Hold him back? Stop him? It would be completely pointless. The ice only got heavier and heavier. It was hard to recall much of the conversation.

They had found passage on a ship of course. In a couple of days they could all be out of here and on their way back to Havana. Everything would be totally fine and they could work under the Union Jack once more. Steve stood frozen like a statue as the information rolled off Sam's tongue, grin only faltering when Steve's expression failed to mirror his own. Steve faintly remembers the small sparks of confusion in Sam's features. Those sparks which developed into a wildfire.

Sam turned to Clint when Steve refused to do anything else than stare numbly at him with a tense, unreadable face. Clint quickly averted his eyes, clearly signalling that he would not be explaining anything. Sam's eyebrows furrowed further at that and at last looked back to Steve.

"Steve? Something is wrong and neither of you are planning on telling me? What's wrong? Steve?"

A couple of seconds ago the world had stopped spinning. Like time had been dragging itself through a deep pit filled with thick mud, going oh so slow. But now everything sped up to double the normal speed and it all hit Steve with the force of a tidal wave. He regained his senses, he started breathing again, blinking rapidly and wetting his lips he tried to remember how to transform air into speech.

"... I won't .... I can't go with you..."

He fought out the sentence but clearly Sam expected specifics.

"What?! Of course you can we just ..."

"No, Sam ... I really ... I really can't go with you."

That was all the conversation he could possibly muster at the moment. His knees felt like giving out beneath him and the aching in his chest felt constricting. Clint stepped in, God bless him, and took Sam in a solid grip by his shoulder. Barton's expression was sad and hollow when he finally met Sam's gaze. Steve's fists clenched and unclenched at his sides as the silence dragged out between them. Steve's eyes we solidly locked on the dirty ground, right in front of Sam's feet, but the sudden softness of his friend's voice made his eyes snap up to his face.

"Okay ... You can't, but why?"

It sounded almost pleading, like realising that fact hurt more than words could express. Steve's face further tensed, he clenched his teeth to prevent his lips from quivering.

"You were sick and ... I didn't know what to do okay? Barnes helped and now I owe him service. He made Romanoff heal you ... Or he asked her, I don't think you could make Romanoff do anything she wouldn't want to do ... Not really..."

Steve knew he was rambling off curve but watching realisation settle painfully upon Sam’s feature was too much.

 

“You … made a deal with him? And now you owe him?”

Sam said, barely avoid a whisper.

 

“Yeah…”

 

The last pieces of the puzzle landed in their correct spots and now the truth was completely and achingly bare.

 

“You sacrificed yourself for me? Steve what the hell!”

 

“Sam, no I wouldn't put it that way, I'm not dead okay I just…”

 

Now Sam was glaring at him. A dull and deep sadness spread across all three of them.

 

“You made a deal with him didn't you? That's what you just said! You sold yourself out for me.”

 

Steve’s airways had chosen this exact moment to working, so he simply nodded.

 

“And now I'm not dying anymore and now me and Clint can get passage safely and you're stuck with The Widow, James fucking Barnes and their entire pirate parade! You don't get to be safe and I'm just supposed to accept that.”

 

“Sam, please just…”

 

The look of absolute dread on Sam’s face made the words stuck in his throat. Sam walked closer, all the way up to him, scanning his face. He was reluctant and terrified, Steve could see that without needing a second glance.

 

“I can't let you do this …”

 

Sam said. It sounded more like a weak prayer than a sharp statement. Steve looked back, finally letting all the dread and unsteadiness show on his face.

 

“I'm sorry Sam, I really am, but you have to…”

 

Sam simply kept looking at him, still refusing to acknowledge what Steve considered an inevitability but a bit of wonder in his eyes glowed after a second.

 

“Did you ever consider what you would have done if it was the other way around?”

 

Steve could only gape slightly at that. The thought hadn't struck him but come to think of it, he probably wouldn't have taken it very well. He would have thrown a childish tantrum and refused to let Sam go. He would curse the world for its unfairness and stalk off to give some dangerous person a piece of his word, which, as it usually did, wouldn't end well.

 

Sam was still staring at him, awaiting an answer. Steve had to open and close his mouth like an idiot a couple of times.

 

“... I’m sorry, Sam I'm so …”

 

His voice was audibly trembling by now and Sam wrapped his broad arms around him and they both clung tightly to each other. Steve buried his face in the smaller man’s neck and tried to blink the wetness of his eyes away. Sam’s hands were clenching in his shirt.

 

“You big dumb idiot…”

 

Sam’s voice was fond and wet at the same time. Steve allowed himself to feel small and scared for the first time in days.

 

“I'll go instead …”

 

Sam stated. Steve only clinged on harder when Sam made a weak attempt to pull back.

 

“You can't … I was before the mast, I made a vow.”

 

Sam’s body tensed further, knuckles almost turning white in Steve's  shirt, even with his dark skin.

 

“When did you pledge?”

 

“The same day as you woke up…”

 

“Damn it Steve! You can't go, anything could happen!.”

 

“It's okay … I'm going … That's what I want.”

 

Sam pulled away abruptly, looking him over with an annoyed and baffled expression.

 

“That, out there? That's not what you want Steve let me tell you.”

 

Steve shaked his head weakly, as to say that Sam misunderstood.

 

“No, I know. But if I could make that choice once more, my mind wouldn't change. You were dying Sam and I couldn't stand idly by I'm sorry but … I couldn't lose you.”

 

“Hey, Steve I'm right here okay. I'm peachy! But you aren't and I'm not going to let you sail off to be killed in some far away waters.”

 

“I'm not going to die…”

 

Steve said that mostly to himself. He needed Sam and Clint to get out of here as fast as possible.

 

“You better fucking not …”

 

Clint mumbled, Steve hadn't noticed that he had stepped up close to them. Without another word he got wrapped up in a tight hug by Clint too. When they finally parted, both of his friends were just staring at him, uneasiness shining out of their eyes. Steve took a deep breath.

 

“I made my choice several days ago and I'm sailing with Barnes. I'm not breaking my vow.”

 

Steve tried to ignore that his voice sounded lacked the sternness he had planned for it. Nothing about this entire situation seemed to cooperate. Sam looked him over, slowly analysing a certain trait in his face, that Steve didn't know what was. Before he could ask about it, Sam’s face lit up in a sorrowful smile.

 

“That's that look you get …”

He took a deep breath before continuing, exhaling in what sounded like a mix between a sob and a sigh.

“That's the look you get when no one can change your mind…”

 

Steve mirrored Sam’s sly smile before nodding slowly. So much wasn't said and probably couldn't be said at all. It all hung in the air like a thick misty fog but somehow everyone seemed to pick up on that and no one dug into it.

The ice water slowly seemed to seep out of Steve’s lungs but the sharp feeling of dread and fear continued to haunt him.

Chapter Text

Serving aboard The Black Swan quickly proved to be very different from serving in the Navy. Steve tried his best to keep a mental list of useful information to remember.


1.Dum Dum Dugan is good people. Generally speaking. He helped a lot in the first days both with work and getting used to the situation. If Steve had questions or fumbled with certain parts of his work Dugan would discretely come running. He also very quickly stopped Steve from answering “Sir, yes Sir.” Every damn time he was put to work by someone. It got quite ridiculous since Steve knew nothing of ranks of command outside the Navy. It made him stick out like a sore thumb he soon realised, so he stopped and simply answered informally. It almost slipped sometimes and Dum Dum tried desperately not to laugh when Steve cut himself off at “Sir, ye…” And then proceeded to mutter out curses about no one on this damn ship wearing uniforms to categorise their rank and title.


Steve soon found out Dum Dum’s ‘official’ title as Sailing Master. He navigated and planned the course of the ship with sharp precision and his incredible knowledge of these waters was clearly appreciated among the crew. His job was mostly non-physical and once the next couple of days’ course had been planned out and delivered to whosoever steered the vessel, he didn't have much to do. He choose to help around where he could though, which was greatly appreciated by Steve and several other people.

2. Apparently pirates did other things than boarding the King’s ships every other day. Steve had briefly asked the Boatswain Gabe Jones where they were heading, very stealthily of course. Jones had hesitated a little before answering.


“We are meeting up with a few allies. It's another week of sailing if the weather allows it.”


The lack of specifics spoke it’s own clear language and Steve didn't pry. At least the possibility of battle seemed pretty slim at the moment and none of the regular sailors and crewmen bore arms. It calmed him a little.


Gabe Jones was a strict man with a deep voice if you didn't care to look twice. But Steve had shared friendly conversation with him during meals and breaks alike and quickly learned that the cool exterior came from the seriousness of his job. Maintainance of deck and sail repair was both the Boatswan’s responsibility, together with the low rigging. He didn't do any of the actual repairwork himself, he simply saw to it that it was done, and done correctly. Together with that, he sometimes sought to organisement of cargo and supplies below deck. Steve suspected he wasn't the only one with tremendous respect for how smoothly Jones seemed to make the entire ‘clockwork’ of the ship work. If he didn't do his job correctly the ship simply wouldn't be able to sail.

3. A very important note: do not work for many hours in the sun without a shirt. Sadly Steve learned this the hard way in the first week. The day was hot and Steve had dismissed the idea of another crew member, a young man named Charles, taking over his current job of sweeping the deck. It was a tiring job but it had to be done once a day at least and Steve was the newest recruited man, that and working above deck assured a faint breeze to you cool down. Bad idea. Very very bad idea.


When the sun began setting and the men who would work and sail overnight slowly began to waken from their pre-work nap, Dum Dum slapped him lightly on the shoulder to signal that their work for the day was done. His busky eyebrows had shot up in surprise when Steve had exclaimed a loud shout of surprise and pain. As fate would have it, his shoulders and upper part of his back was the shade of Romanoff's hair. Just great.
Steve had barely slept at all that night. His hammock seemed far too rough in texture to touch his flaming skin. It felt like millions of small needles picking at his skin constantly. It was unbearable.


The next day, Steve tried to wear his simple and loose cotton shirt, to shield the burn against getting worse. Sadly the shirt kept on resting on his hurting shoulders no matter what he did and the uncomfortable pain was slowly driving himout of his mind. On top of that, Dum Dum kept asking what was wrong. Every time, Steve cut him off with a blunt “I'm fine”, trying his hardest not to let his temper loose on a man who he genuinely seemed to care.


At the end of the day, Steve was ready to claw someone's eyes out if they crossed his path. Dum Dum was cleverer than what people gave him credit for, instead of facing the wounded lion himself and risk the consequences, he sent Natasha Romanoff. She grabbed Steve, who was on his way to bed, luckily by arm and not shoulder, and practically dragged him towards the back part of the lower deck under heavy protests of course. Apparently Natasha had her own small quarters below the Captain’s chambers. Not nearly as big, but big enough for a small but comfortably looking bed, a work table and just enough space to stand two people between these.

“If you don't sit voulunteringly I'll push you down by the shoulders.”

Natasha stated in a commanding voice, motioning towards the wooden chair besides the desk. Steve reluctantly complied.

“Shirt off”

Romanoff rummaged through her small cabinets and drawers after supplies. She pulled out a small flagon and a piece of soft cloth. Steve was still in a far too foul mood to just roll around and show his stomach without at least mild complaints.

“Did Dum Dum ask you for help?”

She granted him one exasperated and dismantled look before applying the contents of the flagon to the cloth. A sharp and intense odor filled the small room around them.

“He was the one to take action, but not the one to tell me.”

Steve simply narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Natasha returned his sour glare with twice the intensity. Steve never got the chance to concoct a snappy answer, Natasha pressed the cloth to his left shoulder and the sting made him jolt and hiss involunteringly at the sting.

“You looked like a man who was just about to drown himself on purpose, Rogers. Knowledge travels fast among crew.”

That was all the answers he could get out of Romanoff. Steve was more than happy to forgive her, for now his skin felt cool and soothed where the cloth had been moments before. He let out a sigh at the relief as Natasha kept applying the contents of the flagon to his other shoulder and his back.

“That's it Rogers, you're done. Wear a damn shirt and stay below deck the next couple of days. Now get the fuck out of my chair.”

Steve stood up and pulled his shirt over his head again.

“Thank you …”

He muttered. Natasha simply made an uninterested ‘hmm’ sound as she put away her tools. When she turned around she cocked an eyebrow at him still standing there. Steve took a few breaths before trying to formulate a sentence.

“No I mean … Thank you for what you did for Sam too. You didn't have to …”

“You struck a deal with James, he needed my assistance and he's the Captain.”

Steve scoffed almost inaudibly. At that, Natasha's mouth querked up a tiny bit.

“You're a Captain too … And I thank you for your assistance, not Barnes … I sort of owe you too.”

Her smile broadened, not much but it happened. She nodded, accepting his statement. He smiled back before heading out of the door. On his way back to the crew’s sleeping quarters, he realised that her statement about ‘serving Barnes’ might just have been a test, a test he might just have passed by acknowledging her equal stand.

4. Try not to piss off the Master Gunner of the ship. Steve had followed Natasha's advice and tried to stay below deck the best he could. When he was done helping the cook fasten some barrels with supplies that had gotten loose, he looked around for Jones to see if he needed help regulating the ballast or other things of the sort. He found the Boatswain on the gundeck, along the outer walls. Jones stood together with a relatively small man with a dark beard only covering his upper lip.

“Ah Rogers! Perfect timing I need a strong hand.”

Jones exclaimed. Steve approached with long strides. Jones and the smaller man, who’s name Steve had yet to learn, stood beside a single canon, which looked like it had fell out of the straight line of metallic canons along the inner wall of the hull.

“Always at service.”

Steve answered with a small smile. Jones grinned a little. He was one of the few people Steve managed to embarrass himself in front of, with the entire ‘Sir, yes Sir’ thing.

“Thank you, we need get this girl back into row.”

Jones padded the canon like he would pat a cow.

“We are sailing still waters and less ship movement means easier work with the canons. So if we both push from behind we should be able to get her to the gunport and then Dernier, our dear Master Gunner, will fasten her as long as we hold her in place.”

Jones bowed down to place himself behind one side of the canon, his palms firmly placed on the wood support of the canon just above its small wheels. Steve did the same with the other side.


The canon was heavy but eventually they got her in line. But suddenly, as they held the canon there, the ship made a violent unnatural jolt to the side and the canon followed with deadly speed. Steve and Jones just managed to roll to the side before the canon came tumbling back the way it came from before smashing into the back wall with a violent and loud crunching sound. Everything was silent for a second. Steve uncurled himself from where his arms had flown up to protect his head instinctively. Only then he realised the weight of another human being on his legs. Dernier was half draped over him, fallen down from the sudden blow of movement. Steve barely got the chance to recover before the small man got up, surprisingly quickly, and started shouting profanities at him in another language. Steve’s body was on high alert from the shock and he quickly recognised the language as French. When his brain caught up with him, he shot back with French words equal in inappropriateness. Jones just stared flabbergasted, after getting on his feet. At last Jones placed himself between the two sparring parties.

“Connard! Andouille!”


The Frenchman kept shouting, followed by a long stream of words, which was sent off too quickly for Steve to pick up, so he aimed for a simple counter.


“Va te faire foutre!”

“Arrête messieurs!”


Jones shouted, a bit louder than the two others and that finally stopped the bantering. All three of them were panting a bit from shouting. Steve finally saw the place where the canon had collided with the wall. Several planks were cracked and bended. Suddenly he realised that he or Jones or perhaps both could have been taking the edge of the hit from that wall, stuck between canon and splintered wood with crushed legs or abdomen. A shudder went through him at the thought, that had been too close. Dernier and Jones also seemed to be playing similar scenarios inside their heads, if their shaken expressions and the deep silence was anything to go by. Now that their own shouting had stopped, they could make out equally rash and loud shouting from above deck. They all briefly looked to each other before making their way above deck, making sure to avoid stepping on the small devilish splinters of wood splayed across the floor with their bare feet.

As predicted, Captain Barnes had left his quarters to check on the inexplicable movement of his ship. He didn't look like someone who stormed out of his chambers suddenly, judging by him being dressed in his long dark blue coat as per usual. His hair was assembled with a tie at his nape but the wind managed to tuck several strands out of their hold. Barnes stood in front of the quarterdeck, shouting for someone to find his Boatswain. Steve understood why Jones’ expression was both strained and wondering when finally stepping on deck.

“Has someone, for the sake of a King I don't serve, seen Jones?!”

Barnes shouted, he didn't sound overly amused. Steve repressed the need to roll his eyes at Barnes’ snarky humour. Kidd stood behind the Captain with an amused expression and the easygoing attitude with a hint of I-know-better that seemed like one of his constant feats. His hands rested on his hips and his legs were crossed at the angles as he leaned on the railing of the quarterdeck stairs. Jones finally answered and quickly got the attention of Barnes, Kidd and Romanoff, currently standing at the helm, squinting in the sun, who all had gathered on deck to get a proper explanation.


“I'm here Captain!”


Barnes’ expression was utterly puzzled and with a dramatic exasperated raise of his arm, he motioned up at the main mast. Every newcomer on deck followed his pointing with their eyes. It was very clear why the ship had jolted out of course. One corner of the main topsail was no longer fastened where it should be, instead it was flying around aimlessly, like the wind was mocking them with it. The Captain had evidently ordered for a full stop, because many of the men were working the ropes normally fastened to the rope post beside each of the masts, trying to make the sails comply.


Jones blinked several times in wonder and confusement.


“I … What the hell?!

“My exact words Boatswain! You truly take the words from my mouth!”

Barnes exclaimed loudly. He didn't seem to blame Jones directly, he was simply incredibly irritated with not getting a proper explanation for the mess in his mainmast. On top of that, the man was an asshole so a dramatic show of body language far over the top apparently seemed appropriate in this situation.


Jones jogged to the big bundles of rope securely fastened to the gunwall. He inspected them for a bit, then looked up at the mast before turning back to the awaiting commander.

“Nothing to see at the fastenings Captain.”

Jones reported. Barnes grunted irritatingly. He let his eyes drift over the sail still flapping in the wind, seemingly calculating.

“Parker! Where's Parker?!”

“I'm here Captain!”

Steve’s eyes followed the voice coming from above. A thin boy waved from the small platform slightly above the beginning of the main topsail. The mop of dark hair atop his head was sticking in every direction from the wind.

“What the hell happened? Please don't tell me it was one of the yard ropes!”

Barnes asked the question everyone wanted the answer to. The ship had almost come to a full stop by now, so many the men were assembled on the deck, awaiting orders from the Captain.

“I eh… I don't know what to tell you then Captain. It snapped in half!”

“What the actual sh…”


Barnes stopped himself and reformulated his question.


“Can you bring it down?”

“Aye Captain! Give me a couple of minutes.”

The Captain seemed content with that answer, considering, after taking a deep breath. He then returned his attention to the rest of the gathering on the deck.

“Gentlemen, you can return to your work below and atop deck but stay away from the rigging, the shrouds included, they clearly need inspection.”

Steve made to turn around and go back below deck but Jones was back at his side and stopped him by grabbing his arm.

“We won't deal with that canon without the carpenter.”

Steve nodded and continued to stand still beside Jones, in case he needed help with inspecting. Kidd left his relaxing position at the railing, to jump up on the gunwall with incredible grace, grabbing at the shrouds and looking up with an unimpressed facial expression.


“Hey Barnes, didn't ya ge’ new beam and yard rope in Nassau?”


He drawled, pulling the rope of the shrouds to check the stability.


“That I did.”


Barnes simply responded, drawing the sentence out and adding new wonder to The Mainmast Mystery.


At last, Parker descended from the mainmast with half a heavy rope on each shoulder, neatly folded in rings to wrap around his body while still allowing him to climb. As the boy came closer, Steve was taken back by how young he looked. There was no way this boy had even hit his adult years yet. He really wanted to know how the hell this boy ended up on a pirate ship this young, but at the same time, Steve had a feeling that he also didn't want to know the truth.


Both Jones and Barnes helped untangle the ropes from Parker’s shoulders and started inspecting the ends that snapped. Luckily it was a relatively short rope. Problems with longer ropes could keep a ship from sailing for days. At the same time, Kidd had made his way up the shroud, testing and inspecting as he crawled. Romanoff kept her sceptic gaze on him like a hawk.


Steve made sure to stand in the background behind Jones. Several other men was scattered around the deck, their work on the rigging temporarily not permitted. Both Captain and Boatswain inspected the hempen rope closely with furrowed brows. Steve’s eyes automatically followed the swirled strings of the rope, his forehead drawing together when he spotted a sudden tell-tale sign. Before he could stop himself he stepped forward, grabbing the rope, about the thickness of two of his fingers, and trying to pry at one of the entwined strings. He was too concentrated to catch the funny look he received from Jones, and the irritated glare from an unamused Captain Barnes. The entwined strings refused to budge so Steve tried something else.

“Anyone has a small knife?”

The look he got from Barnes was calculating and sour, a clear sign that Steve had stepped over the boundaries of respect. He countered with silence and an awaiting expression. Jones now too looked to the Captain, who finally let out a small sigh.

“If you're about to ruin a perfectly reusable rope Rogers, I'll tie you to the bowstring or use you as my galleon figure.”

Barnes fished up a small throwing knife from some strange crevice in his coat and handed it over, handle first. The piercing gaze sent by the Captain indicated that he meant every word. His sceptic gaze followed Steve’s every movement, fully intending to intimidate. Steve did the best to ignore it and started to work on the hempen rope. His suspicions was confirmed when the inside of the rope was several shades lighter than the outside. He hummed knowingly and continued to split up the rope in the middle. He more felt than saw the swift strong hand clasping down on his wrist to stop him. But before the Captain could even say a word, Steve beat him to it.


“It appears that you’ve been fooled Captain”


Barnes’ eyes snapped up to his and Steve felt his gaze burn through his skull. He quickly elaborated before the Captain started to imagine different scenarios, all with quite a humiliating lethal end on Steve’s behalf. So much for the ‘keep your head low’ plan, sorry Romanoff.
“The rope is much lighter on the inside. Some merchants only process their hempen rope with tar on the outside, so when water inevitably gets to the center of the rope, it rots and snaps. Like this you will need new rope faster and you'll buy more of their goods.”
The Captain’s voice were hard with undertones of a deadly drawl, fully intending to intimidate.


“The outside of hempen rope darkens with use, the center is always lighter except when the rope is completely new.”


Steve stared back stubbornly.


“That’s what makes the trick so hard to detect. Several skilled Officers in the army was fooled, but they evidently managed to fool you too. Look.”


He proceeded to cut into the fibers in the center of the rope while pretending not to see the Captain’s jaw muscles clench even harder or how his eyes narrowed warningly. Shit. He tugged for a while and at last he held a couple of short fibers in his hand. He held them out to the Captain.


“Smell for yourself. The center fibers don’t smell of tar like the rest of the rope does.”


Barnes took the few strands of hemp out of his hand and brought it to his face. He then passed it on to Romanoff, who had appeared at his side in hopes of a great spot to witness Steve Rogers stare into the face of death, without his expression changing the slightest. Romanoff gave a small affirming nod and Steve knew they were convinced. Except Barnes were still staring him down with an unreadable expression.
Then the Captain turned to an awkward shuffling Parker, a mischievous smile on his face.


“Parker…”


The young boy jumped a bit and straightened immediately, like he had been busted in not paying attention.


“Ye-Yes Captain!”


“...Do you need another man at the top?”


Parker opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, frantically fiddling with his hands.


“Uhm- I mean …”


More awkward intakes of breath followed by him closing his mouth yet again.


“Well yeah … I-I mean if I should replace all the yard ropes and the … the…”


Vague flapping gesture to the bow.


“The beam ropes … that could be … good? Yeah …”


Parker weren't the most precise or gifted talker it would seem. The Captain hummed slightly, and a bit too knowingly. James Barnes then proceeded to turn to Steve yet again with a fake smile plastered loosely on his features.


“Congratulations Rogers! You’ve been assigned as rigging monkey!”


The Captain clasped a firm hand on his shoulder and shook him a bit. Then he lowered his voice and leaned in a bit.


“Don’t fall. Your insides won’t look pretty being scrubbed of my deck.”


The fake smile dropped and the Captain leaned away, barking out orders to the onlooking crewmembers. Steve saw Jones report the canon incident and Barnes muttering out curses as a result, but none of the buzzing around him was truly taken in. He probably deserved this, but just looking above him at the insanely tall masts made him dizzy. The mere thought of him having to crawl around up there was almost unthinkable. Fucking hell.


“So…”


Steve was ripped from his thought by Parker, shifting on his feet with a hesitant expression.


“You want me to … show you around…?”


If Steve wasn't almost pissing himself from that request, he might have been able to be amused by this kid’s horrible talking skills. He aimed for a prompt nod and tried his best to stop his hard from galloping around in his chest when he followed Parker up the shrouds.

Chapter Text

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

We all know the feeling don't we? The feeling of looking up at a tall building, not thinking much of it before we actually get up there, but when we do we finally realise the true height of the building?

Yeah Steve was feeling that effect tenfold right now. This was the fucking worst idea. As he slowly made his way up the shroud, his grip on the rope turned more clamped and clammy. The wind brushed past him, cooled him, but still he was sweating out of pure fear. He stopped. The feel of his stomach turning dangerously fast became too much and he felt like throwing up. Yet his body was far too paralysed to even consider moving. His breath came to him in short sharp gasps, never really satisfying the burning need in his lungs. The only thing that could be heard was the wind howling and his own thoughts chanting: don't look down, don't look down, don't look down!

If he did, maybe he would pass out and fall directly to his death. Or worse, he could witness the smug smirk of a certain pirate Captain all those feet below him. Steve felt cold, far too cold but maybe it was just the fear. The shroud felt unstable - unsafe. Like he was clutching at a single thread mid air and expecting it not to break under his weight. The ropes felt scratchy and slimy under his sweaty palms, like they would turn into writhing venomous snakes any second now.

Above him he heard a steady voice call out for him. His brain was too cloudy to catch the words, but he saw dark tuft of hair followed by a young face poking out from the wooden platform 10 feet above him. It made him start to move again. Incredibly slowly, but that's a given. Finally when he hauled himself on the platform, Steve’s hands were shaking so bad he could barely control them. Parker was sitting comfortably with his back against the solid wood of the main mast, continuing towards the sky from the middle of the crow’s nest. Steve crawled over the small space and pressed his back to the solid wood in a desperate attempt to gain some sort of solid comfort. The circular platform was wide enough for him to stretch his legs out, but when he did, his feet and half his shins were hanging in thin air. Parker’s legs however were not long enough for his feet to even touch the slightly elevated edge. Steve curled in his legs, grasping and clawing at the floor under him and the mast at his back simultaneously, simply to feel the sturdiness of it. Air still came rasping through his throat with every breath and he suddenly got awfully aware of the young boy’s questioning gaze upon him.

“You okay? You won't pass out or anything?”

Steve answered simply by staring at the kid with, at least what he later thought must have been, a completely wild expression. It certainly made Parker back away the few inches the narrow space allowed him to.

 

The first day as rigging monkey, and personal entertainment for Barnes, went more or less like that.

Steve moving slowly, eyes practically bulging from his head when Parker, elegant and subtle like always, clamped his legs around the shrouds, letting himself fall backwards till his head was pointing downwards and his back was pressed flush against the intertwined shrouds. This way he could tie and repair with both hands.

His name was Peter. Peter Parker. He was from New York too as it turned out. He only had his aunt left and she had a hard time getting by with only herself and Peter in the house. When Barnes found out, he had offered her a residence in Nassau to small money. Money that was easily earned by Peter. That man seemed to have an incredible network of deals and favours, only adding more strangeness to the confusing map of the man that Steve desperately tried to draw in his brain.

Also good things came from working the top rigging apparently, besides your potential death being quick, that is. The hammocks were considerably bigger, not stacked on top of each other and secluded a bit from the sleeping quarters of the main crew. A little extra comfort gained by risking one’s life on a daily basis. Steve let himself enjoy those.

It would be an outright lie to claim that he got any work done the first couple of days. Peter took pity on him though, let him get used to the height slowly while mostly keeping an eye on the lower rigging in case more of the rope felt particularly ‘snappy’ at any moment. Steve didn't feel good about letting Peter swap out all the corrupt beam and yard ropes by himself, especially because he was, rather indirectly really, the reason that the job needed to be done.

It was weird to be taught by someone so young, but Steve quickly found out that Peter was more than capable of doing his job. Some crew members referred to him as ‘the spider’, simply because the sureness and precision of his movements when crawling in the masts at times reminded of a spider’s daily acrobatic endeavors.

 

A week went by and Steve was more than content what the lacking of the entire ‘falling and being flat on a deck like a rotten apple falling from a tree’ thing, as Peter had described it. Parker was his main company, mainly because both men spent the majority of their working time in the masts and often helping each other out, whether it was on guard in the crow’s nest or maintenance of shrouds, tackles and fastenings. When descending for lunch and dinner, Steve still enjoyed the company of Dugan, Jones, and at times Romanoff when she decided to join the main men. He even got to talk friendly with the hot-blooded french of a Master Gunner. If Steve forgot a certain word in French, Jones would step in shortly and help him. Dernier didn't speak very well English, or maybe it was simply the well known stubbornness of the French, Steve didn't quite know.

He ended up being introduced to the First Mate of the vessel a day or two after his normal duties aboard went heaven high, literally. Or Falsworth wasn't quite a First Mate. It was merely a title given due to lack of better description. He covered attack tactics mostly and with his brilliant tactical mind working with Dum Dum’s never ending knowledge of these waters, Steve had no problems seeing why the ambush of The Triumph, Boudicca and Valiant had been so smooth and successful. James Falsworth was British, which surprised Steve a bit in the beginning, after he had gotten over his internal groaning due to the amount of people called James. But Steve assumed that at least one of the reasons that Falsworth were here, was because he didn't agree with his home country very much.

This entire group seemed tightly knit, with the Captain as well, but as the second week of his Steve’s service aboard The Black Swan began, the Captain was seen less at the helm. Falsworth took over the steering of the ship and, with Jones he had shifts where he commandeered the general crew as well. Steve didn't notice much of this of course. After literally all rope in the masts had been inspected, which took 3 and a half day, most of his job included keeping watch in the crow’s nest.

Believe it or not but he felt a certain degree of comfort up there, after an adjustment period of course. Peter had told him what to look out for, both signal flags and ship types. So far he only spotted a few small Spanish schooners and occasionally a fishermen’s small vessel, none too close to be either a threat nor a spy.

 

During his fourth day in the rigging, he learned that the crow’s nest is also Romanoff’s go-to place when she's relieved of her duties. She had climbed up almost silently and, believe it or not, she must have briefly forgot about his shifted duties since a small resemblance of mild surprise showed for half a second upon her features. It was so quickly gone that Steve dared not bet that it had ever appeared.

She sat down quietly next to him, back resting against the mast in the middle of the nest and legs crossed in front of her. They sat in silence for a while. Steve had secretly brought up his drawing supplies, but Romanoff not noticing the dark smudged patches on his fingers that he pencil had left was slim to none so he pulled out the paper again. He could feel her curious gaze when the pencil started to outline the rough irregularities in the wood of the painted gun tackle. His model hung opposite the crow's nest, currently serving no purpose at all, yet as soon as more cargo was supposed to be moved aboard it'll soon get its fair share of work. Natasha shuffled a bit beside him before asking.

“Can I see?”

Steve thought it over for a couple of seconds before handing her an unfinished sketch of some cliff islands they had passed the day before. She hummed silently in approval.

“This is not bad at all…”

The closest to a compliment as Natasha gets, Steve presumed. He smiled in return.

“Thank you.”

She handed the sketch back and continued to side-eye him as he kept on drawing. Steve knew nothing about where they were heading, but Jones had said a week more of sailing and that was nearly a week ago. He supposed this was a good time to ask as any.

“We’re nearly there aren't we?”

Natasha turned her head and smiled slyly.

“Maybe …”

A clear invitation to elaborate his thoughts.

“I've barely seen Dum Dum for 2 days and from all the way up here it's easy to spot the cliffs and reefs in the water. I don't suppose Dum Dum would manoeuvre us through dangerous water, but rather in and out again.”

Natasha nodded slowly and eyed him over again with her constant knowing look.

“You're learning Jico, slowly but you're learning.”

Steve scoffed at the nickname for around the thousandth time so far. He still had no idea what it meant.

 

The nest offered a very good view of the ship in general, at least those parts Steve didn't get to study in Nassau port. The Swan was a huge, still swift brig, characterised by its two square rigged masts. The vessel wasn't very common among pirates but again Steve was reminded that he was currently working under some of the most wanted and notorious of them all. This ship was very strangely built however. The brig was far taller and longer than the few briggs Steve has seen in his life. The masts and rigging was sturdier and the hull offered far more space. And the very peculiar part: The Black Swan need not hundreds of men to sail it, as did most of briggs. Nothing of this strangeness seemed to compromise the speed and manoeuvrability of the vessel. The crew almost counted a hundred men, but probably didn't need more than a skilled skeleton crew of 70 to sail.

It was impressive for certain, even with his lacking knowledge on the matter. The hull was quite severely adorned too, both with wood carvings and different nuances of paint. Most of the hull was painted pitch black, yet deep red and brown colours appeared along the outer gunwall, often with silver details on the carvings there. The ram was enforced with steel along the edges and tip, making it exquisitely deadly. The black sails with the wing pattern has been shifted out with bare deep red sails in Nassau. It was a beautiful ship if one had time and mood to truly observe it. And of course, probably mind blowingly expensive too. Which further added to the cockiness of the Captain.

Most ships in the army wasn't adorned simply because it was inevitable that they got battered around from time to time in battle. The Swan however, looked more to be a decoration than a full armoured battleship, but sadly, for Officer Abbott and Officer Johnson at least, she worked incredibly well at both. Captain Barnes deciding to ram his pretty-boat directly into the broadside of The Triumph further indicated that he had the money to afford the repair of such a ship. Steve finished the last lines on the tackle sketch before letting his gaze fall on the ship, which had followed them closely all this time. The sun was setting but she was still very visible, he nodded curtly towards her.

“She yours?”

Natasha's eyes followed his and she shuffled a bit against the mast to get more comfortable.

“Yuuup.”

Natasha popped the ‘p’ sound loudly before continuing.

“There's not much in having a ship when you're stuck on someone else’s though.”

Steve huffed out a small puff of air in amusement.

“Who's at the helm?”

Natasha turned her head and raised an eyebrow, like she hadn't awaited that question.

“On The Scavenger? My quartermaster Thor Odinson is taking over currently.”

“That's certainly a name.”

“Well the guy is fucking Scandinavian mate, they never do anything by half. And when you actually get to meet him, I doubt the name will be the most peculiar thing.”

Steve raised an eyebrow and cocked a small grin.

“When?”

Natasha seemed to play a thousand alternative situations in her head at once, all which seemed undoubtedly humorous.

“Oh yeah I'll introduce you.”

The Scavenger was a smaller ship, a brig-sloop with only one completely square rigged mast, the fore one, while the aft mast had a single spanker sail and a topsail above that. She was painted in more brown and deep reddish colours and could mostly pass for a standard merchant ship from afar. However she sported pitch black sails with a blood red double triangular shape in the middle of the fore squared topsail, visible for all to see. She was swift, yet smaller in size, perfect for an ambush with limited sight range for the target. On top of that, brig-sloops weren't ideal for long range sailing, simply because the space for provisions on board was limited. Another indication that they might need a port soon enough. The food bell rang clear and sharp through the cooling evening air. Both persons in the nest reacted accordingly and started making their way down by each their own shroud. Another perk about working one of the most dangerous jobs on the ship: you get to stand in front of the line at every meal. Steve’s work didn't include lots of physical activity at the moment so sometimes he pretended not to have heard the bell, to let the harder working men eat first. He suspected that he soon enough would have to help Peter maintain the very upper parts of the rigging, which would also result in harder work, but up here he only need to carry his own body weight and not barrels or other containers twice that weight. He couldn't pretend now that Romanoff was here though, so he followed her down and joined her in front of the line below deck.

The galley was located in the back of the ship, besides Romanoff’s small quarters. The huge sandstone fireplace was used every day to cook warm meals for the crew and the entire galley had its own crew of 5 men. Steve received his wooden plate with boiled pork, bread, a bit of butter and a few slices of lime. He walked past the line of waiting men, all of them giving him slightly jealous looks. Since fresh air wasn't scarce for him these days, he chose a small wood table in the cargo storage area to sit at, one that was used to play chess or other games at by the crewmembers in the occasional break.

Practically the entire crew was gathered at the galley, so the storage was as empty as it comes at least until a quickly approaching footsteps caught Steve’s attention briefly, very briefly because the food was really good. The set of feet belonged to Anne Bonny, who were swiftly making her way towards the galley a little late. When she saw him with food bulging in his cheeks she cracked an amused smile and said:

“Bon appétit monsieur!”

To that Steve answered, however muffled and clumsy by the food he was still chewing:

“Merci beaucoup Madame!”

She let out a short merry laugh at his poor attempt of a French accent with half a cut of pork in his mouth before she disappeared behind the next corner. Steve hadn't seen much of Bonny, but when the rareness occurred she always seemed to have a quip in her back pocket.

He continued eating by himself, enjoying being alone for once without spreeching seagulls flying past his head every other second. When his plate was empty and his stomach full, Steve returned the plate and cutlery to the kitchen before returning to his high held duty in the nest.

The sun was almost completely set when the bell rang once more, now indicating the night shift team to arise from their hammocks. The Captain had been extra careful the last couple of days, he had assigned more people on night shift and always made sure that someone was keeping a sharp eye at the horizon. Sadly for Peter, this meant he had drawn the shortest straw and was assigned to work for the night. Steve passed him on his way below deck. He gave him a couple of encouraging pats on the back while the boy yawned and rubbed his eyes, clearly not very happy with the arrangement.

Once Steve had settled in for the night, and the only sounds that could still be heard was the rustling and quiet murmurs of the last few still standing men mixed with the constant creaking of wood, he was left with his thoughts. This continued to be the worst part of his day. The part where no more work needed to be done, no more distractions from the nagging in the back of his mind. He had left in the silence of the night. He knew that Sam wouldn't have let him go on his own and Steve was horrified that he might have done something stupid. Sam was safe finally, at least when he got back to Havana. Sam and Clint was to sail with Stede Bonnet, one of the pirates Steve had accidentally pissed off, and first that worried him. At least until Clint assured him that Bonnet was more of a merchant-turning-pirate of some sort, not really a true pirate but simply taking advantage of the possibility of trade outside the law in cooperation with Nassau’s other criminals. They were safe and that's why Steve was able to work without a heavy knot of dread in his gut every day.

He missed them both terribly of course. No day went by without thinking of them, but what really made Steve cringe with guilt was imagining Sam’s face when he would have woken up only to discover that Steve was gone. Betrayal came in the form of double edged swords at times, who would have thought. It had seemed like a necessary cruelness at the time, but it made him feel like the worst person on earth itself. That, and it made him miss the two even more. So far he was doing good. No attacks. No bordings. No violence. He talked well with several of the crewmembers and no Officer was burning holes into his nape with an inspecting gaze, or another soldier shouting for him to clean up his mess. He didn't fit in among these criminals, yet he didn't feel like such a misfit after all.

Chapter Text

Burning light came rushing in unexpectedly from the outside deck. He groaned and quickly covered his eyes with the remainings of the map currently placed in his hands. It really wasn't all that hard to guess the identity of the silhouette standing in the doorway, even with blinded eyes. The cheerful and mischievous voice that followed only confirmed his first thought.


“Hello my dear farmer, I was wondering if you knew the whereabouts of a dark and gloomy cave around here, you see I'm looking for an unnaturally ugly wolf …”


Romanoff's voice was purposefully turned deep and with a humorous undertone. She strutted into the room with false attitude, imitating that of an army officer walking with pride.


“Hur hur you're hilarious Natalia…”


His voice had grown a bit raspy with disuse. She quirked a judging eyebrow and he didn't need sight to know; it was practically audible. The door was still wide open and the noise from working members of the crew irritated him more than he would like to admit.

Without another word he retreated to the shadows of back of the room where the long sunbeams cast into the room couldn't get to him, however much they stretched themselves out on the floor. That only earned him an exasperated sigh from the other Captain in the room, before she walked back to the door and kicked away the piece of wood holding the door open. The heavy wood door slammed shut and returned the room to complete darkness.

She approached him with careful steps, slowly and one at a time. She only got half through the room before he half heartedly turned his head in her direction, stopping all movement completely.


He didn't need to guess. James knew exactly what she was planning.


“James …”


The sentence was cut off abruptly, like she didn't quite know what to say. She continued after taking a few deep breaths.


“You can't stay in here forever you know. Falsworth has been at the helm for almost 3 days, he's beat.”


“We’re there soon anyways…”


“And then what? You'll go do whatever Ah Tabai wants you to and then go back to this little cave?”


“I'll go back to Great Inagua.”


The answer seemed uncertain, yet stubborn to both the pair of ears in the room.


“May you live long and prosper on your private pirate hide out.”


James snorted at that. Natasha knew him too well, which served both as a blessing and a curse. She knew what was eating at him. Years of his life was spent on hunting down the men responsible for Morita’s death and almost his own. Now the last lay atop the abandoned deck of The Triumph, rotting away in the sun, somewhere south-west of here.

It was over.

None survived his hunt but now the triumphant feeling was replaced with hollowness. James Barnes was a notorious pirate, he had an entire crew and several vessels to commandeer, he could go anywhere and plunder whoever he wanted. None of it made the hollowness go away, none of it filled the inexplicable hole in his gut. He refused to accept it, so he buried it. Tried so hard to concentrate on maps, reports and international affairs for three whole days and nights, so damn if he would let Romanoff try to dig it up without a fight. So, as the truly skilled tactician and master manipulator he was he aimed for the truly brilliant course of changing the subject.


“Any new reports regarding who might and might not want my head on a silver platter?”


Romanoff pursed her lips, but did nothing else to poke a stick at the bear. She leaned on one of the cabinets placed along the wall.


“Nothing new from Havana … yet. I'm pretty certain that half the stationed Military and Navy of Kingston wants you at least 6 feet below some dirty street somewhere.”


“Then everything is as it should be. Has The Triumph and the rest of the caravan been found?”


“Not yet… although your decision to saw off The Triumph’s name from her hull and display it in Nassau port for all to see did anger more than several people in with pride and rank enough to care.”


James simply hummed agreeingly at that. Nassau was a town run purely by pirates and if the King sent spies, every inhabitant would know in a matter of hours. God have mercy on the poor soul who tried to question the loyalty of the population there. Pirates don’t crave taxes on goods or property and if someone decided to steal from Nassau’s loyalists, The Counsel would have their head before long. God how he loved that place.


“Their anger is merely amusement to me until they draw swords.”


He spread his arms and turned slowly in a circle, cocking an eyebrow before smacking his arms at his side audibly.


“I am yet to see swords…”


Natasha huffed sarcastically. She seemed to be in a constant state between rolling her eyes and sighing exasperatedly but never quite deciding which action would be better to display her level of annoyance.


“I suggest we lay low for some time, just to ensure that your pretty little head will stay attached to your shoulders. If we wait a bit, maybe take a few smaller vessels north of here, Vane or Thatch will be higher on the Navy’s notoriety list than us.”


“You're probably right.”


“Always am.”


“I almost dare to differ.”


“Be careful James, you don't want a mutiny on your hands.”


Despite physical and psychological tiredness he managed a low chuckle and a slight tug at the corners of his mouth. Natasha pushed herself from the cabinet and slowly made move to leave. James could barely make out her expression in the dark, but she made a bit of emotion slip into her voice, a rare thing indeed.

“I’ll go to work … I expect the notorious Bucky Barnes to do the same?”


He turned at the sound of the nickname, then nodded silently when she made it clear she was awaiting an answer. Romanoff then made her way to the doors.


“Why did you call me Bucky?”


She stopped dead in her tracks. A thoughtful expression painted her features, as much was clear from the faint light from the hardly transparent glass embedded in the door.


“For old time’s sake …”


With that, she left him standing alone in his cabin, turning around quickly and covering his eyes when the still sharp evening sunlight tore the darkness of the room to threads.

__________________________________

It all happened too fast to truly comprehend. Especially in the state of Steve ‘half asleep/mid dream/half awake’ Rogers when he was tipped violently out of his hammock at the crack ass of dawn, only to get a hand clasped tightly over his mouth by an owner of deep green eyes and flaming red hair. Natasha held a finger against her lips to sign quietness but Steve had already uttered a strangled cry on his way from hammock to floor that made a few men turn in the surrounding hammocks. Romanoff pretended to be annoyed, but Steve could detect glints of amusement behind the fake facade. Sure, she could have chosen to simply shake his shoulders a bit until he woke, she only decided not to for the fun of it and Steve knew it.


He scrambled to his feet as noiselessly as possible and carded his fingers through his hair, he pointed questioningly to his boots resting at the end of his hammock in his little sleeping corner, but Romanoff shook her head. Whatever she woke him up to do didn't require footwear. He nodded and padded quietly after her, past the still sleeping dayshift crew slipping a short side glance to the still sleeping and softly snoring form of Peter Parker.


The temperature of the air atop deck was surprisingly chilly and Steve realised that the sun had only just started to set in the horizon. He was still working to rub the last traces of sleep out of his eyes when Romanoff led him between the quarterdeck and the main mast, only to roll out a heavy circular mat, woven in patterns with browning rush, which had rested against the railings prior to being folded out.

Steve was mildly perplexed to say the least. Romanoff shed her own boots before treading around in small circles on the mat, trying it out and feeling the rough material under bare feet. Steve simply watched her do it, still having no clue why he was awake at this barely acceptable hour for a day-shift crew member. She was still toying a bit with him that much was clear, but why she willingly would give up several hours of sleep to look at his completely lost expression was beyond him, especially because that particular facial expression not exactly could be called rare these days.


The red haired woman rolled her shoulders, shook her legs a bit before bending them slightly at the knee, settling into a comfortable fighting stance with both underarms up in protective awareness.

 

Shit.

 

The exact moment of realisation was followed by Romanoff's sly smirk. God in heaven, Barnes had mentioned training now hadn't he? Damn the man. Surely Jones could get the job done nicely enough? Dum Dum had a surprisingly mean left hook when it suited him, but Barnes had risked both their lives and stuck him with the definition of his beforehand deadly acceptable defeat in the shape of Natasha Romanoff. Steve could now think of several reasons as to why Barnes hadn't shown the last days, ranging from black eyes to destroyed egos. A highly uncomfortable conversation for the Captain himself without doubt, yet he deserved at least an ounce of credit for putting his life on the line and actually succeeding in convincing Romanoff.


“If you turn just a couple of shades paler I might have to get over there to catch you when you faint, Rogers.”


She snapped him from his long trail of thought, just as he was beginning to plan his own funeral beforehand.

With hesitation in every movement, he slowly made his way to the mat and certain doom. Dramatic? Him? What an absurd thought.


Steve tried his best to mirror Natasha's defensive stance, yet it all crumbled to the ground when he jolted violently at the test kick flying his way merely seconds after. It never collided with his body, leaving Romanoff to stand perfectly balanced on one leg, the other frozen in the air aiming towards Steve’s ribs, an eyebrow raised higher than most people would find possible.

She proceeded to show him a proper defensive position, demonstrating each possible parry from different kicks and punches. They went over them many times in slowed down steps. Steve braced himself with his left forearm in front of his face when Natasha's punch slowly rose at his left flank, only to afterwards grab her leg after she spun and motioned to collide her right shin with his hip.

By the time the day shift crew arose one by one, Steve got the basic punches, parrys and kicks pretty well figured out. He had brawled as a young boy back home at the homestead, but that was more of a ‘sit on top of your contestant until he gives up’ kind of fight. Not very useful to fight for your life.


The crewmen glanced funnily at the ‘fighting’ pair; every small amusement in the daily routine was welcome at sea and they had been sailing for weeks by now. Romanoff sped things up, unfortunately for Steve, in the end of the training session. She aimed the punches and kicks mostly at his abdomen, which he was grateful for. No doubt that the job of look out would prove harder with a swollen black eye.

In the end, Steve could brag of several black and blue blotches at his ribs and shoulders while Romanoff's skin was as perfectly coloured as ever. He was strong but not nearly as quick as her, which resulted in him feeling too big and clumsy to even get a remotely good punch at her defense. It would come with the right training she assured him.

He thanked her for the session before going on with his day as he normally would. She smiled and nodded without looking outright annoyed, so Steve felt as good as the situation allowed about bothering her.


He stretched his arms and back while making his way to the shroud, intending to join Peter in managing the top gallant sails, when he spotted the Captain leave his quarters for the first time in days.

Steve faltered a bit in his steps and then stopped completely standing atop the gun wall, his hands gripping at the shroud to not fall backward and into the waves of water. The Captain looked tired, worn out but still standing stoic outside his cabin while assessing the activity atop deck. Barnes’ head turned slightly, his eyes meeting Steve's and both froze on the spot for a second. Then Barnes gave a small solemn nod that Steve returned, before getting hold of his thoughts and start the climb towards the top yards.

Chapter Text

It was the quickest of reactions. It didn't even feel remotely unregular until the second stillness sets, until he becomes aware of his finger still pressing down on the trigger and the flowy smoke rising from the barrel of the gun. The world is on a standstill until the fraction of a second it all comes rushing back in huge merciless waves crushing you under the weight of reality. It all speeds up again, it goes too fast, far too fast to comprehend own or other’s actions. Steve’s taught stance wavers and he looks down into a pair of wide eyes, glazed over by pain, owned by a horrified Captain James Barnes.

 

__________________________________



They arrived the day after the Captain took finally took on the helm again. Around midday, Barnes let the anchor drop outside the shore of a mainland covered in cliff and jungle. No signs of civilization as far as Steve could spot from atop the nest, but whoever these mysterious allies were they certainly seemed determined and quite skilled at hiding away from the world. The underwater reefs prevented The Swan from sailing too close to shore, so Barnes, Romanoff, Kidd and Bonny sailed for land in a small rowing boat accompanied by Jones and Falsworth. Two hooded figures met them on the beach and let them into the jungle when their boots hit the heated sand. They simply disappeared and the rest of the crew took a long deserved break in the simmering warm sun.

 

Steve had found a nice cool spot atop the deck, slightly shadowed by several barrels of clean water. Sketching proved harder when the constant sweat of his fingers and hands threatened to smudge the otherwise perfectly put lines. Other crewmembers laid mostly in their hammocks dazing or otherwise kept below deck, playing chess. It seemed incredibly out of place to have so much time on his hands but he didn't complain.

The heat was almost too intense and Steve was on the brink of getting up to find a cooler spot to sit when the sun, that previously had been sending sharp and blinding rays into his eyes, was blocked by a body several inches smaller than most people aboard.

“Hi Steve!”

Peter’s voice was several tones too high pitched and he was fidgeting with his own hands as he often did when nervous.

“Hello Peter.”

Steve squinted a bit to make out the expression on Peter’s face a bit better against the sun. He then waited patiently for the younger man to speak his mind, which at this moment seemed to be almost itching to let out. Peter cleared his throat.

“I was just wondering … uh … it's because I've seen you drawing a lot and …”

Peter coughed, but it sounded more like a way to cut off the sentence and contemplate how he could formulate a question with least amount of embarrassment. He gaped like a dying fish on a beach for a couple of seconds, just long enough for Steve to stretch his limbs out a bit and trying to get up, fighting the slight ache as a result of sitting on hard wood in the same position for some time. Peter apparently saw this as a slip-out and violently backtracked.

“Actually it's nothing just … continue to sit and eh, do that! Yeah! Just draw because it's nice… I mean I wouldn't know since I don't draw but …”

Steve chuckled a bit at the Peter’s scrambling attempt of collecting himself.

“Breathe Parker, if you keep letting air out you might forget to let some in. Now what did you want to ask me?”

Peter had noticed his fidgeting with his own hands and shirt so he quickly tugged them behind his back. Gaze lowered, he tried to speak up again.

“I wanted to ask, eh … it's because of my aunt, she gets anxious when I'm off sailing with the Captain and maybe a drawing to look at might calm her a bit? I get if you don't want to …”

Steve cut the boy off quickly before the self blaming rant could start properly. He didn't blame Peter’s aunt for being nervous when he was away, but the fact that the concern went both ways pulled a small smile to Steve’s lips.

“I think that sounds like a wonderful idea. What do you want me to draw for her?”

Parker was knocked slightly off course by Steve’s willingness. Once he got over that, he looked around thoughtfully for a couple of seconds.

“I don't know? What would you like to draw? Also I don't have money just yet but I'll take some of your night shifts if that's okay.”

“No Peter you really don't have to …”

“No really! Thank you, and I want to …”

The last comment was accompanied with a sincere smile of gratitude and Steve could do nothing but agree. He would still make sure Peter didn't overwork himself though.

“Alright then. How about I draw you in the nest? There's probably a bit more air up there now anyways.”

The heat was truly beginning to feel stiffening and choking. Parker agreed and motioned for him to lead the way. Steve pressed his pencil in between the closed covers of the book before tucking the entire thing into the waistband of his breeches, leaving both hands free to climb with.

Once high up in the air, Steve instructed Peter to sit in a legged position, back and part of his left side facing him. The outline of the mast, which Peter was leaning against, was on paper soon enough. It had been some time since Steve had drawn landscapes but he wasn't one to back down from a challenge of refreshment. Peter fidgeted a bit more with his hands, sometimes glanced over to Steve, like he didn't quite know what to do. Steve returned his gaze with an amused and reassuring smile, so the boy soon relaxed and enjoyed the view.

Peter’s mop of hair was a little harder to captivate with a pencil, it was only getting longer and wilder, as the wind always seemed to be playing with it in some way. The islands in the background of the sketch were next. It took a little less than an hour in total. Parker was in pure admiration and wonder after seeing the final result and Steve truly appreciated his long rant of praise. They both stayed in the nest, simply because the faint breeze made it a little easier to breathe in the crushing heat. Steve laid down on his back, mast-pole at his side, and arm slung over his eyes to shield them from the sun even in their closed state. He inhaled the hot sharp air and exhaled blissfully every time a short breeze cooled the air around him for just a couple of seconds. The young boy opposite kept sneaking happy glances at the small piece of paper with the sketch he’d been given, when a clear deep and raspy voice from the deck pierced the silence.

“Captain on the beach!”

The voice clearly belonged to a slightly irritated Dum Dum who just got woken up from his midday slumber. Steve arose and blinked rapidly at the sharp brightness of the sun. When his eyes recovered, he could spot Bonny walking towards the rowing boat with Jones and Falsworth while Natasha, Kidd and the Captain still conversed with one of the two hooded figures from before. Squinting his eyes more made Steve able to distinguish that the two unknown persons wore some kind of white cloak with brown belts and hoods. It was rather strange who these people were, hiding away in almost unassailable terrain while living in a jungle. Steve poked Peter lightly on the arm to get his attention.

“Do you know who they are?”

Peter snapped out of a trail of thought and followed Steve’s look towards the beach.

“Who? … oh them. No not really. I never asked but they're in some sort of agreement with the Captain.”

“Agreement?”

“Yeah. The Captain strikes certain people for them, sometimes infiltrates forts or something alike. In return he gets knowledge as far as I'm aware.”

“Do we need to, uhm. Do we need to fight after this?”

Peter looked him over briefly at that question.

“Maybe. Normally it's a matter in need of a more discreet approach when they meet up like this though. Otherwise we just receive a letter with assigned targets.”

The cloaked figures vanished into the jungle as fast as they appeared. Now the entire group of Captain and crew made their way into the small boat to get to The Swan.

When all crewmembers and captains were safely aboard the vessel yet again, the Captain ordered out a new southern course and otherwise assigned Dum Dum and Jones to make sure it was kept well. No name of any location was shouted to the main crew so for Steve and so many others, they were working blindly. He suspected that Peter had been keeping check on course and days out of pure habit, but quite frankly Steve didn't know if he truly wanted an answer to their whereabouts. Every crew member took up work yet again soon enough they were on their way south, with prosperous wind none the less.

 

The next 3 days were nothing short of uneventful. The only sort of change Steve spotted was the flag which the ships in the horizon sailed under: Rojigualda. The Spanish flag. These ought to be Spanish owned waters and the coast on their starboard broadside probably belonged to the Spanish crown as well. The Swan didn't exactly sail under the Union Jack, yet it could be relatively easy to mistake them for British privateers on the hunt for Spanish merchant ships with hulls full of valuable cargo. The Spanish ships Steve had spotted was all merchant or cargo ships, no military in sight, which was a clear relief. They were deep into Spanish territory it seemed, since transport between colonies proved more important than strong naval defense.

Captain Barnes gave order to drop anchor close to the rocky shore on the evening of the third day. Steve got poked on the shoulder 2 hours before shift change for his evening training session. Romanoff had trained him two times a day, every day since their first session. This time they focused on kicks. Steve was a fast learner and Natasha was a good teacher. Brawling was a big part of the training since Steve now got most punches set into his muscle memory. His ribs, hands, thighs and shins were permanently spotted with blue and purple marks. He gained more before the last ones had enough time to fade. Romanoff proved to be very tactical and quick at dodging kicks and returning them, so Steve had earned his fare share of extra marks this time around.

Falling into his hammock never felt better that evening. Peter had honoured their deal and worked his night shift. Steve curled up on his side and fell asleep in minutes.



The next morning Steve got out of bed with the rest of the day-crew, silently wondering why Romanoff hadn't woken him like she normally would. He clapped a very tired looking Peter - luckily on his way to his hammock - reassuringly on the shoulder before ascending the stairs to the deck. They had dropped anchor the day before, but the ship was still in need of several lookouts to make sure no surprise attack could get them cornered. Sadly that meant an ongoing disturbed sleep cycle on Peter's behalf. When the sun and slightly cool morning air hit him he noticed a small gathering in front of the Captain’s quarters. The Captain himself was present, dressed in considerably more modest clothes than normal. The simple leather jacket, with belts to his guns and swords, truly expressed his slim, yet strong and muscled frame. Besides him stood James Kidd with the usual careless and devilish smirk plastered on his lips. At last there was Natasha, armed and dressed simply and pragmatic like both of the men beside her. She noticed him and gave a small nod in greeting, which Steve returned. They were clearly heading out again so Steve needed no answers as to why his training was cancelled. He turned around to make the small walk to the shroud when a rough voice called out for him.

“Rogers.”

Steve knew the voice belonged to Barnes even before he turned around to face him. When he did, the Captain looked him over calculatingly for a couple of seconds before elaborating.

“You'll go with us.”

Mentally Steve’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. He kept his face as neutral as possible when the Captain gave him a brown belt with a sword and sheath attached to it. He truly hadn't been expecting this morning to have this particular outcome. Steve strapped the belt to his hips nonetheless, feeling the unfamiliar presence of a curved one sided spadroon touching his thigh, ending just below his knee. This sword was in much better condition and of better quality than normal rapier, which was still lying unused on the floor beside his hammock.

 

Two other men joined the gathering, both of their names unknown to Steve. Two small rowing boats were prepared to lowering into the water beside The Swan, Steve got into one of them together with Barnes, Kidd and one of the two men he still didn't know the name off. He was put on rowing duty and as each pull on the ores brought them closer to shore, Steve started to wonder what precisely this endeavor craved of him. They all got out when the keel of the boat ragged along the sand of the beach. While Steve and the two other crewmembers drag the boats half out from the water.

Natasha dug into one of the pouches attached to her hip and pulled out small arrows designed for blowpipes. She shared them with Kids and Barnes, who tugged them into their own pouches before checking over their individual weaponry. James Kidd reached into the boat and pulled out a small bag and threw it at Barnes with a cocky smile. The Captain sent back a distrusting glance before opening the bag. Immediately his face lit up in a wide grin as he pulled out, what looked like, forearm and wrist braces made of leather. The strange attachment on the underside of it seemed out of place until Barnes put both braces on and activated them with a backwards flick of his wrists. Two deadly sharp switchblades sprang free from the attachment under the Captain’s palms and his grin turned impossibly wider. Kidd returned to loading his own flintlocks with a satisfied expression.

“They ain't toys Barnes.”

“Then how exactly would you describe them?”

The Captain countered with easy irony, mirroring the same backwards wrist movement from before, resulting in the switchblades being retracted. The braces looked almost completely normal despite the attached knife and Steve noticed that Kidd wore similar ones, yet Natasha lacked them and seemed more than content with the bamboo blowpipe hanging over her right shoulder.

Romanoff finished stacking the ammunition from the boat into her pockets and turned to Steve. His expression must have portrayed to be just as lost as he felt because she clearly felt the need to brief him.

“You will stay here with Logan and Charles. We will be back in a couple of hours and hopefully no trouble will occur.”

“Hopefully not.”

She mustered a sideways smile and a reassuring clap on his shoulder before turning. The three armed parties made their way across the beach and into the thick jungle, soon disappearing out of sight.

 

One of the men, Logan or Charles, sat down and scooted a bit around to form the sand to fit the shape of his bum while scratching the dark brown beard covering the better part of his jaw. He then huffed gruffly and looked like he'd much rather be anywhere else than on this particular beach, preferably the hammock on The Black Swan, which was still hidden from their sight by a cliff of rock and palm trees.

The other man, the younger looking with lighter brown hair, wandered off a little longer down the beach but not out of earshot. Now Steve realised how awkwardly he was standing in front of the boat and searched for somewhere to sit and wait. Before he could get to it, the bearded man looked at him and narrowed his eyes slightly.

“I've seen you around. You're hanging around in the shrouds with the boy-spider all the time. I never got your name though.”

Steve stepped forward and reached out his hand for the man to take, which he eventually did after giving him a slight disapproving glance.

“I'm Steve Rogers.”

“James Howlett, but due to the ridiculous amount of people sharing that name on board you can call me Logan. Also the pleasure is all yours.”

This man was more than a few shades of rude, but he spoke with no heat behind his words so Steve let it slide. The younger man, who Romanoff had called Charles, made his way back and introduced himself.

“Hello, I’m Charles Xavier.”

Steve repeated his name politely and soon fell into a comfortable conversation with the younger, and considerably more gentle, man. Charles insisted on being called by first name so Steve insisted the same.

They waited several hours, judging by the moving sun above them, and the temperature rose to uncomfortable degrees. Steve got up around the two hour mark to dip his lower legs in the water in a desperate attempt to keep cool. Both Logan and Charles had moved into the almost non existent shade provided by a large boulder on the beach, a thin sheet of sweat evident on their faces as well. Logan started to mutter curses an hour ago and Steve was beginning to be bothered by it. He knew it annoyed Charles too but the man was too polite to admit it. Before anyone could start an argument fueled purely on fatigue and irritation they heard a booming loud gunshot from inside the jungle.

All three men reacted at the same time, both Steve and Charles jolted where they sat while Logan sat up more straight and studied the thick forest in front of them. A few birds got scared from the disturbance in their otherwise silent surroundings and started to flee while loudly proclaiming their dissatisfaction, but otherwise the land was deadly quiet, a little too quiet maybe. Another gunshot rang through the air and soon several others followed. All three men had risen from their sitting position and now individually contemplated their next move. Logan was the first to speak up.

“Those are not pistol shots. Ready the boats!”

They ran and pulled first one and then the second boat until only the front of the keels were steadily resting on sand. Charles fidgeted nervously with the handle of the rapier strapped to his hips.

“You're sure those are musket shots?”

Logan looked as irritated as ever, but now with a deadly serious undertone.

“Aye, I'm damn certain alright!”

“Then shouldn't we help them?”

Steve slowly felt his heartbeat speed up and the question forced itself out of his throat. Again Logan answered.

“If we run in after them we might run past each other or get lost. Our orders are to wait on the beach so that's what we’ll do.”

Soon shouting could be heard as well. Steve felt nervousness and adrenaline pump faster and faster through his veins and let his right hand rest on the pommel of his spadroon. He could now make it out faint running footsteps from the background noise and rightfully so, three people came stumbling out from the line of trees separating the jungle and the beach. Kidd was running all he could while desperately trying to support a limping Barnes with blood running down his left leg. The Captain looked unnaturally pale and his expression was tense with pain. Right after followed Romanoff, who fired a shot into the cluster of trees and judging by the throaty gurgle following right after, she had hit her intended mark.

Kidd shouted for quick help and Steve ran forward without as much as thinking it through. The smaller man dropped Barnes’ entire weight on him in one go and Steve struggled a bit before getting a solid grip with an arm around the Captain’s middle, while simultaneously grabbing the arm that the wounded brunet had slung over his shoulder. He could hear Kidd unsheath his cutlass as he took some of Barnes’ weight and half ran half dragged him towards the boats. The shouting only came closer and suddenly a dozen men in yellow Spanish uniforms came rushing out from the tree line.

Barnes grunted loudly in pain the quicker Steve hauled him. The sharp sound of clashing metal filled the air behind them and Steve allowed himself the liberty of looking back over his shoulder. Kidd and Natasha fought three men each, somehow always managing to feel an attacker at their back before each Spaniard got too close. Charles and Logan kept close at each other’s backs, surrounded by several other soldiers, mostly defending their current position. Kidd knocked a soldier off balance by a well coordinated kick to the kneecap only to grab the falling Spaniard by the coat, twisting him around, his back to Kidd’s chest, only to slit his throat with the deadly switchblades attached to his forearms. The blood left clear crimson patterns on the pale sand. Steve needed to repress the sick feeling bubbling in his stomach. He contemplated whether he should help fight the Spanish soldiers or flee with Barnes, who was weakened considerably by blood loss. It's not like he would be of much help in close sword combat, but before he could draw his sword Logan turned and shouted for them to go with murder in his eyes. The brief distraction resulted in a slightly delayed dodge and Steve could only watch when a sword cut a gash on Logan's bicep. He only uttered a short shout of pain, before shifting the sword to his opposite hand and let the wounded arm hanging his side.

Steve helped the Captain climb into the boat nearest them, ignoring Barnes’ pathetic try to push him away and to do it himself. The second he let go of Barnes’ jacket and frame, the brunet collapsed the rest of the way into the boat, lying and wincing through grit teeth on the floor. Steve now turned around again to asses the situation. Half the soldiers were lying completely still or otherwise mortally wounded on the beach, Logan had blood streaming down his arm and was retreating closer and closer to Charles’ back for support. Romanoff and Kidd still struggled with being hopelessly outnumbered but had dropped one soldier each by now.

Steve turned around again, fear driving him when pushing the boat toward the sea. The water splashed around his shins and up to his knees before the keel got released by sand and the boat was sailing. Steve jumped off the sandy bottom and crawled into the boat rather ungracefully, making sure not to touch Barnes in any way which could cause harm. Logan’s callout had attracted the attention of a huge looking Spaniard, who had worked on distancing himself from the fight since then. Logan’s retreat in position finally made it possible and Steve only saw a blur of a yellow uniform before the soldier had ascended a boulder, which served as an excellent firing position. The Captain froze on the spot besides him, simply staring directly into the barrel the loaded Spanish musket, and that's when it happened.

 

It was the quickest of reactions. It didn't even feel remotely unregular until the second stillness sets, until he becomes aware of his finger still pressing down on the trigger and the flowy smoke rising from the barrel of the gun. The world is on a standstill until the fraction of a second it all comes rushing back in huge merciless waves crashing you under the weight of reality. It all speeds up again, it goes too fast, far too fast to comprehend own or other’s actions. Steve’s taught stance wavers and he looks down into a pair of wide eyes, glazed over by pain, owned by a horrified Captain James Barnes.

 

The yellow uniform on the boulder slowly turns a well recognisable colour, blending in with the red detailed stitches at the seams. The muskets lowered, then fell as the man clutches his stomach in pain, blood seeping out through his fingers quickly. He then collapses to his knees, spitting blood on the heated surface of the rock.

Romanoff turned at the sound of a gunshot, a certain wildness in her eyes that every sailor on these oceans feared simply from hearing tales. Her expression was one of pure shock when he saw Steve with his arm stretched, gun still in hand. Her reaction snapped him out his trance. He looked to Barnes, who now had a pistol less in his chest holders. Steve’s brain caught up and he threw the flintlock as if it had burned him. The Captain’s eyes were still glued to his standing form, eyes shining with shock, pain and something new, slight interest? Unlikely.

Kidd pierced his sword into the stomach of a Spanish officer, prying his sword from the dying man before turning and dodging an upper attack from the second officer. Romanoff managed to slash a deep shoulder-to-hip flesh wound into her attacker, quickly grabbing for the bamboo blowpipe hanging from her shoulder straps, loading it and firing. The dart embedded it into the neck of the last soldier attacking Charles, who then turned to the wounded Logan the second he saw the soldier gasp for air and fall to his knees. Kidd kicked the legs out from under the last standing Spaniard, but before he could end the fight, Romanoff approached the kneeling soldier from being and placed both her swords, crossed, in front of his throat. A well placed boot pressing at the man’s back ensured enough leverage for the swords to dig deep into vulnerable skin and Romanoff slid his throat by pulling both swords back. Kidd looked slightly disappointed, but only until more shouting could be heard from the tree line. Steve picked up the ores and started rowing as quickly as he could. The four crew members on the beach swiftly made their way into the second boat, Charles supporting a pissed off and bleeding Logan.

As Steve towed them closer to The Swan, he managed to spot Dernier and Falsworth at the gunwall. They announced their arrival by shouting over their shoulders. Steve called for help when he got close enough.

“The Captain is wounded and needs help!”

Barnes had only turned paler since the last time Steve assessed the state of his health. He seemed to slip in and out of awareness and that couldn't possibly be a good sign. With Jones’ and Falsworth’ help, they manoeuvred Barnes up on deck and laid him out flat.

Dum Dum came running and checked Barnes’ pulse and awareness. Meanwhile Steve cut a strip from his own shirt with his spadroon and bound it tightly around the Captain’s leg above the wound to stop the last of the blood flow. It was a bullet wound in the upper thigh. The bullet had entered into the side thigh, but Steve could spot no exit wound on the inside of the leg. The blood loss made sense with the placement of the wound.

 

Finally the rest of their company arrived on deck and Romanoff kneeled by Barnes’ side immediately with a deep worrying expression. She glanced thankfully at Steve when she spotted the tightly bound piece of cloth.

“He's still awake, but not for long I suspect.”

Dum Dum said and Romanoff barked out orders.

“Help me get him to his quarters and wait for me there! I'll go get my equipment.”

Steve made a move to grab and lift the Captain but Jones and Dum Dum beat him to it. They carefully lifted and Barnes eyes fluttered open, immediately settling on Steve who was standing to the side. His long brown hair clung to his sweaty forehead but he managed a certain focus. Barnes opened his mouth slight trying to speak, his eyes still transfixed on Steve, but failed at the last minute as his eyes lost focus, glazed over and fluttered closed. He was carried away towards the Captain's quarters, closely followed by Logan being supported by Charles, leaving Steve to stand alone and wonder where the empty feeling settled deep in his gut suddenly came from.

 

Chapter Text

He had tried to speak. He had struggled to battle the endless pain and the spots in his vision, but in the end he hadn't even managed a croak. What was he supposed to say? Thanks mate, for saving me from having my goddamn face blown off? (And by the way sorry for forcing you from your friends) but we’re okay now right?
Thinking soon proved impossible when he felt Dum Dum and Jones put him down on his map table. The last thing he remembered was light blue eyes, the size of the sky and he was slowly slipping again. Dum Dum slapped him repeatedly on the cheek to get response while shouting, but he could only stare blankly at the ceiling of his cabin while the blurry spots in his vision grew and pulled him under.

 

The first thing he noticed when the dark started to clear, was the familiar smell of his cabin. The characteristic smell of processed wood with the faint presence of tar in the background. The second thing he noticed was of course the excruciating pain emitting from his left thigh. James jolted violently and felt the loose grips on his arms and legs tighten immediately. The sound he let out couldn't possibly belong to anyone human, but it didn't deter Romanoff or her long slender knives currently embedded in the bulletwound. Jones and Dum Dum struggled to hold him still while his breath got caught in his throat mid-scream. Romanoff dislodged the bullet and the two men above him shared worried glances at the amount of blood pouring out of his leg yet again. The worst pain was over now and James felt himself starting to slip. He faintly processed Logan sitting on his bed and Charles cleaning out the gash in his arm before falling unconscious yet again.

 

__________________________________

 

It had been days since anyone had seen the Captain, which seemed reasonable with the amount of blood some crewmembers had to clean from the Captain's quarters. Steve spotted at least three men going back and forth with buckets and cloth, watching as they poured dark pink water overboard, a sight that truly didn't ease the already present sick feeling in his stomach. Falsworth was in command as long as the quartermaster was needed at the Captain’s side, which proved to be three and a half days total. A shared sense of relief washed over the crew as Romanoff settled at the helm a couple of hours past midday, all members happy not to spend the entire fourth day in deep dread. Steve didn't expect the entire crew to know Barnes all that well, but being aboard a vessel with several potentially aggressive claims to the Captain’s post could end in mutiny on more than one front. He’d heard of it before, even on the Navy’s own cargo vessels not to mention several merchant and privateer ships. It didn't seem unsafe on The Black Swan though. Every member seemed to have friendly respect for authority, which often was returned from prior mentioned. Again The Swan seemed to run like a well oiled clockwork, even in uneasy times like this.


However suddenly the time of year gave the crewmembers a very different thing to think about: Christmas. Steve was more than taken back when the word word spread among the men. Apparently Christmas Day had passed some days ago and no one really said anything. Steve supposed it didn't matter much at sea anyways. But something had evidently been planned even this many days past the day of celebration. It was agreed among Captain, quartermaster and boatswain that the importance of safe waters ranked higher than which day the celebrations fell, even before the bloody incident. The plan was as following: Get to safer waters, let the anchor drop and eat and drink until the entire crew couldn't stand any longer. Steve could get along with that plan.


It had been a month since he got captured aboard The Triumph. His entire life, and quite a few of his prior beliefs, had been completely turned around. He liked most of the people aboard this vessel, even though the man commandeering it easily could be called one of the biggest enemies of the English crown and their merchant’s safety. These weren't necessarily bad people. Although Steve did still have his doubts regarding Barnes, the rest of the crew was just … so damn normal. It could be frustrating at times, reality now living up to one’s generalising view of pirates even though Steve wouldn’t call himself overly judgemental. Only a good judge of character.


His daily sparring sessions continued on the fourth day of their departure from whatever mission the Captain got himself shot on. Romanoff was beyond tired after constantly guarding an unconscious Barnes, so Steve got a few more good kicks and punches in than he usually would have. He also got to ask a few questions about the health of Barnes. He hadn’t woken up yet, but he was on the path to recovery - healthreport by Natasha Romanoff. Steve accidently let himself feel relief at that fact. He quickly caught up though. Wasn’t he supposed to wish this man dead? It wouldn’t grant him his freedom since he had sworn to follow the next Captain in line, but maybe the next Captain would be less keen on having a former Navy-working man as a part of his crew.

He had killed for this man. Or maybe not directly killing? He hadn’t seen the man die. Steve’s brain tried hectically to clutch onto every tiny sliver of doubt it could possibly find. Britain and Spain wasn’t at war, even the war fought in European soil ended on British behalf a couple of years ago. There was nothing justifying the blood spilled on the yellow fabric of that damned Spanish uniform, which haunted Steve’s dreams more often than not these past nights. It scared the living hell out of him. He had killed that man, for else that spaniard would have shot Barnes’ head off. Simple enough reason. Except many honest men’s opinions would consist of the world being a better place without James Barnes in it. Yet Steve had reacted without a single thought. That fact was the hardest to swallow. He was sworn to serve Barnes and therefore also sworn to protect him, but that thought had been the very last thing on his mind as the spaniard was aiming the barrel of his musket directly into the boat. Steve cursed himself every time he woke up from another dream, still having yellow colours being overflown with crimson at the back of his mind. He cursed Barnes too. Although the occurrence of such a thing was hardly seldom. Still, Steve did not wish the man dead and he couldn’t quite place why. Maybe he just wasn’t that kind of person? Then he remembered Rumlow and his behavior back at The Triumph and erased that line of thought. He would have no problem with Rumlow dying, none whatsoever.

 

The Black Swan held a steady course east towards Island of Pinos. It would hardly bring them any farther away from British owned land, only father away from direct borders between Spanish and British territories. Steve supposed this fact did make a potential conflict with a British Navy ship less likely in itself. The mood of the crew rose once again when the word of the Captain recovering was passed around. Steve’s mood however, often seemed darker and darker. He often found himself brooding or letting his thought drift to unlogical places that could only hurt him to think too much about. Home was one of those places. Or his old home that is. The closest thing he had to a home was The Swan and maybe his hammock, blanket and sketchbook. He felt loose, like he belonged but not wholeheartedly. His future would hardly bring anything but more uncertainness and it was tearing at him. Not thinking about the dreadful feeling settling into his bones by the mere thought proved considerably easier than dealing with it, so naturally that was the choice Steve Rogers’ went with.

 

They reached Island of Pinos a couple of days later. Steve had observed Charles restlessly pacing and prodding around in the galley where he usually worked, being stressed out by not having enough of a certain kind of spice for the ‘celebrations’ or something. Steve really didn’t eavesdrop long enough to catch exactly what Charles was half murmuring to himself. The Island in itself was a considerable size, but also very populated. The Swan was clearly aiming for a few smaller islands just west off the coast. It made sense really, Steve didn’t assume anyone was going to stand much watch once alcohol was being served.

 

They dropped anchor outside a small island with a considerably sized forest. A small group of crew members brought muskets to hunt wildlife and Steve jumped on the wood-collecting group of crew. It was lovely to finally walk among trees and breathe in the scent of leaves and grass after so many weeks at sea. It was truly crazy how much one could find oneself missing even the most basic things when not walking the solid earth daily. The palmtrees wavered slightly in the breeze, the sun filtering through the parted slender leaves, leaving long criss-cross patterns on the sand. More solid and sturdier trees popped up the longer the group moved into the vegetation. Finding dry wood here proved slightly harder than nearer the beach and just as Steve was scanning the ground with a slight bow to his posture, he heard the tiniest whooshing sound somewhere to his right. The sudden rush of adrenaline swiftly made him stand straight and take a step back. The dry branch made a hollow sound as it hit the tall tree to Steve’s left, he just catched a small glimpse of a very disappointed looking Dernier, peeking at him from behind a tree trunk. Jones laughed at both of them as he emerged from some shrubs with a good bunch of dry branches under his arm.


“Hilarious … truly.”


Steve raised his voice at the tree shielding a grumpy Dernier. That only made Jones chuckle more heartedly.


“Frenchie likes you.”


Steve gave the darker man a skeptic side glance as he crouched to pick up the branch, which had mischievously been aimed at his face seconds prior.


“He’s yet to show it.”


“Aye, but as far as I’m concerned this is as close you’ll get to friendly with him after you two got off on the wrong foot from the start.”


That argument seemed reasonable enough.

 

 

 

The day was brought to a held and the hunting group returned from a bountiful hunt. The fresh meat smelled heavenly all the way from the ship's galley to the shore. Steve helped set up several fireplaces to make room for the entire crew. The days were hot, but the nights could occasionally be just as freezing as the day could be scalding. The season was with them though. Steve had anticipated good food, but nothing could have prepared him for exactly how good the soup was. Fresh meat was a very rare thing at sea and dried or salted meat proved a great substitute for some time, but then most would start to long for fresh food. Their provisions was running low it seemed. Charles were still cursing that fact to hell last time Steve saw him. They needed restocking and hopefully The Swan would rest a bit before lifting the anchor again. Steve truly missed land and the normalities it brought, which could be all too easy to take for given if not at sea.

 

Eventually the alcohol was brought from the depths and corners of The Swan’s hull, greatly accompanied by shouts of glee from the crew. Steve was sat with Dernier, Peter and 4 other men he sometimes saw on deck-duty, he didn’t remember their names though. The ale and rum was quickly passed around and the noise from around the bonfires raised considerably as men and women got drunk. Anne Bonny was competing in a drinking game against a man twice her size, shadows from the fire dancing in her hair and making it look like wildfire. Her triumphant smile as her rival gave up only added to her hellish and confident attitude. Steve couldn't stop thinking how alike Natasha and Anne was in many ways, but the sisters were different in many ways too. They shared about the same give-them-hell attitude, but Anne was more interactive and outgoing. She was constantly teasing or joking around with the crew, her sharp wit and light mood made her popular and respected. Natasha, on the other hand, was more reserved and mysterious. Anne had her fair share of secrets too Steve didn’t doubt that for a second, but she didn’t wear it on her sleeve the same way Natasha did. Natasha made the mystery and slight fear surrounding her character define her very soul to the outer world. Everyone knew what Natasha Romanoff was capable off without having to witness it themselves. Those who doubted her skills as either Captain or seafarer most likely didn’t live to tell the tale. That's how she gained reputation and endless respect, a rare thing indeed for women at sea. Steve was enthralled with both of them, not in an unrespectful or obsessing way of course, he respected both of them far too much for that.

 

Just as Anne was being congratulated noisily by the men around her with slaps on the arm and cheers, Natasha Romanoff stepped from the shadows into the large fire-illuminated circles painted on sand by the warm light. She joined in at the same bonfire as her sister, quickly reaching for a bottle of rum and chugging half of it down. Natasha seemed foul in mood, most likely due to her having to examine the Captain’s wounds for the night. Luckily, no one mentioned it and the conversation and friendly banter continued. Steve got quite the buzz going around midnight. He felt happy and careless for the first time in what felt like forever. The various drinks and the food filled his stomach and made him feel floored and real somehow. He wasn’t afraid to slowly drift away together with his deep thoughts in this moment. Around half of the crew were already splayed out atop the sand snoring softly. Steve decided to join them instead of listening to a very drunk Dum Dum retelling the same story over and over again by the fire. He sat and stared into the darkness for a bit until he could tell the outline of The Swan clearly against the horizon. Alcohol was still flowing through his veins when he finally fell asleep in the cooling sand. Steve couldn’t quite figure out whether he saw a dark figure aboard the The Swan looking towards the beach just before he slipped, or if it had simply been a dream.

 

 

Several days later, The Black Swan was heading east, while following the curve of Cuba’s shore. Steve wasn’t quite sure towards which destination specifically. The only thing he could concentrate on was the slight cold air surrounding him and the thick darkness enveloping the ship. He had insisted on working Peter’s night shift when he saw the dark circles under the boy’s eyes. Peter had tried to protest but a sad amount of the sentences he spit out had been coherent and understandable. Steve had to threaten to escort him to bed himself if he refused and at last Peter had budged. Now Steve found himself in the crow’s nest, on guard to spot eventual enemy ships although he had a hard time seeing much more than the dark patchy silhouettes of a few cliff islands and the solid pitch-black line of the shore at the port broadside a small mile away.


Night shifts were always quiet and chilly. Normally Steve didn't mind it much, but tonight it gave him far too much time to think. He had desperately tried to write a letter to Sam yesterday before he went to sleep, but the words were simply not there. Not in his mind and definitely not on the paper. He planned to deliver it to a tavern , one he used to live in while spending time between working aboard cargo ships, if he ever got it written that is. The tavern was located in Havana, close to the harbour and was therefore a common enough place for sailors to pay for a room when they needed roof above their heads instead of decks for once. Sam fancied the tavern keeper’s daughter quite a bit and Steve suspected that the feelings might be mutual. The tavern keeper himself was an honest and warm man and he knew Steve and Sam, he would most likely agree to deliver the letter to Sam when he came to the tavern next (which Steve strongly expected he would). The only problem Steve now faced was how long it might take The Swan to set the course to Havana. As to now they were sailing in the opposite direction on the wrong side of Cuba. He could only hope it to be soon.


Steve really needed to stop thinking. Every time it the imaginary sight of the broken expression Sam must have worn when he woke up only to discover Steve gone appeared in his mind. The silence and darkness gave him nothing in forms of distraction. At last he sighed defeatedly, clenched his eyes shut and his his face with his hands. As if the regret and guilt would simply evaporate if he ignored it long enough. If only that was the case. He desperately needed a distraction.


Finally, Steve chose to crawl down from the nest to find something to drink. The breeze felt even colder when crawling down the shroud instead of curling in on yourself in the nest. He made his way to the barrels with clean water, which was always placed amidship to everyone's direct disposal. His thoughts still fogged his mind enough for him not to notice the figure in the dark before getting awfully close. Someone was sitting on top of a water barrel, slightly hunched over in a relaxed manner and with loose hair dancing in the wind. Steve didn't need to think twice about the figure’s identity.


“Hello.”


The Captain simply greeted him, as if sitting on a water barrel on the top deck in the middle of the night was a completely common thing. Steve was pretty damn sure it wasn't, then again he had barely worked any night shifts lately.


“Evening.”


He countered. Barnes simply scoffed at his petty lie of a statement. It was closer to sunrise than sunset. The Captain was drinking slowly from a cup, his blue eyes shining in the dark when hit by the dim moonlight. He was clearly in Steve’s way, but instead of moving he simply held out the cup for Steve in an outstretched arm. Steve stepped a bit forward and took the cup hesitantly. He couldn't quite shake the feeling of the gesture being some sort of peace offering.


“I guessed this was what you left you post for.”


Barnes wasn't wrong. The closer Steve got the easier he could see Barnes’ heavy lidded eyes and slight slobby demanior. He couldn't stop himself from sniffing the contents of the cup lightly. Simply water. He mentally shrugged and took a sip.
Meanwhile the Captain had been watching him closely. He showed an amused expression of Steve’s doubts and let out a low laugh.


“I'm not drunk or trying to poison you might I add.”


Steve eyed him suspiciously. His eyes had long gotten used to the dark and slowly he noticed he Captain’s eyes to be painted with visible red veins around the pupils.


“Then what are you exactly?”


He simply got an unnatural and over exaggerated shrug in response for starters.


“I'm in a tremendous amount of pain …”


The Captain countered, pronouncing each word slowly as if considering them. In the end he simply seemed to find his own words amusing, exclaiming a huff of laughter.


“... but I am also … affected? Aye, that's the word.”


Steve didn't know whether to call for help or simply stare dumbly at the drunk-but-not-really man in front of him. Before he got around to deciding, Barnes seemed to visibly pull himself together to offer some sort of explanation.


“That -”


He poked a finger at a loose end of rope to his right.


“And that -”


His arm flew up into the air to indicate mast, sail or more rope (Steve couldn't really be certain).


“It's all made from the same plant. The hemp rope, the canvas and whatever I ate to be able to walk.”


It slowly began to click in Steve’s brain. He had heard of some sort of pain reducing remedy extracted from the Cannabis plant, which sturdy fibres was used heavily to produce rope and canvas for sails. Some doctors back home prescribed it to patients in intense pain. Steve faintly remembered a stable boy who broke his leg many years ago. The boy had been employed by his step-dad, who was reluctant to pay for the medical bill, but luckily he was convinced. The boy got a remedy of crushed plant prescribed for his pains back then too. Steve snapped out of his sidetrack of thoughts when Barnes coughed slightly and shifted stiffly on top of the barrel.


“So your leg is still bad?”


Quite the ignorant question, good job Steve. He let the mocking voice in his head drop after mentally kicking himself. The man before him was about as high as the nest in which Steve had his post. Then again, the gunshot had been beyond grim and seemed to be able to hinder future walking and general usage of the leg.


“There's still quite a lot of swelling. The bullet didn't go deep though. It was deflected off a nearby tree before hitting me so most of the bleeding came from pieces of wood and bullet spreading out. Not much muscle got teared.”


Steve nodded along to the explanation. It didn't take a doctor to declare Barnes a lucky son of a bitch that he still walked around with two legs. When Steve looked up again he stared directly into shining light blue-grey eyes. The shift in the air around them was almost visible and Steve unconsciously braced himself for … for what exactly? There got to be some sort of purpose to the wounded Captain sitting on a water barrel, waiting for Steve to walk by. If Barnes tried to come up with another explanation as to why he wasn't resting in bed and waiting for his wounds to heal, Steve would call bullshit. Said Captain was still staring at him with piercing eyes, as if calculating and mapping out each and every part of Steve’s mind and person. It was unsettling to say the least.


“Was that Spaniard the first man you've ever killed?”


And there it was. Steve had truly awaited something bad to happen, but this was too close to comfort. He managed a mocking scoff as he desperately tried to shove the question aside. The dark haired man in front of him was clearly expecting an entire answer and Steve was more than tempted to object.


“We didn't see him die.”


Barnes’ eyebrows shot towards the heavens in wonder. This helpless and hopeful statement was more wish than reality and weaker than Steve’s impulse control, but damn if he would let this enigma of a man any closer to his thoughts and fears.


“I've seen enough gunshot wounds to know a lethal one when I see it.”


“I don't doubt it.”


Barnes narrowed his eyes suspiciously, clearly having picked up on Steve’s reluctance. He wasn't here simply to annoy after all, because he swiftly changed the subject.


“Enough of that. Actually I'm here to thank you.”


Now it was Steve’s turn to widen his eyes in wonder. He might have exaggerated his response a slight bit only to get the silent insult through. Long live pettiness. Barnes picked up on it and responded by narrowing his eyes even further.


“You know … normally I would reward a man for his good service by promoting him to a higher stand. But I doubt that would fall in good ground with you not wanting to be here in the first place.”


The tension flowed heavy in the air like gunsmoke after a canon assault. Still, anticipation took away most of the dread for how this encounter could end. Steve didn't even know the basic pirate codes and behavioral rules. For all he knew, he could have humiliated Barnes accidently in some way. He didn't have a doubt in his mind that an unfortunate man, who would in some way have insulted Barnes on his pride, would find himself sooner on the bottom of the sea than in any other place on this Earth.


“It was my choice.”


“Pardon me?”


Steve’s gaze had wandered anywhere than the Captain’s face, but now he stood straighter and looked his commander in the eye.


“It was my choice to accept your offer. I’m here because I’d rather this than working on some God forsaken merchant ship knowing i could have saved my dead friend.”


Barnes hummed softly, an agreeing sound as far as Steve was aware.


“Admirable indeed … I can respect that.”


The statement didn’t seem to have any ulterior motives, but Steve could never get himself to let his guard down on Barnes. He mostly had with Romanoff and he was glad off it, but Barnes seemed to be cloaked in a thick fog of mystery and unpredictableness that both unsettled him and somehow intrigued him (not that he would admit it even at gunpoint).


“That settles it then … you’re free to go when you wish to.”


Barnes made a slow and careful move to get off the barrel, slowly sinking his feet to the deck. Steve’s brain needed several seconds to catch up with that sentence.


“Wait what?”


“How does Havana sound to you?”


Barnes reached behind him at fished out a single crutch from the barrels behind him, ignoring Steve’s scramble for words. He experimentally fitted the top of the crutch in his left armpit, clearly signaling Steve’s question-period to be fairly limited.


“Wait hold on!”


Barnes actually froze this time and turned his attention back to Steve, awaiting further elaboration.


“You’re setting me free just like that?”


The Captain briefly seemed surprised of Steve’s disbelief, but he collected himself quickly.


“You prevented a long string of quite unfortunate events Rogers and I won’t let that go unnoticed. So, can we part ways in Havana since I’m assuming it’ll be the biggest harbour we will drop anchor in for some time?”


‘Preventing a series of quite unfortunate events’ was clearly Barnes’ dialect for ‘saving my goddamn ass’ but Steve let it slide. He assumed the man’s pride was simply developed in an environment where you needed to show stature and spine to gain any respect at all.


“Yeah … Havana is just fine.”


“Everything is settled then … Sadly I can’t promise you when we will set course to Havana, but it should be in the next month or so.”


“Good … eh thank you?”


Barnes simply made a weak attempt of a grimace. He then proceeded to half limp his way around Steve with the crutch as support. Steve suspected his almost normal walk hurt quite a bit and he probably wouldn’t choose it if Steve wasn’t present. Pride yet again. Steve was dumbfounded. He was free. That sounded awfully a lot like he had been some kind of slave, but it was the truth. He was free to go. Free to go seek out Sam and Clint and repair the damage he had done. Without thinking he turned around to the Captain and spoke.


“Also, the answer is no.”


Barnes turned around with a confused expression and a lifted eyebrow. Steve took a deep breath.


“The answer is no … the Spaniard wasn’t the first man I’ve killed.”


A devilish smirk spread across the Captain’s face, making his eyes squint and shine in the dim light. It almost made Steve loose his breath completely. And there it was again, the silent spark of interest and intrigue Steve had briefly spotted in the rowing boat. Barnes simply nodded as response and turned around, muttering a short ‘goodnight’, leaving a still stunned Steve in his wake.

Chapter Text

__________________________________

I've travelled the world and seen more things with my young years than most oldings can brag of. I've seen plains and mountain hills, forests and cities. But somehow I keep coming back to the sea. There's a purifying harshness about it, a merciless and unruly code that every good seaman must bow down to. Mystery is the very essence of its being and no one knows what lurks beneath the surface, may it be great horrors or rich treasures. Tales of the sea are many, which only proves man’s continuous obsession with it. Mankind thrives to concur. Mankind takes what it wants and leaves no head unbowed in their wake. Mankind marches forward with intent and a desperate feral need to own. Yet the very surface of the sea keeps more secrets than the darkest depths of the human mind. Mankind will always be out ruled by the unpredictability of the oceans and those who dare opposite it may never return to port. I know the sight of dead eyes and the neat curls of blood, dancing and seeping into saltwater from a still floating form once proven a living man. To sink to the bottom and look toward the shining surface above you. The light only briefly being shadowed by outspread corpses slowly sinking towards the sandy bottom like dead spiders. The ocean tolerates no one, kills where it sees fit and let the sharks feast upon something as pathetic as mankind.
That is why a good sailor never dares to oppose the ocean. A Captain can only show utmost respect and submission as the ship is steered from port to port, desperately hoping that sea doesn't own death a favor on their behalf. The sea secures pirates the means to live, but it will never hesitate to turn on you if it deems you unworthy to look upon the horizon one more time, therefore you must always work with it and never against it. This I have learned as a certainty throughout my years as a Captain upon The Black Swan.

__________________________________

 

The drug settled deep into the cracks of his conscience and smoothed out every edge and rim it could find. A warm floaty sensation overtook him and he relaxed into the seat, his muscles losing their tension making his legs hang numbly from the chair. Judging by the amused scoff from Romanoff, he must have sighed deeply at the feeling.
“The very second you can stand on that leg on your own I’m taking you off those drugs James.”
He cracked a lazy smile and let his eyes roam uselessly around his cabin for a bit. Natasha then proceeded to slam her hands loudly on his map-table in front of him, making him jolt at the shock. Oh she would hear for that … when he was done enjoying the calmness seeping deep into his very bones. She looked him in the eye and raised a brow.

“Tortuga or Kingston for resupply?”

James blinked several times and furrowed his brows in a desperate attempt of concentration.

“You said yourself that the Bahamas Governors are still way to eager to place a nook around my neck.”

“Well I can't claim that you to follow my advice faithfully as of late.”

“Tortuga it is!”

James exclaimed loudly, making a move to stand but thinking the better of it when his legs proved to feel a bit on the wobbly side. He tried to busy himself with rolling in the maps so he could at least pretend he didn't notice the gaze of intent Romanoff was giving him from across the table. In a last pathetic attempt to avoid the inevitable, he spoke up.

“So, how's the crew holding up?”

Natasha knew exactly what he was doing.

“They're doing okay. Missing port and fresh supplies but still merry.”

“Missing port or missing brothels?”

“If you sit and think your own question through very carefully I might actually believe you capable of coming up with a reasonable answer.”

“Well I miss brothels too so I ain't blaming them.”

Silence filled the quarters, thick and heavy. Barnes tried frantically to avoid Natasha's eyes and making it seem subtle at the same time. It quickly became unbearable.

“Aye, come with it then.”

He threw up his arms in defeat. Romanoff simply stood her ground cooly, arms crossed in front of her chest.

“I believe you're making a mistake.”

James sighed overdramatically.

“And I am very aware of that.”

Natasha sighed a little herself, loosened up and took half a seat on the edge of the table.

“I believe you're letting an excellent man off this vessel far too easily. I believe him to be more important than you think.”

Barnes stared at her in faint disbelief.

“Are we talking about the same man?”

“Rogers is everything we believe ourselves not to be. He sometimes pretends to be late for meals so the more hardworking men can get there first. He acknowledges his privilege but refuses to take advantage of it. He doesn't think I notice. Not to mention he gets along greatly with most of the crew.”

James took a deep breath and let his face rest in his hands.

“What do you expect me to do?”

“Don't give up on him that easily. You're always awfully considerate who you recruit, yet you recruited him without thinking twice. ”

That made him look up from his miserable little hand-barrier.

“I'm not giving up on him! He doesn't want to be here!”

“See I doubt that and to be honest I think he does too.”

Barnes returned to intense sulking.

“I owe him his freedom. It's plain simple. Not much I can do about that.”

“Keep telling yourself that, big guy.”

Before he could open his mouth to protest, Natasha swiftly turned on a dime and held forward a map of Tortuga and the surrounding waters.

“So do you plan on staying with Thatch long or just long enough to watch Rumlow spit profanities at anyone with a bigger attitude than him?”

If James’ thoughts had been coherent he might be able to fight back, verbally at least. Instead he simply muttered out a silent “fuck Tortuga” and started studying the map held in his face by his quartermaster.

__________________________________

“So … what you gonna do after?”

Steve and Peter were sitting in the nest, enjoying the early evening breeze. Steve thought about that question for a second while beholding a seagull gliding lazily through the air just beside the mainmast, in which he was sitting.

“I might seek out work on merchant ships in Havana. I know some people there that will be able to help.”

“So you got tired of the Navy then?”

Steve hummed agreeingly. He had to admit that he found work and company on The Swan far more pleasing than on the Triumph. Not having to deal with cocky officers and hot-headed soldiers all the time surely was a relief.

“Aye I guess so.”

They say in silence for a bit.

“I think I'm going to miss you.”

Steve turned his head, a little surprised by that confession from the younger man. Peter looked a little flustered but honest to God nonetheless.

“I'm going to miss you too. Now you'll have to find another half-wit to teach.”

That comment earned a light chuckle from Peter.

“Yeah I guess I will.”

__________________________________

Steve woke up early the next morning, having a strange feeling of something being off. Then it hit him. Romanoff hadn't woken him up. He laid back for several minutes contemplating what he should do. To be honest, he would very much like to continue his training, it would no doubt come in handy at some point in his life. But he didn't know if Romanoff was up at these hours, it was around two hours before the morning bell after all. Steve quickly realised that sleep was now out of the question and he slowly got up, making sure not to disturb the sleeping men all around him. The letter for Sam was lying under his hammock with his sketching book. The fact that it might now be irrelevant left him strangely hollow. He was a free man now but somehow he felt like he had thrown away the only place he could belong.

The fresh air around him perked him up a bit and helped push away the heavy feeling of sleep in his brain. The wind was stirring the dark red sails above him, both of the top-gallant sails were packed up and in no use currently. He walked to the stairs leading to the helm. His training mat were at its usual place, rolled together and resting beside the right set of helm-stairs. A good sign he assumed. Romanoff hadn't ordered it below deck and into a more convenient storing place. Steve contemplated if his search was really worth it. Romanoff would surely dismiss him, she had nothing to gain from continuing to train him. Still, his legs carried him below deck once again, this time by the aft stairs. He walked through the cargo space and back to the galley. No man, not even the cooks, were up yet, which continued to speak volumes on the time of morning. He reached Romanoff’s small private room, close to the sandstone fire pit of the galley. One thing is certain, Romanoff would not experience cold nights with those embers still breathing.

Steve walked up to the small wooden door, taking a deep breath and knocking ever so softly. A couple of seconds went by before he heard someone moving inside and finally a whispering ‘enter’. He slowly did, hoping to God that the door’s hinges wouldn't cry out loudly.

Romanoff was sitting by her desk, an oil lamp illuminating the books in front of her, in which she was writing scribbles down. Half her face was bathed in the soft golden glow as well, since she had turned towards him.

“Rogers?”

She sounded a bit surprised, but quickly looked past it. She was whispering softly and only now Steve noticed a sleeping presence in the bed beside the desk. Kidd was sleeping soundly, the thick luxurious covers almost hiding him completely, yet he remained recognizable with the long scar on his right cheek, the healed cut starting from the eyebrow and traveling down past the eye, luckily leaving it unharmed, only to start again high on the cheekbone to travel towards his jaw.

Steve immediately felt like he was intruding, but Romanoff didn't seem the least fazed at all. She was clearly still awaiting the occasion for his unplanned visit.

“I ehm -”

He stopped himself abruptly, realising that he was probably speaking too loudly. His grimace served as apology enough.

“- it's just … you didn't wake me.”

She smiled a little regretfully at him.

“You upheld your end of the bargain Rogers. You're free to go.”

“There's not many places to go when in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.”

She hummed agreeingly.

“You’ve grown addicted to bruises Rogers?”

“Something like that.”

She made a quick glance at the still sleeping man in the bed, then flashed Steve a smile and said:

“I've got nothing better to take up my time at the moment.”

He returned her smile eagerly.

__________________________________

Steve’s training schedule was moved a bit 3 days later, till after the 6 o’clock morning bell. The entire crew was tired and worn out, desperate for any sort of change in their routine life at sea, so watching Steve Rogers get his ass kicked just before breakfast and just after dinner each day was as good entertainment as any. Steve truly enjoyed a couple of more hours of sleep each morning, even though it meant his training being the centre of attention.
The Captain showed at the helm on the fourth day, visibly resulting in a merrier crew. His gait had a slight limp to it, not that any sane man would comment on it after what he had been through.

Steve could just barely make out the coast of Jamaica at their port broadside when squinting. Most of the crew caught themselves staring at the mainland longingly. ⅔ of their journey from Island of Pinos to Tortuga was now behind them and the anticipation of the crew only grew bigger every day.

Steve needed to concentrate less on mainland and more on the red headed fighter in front of him. Basic kicking and punching had eventually evolved into brawling and close hand combat as Steve progressed through his training and Romanoff was in no short supply of tricks up her sleeve. She started out by delivering a set of well calculated low kicks, which were all too low for the possibility of Steve grabbing onto her legs. He parried all relatively easy. He’d seen them plenty of times before to know Romanoff’s basic kicks. She shifted quickly to a narrower stance and Steve reacted impulsively by concentrating his defense for the punches to come. When they did, they flew through the air with speed and short intervals. Romanoff was efficiently trying to break down his defence. Steve’s brain worked hectically to seek a pattern in the woman’s offense and did manage to recognise several tell-tale techniques.

In attempt to guard his flanks, Steve widened his arms a bit too much. He got no warning before Romanoff’s fist was planted just below his chest, punching the air from his lungs violently. He crumbled in on himself but still kept the defense for a couple of more punches before he felt a bare foot swiftly snake behind his ankle and pulling him off balance. His back hit the madras with a loud ‘thump’ and he gasped for air.

“Your stance was unbalanced Rogers.”

“No shit…”

He whispered to himself breathlessly while rolling onto his stomach. He was pretty sure someone else heard because the amused snort that followed his comment wasn't quite of her style. Steve got up to his knees and looked at the helm. As he expected, the Captain was stationed there overlooking the happenings on the top deck and Steve had no doubts that this one was the most interesting by far. Finally he got up, glancing at Barnes for half a second too long it would seem, for Romanoff sent the fists flying with no time for him to get ready. His defense was uncoordinated and only held by pure stubbornness alone and that's when he noticed. Romanoff left her left flank unguarded for just a couple of seconds between each punch, focusing on the offense and thinking the fight as good as won. With a thought process happening in split seconds, Steve charged out of nowhere, taking Romanoff a bit by surprise and delivering a well calculated punch just left of her stomach.

He heard the tell-tale sound of breath leaving the lungs in a powerful jerk. Natasha curled in on herself and without thinking, Steve swept one of her legs to the side with a sideways kick to the shin. She fell to her knees, head hanging and hair covering the expression of her face.
Steve backed off, still keeping a well trained fighting stance but keeping his distance. The deck had fallen completely silent. Steve wavered a bit. hesitant as he was, he looked to the Captain.

Barnes stood upright, spine straight, at the helm just like the last time Steve took notice of him, except now he was wearing an expression a priest might give a man walking towards the gallows. As to this particular situation, Steve’s noose might have flaming red hair and wearing a loose cotton shirt for training. The second Steve catches Barnes’ eyes flicker from his to the indescribably quick movement he just gets to catch in his peripheral, he knows he's fucked beyond measure.

An all-destroying blurry mass, probably well known as Captain Natasha Romanoff of the Scavenger, smashes into him with devastating impact. She uses her leverage, and his complete incompetence in this particular situation, to swing herself up on his shoulders. She wraps her legs around his head and neck, clinging on like a spider who finally found prey, knocking him off balance and sending him flying towards the deck with deadly speed. Not that Steve by any means understand that any of this is happening before he lies down and blinks dumbly from between Romanoff's legs.

A single round of applause follows, without doubt from an amused Captain. Steve’s hearing is muffled by powerful thighs that might just be able to break his neck if truly committed but he still hears it clear as day. Luckily, Romanoff’s thighs protected his head, without them he would without doubt have sported a great concussion right about now.

Romanoff slowly let him go and he rolled onto his stomach, trying to get his body to cooperate. He could already feel several bruises bloom on his right thigh, buttock and hip which all took most of the impact from the deck. Whence got up on all fours, Natasha held out a hand and helped him get to his feet. He prepared himself for the worst but she didn't look the slightest bit mad. A small smirk lingered in the corners of her mouth. She looked a bit proud and maybe a bit taken back as well. Steve looked to the Captain, who simply wore a shit eating grin and was beyond amused.

“So … when the fuck am I supposed to learn that trick?”

He directed the question at both Captains and both huffed out a laugh at him.

“You'll need a higher rank for that kind of training pal.”

Barnes answered, turning towards the approaching boatswain, who probably owed the Captain the daily report on stock and deck-rigging. Romanoff turned to him, still smiling.

“You're learning and you're not entirely bad.”

“You're not so bad yourself.”

She snorted, stepped off the mat and started rolling it together.

“I'll take care of this, go get water and you can start your day.”

“Ma'am, yes ma’am.”

She brushed him off with a scoff and he went to the water barrels stashed amidship. The wind was stronger than earlier this morning. The direction of the wind was a little off but Steve had no doubt that Barnes would use some skilled sailor trick to turn it into an advantage nonetheless. The quicker they sailed, the quicker they'd be in port and Steve was longing for a bed and solid ground under his feet yet again. The bad news was that his and Peter’s original plan consisting of managing the top rigging and changing out the old foot rope of the topsail yard needed to be extended to a later date. On the bright side; Steve didn't feel an intense need of risking his life for a foot rope this exact day.
Steve noticed that they'd drifted a lot more south than he originally had expected them to. The coast of Cuba was now nowhere to be seen on their port side. Steve expected it was the Captain’s decision to gain as much efficiency from the strong wind while it still blew. Steve didn't know their exact location, but he was almost certain that if they continued their drifting course they might eye the coast of Jamaica in the horizon soon.

The wind only continued to grow in strength over the next couple of hours, providing a nice break from the everlasting heat of these waters. Although they would soon have to set course regardless of it, which undoubtedly would provide more work for the riggers due to maintaining and constantly having to regulate canvas and rigging to make sure this could withstand harsh wind from unmerciful directions. Peter had received orders of this exact sort an hour ago and therefore he and Steve were already doing check-ups around the mainsail and the solid yard just above. Another two men, Jackson and Phillipson, were assigned to help them. Steve knew them a bit, they were often the ones to work the very lower rigging when it became too much of a task to uphold it all only Parker and he. Jackson or just ‘Jack as he was often called, was a middle aged greying fellow, often a witty remark resting on the tip of his tongue, while Phillipson was more quiet, but at least 15 years younger, lean but strong and good at his job. They were assigned as riggers in general just like Peter and Steve, yet the most dangerous work was often left to the latter.

Parker was straddling the yard just above the mainsail, thighs clamping around the wood on each side. He was under strict orders not to climb longer out than to the middle of the yard from the Captain. The wind still strengthened and no one wanted The Swan to lose her best rigger in that young an age. Steve suspected Barnes might have some sort of soft spot for the boy, but he wisely kept his thoughts for himself. The restriction compromised most of Parker’s sight and therefore also his judgement of whether or not the mainsail needed maintenance. Therefore, Steve assisted him from the deck below, squinting against the sun, trying to spot irregularities or tangling in rope or tackles.
Just as Steve eyed a twisted tackle, which condition rid the rope of its usual flexibility towards the end of the yard, Phillipson shouted a tell-tale “sail! Starboard bow!” From the nest.

The Captain snapped his attention towards the nest and let his gaze linger slight to the right of the bow.

“Bring me the glass!”

Peter shuffled towards the mast on his yard while Phillipson laid down on his stomach, dropping the folded-together telescope intentionally into Peter’s hands just a few yards under. Steve sprang into action at the same time as the two other men, climbing the shroud closest to Peter, who then dropped the telescope to to him. This form of transporting line was practised beforehand many times and before Steve got it right and was able to catch and drop precisely.
He practically jumped the rest of the way down from the shroud, ran to the Captain who was now stationed at the bow and handed him the telescope. Jones and Dugan was placed besides Barnes and several curious crew members lingered in the background. They all squinted at the barely visible ship in the horizon.

“Jones, tell Falsworth at the helm to get us closer.”

Ordered Barnes as he kept his right eye closed while he glanced down the telescope with the other. Jones left to deliver the order at the helm. After a couple of minutes, the Captain gave the glass to Dum Dum who glanced through it as well.

“It's British Navy!”

He exclaimed. Barnes grumbled a little before answering.

“Damn right it is.”

Everyone waited a little anxiously while Falsworth steered The Swan closer. It quickly became evident that the first ship wasn't alone.

“One Man-O-War and one hell of a frigate besides her.”

Barnes observed. Romanoff had found her way to the spectacle and asked the question everyone was thinking.

“But where do they come from?”

“Jamaica, no doubt.”

The Captain answered in lack of a clearer response.

“No shit, but why would they sail this close to shore? The nearest military town is Kingston on the other side of the island.”

The Captain froze for a second, graveness settling into his expression. Steve was there to see it and he took it as a very ominous sign.

“Do they carry a full armoury?”

Dum Dum returned to the telescope to gather response.

“No Captain, it wouldn't seem so. None of them lay that low underwater.”

Romanoff had picked up on Barnes’ tenseness and they shared a glance that seemed to communicate more than a thousand words.

“Romanoff get me the maps of the Taíno villages on Jamaica. I need all their exact locations.”

Natasha was already off by the start of the sentence. The rest of the crew was blinking slightly, still not catching up with anything happening on deck. Jones had returned and not even he seemed to know the thoughts of the Captain.

“They may not be equipped for Naval combat, but if that ship is full of soldiers then fighting on land should prove no problem.”

The Captain half-explained, sounding more like he addressed himself than the surrounding crew. He got caught in a line of thought for a couple of seconds before snapping out of it.

“Steer her towards the Jamaican coast for inspection. There will be no chase.”

One of the men lingering in the background ran off to deliver the orders. Barnes watched the crowd, searching for someone but not finding whoever he was looking for.

“Has anyone seen Kidd?”

Most men around the Captain shrugged. Steve stood up.

“I’ll go get him.”

Barnes nodded curtly and Steve jogged to the stairs, down and through the cargo hold to the back of the ship. He didn't even bother knocking before opening the door to find James Kidd dozing off with his arm slung over his eyes in Romanoff’s bed.

“Kidd!”

“Wow, wow, ther’ Rogers, don't get ya stockings in a twist.”

“British Navy was spotted sailing from the Jamaican coast and the Captain is bringing in The Swan for inspection of Taíno villages.”

Steve had absolutely no idea what the words coming out of his own mouth meant, but Kidd seemed to understand exactly what he meant. He sprang from the bed in a dangerous pace and flew out the door in an instant. When Steve rejoined the gathering of crew upon the top deck, Kidd was already letting out a foul string of curses that even the most experienced sailor would have a hard time keeping up with. He fell completely silent when a thick column of black smoke from the Island became visible in the distance. A deep dread seemed to settle into the very bone of the men atop the deck.

Steve hadn't seen the Captain quite so still, which he chose to take as a very very bad sign. His entire body was taught as a bowstring and suddenly everyone atop deck held their breath, all scared that the slightest disturbance might make the Captain snap. Finally Barnes turned from the gunwall, where his gaze had been transfixed by the steadily rising smoke column, black as all hell as if that might be the very place it came from. The deep rage burning in Barnes’ eyes we’re almost enough to make Steve jolt in the face of it. When the hypnotizing silence was finally broken, it was by a sneering growl of a command:

“Get. Up. Our. Speed.”

The words wrenched from the Captain’s throat in staccato beats as if it physically pained him to hold in his fury. Steve truly sympathized with Jones, who had to answer to the command as the boatswain.

“We’re already going by at least 5 knots Captain and the waves are still raising.”

“We can get her to at least 7 knots with a skeleton crew and 5 knots seems fucking acceptable now?! Of all times?!”

The Captain’s curses bordered into full blown shouting and several of the surrounding men started to retreat further away from the spectacle, fearing themselves to be in the line of the fire their Captain was spiting.

“We need to get there now! Unfurl the fore-topgallant sail!”

Falsworth stepped into the circle of people and a tiny sliver in front of Jones, redirecting Barnes’ focus, but before the newly arrived Brit could get his ass keelhauled verbally, Kidd volunteered.

“If we fol’ ou’ the fore-topgallant, the bow’ll dig half into the fuckin’ sea.”

Barnes turned and seemed to loose a tiny sliver of his might in the face of seeing Kidd’s expression mirroring his own. He took a couple of deep breaths, hopefully trying to collect himself.

“All men are to abandon posts at the bow. Jones, get the speed-rope. If we’re not sailing within a speed of 7 knots in 10 minutes I might just do a couple of things I'll regret later.”

The group of men scattered, still a few hanging around wondering what to do now that their work at the bow is forbidden. Steve had let his gaze be caught by the smoke in the distance and when he turned, he was met by steel blue-grey eyes as cold as ice and as blazing as a wildfire.

“Where’s my fore-topgallant sail, Rogers?”

His heart jumped in his chest and sped up its rhythm. He unsuccessfully tried to ignore the shiver running down his spine as he marched stiffly to the shrouds, away from the fear-striking presence he was forced to address as ‘Captain’.
Soon enough, the fore-topgallant sail was unfurled proudly and adding greatly to their speed. The bow was being washed over by heavy waves each time it dug into the stirring ocean.
__________________________________

The British Navy was long gone by the time Barnes ordered the longboats in the water. They had thrown anchor outside a rocky beach, which laid nestled in a small bay with high cliffs surrounding them. The entrance to the bay worked as a bottleneck, constructed by reefs and bare stone islands sticking up from the sea, some big enough to hide even larger ships behind them.

Those islands provided a certain amount of protection from the swift wind and the tall powerful waves of the sea. Yet it didn't make up for the tense and stifling air among the crew in the boats. A skeleton crew of approximately 70 men had stayed back just in case the Navy returned some sort of pirate hunter was to show. They were under strict orders to fight or flee given the circumstances and then return to the bay when the coast was clear. The Scavenger laid besides The Swan in the western part of the bay. Some 15 men from the smaller ship had joined the party of 30 from Barnes’ crew. They were now all assembled on the beach, armed and alert. One specific man kept The Scavenger crew assembled, checking weapons and exchanging friendly talk. Steve hadn't noticed him immediately, but when the man got closer it soon became evident that he was the equivalent of human Man-O-War. He was tall as all hell, even a head taller than Steve and biceps as thick as anchor rope. Steve had become a bit slimmer after he started working rigging instead of lifting heavy cargo, due to his work only requiring him to carry his own weight most of the time. But this guy was insane. He had long dirty blond hair, which was hanging around his shoulders, and he looked able enough to singlehandedly take on the chores of ten men. Wait, hadn't Romanoff mentioned her quartermaster to be rather special? What was his name again? Steve didn't quite remember. Something with T…

“Thor?”

Romanoff walked to what had to be a part her own crew. The big bulky brighouse, Thor, turned on the mentioning of his name. He lit up in a big bright smile and they shook arms like friends finally reunited. Barnes’ mood had clearly rubbed off on Romanoff too, Steve noticed in the longboat, but she seemed delighted nonetheless by having back a small part of her own crew.

Steve recognised most of the men from The Swan, but not many by name. Phillipson was here though, together with James Kidd, Jones, Dum Dum and Anne Bonny.
Thor assembled his ‘troops’ and joined the bigger group, who were now ready to leave the beach as well. Barnes was barking out short dry commands, not a hint of emotion in his steady voice. He was armed to the teeth, Steve realised, several loaded guns strapped to his chest, a rapier on each side of his hips and a deadly glint of intent in his eyes.
They all followed Barnes, Romanoff and Thor, all of them carrying machetes to hack through the growth of the jungle closing in on them. They followed a path almost invisible to the untrained eye, breathing hot moist air through their mouths. Steve was walking relatively close to the front party, only a couple of men from The Scavenger separating him from the taunt back of James Barnes.

The entire row was men and women were alert and it felt as if something, or someone, would jump out from the bushes, ready to attack them at half a second’s notice. First they detected the smell of thick smoke through the trees. Soon after, another very different smell. It was the stink of rot and decay, thick in your airways and leaving you almost choking on it with every breath. Steve clasped a hand in front of his mouth, against the stubble beginning to form, both at the smell in the air, but mostly due to the petrifying sight that laid before them.

They had just reached a glade. The smell of both smoke and decay became even stronger and it was immediately evident where it came from. The ground and even the trees were full of straw huts, once someone's home, now burned down and some still being eaten up by hungry flames. Scorched wood and straw barely held together by damaged the skeletons of the shacks, discoloured a pitch black by fire. This had once been an entire village with families and children. Now they were lying on the ground, eyes staring empty up at the barely visible sky through the treetops. There were so many. Men, women and children, all slaughtered in cold blood and left to die on the blood-soaked ground for animals to feed upon. They were all wearing traditional indigenous clothing of different colourful fabrics, some still had their weapons cradled in their hand in a desperate attempt of a counter attack, others lied besides their loved one’s, still embracing them even in death. Every corpse had bullet wounds or deep gashes from swords, dried blood covering their dark skin in flakes. It was a direct cold blooded massacre. Steve refused to believe that any man could ever make himself commit such an atrocity no matter who gave the order, yet here they stood witnessing the proof of the opposite. He felt sick. Completely and utterly sick to his stomach and in his very soul. He heard several of the men behind him throwing up at the sight and he would have done it himself if he didn't feel his body turn to stone, unable to move even if he tried.

Life was a fleeting thing in these colonies. If a man with more power or friends than you deem you unfit to walk the ground besides him, you’ll soon be nothing else than another body in the ground. Maybe you gave him a dirty look from across the street, maybe your skin colour was too dark for his liking, the result would be the same. The thought chilled Steve to the very bone, making his guts turn to ice with fear.

He heard someone let out a shaky breath in front of him, remembering to return air to his own lungs as well. It was the Captain, who was now moving as the first person in several long stretched minutes. He pulled a gun from his chest-holsters, aimed directly at the air and fired it. The loud shot rang even louder with the heavy silence of death already seeped into the glade. Firing the gun scared away all the vultures, who had been feasting themselves on the villagers’ misfortune.

The Captain turned round. His face was set in stone, yet the hopelessness and cruelty of the situation was written in the deep gaze of his eyes. He lifted his arm to point at his men.

“Carlson, Vic, Siorc and Taureau go get shovels and spades. We have work to do.”

He then turned around and started to roam deeper into the glade, a few men hesitantly following him. Romanoff turned to her own men who dutifully hadn't followed the other Captain.

“Thor I need you here. Augustin, Beaumont and Hale, you all go get a few water barrels from our supply, we’ve got plenty.”

Three of Romanoff’s men turned and made their way back into the jungle. Being faced by the sort of work they had in front of them made Steve more than slightly dizzy. Yet the thought of what atrocities had been committed here, he both felt like ripping out the throat of the responsible party and crying in a corner at the same time. Anger made him clench his fists tight and feel the burning rage pump through his veins. Being powerless to take revenge for these people, families, children, might as well be a churning knife in between his ribs. He could do nothing, but help bury the dead. And that he would do. He had no one to turn his anger onto.
The men had scattered around, checking hopelessly for signs of life in the unmoving bodies on the ground. Steve had grabbed a shovel and started to dig into the hard ground, webbed with roots from the surrounding trees. Besides him the Captain was speaking with The Scavenger's quartermaster, their eyes glued to the patterns of splattered blood on the ground. No bodies had been moved since they arrived, yet this pool of blood seemed to have belonged to a body, which had later been moved. The Captain’s comment on this was dryer than desert sand.

“At least they took a couple of those British bastards with them.”

Thor eyes him warily, his big form cut short by a crouch in the dirt.

“Are we certain it was the British Royal Navy? For all the matter those ships might have been blown off course.”

Barnes huffed a humourless laugh.

“Why would the Spanish king slaughter Taíno villages on English soil? Besides, we know people close to all the Spanish governors around here. If something like this had been planned by the Spaniards, we would have known about it weeks ago.”

Thor didn't seem to put up an argument against that. As on cue, a member from Romanoff’s crew came marching over to Barnes, a half burnt piece of cloth thrown over his shoulder. At closer inspection, the cloth might once have resembled The Union Jack. The man carrying the flag spoke up.

“The Captain said you might want to see this. She found it at the huts deeper into the village.”

Barnes took the cloth off of the man’s shoulder and gave Thor a side glance clearly stating ‘look I was right’. The blond simply elected to ignore it.

After a couple of hours it grew tougher. It was the middle of the day, hot as half of hell and the humid air felt heavier to breathe with each passing second. Seeing body after body being lifted from their final resting place and into their graves, so many young and innocent, only added to Steve’s dizziness. At last he leaned heavily on his shovel, gasping air and forcing it into his lungs with deep breaths. The pictures behind his eyelids only grew stronger each time he shook his head. At last he felt a heavy hand rest on his shoulder, turning around he saw Dum Dum look at him with pitying eyes.

“You can take a break Rogers, I'll take over from here.”

Steve tried to protest weakly, but was forcefully dragged out of the hole he was digging. The water barrels seemed to have been sent from heaven itself in this very moment so that's where he went, mindful of not taking too much. After the soothing lukewarm water had seeped from his mouth to his stomach he half-collapsed/half-sat, completely controlled of course, in the outskirts of the village. The huts here had almost no damage to them and it provided a nice break from the heavy smell of death. He had barely sat down before he noticed a small movement in the corner of his eye. At first he thought it to be the dehydration talking, but the second time he glanced over toward a large stack of woven baskets, the top of a little head poked out. The tuft of black hair immediately disappeared behind the stack when it noticed Steve looking. He furrowed his brows in wonder, still not entirely trusting his senses. He got up to inspect nonetheless.

Steve found nothing behind the baskets and nothing in the hut besides them. Just before he gave up he spotted the same movements inside another shack. Following, still in a blur, he didn't think very clearly before getting a full view of the mystery.

It was a child. A boy to be more specific, not older than 5. He was cramped in between two sleeping cots in the hut, trying to make himself small and invisible. What Steve only just realised almost too late, was the presence of the boy’s blowpipe and several darts in his lap. The child raised the weapon to his mouth when Steve tried to step in closer, so he quickly backed off almost completely out of the shack.

“Woah! No reason to use that. I won't hurt you, I promise.”

The words left his mouth before he realised that the boy probably wouldn't understand them. He stuck his head out in the open to look for back up, but no one was concerned about the still habitable part of the village. Then Steve did the only reasonable thing to do. He ran. Not out of fear of course, but the quicker he could get someone else to the boy before he disappeared, the better. He reached a group of Romanoff’s men first. A little out of breath, more due to the heat than the distance, he asked rather desperately:

“Where is the Captain?!”

All three men looked at him puzzledly.

“Mate, which one?”

“Both! It doesn't matter! I found a…”

Steve spotted Thor carrying scorched timber only a couple of houses away and he continued running.

“Thor!”

The huge man seemed quite befuddled with Steve’s behaviour.

“I'm sorry have we met?”

“No but it doesn't matter…”

Now Thor just looked outright confused, as he was entitled to given the circumstances.

“... because I found a survivor! It's a child and he's in that hut.”

The other blond’s face turned instantly determined and grave. He ordered one of the closest men to find both Captains while he sat into a quick run together with Steve. When they reached their destination, Thor had to bow down considerably to enter the shack. The boy was still where Steve had left him, but he tensed up again by being outnumbered this time around. The bigger man simply sat down in a legged position, completely calm and at ease. Then he started talking a strange language in a soft tone, a little hesitantly at first as if he didn't know if the boy would understand. But the little head with the black mess of a hair on top lifted a little, surprise and fear still lingering in his big brown eyes. Thor kept talking in the most melodic voice possible, and Steve felt himself relax a lot more as well. At last Thor reached out a huge hand towards the boy, gently asking him to take it and the boy did after a little hesitation. The boy’s hand looked incredibly small in Thor’s huge one.

Steve heard a tense sigh behind him and startled a little. Both Captains were standing practically right behind him, looking at him with an eyebrow raised each since he had jolted out of his trance like state. He truly had been completely focussed on Thor and the boy.

“Did you find him?”

Asked Romanoff. Steve nodded slowly.

“Good thing you got Thor in time. Those darts are most likely poisoned.”

The redhead continued. Steve’s head snapped back to where the small seemingly harmless darts and blowpipe luckily was discarded by the boy. Thor made move to stand with the boy resting surprisingly naturally on his hip. They were still small-talking in a language completely foreign to Steve. Thor brought the boy towards the exit of the hut, where the Captains and Steve were standing, still mindful to keep a certain distance for the boy’s sake. The tall blonde man looked unnaturally gentle with the child on his hip and he didn’t seem to mind it one bit. He continued talking in the tongue-tying language while the boy remained mostly silent, still eyeing the three other people in the room. Thor asked him a question and the boy hesitated for so long that Steve didn’t believe he would answer it altogether. At last he spoke up, guarded and hesitant.

“Bojékio…”

Thor repeated the name by himself and kept talking with a light and playing tone, which clearly relaxed the kid. At last the big man said his own name and a ghost of a smile uplit the boy’s face for a couple of seconds. Captain Barnes took a step forward and carefully talked to the boy, he pointed at himself and said:

“James.”

Bojèkio repeated the name in a low and shy mumble. Natasha stepped forward as well and introduced herself by first name too. She then proceeded to point at Steve mischievously and the foreign language rolled of her tongue like it belonged to her alone. Steve only managed to catch one word: Jicotea.

He furrowed his brows in confusion and glared daggers at Romanoff, she naturally ignored him while the Bojèkio’s face lit up in an even bigger smile. He even managed a short laugh. Barnes laughed with him and spoke again in a reassuring tone. The boy nodded a little and seemed to relax a little, clinging to Thor’s big form. Finally, Barnes exhaled, most of the tenseness leaving with the huff of breath.

“Alright Thor, get him back to the ships and don't go through the village please.”

Thor smiled, nodded and started walking back through the jungle, the boy still securely fastened to his hips. Romanoff approached Bojékio’s weapons, till laying in the ground between two sleeping cots. She licked one of the darts and spat it out with a foul expression.

“Yup, definitely poisoned.”

Steve’s heart jumped a little, as he also internally mocked himself for not being used to almost dying yet. He wet his lips a little nervously.

“As in lethally poisoned?”

“Absolutely, these kinds of curare can be extracted from lots of plants growing around here.”

Steve visibly swallowed.

“What eh… what does it do exactly? I mean does it choke you or…?”

Romanoff straightened up with the pipe and darts in her hands, smiling a little too mischievously.

“Oh no! No such thing… they paralyse you completely, preventing every kind of muscle movement and at last stops your breathing.”

She held up one of the darts and presented to study the tip intensely. Barnes barked an amused laugh behind both of them. Steve presumed sarcastically that at least it was nice that two out of three people was having fun from yet another one of his near death experiences. Barnes shook his head, showing his immense amusement on Steve’s expense without hesitation.

“Don't look so ashen Rogers! The pipe was too big for the kid and there's at least a slight chance that he wouldn't be able to use it!”

“Haha very funny.”

Steve responded dryly. The boy’s scared face was still clearly imprinted in his mind though. If he had been in Bojékio’s place, seeing his entire village slaughtered and then encountering a man with the same light coloured skin only a few hours after, would he had taken the shot? Probably so. Big clumsy blowpipe or not.

Eventually the small gathering returned to work, the grave and incredibly heavy dread settling into their chests yet again. Steve volunteered on the digging team again, knowing full well of his capability over some of the less strong men and fully intending to spare them the pain. When one of Romanoff’s crew members approached the graves with a wrapped piece of clothing clutched to his chest, Steve had had enough. In the messy bunch of clothing was yet another child, the youngest they've seen so far and laying so horrifically still.

That was the last straw. Steve threw his shovel and ran to the treeline, doubling over and emptying his stomach violently. His right hand was desperately scraping for purchase against the rough bark of the tree besides him. He felt sick and dirty to his very soul. It felt unfathomable how he could have worked for these people. He sailed with them, polished their shoes and took their money for his work. The itch that spread across his skin couldn’t possibly scratched away physically, yet in that moment he was ready to rip off his skin in order to try. His breathing was speeding up and he dropped down rather ungracefully besides the tree and hid his face in his hands. Steve tried to curl into a ball and collect his thoughts and blazing emotions, which were whirling inside him like a tempest.

And then suddenly, a clear crackling lightning. It struck down in his head, right through the hazy fog of guilt and helplessness. It light up his mood and suddenly the only right thing to do was right before him, almost too easy to accomplish. It would be a desperate attempt to clean his ledger, one that was probably a far shot and included his morals being soiled further, yet in this moment it was his only choice.

He stood up abruptly, ignoring his head spinning shortly. His movements felt forced and stiff as he marched off, back towards the middle of the village.
Captain Barnes was to be found looking up at the huts in the trees, managing a group of men which were collecting valuables from the sheds and surrounding piles of objects of everyday use. Steve noticed it, and quickly repressed the spark of anger it awakened in him. He forced himself to keep marching up the Captain.

“I’m not going to Havana.”

Barnes turned around, a confused expression chiseled into his features, clearly unhappy about being interrupted while discussing the easiest way to climb up to the raised living spaces. He breathed in for a second, trying to recall Steve’s exact words and comprehend why in the world they came out of his mouth in the first place. Barnes blinked repeatedly and wet his lips, forehead drawn together.

“Excuse me?”

Steve mirrored the man before him, taking a deep breath.

“I'm not getting dropped off in Havana and I'm not leaving this crew.”

Barnes studied him intensely, looking at him like it was completely unbelievable how anyone possibly could be this stupid. For a second, the Captain seemed close to sending him into the jungle to get eaten by panthers simply for interrupting with such a ridiculous joke, but in the last moment he was met with the sheer force of determination and stubbornness shining through Steve’s eyes.

Then Barnes turned on a dime, his face setting into straight lines as if it was chiselled in cold stone. He dismissed the man besides Steve, which he had spoken to prior to the sudden interruption, with a simple and curt raise of his hand. Then waited for said man to get out of earshot. Finally he spoke up, voice turning forced and snappy towards the end.

“We won't speak of this here.”

Steve’s instincts immediately made him jump into action, opening his mouth to object, but the cold, commanding and scolding stare he got in return from those deep blue-grey eyes made every sound silent in his throat. He swallowed visibly instead. Barnes looked around quickly, seeking a certain object or opportunity.

“Sort out that pile of belongings and carry them to The Swan, then meet me in my cabin.”

Without another word, the Captain turned around on his heels and stalked off, heading for the path through the jungle leading to the ships.
Steve shook off the slight chill Barnes’ gaze had managed to awaken in him, and marched to said pile of belongings. He became more and more certain of his choice while sorting through different clothes, dolls for children (which yet again made the bile rise in his throat and the guilt rip at his heart) and several baskets and pieces of jewellery. It seemed like the right thing to do. Regardless of who these people wronged, he refused to believe in a crowned man who commanded these atrocities. If Barnes, Romanoff and their crews defended people in need, then he would follow. Steve was starting to see the world of piracy from a very different angle. An angle that might prove very dangerous when the real fighting would start.

Chapter Text

The Captain’s quarters proved even dimmer in the fading light of the evening. The dark wooden tables and chairs in the middle of the room further helped creating a gloomy atmosphere. None of the hard edges of the room could compete with the Captain’s darkness of mood though. He seemed tense of a strange sort from the moment Steve stepped past the threshold. Barnes even kept a certain distance from the sturdy map table, making sure the blank surface and its chairs created some sort of barrier. To protect himself or to protect Steve? The latter truly didn't believe that the Captain would fear an attack, but maybe the protection weren't meant to be from attacks of the purely physical sort. Steve marched straight up to the table, standing rank and determined as ever. Barnes seemed to pick up on that immediately. Still, Steve’s demeanor didn't seem to coax him out off the corner and off the small rack he was leaning on, if anything he seemed to get more comfortable there by the second. His entire statute reflected pensiveness and deep thought rather than the raw masculinity and leadership he seemed to prefer among his crew. Steve suspected he was granted a rare glance past a bit of the armour the Captain shielded himself with, only a few and only past the outer layers and yet it intrigued him just a tiny bit more than he would like to admit.
Barnes regarded him with a curious look, barely an emotion fleeting across his face in the dark room. The silence hung heavy with unsolved matters and since the Captain had reached the highest level of passiveness Steve had ever encountered from him, he took matters into his own hands.

“You wanted me here. Why?”

Barnes gave a slightly tensive sigh, shuffling a bit on his rack before crossing his arms over the chest and answering.

“Rumors spread like wildfire between crewmates. I didn't want your decision to turn into rumors before it was final.”

Steve’s eyes narrowed slightly in irritation.

“I’ve made up my mind. I could go back to the village and scream it atop my lungs and it wouldn't make a difference.”

“I suppose you could … But I doubt you’d do that. Like it or not, this is my crew and I’m elected Captain of it. As long as that remains a truth my word will weight tons on most decisions made onboard this vessel.”

Steve kept his mouth shut at that fact. It was true. If he truly wanted to remain on The Black Swan, he would have to convince its Captain of the bright brilliance of that exact idea. That, apparently, seemed a much harder task than previously thought. So Steve switched tactic and approached hit on.

“Why don't you want me to join the crew?”

Barnes was a bit knocked off balance at the direct question but quickly gathered himself. He let out a humourless huff of a laugh, to save himself time to think up a proper answer most likely. He got up from his relaxed seat on the shelf and walked to the middle of the room. Now Steve could clearly see the expression on his face, one Barnes hectically tried to mask as indifference. The Captain held his arms wide at his side as to say ‘is this was you've falsely concluded’ with a raised eyebrow. Barnes pretending that the question didn’t face him in the slightest didn't convince Steve. He’s been sketching faces and bodies since he was a child, tried, and admittedly often failed, to capture emotions, both raw and tender, on the paper of his sketchbooks. Instinct tells him that Barnes not only puts up a mask of hard cold stone when among his crew, but also in the privacy of his own chambers. Every piece of evidence supports that theory.

“You want my honest answer?”

Steve snapped out of his distracted line of thought and returned his full attention to the Captain. He slightly raised an eyebrow, half in question half to be coy.

“That would certainly be preferable.”

The Captain let out a humorless laugh, squared his shoulders just a tiny bit and finally met Steve’s eyes with a piercing stare.

“Because you don't belong here Steve Rogers. And you won't ever belong here… on this crew or on this sea.”

Now it was Steve’s turn to be slightly knocked back. Barnes clearly believed his own statement and he seemed a skilled man in picking his crew. If he thought Steve unfit for these seas it might just be advice worth following … No. No he couldn't let this man he barely knew, despite whatever odd interest he had developed, deter him from this. These seas and this crew was far from the future Steve had often pictures for himself back home but it was a future nonetheless. And far more importantly it was a place to belong with a cause worth fighting for. Steve wasn't blind, he knew his own sense of righteousness and moral was an easy target for scorn in this world, likely just as much on sea as on land, but it had guided him well till this very day. The few times he had allowed himself to stray from the path that compass had set for him, well … nothing good had ever come from it. His path was clear now and if Barnes thought he’d give it up without fighting then he was gravely mistaken.

Blue-grey eyes, as cold and sharp as ice, was gazing into his own, mostly due to the involuntary sharp look Steve had unconsciously given Barnes since the silence fell in the room. Now every last flame of willpower was brought to life inside of Steve and it was all horrifically centered in on the Captain in front of him. His brain and his heart both was racing and hectically scrambling for arguments of persuasion.

“Does that matter?” He finally asked, “I disagree with His Majesty King George I or whatever the fuck his title is and so do you.”

His voice was dripping with contempt for the ruler he now refused to follow. Barnes however, saw his unruly anger as yet another sign of misplacement.

“You've seen merely one result of the King’s rule over these islands and now you're furious?”

The Captain chuckled lifelessly, a move that made Steve’s hair stand on the back of his neck in anger. Barnes places both of his palms on the map table, wife apart, and stared Steve down.

“It likely wasn't even the King himself who ordered the slaughter, but the governors he put on posts to ‘defend and protect the King’s interests in the British Caribbean colonies.”

Steve felt the quotation in his very core together with the utter disgusted tone with which it was muttered through clenched teeth. He also saw straight through Barnes’ attempt to pull a reaction from him. The broad stance of authority which Barnes held himself with was meant to intimidate and it was an effective move, even if Steve would rather get his tongue cut out than admit it to his face.

The air in the cabin felt dense and the constant smell of tar almost clocked Steve’s airways. He had to say something now and it had to be sharp and persuasive, yet his brain seemed more centered around how the square and broad shape Captain’s shoulders and the piercing blue gaze leaving his entire body tingling with tiny pinpricks.
Finally he spoke up, trying to persuade with logic and facts,

“I'm not experienced in sailing or seawork by any means … not like you are. Yet I believe our interests to be aligned. You're a wanted man who defy the law for a living. I'm now aiming to do the same. I refuse to serve a cruel Government for any longer than necessary and if your crew aims to stop these slaughterings and protect these people then I want to help.”

His entire tone was precise, even calculating at times. Like he was trying to strike a good deal instead of pleading not to be left in Havana to a lonely and pointless existence. He may be over exaggerating and an equal amount of desperate at this point. Barnes seemed to think it over for a couple of seconds, which Steve deemed a small victory in itself.

“Sure you wanna help, and I truly marvel at that in the first place, but I still doubt you've got even the slightest idea of what you're getting into…”

Barnes purposefully articulated the words as precisely as possible while he started tapping his fingertips off the table, almost as if he was talking to a child out of line.

“I'm not merely a wanted man Rogers, I'm a pirate, and a notorious one at that. Which means I can't walk on the street without having to glance over my shoulder every few seconds. Are you truly willing to give up that much for your childish sense of righteousness? Because God!”

The Captain seemed cynically amused by the mere thought. He removed his hands from the table and turned away slightly, chuckling humorlessly to himself. Piercing blue-grey eyes met Steve’s yet again and now he saw even more coldness and mockery in them.

“We aren't exactly heroes Rogers. We don't make a living of cleaning up after the King’ murderous rampages. We plunder caravans with little regard for the crews aboard it and I doubt that fits your overrighteous childish ideas of how this world works.”

“You had regards for the crew atop the Triumph.”

“Only the sailors. No soldiers, officers or sergeants were taken prisoner for a reason.”

A fresh picture of Barnes’ cold eyes full of hatred popped up in Steve’s head, along with the absolute fulfilling calmness just after the trigger had been pulled on Abbott. The thought alone was enough for a shiver to run down his spine but he suppressed it.

“So you plunder the King’s convoys? Am I supposed to be surprised? I was on one remember? I saw everything that happened…”

Barnes interrupted him with a suddenness that Steve hadn't quite expected.

“But are you ready to be at the other end of the slaughter?”

It was a direct question, simple and clear yet somehow incredibly complicated. Steve steeled his features, willing himself not to curl his hands into fists.

“We’ll have to see won't we? I might surprise you.”

The Captain’s unrelenting gaze was still piercing and unreadable as ever, but just the hint of an upturned lip could be spotted for the briefest of moments. Steve took that as promising. It might even be interpreted as a sign of the wordless comment ‘you already did’, but Steve would be stupid to marvel and cling to the small uncertain signs.

“Romanoff might have trained you for weeks but you still can't survive in a sword fight if your life depended on it.” The Captain paused, tilted his head slightly and then continued, “which it will … eventually.”

Barnes was more open to the possibility of Steve staying and the latter clinged to that. He could work with this.

“I'm a fast learner…”

“Hmmmm I'm sure …”

The comment from the brunet was so uncertain that it could be interpreted as doubt or certainty, maybe even both. He proceeded to study Steve intently in his typical calculating yet intimidating manner. Then the Captain huffed out a short breath and grinned challengingly.

“But then again, those people out there Rogers. The men and women of this crew are all here as a last resort. They're at the end of their rope. They can't go back to wherever they came from due to very different reasons.”

James Barnes narrowed his eyes suspectedly, as if he tried to look deep into Steve’s mind to drag out every last secret that might be hidden there and gut it.

“I must say, I truly doubt you're at the end of your rope, Rogers.”

Maybe he was right. Steve wanted to beat himself atop the head with the idea, but Barnes was not talking bullshit. It was possible for him to go back north, not to New York of course, but somewhere in good distance of the place he had once called home. But he truly didn't want to. He started over with a blank slate when he took hire on the first merchant ship with Sam about two years ago and he wouldn't have been able to keep working it not for Sam’s patience and teaching. That reality was snatched from him in order to desperately pay back that debt to his friend lying on his deathbed. He then started building a slim existence aboard The Black Swan and he simply refused to let it be snatched from him this time around. Steve was tired. He was exhausted to the bone by being alone and unknown to everyone around him. But he was ready to sacrifice his last strength to fight for this particular future.

“You know close to nothing about me.”

“I know you're from New York…”

“A place I'm from but can never return to.”

“May I ask why?”

“Sure, but I won't answer.”

Barnes narrowed his eyes in that particular telling way. Steve could almost see him weigh calculating possibilities and sorting them into factors to add to his final decision. He might even have made up his mind several minutes ago but Steve had no way of knowing. The Captain crossed his arms over his chest. He was still, controlled and calculating, yet his thoughts were completely unreadable. Finally, an idea popped into Steve’s head.

“Romanoff will vouch for me.”

She had never specifically taught him so, but he knew. And in desperate times uncertain measures were needed. Barnes looked like he mentally pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger.

“Romanoff will vouch for anything as long as it has the possibility to irritate me.”

Steve raised an eyebrow at that but choose not to comment. Barnes’ rejection of him taking hire permanently aboard The Swan seemed rather unreasonable considering he never did anything to make the Captain deem his work unworthy of crew or ship. The fact that he used logic and Romanoff’s word, which clearly weighed more than firstly regarded, seemed to make the Captain think matters over twice.

“Probably…”

Steve took a deep breath. He wasn't happy with the direction he steered the conversation but it was necessary in this case.

“Romanoff knows.”

Barnes had zoned out for a couple of seconds. Now he returned his attention, trying to look interested in everything besides what Steve had to say. It rubbed Steve the wrong way as usual but not nearly enough for impulsive irrational decisions.

“Romanoff knows why I can't go back to New York and she would still vouch for me to be a part of this crew.”

That broke Barnes’ act of indifference. His brows furrowed slightly while thinking and his eyes darted from Steve, to the map table, to the floor and back again. He remained silent for a long time to Steve urged him on.

“She's not the only one. Peter would talk my case as well. Jones, Dugan, maybe even Kidd.”

“God you're a pain in the ass! Are you aware of that?”

Steve allowed himself a wry smile.

“I really had no idea.”

His tone was light with sarcasm but with a heavier meaning to it. He didn't have the upper hand per say, but the Captain really had no reasons to dismiss him as being useless and unworthy as an addition to the crew. Steve had put him in that position and he was aware that it might bite him in the ass sooner rather than later. The silence stretched on but Steve had said what he wanted to say. Barnes let out a big tuff of air and made a defeated motion with his arms.

“Don't say I didn't warn you Rogers…”

“I won't.”

“Oh, and don't die if you'd be so kind. Clearly a few crewmembers gives a rat’s ass about you which sadly makes you my responsibility.”

The Captain’s tone was laid thick with overbearing annoyance as was his sarcasm. Steve couldn't dismiss the bubbling feeling of victory and thrill that went through him. He knew this would be anything but easy. Yet he had placed himself in the middle of the decision and for the first time in years he felt like he had a say in his own path in life.

“I'm not planning on it.”

“If you say so …”

Back at it again with the intimidating gaze and I'll-make-you-second-guess comments. Steve felt another thrill run down his spine, now from a completely different reason. Barnes was wearing an all knowing dry smirk and apparently his revenge was quickly planned.

“You'll need training of course … and lots of it.”

“Swordfighting I'm guessing?”

“That and a little more. We reach Tortuga soon but after that we’re heading back to Tulum. If you truly believe you got what it takes I'll say you have until then to prove yourself. If I deem you useful by then I know people who will take over your training from there.”

“Standard procedure for every new man you hire?”

“Far from it. But you're here to settle a score rather than turn to piracy due to boredom or poverty. I'm offering you the skills necessary to do so.”

“I'll accept.”

Barnes’ smirk was lopsided, bordering into mysterious. Steve realised that he once again depended on this man and whatever allies that tied to him. However, this time he didn't owe a debt. This time he was here if his own free will. He depended on James Barnes because he was his Captain, like every other crew member aboard this vessel did. Steve just enlisted himself under one of the most notorious and wanted pirates of The New World, whose name was enough to get high ranking officers blood boiling and force second thoughts into even the most steeled newly assigned soldier. He could feel every limb of his body buzz with adrenaline when it truly dawned on him, he’d never felt freer.

Chapter Text

They finally left the village behind, just a couple of hours before the sky started to darken and turn into orange and golden hues as if the very horizone was ablaze.

James was behind the helm, consulting Jones and Dernier regarding their needs for restocking once they reached Tortuga in a couple of days time. Ammunition, shots, and gunpowder was plenty, not fully stocked, but plenty. Food was growing scarcer by every meal but the water supply had yet to reach under 20 barrels. Dernier insisted on buying powder, shots, and ammunition to fill The Swan’s full capacity. Tortuga was awfully close to The Windward Passage in which most pirates, and naturally also pirate hunters, flourished. James agreed after some thought. Money was running a bit low and if they didn't get their hands on plunder including gold or sellable goods then complaints among the crew was inevitable. He made a mental reminder to talk to Natasha about that particular matter.

 

Just when the boatswain and the Master Gunner declared themselves content with the account and listing, said quartermaster made her appearance atop deck. The late afternoon breeze made her curls dance around her face, further pointing James' attention to the self-satisfied smile plastered to her lips. He barely managed a deep sigh. News truly travelled like a lit fuse at sea.

 

"I see you made the right call after all James."

“No, you see that I made your call Natalia.”

“Exactly. They're one and the same thing.”

He allowed himself a disbelieving snort as Jones and Dernier retreated down the helm stairs with a short wave, possibly to go lay plans for arranging the placement of a full cargo restock. The red headed quartermaster waited until they were out of earshot. Now the only other man besides them was Falsworth at the helm, but the noise of the men singing along to What will we do with a drunken sailor? was sure to drown out any noise from their conversation.

“You going to train him?”

“Until Tulum yes. Then I'll let Ah Tabai decide who takes over from there. He saved my life and now I'm trying to make sure he doesn't get himself killed at the first opportunity he sees.”

Disbelief was still fresh in his voice at the end statement.

“You're still struggling with that fact aren't you?”

Natasha only got a short confirming hum out of him. Her question had been more of a statement nonetheless. It was rather obvious that she waited for him to elaborate, yet he found it hard to create the right string of words on his tongue.

“I wouldn't have saved me …”

Natasha raised an eyebrow bemusedly.

“He had a clear choice. If I had been shot dead he wouldn't have been to blame. Yet he still shot that Spaniard. I doubt I would have saved me if I was in his place.”

James sighed heavily and rested his palms atop the table on which Nat had poised herself comfortable with one leg hanging down and another bent and tucked close to her body.

“Would you?”

Her face had turned rather grave at the question. The endless possibilities of different circumstances seemed to flash before her eyes in a continuous try to find the answer.

“If you had been in the exact same situation as he was that moment, if you had been through what he had, would you have reached for the gun?”

Her answer was to be predicted but it nonetheless served as an uncomfortable reminder of the invisible debt to Rogers he had managed to form in his own mind.

“No I don't think I would've.”

Reasonable, yet it still forced a lopsided bitter smile upon his lips. Natasha’s tone was confident, yet with a hint of rare softness that was purely reserved for her close friends.

“So when Rogers asked one simple thing of me, how could I refuse him?”

“You didn't just allow it did you? You were in there for quite a long time.”

“Of course not! I tried to make him see sense. I tried to push him away and make him change his mind.”

Irritation was still rooted deep into James from that conversation. Any man could see how Steve Rogers poked out like a sore thumb among the crew. A tall, incredibly handsome, young educated New Yorker possibly with rich family and a certainly impressive art skill. Yet here he was, aboard a wanted pirate vessel and demanding to stay despite everything and everyone he'd seen and spent time with here. He was interesting, even intriguing at times in his righteous naive fury. He didn't fit any pattern. Not ‘rich-naive-wanting-adventure’ nor ‘poor-starving-orphan’ or anything in between. James Barnes had sailed many seas with many different men, but Rogers didn't fit any of the norms. He was well educated for starters, both in geography, language and possibly also politics.

So what if James had listened in on a few conversations among the crew? Such a deed was far too petty to be added to the long list of crimes he had already committed. Rogers had a little military training (or so he claimed). He did very well in sparring with the quartermaster on several occasions while always getting on his feet again no matter how harsh the blow. So yes, he had played hard-to-get with the job. Of course the man barely had naval skills and experience but Parker had been in the same situation when James recruited him.

It hadn't seemed right to just let Rogers seal his own fate without second thought, so he had tried to push and prod those doubts into that thick skull with the ridiculously blond hair that was getting a bit long due to the time at sea. It hasn't worked of course. Damn Rogers and his stubbornness to hell. In the end it still felt like a selfish decision to let him stay and James continuously told himself that everything was good. This was what Rogers had wanted. Despite being completely different he fit in with the other members of the crew and James had only done his job as a thorough Captain. The blond man was somehow different in his mind and it rubbed all his nerves of reason the wrong way. In the end, it still felt selfish.

“I'll take it that it didn't work.”

Natasha snapped him out of his own thoughts and merelygot an annoyed ‘hmm’ sound as answer to her statement. James shifted position, now leaning on the gunwall of the stern quarterdeck with his arms crossed over his chest. In front of him, below the helm, he could hear the starting melodic words to Hanging Johnnie, while a group of men hauled at the rigging.

They call me hanging Johnnie,
Horray, Hooray!
They call me hanging Johnnie,
Hang, boys, hang.

They say I hang for money,
Horray, Hooray!
But saying so is funny,
Hang, boys, hang.

“I asked him why he couldn't go back to New York, but he wouldn't tell me.”

“I'm not surprised …”

“He also said that you knew and would still vouch for him to be a part of the crew.”

Natasha’s lips tugged into a lopsided smirk of amusement. She almost looked proud.

“Did he now? Smart bargaining chip I’ll give him that. Well I know a little. We did an exchange of sad stories back in Nassau.”

James looked away and hectically tried to mask his interest. Sadly, Natasha always spots everything.

“I suspect he left out the interesting details just as I did. But I ain't telling you shit Barnes and you know that.”

He snorted sarcastically.

“I expected as much.”

“Anyway, Rogers can't go home. What of it? I'm sure he knows his possibilities and reasons best himself.”

“Just a routine check of who I'm letting sail my ship and climb my rigging s’all.”

Natasha didn't even seem slightly convinced.

“If that's what you wanna call it…”

He was lying through his teeth fully aware of Natasha looking straight through him like he was the surface of the sea on a clear day. He was lucky though. Rogers didn't know the codex and unwritten rules at sea. If he did, and if he was a selfish asshole atop of it, he’d have every right to fully exploit the fact that he saved James’ life. The fact that Rogers never asked for anything else than to serve under him somehow made it even harder to sleep at night. The blond man acted like no life-or-death situation had ever taken place in that small rowing boat. James’ was glad Rogers didn't wish to use the Captain’s important status for personal gain, economic or otherwise. But at the same time it complicated matters within James’ own mind. As far as he was aware, Rogers hadn't bragged or even mentioned the events to fellow crew more than a couple of times. Only a few people knew exactly what had occurred during their escape and they had all been on the beach. Then again, he knew the blond hadn't taken lightly to killing. The fact that he had been high off his arse was admittedly a factor in why he had chosen to thank Rogers and set him free that night. It was easier that way and James still doubted that he was prepared to acknowledge exactly why that was. He just hoped sparring and sword practice was enough to put his mind to rest if even just a little.

__________________________________

 

Everyone had reacted positively when they found out. Peter had even been delighted, to say the least. Steve barely had time to comprehend anything before the younger boy had wrapped him in a tight hug. The mop of brown wild hair had barely reached to Steve’s shoulders. Then the boy became aware of his reaction and sprang away like he had been burned, he blushed beet red and fumbled out an apology and a short sentence about ‘how happy he was to not have to teach a new top-rigger’. Steve assured him several times that no apology was necessary and that he had hugged back too. Parker’s reaction had put a smile to his face, along with all the claps on his back from the other men. Even Logan seemed a little less irritated than normal when grumbling out a ‘congratulations on your shortened average life span’ before disappearing below deck again.

The rest of the day went by and Steve found himself sleeping better that night, finally not feeling as if the path he walked moved unpredictably under him like his hammock when a particular big wave hit the hull during the night. He got up the next day at the 6 o’clock bell, clapping a tired passing Peter on the back before beginning the daily ascent into the nest. It was easy to dream about solid land under feet and better food while glancing longingly at the horizon. Only a day left before Tortuga. Steve didn't quite know what to expect if he was being honest. Like Nassau, Tortuga served as an oasis for piracy in the midst of deserts of land restricted by law. In the end that's a place he had to get used to. It's a few safe towns to be a pirate hiding from law that is.

Unlike Nassau, Tortuga really did have governors. Not that the city really answered to them in general but that was another matter. However, what mattered the most was the fact that Tortuga was neither Spanish nor English, but French. When the city was founded by buccaneers several hundred years ago, the French King really didn't give a shit. The current King only seemed to follow that particular pattern without complaints. But then again, England, Spain and France has a particular hard time not fighting with each other constantly these past years. The fact that buccaneers helped weaken the enemy’s trade while selling the stolen goods on your ground for often reasonable prices really didn't hurt France at all. Rather the opposite in fact.

The biggest era of Tortuga’s buccaneers were over but it didn't change the city, its people or its customs. Piracy still flourished and as long as no major ship sailing french colours was attacked, the ruthless hunters of the Westward Passage was left to prowl in peace.

A shout from beneath Steve ripped him from his current line of thought.

“Rogers! Training!”

Steve furrowed his brows in slight confusion as he crawled towards the nest’s edge to peek down. It was almost midday. Romanoff had sparred with him a bit in the morning, but it was cut short due to her having plans with Kidd in the morn as well. He briefly recalled Barnes mentioning training him but why would he start a day before they reached solid land? Steve located the shouting to come from Falsworth just below the mast he was positioned in himself. Anne Bonny was now standing proud at the helm, having no problems with steering The Swan through the fresh but predictable breeze.

Falsworth had seen Steve glance down, so no verbal answer was needed. It really took no time for Steve to descent from the mast anyways. Dernier and another crewmember carried a sword rack unto deck and put it down besides the helm stairs where Steve and Romanoff always sparred. Made sense really. The only place atop deck where they wouldn't hinder the crew’s work with training.

Steve’s stomach jumped a bit at the different swords in the rack. Fuck, he hoped those were dulled. He took a couple of deep breaths and decided to get a cup of water from the nearest water barrel before starting. The sun was high and hard physical labour would prove hard and dehydrating in the heat. People started subtly gathering closer to the Captain’s quarters to watch the happenings there. Steve suspected at least sixmen of taking extra care with their work located just around that particular place on deck.
Steve had watched the men for a couple of moments too long. He hadn't noticed yet another presence atop deck, coming from the Captain’s quarters. When he turned, the sight he was met with nearly made him choke on an entire mouthful of water.

The Captain was standing in the brawling area. His hair tied up into a bun with a piece of leather strap, yet several hairs managed to escape and was solemnly flowing around his face. Not that this was particularly noticeable with how his naked torso and lean strong chest stood out among every other man being sane enough to remove their shirt when they got too hot in the sun. Steve firstly noticed the long sleeve of black inked along the Captain’s left arm. The protruding sun allowed him to see the scar tissue beneath all the black as well. Long thick scars all wrapped around the arm like prominent serpents burning their permanent way into skin. Some places, the tattoos simply followed the pattern of scars wrapping around the arm, beautiful symmetrical patterns in pitch black atop the injury both hiding it and making in more protruding to thorough observers. The scars became less frequent on tanned skin around the shoulder. A perfectly inked black 5-pointed star broke the neat, ornate and wavy lines on Barnes’ upper arm. Steve was definitely staring at this point. The Captain was mostly lean but with considerable muscle as well and the confidence in which he held himself was intoxicating to say the least.

Barnes finally turned to Steve, a cocky eyebrow turned upwards and a widened stance that was practically screaming ‘you coming or what?’. Steve remembered to swallow the water in his mouth, but did so in a far too big gulp that hurt his throat. Also he tried very hard to stop thinking about exactly how obvious his starring had been, while simultaneously forcing his legs to move him towards the practice area.

Barnes rolled his shoulders playfully, looking beyond satisfied with this idea. Steve felt as misplaced as a prostitute in a nunnery and he knew this damn spot on deck well by now. Practically every crack in the boards and every bump from below the helm to the mainmast was known to him. Why you may ask? Because he'd been studying them real close every time Romanoff whacked him atop the head and knocked his guts to the floor.

“Why are we starting training one day before arrival in Tortuga?”

Barnes’ brow lifted even higher and was accompanied by a characteristic lopsided smirk that Steve really should be used to by now.

“Food rations are down and so are sources of amusement. Better keep the crew going just the last distance wouldn’t you agree?”

The Captain only received a incredulous look as answer.

“Are you backing out on me Rogers?”

That kicked Steve's tongue into gear. He had to collect his voice to fake just a speck of calmness.

“No.”

Barnes looked him over wonderingly, silently challenging him to stand down and confirm his worst suspicions. Whatever sign the Captain was looking for, he didn't seem to find it.

“Alright. Let's start with what you've learned already and take it from there…”

That proved a pretty lousy foundation of learning. Steve really hadn't shown a big interest in military service, which of course had made him even less popular with his dad back home. His step dad, that was.

They started out with rapiers. Barnes pulled out an old worn one, only a bit worse looking than the one Steve still had lying under his hammock. The Captain threw it at him vertically, and Steve’s brain only just caught up and he grabbed the hilt instead of the blade. First test over and he had only just managed to keep calm and collected. Everything was going just great.

“These are dulled right?”

Barnes raised a brow, or maybe it was just permanently raised at this point. It was often hard to tell.

“They were last time I checked…”

A devilish smile bloomed on his face.

“... but they do stand awfully close to the sharp ones in the weaponry. They might've been mixed up.”

The cat was playing with the mouse. Got it. Steve could work with that… or so he hoped, at least.

“Starting stance!”

That was a command if he’d ever heard one. Steve placed himself almost sideways to Barnes, sword in right hand and pointing straight forward, tilted slightly towards the sky. His continued efforts to try to remember anything from his few fencing lessons from years back was merely met with an immediate exasperated sigh from the Captain.

“Right foot is too withheld Rogers. And get those heels out of line this ain't the army!”

Steve scoffed, barely audible. Thank god Barnes had reminded him. It'd be so easy to mistake the wolf of a man in front of him for a General. There might be some slight differences if you reeeeeeally squint…

“Alright, show me a charge forwards.”

Steve complied, taking a step with his right leg, placing it in front of his left before returning it to normal stance position. A low thoughtful hum filled the air, coming from deep in the Captain’s throat. The man then proceeded to place his own, hopefully dulled, rapier on Steve's right leg.

“Keep your right leg still and bent. Again.”

Steve was overtly aware of the long blade pushed tightly to his upper shin. He repeated the forward attack step and returned to stance again. Another hum, this time with a hint of approval.

They repeated the same move, just backwards. When the Captain turned his back, walking a few steps away to take a stance opposite Steve, the entire array of yet another collection of scars revealed themselves. They were strewn all across Barnes’ back in long, thick and uneven patterns. These weren't accompanied by ink, so the more pink discolouration of damaged skin was more prominent. They were flogging scars and quite bad ones at that. Not ones you'd find on a simple market thief that's for certain. But then again, James Barnes had a habit of taking more than apples and the occasional bread. Whether it was gold or lives.

Steve found himself a little too enthralled with the sharp lines of scar tissue. They looked angry, as if the rage of the whip-holder had burned its way deep into the scars themselves, making them radiate with it. It looked personal. These lines had healed nicely and were some years old, but they witnessed perfectly about how the skin had been ripped open by the ends of a mean cat-o-nine. These wounds had barely been recoverable, which made Steve think of the man wielding the whip. Who was he and what did Barnes do to deserve this reminder to be edged into his skin for the rest of his life? This had been personal. On a more sober thought, Steve would rather not know the cause of it.
Barnes’ gaze was almost burning with intensity and observation. Steve gulped. The Captain looked more like an enemy about to drop him than a sword-fighting teacher . How many people had experienced that deadly glare as the very last thing before they left this world? Stop. Fucking. Thinking.

“You're gonna break through the barrier that is the sword. That barrier is constantly shifting and moving. It's all about thrusting or slashing past the wall at the right time, when your opponent’s guard is compromised.”

Steve nodded solemnly. Barnes demonstrated a short charge forwards, a simple and small step with the right foot in front while still holding the starting stance.

“Now show me an attack.”

Steve's mission was doomed to fail the second those words left Barnes’ lips. He charges without much thought, holding his other arm horizontally at shoulder height while aiming a thrust at Barnes extended right leg. Said leg moved gracefully out of harm's way in a split second while the Captain’s blade slashed through the air and just managed to slow down in time. Steve is yet again feeling cold metal on his throat, following the shape of the left side of his jaw.

“You thrust at my leg, I slash at your head, got it?”

The reprimand sounded more like a threat really, but maybe that was just a natural part of Barnes’ charm. Steve caught himself before he could nod, which really would have been completely idiotic with a blade pressed that close to a major artery.

“Don't want me to cut you again, do you Rogers?”

Steve got painfully aware of the thin slicing-scar he still had just below his chin, compliments from Barnes aboard the Triumph. The Captain was still holding the damned blade against him, resting it lightly on his skin. Steve was frozen in place, but managed a reply with a slight rebellious sneer to it.

“My final answer is no and will also apply to future circumstances.”

That simply earned him a dry scoff and the devilish smile on the Captain’s features only grew. The soft press of a slim blade finally eased at his throat before disappearing altogether. Barnes then instructed him on the element of surprise during rapier fighting. Steve unconsciously scratched at the scar while listening.
“Fights for fun has rules, fights to the death don’t.” He would say more than once.

Steve barely knew anything about fighting at all, but the Captain seemed to teach him easy techniques so he, very ironically, wouldn't have to. At least not for long periods of time. Surging forwards and past your enemy owns a huge element of surprise. If it's possible for you to stab your opponent in the back at the same occasion? Then it's only beneficial. Not a lot of fighting technique was needed in all the teachings from the Captain, ultimately making them avoidance manoeuvres. Steve guessed that was easier and quicker to teach.

They continued, now practising parries. The Captain yelling out ‘left’ or ‘right’ giving Steve only a split second to react to the warning before a blade was gliding smoothly through the air with deadly speed directly towards his upper body. Sometimes Barnes would switch it up and yell out the wrong warning on purpose.
That particular move earned Steve more and more bruises as time went by, while simultaneously forcing him to read Barnes’ body language instead of his words. When Steve finally managed to parry a couple of the trick attacks, the Captain moved to another method. Sweeping aside the opponent’s blade was fairly easy to get right, Steve discovered, the real problem actually being what the hell you're supposed to do when once past the blade and face to face with Barnes, who also turned out to be rather excellent at close body combat. Steve would have argued that a mix between brawling and sword fighting was rather unfair, that is if he expected it would get him anywhere at all. A glistening sheen of sweat had formed on both their bodies now, both from heat and physical effort. The few strands escaping the Captain’s updo clung wetly to his forehead and temples, while Steve’s own hair was more than damp, especially the long bangs almost hanging in his eyes. Barnes’ lithe deadliness truly did stand out with scars, muscles, sweat and clear determination in his eyes and quite frankly, Steve was just glad he was forced to concentrate on the fighting.

At last, Barnes let his arms rest against his sides, the point of his blade resting on the deck. Then the bastard did an incredibly excessive and low bow with both arms flung out. Steve simply snorted and ignored the pain and exhaustion in is entire body, but he followed the example and broke position.
The Captain swiftly cut a triangle in the air, the rapier making loud swoosh-noises as he did.

“You're not all that bad Rogers…”

“You flatter me.”

“Perhaps…”

Barnes grinned wolfishly, blotting his teeth while dropping his blade back on the rack. Steve felt the need to gulp down the lump forming in his throat. The air around them still felt too hot and thick. Steve was still wearing his cotton blouse, the thin fabric feeling overheated while it clung wetly to his skin with sweat. Despite its looseness, all his clothing seemed constricting and uncomfortable, so Steve finally decided to take off the blouse. Finally feeling the slightly cooling breeze on his skin felt almost too good. He pulled his shirt the rest of the way over his head before leaning his head back and taking deep breaths. The cloth had messed up his hair slightly. It was already sticking in every direction imaginable due to his exertion. In the meantime, Barnes was wiping his forehead with a cloth thrown his way by a bystander. Steve had a hard time tearing his eyes from the Captain broad shoulders and he convinced himself that the hardship was due to Barnes’ earlier continous comments about visual focus. What was rather unexplainable, however, was the fact that Barnes was looking his way as well. Their eyes met, the Captain’s steel grey eyes, almost matching the swords in the rack, left Steve’s only a second to sweep down over his half naked form. Steve felt almost nailed to the deck as the corners of Barnes’ mouth tilted slight upwards, keeping piercing eye contact for another second before he turned away. A broad hand clasped Steve’s shoulder in a tight grip, breaking the trance that had left Steve slightly out of breath.

“Not bad, Rogers!”

Dugan’s voice boomed through the prior silence. Steve forced himself to turn towards the man and silently thank him with a nod. The slightly cooler air still felt nice on his upper body, but he felt exposed as well so Steve pulled his shirt back on, puffing out the cloth a bit to cool himself down. The sudden feeling of being watched yet again made small pin pricks scatter out across his skin. This time however, Steve turned to meet the green eyes of a certain quartermaster, who was eyeing him both thoughtfully and amusedly. Something in Romanoff’s gaze was a little too suggesting and unknowing for Steve’s taste and if he blushed slightly due to it no one was close enough to notice.

Chapter Text

Tortuga was surprisingly lively for a notorious pirate bay. They had arrived around the 6 o’clock bell the next day, hungry, tired and a lot more dirty than physically comfortable or socially acceptable. Steve could still smell the sweat from yesterday’s fight on himself and when taking his greasy hair and the state of his entire body into consideration he really yearned for a bath. He almost felt like a wandering patch of dirt when the crew were given permission to abandon ship.
The men split up on the dock, some already receiving attention from barely dressed corner girls nearby, while others sat the course into the city itself. Steve felt utterly lost in the group of men, everyone fanning out with various goals and priorities all the while he was a stranger to this life. The city was well kept with small harbour shops and tailors along the docks, which were much more extensive and modern compared to the ones in Nassau. Steve’s gaze flickered between the deep brown wooden buildings, to the more colourful shop signs, and further to the market-stands and surprisingly large amount of people regarding him and The Swan’s crew as they descended from the docks. Steve barely had time to absorb the extreme change in atmosphere and amount of people before his eyes swept over at two soldiers in neat light-blue uniforms marching towards him. His entire body immediately tensed, his heart threatening to beat its way out of his chest in a wave of intense anxiety, which only peaked further at the large hand clasping at his back.

“Easy there mate! Those are Frenchmen! We don't want no trouble with those fellas.”

The hand belonged to Dugan, as usual. The man managed to calm Steve a bit, but the rest of his body only relaxed when said French soldiers marched on without sparing them a single glance.

“The french don't mind piracy?”

Dum Dum looked baffled for approximately a second before recovering. Steve Rogers was still wet behind the ears when it came to piracy and everyone still seemed surprised of his naivety. The drill was getting exhausting.

“Oh they absolutely do! If any of these privateers or buccaneers turned canons on french merchants they'd get hanged within the week. Yet as long as we keep to plundering Spanish and English gold those light-coated gentlemen are very civil.”

“But we aren't at war with Spain nor France?”

“Rogers, England was at war with Spain not even two years past and who knows when the British monarch might choose to hate France?”

“... point taken.”

Dugan let out a loud rumble of laughter and pushed at Steve while leading him away from the harbour.

“We might make a decent pirate of you yet! But first a bath and warm food.”

Steve found it very hard to disagree with the latter.

 

Dum Dum led him to a large wooden house with open doors directly facing the busy street. Dernier, Falsworth, Phillips and several other men from the crew trailed directly after them. The very first person Steve noticed inside the establishment was the huge blond and boastful quartermaster of The Scavenger sitting at a relatively small table. Besides him sat Bojékio, the small Taíno boy from the burned village, looking so small with Thor directly besides him. The child had puffed-out cheeks from shovelling food into his mouth while receiving attention from men and women who all patted his head or offered him toys. Bojékio received a straw doll from a nice looking lady with a sparse amount of clothes on and Steve’s brain finally caught up.

“Dum Dum is this a…”

“A whorehouse? Absolutely! Let's get you clean Rogers.”

Before Steve could voice the growing panic inside him, a woman walked up to the small group of men at the entrance. She was older than most of the other women in the room, her skin a beautifully ebony shade and her dark hair was kept in a neatly complicated updo. She was tall as well and Steve immediately read authority and elegance off of her.

“I haven't seen you here before sailor.”

Her accent was characterised by gentle hisses at the ‘s’-sounds and pressure on the ‘t’. Probably of french origin. Before Steve could embarrass himself by stumbling over his words Dum Dum decided to spare him.

“Bellâcleu, this is Steve Rogers. He's the newest addition to Captain Barnes’ crew.”

“James always had taste for decently behaving crewmen, I hope you will not disappoint me.”

Steve felt frozen in place when addressed by this woman. Her tone left no space for arguments or doubt. Her demeanour reflected a complete control and knowledge of everyone in the room. She lifted her hand, palm down, in front of her, prompting him to take it. Steve did, and planted a small press of lips atop her hand.

“I’ll do my best not to Ma’am.”

Of that Steve was completely certain. He wouldn't like to know the codes of punishment around here. Bellâcleu’s reticent expression broke as a tiny smile bloomed across her face. Said smile turned even wider when Dernier poked his head out from behind Falworth and started to ramble in french with such a speed, that Steve and even Jones had a hard time keeping up. Bellâcleu greeted him amusedly, but kept the guarded exterior that Steve assumed was the neutral state of the woman before him.

Finally, the woman waved over a girl who was ordered to show them upstairs. Running the bath water was surprisingly quick and Steve soon found himself alone in a big room with a large bed, a desk, a full and large round bathtub resembling an overgrown barrel as well as a wood-and-cloth screen that had seen better days. Dernier had ensured him a slight discount on the bathwater even though the offer had been cheap in the first place. No doubt that he couldn't afford to stay in the room permanently, but Steve wasn't about to complain about privacy after weeks of living shoulder-to-shoulder with approximately 80-100 other men.

He stripped down and quickly climbed into the tub. The warm water enveloped him and the groan he emitted was impossible to hold back. Warmth seeped into his muscles and soothed all tension. The room was quiet except from a relaxed sigh from himself mixed with the faint buzzing from the street outside, muffled by the closed balcony doors. Steve made good use of the soap given to him, lathering his entire body and appreciating the sharp but clean smell. A light giggling from another room caught his attention, but it was to be expected considering the amount of people in the building. Laughter wasn't the worst sounds one would find considering the use of the establishment. However, the giggling returned shortly afterwards and the loud sound of the doors being thrown open startled Steve so the water in the tub threatened to spill over. Striding in came none else than Thor and Dugan. The latter went straight towards Steve, who was hectically trying to cover himself.

“What the hell?!”

Thor walked over besides the bed while inspecting the wall curiously. The laughter turned into a low squeal when Thor discovered the source of noise. In the meantime, Dum Dum grabbed the heavy wooden screen and pulled, grunting as he did, until it shielded Steve from the wall where Thor stood and not the balcony doors as before. Both men then straightened up and seemed both amused and content with their sudden disruption of Steve’s bath.

“Don't ever trust anyone in a whorehouse Steven.”

Thor chuckled before moving back to the door, practically barricading it simply by standing there. Steve was too baffled and embarrassed to ask where that statement came from or how Thor knew the full version of his name. The latter question probably had the name Romanoff as the answer.

“Holes in the walls Rogers, a goldmine of information is distributed through those. And besides, the women here are used to old dirty sailors and not young handsome men like yourself. They're reasonably charmed.”

Dum Dum chided with a thick grin. Finally Steve understood that he had been spied on. Nothing could be fucking simple as enjoying a single bath now could it? He blushed involuntarily and sank possibly deeper into the tub in embarrassment. Dugan looked puzzled by his reaction.

“I'll guard the doors if you pay for my bath water.”

“Guard the door? Why?”

“You know … so they won't jump you the second you're clean enough to touch again.”

“They'll what?!”

“You're really the only man on earth to react negatively to that possibility Rogers.”

Steve was aware how horrified his own expression must have looked, but the thought of the ladies getting through the door almost made him panic on the spot.

“My pay is in the pocket of my breeches.”

Dugan guffawed loudly, but didn't comment further. He strode out the door, without taking Steve’s money and left an entertained Thor behind. The quartermaster evidently saw no awkwardness with the situation as he gently rocked back and forth on his feet, hands in his pockets.

“What about the … the hole in the wall?”

Steve asked. Thor blinked a couple of times before regaining his sense of circumstance.

“Oh! Don't worry Steven, I'll deal with the ladies this instant.”

The large man then strode out after Dugan and a couple of seconds later Steve heard him urge the spying women out of the room beside his own. Finally he allowed himself to relax a bit and enjoy the flowery air in the room created by the red roses in the case beside the bed. This world was still completely alien to him, but he supposed learning through experience was the only way forth. Finally he dried himself off, looking disapprovingly at the rather disgusting pieces of clothes he owned. When Steve, after a deep breath and some mental preparation, grabbed his breeches with intent to wear the soiled garment on his newly washed body, he heard a small creak of the door. He nearly jumped out of his skin, thinking it might be uninvited guests, but the only thing coming through the door was Thor’s large paw of a hand with a bundle of cloth clutched in it. The bundle got dropped off besides the door before the arm retracted and properly shut the door.
Steve watched the bundle suspiciously for a couple of seconds before tip-toeing his way to the door, his dirty breeches held in place in front of him to cover his lower parts.

His mild suspicion proved in complete wain as he spread the contents of the bundle on the bed. Two cotton blouses, new dark brown trousers, a large belt and a long leather vest. One blouse was white as his old one while the other was a dark dusty blue. Both of them seemed to fit his form better than his previous one while simultaneously being in a much better condition. Steve pulled the dusty blue one over his head.
The trousers were much more comfortable than his breeches, that often itched and were too confiding at the hips. Steve went systematically through each piece of garment, wondering who had paid for it. If that person suddenly wanted repayment, Steve was certain that it would take a big chunk of his last pay, of not all of it. But he was also certain that it had been Thor who had handed it to him and he surprisingly trusted Romanoff’s quartermaster. Despite barely knowing the man that is.
He then put on the long sleeveless vest, soft leather reaching to his hips. Straps hung from the front of the vest so Steve could close it if he so desired. If closed, the vest would hug his form agreeably while the soft material would allow free movement. He left it open for now, letting the thick belt hold in the loose garment so nothing would flap around his form in the wind. His old boots were luckily still in good condition considering their age, mostly because he usually worked barefoot at sea. He wondered if the sheath for his shitty rapier would fit the large belt while fastening the big metal buckle just beneath his navel. The softness and quality of the new clothes felt amazing against his skin compared to everything he had worn throughout the last two years.

A hesitant knock on the door distracted Steve from his previous task of creepily stroking the material of his vest. He fumbled a bit in utter surprise before calling out the person to enter. Weeks at sea truly made one appreciate the small pleasures. Dum Dum opened the door and let out a low whistle.

“See now you look much more presentable, Rogers.”

“Who paid for these clothes?”

“We all pitched in a bit for some of it. The rest well … any previous owners won't be needing it anymore. But don't worry your little fair-haired head with that.”

Steve punched Dugan lightly in the arm for the last comment, but a small shiver ran down his spine at the mentioning of the uncertain fate of previous owners nonetheless.

Thor and Bojékio awaited Steve at the bottom of the stairs, Dugan was taking over Steve’s bathing room and would possibly join them later. A woman took his dirty clothes and informed him that he could get them back clean in a couple of days. He was admittedly confused, but Dugan hurried him down the stairs with a ‘no one will steal your disgusting clothes, Rogers’, before disappearing into the rose-scented room.
As Steve had expected, Thor led them through the main hall and out on the street, several eyes following their departure. The brothel rooms looked far too expensive and probably weren't meant for longer leases at a time. Yet again, Steve was surprised by the buzzing streets of Tortuga. The mass of people created a loud choir of English, French and Spanish all mixed together. The small snippets of conversation that Steve picked up on proved as much. Bojékio kept himself glued to Thor’s side in the large crowd, his small hand looking tiny and frail in Thor’s huge one. Soon enough the trio moved through smaller streets, away from the heart of Tortuga.
The large, blond man finally led them to a tall wooden building with several floors, a tavern and not a brothel Steve observed. The first floor consisted of loads of tables and chairs for eating and drinking, as well as a kitchen in the back with a bar counter in front. Steve felt mildly uncomfortable. He didn't know the price range of this place and maybe his first pay wouldn't get him through his stay with both food and a bed until The Swan again set sails. The quartermaster must have felt his hesitation and nervous fidgeting because he turned to Steve with a bright smile.

“You comfortable with sharing a room Steven? It'll be cheaper and you can help me getting this lil’ troublemaker under control.”

At the last sentence, Thor looked down at the small boy at his side, turning his smile gentle. The boy still didn't understand English but he blinked hopefully at his guardian nonetheless, while clasping Thor’s middle and index finger tighter than before. Steve let out a strained breath and smiled gratefully back.

“Yes that'd be great. Thanks!”

“Anytime.”

 

Their room was, as expected, relatively small, but with two comfortably big beds for their large frames. The room was rectangular, with the door in one of the shorter walls and a long wall with windows leading out to the street. Luckily, this was the second floor, so only air flowed through the window and barely any dust or sand. The headboards of the plain wooden beds were arranged up against the longwall opposite the windows. All the shutters were closed, so only a tiny amount of the last sunlight of the day shone through the uneven cracks. The darkness of the room made Steve almost-trip over a heavy chest meant for guests’ belongings placed below the window. The brief pain in his calf resulted in a childish giggle from Bojékio, who then finally let go of Thor to walk towards the other blond man of the company. A small dark hand gently covered the forming bruise, only the fabric of pants in the way. The boy then mumbled a string of words with a clear pattern of rhythm to them, before smiling proudly up at Steve, who felt cared for and confused in equal amounts.

“It's a small mantra for bruising and scratches.”

Thor explained, while wearing his usual expression of endaration and amusement when he was around the boy.

“It's meant to soothe children when they hurt themselves, normally sung by mothers or siblings.”

Steve couldn't help but crack a happy smile. Bojékio had clearly wanted to help him and that was just clear-out adorable to say the least.

“He's very observing… probably really clever as well.”

Steve commented, recalling the times where he'd seen the boy simply look at people or objects as if he knew the exact situation surrounding him, even though possible conversation had been in English.

“He is, without doubt.”

It would take a fool not to notice the bond between Thor and the Taíno boy, but Steve truly doubted that a pirate vessel was meant as a permanent home for the latter.

“What's going to happen to him?”

Steve asked carefully, not wanting to upset the bigger man. The small mentioned subject was currently adventurous and crawled under the bed before flopping down into it and curling comfortably up into a tiny ball in the bed farthest from the door.

“He’ll be given over to another tribe once we reach Tulum again. It's possible he might even have distant family there.”

“I hope he does.”

“Aye, me too.”

Thor’s smile was an odd mix of sorrowful and hopeful all at once and Steve decided not to ask anymore questions on the matter.

__________________________________

Steve was woken up by a soft knock on the door the next morning. He blinked the sleep out of his eyes before getting up to answer the door, luckily he had chosen to sleep with his pants on. His head ached slightly from the drinks he'd had yesterday evening. After Bojékio fell asleep, Steve and Thor had joined a group of crew members in a tavern a couple of houses down the street. Luckily, the rum hadn't been that strong.
In front of the door stood a small boy about twice the age as Bojékio. He looked about as tired as Steve himself while clutching a piece of paper with a deep red seal in his small hand.

“Is Thor Odinson here?”

Steve looked behind him at the other bed where Thor were still snoring softly with his back to the door, while his smaller companion still were curled up around his feet.

“He’s here, but he's still sleeping.”

“What's your name?”

Steve blinked stupidly for a second, surprised by the sudden question.

“Steve… eh, Steve Rogers.”

The boy nodded, as if that information meant anything to him.

“Here...”

He held out the letter to Steve in a fully stretched arm.

“Madame Bellâcleu vouched for you. The letter is still for Odinson though.”

A stern and instructive glare followed the last statement. As if the shortcut sentence hadn't been blunt enough to get the message through.

“I'll eh ...put it on the desk for him when he wakes?”

“Good.”

With a last suspicious glare through slightly squinted eyes, the boy disappeared down the stairs in the hallway, leaving Steve blinking rapidly in wonder. Bellâcleu had vouched for him? What did that even mean? His conflicted thoughts distracted him enough that he wasn't mindful of closing the door quietly, which resulted in Thor stirring.
Steve cursed himself a bit in his own mind, but the other blond man didn't seem to mind when he sat up. The tuft of dark hair at Thor’s feet stirred as well, but went back to sleep again quickly.

“Was someone at the door?”

“Yes it was… a child?"

Thor seemed thoughtful for a couple of seconds before he lit up in another one of his usual bright smiles.

“Oh! It was from Bellâcleu then! What did the kid say?”

“Only that Bellâcleu had ‘vouched for me’ and then he stared me down until I said I'd give you the letter.”

“Ah yes. I was thinking she might send word for us.”

Thor made slightly impatient grabby hands towards the letter on the desk until Steve reached over and brought it to him.

“Wait ‘us’? Why am I included in this?”

Tortuga meant safe ground and a proper bed, but apparently that was a devil’s deal with mysterious french brothel owners and spying ladies written in between the lines. Steve wanted no part in anything. He considered this his time off, time that he really needed. He'd go buy himself a bit more new clothes, probably get a bit of a haircut if he found anyone capable of that. Other than that, getting a feel of civilization, large anonymous crowds and small markets was also a part of his to-do list before The Swan would set sails again. Which might happen sooner, or latter, he didn't have a clue.
Yes, Tortuga was dubbed pirate paradise, but Steve would like to distance himself from that title just a little, until he'd secured himself, both physically and mentally, as one. However, Thor disregarded his comment, or maybe he just didn't hear. He was humming quietly under his breath while breaking the seal and skipping through the written lines within. The letter was finished with a more audible finishing hum, that made Steve look towards the man instead of getting lost in his own thoughts about getting more involved in the world of Tortuga.

“How early is it?”

“Uhm… fairly early?”

Steve moved to the window and looked out onto the street through the slightly opened shutter.

“My guess would be around seven, eight at most.”

“Ah very good! Then we’ve got time for breakfast.”

Thor got up and stretched his huge arms above his head, making him look impossibly bigger. He then turned his attention to the sleeping child in the other end of the bed, and gently poked his arm.

“What was in the letter?”

“Information about the meeting.”

“What meeting?”

Thor stalled and looked wonderingly at Steve.

“All Romanoff’s and Barnes’ associates and business partners are gathered in the same city.”

Thor pulled on his boots before playfully poking Bojékio’s side, making the child squirm a bit in his half awake state.

“So they'll meet up on the rare occasion before they all take off to sea again.”

“So you'll be at that meeting as Romanoff’s quartermaster I'm assuming?”

“Yes of course. And you'll be there as a possible new addition to the creed.”

Steve needed a couple of seconds to process the complete ease in which Thor added that statement.

“I'm supposed to be what?”

“As far as I'm aware you struck a deal with Barnes. He's currently honoring his word and is requesting your presence at the meeting.”

Steve let himself breathe over the sudden tang of nervousness spiking in his chest. He trusted Barnes to keep his word, only because he saw no reason why the Captain would have any interest in breaking it. However, the thought of entering a room filled with notorious criminals sounded like walking directly into a lion’s den. A lion’s den where he would stick out like a sore thumb in between the actual living and breathing lions known to this world as mindless beasts. In this case, he could do nothing but trust the word of James Barnes and the integrity of Thor Odinson.
__________________________________

They ate their breakfast in silence. Steve’s mind was swimming with questions and anxieties, yet Thor remained calm and collected in the face of it. Questioning the larger man about the counsel or the meeting had been fruitless.

“I can only give you the right answers to the wrong questions.”

He had said, whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean. So Steve had continued his gloomy mental line of anxiety throughout breakfast. When they finally exited the tavern, the sun shone too bright for Steve not to squint his eyes almost completely shut. When he was finally adjusting, the steadfast woman from yesterday was standing directly in front of him, below the small porch of the tavern’s front. Bellâcleu was escorted by two large men, both with simple soot tattoos etched into the dark skin of their faces. Both men were armed. Thor leaned over and whispered in Steve’s ear.

“She’s gonna make you ask the right questions.”

Before trotting off with a sleepy Bojékio at his side. The woman was calmly glancing up at Steve, clearly expecting him. Her straight spine, high chin and the seemingly ever-present ghost of a smile on her lips still created the same authoritative air around her as yesterday. Steve found himself in a state of endless respect, despite not knowing anything of or about her.

“Mr. Rogers, I am your escort for today. If you please…?”

She raised her arms, motioning him to follow her down the dusty road. Steve politely agreed. The early morning sun rays filtered through palmleaves, leaving criss-cross shadow patterns on the sand at their feet. The city was slowly waking up. A few people were sleeping against trees or houses, bottle still in hand in most cases. Steve drank it all in. The usual traits of civilization, however disagreeable, still served as refreshing variety from life at sea. A couple of minutes went by, all four of them walking lightly through the awakening streets, Steve and Bellâcleu in front with a little distance to her guards in the back. The assertive woman breathed deeply, so Steve turned his head attentively just as she began speaking.

“I assume your questions are many and range far and wide in topic, but I’ve got a few questions of my own that need answering, from you specifically. Barnes believe you to be fit and even though I trust his judgement, I simply need convincing”

Steve felt small in her company, but somehow at ease, almost calm as well. An odd combination for an odd woman he supposed. A lopsided smile found its way to his mouth.

“So this is a test?”

Her own smile grew a tiny bit as she turned to look him in the eye. Deep and dark brown, almost black eyes studied him thoroughly.

“Absolutely.”

Her directness and honesty was refreshing despite the small pang of nerves traveling up Steve’s spine.

“Good to know.”

She nodded promptly, motioning to continue.

“There’s one simple thing you’ll have to remember about today’s meeting: some of those people are simply pirates, while others have alliances that goes beyond that.”

“I assume Barnes is of the latter?”

“You are correct. The people, who Barnes allied himself to, call themselves assassins. They seek justice for the ignored people of these islands. They are the voice of the voiceless, the hope of the hopeless, always working in the dark to serve the light.”

Steve listened, hanging onto every word and turning them all over in his mind. The rising tempo and graveness in which Bellâcleu spoke witnessed of the importance of the statement. Her eyes were sharp and ignited fiercely, observing every small reaction from Steve. Bellâcleu was clearly attached to this creed, maybe even a member, but she kept her emotions closed off enough for Steve to be unsure.

“What exactly do they stand for, if I may ask.”

“Independence. From the british empire. From the people who seek to enslave others. From the very idea of an overruling oppressive government with a privileged man on top, ruling people he doesn’t even try to understand.”

This, as a goal, seemed completely unachievable. Yet he was merely offered a glimpse of the atrocity and disrespect these people suffered, if Barnes word was good enough to go by. With other words, he had no grounds unto which he could justify to ridicule anything. New memories of mangled bodies and the fast-frozen horrified expressions of the dead etched into his conscience anew, leaving him short of breath. Steve was raised among King-sympathisers and finally discovering the wrongfulness and narrow mindset of the people scared him. Rip the rug from under a man and he’s not going to be kind to you. In this case, the rug was the foundation for Steve’s upbringing, which proved worth the equivalent of a rug. A really old, dusty and heavy rug, more than ready to be replaced. This new perspective scared him, but it also made his blood boil in anger.

“What are you contemplating?”

Steve struggled with applying words to the storm of thoughts and feelings he was experiencing, yet the calm presence of accent at the edge of Bellâcleu’s question made him strive to try.

“I suppose I’ve lived my life in ignorance until now. My family has always been sympathisers of the King. My father served in the military … my stepfather too.”

He took a much needed deep breath, trying to keep the anger, confusion and regret? at bay.

“I lived up north. Never even knew what was going on down here.”

Bellâcleu hummed shortly. It could either be a confirmation of his stupidity or a sign of understanding, maybe even both. She almost left Steve whirling back into his contempt-for-himself-and-the-world line of thought with how long she took to answer verbally.

“Do you own slaves Mr. Rogers?”

That snapped him right out of his own head.”

“What?”

“Do you, or have you ever, owned slaves?”

The question was simple, but spoken with an icy voice and frozen steadfast contempt. This woman was a cliff in the midst of a hurricane and despite her emotionless features and cold exterior, Steve wanted to cling desperately onto the only solid ground in the hurricane which was his mind.

“No I have not…”

They both felt his hesitation wavering in the air.

“But my family did own a few. More precisely my step-father.”

“And you never saw the need for freedom in their eyes?

“No I never did.”

The lines of Bellâcleu’s mouth tenses up in a minimalistic representation of a sour expression. Steve almost regretted telling her the truth, remembering that this was a test, but the woman before him seemed capable of sniffing up even the most insignificant lie. His family had owned two slaves at the time he left, three years ago. One of them served as a nanny for Steve’s smaller sisters, or step-sisters to be precise. The other one worked in the stables. He was always kind and chatty if you caught him on a sunny day. Steve found himself wondering how much of that exterior had really been the man himself. He had been so close! So close to these people, who weren’t even considered people in most fairer humans eyes! And he hadn’t seen the wrongness staring him right in the face. For that, he loathed himself. His anger, dulled in the last couple of weeks, blazed anew with horrific force.

“My friend - Sam Wilson - he was born unfree. He was eventually granted freedom, but he never spoke of his time in the plantages.”

“He’s the man you saved in Nassau?”

“I didn’t save him, Romanoff did.”

“Depends on your perspective.”

The way in which Bellâcleu held his gaze was sincere enough for him to drop any contradicting arguments.

“Listen. Refuse to tell a boy how the world works for people different than himself and he will have a hard time ever learning it. But telling him that people different from him are subhuman … are animals that can be bought on markets? He is far less likely to ever change his view. The world, as it is now, will never force him to.”

Steve blinked subtly at the woman before him. She was no longer looking at him, but still sensed his uncertainty in the air surrounding them.

“Can you, Mr. Rogers, see the point in this?”

“Absolutely.”

“Can you see the wrongdoing and despair this kind of mentality provides.”

“Of course.”

“Then that is all I need to know. Statistically, you shouldn’t be here. The fewest people oppose slavery today and even fewer opposes it due to ethicality. The fact that you are here today, wishing to make amends and even fight alongside us to make wrong right again, is a small miracle. Do not waste it.”

“I’ll do my best not to.”

Bellâcleu nodded promptly, signing that part of the conversation to be at an end. They had walked the smaller streets of the city, but now the space in between two houses became gradually larger as they moved away from the heart of Tortuga. Here, more vegetation thrived along the streets and the houses were of brick instead of dark wood and paint. Warm air surrounded them, but not uncomfortably so, as it probably would be if the sun had been higher in the sky. It felt strange to be far away from shore. Like the life he had come to know onboard The Black Swan was spread out in this labyrinth of a city and he couldn’t possibly find all the pieces by himself. He’d have to wait for a boarding order. Bellâcleu made no move to talk, so Steve enjoyed the silence and the awakening animals and people in the streets. Some of these houses were surrounded by tall brick walls, likely keeping rich people in and poor people out. Soldiers from French Navy or Army were stationed along a few of them, their blue uniforms matching the light hues of the sky. They walked past them, and as the closeness of the houses thinned out, so did the already scarce amount of people alongside them on the road. A few minutes later, only their different footsteps and the crunching sand beneath their boots could be heard, Steve’s was heavy, Bellâcleu’s determined and the two tailing companions ominously silent considering the short distance they kept themselves at. The silence in Steve’s mind was broken by his own curiosity.

“Can I ask you a question?”

He was hesitant in breaking the silence, not knowing if the woman preferred it at the moment. She didn't seem bothered though.

“Merely one?”

A dark eyebrow and a delicate tug of lips served as the biggest display of emotion and direct jest Steve had ever witnessed upon this woman’s features. It simply confirmed his thoughts on this woman. That she indeed was a human being with emotion and depth, but simply choose to hide it behind a cool exterior serving as a shield from the world. Steve could only theorize exactly why she thought this a necessity, but that was a far too personal question, so he rooted for something else.

“Who was that boy? The one who delivered the letter?”

“I manage the city’s orphanage and he is from there. He’s among the best of my small deliverers of information.”

“You manage both the orphanage and the brothel of Tortuga?”

“And several other institutions, yes.”

Steve nodded, half in acknowledgement and half in tribute. This woman was truly a powerful asset for the pirates. That much was clear. Steve sensed their destination close when Bellâcleu changed the subject.

“There are informations about the allies of the assassin creed that you should know. Each pirate lord has their own role to play in this mutual arrangement.”

The woman took a breath, taking a break to look over at Steve, as if she wanted to make sure that he was worthy of such knowledge. The fact that she continued the conversation assured Steve that he had indeed somehow passed her test.

“Barnes and Romanoff is direct allies of the assassins. This means that they take orders from the creed at times, normally regarding boardings of English slave galleons or downright assassinations of different individuals. In return, they get information concerning plunder and position of merchant and army ships in their vicinity, as well as possible threats to their safety.”

“Seems like a good deal.”

“It surely has worked out greatly so far for both parties. As for the rest of the pirate lords, only a few of them are completely in on this agreement. Captain Romanoff is following Barnes’ example because she is sympathetic to the cause as well, yet the third party of their fleet, Captain Brock Rumlow is less understanding of the collaboration.”

Steve felt himself tense at the mentioning of Rumlow’s name. The anger that man had lit inside him flamed up anew. The woman besides him seemed to feel his shift in mood, but she continued nonetheless.

“He will continue to sail under Barnes on mission for the creed if he is called upon, despite how many profanities he’ll spit out during. This brings us further to James Kidd. He is, like me, a declared member of the creed. Kidd served as an ever-present negotiator and spokesman for the creed onboard the pirate vessels.”

Steve made a mental note of those details. He was sailing under Barnes, but having bad blood with these people would likely be as problematic as having bad blood with Barnes himself.

“Kidd is therefore not a permanent addition to any of the pirate crews. Another trio is that of Edward Teach, or Blackbeard as most know him, Benjamin Hornigold and Charles Vane. None of these are allies of the creed, yet they still share the same visions of freedom and prosperity for Nassau as we do. Teach and Hornigold sometimes work together, sometimes not, while Vane often works without them. Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham play important roles aboard Vane’s ship The Ranger. Anne Bonny is a ruthless fighter, while Rackham keeps himself friends with several of the smugglers and illegal merchant to sell off stolen goods. Although most of the merchant network of Nassau is controlled by Stede Bonnet, who has ties with companies all over the Bahamas. Both pirates and non-royal companies are gaining a considerate profit of his work both in and outside of Nassau.”

“And they all help maintain commerce in Nassau?”

“Their own kind of commerce, yes. It’s not of vital importance that you remember all of this information and Thor will make sure to fill in gaps at the meeting.”

Steve was grateful for the reassurance. He knew, or knew of at least, several of the mentioned members of the council, yet he would probably remember the details better once he put a face to each name. Despite his still-present jitteriness and concern, he felt a tiny spark of excitement as they stopped shortly in front of an opened black metal gate. A short gravel road lead up to the house, surrounded by small fields with different crops growing on each side. The house itself was impressive, its red brick walls in good shape and repair. The white-painted windows and three chimneys sort of reminded Steve of a home he had once known. Bellâcleu broke his stream of thought and conflicted longing.

“The Compton Estate. I was born here…”

The strange nostalgia woven into her elegant accent and steadfast voice made Steve’s heart skip a beat. Is she hadn’t specifically led him here, he’d felt like an intruder.

“I was born unfree, but I lived to see the master gamble away his father’s fortune, until I one day bought the estate from him myself. I doubt I’ll ever forget his face once he realised who I was.”

How this woman was capable of delivering such personal information with a face etched into stone. Yet her emotions were hidden in the details of her face and movements. Steve noticed her gazing a little too long upon the fields and the few workers there, but her eyes glazed over, seeing memories and not the present picture of in front of them. Her eyes continued to wander over the fields, searching for something or someone from the past. She didn’t even blink when she continued.

“You need to think carefully about joining us Mr. Rogers. Once you’re in, you might not get a chance to get out. Don’t draw too much attention to yourself. That being said, you passed the test with flying colours…”

An unwavering hint of a smile broke out across Bellâcleu’s features, before she walked up the gravel road with a sudden hasty, but controlled, pace. Steve was left, very much wavering in the wind, with no ability to completely understand this strange ally of Barnes’. Her guards walked past him, urging him on by bumping their shoulders into each of his. Stumbling slightly from the impact, Steve followed Bellâcleu up the road, watching as the Compton Estate and its red square-brick walls suddenly seemed frail and delicate compared to the woman before it. The world behind those walls had complete different rulers and Steve felt himself hover directly in between new and old. The pure hope of belonging in the new carried him from the old, one step against gravel at a time. Leaving the old world hurt less when you’ve been living as a foreigner in it for three years. The homestead towered intimidatingly above him and yet he wished desperately to be one of the bricks holding it up.

Chapter Text

Bellâcleu led the way into a hall with carpets on the floor, the long walls only broken up on either side by the arches leading to other rooms of the house. The distinct sound of several separate conversations could be heard from the arch on their left. Finally stepping into the room, Steve found himself unprepared for the large amount of people in there. A long polished table in dark wood stood in the center of the room, several people already sitting around it. Some Steve recognised, others he didn't. At the very end, closest to Steve and Bellâcleu at the moment, sat Charles Vane. Memories of their last and only encounter sparked yet another pang of nervousness through Steve’s body. Vane’s feral exterior had barely changed since then, except for his dark hair, which seemed a bit longer and was now adorned with a braid at each temple, collected at the back of his head. The beard covering the better part of his cheeks a couple of months ago was gone as well, making the sharp features of his face stand out even more prominent. He was leisurely thrown back in a chair, both of his feet crossed and resting on the expensive table.

Steve soon realised he was staring. Sadly Vane realised a long time before he did, a spark of confusion and spite shining in his eyes. Then he seemingly realised exactly where he’d seen Steve before. The realisation didn’t bring anything nearly as unpleasant as what Steve had been expecting. Vane simply narrowed his eyes, tilted his head a bit up and huffed out an unbelieving mouthful of air, before looking amusedly at Barnes. The Captain of The Black Swan was the second person Steve recognised in the room, giving him an acknowledging nod and suddenly standing a lot straighter and broader, as if preparing for physical movement. This confused the hell out of Steve before he finally spotted the man behind Barnes.

Brock Rumlow’s features were exactly as unpleasant as he remembered them. Sharp and brutal like a jackal’s, with black beady eyes currently shining with contempt. Rumlow offensively moved to step past Barnes and do God-knows-what, but only got that far before Barnes’ strong hand was pushing back against his chest, effectively stopping and warning him to move no further.

“Why the fuck is he here?” Rumlow sneered, his voice scratching its way into Steve’s ears, making his body coil tight as a string.

“Cause I want him here. Step the fuck down.”

Captain Barnes’ voice was filled to the brim with ominous threat. Steve could feel his own breathing picking up. He refused to step down, even if a fight in a crowded room with all the most notorious pirate lords and ladies truly was what Rumlow wanted. Said lord continued to push against Barnes’ spread out hand, but now his stinging gaze had turned on the man between himself and Steve. Barnes was having none of his aggressive, non-verbal threats and simply stood his ground, unmoving and silently informing the seething man that he would be the first to move. Brock Rumlow’s rage grew tenfold when he started to collect himself and Steve knew this as a fact simply from looking into those dark pits too deep to be called eyes. In some form, Barnes was Rumlow’s superior, maybe not in this direct situation but Steve still trusted that as the only explanation for the current lack of hands clasping his throat or daggers in his gut. Having to yield in front of all these people couldn’t have been easy on Rumlow’s pride, as much was clear in the violently hateful expression he was fully displaying in Steve’s direction. Steve simply offered him a sneery smile in return.

Heeding Bellâcleu’s advice was already an idea blown up, since practically every head in the room was turned their way. Rumlow backed away, every step seemingly burning through him to the bone. Steve wisely chose to walk the other way around the table to join Thor on the other side. This meant passing Vane, who blew out a puff of smoke through the short entertained grin on his lips, before taking another drag of his pibe. Thor and Bojékio weren’t placed at the table, but rather leaning against a small drawer in the background, mid-table. Finally placing himself beside them, Steve was able to notice the other people present. A little longer down the table, on his side and to the left, Romanoff was giving him a slightly concerned gaze. Beside her, closer to Steve, sat Anne Bonny, both of their flaming hair and sharp comprehension standing out in the crowd. At the other end of the dinner table sat a broad man with a long dark, almost black beard. It took no explanation for Steve to make out his name. Edward Teach, or infamously known as Blackbeard for obvious reasons, was not a pleasant-looking man. Somehow Steve had expected him to resemble something more grotesque or brutal, but the man before looked more human than Brock Rumlow, although that might definitely be a biased opinion on Steve’s behalf.

Make no mistake, the man manifested himself as a huge grounding point of the group. His intimidation factor was in perfect shape. Teach wore a long and seemingly heavy black coat, not unlike the ones Barnes wore at times. All his attire matched his label, from the dark tricorn with black feathers to the dirt beneath his nails. He was terrifying in a different way. Vane had his cold exterior and piercing gaze, Romanoff her sharp wit and all-knowing smirk. The man at the other end of the table had a terrorising effect based on reputation and theatrics. Most people would need nothing more than a glance of indifference from this man before they’d cower off. Steve found himself mentally chanting Bellâcleu’s advice. Don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t draw attention to yourself.

Barnes and Rumlow were now sitting in front of Steve, a wide dining table between them. Another man with a skillfully shaved, light brown moustache sat besides Bonny and between Steve and the table. Steve hadn’t seen him before, but before he could find some qualified guesses from his memory of pirate tales, Thor came to his rescue.

“That’s Jack Rackham, or Calico Jack, depending on whether you’re among Vane’s crew or not.”

He whispered, aware of the relatively short distance away in which the subject of discussion sat. Again, the nicknames were well earned among these people. Rackham was wearing a light coat in sun-bleached floral print and as far as Steve could observe, the fabric of the jacket was calico.

Steve’s gaze wandered to Teach’s end of the table, where he spotted the two other gentlemen who’d been in the bar in Nassau, when he was almost thrown off a tall veranda. He recognised the darker of the two as Benjamin Hornigold. His dark brown hair was streaked with grey around his temples, but besides that, there wasn't all that much to notice. Hornigold had a sharp-cut face that seemingly was cut into one expression at all times, yet the man looked painfully normal sitting at the same table as this bunch. Currently, he was simply nodding along to something Teach was stating, which seemed to be a prime example of his role in this gathering. The other man was Stede Bonnet, as Barnes had told him back then. This man had ginger hair, a well cut jaw and both a broader and a shorter build than most of the other men in the room. His coat was was adorned with a wide range of blue and green hues, creating a contrast to the light orange of his hair. He had several notebooks placed in front of him and the light and calm smile upon his features fit well with his posture of comfort. He truly stood out between some of the haggard and rough people right behind him. More men were standing in the room than sitting, most casually leaning on furniture or walls. They were quartermasters of the other Captains’ crews or just less significant figures just like himself, Steve figured.

Finally, he spotted James Kidd behind Bonnet and Teach, the space between their chairs just big enough for Kidd not to be excluded from the conversation. He had favoured a low cabinet instead of a chair at the table. He was still sitting on it though, both legs thrown on top and extravagantly playing with a key in his hand. Kidd’s presence, however much outnumbered by the gloomy characters, served to brighten the room with a bit of carelessness and humor. It made Steve relax, if only a tiny bit.

Bellâcleu eventually sat down, followed by Barnes and Rumlow who had been standing until now. Steve noticed this as being some sort of official sign that the meeting had begun. His respect for this woman was of huge proportions and only continued to grow every second. Admittedly, Steve didn't understand a lot of the information being delivered in the start of the meeting. Bellâcleu was citing different merchant and british allied ships, possible prey for the Captains, passing through different trading routes, their final destination and when these were scheduled to leave port. Her information was of more origins than just Tortuga, Steve realised. Major city names like Havana, Port Royal and Kingston were all mentioned. Bellâcleu’s network went far and wide in the british caribbean colonies, which evidently earned her a valuable position in this council. Thor clearly sensed that Steve was getting nothing out of the present situation, so he opted for whispering useful information to him, which Steve was grateful for.

“Only Bellâcleu and Kidd are actual members of the assassin creed. Stede Bonnet is an useful asset as a trader and is therefore also sympathetic to the cause. Teach and Hornigold tolerates The Creed’s involvement, but otherwise ignores it completely. They’re mainly interested in a secure future for Nassau.”

Steve nodded along, glad for a slight repetition of Bellâcleu’s words.

“What of Rackham?”

“He’s sailing under Vane as a quartermaster, usually with Bonny. Vane is mostly harvesting the offered intelligence, but he helps out with his good connections and his ship The Ranger once in awhile.”

Thor fell silent again when Edward Teach suddenly spoke up from across the table.

“Any news on the merchant activity surrounding Port Royal?”

Bellâcleu inhaled deeply, seemingly thinking it over before delivering an answer.

“There’s no news. The waters are still very active, yet the Royal British Navy has been patrolling those waters quite often lately. If you plan on roaming that particular area I’d advise you only to board smaller Spanish or British merchant vessels.”

Teach didn't seem overly content with that instruction. The meeting continued in a steady stream of trading company names and approximate locations of vessels.

“Several vessels from The Eastern State Trading Company sets sail from Havana in the next couple of weeks.” Bellâcleu continued explanatorily. “They will all follow the usual route towards Port au Prince through the Windward Passage, but it lowers the chance of competition if you track them down beforehand.” She stopped to take a deep breath, her tone hardening to get a point through. “Targeting royally-supported trading companies is too risky at present, since escorting of these vessels has increased the last months.”

Calculation of the expected locations of these ships had no meaning whatsoever to Steve. Bojékio started bouncing his leg a couple of minutes ago and Steve felt about as fidgety in this company. Stede Bonnet followed this up with a report of his trading connections in various parts of the Caribbean, which, judging by the acknowledging nods and easy smiles of the group, was mostly positive and of use. Steve found himself studying the room instead of the conversation, searching for a small distraction to keep his mind elsewhere. The rug beneath the table was thick and burgundy, while the paintings on the walls showed fields and forests in light colours of splashing paints. The painting work was quite impressive, Steve could see that even from this distance. Sadly, he couldn't turn and look up at the wall he was leaning on without his slight boredom seeming far too obvious. He was only ripped back to the present when suddenly Kidd sprang down from the cabinet he had planted himself firmly on, before walking to the table, resting both of his palms steadily on it. Steve had to force his focus back to the conversation to faintly remember that it was Bellâcleu who had addressed him.

“A British slave galleon named The Token are scheduled to depart from Charleston, South Carolina, in a month’s time.” Kidd paused briefly, as if daring anyone in the crowd to question the relevance of the information being delivered. “It just so happens tha’ this ship carries abou’ 200 men and women from Carolina plantages in its cargo hold, all of which will be sold to the highest bidder in Kingston, approximately three to four months after departure. We believe these people to be sympathetic to our course, some of them might even prove of grave importance.”

Steve noticed the uncharacteristic way in which Kidd spoke. It was entirely unlike him, as well as missing a great deal of his usual swiveling short-worded accent. Perhaps he didn’t feel completely at home in the crowd? Except his entire demeanor served to witness against that theory. Kidd’s high chin, easy smirk and squarely held shoulders was all traits of a man at ease and in control, despite his small lack of height compared to other men in the room. Don’t get him wrong, Kidd’s accent was very much still present in all the uttered vowels, curving around ending sentences and pushing them slightly off of the north-american pronunciation Steve had grown up with. But the present example simply served as proof to the utter control in which Kidd thrived in. Clearly, he could alter the degrees and sounding of his accent, a further addition to the enigma that was James Kidd. Parallel with Steve’s thoughts and observations, Kidd himself was keenly aware of every expression in the room. Barnes and Romanoff was listening with a neutral look, Teach wore his usual mask of mild irritation, Hornigold and Bonnet, on either side of Kidd, kept their eyes forward, evidently knowing that this had nothing to do with them. James Kidd inhaled deeply before continuing.

“The Token will follow an alternative course, sailing west of Cuba and through the La Florida straits as well as the Yucatan Passage. They are deliberately avoiding the Windward Passage, mostly due to the fact that 80% of the other slave vessels we’ve attacked in the last couple o’ years sailed through Windward.” Kidd’s fingers were drawing invisible geographical patterns on the hard wooden surface as he spoke, an attest to his knowledge of the Caribbean waters. “The chosen route is much longer than the alternative, which tells us that they’re cautious, maybe even nervous. The ideal location of attack would be somewhere south to southwest of The Island of Pinos. As most know, these waters are more commonly used by Spanish vessels, which almost eliminates the threat of any British ships surveying or even hindering our onslaught.”

Barnes shrugged one shoulder and gave a small nod in response, signing himself in as a part of the plan. Kidd returned the gesture, clearly having expected that answer, he then looked to Romanoff. She simply smiled knowingly in response, a short non-verbal conversation seemingly happening between the two lovers. Rumlow’s face was growing more and more sour with each passing minute. Finally, Kidd’s attention centralised at the opposite end of the table, or more specifically, on a certain Captain Charles Vane, who was currently wearing a very incredulous expression.

“For this plan to be successful and carried out with the utmost precision, we need several swift vessels with considerate firepower. We’ve got Barnes’ Swan, Romanoff’s Scavenger, Rumlow’s Hydra … and possibly Vane’s Ranger?”

Kidd’s tone was precise and urging, dragging the answer out of Vane instead of letting him stall it. Everyone’s attention had zeroed in on the Captain, still with his feet nonchalantly resting on the table and pibe in hand. He was almost staring Kidd down through narrow, sharp and fierce eyes, yet Steve sensed that Kidd might be very used to handling the moody beast of a Captain by now. Vane finally blew out a long stream of smoke through his nostrils, before promptly demanding an answer in a rough inhumane voice.

“What the fuck will I get out of it?”

Judging by his amused bold grin, Kidd had seen the question coming from a mile away.

“You’ll get to rob any other cargo that ain’t bolted down. Hell, you can take the fuckin’ ship for all I care.”

“The fuck am I supposed to do with a galleon, Kidd?”

“Either chop ‘er up or play another one of your intimidation games Vane, I don’ give a shit.”

Despite the two pirates barking at each other, Steve found the sudden shift in vocabulary rather amusing. Vane finally shut up, seemingly mulling the idea over in his head, before agreeing with an annoyed snort. Kidd’s grin was back in full force.

“Four combat-vessels should be enough to make them surrender easily, instead of initiating a fight. Maybe we’ll have to worry about an escort, but it's unlikely they’ll try to attract attention to themselves in Spanish waters.”

Barnes’ trio fleet and Vane, and therefore also Rackham and Bonny, as addition agreed on meeting in three months time at a certain naval location that Steve forgot the latitudes and longitudes to as soon as he heard them. These numbers really didn’t mean anything to him anyways. From there on, the four involved Captains started to plan out formations for attack as well as visual flag codes to communicate in the heat of a potential battle. Barnes was all for exploiting the element of surprise with their bigger number of vessels and guns, while Rumlow prefered a more offensive approach. He refused to listen to Kidd’s or Barnes’ reasoning, which finally made Romanoff, who had been eerily silent for a bigger part of the discussion, snap back at him.

“This mission is all about stealth and mindgames Rumlow. You want to provoke The Token into a firefight, but will you be fighting yourself this time? Or blame your own incompetence on malfunctioning crew again?”

Steve felt an underlying past being references, since the snide comment made Rumlow shut his jaw with a snap. The lethal stare that Steve had personally been the target for too many times already returned full force, except now it was steadily aimed at Natasha Romanoff. She didn’t seem the least phased by this. A man standing directly behind Rumlow wore a mask of contempt to match the Captain’s. Steve finally noticed him and even though he was unaware of the man’s position and name, he guessed him to be Rumlow’s quartermaster. The tension between the trio fleet grew for every second ticking by and Steve wondered how long it’d take for Barnes to interfere.

“We sail in an arrow formation, The Swan at the tip, The Hydra at her starboard side and The Scavenger at her portside, both ships aligning bowsprits with The Swan’s quarterdeck. We need a distance of at least a 100 feet between the hulls so no collisions will take place.” The Captain’s tone left little room for arguments, as he planned out the formations and demonstrating each ship’s placement. “The Ranger will tail The Swan and keep a similar distance. When approaching The Token, The Hydra and The Ranger will glide to one broadside, while The Swan and The Scavenger will do the same for the opposite. If we’ve got them surrounded there’s a bigger chance they’ll see the fight as already lost, but if they decide to engage this position will give us the upper hand as well.”

Barnes has spoken with a clarity and speed that demanded attention. His tone hadn’t been commanding, but Steve suspected that if Barnes started acting superior in this meeting, where all members were supposed to be equals, he would find resistance from several different corners of the room. These people all had power in some way or form. Teach had his notorious name, which could run shivers down every Navyman’s back. Bellâcleu ran a considerable amount of institutions here in Tortuga and elsewhere, while Bonnet and Rackham had strong connections to the merchant trade. They were all different in their functions, which essentially kept the counsel working effectively. Some had a wide number of different goals, but they all assembled in the same room nonetheless, to set aside their differences for the greater good of Nassau. Steve found something especially admirable about this.

“Does anyone have objections to this plan?”

Barnes final question was urging as he searched the mission-participants’ expressions for traces of complaint. He inhaled deeply when he found none.

“A more detailed course of action can be planned on site if we all meet at the assigned location well in time. Our main goal is to board with minimal casualties, correct?

The question was aimed at Kidd, who seemed calm and poised despite the sparks of tension still flowing in the air.

“Correct. Minimal casualties as per usual.”

Barnes nodded affirmatively and Romanoff followed suit. Vane’s attention was confirmation enough and Rumlow wisely kept his mouth shut. Silence filled the room for a short while, signalling the end of negotiations and possibly allowing another topic to surface. Bellâcleu was the first to take advantage of this. She raised herself from her seat, looming above the other members seated at the table, all poised and chin high.

“Now ladies and gentlemen-”

Steve just about overheard Kidd grumble to Bonnet “I ain’t seeing either of those in here” quietly under his breath, earning an amused grin from the other pirate.

“- now to more pressing matters at hand.”

Both Kidd’s and Bonnet’s expressions suddenly fell from humored to grave, too fast for Steve’s liking. Bellâcleu’s statement had left a cover of tensity in the air that mostly affected the seated members, but Steve observed Thor tensing slightly out of the corner of his eye. He had no idea what this sentence served as a warning towards, but he also believed he wasn’t alone in that. Several of the men leaning on walls and furniture in the corners looked just as confused as he felt himself. His attention peaked more as the silence settled again.

“I’ll kindly ask anyone without a direct seat on this counsel to vacate the room. If you will be so kind.”

Steve blinked a couple of times before his brain caught up. He turned just in time to watch Thor get a confirmative you’ll-be-staying glance from Romanoff. The bigger man turned to him, apologies written clear on his face before urging Bojèkio towards Steve with a small pat on the boy’s back.

“Can you watch him the next half an hour? He’s getting awfully bored.”

Thor looked as if he felt awful and had burdened Steve with the child of Satan himself, but Steve simply gave him a kind smile and took Bojèkio’s hand in his own. They might not be able to understand each other, but Steve still liked the boy quite a bit. Several men from the corners, potentially average crewmembers like himself, left the room together with them. The silence in the meeting room stretched on and not a word was muttered from inside by the time Steve exited through the mansion’s front door. He was now standing on the porch with Bojèkio, having no idea where to go or what to do. The other crewmembers who also left the room were all walking back towards the iron gate and the busy parts of the city, but waiting for Thor here for half an hour really was manageable. They could all walk back together and possibly buy lunch from the market on the way. A small tug ripped him from his thoughts. The Taìno boy was tugging at his arm and pointing towards a couple of horses, saddled and  tied up besides the porch. Some of the members inside hadn’t bothered walking it would seem. Steve quickly budged, letting himself be dragged along by Bojèkio, who probably hadn’t seen or touched a horse in his life.

No workers or farmers were in sight, except for the few people walking in the fields far away from the mansion itself. The big animals were lazing in the sun, which was now significantly higher in the sky than when they arrived. The horses, a chestnut mare and a palomino gelding, were both bending and resting one hind-leg, carrying the weight on the point of the hoof. They raised their heads slightly, ears turning forward, when they saw the small boy walking towards them, determined as ever, with a large muscular man simply being dragged along.

After a few hand gestures and demonstration Steve successfully showed Bojèkio how to hand feed grass to the horses without him simultaneously stuffing his fingers into the horse’s mouth as well. The boy gave a thrill laugh every time one of the horses would eagerly reach for the grass, resulting in their lips making hollow smacking noises, before pulling each straw out of the tiny hand before them. Steve found himself chuckling as well at the amusing display and utter fascination on Bojékio’s face.

The very evident smell of hay mixed with dust and sweaty horse was slowly making his mind drift to a red-bricked building up north. Stables and surrounding woods, once a safe space now fading to a distant but pleasant memory. His mind drifted further, searching for every place he’d ever associated with that smell. The bustling streets of New York, also with riding animals tied up in front of bars and boutiques alike. The quiet backstreets in the outskirts of the city, where horse races would be held illegally, mostly as much needed income and entertainment for youth of the common folk. One of Steve’s university pals had once brought him there, ending in them having to flee across the wet moor close to the shore in order to get away from British patrols once the gathering had been discovered. Horses were more of a luxury down here, at least on the smaller Caribbean islands and for non-Army folks, probably because transport of such big animals could prove difficult.

The long stream of familiar longing was brutally broken by a heavy set of footsteps approaching, seemingly picking up speed with every step. Before Steve could properly react and turn towards the sound, a highly unpleasant voice filled the air and left a stinging trail trickling down his back like ice cold water.

“What the fuck have you gotten yourself into Rogers?”

Steve whipped around only to discover Brock Rumlow standing far too close for comfort, leaning forward as if speaking to a child. Steve felt his resentment and anger for the man flare up together with memories of the actions causing him to feel so strongly. But every tilt of Rumlow’s body and every tiny expression on his face screamed a desire to provoke and fuck no if Steve was gonna make it that easy for him. A small hand clutching at his pant leg finally made him reel in the last dangerous flames of anger. He settled for a dismissive expression and a fake smile instead of clocking Rumlow in the jaw, as had his first instinct been.

“Rumlow, what are you doing out here?”

A malicious tension quickly flickered across the Captain’s face, fueled by his question being directly ignored, but it was quickly hidden away. Rumlow was transparent in his anger and Steve knew that the other man wanted a confrontation, but the fact that Bojékio was still present and clutching at his clothes forced him to think twice. If he stalled the conversation then the rest of the counsel might just come walking out of the homestead soon. Steve didn't want to count on anyone being his savior, yet the small boy’s safety simply had to come first. Sadly, Rumlow’s grating voice rang clear yet again, like nails scratching down a blackboard.

“I can leave when I want to, Rogers. I'm a free man much unlike yourself.”

Steve wanted nothing more than ripping his own name from the Captain’s throat and brutally stuff hay down there instead. Still, remaining silent and fake indifference was his best play at the moment so he stuck to it. The lack of venomous response clearly aggravated the other man, who needed no goading to continue his spiteful task.

“If you’re here then where is your slave friend?”

Steve’s gaze snapped up and turned several degrees colder all in a fraction of a second. An almost invisible smile lingered at Rumlow’s lips, he knew he’d struck a nerve.

“Is he on Barnes’ useless stray-dog-crew as well? How long are you truly expecting either of you to survive?”

“He’s a free man. As free as both of us.”

Steve tone was clipped short. Strained from the effort of not standing up more for his friend. It felt wrong in every sense of the word. It felt like betrayal.

“Is he though? He's not that fair-skinned Rogers even you should be able to see that.”

Every word struck home, exactly as intended, and Steve had both of his fists clenched in fury. Every memory of Sam in pain on the deck of The Triumph, bleeding out and fighting to stay upright, flashed painfully clear in Steve’s mind. Rumlow’s fabricated thoughtful expression, together with the way he began to square his shoulders aggressively, reminded Steve of a predator getting ready to pounce on easy kill. At that moment he realised that he was going to lash out, the instinct to protect his friend from malicious words woven too strongly into his very soul to prevent it. It was simply a question of time and dedication from the Captain standing in front of him.

Said Captain now leaned in even closer, getting in Steve’s face as well as on his nerves. His tone harsh and his words dripping venom as he continued, articulating slowly and surely, making Steve feel every word.

“We would all have been better off if he'd died. Even you. Even himself…”

Finally, the cord snapped. Steve swung his right fist directly at Rumlow’s grinning face, ready to take the man’s face clean off if that was what it took. For a split-second, he expected the punch to hit its mark, but he truly should have learned his lesson sooner. Brock Rumlow ducked out of the way a fraction of a second in time, fist flying past his face, before planting his own in Steve’s gut with a single powerful punch.

All air was violently forced out of Steve’s lungs, making him curl in on himself. Before he could gasp properly for air that refused to come, Rumlow grabbed at his shirt, pulling him off balance, before another hit struck him directly across the face. Steve’s legs, already wobbly from the first punch, buckled under him and he collapsed heavily in the dirt. The right side of his face throbbed with pain, the hit to his unguarded stomach still made waves of nausea through his midsection. His foggy mind briefly caught the nasty-sounding laugh, rasping and throaty coming from directly above him, before a boot dug deep into his stomach. Pain flared furiously through his abdomen yet again, making him gasp for breath even harder than before. Steve wrapped his arms around his stomach, clutching protectively, awaiting another hit while the world were still woozily rotating around him.

It didn’t immediately follow. This simple fact surprised him. He’d seen the disdain in Rumlow’s entire posture and the man not taking further advantage of an opponent’s unfortunate position in the dirt really didn’t match his personality. This exact thought convinced Steve to slowly open his eyes. He squinted, the world around him still a mess of blurry colours and distorted sounds, until one clear high-pitched scream rang through the air. Bojèkio was clutching desperately at the Captain’s clothes, trying to drag the man away from Steve, while simultaneously screaming and wailing a long fierce stream of foreign words. Rumlow sneered degradingly at the boy before violently showing him aside. Bojèkio landed in the dirt with another wail and Steve felt his temper rise and slowly push the pain to the very back of his mind. Rumlow was distracted, still spewing nasty expletives with his side to Steve. His mind worked out the move a split-second before he felt his body react.

Steve swiftly surged up, grabbed at Rumlow’s coat just beneath hip-height and kicked at the side of the man’s knee as hard as he could muster. The Captain barely had time to vocalise his surprise before Steve used his solid grip and put his weight into it. Rumlow went down with a heavy thump, all air leaving his lungs in an airy wheeze. Then Steve was on him. Sitting astride the man's chest allowed Steve to get two good hits in, one to Rumlow’s jaw and another slightly higher. The man beneath him sneered, thrashed and gripped at his shirt, trying to raise himself enough to throw Steve off, but the firm hand clutching at his collar held him down. An indistinct shout from behind them made Steve falter slightly. The exact words was blurred by his still woozy mind but somebody had definitely called out. Suddenly, he became aware of his own strained gaspy breaths and the bone-deep ache in his abdomen.

He was inattentive for a fraction of a second too long. The chance of parrying the quick punch Rumlow threw at him was slim even if he hadn't been distracted. The fist collided with his jaw and threw him off balance and off Rumlow simultaneously. Steve landed yet again on his side in the dust, immediately awaiting the next attack and therefore twisting to face the other lying man to kick his assailant if need be.

But Rumlow didn't rush getting off the ground. He simply pressed softly at his own face, checking out the beginning of a bruise, while with a deadly amused expression. That couldn't be a good sign. Only then did Steve notice the approaching figures. Several of the council's members were standing on the steps of the homestead, having just exited through the door. Some looking displeased, Bellâcleu, while others radiated indifference, Vane.

The sounds of two pairs of boots belonged to a fastly approaching James Kidd and Captain Barnes. Behind them, Thor was quickly approaching Bojekío, picking him up and fussing over him to the boy’s verbal displeasure.

Kidd reached them first, just as Rumlow had picked himself off the ground.

“Is civility a fucking myth to you?”

Kidd shouted at Rumlow, getting in his face and planting a pointed finger on the other man's chest. Despite lacking several inches in height compared to the Captain in front of him, Kidd still managed to look intimidating and steadfast, a force to be reckoned with. Rumlow didn't seem particularly frightened by the display, rather the opposite in fact. He still wore his head high, a man lacking words such as ‘regret’ and ‘consequence’ from his vocabulary. Steve knew better though. Behind Rumlow’s bravado hid fury from the humiliation of Steve getting the upper hand if only for a short time. The fact that the last part of the fight had been seen by others only served to magnify the rage and disdain already present tenfold.

Rumlow’s fury wasn't Steve’s most pressing concern though, that would be the way James Barnes was stalking towards him with lethality to every step and ice-cold concealed anger in his eyes. Steve moved to get to his feet, but he only got halfway there before Barnes reached him and harshly pulled him the rest of the way up by his shirt. Luckily, the Captain let go after that, turning to give Rumlow a malicious glare that spelled out ‘you'll hear for this’ letter for letter. Steve almost flinched when those same icy eyes turned to him and was followed by a voice completely lack of emotion but commanding nonetheless.

“You. With me.”

Barnes pointed directly at his chest, his glare still sending shudders down Steve’s spine in long cold waves. The Captain then turned on his heels and started walking away from the Compton Estate. Steve followed suit, still uncertain what Barnes intended to do with all that anger. No matter how terrified he'd been of that fury beforehand, when it was aimed at Officers and Navy alike, it couldn't compare to being the actual target for it. Steve could only try to avoid his worry showing on his features for the world to see.

Barnes briefly turned again, this time towards the remaining members of the counsel still standing on the porch. All except Vane it would seem, who’s disinterest most likely made him disappear into the house again. The Captain did a half-bow, a strained smile forced unto his features.

“Ladies and gentlemen, until next time.”

Said smile dropped immediately as he once again made his way towards the big  iron gates. Steve briefly caught a glimpse of sympathy on Romanoff’s face and another one of well-hidden concern on Bellâcleu’s. Wherever the Captain was heading or whatever he was planning probably wouldn't prove in Steve’s favour.

 

Barnes walked in front of him for several long minutes, with stiff steps and a too straight spine. Steve sensed his anger even though Barnes was facing away from him. It was well-written in the tension of his shoulders, woven into his unrelenting pace and clenching fists. They passed the other mansions and homesteads, gardens and gates almost flying past with the pace Barnes forced them to keep. Not a single word had been spoken since they left the others and Steve’s panic was slowly growing. Yet he couldn't shake the feeling that he’d missed an important detail. Yes, Barnes had the right to be angry, Steve had punched one of his friends and allies after all, but the amount of fury swimming and sparking in the Captain’s eyes was a strong reaction hereto nonetheless. Barnes had a temper, not unlike Steve himself, but this was unlike even him. Something was missing, or maybe it was just Steve’s hopeful thoughts getting mixed with reality. Truly, he was trying to ignore the chunk of ice churning in his stomach. Wrath was terrifying, but he'd manage and take whatever punishment Barnes could wish upon him, but disappointment? That was a whole other playing field. Disappointment was personal and that terrified Steve in its own right. Because no matter how well he'd try to hide it, this felt personal. For that reason Steve wanted to apologise maybe, even though he couldn't bring himself to regret those punches, or even explain himself if Barnes would allow him to. A personal connection to James Barnes, a ridiculous thought 3 months ago, but now very much a reality. Steve didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

 

They reached the outskirts of the posh parts of Tortuga, still moving towards midtown with haste. Now Barnes’ stalked the smaller streets, looking for something unbeknownst to Steve. He seemingly found it when they entered a small alley, wooden houses on each side with a narrow patch of sand for path in between. Next thing Steve knew was Barnes hands grappling at his shoulders and swinging him around roughly until his back collided painfully with the wall. His vision began to swim again and his stomach had seized up in reaction, making the hot spikes of pain resurface. Barnes was pinning him in place with his forearm across Steve’s chest, suspiciously close to his throat, both of his hands clutching at his shirt. Barnes’ face and body was inches from his own, but before he could gather his thoughts enough for a reaction, the Captain spoke up.

“That was neither the time nor place, Rogers!”

The words were forced out between teeth in a wheezy hiss, sending prickling shivers down Steve’s back. They stayed like that, long stretched seconds passing in silence while Steve was too paralysed to form words. Barnes eyes didn’t waver from his for a moment. The flecks of light blue in between the grey was visible in the Captain’s eyes when seen from this close, practically breathing the same air. Eventually, Barnes’ gaze flickered to the right, then to the left, checking the alley for any presence besides their own. He sighed then, deeply, and a small part of the tension seeped out of his body with the released air. Steve even felt his grip get slightly looser, although neither of them tried  to move.

“The Taìno village, that’s what we discussed - after you and the others were sent out - that was what all the secrecy was about.”

“Oh…”

Steve dumbly replied, still not understanding exactly what the Captain was implying. He didn’t get the need for secrecy, surely Barnes’ entire crew knew what had happened since they’d all witnessed it firsthand. Eventually, Barnes grip loosened even more, his arms dropping and hands unclenching. It took Steve several seconds to register that his own hands were in fact bundled up in the Captain’s own coat, which had been the first thing he could cling to after hitting the wall. He quickly released his grip as well, slightly flustered. His late reaction earned him a quizzical look from Barnes, but the man dropped it quickly and returned to the topic of conversation.

“The placement of the village was confidential, only the counsel and some crew members knew of it.”

Barnes ran his hand slowly over his face, simultaneously brushing a few loose strands of hair away. Most of the rage had dissolved, getting replaced by tiredness and desperation.

“It was an inside job. Someone on my crew, or any of the other crews, delivered information to The British Navy. The Officers who received the intel saw it as an easy way to hit both me and The Creed. Two rebellious birds with one stone.”

That was it. The last piece of the puzzle. The secrecy at the meeting now made perfect sense. Steve didn’t know what had been discussed, but the council was right to keep it only between the most qualified members involved.

“The British know you're working with The Creed?”

“Absolutely. A good chunk of The Creed’s enemies are British nobility and they use their position with the King, as well as their connection to plantage owners, to set us two steps back every time we take one forward.”

“That sounds … exhausting.”

“It's alright. We do the same to them.”

The last statement from the Captain was followed by lopsided smile with a hint of pride and resilience. It quickly dropped at Steve’s next question.

“So what will the counsel do about the intel leak?”

“First of all, narrow down the circle in which classified information is shared. Some parts of The Creed has already been informed of the leak and several of the other Taíno villages across Jamaica and The Bahamas need to be either heavily guarded or moved to other parts of the islands.”

That sounded like a task of enormous proportions in itself and Barnes’ expression only served to confirm Steve’s suspicions. He looked tired at the mere thought, still angered and irritated as well, but his gaze was now aimed at the ground and his shoulders slumped. Steve didn't know what to say. The thought of such a massacre happening again made horror spike through his body. He tried his best to repress it, now a certain question burning its way up his throat and demanding his full attention. He fidgeted a bit, teeth worrying his bottom lip before collecting the courage.

“Then why did you tell me? If you're minimizing the people knowing the council’s secrets then why did you tell me about the inside job?”

Barnes’ eyes snapped up to his, visibly steeling with the anger flaming up behind them anew. That had been a mistake. Steve’s stomach lurched, but it was too late to backtrack now. He was hanging off a cliff already and his unhelpful brain was doing its best to disintegrate the only ledge preventing him from falling to an early demise on the spike-sharp rocks beneath.

“Because the council is on high alert and you picked a fight with one of the members right outside Compton Estate.”

Each word dropped a heavier metaphorical  stone on Steve’s shoulders. Shit. Barnes’ precise articulation was accompanied by a tight smile drenched in lethality.

“Which places you as a figure of suspicion in the eyes of the council and further reflects upon my own capabilities of choosing reliable level-headed crewmen.”

Frigid ice filled Steve’s veins, the Captain’s frosty words making it flow through him in harsh waves of reality. He’d only seen the tip of the iceberg and he had acted unbeknownst to the depth of the situation. Too narrow minded in his hate for Brock Rumlow and everything he stood for to consider the bigger picture. He knew of several council members that would speak well of him if anyone’s suspicion grew to unignorable degrees. Hell, he was even prepared to believe that Barnes might speak in his defense, if not for defending Steve then for defending himself. A tiny snowflake landing in the wrong circumstances could cause an avalanche and the outcome of a misplaced fight could have a far longer range of possible conclusions. And yet, a tiny flame was still burning beneath the ice, whispering on behalf of Steve’s conscience. The flame knows that he’d probably do the same thing again if given the change. And this is the ridiculousness of the situation. His absolute reckless willingness to erase context of circumstance in order to protect what he finds of high value. Now consequence is lurking like a dark shadow still unknown, but assuredly agonizing, all due to Steve Rogers’ complete inability to simply be a speck of dust on a wall.

That line of thought simply provided him with another question that burned like acid in his throat.

“Rumlow, he…”

“Knew this. Of course.”

Barnes provided, cutting him off. Having his worst suspicions confirmed out loud was every bit as painful as he’d imagined. Rumlow had laid out a trap and Steve had jumped into it willingly. Now the snare was closing in around him.

“He might not have planned the specifics, but the result was the same nonetheless.”

Steve inhaled deeply, exhaled and repeated several times before being able to collect his thoughts. He wanted to come up with an answer, a solution, anything really, but the Captain’s expression stopped him. Barnes was angry, of course he was, yet Steve was prepared to believe that a fraction of that anger was now reflected elsewhere. He seemed angry at Steve, as he had the right to, but he also seemed angry for him. It very well could be Steve’s imagination playing tricks on him, but the subtle shift made hope bloom in his stomach nonetheless. If there was even a slim chance of Barnes still wanting to stand up for him, for both of them really, if the council voiced worries, then that would serve as a great advantage.

The silence had been stretching between them for some time now, neither of them making a move to speak. Barnes was seemingly deep in thought, his brows drawn together. Steve’s back was still pressed against the wall but this time it was done more willingly in order to take strain off his stomach muscles. He could still feel the ghost of Barnes’ arm across his chest and his hand clutching the fabric of his shirt tight. Steve subconsciously rubbed at the tingling feeling, neither wishing it to stay or leave.

“So what now?”

The question was a stupid one and Steve had known that even before it slung itself out of his throat. It was still better than the uncertain silence making his mind wander. He did admittedly get an exasperated look from the Captain, confirming his own line of thought, before the man sighed and answered him.

“I'll be doing some light damage control you'll go to the doctor to get that looked at.”

By ‘that’ the Captain clearly meant all of Steve’s face judging by his vague  gestures. Come to think of it, Steve really didn't know how bad it was. He did suspect that the throbbing topped with the occasional sharp flare of pain in his bottom lip might mean that it was split. His right temple throbbed as well so he'd probably find a nasty bruise there if he looked.

“Come on, I know someone.”

Steve almost quipped ‘don't you always?’ But thought better of it in the last second.

“Someone who's not Romanoff?”

“Yes, an actual doctor this time. I hired him as our new ship surgeon only yesterday. I can't keep Romanoff off her own vessel for long without her practically taking over mine.”

Humour was woven into Barnes’ slight smile and cheeky comment. Steve nodded and finally stepped away from the wall at his back to let Captain Barnes steer him through a different set of narrow streets, heading into the city.

Chapter Text

The doctor poked and prodded at Steve’s lip with an inspecting gaze all the while Steve tried his best not to wince too much. The man then hummed thoughtfully and turned Steve’s head to examine the side of his face. A deep content silence had settled in the second Steve was directed to the chair he was currently sitting in, after Barnes had led him to a small cottage in the outskirts of Tortuga. The hut surely had not looked like a doctor’s practice or even living quarters. With its worn wooden exterior, straw roof and small porch with creaky unstable stairs, it hadn't appeared to house anything or anyone important. Come to think of it though, the cottage reflected its owner quite well. Doctor Banner, as he'd introduced himself as at the door, was surprisingly plain looking. Not in a bad way that is. The man had a well-formed face with dark curls atop and focused eyes shining with intelligence. But his clothes were a simple mix of brown and dark green hues and Steve knew for a fact that this man would never be looked twice at in a crowd. Maybe that was Banner’s intention in the first place, whatever the reason for that might be.

Barnes had walked straight up to the hut and knocked, then announced their errand in a civil tone.

“I'm afraid that I've got some early work for you doctor.”

They had been let in a little later, when doctor Banner had recovered from suddenly being seeked out earlier than expected. Barnes had been brooding in a corner, leaning casually against a wall for the first couple of minutes while Steve was instructed where to sit. When the doctor had found equipment and started examining the worst, the Captain had silently left the hut with a mumbled excuse of having errands to run. Steve didn’t think much of it, he was the troublemaker after all and if Barnes needed to tend to the so-called damage control he’d spoken of earlier then who was he to stop him?

Steve’s only concerns now were stifling his hisses of pain and dealing with the ever growing silence between himself and doctor Banner. Lastly mentioned got up from the chair positioned directly in front of Steve’s own and went to shuffle through a couple of drawers. Finally, the doctor made move to speak.

“What was your name again?”

Barnes had not bothered to introduce them at all, but Steve still answered politely to the implication of the contrary.

“Steve Rogers, doctor.”

Banner made a malcontent face at the title, followed by a vague sweeping gesture of his hand, clearly asking Steve to drop the formalities.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Bruce Banner. You part of Barnes’ crew?”

“One of the newest additions, actually.”

“Glad to know I won’t be the only one.”

Steve hummed in response because Banner had been wetting a piece of cloth and made to dap the fluid content on his bruised lip. The ointment of a sort made his lip sting sharply and he grinded his teeth together.

“Your lip is split, but I doubt there’ll be a need for stitches.”

“Stitches?”

“Sutures yes. Although the wound might leave you with a scar without.”

Steve simply shrugged at that and decided not to ask exactly what the doctor meant. A scar seemed like a terribly small problem compared to everything else currently happening around him anyways. Banner now turned the attention to Steve’s temple, wetting another cloth in water and instructing Steve to hold it against his own temple. The silence stretched again for a couple of minutes, but it wasn't unpleasant or strained. Bruce Banner came forth as a man of few words, his voice a smooth and calming, yet rare, privilege, letting silence and presence speak for itself when words couldn't.

“So will I have 5 other guys looking worse on my doorstep soon?”

Steve let out a small chuckle, instantly regretting it as it made his abdomen clench. Banner must have noticed his grunt of pain and slight shuffling on the chair, because he was pulling up Steve’s shirt a second later. The doctor let out what sounded like an impressed whistle. Steve needed a couple of deep breaths before he could answer without sounding pained.

“There was only one so I doubt it. And he’s probably not the one looking worse for wear.”

Banner simply offered him an apologetic look and didn't comment further, which Steve was grateful for. While the doctor prodded gently at his stomach, Steve tried his best to distract himself by letting his eyes wander over the hut’s interior. It was, like the hut itself, nothing special. A single cot with sheets stood in the corner to his left, while the rest of the single room was occupied by a table, functioning as a desk as well judging by the writing utensils and different medical tools orderly organised on top of it, as well as a dresser and the two chairs currently in use by both of them. A single window let in a bit of light, the table placed just beneath it to exploit this fact, and bayberry wax candles were lying spread out on the dresser, a single unlit candle perched on a chamberstick besides the rest. Steve could still make out the scent of the wax burning though, a scent, tart, sweet and woodsy all at once, still lingered behind long after the flame had died. It fit strangely well with the place, giving it a soft homely edge in addition to the well-used furniture.

“How long have you been living here?”

Steve didn't know where his question came from. Hell, he didn't even know why he wanted the answer, but something about the hut fit the man living here, while simultaneously not fitting him at all. As if only the presence of Banner, his neatly arranged tools and the bayberry candles made the place livable.

“Only for two weeks or so.”

“So you're not from around here?”

Banner huffed out a barely-there laugh before moving to press his thumbs against Steve’s left ribs, which luckily didn't hurt nearly as much as the bruise.
“I'm from Philadelphia originally, although I set up my practice in New York a couple of years ago when I finished my studies. You?”

“New York actually.”

The doctor hummed acknowledgedly.

“The world is a small place indeed.”

“Why did you leave?”

Again, Steve felt his curiosity getting the better of him. Or maybe it was his self conscience frantically trying to find parallels between Banner’s situation and his own. He wasn’t stupid. He knew that his situation was ridiculous and dangerous, but causes worth fighting for usually are. The point being that getting beat up in front of pirate Governors, by one as well, and then get dragged to the other end of town by another really makes the mind re-contemplate a lot of things. That, and finding similarities between himself and a seemingly intelligent, calm and level-headed doctor might justify at least a few of the more logical choices he’s taken himself along the way. Banner inhaled deeply, apparently thinking out, or shortening down, the answer.

“Most surgeons up North weigh the glory of success to be more worth than the work itself. I didn’t. So I left.”

Steve suspected the answer to be considerably simplified, but also decided against asking any elaborate questions. Despite this, the doctor eyed him for a couple of seconds before somehow deciding that the question deserved a more elaborate answer.

“There’s a lot of prestige behind my profession. Banquets and gatherings are practically mandatory. The men there pride themselves in the quickness of an amputation, the swiftness of cutting off an incurable limb, and gives little thought to their patient’s slim chances of survival past the procedure.”

Banner got up and packed away the used damp cloth. He used a couple seconds to look for something in his brown leather bag, before continuing his story.

“I chose to focus on the problematically mortality rate of 65% instead. I started my own studies as well as treating the poorest folk in New York, those who couldn’t afford a proper doctor for their children. It didn’t quite fit with the top people in my profession’s expectations of how an well-educated respectable doctor should behave.”

The doctor’s tone was calculated and monotone, yet rays of bitterness and contempt for the men he spoke of shone through the curtain of his masked indifference. Steve was listening with sympathetic patience and interest. Hearing tidbits of this man’s story, all the while he still wore a guarded mask of privacy, made Steve’s throat seize up in a mix of righteous fury and unbelief. His mind was caught up in a circle of possible ways the world could be unfair send a man like Banner on the path of illegality, so the man’s question caught him off guard.

“You a religious man, Steve?”

“No, I mean - I used to be. A lot has happened the last couple of years to make me reconsider the definition of that word.”

He got a thoughtful hum as response from the scientist. Steve almost asked the reason for that sudden shift in conversation, but Banner cut him off and picked up where he’d left off.

“Besides, my methods and theories weren’t exactly biblical. I made it awfully easy for them to falsely charge me with blasphemy. I’d lose my official practice and perhaps even my title after prison anyways so I snuck away in the dead of night before the court case

Steve chewed on his cheek while listening intently. It was the story of a man who’d given up on his past and the people connected to it. A story of social pressure and societal condemnation, as well as the collapse of communal reputation. Steve could relate to all of it and that simple fact shocked him into silence for a slow, dragging minute. The doctor’s shoulders slowly turned rigid with every passing second and Steve’s mind kicked itself into gear before the man before him started regretting ever speaking up in the first place.

“You did the right thing, Banner. Your skills as a physician are much more appreciated down here than they would ever be in a northern prison cell.”

The doctor froze on the spot and slowly his shoulders untwined, one muscle at a time. He then turned and offered Steve an incredulous and unbelieving glance. The simplicity of the answer seemed to be a complete new perspective for the man, as well as the exact thing he had needed to hear for months. Banner blinked a bit and the slight tugging at the corners of his mouth indicated pleasant surprise.

“Thank you.”

The doctor’s voice came out surprisingly soft and sincere. Steve smiled back at him gently.

“And please, call me Bruce. The sea is too perilous for formalities.”
________________________________

After receiving instructions of keeping his head mostly still, in case of a concussion, and get some damn rest, Steve made his way back towards the inn. He still needed to apologise and explain to Thor exactly why he’d allowed himself to loose control over a situation when Bojékio’s safety had been his responsibility. He really didn’t look forward to the conversation at all, as he made his way back, feet practically dragging long lines in the sand out of tiredness and reluctance. Steve’s mind wandered back to Doctor Banner and the small part of the man’s past he’d been given information of. It really was rather similar to his own situation, although a bit more dramatic. Steve’s step-dad never called the authorities on him. He’d made Steve officially sign a document, which legally disclaimed him from any inheritance. So much for being the only son, although never biologically, for the bigger part of his life.

Their individual stories varied and resembled each other in a wide range of ways, but they were both misfits, different from the norm. Merely misshaped puzzle pieces in the bigger scheme of things, never quite fitting in anywhere in the puzzle as a whole. Their edges were ragged and uneven where different factors had desperately tried to cut and file down each of their shapes and ideas into something fitable. Now, they were both thrown out of the box, simply to discover a completely different puzzle in which they could conform themselves to fit easier, battered and broken and all. This new puzzle, never mind how despised by the rest of the world, might just prove their saviour or their doom, as well as several shades of grey in between those two options. That is how taking a wild leap off a cliff feels like, whatever one might find at the bottom, giving water or cold ruthless rock, unbeknownst to all. And despite all his prior thoughts, Steve had now developed a taste for falling.
________________________________

Explaining himself to Thor really went easier than he’d expected. The quartermaster was dubious in expression, rightfully so, but Steve managed to squeeze in some sort of explanation of the incident between profound apologies and promises of future betterment. At last the bigger man had smiled and proclaimed Steve officially redeemed, despite Steve still feeling guilty for it. Bojekìo had jumped off the bed where he’d been sitting with his straw doll during the conversation and trotted over to him, prodded a bit with his small hands at Steve’s face and the bruises there with a grave expression, effectively making Steve’s heart melt.

The boy only wore a couple of scrapes along his elbows, probably from where he’d hit the ground first after getting shoved. Steve still felt the heavy ball of guilt in the pit of his stomach, but the boy’s calm and quietly held fierce expression made the burden a little easier to bear. He still offered to go buy dinner and fruit at the marked for all of them on him, which was settled after his wish for self-redemption won over the blond quartermaster’s kind protests.
________________________________

The next day flew by in a blur. Steve finally got his old clothes back from Bellâcleu’s establishment, now cleaner than ever, but no less worn and rough. It was simply returned in a sack, lying on his bed when he came home from his midday walk around the city, admittedly an attempt of finding someone who could cut his hair cheaply. He asked around, but neither his roommate or both of their little companion knew when or who had returned it. Afterwards he simply wasted the rest of the day away with wandering around enjoying the bustling streets with hair about an inch shorter than before. He had bought some pieces of pargament as well as borrowed a quill and some ink from Romanoff, now all he needed to do was ignoring the blank pages staring up at him accusingly. Steve so desperately wanted to write a letter to Sam, letting him know that he was alive and well. Writing only that would be far too simple and unjustified though, but his current situation and the decisions that led him here seemed indescribable in black on white. Finally, he gave up, went early to bed and hoped that the morning would bring more clarity and less challenge.

As expected, the morning brought none of that. It simply added a sense of urgency and panic and instead of dealing with that fact, Steve naturally choose to leave the writing utensils unused on the worn desk and head out instead. Aimlessly wandering could truly become a habit of one was committed enough to procrastinate responsibilities. Around midday, the burning sun and humidness of the air finally chased him inside. Just walking up the stairs to his rented room seemed too tedious a task to accomplish in this heat with the fabric of his shirt clinging to his torso, uncomfortably so. He was pulling it over his head before ever setting a foot inside the actual room, having slight problems with the damp cotton obscuring his vision. Out of nowhere, a low familiar voice coming from his left nearly made him jump several feet into the air.

“That looks painful.”

Steve frantically scrambled to get the rest of the shirt off his head, bundling it in his hands before firmly planting his eyesight upon a Captain James Barnes sitting comfortably atop Thor and Bojekío’s bed. A few more seconds passed before Steve realised that the comment was aimed at the dark bruises standing in stark contrast to the lighter skin of his stomach. He looked down a few times before spreading out the fabric in his hands, feeling just a little naked under Barnes’ inspecting gaze.

“What are you doing here?”

Choosing to ignore the prior loose statement, Steve really wanted to know exactly what Barnes’ was thinking, showing up unannounced and letting himself in like this. Thor might have let him in, but how long had he been waiting? He couldn’t have known when Steve would be back, unless he had him watched, which admittedly sounded a little too extensive even for this man.

“I was looking for you, but you weren’t here so I decided to wait, since i really don’t have much else to do today.”

Since that comment didn't make all scepticism present in Steve’s gaze disappear, Barnes sighed softly before elaborating.

“Training…”

He grabbed at a piece of cloth wrapped around other objects, which made a sharp clear sound at the touch, metal against metal.

“So you might want to keep on the sweaty shirt for a later change.”

The Captain raised from the bed, stepping in closer and holding out the cloth-clad blades for Steve to take. Firstly, Steve simply stared at the offered objects as if they’d personally wronged him, looking from them to Barnes’ awaiting expression and back. Eventually, he decided to take the blades from Barnes’ with a small overbearing lopsided smile, which was reciprocated with a joined coyness. He certainly didn’t have much else to do at the moment, other than sending the pargament on the desk uneasy looks on his way out the door.

Barnes led him further away from the centre of the city until they found a round patch of sand surrounded by grass and trees, providing shadow from the burning sun. The vegetation became even thicker behind them. Judging by the moist half-rotten smell and the few glances of swallow lakewater, this training area lied at the edge of a swamp. Barnes was wearing breeches, a loose cotton shirt and a thick belt around his midriff made of a wrapped-around piece of cloth. Far more modest than any of his usual attire. Steve tied his own belt around his own stomach, a little lower than the occasionally still-throbbing bruise, as to prevent the loose cotton to get in the way or be used against him. He truly didn’t take Barnes for being noble enough to pass such a temptation.

Said Captain now unwrapped the blades, revealing two rather frayed cutlasses. Steve breathed a sigh of relief for finally putting the more frail-looking rapiers behind him, but these swords were a lot broader and could be swung with a frightening strength behind them. The other man handed him one of the weapons, seemingly getting reacquainted with his own, before stepping away and putting space in between their bodies. Steve weighted the cutlass in his hand, feeling the significant density and broadness of it, before also quickly checking the dullness of the edge. It wasn't too bad, now he only hoped Barnes’ cutlass matched the bluntness of his own.

They started out practising basic stances and lashes, switching between defensive and offensive. Eventually, the difficultness rose until parries and lashes blended together each time one pretended to go in for the kill. The continuous sharp clangs of the blades colliding melted together to a constant ringing deep in his ears, only noticeable when both of them held back to breathe, before delving right back in. Barnes wore a concentrated and calculating expression throughout the ordeal and never once did he lose any sense of control. Steve knew that he had far to go before being able to truly challenge Barnes, but this still bothered him as sweat dripped from his brow in exertion. In this heat, continuing like this was impossible and eventually Barnes signed for a break. In doing so, he nodded approvingly.

“You’re not doing bad.”

“What a compliment.”

The Captain merely responded with a scoff, before wiping his brow and reaching for the cloth that had been wrapped around the cutlasses priorly. Evidently, the cloth hid even more secrets within, because Barnes now pulled out two slim daggers and threw one of them at his feet.

“Most enemies you’ll meet have more than one weapon on them. Whether visible immediately or not, you might as well prepare or you’ll get stabbed.”

That sounded fairly reasonable, although Steve was still sceptical when picking up the slim blade and measuring it to be a little longer than his own hand. It was as slim as a rapier and might be mistaken for a miniature version of exactly that. Barnes already had his dagger fastly placed in his left hand, cutlass still resting in his right. Steve mirrored him, still getting used to the thought of slashing weapons in both hands at once.

“The dagger is useful in certain scenarios, while being a hindrance of hand in others. It’s up to you to judge whether grabbing or stabbing will be your way of winning a fight in the spur of the moment.”

Steve listened wonderingly, while staring at the dagger with narrowed eyes, as if it had told him an unbelievably bad joke. Before he could ask too many questions though, Barnes bent his knees slightly, getting into a steadfast startposition. He then spun both blades in perfect symmetrical circles in the air by an elegant flick of his wrist, the controlled movements already making Steve’s head spin with a mix of adrenaline and nervousness. If you'd asked him though, he’d have blamed the heat.

First charge went as well as expected. Steve attacked, Barnes parried and with lightning speed straight up let his own cutlass glide down the length of Steve’s own as he stepped to the right. Long before Steve had any chance of recovering and thinking out a defence strategy, Barnes had exposed his entire abdomen and stepped in for the kill. Luckily, for both Steve’s internal organs and his pride, that simply meant pressing the slim blade of the dagger tightly against the skin of his abdomen, the thin cotton being the only barrier between flesh and metal.

“Rather make a stupid movement in a pathetic attempt to block, than making none and get fucking stabbed, Rogers.”

Steve snorted, and loosened up his tense posture as Barnes stepped away. If the Captain noticed him subconsciously rubbing the spot in which the blade would have struck, he didn't mention it. They both returned to their starting stances, before a thought seemed to take Barnes’ focus away from this particular fight. He narrowed his eyes at Steve, who felt a question on the tip of the other man’s tongue.

“How did you down Rumlow”

“What?”

“Yesterday, you managed to down Rumlow and get the upper hand. He’s a broad man with a heavy sense of balance. How did you down him?”

“I … swung my leg at his knee.”

“Good move.”

Now it was Steve who narrowed his eyes, possibly even scrunched up his nose in disbelief. Did Barnes just deliver a sincere compliment? To him of all people? No mask was peeling itself away from the Captain’s face revealing sarcastic intent, so Steve felt compelled to answer.

“Thank you.”

Barnes cleared his throat, filling an unexpected silence.

“Kicking the side of your opponent’s knee is always effective in such situations. A well-calculated blow can, and will, permanently compromise the joint.”

Steve nodded, taking mental notes and paying attention to Barnes pointing at the outside of his own knee, his voice delivering the information matter-of-factly.

“However, if you kick out my knee during training I'll have you keelhauled under several of the vessels in my fleet.”

“Very funny.”

Steve scoffed, the playful tone behind the Captain’s words smashing a hole in his half-hearted intimidation attempt. The training proceeded from there. Every time Barnes came at him with vigor and practiced precision, Steve’s instinct told him to run as fast as possible in the other direction. Only his pride and determination kept his feet planted on dusty soul, as charge upon charge was carried out against his still faltering defense. He kept it up though, deflected the trick attacks at the last second, avoiding an armful of the compressed swift muscle with piercing metal as a side dish that was James Barnes. Drops of sweat trickled down both of their temples, further adding humidity to the thick warm air around them. Steve’s breathing was shallow and quick and he occasionally had to allow himself deeper breaths than the instinctual, as to not get lightheaded. The sun still barred down, despite being significantly lower than when they started. Even Barnes showed a few signs of fatigue in between charging or receiving charge, a few strands of hair clinging to his forehead instead of being tucked into the ponytail with the rest. Despite it all, his eyes never lost their typical calculative sharpness and Steve strangely found himself admiring the determination and persistence woven tightly into this man’s very person.

The next charge came before Steve got the chance to dwell at exactly how stunned he ought to feel at that self-admittance. The ploy was not brand-new, but it was no less effective in its swift execution. Barnes came at him, rapidly sweeping Steve’s cutlass away and spinning around himself, pausing for a split-second and getting ready to turn and slash at Steve’s torso. It was in this split-second, this tiny standstill of time, that something finally clicked inside Steve’s brain. He smelled tar, and sea salt breeze, felt the rough woven mat under his fingertips and a flash of flame-red hair whipped in the wind for his inner eye. Barnes’s back was right in front of him, already twisting slightly anticlockwise, a clear sign of his next planned turn-and-slash move. Steve dropped both weapons on a whim, empty hands flying towards Barnes’ right arm and clasping tightly, knuckles turning white. Next move, tiny run up, then duck and slide. Steve was slightly taller than the Captain, slightly heavier too as a result. This was now used in its full capacity. Steve ducked under Barnes’ right arm, swinging around to the left and twisting, using his own weight to pull the other man off balance. The maneuver wasn't the smartest one he could have picked right that moment, but it was the one to come instinctively. He was to go down as well, technically before Barnes, but the momentum of his own downfall would ensure a good swing position and therefore a harder hit against the ground for his opponent. His own hit against the rough gravel was harder than firstly anticipated, but he hardly winced. Instead he concentrated all strength and energy on swinging Barnes, who now was pulled almost completely off balance, over his own lower form. The Captain hit the ground on his side, a hollow sound filling the air as dust flew around them in clouds.

It was silent the following seconds, nothing moved except the falling dust and the bustle of the city, a vague buzzing in the background. Then the unmoving figure about 5 feet from Steve swiftly rolled, sparking the worst kind of terror imaginable racing up Steve’s spine. Despite his own pulse echoing in his ears, his limbs felt sluggish and his mind had barely shed off the shock of impact both from the hit and the actual success of it. He only made it to his knees, hectically trying to raise himself from the dust, when a broad arm wrapped around his throat from behind. Steve impulsively clutched at the arm with both hands, his airways getting pressured and tighter for every passing second. A insistant sharp pressure gradually formed at his lower back, on the left side of his spine, as the choking force of the arm pulled him backwards. Gravity worked in Barnes’ favor, his arm and the dagger served as the only support for Steve’s body, which in this position was tilted backwards and completely out of balance. The noise he let out when realising this was no short of pathetic to his own ears, he kept clutching though, unwilling to let go of his attacker in his half-panicked state. Said attacker shifted his grip and Steve felt Barnes’ torso press against his shoulders, together with puffs of breath ghosting across his damp cheek.

“Look who’s been listening properly for once.”

The tone of the Captain's voice was light and amused, but something sharper and intently intimidating broke through the cracks. The man’s heavy breathing was even more evident this close, Steve feeling it in the heavy breaths against the side of his face, as well as in Barnes chest pressed against his back, quickly rising and falling. Steve felt the heat increase around them both, pangs of thrill racing down his spine and mingling with the adrenaline pumping in his blood. The pain of previously inflicted bruises merely a small discomfort as his body went into fight-or-flight. Steve fought, or more reasonably described, he tried his damn best to. Scratching at Barnes’ arm, twisting his torso only to be reassured of the steadfast iron grip he was captured in. His heart rate reached higher and higher as his lungs desperately craved more air than they were provided with. Black spots started to form in his vision when the same raspy voice cut through his conscience like a well kept dagger.

“Did you know…”

Those three simple words were followed by a harder press of cold metal against his lower back. Steve yelped but only a tiny squeak left his throat due to sparse air.

“That stabbing someone here, in the lower back, can be highly lethal? They’ll bleed out in less than 20 minutes, 10 if you twist the knife around. On top of that it’ll hurt like a bitch. Not a very nice way to die, huh Rogers?”

Every word was delivered in a throaty whisper right beside Steve’s left ear, making heat pool in his stomach. There was no sneer in the Captain’s voice, no real anger or wrath, only a half-amused tone and rasp, which was undoubtedly a part of Barnes’ sick humour. His entire body was vibrating, the paradoxical mix of fear and thrill making his blood buzz and his skin hyper aware. But the somehow wrongly placed excitement Steve felt surging through his body in waves didn’t originate from being truly starred in the face by death. It was rather the opposite, the fact that he knew Barnes wouldn’t plunge the knife forwards no matter how much the man’s actions suggested otherwise. In that moment Steve was completely certain of this fact. He trusted Barnes not to hurt him, even though his every instinct told him to fight and scream his way out of the chokehold. The feeling was so acute and new, yet came to naturally to him. Without further thought, Steve let his whole body go limp, his hands dropping heavily from the red lines he’d managed to scratch into the Captain’s forearm. The sting and pressure of the knife against his back became almost unbearable when he forced his rigid back to loosen up, but his move had the desired effect.

Barnes’ hold loosened, by surprise or fatigue, Steve couldn’t quite make out which. Without warning the piercing pain from the knife disappeared and the broad arm slid away from his throat in one smooth pull. He was pushed forward like a rag doll and only just caught himself on all four before he would have hit the dirt nose first. Steve coughed and heaved air in, his body fighting itself in which action was the more crucial in that moment. His arms shook slightly, ready to buckle if anymore weight was dropped on them. While his torso was violently heaving and his breath shuddered, small hollow sounds from light footed steps circled around him. A set of boots entered his downturned vision and he found himself quickly blinking away the moisture from his eyes in attempt to sharpen his blurred eyesight. It took a couple of more moments before he dared look up, the stillness finally convincing him that no more blows would follow. Barnes was holding out his hand. Not in hesitation to punch or grab, but for Steve to take.

He blinked a couple of times more, but otherwise didn’t hesitate and grabbed Barnes’ forearm, as the other man did the same to him. Steve was hauled up on still shaky legs, standing almost in eyeheight with the piercing calculative gaze he’d gotten to know surprisingly well over the last months. Except those grey-blue eyes contained something a bit different from the norm. A specific uncertainty, like Steve had handed the Captain something he wasn’t quite sure what to do with or where to put.

Barnes’ held on for several seconds too long and so did Steve as a result of this. The moment was only broken when an unbelieving lopsided smile tugged at the Captain’s lips and he finally let his hand drop.

“You’re doing better each time.”

It was more a statement than an intended compliment, which technically served as a compliment in itself. Yet Steve’s brain was still scrambling at the scattered pieces of the strange silence that had existed between them only seconds before. But Barnes had already turned away and was gathering both the swords and assisting daggers from their current place in the dirt. Afterwards the weapons got packed back into the cloth and was placed under Barnes’ arm, pinned between his side and right arm.

Steve’s breathing was starting to get under control yet again, but that just resulted in him being horrifically aware of the heat beating down around both of them, as well as the flies. He was subconsciously scratching at a sore spot on his neck when the Captain broke the silence yet again.

“We’ll be lifting anchor in three days time at midday, although you’ll be expected to give a hand in loading the ship with the extra ammunition our Master Gunner wanted so badly the day prior to departure.”

“Fair enough. How’s the scheduled route looking?”

“We’ll be sailing North of Cuba, course towards Tulum with only a quick stay in Havana port. The northern approach allows us not to worry about The Windward Passage and all the shit lurking there. The route should take approximately three weeks to a month depending on weather conditions, and without counting our stop in Spanish territory.”

“And what’ll happen once we reach Tulum?”

Barnes’ face broke out in an amused expression, his eyebrows cockily raised and a smile playing at his lips.

“Then you’ll receive your official training, just like you wanted.”

The last statement was followed by wide held arms and a simple hand-to-forehead goodbye gesture, before the Captain turned on his heels and walked towards what Steve assumed to be Compton Estate. He set course for midtown himself, suddenly urged to finish the letter for Sam and really needing to change into the clean shirt by now.

Although he couldn’t quite help but let his thoughts race as he walked. Steve didn’t know exactly which aspect of this complex man that seemingly continuously drew his attention to him. Barnes was a beacon in himself, not one of hope, but a flame mirroring every little speck of rebellion against society that Steve had ever felt. The forbidden has always had its striking allure, its deadly charm and enticement that overshadows common sense and reduces it to a single pressing feeling, burrowed under the excitement of not following its logical demands. The strength of that current was both startling and intoxicating, furthermore carrying Steve willingly upon its waves of exploration into unknown territory, specifically Tulum and whatever awaited him there. He felt the more and more often, as if he was merely a marionette being pulled, the current got stronger one string at a time. Steve was almost able to feel every new cord encircle around yet another limb, only to get embedded into his very skin, every time striking grey-blue eyes met his own. They provided depth and danger only challenged by the sea itself and Steve ambiguously kicking in a net of strings, already too caught up to escape the addicting pull.

Chapter Text

Dear Sam

I’ve thought long and hard about what I wanted to convey through this letter, until I realised that you are probably just awaiting any sort of lifesign from me, so here it is. I am very much alive, no need to worry, friend. I hope you and Clint are doing well and that your wounds have healed completely. There goes no day without me missing and worrying for the both of you.
A lot has happened since we saw each other last. I’ve made questionable choices in the past months, choices which I am incapable of justifying with ink on paper. I’ve chosen to stay where I am, call it a hunch or destiny or a completely different phenomenon, but I believe there’s good to be done even on this side of the law. You needn’t worry about me. Know that I am safe, or as safe as any seaman can possibly be on these seas. I’ll leave a date on this letter since you might receive it months after I’ve left it for you to find. I firmly believe our paths to cross again in the future dear friend, but until then take care of yourself.
Your sincerest friend

Steve Rogers

March 4th - 1716
_________________________________

The voyage to Havana took almost a month, relatively calm with good weather and water conditions. The only inconvenience being a couple of crewmembers getting into a real personal fist fight over some bagatelle regarding a woman in Tortuga. Both fighters, none of which was a part of Steve’s normal acquaintances, were scolded like unruly children and given extra work by Falsworth, the newly assigned quartermaster since Romanoff’s return to own vessel. The flame haired Captain steered her ship in close proximity to The Swan, but never close enough for collision to be a possibility.

20 nautical miles from Havana, another more subtle merchant vessel awaited. Despite Barnes’ and Romanoff’s usually reckless tendencies, sailing directly into Havana harbour, the centre of all Spanish trade in this region, was deemed pretty inconsiderate for own value of life. Barnes chose 8 men from The Swan’s crew to assist him aboard the new vessel and Steve was among them, together with Banner, Dugan, Jones and some other top workers. The doctor had learned to blend in inconspicuously quite quickly. He spent most of his time in his assigned quarters, previously housing Romanoff, in the back off the ship. Steve expected him to soon spend at least his working hours in the doctor’s corner amidship, the only walls surrounding the area being shelves of shot or provisions. The space was relatively narrow, yet of considerable size considering it being unused at the moment and how packed together every other corner of the ship was with a cargo hold this full.

Steve was gazing southwest, towards the shore of Cuba. The tall bare cliffs with underlying jungle would soon give away to a bustling city, the centre of the Spanish West Indies. In the meantime, crewmembers from The Scavenger was walking from their own vessel to the smaller, less armed, merchant vessel, untastefully names El Dorado. The Scavenger was now raising its sails again to give space for The Swan to unload its Captain and crew as well.

The fact that this was necessary put Steve mildly on edge, although he’d rather be taking precautions than end up in the gallows. He was lucky that he was chosen to go ashore. That would hopefully give him the opportunity to make sure the letter that was currently in the pockets of his pants would find its intended reader. If he hadn’t been chosen, he’d probably trusted the light-haired quartermaster of The Scavenger to be the deliverer, who was smiling and waiting for him on the deck of El Dorado. Despite Thor’s integrity and Steve’s trust in it, he’d much rather deliver the letter himself. Not to Sam of course - he really wasn’t counting on fate helping him this much at this point. No, he was going to deliver the letter at their regular inn, firmly expecting Sam to come there the next time he arrived in Havana. Last night he’d quickly scribbled today’s date at the end of the letter, once again borrowing Romanoff’s pen and ink. Banner had given him a piece of wax and a well-used wooden seal when he had asked, plainly refusing when Steve had tried to give the items back. So now a stump of blood-red wax and the skillfully carved seal was lying in his bag beneath his hammock and aboard The Swan.

He’d sealed the letter with the wax, watching it drip down onto the paper in thick drops, the warm comforting scent of it bringing him back in a certain homey library in a homestead a few miles outside of New York. The press of the seal left behind an emblem of a raven with a branch of bay in its beak. The irony was not lost on Steve. The bird of wisdom holding onto the plant symbolising glory and status not exactly mirrored by the content of the letter nor Steve’s general situation. It was almost laughable.

The Swan finally drifted close enough to the smaller vessel for them to board. Long planks were pushed out between the ships for the land-bound men to cross. Steve was just about to walk unto the wobbly passageway when he noticed Barnes behind him, stopping. The men were looking at him with anticipation shining out of their eyes. The Captain turned around all the way and pretended to sigh overbearingly.

“Go hunt boys, but keep her steady.”

The statement was followed with wild cheers and laughs from Barnes crew. The Captain himself simply smirked amusedly and continued his climb of the gunwall, eventually following Steve closely unto the planks. They all exchanged small greetings once aboard El Dorado, Steve shaking arms with Romanoff and Kidd, having missed their faces and mischief despite them being less than a mile behind The Swan the last month. Thor and his permanent companion greeted him as well, the quartermaster with a smile and a clap on the back, while Bojékio hugged his leg. The surge of warmth and emotion evoked within himself by the small boy never ceased to surprise him.

With the last crewmembers on board, El Dorado’s Captain, a small wide man with fastly blinking eyes and a habit of rubbing his hands together too often, gave the order to set sail. Something about the man immediately unnerved Steve. He chose to find a good spot to sit along the gunwall, relishing the fresh breeze without having to strain a muscle. Firstly, it seemed completely off to simply sit there while foreign crewmembers were working around him, but Romanoff soon joined him and served as a brilliant distraction from his habits.

“Is that man really the best for the job?”

Steve was gesturing to the Captain of the small schonert, who had set to bark orders at his crew. His entire persona shone more bark than bite, despite the man’s hectic tries to prove everyone otherwise.

“Depends on the service you require. I don’t trust the man to do anything but bring us to port and keep his mouth shut about it, as long as we pay him that is.”

“What if someone else comes around and offers a better price?”

“Oh, then he’ll rat us out for sure, but he don’t know shit as it is. Barely knows who we are or what we do, although I do believe he’s connected a few dots in spite of how stupid he looks.”

They both chuckled a bit after that, enjoying the friendly silence. Steve’s gaze landed upon the silhouettes of The Black Swan and The Scavenger, still getting smaller and smaller against the canvas of the horizon.

“Are they going hunting?”

He said, without truly knowing the meaning behind the words, although with a bad hunch.

“Yeah they’ll look for small merchant ships to raid in the next few days until we return. Don’t worry, the spanish merchants tends to lay down flat at the mere sight of a sword.”

It was stupid really, how easily Steve felt uncomfortable when reminded of who he’d joined, of what the British Civilisation now considered him to be. Romanoff’s words didn’t put him much at ease either, all of his thoughts going to Peter, Dernier, Falsworth, and the rest of the men. Falsworth was a good navigator and doubtlessly a decent Captain as well but Steve could still make up a sea of scenarios in which one or more of his friends could get hurt. He frantically tried to steer his mind off imaginary pictures of a blood-spattered deck.

“So what are we doing in Havana?”

“We haven’t beaten your curiosity out of you yet I see.”

Romanoff smiled overbearingly despite the comment. She looked at the horizon, likely at her own ship now slowly disappearing.

“James and I have a few associates we need to meet there. The other James as well.”

Steve’s eyes fell upon Kidd, who had placed himself atop a barrel a few feet from them. He seemed busy discussing and joking with Dugan and Barnes over a naval map.

“Associates from the Creed of Assassins?”

Romanoff nodded solemnly.

“You might be asked to tag along. It’s nothing too grievous I expect.”

Steve simply nodded. He was thrown off his line of thought when a figure approached them on the deck. Banner walked with lighter steps than Steve would have expected of a man that medium sized. It was clear he still didn’t feel completely at ease in this sort of company, especially not after having been robbed of his usual quarters. Romanoff stood when she spotted him, Steve doing the same out of lack of anything else to do.

“Doctor Banner, a pleasure finally meeting you.”

The red-haired Captain greeted. Banner seemed mildly intimidated by her, but hid it well behind his regular withdrawn stature. They shook hands shortly.

“The pleasure is all mine, Captain ...?”

“Captain Natasha Romanoff, Doctor. Your service aboard the Swan replaced my own so I could once more return to my own vessel.”

“Oh! You’re a physician as well?”

“Not officially educated of course, but I’ve picked up knowledge here and there.”

Romanoff was severely underestimating herself, but Steve evidently wasn’t the only one to see that.

“I’d like for us to discuss a few treatments whenever time allows so, if you’d bother to. I’m afraid you’re far more experienced in seaborn medical care than myself.”

“I would like nothing more, Doctor.”

Again, Steve noticed Banner twitch at the title, but he made no further attempt to correct Romanoff or otherwise discuss it. The Captain herself was speaking in relatively low tones, clearly sensing the unease from the man before her.

“So what brings you to sea, Doctor Banner?”

Steve tensed up, not knowing how Banner was intending to answer on such a complicated personal matter, which he had already given Steve a glimpse of.

“It allows practice. If a patient dies no one will bat an eye. No reputation to keep.”

That answer caught Steve completely off guard, the monotone voice, the rapidness and the calmness in which the statement was spoken made him blink and furrow his brows in surprise. Romanoff’s own face split into a grin.

“I’m sure we’re gonna get along just fine, Doctor.”

A call was heard from behind them, Barnes was waving the other Captain over.

“Excuse me, both of you. Lovely meeting you Doctor Banner.”

“Likewise, Captain.”
_________________________________

The next hours went slowly by. Steve took a walk on deck, then below, then on deck again, making sure he didn’t get in the way of the working men. The letter for Sam felt like it was burning up in his pocket, too heavy as well. His thoughts flew around, to The Swan and her crew, to Havana and where he’ll be heading soon to deliver the letter and even further, to Tulum where he would possibly find a key to an unknown future. He only started paying attention to his surroundings again when El Dorado’s weasel of a Captain ordered half-sail in a weak bark.

He recognised the naval entrance to Havana. The big city was placed inside a bay with a relatively small entrance, which made it easy for the Spanish to control who was sailing in and out of the largest city and trade centre in the Caribbeans. Nothing about the surrounding cliffs and jungle surrounding the inlet suggested the closeness of a city this large and rich, but soon the trees and rocks receded and gave away to civilisation. Sailing into Havana bay never ceased to amaze even the most experienced sailors of these seas. The city’s light structures was lit up by the sun in a grand display with the red tiles of roofs creating a stark contrast. Steve could spot church spires and grand mansions with chalked up facades towering above the more humble houses, packed so closely into the bustling streets that people practically were living in one long house all together. El Dorado slowly glided past other vessels lying still with their anchors deeply embedded into Cuban sand at the bottom of the bay. Some of the ships clearly belonging to rich merchants, while others were heavily armed battleships owned by none other than King Philip the Fifth, Spain’s current monarch. Havana was a prime example of Spanish wealth and power in the Caribbeans and the governor of Cuba, Laureano de Torres, made sure no one was to forget it. It was power on display, but nevertheless beautiful in its effectiveness.

El Dorado was ordered docked in the western part of the docks, relatively far from the entrance and the richer part of the harbour. Docking the ship went smoothly and Steve could feel the original crew of this vessel’s eagerness to walk on land once again. After that, it didn’t take long before he was following Barnes and the rest of their land-bound group into the busy streets of Havana. The very first thing he noticed was the foreign language being spoken by hundreds of different voices around him. His knowledge of the Spanish language was close to non-existent, despite his considerably wider understanding for French and the similarity in the two languages. He hoped this wouldn’t prove a problem as long as he followed the group around.

They pushed themselves through the crowded and working port, soon finding themselves surrounded by markets and shouting traders and shopkeepers trying to earn their keep. In spite of the port being foreign, the group of englishmen quickly bled into the crowd undetected. It was certainly hard to imagine that England and Spain had been at war not even three full years ago. This city was a hot spot of cultures being blended together and language meeting language. God, Steve had actually missed this.

Barnes and Romanoff led the way to more habitable parts of Havana, narrow streets being bracketed by houses in two or three floors with wooden painted shutters and chalked facades. Most of the houses were worn though, so their exterior presented themselves as more yellowish beige rather than pure white. The amount of clothes hanging out to dry in the sun on lines stretched out between the houses above their heads bore witness to the large population in this particular area.. The red-tiled roofs were the same for all the houses, some tiles being considerably bleached by the sun throughout the years. This neighborhood was less busy and mainly inhabited by people without considerable coin filling their pockets. Barnes led the way down yet another alley, gravel and sand crunching under his boots. Finally, the company consisting of 15 people in total, counting Bojékio, reached their destination. Both Captains walked up to a door in a mucky alley and knocked harshly three times.

They received an answer in a curt voice barked in a foreign language Steve had no recollection of. Kidd barked back, without missing a beat, in the clipped unfamiliar tongue as well. The door was opened a bit and a dark-skinned face stared out at them from the darkness of the house. The man inside was tall and scarred with a beard-clad jaw and sharp dark eyes. It was impossible to make anything else out by looking through the narrow sliver. Now, the man shifted to heavily accented English.

“Kidd? These all your men?”

“More or less,”

Came the answer. Finally, the door was opened wide enough for each of them to pass through. Steve was blinded by the darkness of the room once he entered, all the shutters were closed on the few windows on the ground floor. The space was bigger on the inside than firstly anticipated, yet exactly as modest, with dirt floor and three rows of wooden pillars supporting the old structure. After a couple of moments, Steve could finally make out the ropes their host was wearing. It looked awfully similar to the ropes of the strange accomplices of Barnes’ he’d briefly gotten sight of on the beach of Tulum. This man clearly had ties to the Assassin Creed, which made sense given the fact that him and Kidd were now rapidly conversing in the same foreign language as before. Finally, Kidd seemed to have had enough of whatever the other man was clearly complaining about.

“These men are either sworn to the Creed or its allies. I’ll vouch for each and every one of them in front of Ah Tabai if I have to.”

Steve’s consciousness clung to that name, having a weak recollection of hearing it before. Although, he had no idea who this person was, Kidd’s words clearly had their intended purpose. The man studied them all once more, with a heavily guarded look, before angrily nodding and motioning for the group to follow him up the worn stairs in the back of the room. The first floor was just as big and empty as the ground floor, except now the floor was wooden and creaky. Their host grunted and motioned with his head towards a couple dozen straw-mats resting in the far corner of the room. Once everyone were settled in the far end of the room, each sack of belongings resting on a mat rolled out on the overworked floor. Steve almost caught himself staring once he saw Barnes grab his own mat and roll it out in the corner. It made sense that this was the best place to lay low, but that didn’t change the fact that Steve had gotten used to the hierarchy at sea. He’d just assumed that the Captains and Kidd would be provided other rooms, although Barnes seemed completely unfazed as he tried to even out the dusty mat by stomping a bit on it.

The large, mostly empty room, reminded Steve of a sold-out warehouse, which the building probably had served as once upon a time. Now it served as their refuge for the next three days. The day was slowly turning into evening and soon enough, while the rest of the men were holding up in the warehouse, Kidd headed out. He nodded a goodbye to the two Captains, who both simply nodded back. None of the other men commented on it.
They spent the evening playing cards, having quite a lot of time on their hands compared to their normal work days. After dinner, a decent stew brought up by their host who starred you down before filling your bowl, Steve retracted himself to his mat to sketch. He hadn't used his sketching book nearly enough the last month with work and training. He’d gotten around to practise details on wood quite a lot the last months, so the pillars in the room didn’t interest him in the slightest. He’d rather loosely sketch the Havana skyline from memory. The overall result was definitely far from accurate, especially the placements of buildings, but luckily he was only trying to captivate the beauty of Havana and not draw a map of it. Once he finished adding all the details he could remember, his hand was still restlessly hovering above the page, pencil in a tight grip. But instead of moving onto another piece, he put down his utensil and started flipping through the pages instead.

He was met with several recognizable lines of different ships and masts, as well as quite a lot of landscapes and sunsets. The paper had been ripped off where he’d been drawing Peter and had torn the page off for the boy, now his fingers were restlessly toying with the sad remainder of that specific page. The next piece of paper was filled with different illustrations of a well-cut jaw, piercing eyes and long wavy hair. Various sets of eyes, profiles and tattooed limbs filled the next couple of pages and Steve found himself quickly turning them while glancing in the general direction of the owner of said face. Luckily, Barnes was simply resting against the wall a few mats over, legs crossed, seemingly deep into whatever book he was currently occupied with. Steve’s fingers kept itching for new lines to be drawn as his eyes kept flickering to the other man. Finally, he chose to slam the sketchbook shut, a little harder than necessary, and call it a day. It was several degrees colder inside the house than on the outside, so their inhospitable host had provided them with blankets as well. He packed Sam’s letter away in his sack of belongings so he wouldn’t damage the paper by sleeping on it. Laying completely flat for once, without the curve of a hanging hammock at his back felt strange, yet he was tired enough not to care. Steve scooted around a couple of times and fell asleep just as the other men started making their way to their own cots.

A small part of the group headed out early the next day, with no food in their bellies and with orders of simply following Barnes and Kidd to an associate. Said men led them, Steve, Jones and Dum Dum as well of the men Steve didn’t recall the names of, through a labyrinth of back alleys and dusty narrow streets before finally stopping in front of a house. Steve sat down to rest at a wooden fence nearby, not knowing how long the Captain’s and the Assassin’s meeting would be, but he’d barely placed himself before they once more walked out of the building. Huh, that’s awfully effective of them. As per usual, no questions were asked and the group soon walked back the way their came from. Half the way back to the warehouse, Barnes turned to his men, a lopsided smile on his lips.

“Go do as you please, men. But be back a couple of hours before sundown.”

The group split up, the men now freely joking around with each other after being relieved of duty. Now was as good a time as any. The letter he’d put back into his pocket this morning started feeling heavier than ever. Steve’s pace slowed considerably, his mind a knot of thoughts and feelings, impossible to sort out.

“Rogers? You coming?”

Dum Dum was speaking to him, yet it took several seconds and rapid blinking before he could decipher the meaning of the words. It seemed so easy, to just follow the other men. A clear way out. Yet he knew the punishment of him taking the easy way out would catch up to him eventually, standing devotedly in form of guilt and repressed fear.

“No, eh. I’ve got a thing or two I wanna get done actually. I’ll find you later!”

Steve swiftly turned around and walked in the other direction, not allowing Dum Dum an answer and not letting the curious expression of the man hinder him. It was a lie as well, the last part of his answer. Finding his friends again in these busy streets wasalmost impossible, so now he had almost an entire day to himself. That was far too long with no company but his own thoughts.

He tried to navigate through the busy streets, steering towards the centre of the city. The cathedral in the middle of Havana was a useful landmark indeed. Steve’s plan was as follows: steer towards the tall spears in the distance until you recognise a street, house or market. This might not help him find the quickest way to the tavern he was looking for, but it would eliminate quite a lot of wandering aimlessly around. In the end, it proved a decent plan. Except he really didn't allow himself to think anything through, afraid that his brain would find a way to justify turning around and running. He’d been running for years now and if anything, the questionable choices he’d made to end up in this situation in the first place should be a sign of him finally doing the opposite. Again, he really hadn’t thought this through.

What if Sam had already arrived several weeks ago and had told their mutual friend everything that had happened? Or if Clint had? How could he possibly explain the situation all the while not spilling any secrets on Barnes’ or the other’s whereabouts? And that wasn’t even taking into account that Sam and Clint technically could be in Havana in this exact moment as well. If Steve were to face Sam right this minute, the intense desire to throw himself off a cliff in shame might be too hard to resist. His brain was definitely getting irrationally worked up at this point, but what if they truly were here? Only that thin wooden facade of the inn separating them?

His eyes flickered around to the speed of his panicked thoughts, but finally they came to rest on the timeworn sign displaying the name “Harlem”, in big white block letters on green background. He breathed in deeply. The inn smelled of flaking paint heating up in the sun, as well as the dust flying lazily through the air, no wind or breeze to disturb it. Nothing about this place had changed since Steve had been here last. It felt like trespassing into the past just to be standing here. This was it. The place he and Sam always went to when they for once had coin in their pockets from a new salary, which could have taken them months at sea to earn. They’d sit in there, with the kind innkeeper as well, drinking and talking for hours at a time.

The innkeeper's name was Luke Cage. The man was as huge as he was kindhearted and resolute, yet he hadn’t come easy to where he was now. The name of his inn, Harlem, was a reference to his birthplace, a small town outside of New York. Both Sam and Luke were born unfree to later earn their independence through hard work. Steve had never participated the few times that subject had popped up in conversation and for that he was now glad. It wasn’t his place comment on each of their experiences being born under such systematic oppression. He still felt stupidly ignorant of each of their struggles, how they had to fight tooth and nail for something he was given at birth. Luke had saved parts of his master’s family from rogue mercenaries who had tried to rob the plantation once. That’s how he was set free and given the means to start his own life. Still, the inn was still legally owned by Luke’s previous master, since the neither the English or Spanish government would lawfully let him own it himself. That fact never failed to ignite a spark of anger inside Steve.

With one last deep breath he entered the inn, praying to God that this would go as easy as humanly possible. He had only made a few steps inside, his eyes needing a couple of seconds to adjust to the dingier surroundings, before he spotted the man he was looking for. Luke Cage hadn’t changed in the last 6 months since Steve had seen him last. He still served his guests with warm smiles and pats on the back for the the regulars. The inn in itself was relatively modest, but excellently kept and without a single bedbug. Even the ale wasn’t as thinned down as it was at some of the more popular inns in the city centre. It only took a couple of moments before the big man behind the counter recognised his form in the doorway, a huge grin lightning up his face. Steve smiled back, smitten by the man’s warm welcome. Before he knew of it, he was embraced by Luke’s tree trunk-thick arms and lifted right off his feet, legs dangling while his loving assaulter laughed heartily.

“Steve fucking Rogers, I can’t believe it!”

Steve pretended to be excessively winded and fakely heaved for air once he was put down once more, furthermore humoring the man in front of him. The encounter had already bettered Steve’s mood several notches, yet a tinge of something nostalgic and bittersweet was lurking in the back of his mind.

“Luke Cage, just where I thought I’d find him!”

Steve countered, finally noticing how their small reunion had attracted a considerate amount of curious gazes across the room. Luke walked back behind the bar he’d advanced from, giving Steve no time to kindly protest before he opened a tab and called it on the house.

“So where’s Sam and Clint? They around too? I’ve been nervous as hell for you guys, the attack on The Triumph was one thing, but hearing that her namesign was displayed in Nassau harbour? I thought I might have seen the last of you!”

“Yeah you’ve probably heard quite the stories. And no, actually I’m not here with Sam and Clint. We got split up.”

“What? How? You gotta give me more than that, I’ve been worried for months man. How did you survive?”

“Sam nearly didn’t.”

Old stones and burdens suddenly weighted heavy yet again in Steve’s gut, reminding him of the sacrifices he had to make to secure the health of his best friend. He had to take a deep breath before continuing, scaringly clear images of that day flying around his head in all their horrific clarity. Luke’s own smile had also faded, now being replaced by a shaken expression.

“He got wounded during the boarding fight. They managed to use heavy fog as cover. We never saw them coming. Luckily, the pirates let us live and set us off in Nassau. After that we had to wait for Sam to get better before we could head out again, but no ship needed work for all three of us so we had to split up.”

Luke’s features had grown graver and more thoughtful, sympathy and relief being expressed as well through dark eyes.

“I’m sorry to hear that man. I know you always find work together.”

“Yeah, it hasn’t been easy not having him there the last couple of months.”

Luke nodded solemnly, before knocking on his solid wooden bar table.

“I suppose you need a bed until they arrive here as well, Rogers? I can always find a bed for an old friend.”

The way the barkeep asked told Steve that he’d gladly provide, maybe even give a bit of a special discount, but sadly he had to decline.

“Sadly not. I haven’t finished my current contract yet and I’m just sleeping in the docked ship with the rest of the crew until we lift anchor in a day or two.”

He lied. Luke immediately looked displeased at him not being around for much longer.

“Alright, if you’re sure then I won’t hinder you.”

Steve felt like an asshole for blatantly lying and leaving his friend again so soon, so he quickly pulled out the letter he’d been hiding in his pocket so far.

“Actually, I was hoping you could deliver this letter to Sam the next time he comes around. It’s just about when I’ll be done with my contract and where he can find me afterwards.”

Luke hummed agreeingly.

“On one condition. You boys both make your way here if your plans go to hell for some reason. That way I can both help and make sure I see you again.”

The barkeeper spoke with a friendly smile and a glint in his eye, the last being a particular tell-tale sign for the man. Earlier in his life Luke Cage might have suffered a great deal, but the man currently standing there was clearly the happiest he’d ever been and for that Steve was tremendously happy.

“I’ll do my very best to keep that promise.”

Technically not a lie. If his currently endeavour with Barnes didn’t hold up or the rope got knotted too many times, as was the habit of Steve’s life the last 2,5 years, Harlem inn was the very first place he’d seek out.

Steve stayed for about an hour after that, also greeting Luke’s daughter, Danielle, who were a few years younger than him and Sam. Still unmarried as well, which both a force of hope and dread for Sam. The chance of him returning here only to find the girl he fancied already happily married grew for every year and only Steve knew exactly how much trepidation Sam felt every time he returned here. She was awfully sweet, with a clever glint in her dark eyes. On top of that, she could handle even the drunkest most uncharming customers with little strain and when opposed by vulgar men who had a little too much, she could be sharp as a whip. However much Steve enjoyed her company for some small talk, Danielle needed to serve the other customers of the inn and eventually asked him to tell Sam hello once he met him again, before strolling away.

The sudden lack of company made Steve listen to the slow music being played from the corner of the room, where a single woman with a string instrument managed to enthrall several of the men around her. The song was dreamy, descriptive and clearly about love. Steve listened closer, the simple clinging of the instrument pulling him in as well. She sang of fate binding and warmth, or at times the lack hereof. A single line caught his attention specifically. The song described scars and later a wolf in a storm. Steve’s mind involuntarily, yet naturally, glided to memories of thick scars wrapped tightly around thicker arms, black ink flowing inside intriguing patterns almost like the raven locks described in the lullaby. He must have been deep in thought, since he barely noticed the singer finishing and the guests around her applauding loudly.

 

Eventually, he fared Luke goodbye, promising to come see him again before he lifted anchor yet again. Another blatant lie. If he returned to the inn again in the next couple of days he wouldn’t be able to leave, Steve was positive of this. Surprisingly, there were limits to even his self-indulged suffering.

He wandered around aimlessly for hours afterwards, trying to sort out the knots of thought and reasoning in his mind. Once he recognised the tall magnificent building that was the Cathedral, he turned right and roamed towards the outer parts of the city yet again. It was a peculiar feeling, seeing all the people of this city minding their own and continuing with their lives when Steve felt like his own were slowly, but surely scaling off of him in tiny flecks. One by one, every small speckle and dot on the painting that was Steve Rogers loosened and fell, gliding gracefully through the air between the dust being whirled around on the streets. A beautiful process in itself, the horrifying part being Steve not knowing who or what he was beneath that layer. All around him, the bustling streets kept living as if time in his world hadn’t stopped at all.

When he finally reached the empty warehouse, it seemed dusty and dirty as usual, except now it was considerably emptier and a few degrees warmer. He continued upstairs, thinking himself alone in a room far too big, until he spotted the figure sitting casually against the back wall, beneath one of the few windows. The light shining into the room through cheap glass was blinding compared to the rest of the warehouse and the main reason he hadn’t immediately seen and identified the shadow as Captain James Barnes.
He was sitting with the same book as yesterday, only looking up once he felt Steve’s eyes on him. Steve, who had previously stopped in his tracks not even halfway through the room, forced his legs the rest of the way to his cot to sit down. Pulling his boots off, Steve still felt Barnes’ attention on him, despite the man’s eyes being fixated to his book.

“Already tired of brothels, Rogers?”

Steve scoffed, throwing his boots off the mat and shuffled to find his sketchbook under his sack of belongings.

“Nope, just tired of the sun.”

“Huh, the New-Yorker still hasn’t adjusted to the sunny south?”

“You tell me.”

Steve answered, choosing to face Barnes gaze square on while articulating clearly, letting his implication of the other man’s own identical birthplace shine through. Yes, Steve was hiding away but so was James fucking Barnes and he’d hear for it. Barnes offered a lopsided smirk, showing the indication was far from lost on him, before he returned his attention to the pages in front of him. Some time passed in silence, the only sounds in the room being Steve’s pencil against paper and the hushed bustle of the street outside.

“What are you reading?”

Steve didn’t even know where that question came from himself. Probably the inappropriately curious chunk of his personality that got him here in the first place, the one that evidently also has an insatiable hunger for surrounding itself with dangerous messed up people. Barnes didn’t look like he’d seen the question coming, yet he looked more pleased than not with the ghost of a smile lingering at his lips.

“Homer’s The Odyssey.”

To say that Steve was surprised would be an understatement. To be fair, he had barely expected to get an answer at all, yet the thought of a notorious pirate Captain lazily reading one of the most popular classic greek epic poems was a puzzle piece unable to fit into his brain. A book on naval combat? A probable answer. A book on naval anything? That too. A book on literally almost anything else than greek heroes and gods. He must have looked baffled, because Barnes seemed unnaturally amused in his own way, watching Steve vehemently through his lashes with a lopsided smirk playing at his lips, hair almost falling into his eyes. In the clear lack of something to say, Steve opted for another question.

“Good choice. What’s your favorite part?”

Again, Barnes wore an impression of mirth that only spread when Steve complimented him on his choice of literature. He shifted on his own mat, finally lowering the book.

“The part with Polyphemus, the cyclops. I think the superior, yet highly gullible, presence of Polyphemus easily could be a picture of the way power is distributed today. He depicts humanity in its stupidest form, prideful and rich.”

Steve squinted in thought, he’d never connected the character to the present year or the Colonies’ current political situation. Barnes was showing off just a bit, maybe even quizzing Steve of his own knowledge of the tale, yet he was, however, quite amused by the other man’s reflections.

“So Polyphemus is England? Does that make you Odysseus?”

“God no. He was stupid enough in his moment of pridefulness to reveal his real name before Polyphemus after he stabbed him, thereby pissing off Poseidon and ruining any hope of him returning to Ithaca anytime soon.”

Steve chuckled. Barnes’ respect for the sea went beyond his pride, who would have thought.

“What’s your preferred chapter?”

Steve hadn’t directly expected Barnes to take equal interest, yet he didn’t need a long time to think the question through.

“When Odysseus returns home.”

The Captain’s brows rose slightly at that response.

“Really?”

“Yes. It’s been 20 years, yet his most loyal servants and his dog still recognizes him, even disguised. Time has passed, yet his loved ones haven’t moved on and is still awaiting his return. I like the thought of that.”

“It’s naive.”

“You don’t say.”

Sarcasm hung in the air like a blanket, covering them both and shielding them from the outside world. Barnes seemed relaxed, genuinely paying interest to Steve’s reflections despite his sharp comments. Truly, despite how nice the thought of a safe world never changing, Steve was not living in an illusion of that dream being reality. On that subject, he was in a constant state of balancing between the incredibly thin line between naivety and stupidity. Just in the last years, the ground beneath him had been constantly changing, always shifting into something new and unsafe. It’s highly possible that it would make him a lot more adaptable, thick-skinned and wise in the long run, but those qualities would settle in his mind like scars.

“So the part where Odysseus reveals himself and kills all his wife’s suitors is also your favourite part?”

“I mean it sure contains a certain element of satisfaction.”

James Barnes let out one of his characteristic breathy laughs, the ones he typically used with a hint of surprise behind. The fact that Steve knew that was to be unaddressed in his own mind. He liked them though, they signalled a certain comfortability. They discussed more aspects of the tale, they both liked Athena’s involvement and joked about Circe, the sorceress, and her spells. Eventually, they settled into a comfortable silence, a rare concept indeed, Steve returning to his drawings and Barnes to his book. After approximately half an hour, the Captain discarded his book and laid down on his side, back to Steve, and rested. It took several minutes before Steve dared look, but once Barnes’ breathing steadied out considerably he peeked out the corner of his eyes.

He knew the man to be broad shouldered and good-looking, but Steve had only seen those qualities presented through absolute control, power and composure. He’d even seen the Captain express those qualities with a damn bullet in his thigh. But now, the man before him way lying on his side, hair spread out around his head. Barnes’ shoulders seemed even broader in this position, his waist smaller. Steve could only just spot a few lines of ink from where the Captain had rolled up his sleeves, the rest shielded by Barnes’ own body. His fingers itched. He was used to that feeling, but never in situations like this. It’s not like he wasn’t constantly surrounded by sleeping men of the crew, some even snoring and talking in their sleep, but seeing Barnes in such a strangely vulnerable position really did things to Steve’s brain. It was more than vulnerability though, it was trustfull of some kind, the man not only resting but turning his back as well.

His hand started moving by itself. It glided across paper, the pencil leaving clear curved lines resembling hips, thighs and wide shoulders, the sketch being even more detailed along the dark lines of ink barely visible on the forearm. Steve’s heart was hammering in his chest while he tried to keep his breathing slow and steady. Whether he succeeded or not was impossible to tell, his eyes too busy drifting across the sleeping form before him. Curves, bundled clothes, tattoos, long hair slightly askew, it all got added with featherlight strokes of coal across paper. Steve finished a rough sketch, not daring to stare at Barnes’ sleeping form any longer than highly necessary, only half lying to himself about already having overstepped that time limit. Liquid thrill and trepidation was still pumping through his veins once he tucked away the sketch pad, deciding to settle down for a nap himself.

He woke several hours later at dinnertime. Apparently he’d been more tired than expected. Barnes was nowhere to be seen, but almost all the crewmembers of The Swan were sitting a few cots away, chatting and eating some sort of stew. Honestly, Steve didn’t give a damn about what food he’d be shoveling in his mouth at the moment, he was simply that hungry. Luckily for him, Dum Dum offered him a bowl when he joined the company. He mostly sat quiet for the meal, too deep in thought for conversation and too busy studying no particular pattern in the frayed wooden floor. No one asked him where he’d been earlier in the day. Steve was glad. Today had been odd, nostalgic and painful all at once, not a good combination really. Soon, his cot was waiting for him and he made an excuse to draw back for the evening. His gaze lingered at the empty mat under the window, its owner still gone for the evening, before he finally drifted to sleep.

Next thing he knows, he’s being shaken awake by hurried hands. His mind is still fuzzy with sleep, perceiving everything in half speed and barely taking in any sensory information. It was still night. The hands are persistent though, grabbing and shaking more insistently now that they’ve noticed his conscious state. Steve tried to open his eyes, which were still heavy and seemed almost glued together, and stared directly into the face of James Barnes. He sat up abruptly, or tried to at least. He only got halfway before the Captain laid his finger over his own lips, very clearly stating he wanted Steve to be unusually quiet with demanding eyes. Steve obeyed and only now noticed Romanoff and Kidd standing behind the male Captain. Kidd motioned for him to bring his boots and follow the small group down the stairs. Once on ground level, Steve jumped around on one leg trying to get his boots on without a sound, which earned him quite the amused glare from James Kidd. The atmosphere in the small group was tense, but excited and Barnes was wearing a determined expression, his eyes shining with tenaciousness. A sword was shoved into Steve’s hand, luckily in a sheath, which he connected to his belt. Now sudden nerves managed to brush off any traces of sleepiness and his heart started hammering in his chest.

Romanoff stuck her head out the door and motioned them all to follow her out onto the dark street. Once they had left the warehouse, Steve’s companions showed less signs of caution and after 10 minutes walking through tiny alleys, clearly avoiding the big streets, Steve hushedly whispered to Kidd who just happened to be closest at the time.

“Am I allowed to ask questions?”

“Barely.”

Came the answer, but it was luckily followed with a mischievous grin from Kidd and an eye roll from Romanoff. The group was moving horrifyingly quiet, as if the soles of their boots didn’t touch the dirt or stone of the road at all. Steve tried to mirror it the best he could, although he suspected his attempt wasn’t completely successful. A few minutes passed and Barnes surprisingly addressed him.

“It’s a simple job, yours even more so. We’ll take care of everything and you’ll stand guard.”

Despite the lack of information, the job didn’t seem complicated in itself. He just hoped he’d get more intel along the way so he wouldn’t screw anything up. The only thing that calmed him at the moment were his companions’ lack of armour and heavy weaponry. Romanoff had her blowpipe equipped and slung behind her back in its harness, Kidd only wearing his characteristic hidden spring blades and Barnes having only brought a single slender cutlass, together with a set of light springblade gauntlets almost identical to Kidd’s.
Suddenly, the group came to a stop in a sidealley to a bigger street, everyone settling into a crouch with their backs to the wall. Steve followed of course, meanwhile noticing that their position would make them hard to spot from the main road. Finally, Romanoff broke the silence.

“The Creed is planning an overall attack on several of the largest plantages in the area surrounding Kingston. It’s our way to weaken the crown-loyal merchant’s influence in the area, as well as free the people being enslaved under them, but for the attacks to be successful, the Creed needs plans of the plantages as well as information regarding deliveries and trade in the region. So we’ll provide.”

“That sounds ambitious.”

Steve was simply thinking out loud. Such plantages had hundreds of slaves and not a tiny amount of guards and armed men. The stock being delivered or shipped out were valuable, everybody knew that and especially the wealthy merchants owning it.

“And profitable.”

Kidd added usefully, grin still blooming on his face. Almost like clockwork, they all heard a night patrol of spanish soldiers come marching on the main road. They all pressed their backs to the wall a little harder as the conversation fell to the ground. It only took a few more minutes before Kidd motioned for them to leave the cover of the wall, sneaking out unto the open street and past a couple of finer looking houses. They hurried back into back alleys as soon as the constructions around them made it possible.

“If the Creed wishes to steal from English plantages, why are we sneaking around in Havana in the middle of the night?”

“There’s a single englishman who owns parts of all the plantages and his regular office and warehouse just happens to be placed just around the corner.”

Romanoff provided. The puzzle pieces started to fit together in Steve’s mind, still he could only follow and hope that his companions knew what they were doing. He felt assured though, the controlled way each of them moved together with tenacity was held witness against the sheer purpose these people felt towards their cause. They were scaringly efficient, each of them seemingly aware of how and where the others moved, assuring synchronization. Steve felt too bulky and ungraceful besides them. The alleyway came to a dead end and they all stopped in front of a ladder. Kidd stepped aside playfully.

“Ladies first.”

Romanoff scoffed and looked like she wanted to whack him over the head, but nevertheless climbed upwards first, followed by Barnes. Steve followed next, slowly feeling himself grow more concerned with each step gaining more and more height. At last, he reached the rooftop and grabbed Barnes’ outstretched hand to get pulled up and stabilized on the sloping tiles. The view was the first thing that hit him. Not much light was turned on at this hour, yet a few fireplaces and street lights lit up a few streets around them. Steve could see the cathedral from here, some of the smaller churches and bigger mansions as well.

“Don’t step on loose tiles.”

Came a brusk order from Barnes, ripping Steve from his admirring trance. They kept going, still creeping through the darkness just a considerable amount of floors higher up this time. Small clacks of boot hitting tile was the only noise filling the air for another 10 minutes, the group moving slower this time around. The closer they got to their intended destination, the lower the three pirates crouched while walking, Steve simply followed their lead. The roof ended in front of a rather large warehouse, only continuing to their left and right. If Steve didn’t know better he would have thought it to be a mansion, it was that richly decorated and well kept. It was significantly taller than the cheaper buildings surrounding it, including the one they were all currently placed on. Steve could spot light from inside the windows, as well as the open passageways and balconies. Suddenly, Barnes gave a small wave in Kidd and Romanoff’s direction and both of them made their way left. Barnes motioned for Steve to follow him right, still in a low crouch. They made their way around the building, Steve’s heart hammering almost audibly. Despite how much he’d come to accidently respect the man before him, he’d felt safer in the larger group. If something went wrong, Barnes could easily abandon him to an unknown fate and he hadn’t even agreed to be here in the first place. Guess that’s what happens when you’re an idiot, he scolded himself. The Captain came to a stop, resting low behind a thick chimney.

“Your job is to stand guard. If someone signs the alarm and calls on more forces, I might not be able to hear it from inside the building. If anything like that were to happen, you throw a tile inside that balcony.”

Barnes pointed at a robust looking small wooden balcony built into the warehouse directly in front of them, with a wide gap of at least 10 feet from the building they were standing on.

“The floor inside is made of stone, so I’ll be able to hear the tile shatter and hopefully get out in time.”

Steve had no intention of asking how Barnes came to that information, so he just nodded.

“Alright.”

He answered. Barnes face broke into a smile as he stood up. Steve followed and was just about to ask him how he planned on infiltrating the building in the first place, but Barnes backed away to get an inlet before sprinting and flinging himself bodily at the building.

“What the shit!?”

Steve accidentally let out in a tense airy whisper. Barnes naturally lost altitude in his jump, which resulted in his colliding and grabbing a ledge just below his intended entry point. It merely took a few seconds of hanging still for the Captain to recover. He then climbed fluidly upwards, holding onto every ledge and crevice like the lifelines they clearly were, before grabbing the railing of the balcony and hauling himself up and over. Captain Barnes disappeared without a sound into the dark room behind the patio, leaving Steve dumbfounded on the roof opposite.

After having recovered the initial shock of Captain James Barnes being an acrobat, Steve quickly ducked when a guard in uniform entered his vision on the patio a little further down the building. He shielded himself behind a chimney, eyes wide and mind hyper aware of every little shift in the sound patterns of his surroundings. The street was completely quiet, almost too quiet. Steve wondered if the guards thought the same or if they thought this night to be like any other. Maybe he was simply paranoid due to the uncomfortable and involuntary situation he found himself in. Suddenly, a distinct clear voice cut through the silence. Steve almost jumped out of his own skin, silently cursing himself when the voice simply belonged to a guard on the same patio, quietly chatting the night away with his shift-partner. He really sucked at this job. More minutes passed and his mind was slowly starting to make up one worst-case scenario after another, all in which everything failed and it would either be his fault, or he’d be abandoned for those guards to find on this very rooftop. Out of nowhere, a hollow sound could be heard from inside the warehouse, the noise carried outside only by open doorways and windows. It was the sound of something big and clothed falling, not from far up, collapsing would be a better descriptor. Judging by the hushed conversation halting, the guard had noticed as well. They walked back into the building from the high patio, only a couple of seconds after a strangled shriek filled the air and made all the hairs on Steve’s neck stand up.

Shouting followed, barely audible over the sound of his own heart picking up pace, only to be replaced by a similar muted dull sound when another, previously standing, body collided with the floor. This time scraping followed, metal and cloth being dragged over stone, the sound making Steve’s teeth grind despite the muteness. More shouting, but this time from below him on the street and from deeper inside the house. The echo of footsteps rung hollowly in Steve’s ears, his eyes transfixed on a loose roof tile at his feet, yet unseeing as the sense of horror and dread seeped into his very bone. Abruptly, he moved. Barnes’ orders still ringing in his ears, Steve twisted the loose tile, pulling a little too violently in his ardor and nearly losing his footing once it gave. The burned clay felt rugged against his fingertips, the material sturdy, yet not nearly indestructible enough to survive a rough clash with the mansion floor. He had to warn Barnes, the thought of having to return to The Swan without her Captain almost grotesque in nature.

Steve took aim, a stab of panic hit him by the thought of failing the throw, but he tried to let the logical part of his brain cast a shadow upon it. He’d made harder and heavier throws before. With the tile sitting heavily in his palm, he raised his arm and squared his legs, getting ready. Only a second before he would have flung his arm forward, a small shift in the shadows upon the balcony, as well as a hushed whisper, held his hand. Barnes’ head peaked up from behind the railing. Steve could see his eyebrow raised in question and skepticism.

“Don’t hit me with that please.”

The Captain’s presence immediately served to calm Steve’s nerves, despite his muted whisper containing both strain and bone-dry sarcasm. Steve slowly put the tile down as Barnes stepped back into the room behind the curtain to get an inlet, before running swiftly at the railing, planting a boot upon it and vaulting over the wide space between warehouse and rooftop. As before, he lost altitude and ended up clinging to a window ledge a floor beneath Steve, whose blood almost froze from watching the Captain disappear from his vision. Barnes soon climbed back up though, relatively strainlessly. Now it was Steve’s turn to help and reach out to offer a pull-up. Barnes, after being hauled up on his feet, gave an acknowledging nod and a tight smile. Steve tried his best to return it, although he expected his expression to be one of tension and hardship instead. The fragile seconds of peace were abruptly shattered when shouting and the sounds of footsteps intensified behind them. Barnes offered a hurried pat on the back before setting into motion.

“Let’s go!”

Now all stealth were forgotten. The loud clunks of their boots beating against the tiles in a hurried pace echoed loudly through the air. Sadly, it still didn’t mask the sounds of their pursuers. Steve hadn’t been certain of his own and his companions’ roles on this mission, hunters or prey? But now that the shouting came closer and started to spread out and flank them, all doubt in his mind had disappeared like dew in the heating sun. Steve’s heart beat like a drum to the rhythm of their footsteps and hasty flight. Without warning, the roof ended and he only just realised 10 feet from the 3 story fall. Barnes continued to no one's surprise, picking up speed and flying through the air to the next roof ahead. Steve’s instincts took over and he clumsily came to a stop, clutching the edges of a chimney to slow himself down the rest of the way before the obstacle. Barnes turned on the roof opposite, his expression mirroring Steve’s own in horror, but with a an extra detail of desperation.

“Just fucking jump Rogers!”

No sympathy to collect there. Typical. Only the rapid and loud footsteps behind them made Steve unfreeze from his spot. He pushed himself away from the safety the chimney provided, not letting himself think too much about all the possible outcomes of broken body lying down in the alley 3 stories below. He stepped back, forcing his breaths to deepen and become steady, before setting off into a sprint. A couple of tiles might have broken beneath his feet before he took off at the edge and flew through the air. The few airborne seconds might as well have been minutes, that's how long it felt at least. He tripped on the landing, sending half of his left legs dangling from the rooftop while the rest of him was pulled up by strong arms and insistent hands. He could barely feel anything else than those hands on him and the pulse beating in his fingertips. Steve only got a few seconds to recover before Barnes’ hands returned, this time pulling forward instead of up. They continued their reckless escape, swiftly dodging chimneys and irregularities in the roof, until Barnes pointed to a ladder leading to the ground longer down their route. The Captain got down first, barely using the steps. Instead he wrapped his arms around the ladder and bracketed it with his boots, sliding all the way down with practiced ease.

Steve was slower of course, which served to anger himself as usual. Being a burden and a heavy chain among someone’s ankle was on the list of the sins Steve Rogers would never let himself commit willingly. Unfortunately, this time he had no say in the matter. Down they went, and the hectic pace only quickened, their breaths coming out heaving and desperate. They swerved in and out of alleyways and behind stacked up hay and fences, never once losing their pursuers completely. Once they’d climbed down, they had turned less visible and harder to follow, yet they couldn’t keep this pace up for much longer. The rapid beating of hooves had joined the marching footsteps and no matter how extensive the training Barnes had underwent for the Creed, not even he could outrun a well-bred horse with a determined rider. Their best chance now existed in the shape of cover.
Barnes slowed down considerably, crouching down in his hurried walk. He reminded Steve of a wolf on the hunt, sensing the air and somehow adapting naturally to his surroundings. They waited for a couple of moments before the Captain motioned them forward and into a sprint.

They ran close to the wall on their left, taking advantage of the small amount of cover it provided. Said wall ended up ahead in a corner of a new street. Barnes continued in a steady pace and Steve followed, right until a few feet from the corner, where the Captain threw himself back first against the wall. Steve almost continued the run out unto the street, but Barnes reacted quick and pulled him back harshly, spun him around, pushed his back against the wall and slammed him hand over Steve’s mouth. Steve almost choked out a surprised protest, but the sounds of marching feet, followed by hooves clicking against stone made him still immediately. He hadn’t heard the patrol, but clearly Barnes had. Speaking of devils, the Captain’s hand was still very much pressed tightly to his mouth and cheeks, forcing him to breathe through the slits between Barnes’ fingers, filling the man’s palm with moist air, before finding the nose to be an easier option. He tried to slow his heaving breaths down. The cold stone wall against his palms and back was simply background information, due to Barnes being this close, his every breath ghosting hotly against Steve’s neck every few seconds, making him shiver. Lastly mentioned proved more distracting than even the heavy footfalls of the soldiers on the parallel avenue longer down to their left. They both kept stock-still until the sounds of their hunters receded. Barnes sighed in relief, the tension broke like a flood, yet Barnes had yet to move away. An incredibly strong force from deep within Steve reached out and slowly removed the Captain’s hand from his face.

“I do know when to keep silent.”

“That would be a newly acquired feat of yours.”

Okay, he’d pretty much walked into that one himself. Although his brain wasn’t working very well at the moment. Even Barnes’ sass fell flat with the unusual tone it was accompanied with. Steve furrowed his brows in perplexion, but Barnes simply turned away, pretending to check the alley behind them for threats. He looked flustered, a feeble glow of warmth on his cheeks could be seen even in the darkness of the street. Before Steve could memorise that particular look on the Captain’s usual closed-off face, said man took off again with a mere glance his way for signalling him to follow.

They continued as previously, except their pursuers couldn’t be heard nor seen at the moment. After some time, Barnes straightened more up, not depending on the walls around them as much for cover anymore. The smallest of back alleys were still their preferred route though. Steve assumed conversation was acceptable when he heard the Captain curse over a few bruises he’d earned himself, probably inside the warehouse. Steve caught himself looking over his companion, luckily not finding any injuries of a more serious caliber. Instead, a question long in the making pressed its insistent way out of Steve’s throat.

“The bodies i heard. Were they … you?”

Barnes turned to him, taking a bit off guard it would seem, or perhaps just in another thought entirely. He recovered quickly.

“No the ones you’re probably referring to weren’t me. A few complications arose around my exit point, a few guards in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kidd helped me out.”

Steve blinked rapidly at the mention of Kidd’s name. In their hectic pursuit across rooftops, swerving around loose tiles and crooked chimneys, he’d completely forgotten about the third and fourth addition to the team. Now his conscience was biting him in the ass for it. Through the guilt, another pressing question arose, this one of vital importance.

“Did you succeed?”

He felt stupid not even knowing the true outcome of their troubles yet, although he couldn’t really pinpoint a time before this where the question would have been appropriate. Barnes simply smirked at him, his cocky and self-assured attitude returning now that immediate danger weren’t quite literally on their heels. The proud display upon his face was followed by a hand gently patting over a small pouch in his belt. Steve let out a relieved sigh. Tonight had truly been an experience, but he’d be just a little reluctant to do this all over again tomorrow night. Barnes had succeeded and that made a few more muscles in his body untwine just by the thought.

“What of Romanoff and Kidd?”

“They’ll be fine. Those two can be fucking stealthy when they want to. Escaping a dark warehouse will be no match for them.”
There wasn’t a single ounce of doubt to detect in Barnes’ voice. He rather sounded annoyed at the skillset of the mentioned Captain and her partner. That alone made Steve’s worry almost die out entirely.

Eventually, Steve started recognising their surroundings and soon enough they reached their inhabited warehouse. They both tip-toed up the old creaky stairs, wincing at every sharp sound flung into the huge room above. Kidd and Romanoff was nowhere to be seen, both their sleeping mats lying empty, side by side. The rest of the men from both crews were accounted for though. Every last one of them sleeping soundly atop their mats, a few of them even snored loudly. Steve glared a bit at his own cot as he approached, still feeling restless from the adrenaline and awaiting Kidd and Romanoff’s return. Barnes, however, just marched silently over to his sleeping space, only turning once to motion with a nod against Steve’s mat, before taking off his boots and lying down and goind still, his back to the room. The entire manner in which the man had held himself seemed forced, like an inaudible period, involuntarily turning into an exclamation mark. The motioning had been an order in itself and Steve was too tired not to obey. He laid down, a last glance towards the two empty cots in the other end of the room. He fell asleep surprisingly quick, not waking once. Not even when two pairs of light feet slipped up the stairs and found rest side by side.

Chapter Text

The entire trip to Tulum went about as smoothly as possible with a crew of this size. Halfway, both James’ Sailing Master and Boatswain had informed him of which sails and attachments needed repairments. Sadly, that proved to be a large part of the canvas as well as most heavy-pressured tackles, both the single luff tackles and the damn gyn tackles. This made the skilled Captain want to jump into the sea out of sheer frustrating from just thinking of the work that would require. All things set aside, he trusted Dum Dum and Gabe Jones with both his life and vessel, so listening once both men made rare demands was really not a feat in and of itself. Still, it was fucking annoying. The purpose of this trip was mostly to keep a promise to a certain blond New Yorker, while also making sure his connections with the Creed stayed intact. That meant meeting personally with their Caribbean leader at least once a year, and that time table was running out.

 

Ah Tabai never travelled outside of Tulum, the ultimate hotspot for members of The Creed as well as their loyalists, unless an utmost emergency occurred. The King of Tulum sat heavily on the hypothetical throne that the morals of his beliefs denied him from having in any physical form. James wasn’t looking forward to it to be honest, but then again, no one ever looked forward to meeting Ah Tabai. The man was, more often than not, cold as ice and unreadable as a foreign alphabet, but he really didn’t anticipate bearing bad news of the attack on the Cuban Taíno village. If he got lucky, Ah Tabai would’ve already found out; that man had eyes everywhere, but luck rarely came too easily these days.

 

The fact that James’ crew was unable to sail and earn their keep by attacking merchant vessels in his absence was just furtherly angering him. Falsworth had been keeping the books well and if they didn’t get their hands on cargo or plain coin soon, every man of the crew would be paid the slim sum of 8 dollars for the last 3 months combined. That would mean paying less than half their normal, yet ever changing, wage. That sort of message never placed him well with the crew. The only positive to this wasthat he hadn’t lost a member in months, while only having to pay a few physical damage fees. Not that they weren’t expensive in their fullness. Yeah, they’d need to do some serious hunting once this month had passed, and eventhen their next target would be a considerably sized Man-O-War with hundreds of imprisoned men, women and children aboard. Yet another mission for the Creed that James worried about. Those kinds of missions always had the potential to get real messy really fucking fast due to the sheer amount of human lives involved. He needed a fucking drink.

 

He walked to his alcohol cabinet, a nice piece of richly carved furniture once placed upon a Spanish galleon. How it ended up in his private chambers was truly a mystery. Well, shit happens - even to the rich. James barely grabbed onto the door of the cabinet, before suddenly remembering a certain Natasha Romanoff threatening to empty his liquor stash after Havana. Now he ripped the door open, rattling the only bottle left in the usually admirably full space. Grabbing and pulling the bottle out like some sort of lifeline, James cussed like a devil, long lastingly and whole heartedly. It was a gin bottle, half full and old. Definitely not the good kind imported from England (not that that had a specific quality attached). Gin was generally consumed by workers in The King’s Country, but most times it was at least drinkable. This shit was produced up north and was a cheap product distilled from a mostly bad harvest. Practically undrinkable and damn if Natasha hadn’t known that the seconds she raided his french brandy and royal rum. and left behind  this piece of bottled swamp water. The sound of the bottle harshly being set down on the map table was louder than he first intended, yet perfectly described how pissed he was. Yeah, he remembered now. She had said something with resemblance to ‘you always drink your feelings away Barnes, I’ll be doing your sanity a favor’. He’d threatened her back, but naturally to no avail. So much for having friends.

 

It was completely pointless anyways. He’d barely spoken of anything close to resembling feelings to her, but sadly Natasha never needed verbal confirmation of anything. Okay, so what if he’d slipped a bit and let out frustrations about a certain ridiculously blond man? Only natural after Havana he’d say. Still didn’t give the other Captain any right to raid his cabinet when he needed it the most. When the hell had she even managed to break in? Wait, he wasn’t about to bother wondering about this. If Romanoff was determined enough she’d find a way. Although, if Kidd had helped in any way he’d hear for it, God help him. Life was too complicated for this kind of backstabbing.

 

They still worried for him, he fucking knew that, okay, but if they could get off his back just once in a while that would honestly be peachy. After Abbott and that entire messy ordeal, now months behind him, they’d side-eye him more often than not. He still had a strong suspicion that Natasha had only agreed to train Rogers out of worry (perhaps also a tiny bit for the sake of entertainment). James had had a slight setback when he’d hid away from the world for some time, seeking refuge in his own chambers and drowned himself in work, but it had been three days, so come on!The man he’d despised most in this world was dead, but that didn’t mean he’d push everyone away and hide someplace dark for the rest of his life.

 

It’s not like he hadn’t wondered himself what the fuck would happen once it was all over. He’d used years of his life tracking down and ending every man, worker, mercenary or Officer, bearing blame for what happened to Jim Morita. Abbott had been the top target, so he had waited for so damn long, picking off the smaller men along the way, waiting for the perfect opportunity.

 

Waiting had been the worst part, imagining how the perfect way to end the man’s life the second worst. He’d only had one shot, one damn chance of doing the one thing he desired most in the world. Now, he looked back and barely remembered any of the details, it had all passed in a blur of intense malice and grim satisfaction. The few things that still stood clear in James’ mind from that day was the begging. Oh how Abbott had begged and pleaded to no avail, exactly like he’d done himself, first for the life of his friend, then for the whip tearing at his flesh to seize its onslaught. James was still wearing the thick jagged scars on his back, making no effort to hide them whenever they showed. He’d fucking survived flogging, then desertion at sea by the hand of the target of all his anger. Good thing he’d blown Abbott’s fucking brains out in the end. The desire for revenge had been a fucking obsession more often than not though, he could still feel it woven deep into his conscience even now. It was Abbott or him, that’s how far he was ready to go to bring that useless excuse for a man down.

 

After his success he’d expected the hollowness, he truly had, but it didn’t tear at him any less for that reason. Previously, all his fury and hatred had been channeled, precise and sharp-set like a well carved and deadly arrow gliding swiftly through air before ending the life of its intended target. It had been a towering roaring fire, eating away at anything in its near vicinity, ablaze and ever growing. Now, that fire had died out and left glowing embers of malice in its place, scattered and easily ignited anew. Then fate had dumped a, at first glance, rather insignificant distraction on his lap. Said distraction had caught his attention even before Abbott stopped his terribly annoying habit of breathing.

 

The blond, reckless idiot of a New Yorker had stood up to him in a situation where most men would have stayed silent. It had been a test at first. James had wanted to see how far this man was willing to go to save the life of his friend. That test had been the first of several, yet Steve fucking Rogers managed to surprise him even months after their first meeting. The man fit into no pattern and wasn’t cut into shape like the men he claimed he knew inside out from just looking at them once. Even the rich naive boys venturing into these waters got put in their place after a month, tops. Then they would quickly run back home if they weren’t slashed in two pieces by then. Truth is, James kept mental lists of all his crew members, who was reckless, lazy, indifferent, honest, loyal etc. They all served as a nuance of colour in the bigger painting that was the crew. The importance of keeping a wide range of different people on a vessel was crucial to the functionality of the crew as well as the success of a Captain and so far James had done a damn good job in that field. He’d seen enough people in these waters to know the specific patterns and he prided himself in it, at least until a single man had caught his attention and shattered his assurance.

 

It was plainly ridiculous how much Rogers seemed to draw him in. All blond, blue-eyed, innocent naivety on the outside, but a sharp intelligent wit as well as an all consuming passion laid beneath. Then the man just had to be built like a greek fucking god and what the fuck was James supposed to do with that? It was just too much. Too cliche as well. Dark unlawful pirate Captain out to ruin the reputation of the light righteous hero. It was frankly laughable, despite how well it fit at times. Except Rogers went completely willingly, which coincidentally always served to make every one of James’ reasonable thoughts go flying out the window. Rogers had chosen to stay. Rogers had sparred with him, never getting scared off by force nor the thick jagged scar tissue covering most of James’ upper body. Quite the opposite in fact, he’d been staring, almost entranced, with no sign of disgust painting his features. Whatever else James thought he’d seen in Rogers face that day he had shoved away and declared wishful thinking.

 

Just a few weeks ago in Havana they’d been discussing literature, of all damn things, and James had enjoyed that conversation however much he denied it to himself. But the picture  that had imprinted itself permanently into James thoughts the last weeks was of a dark alleyway and adrenaline. Of deadly silence and threatening footsteps. He had grabbed Rogers without much thought to be completely honest, the only thing going through his mind in that second being how screwed they’d be if caught. It had been a standard mission, something he’d done a thousand times before, up until he’d pulled Rogers to the side … and the man had gone completely voluntarily. James had put strength into the pull but Rogers, damn the man, hadn’t tensed or tried to parry. He’d blindly and instinctually trusted that James had shoved at him for a good reason, only asking questions later once the danger was over. That’s what hit him most, that blind trust. They’d sparred and fought lots of times, if Rogers had reacted instinctively and tried to protect himself from a possible attack James would have thought it natural. But this? This impulsive faith the man had indirectly expressed? James had no fucking idea what to do with and it drove him mad. Rebellion was predictable, hell even reasonable given Rogers’ situation, and James could easily have dealt with the simplicity of that.

 

They had been standing so close afterwards, waiting for the danger to pass, that he had felt Rogers’ breath fan over the hand he’d clasped over the man’s mouth. James had heard both of their heartbeats rapidly beat together. There had been no anger in the blond’s eyes, no hurried withdrawal.

 

In his steady stream of jumbled thoughts, James heart had definitely picked up speed and he only just noticed. Fuck it, he really needed that damn drink, cheap gin or not. He bit into the cork, pulled and spit it back out once it popped from the bottle. The long swig he took immediately afterwards was as unpleasant as he’d expected and he forced himself not to gag. Damn Romanoff for making it hard for him to find solace for his thoughts on the bottom of a good bottle of rum and more importantly damn Rogers for making him feel like this.

 

___________________________



Three days later, James was commandeering his ship around the tall cliffs standing stoic in the water close to Tulum’s shore. Once their desired location, a relatively wide beach inside a natural bay, was within reach, he shouted out one last command towards the rigging.

 

“Douse the topsails and mainsails, let her glide!”

 

His crew worked as smoothly as ever, each man obeying his orders the best they could. It always revoked a sense of satisfaction in him to witness. Dum Dum was at his side by the helm, at the self-made map table consisting of two empty water barrels with a broad wooden plank on top. The Sailing Master had used the last two days to calculate their whereabouts every hour, making sure they wouldn’t accidentally pass their destination during the night. Various maps and calculation tools were scattered across the makeshift table, soon to be packed away in a locked chest in James’ private chambers. Such measurement equipment was expensive as hell, even more so if you wanted them to be of certain quality, not to think of the highly accurate navigation charts he’s paid an outrageous amount of money off a buccaneer. The man had sadly known the value of his stock, which was without doubt stolen from Spanish Navy. This equipment would always be the true treasure aboard The Swan and luckily James had a Sailing Master that guarded it as a panther mother would her cups.



They were drifting very close to shore, the water only being around 10 fathoms deep, but he still waited for the perfect moment to shout command. When all the tackles and canvas were to be replaced it would be safer for every working man if the vessel was relatively still on swallow waters.

 

“Drop the anchor!”

 

The men that had been awaiting those exact words immediately jumped into action. Soon enough they were safely anchored inside the bay, their starboard broadside facing the entry if any ill intending privateers, buccaneers or pirate hunters showed up. He descended the helm stairs, shouting for two rowing boats to be put in the water, before disappearing into his chambers to grab his stuff. The bag contained mostly clothes and extra weapons so he wouldn’t have to venture to and from Ah Tabai’s campsite every day.

 

Once he threw the sack over his shoulders and headed back out on deck, the men heading with him into the mainland were all present, including Rogers, who had just descended from the crow’s nest and was standing on the gunwall, fingers still intertwined in the shrouds. The man looked to him, awaiting instructions, like it was the most natural thing in the world to him, which James damn well knew it hadn’t been mere months ago. He forced himself to shake off the unnerving tingling just beneath his skin at that thought and opted for giving orders in a neutral commanding tone to both Rogers and the other men destined to accompany him into the jungle.

 

“Go get all of your personal belongings, never know if you’ll get the chance to return soon.”

 

As the few men jumped into action, James continued his stride to the port broadside, jumping atop the gunwall and enjoying the anticipation hanging freely in the air among his men. The Scavenger had thrown anchor at the bay’s entry, a pair of rowing boats hanging from sturdy tackle and slowly getting levelled down into the water. He’d meet Kidd, Natasha, Thor, the Taíno boy Bojekío, as well as a couple of men from the other vessel once on the beach. Lastly, the crewmen of The Scavenger were to receive training at the campsite together with Rogers, a total of three men serving as the newest recruits for the cause.

 

Now James officially declared Falsworth to be in charge in his absence, fully trusting his First Mate to get the job in the rigging done smoothly and as quickly as possible. Jones were to stay back too of course. As the Boatswain, he’d help plan out the work in schedules and keep a close eye on every working man in the rigging. James jumped down from the gunwall, now done passing on command, and ended up walking right into his Sailing Master.

 

“What about you, Dugan? Wanna come?”

 

The man in front of him grinned, clearly elated that James asked. It was reasonable to say the least. The Swan wouldn’t be sailing in the weeks to come and therefore she wouldn’t be in need of her Sailing Master nearly as much. Besides, Jones was fully capable of overseeing the repairments on his own.

 

“Now would I ever pass up an opportunity to see the one and only Miss Union Jack?”

 

“She’ll want to see you too.”

 

Barnes smiled crookedly. Despite having to face Ah Tabai and possibly receive new orders for the next months, James really wasn’t all that keen on getting ordered around, the next weeks provided a break from the sea. He’d been living of and for the Caribbean waters for years now, but breaks on land were rare and he considered them likeable, temporary change regardless. It might prove easier to get his thoughts under control in less known surroundings, who was he to fucking know.

 

Soon enough, the smaller group of men intending to follow him into the jungle was standing ready upon deck. They all climbed the gunwall and were slowly lowered down into a rowboat. Dugan took up oars with another crewmember. Rogers placed himself in the bow with his belongings, looking slightly misplaced while looking towards land in anticipation. James strongly suspected the reason for that being Dugan and the other man entering the boat before the New Yorker got the chance. Otherwise he’d surely taken up the oars himself. The two other men besides himself, Rogers and Dugan was a relatively new addition to the crew. Kidd had approved them for recruiting in Tortuga and thereafter thrown them on The Swan to work until she reached Tulum. Therefore, out of only mild spite, James really hadn’t bothered remembering their names. Both men were honest workers though, but he only knew because Jones had told him. That man knew more about James’ crew than he did himself and this would bother him if he didn’t already trust the man with his life.

 

Once the bow of their rowboat was securely digging into the sand of the beach, they assembled and greeted the crewmembers from The Scavenger. His fellow Captain greeted Rogers, who returned the gesture before heading towards Thor and the Taìno boy. James sent Natasha a glare, deadly as a newly sharpened sword, but as per usual his best intimidation efforts were water on her proffed feathers. She simply cocked an eyebrow, both feigning innocence and confirming she didn’t feel the least bit sorry for him. Having to spend weeks in the same jungle as her would truly be a blast. Later on he’d interrogate Kidd, possibly after he’d commanded himself to a bottle of rum in the camp.

 

The jungle and an hour of wandering through thick vegetation awaited them, so when the happy reunion turned to friendly banter, James led the way into the shadows of the palm trees. Luckily, Kidd had brought plenty of spare swords to hack through the thick roots and other foliage. Good thing since James really wouldn’t sacrifice the edge of his own blade. It was stolen off a Spanish Officer damn it, the cutlass was a masterpiece in itself. He took front with Kidd and the swords, the soon-to-be trainees walked middle and The Scavenger’s red haired Captain guarded their backs together with her quartermaster and his little companion. The air beneath the thick treetops was considerably more humid and soon enough clear beads of sweat was dripping down each of their foreheads.

 

James could feel Rogers’ constant burning presence at his back, the man’s deep breath audible in his ears unless the sounds of a branch getting slashed through drowned it out. It simply made James hack harder.

 

Eyes had been following them the last 10 minutes. Kidd was aware, as was Natasha, but the rest of their group seemed happily unaware. There was a definite possibility that Natasha’s quartermaster had noticed as well, but that man could hide surprisingly much behind that regular open expression. They’d been walking for well past half an hour, awaiting said eyes since their chances of finding the campsite without guides was impossibly slim. James had been here a large number of times the last years, yet the pathless jungle was constantly shifting as was their entries to it.

 

The faint rustling of the treetops would be mistaken for natural by anyone unaffiliated with The Assassins. Their skillset was somehow natural in itself, the seemingly astounding way in which they blended into the jungle as a part of its very soul. James continued his hacking through the vegetation, all the while listening for the whispery sounds of bare feet on bark. They were weak enough for one to think they might never have existed, but oh James knew better. He’d been trained here too after all.

 

A couple of minutes passed and yes, there were definitely two pairs of feet following them, flanking them, sometimes even running swiftly above them on tree trunks toppled over and rotting.

 

James forced his instincts to keep calm. Regardless of how valuable he was to the Creed, and The Creed to him, Ah Tabai were even more paranoid than he was, which led to this kind of agonisingly slow stalk-and-approach method of communication. The Assassins were allies and in some instances even close friends, James glanced to Kidd to reassure himself of this. He was overly tense, not that he let any of it show, mostly from feeling partly powerless in these terrains. The sea was his domain, the jungle The Creed’s, their differences ironically enough making them perfect allies.

 

The footfalls slowed and descended from the trees, James picked up by small intervals of audibility. A single leaf brushed softly against a moss-covered trunk to his left and that was the finality of it. He stopped up abruptly, a surprise to anyone not paying close attention, awaiting and forcing his body language to open in greeting. Kidd did the same at his side, thought pattern and presence of mind mirroring his own completely, which never missed to spark a sense of satisfaction in him. A few seconds later two figures emerged soundlessly from the thick jungle encasing them, one from each side.

 

The men in the middle startled visibly and audibly, some even reaching for weapons. James held out his hand irritably, not even sparing them a single annoyed glance. The scouts were two women, about the same age as him, both dressed in dark green robes, instead of the usual white ones, with loose breeches underneath, excellent for climbing and running. The outer layer was kept from flowing too much by a thick pouch belt around the middle. Their attire only left arms, face and nether legs bare, hoods hanging low over the forehead, but the women’s dark skin still secured them almost invisibility in their surroundings. Finally, they both had smeared thick streaks of dark colours across their eyes. James supposed he understood the shock of Rogers and the other men. Seen from an outer perspective, these two presences looked highly intimidating in both attire, emotionless faces and intensely observing eyes. Furthermore, one was armed with a bow and the other with a blowpipe. If they had wished to kill them, they’d simply have picked each and everyone of them off and the group would barely know what had hit them.

 

Kidd broke the silence and stepped forward against the bow-armed scout.

 

“Takaji kiik.”

 

“Takaji natiao.”

 

She responded, blunt and courtly. James let Kidd take the lead. This was his domain and Creed after all, just like James’ crew was his own. He was far from mastering the Taìno language, but these greetings were simple and a regular part of the every-day vocabulary, so he followed just fine. The scouts were always this stone-faced and frightening, year long training in the jungle surrounding the encampment did that to you, James assumed. Ah Tabai only handpicked the very best in stealth and navigation for scouting and among Assassins, it was considered a great honour to serve in such hardly acquired posts.

 

Both scouts turned around and led the way deeper into the jungle. The men behind James and Kidd followed cautiously, but kept quiet. Clever of them, James thought. They followed the scouts for a good 20 minutes, zig-zagging through relatively open land, which James now knew served the purpose of avoiding the traps and hidden spike pits scattered around the encampment like skulls around a bear’s cave. The sounds of bustling life reached them only half a minute before the trees and thick vegetation gave way for an encampment filled with hundreds of people tending to their everyday life. They were quickly surrounded by large round huts woven together and supported by strong slender beams, together with the people who momentarily seised their endeavours to observe the newcomers. The scent of fish drying in the sun and meat being grilled made James’ stomach rumble quietly. He made a note to find food after the official introductions.

 

The longer they ventured into the village, the closer they got to their desired destination. Just past the large huts and workplaces loomed a centuries old, but no less huge, Mayan temple, its white stone exterior almost glistening in the sun rays entering easily through holes in the treetops above. It never failed to take James’ breath away, despite its significant age. In front of them, with the temple buildings shining in the background, was the general training area. it was a large, slightly raised plateau of white stone with the universal emblem of The Assassins built into it with decoratively placed brickwork. The plateau had short pillars at each side, with broad staircases at the back leading to a deep basin filled with water. In ancient times it might have been used for godly sacrifices or worship, but now the novices tended to bathe in it on particular hot days, that or practice their jumping from the continued temple grounds 40 feet above. James secretly hoped to see Rogers face if the man was ever peer pressured into trying.

 

The soon-to-be novices of the group were awestruck and James didn’t even have to turn around to be sure of it. Their silence and bated breaths spoke for itself. A few fully educated Assassins, their status made evident by the characteristic hood pulled up and their white, red and brown cloak, greeted Kidd enthusiastically as they passed the training grounds on their left and headed upwards on a constructed pathway placed on the cliffside. The encampment could be categorised into the lower camp with living space, novice training area and workspace, whereas the upper camp consisted of the entire temple, which served as the official headquarters of the Caribbean Assassins. Hidden gateways and caves lay beneath the Mayan construction and Ah Tabai greatly controlled these with steely determination. All their planning and ordering originated from this place before they were sent out, either by the mouth of a trusted Creed member, or by coded messaging. It all functioned like well-oiled clockwork with loyalty to the cause as the backbone. Regardless of how little James generally sought out Ah Tabai’s company, he still respected him and his movement immensely.

 

The upper temple consisted of a single long mainway, which served as the heart of the structure, with several walls and constructions built around it. They walked down the centre, the men behind James looking left and right like children excited for their first harbour market. A couple of Assassins stood guard about half way down. Kidd greeted them as ‘brothers’ and asked them to announce the group’s arrival to the Creed Leader. Their surroundings became awfully quiet once the guards left to deliver word, only the sounds of the jungle filling the air around them accompanied by the faint buzzing of the village behind them.

 

“Feast your eyes on hidden glory, men!”

 

Romanoff sarcastically exclaimed, resulting in a bark of laughter from Kidd. James himself smiled lopsided in amusement as well when seeing his men’s eyes, big and round like saucers. They blinked and finally exited their awe-filled trance and now they simply seemed flustered. They’d get over it in a week’s time. If James had noticed the striking blue in Rogers’ eyes he’d rather die than admit it.

 

From a relatively intact building at the end of the walkway, the guards emerged with a third presence between them. Both men had significantly straighter spines than when they were simply guarding the place. If James hadn’t known Ah Tabai, he would have thought he imagined it, but the Assassin Leader had that effect on most. Only Rumlow had refused to give into it and that hadn’t ended well. He definitely wasn’t bringing him here again anytime soon.

 

The group made their way towards them. Ah Tabai wore similar clothing to his subordinates, but the colours and style were a little different. The hood and loose fitting cloak were the same, except the Guama, the Taìno word for tribe leader, wore the traditional attire in a more decorated form with a much broader midsection of belts in sienna, together with metal shoulderplates and a single broad collar, all adorned heavily with spiritual carvings. But what truly made the man stand out was his steely features, now bearing sign of an age around 50, framed by shoulder-long, dark, greying hair. Ah Tabai’s face was furthermore heavily painted with black stripes on white beneath the eyes, which successfully magnified his importance and stance within the Creed.

 

The emerging leader walked steadfastly up to them, his eyes slowly gliding to from each person to the next. Luckily, Ah Tabai didn’t linger at James. He was much more interested in the recruits they’d brought.

 

“Greetings, Mentor.”

 

Kidd started, evidently much less intimidated by the other man’s presence than the rest of group. No wonder really. Ah Tabai kept a handful of loyal favorites and Kidd was most definitely one of them.

 

“Who did you bring?”

The Guama’s voice suited his exterior perfectly, clipped with rough edges and a thick tongue-tying accent thrown on top. James knew better though. This man could transform in the blink of an eye, speaking brilliantly clear British one second and drunkenly Spanish the next, if he deemed it necessary. A voice as volatile as water, James could practically hear those words spoken out loud, having heard them every damn day during his own training.

 

“These men are recruitments from our own crews and Havana. They’ve all showed interest in serving The Creed by own initiative.”

 

James almost scoffed at the seriousness on Rogers’ features. Yeah, the man really should have gotten out when he had the damn chance. Ah Tabai stepped closer, inspecting each new recruit in the row and then abruptly came to a halt in front of the blond epitome of James’ nightmares.

 

“<Who’s this?>”

 

The Guama asked in his native tongue, keeping the man in question unaware of any and all intend behind the stare-down. A clear sign of distrust, which made James’ heart drop to the pit of his stomach. Rogers looked like he severely tried not to cause trouble, but at the same time having a hard time not staring back. Luckily, Kidd was a quick advocator.

 

“<He’s from one of the galleons we took last year. A crewmember, not a man of the Navy, and he’s been willingly serving under Barnes for months.>”

 

“<He looks like Navy.>”

 

Came the immediate answer and James could feel Romanoff slowly approach from behind. She wasn’t stupid enough to interrupt Ah Tabai, he knew that, but he appreciated the sentiment nonetheless. If the Creed Leader wasn’t convinced of Rogers’ good intentions, he’d get killed quick without clemency or trial and then they’d all be in serious trouble. Bringing a potential threat to the heart of the Caribbean Assassin Order was categorised as treason, James didn’t have to read the official rulebook in order to know the truth of that. The air hung tense with unmentioned anxiety and fear of what a single wrongfully put word could entail, until James saw the miniscule change in Kidd’s features.

 

“<He’s not Navy, or Army for that matter.>”

 

“<How come you’re so certain about this?>”

 

Now Ah Tabai seized mentally piercing through Rogers’ flesh and directed his attention towards the man he was addressing. Again, James saw a twist in Kidd’s demeanor, not knowing what it meant before the following words made ice as sharp as needles run down his back.

 

“<Because he saved James’ life.>”

 

James knew that he wanted to rip Kidd’s head off the second Ah Tabai turned towards him with a steadfast promise of upcoming interrogation. He set his face into stone and forced his entire body to untense one muscle at a time. His teeth however, were grinding together harder than ever before.

 

“<Is that correct James?>”

 

“<Yes, Mentor, that is correct.>”

 

Every word was painfully ripped from his throat in the name of reason, his pride possibly being the last thing standing between Rogers’ death and their trial of treason. Not even that thought successfully drowned the torture of having such a nerve exposed for all to see, including his old Mentor. He’d received training for months and aimed to be the best the entire time, only to be saved by a man that couldn’t even be called an experienced sailor. Now, his previous Mentor knew the blood, sweat and tears to have been a waste, since it didn’t save him in the end. Luck did, and it only took one wrong move before death picks up, he was told this plenty as an apprentice as well. James guarded his privacy and pride like a chest of unattainable relics and in that sense he fit in perfect with The Creed. Dignity and poise was praised among The Assassins, often to a scarringly inhuman degree in their highest ranks. Rationality was regularly used as a cover for apathy. James almost bleeding out and nearly shot in a rowing boat off Spanish coastland didn’t fit the mold. Pity was an insult to these people and the fact that you’d be deservant of it unbearable. Rather be dead than a burden to the cause.

 

James could feel Rogers’ gaze flickering from Ah Tabai to himself, only to return quickly hereafter. Luckily, the person of interest picked up on the incredibly strain of the conversation, despite not understanding the words. Rogers’ gaze glided past James to Romanoff, who spoke up just as James was getting prepared to throw himself off the nearest tall cliff.

 

“<It was selfless. He wouldn’t have received punishment if the hit had been successful. Then, he later on requested to be trained out of free will and devotion.>”

 

Ah Tabai turned from James, who was thanking every god he didn’t believe in for that fact, and squinted his eyes further at Natasha. A single deep rumble erupted from the man’s throat, somehow a noise of confirmation. After glaring poisonous darts at Rogers for a couple of more seconds, Ah Tabai walked past him and inspected the rest of the men without further notice. James was just about to relax an entire muscle when the Guama spoke up again.

 

“<Who’s this?>”

 

Of course he was fucking referring to the Taíno boy, of fucking course because James Buchanan Barnes couldn’t possibly need a single moment of peace in his life.

 

“<Honoured Guama, my name is Bojekío.>”

 

The boy had an apparent accent from the Ciboney dialect of Cuba and Jamaica, but his pronunciation was close enough to classic Taíno to be understood, albeit with gaps, at least toJames. Ah Tabai had no such problems and no one was the least bit surprised. Although James wasn’t gonna break the horrendous news of an intelligence leak out in the open, but before he could ungracefully interrupt, Thor Odinson, bless the man, did his dirty work.

 

“<The reason for Bojekío presence is rather delicate, high Guama.>”

 

Ah Tabai picked up on the caution in the quartermaster’s voice and seemed to heed the slight warning behind it. He nodded minimalistically and motioned for his guards to take care of the line of recruits. The group split up, Dugan cleverly making his way back towards the village with the recruits. This meeting was possibly going to be the worst in a long time. Not only would James have to search through his own ranks and crews for possible leaks, they’d have to consider every damn third ally contacted within a span of months. It would seem that fate really had it out for James Barnes these days.

 

_____________________



Much could knowingly be said about Steve Rogers character, but he’d never considered himself a propable liar. With that thought in mind, he’d like to admit that he’d been fucking terrified these past three days. First time, undoubtedly, when the scouts emerged from thick vegetation impersonating creatures of fairy tales. Next time was shortly after, when he’d stood eye to eye with the Clan Leader Ah Tabai, feeling like a smudge in the dirt next to the more powerful man in front of him, despite being slightly taller. What that entire exchange of conversation regarded, he still had no clue, but one thing was certain. Barnes had been uncomfortable as all hell. Regardless of the man’s efforts to hide all and every emotion, he had his tells. The excruciatingly tense air around them had been another indicator of course, but seemingly he managed to escape whatever trouble he’d unknowingly caused. Now, Romanoff’s words of advice from long ago echoed in his ears. Keep your head low, keep your head low, keep your head low. Easier said than done when he was one of the tallest men on the crew.

Third time fear had grasped at him, was when their group split up. Ah Tabai left with almost all the people he knew best from The Swan and The Scavenger. Only Dum Dum’s grounding presence at his side secured the steadiness of each step following the guards back into the village. The two Assassins leading them were eerily silent, but Steve was slowly starting to think it a general trait in these people. The inhabitants of the village continued to stare out the corner of their eyes as they passed, walking to the outskirts of the encampment. Apparently, the novice huts were built about 60 feet away from the nearest normal hut. Not that Steve knew why, but it was certainly a constant reminder of their stand within The Creed.

 

The two guards loosely motioned to the 10-or-so novice huts, before leaving. The group of recruits would have been very confused if not for Dum Dum.

 

“That means ‘move right in’ I suppose. Go nuts lads.”

 

Steve blinked a couple of times in ever constant confusion, before turning towards the shelters with the two other newcomers. The huts were raised slightly off ground by a wooden skeleton, but nowhere near as high as some of the shacks at their back, quite literally built into the trees besides wide platforms around tree trunks. That didn’t mean Steve felt completely safe just wondering into one and getting comfortable. However, that seemed to be exactly what Dum Dum expected of the three of them. The man barely gave them time to look at each other in bewilderment before he waved and started to make his way back to the main village.

 

“See ya later boys! Have fun!”

 

And there they stood, clutching their belongings in a tight grip. Well shit, if independence was a feat these, people treasured then he’d have to fit in sooner rather than later. Steve walked to the nearest hut, climbed the little latter and pushed the heavily woven cloth covering the entrance gently to the side. Once inside, it took him several seconds to adjust to his significantly darker surroundings. His rapid blinking soon served its purpose and he spotted a slightly raised cot standing perpendicular to the round shelter’s wall. It was at this time he noticed the hunched over presence opposite the empty sleeping space. Steve almost jumped, which would have been rather undignified, so instead he opted for a slightly alarmed squeak. It took several seconds more for him to truly identify the person sitting on the cot opposite of what would, hopefully, be his own.

 

It was a woman, sitting crossed legged on her bed sewing a large gash in the clothing she was also currently wearing. She looked to be some years younger than Steve, with a face that was nothing short of unimpressed. Her impossibly high raised eyebrow actually reminded him of Romanoff quite a bit.

 

“Sorry I didn’t see you. Uhm- is that cot occupied?”

He received neither answer nor reaction. Then, he was of course reminded of his manners. Sarah Rogers would surely have reprimanded him had she been here.

 

“My name is Steve Rogers and I just arrived. You are?”

 

Steve held out his hand, sort of expecting the woman to shake it. She opted for sitting completely still and observing him like one might a loud drunk man walking into a sermon. He retracted it. Way to go about this Rogers, he scolded himself. Only then it occurred to him that she might not even understand English. Fuck, he was such an idiot. Steve didn’t know a word Taíno, so he awkwardly motioned towards the empty cot, stripped of personal belongings, and pointed at his own sack. The woman looked from him, to the cot and then back again, indifference shown both in expression and her hunched over position. Then she shrugged, short and nonchalant, before returning to her previous task. Well that had been a disaster.

 

Steve sat himself down, feeling misplaced like never before, but refusing to act like it. He packed out a bit, laid some of his clothes besides the bed and counted his books to make sure he brought everything. Most of them was from Banner, who’d told him he could borrow as many as he’d want when Steve had once mentioned missing libraries. Turns out, the man owned quite a lot of books and Steve was convinced that even though the word ‘borrow’ had been stated, Banner would plainly refuse if he’d try to return them.

 

His line of thought was abruptly broken when a loud echoing ring pierced the air. His house-mate immediately straightened up and left her handiwork, before throwing the entrance cloth aside and hurrying outside. Whatever the fuck was going on, Steve wasn’t gonna accidentally miss something important on his first day, so he followed as quickly as he could. Outside the cluster of huts a group was slowly forming. All the people emerging from the huts wore similar clothing, white and loose-fitting like the Assassins, but remarkably more simple with close to no decoration or detail. Steve climbed down the small latter, his eyes meeting the ones of another man from Barnes’ crew he’d seen a mere hour or so ago. They mirrored each other in puzzled expressions.

 

At the front of the gathering group stood two women, one dark-skinned with a shaved head wearing a magnificent piece of the Assassin uniform in a deep red colour. The other woman was fair and wore clothes resembling the ones most crew members of The Swan usually wore on work days at sea. The contrast was rather surprising. Well-woven fabric against rough cotton, intricate rich details besides work leather trousers. Both women wore similar expressions though, sharing a certain grounded patience with more to it.

 

“Takaji, werehe.”

 

Steve barely got to worry about the language barrier before the luxuriously dressed woman changed language, now speaking with a heavy accent pulling at her vowels.

 

“Midday break is over. Training will continue, except now we have a few newcomers at our midst.”

 

Now, every eye around was fastened on Steve and his two, to him, nameless companions. They stood out like monks in a brothel, both in complexion and attire. The announcer, teacher? Mentor? Assassin?, walked towards them in slow surefast strikes, the gathering parting for her like water for the bow of a ship.

 

“My name is Okoye. That’ll be General Okoye to you gentlemen.”

 

The men besides Steve wore faces resembling nothing but incredulousness. Steve himself recovered much quicker, having seen more irregularities in the so called ‘natural order of society’ in the last months than ever before. The General was testing them, no doubt about it. If she sensed just a little maliciousness or disdain from them, they’d surely not have a long nor pleasant stay. Her face was set in stone, hard lines of authority unyielding and intimidating. It made Steve bow his head slightly, the move both a nod and acknowledgement of superiority. He was no stranger to line of authority. Steve could take orders with the best of them, especially when said orders were justified either by his sense of justice or some sick societal standard. He simply counted himself lucky that, after spending too much time doing the latter, he was finally training under a self-chosen cause.

 

The group split up then, General Okoye bringing along all regular recruits, which left Steve and the two other Swan crewmembers alone yet again, just this time with a charismatic young woman in front of them. Still dressed in men’s clothing, she stood proud and comfortable with her hands firmly planted on her hips. Her dark brown hair went as far as her chest and she was cocking a self confident eyebrow. She spoke up, tone laced with a sarcastic edge.

 

“Gentlemen, I’m Margaret Carter. My job is to introduce a couple of training methods before you’ll be joining the rest of the wehere in three days’ time. Don’t worry, we’re only a couple of months behind on training.”



Said the distinguishingly dressed woman. Besides her stood the gong, undoubtedly the source of a loud ring as the other woman was still holding a study carved stick in her hand. _______________________________________

 

Steve collapsed dramatically on his cot after the first day, sore in muscles he hadn’t previously known existed. He could practically feel the exasperated look from his roomate from across the living space. Their first day had simply involved basic combat positions, hand-to-hand as well as weaponised, all of which Steve was already pretty well acquainted with. The other two men were lacking the training he himself had earned onboard The Swan and a newly found thankfulness for Romanoff’s and Barnes’ training efforts bloomed in his chest. But Carter hadn’t found his slight experience very admirable. She had simply pulled out two straight, relatively slender, sticks and proceeded to prod Steve in the chest with one end continuously until he put up some sort of card house defense. Then she’d swung her own stick behind her back horizontally, turned swift as air around her own axis, ending in a crouch, and using the momentum of her bodily spin to strike at the back of Steve’s knees with deadly force. Steve’s stance effectively crumbled, together with his non-existent defence. The other two men had been gaping for minutes, Steve himself settled for mild self-pity.

 

The rest of the training continued more or less in the same manner. They were taught basic strikes and defense mechanisms, Carter demonstrating and carrying them out more often than not. When she finally dismissed them, it was with a command of getting some food and sleep before tomorrow’s training begun. A demand which was met with no complaints whatsoever. Despite the growling pit of hunger in his stomach, Steve let himself relax every last limb. It felt good and the deep cot felt surprisingly comfortable, or maybe he was just tired enough not to care for slight discomforts.

 

The gong sounded for the second time that day, although this time the ringing sound appeared to be much more distant. It nevertheless got Steve’s hutmate to jump from her previous cross legged position on the floor and fly down the steps. There was no way Steve could follow that pace, but at least he didn’t seem to be the only one going hungry. After some serious protests from his stomach, he finally got up and followed in a couple of other novices’ trails from their tiny seperate village to the grand one. He could have found the kitchen by following the heavenly smell alone, but then he might have walked into the wrong one by mistake. Apparently, the apprentices ate separately from the rest of the village as well and the food was also prepared in different kitchens. Might be easier to cook for so many that way, who was Steve to know or judge.

 

The food turned out to be as good as it had smelled, with loads of different tastes Steve couldn’t recall he’d ever tried before. They all sat around a fire on thick logs, eating their meat stew with bread on the side, some talking, but most stayed silent while shoveling food into their faces. Steve settled for mute observing. Darkness was slowly starting to creep into the crevices between huts, trees and centuries old pillars as the sun set. The torches placed generously around the main camp was getting lit, casting shadows flickering in beat to nature’s play with the flame. In this light, the encampment seemed almost mythical in its foreignness, the new soundscape of jungle behind only adding to this effect. Still, Steve felt a strange attraction towards it. As if he could carve himself a place to fit here, or at least somewhere related to here. He had no idea how long that would take. Months, maybe years from now he would finally feel at ease, knowing this had been the right path. That particular instinct was as unfamiliar to him as this place and its people, yet it calmed the ever tightening knot of worry and dread in his heart. It had simply been growing for the last two years, but since both luck and affliction had been thrown his way in plenty amounts, it slowly changed and untwined a single thread at a time. His thoughts were plagued by this through the meal and until he laid down in his bed, briefly interrupted by the thick blanket being thrown at him from the other side of the room. Steve nodded thankfully at his indifferent shadow of a roommate, before curling up and quickly falling asleep, facial features finally soft and unworried.

 

____________________

 

“Now, where did i put the damn leather needles?!”

 

Steve was rather perplexed, eyes following the girl hurrying through tons of metal scraps, half finished weapons and garments on at least 5 different tables all placed under a wide palm-leaf canopy. Instead of standing awaitingly and demanding, Steve took a look around while the girl cursed a bit more in between self-aimed mumbles of irritation. He spotted the weapon table and furrowed his brows in recognition of a set of beautifully carved bracers lying atop of a bunch of metallic parts in a wide range of repairments. They looked almost identical to the ones Barnes had once worn after Kidd had brought them with.

 

“Are these switchblades?”

 

He asked, only half expecting to be heard at all. Steve carefully took hold of each end and lifted to inspect the mechanisms of the blade a little closer.

 

“Oh shit, please don’t-

 

The girl, Shuri she’d introduced her as, hurried to his side and anxiously took the blade from him, as one might take a knife from a naive toddler.

 

“- yeah don’t touch that.”

 

Steve held up both hands in defeat and backed away.

 

“Sorry, curiosity got the better of me.”

“It’s alright, happens to me all the time. Normally these pieces of easily served stabbings are quite harmless if not equipped, but this one is awfully broken.”

 

Shuri quickly picked up on Steve’s confusion of the perfect and whole-looking piece. She held up a finger, motioning him to wait and pay attention.

 

“The switch functions are just fine. A little too well to be precise.”

 

Shuri’s eyes flashed amusement and excitement at the instrument, securing it to her forearm with quick and practiced movements. Then she grabbed a thick leather glove previously resting on one of the work tables.

 

“Behold!”

 

She dramatically exclaimed, before pointing her arm upwards and flicking her wrist backwards, thereby triggering the release mechanism in the switchblade. The blade itself shot out of its case with the speed of a hawk hunting prey, except it didn’t stop at all. It flew through the air above them before losing speed and falling. Shuri snatched the falling blade straight out of the air with her gloved hand, movement ending in a deep over exaggerated bow. Steve’s clapping and shouts of ‘bravo’ following a similar pattern.

 

“Thank you, thank you.”

 

She mockingly continued, her accent getting more American with every bow. Shuri popped the blade back into its case and pointed to a tiny dent through a metal slit in the mechanism.

 

“Look, the securing component has broken off. It probably happened by Cacimar trying to stab through bone. He breaks his blade far too often and I have told him ‘no Cacimar, trying to stab people in the head is useless and damages…”

 

Shuri stopped talking when noticing Steve’s expression. He couldn’t help it. She was only a girl, smart and quick as a whip obviously, but in order to end up here she was either born into this world of ‘violence equals survival’ or she originated from a slave ship or a plantage. Another righteous fury slowly sparked in his chest just thinking about all the human lives lost and affected by simple greed and a birthright for superiority.  

 

“Hey, don’t go all teary-eyed on me over there. It’s not like I don’t know what my craft is used for or something.”

 

“Sorry … I get caught up in my thoughts a little too often.”

 

“Well I applaud you for admitting it. You should teach my brother to do that.”

 

Before Steve could ask further about Shuri’s brother, an assassin or ally like her, the girl suddenly and quite enthusiastically remembered why Steve was sent here in the first place.

 

“OH! Leather needles!”

 

Her search continued even more frantically than before, mumbling about tailors messing up her table order, before shouting in triumph and holding a set of thick needles above her head.

 

“Okay, so none of the previous novices were as big as you, congratulations on those biceps i suppose, so I’ll need some time to redesign.”

 

Luckily for Steve, Shuri went straight to work and didn’t let him blink too much at the comment on his arms. She measured his shoulders, arms, legs, even his stride as well as around his waist and hips.

 

“By some miracle, it wasn’t hard finding you a belt at all, but your shoulders and arms are a pain in my ass, alright. Get your body proportions under control.”

 

“Eh… Sorry?”

 

“Yeah you better be.”

 

Shuri answered, writing down measurements and shuffling through old cloaks, occasionally holding one up and eye-measuring it to Steve’s form. Each cloak was dismissed with an annoyed huff from the girl, before she’d check the next.

 

“I’ll definitely need to redesign the general layout, otherwise the cloak will constrict your movement and make training more of a hell than it probably already is.”

 

“It’s not so bad.”

 

Shuri cracked a slow shark-like grin, filled with mirth.

 

“Well then that’s because you haven’t met my brother yet. Anyways, you were one of the newest right? I haven’t seen you around at least. Not that i pay much attention to novices. They’ll always just ship out to another post just when you’ve started knowing them.”

 

“Yes, I’m pretty new. It’s only my second day so I know nothing of your brother.”

 

“Oh so you’re still getting your ass handed to you by Carter I’m assuming, good luck. Well, they call him The Black Panther, for some reason. It’s a little over exaggerated if you ask me, but you’ll know when you see him.”

 

Steve didn’t really know what he was supposed to with that information, but asking too many questions would be rude and distracting, especially when Shuri was being helpful with only mild complaints.

 

“Anyways, I got your measurements so we’re good. Give me a day and you’ll hopefully be clothed like the rest of the novices.”

 

Steve thanked her yet again and simply got waved off for it. He turned and walked towards the training grounds, Shuri shouting ‘tell Carter I can design her clothes too whenever she’s ready’ after him just before he was out of earshot. Steve could feel a story lying behind and his endless curiosity spiked again. Best not ask Carter too many questions or he’d be eating sand for the rest of the day, but Steve could at least fast forward a message as an excuse for some light snooping.

 

_____________________

 

“Keep it up, gentlemen.”

 

Steve’s head was so full of blood he was certain it would explode in the next ten seconds. Carter had them doing handstands in the midday sun for the last seven minutes at least. Not even the usually cool surface of the stone pillar at Steve’s back helped the slightest bit. When they relaxed a single muscle, Carter would immediately poke at said muscle with her long training pole, the kind they’d been wrestling with the day prior.

 

“Building up strength and balance in harsh conditions will be rather important if you’re ever to succeed in this line of work.”

 

Made sense really, but one of Steve’s shoulders had started to cramp up some time ago and he shifted, trying to put the strain elsewhere, which of course simply earned him a jab in the ribs.

 

Later on they were taught an extended version of hand-to-hand combat from yesterday, today mixed with brawling and general neat tricks. At the end of the day, it still made Steve’s body ache in both the satisfactory and the just plain painful way. When the sun was barely visible above the tree crowns, Carter ordered them to stretch in different positions before they were allowed to call it a day. She stopped in front of Steve, narrowing her eyes slightly before speaking her mind.

 

“Why are you not wearing your novice uniform?”

 

Her tone came with a certain edge of steel, which made Steve’s mind scrambling to justify the mistake he hadn’t even made.

 

“I couldn’t fit into any of the old ones. Shuri had to redesign and told me it would be done by tomorrow.”

 

Luckily for Steve’s general health, Carter’s features softened and she gave an understanding nod.

 

“Ah, no problems then.”

 

It took her a few seconds to react to Steve’s questioningly raised eyebrow.

 

“Some men brought in from the bigger cities won’t wear the uniform. They pridefully treasure their individuality and think themselves above most of the other werehe .”

 

“That’s just stupid.”

 

“Aye, you ain’t fucking wrong about that.”

 

It had taken Steve a surprisingly short amount of time to get used to Carter shifting between perfectly collected properness and swearing like a sailor. Despite her hard and long sessions so far, pushing them to use their strengths to the maximum and map out their weaknesses, Steve really liked her. There was a specific honesty in her and among all this mystery that almost served as a comfort for him.

 

“By the way, Shuri said that she’d be ready to design your clothes as well, whenever you’re ready.”

 

Carter simply scoffed at that, like she’d heard it a million times before.

 

“Yeah well you can tell her ‘thank you, but no thank you’, when you see her tomorrow.”

 

“Seems like she was real excited for it.”

 

Steve smiled, willing the atmosphere more friendly. Carter was still in the simple clothes Steve had first seen her in; loose cotton blouse held close with a wide waist belt, and breeches. She walked around in small circles in front of him, stretching out her arms while contemplating her answer.

 

“She always is, but I’m not much for grand uniforms and the like.”

 

The slight lilt in her accent hit Steve like a brick. Previously, he’d simply noticed her accent to be uncharacteristic, impossible to stamp on any geographical location. But that tiny slip in tone was undoubtedly British. Maybe Barnes’ perception was rubbing off on him. Wishful thinking.

 

“Like Okoye’s?”

“Well first of all, I’m not a General, so no reason to wear anything close to Okoye’s armoured cloak. Secondly, I appreciate simplicity. These clothes allow me to move and breathe freely, which is all I need. I know my worth, no reason to wear proof of it.”

 

Steve showed his agreement by nodding silently, still amazed at the large diversity of people a single creed could contain. The stretch of his sore muscles hadn’t stopped despite Carter serving as a distraction, his right hand still wrapped around his bare right foot, leg straightened out on the ground.

 

“Now get your ass off my training grounds and over to the water barrels.”

 

Steve sprang up, threw a grin and a ‘see you tomorrow’ at Carter before setting off to find said barrels to soothe his parched throat.

 

______________________________________

 

The evening of the third day marked the last time Steve and his two training buddies would train separately under Carter. Once dinner was served, all novices made their way from the novice huts to the main village and sat down to eat at their normal logs around the bonfire. There were about 30 of them in total, some chatting confidently, others keeping to themselves and their food. Steve was definitely in the latter category. Especially because most of the talking was done in Taíno and he had quite frankly no way of even eavesdropping on the conversation.

 

The indistinct conversation from around the other kitchen, where the rest of the village ate, steadily became louder and less coherent. Steve only noticed when he finished his stew, scraping the bottom of his bowl for the scraps. Several other novices noticed as well and at some point someone must have sneaked off to spy for a reason, because a couple of trainees returned some minutes later with wide grins and bottles in each of their hands, undoubtedly containing alcohol. Steve huffed a laugh for himself, but gladly accepted a bottle when the seatmate at his left offered. It tasted pretty foul, a certain misplaced stinging taste cutting through all other aroma and made Steve shudder involuntarily. Once swallowed, the cheap booze burned pleasantly through his body and made him feel warm and much more relaxed.

 

The bottles were passed around from one eager hand to the next and soon enough, Steve was feeling a little loose and carefree. He was still listening in on a few conversations held in English, or simply observing body language and interaction in those which wasn’t. Once he closed his eyes he felt like gently floating through warm air, while unable to specifically determine the extent of his swaying. The occasional hysterical laughter from his fellow novices ripped him from his happy meditative state, forcing him to yet again take in the dancing shadows cast by human bodies illuminated by the burning torches of the night.

 

The noises around him shifted and rippled like water against a clear sand beach, at times rising in pitch like a particular ardent wave exploding against an uneven cliffside. If he really concentrated through his albeit relatively fogged up mind, he could almost hear it. Missing work at sea was never a thing Steve Rogers would ever think he’d indulge in, yet right here, right now was nice too. No one to run from and nowhere to hide. His mind wandered to spring-green forests and the old dusty library of his old home. The stables behind the homestead where he’d spend every days simply grooming and caring for the horses there till the stable boy would practically throw him out. Every day until he didn’t of course. He’d been a bit older than Steve, but the stablework had left hard lines of muscle across his body, a complete opposite to Steve’s then still too lean and clumsy form.

 

He had to forcefully shake his head free of the lingering feelings of wandering hands across his body and find another focus point. Blinking and refocusing on the scape around him just made him momentarily confused. The group of novices were cut in half since he’d closed his eyes. Maybe he’d been out for a little longer than firstly anticipated, because now most were sitting in pairs, or lying on the ground fast asleep. In other cases, some trainees were dragging others towards the their shared secluded village and seeing such a blatant display sobered Steve right up. Maybe he should just call it a day and go to sleep, he had a long day in front of him tomorrow undoubtedly, but then he spotted a wisp of long black hair pulling along another white-cloaked form. Fuck, there went his early night. While his roommate dragged along the other novice in general direction of a hut where Steve just happened to be second habitant, he’d just sit here. Or something.

 

That proved boring relatively quickly. Most novices were sleeping or doing a wide range of other activities Steve would rather not think about and he wasn’t about to walk over to the other bonfire. The Creed had a very distinct hierarchy that he was both too tipsy and to clever to break. Or that’s what he told himself at least.

 

His eye caught a single hint of slight movement in the corner of his eyes. First, Steve thought his fogged up mind was playing tricks on him, but no. Someone was definitely perched up against a hut just outside the ring of light provided by the still burning fire, slowly turning into embers. The person was clad in shadows, almost blending in perfectly with the pitch black of the background jungle, but a single flickering of the nearby torch provided Steve with all the knowledge he could possibly need. An arm, only illuminated for a split second, but doubtlessly decorated with intricate swirling bands of ink.

 

He got up immediately, probably a little too quick judging by him almost losing his balance. Once in the shadows, he needed several moments to blink and adjust to tell apart the shadows, but once he spotted the hunched over figure again, he walked over and planted himself firmly besides a certain Captain James Barnes. Said shadow was drinking straight out of a bottle seemingly containing much better liquor than any novice had ever stolen from stach. Every sip, or gulp, Barnes took wet his lips and made them shine in the scarce light, not that Steve was focusing on that at all.

 

“Not in the mood to have fun, Rogers?”

 

Barnes’ voice was rougher than it usually was, probably from the alcohol and maybe tiredness. Come to think of it, he really did look tired, the only completely steadfast thing about him being his solid life-line grip on the bottle.

 

“Fun?”

 

Steve answered, rather stupidly. The other man half-heartedly motioned towards the other novices still milling around the secluded village.

 

“Ah - no. I didn’t come here for - that.”

 

He mirrored The Captain’s previous movement before smiling, albeit a little tipsily, at him. Barnes’ eyes just narrowed as usual.

 

“They didn’t come here for that either, specifically. But you’re allowed to have fun and enjoy yourself. Ain’t against any law as far as I’m aware.”

 

“Well that’s why i came over here.”

 

Barnes had been mid-gulp when Steve answered, but the bottle was quickly lowered with light sputtering. The same couldn’t be said about his eyebrow. Steve’s scattered mind struggled for some sort of reasonable elaboration.

 

“Because … If I - if I fool around with anyone and fuck it up, I’m sure to have my ass beat into the dust come tomorrow.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

A single hum was all Barnes allowed him as reply. Too short for the man to have bought anything Steve just said, yet too uncharacteristic to truly be sure of the man’s exact interpretation of Steve’s words. A change of topic was pretty essential if Steve didn’t want to look like a complete idiot, so he shuffled his behind a little deeper into the ground to get comfortable before spotting another bottle besides Barnes, this one completely empty.

 

“Hard day?”

 

He asked, trying to add a humorous tone to his words. Barnes simply chuckled darkly, a sly slow smile stretching on his lips with only a hint of strain. The still half-full bottle settled heavily against its owner’s thigh and Steve took that as a good sign. His presence wasn’t completely unwanted.

 

“That obvious? Well, next time someone discovers an intel leak in a tightly woven network of well past a thousand people across The Caribbean Colonies, I won’t be the one to deliver any of those news to Ah Tabai. That’s for sure.”

 

The Captain’s question was purely ironic, the rest of the words flowing from his mouth like they’d been piled up on his tongue for a little too long. He ended the tirade by drinking yet again. Steve visibly winced at the mere thought. Ah Tabai’s neutral exterior was horrifying in itself. Imagining the man angry wasn’t a thought Steve would bestow upon himself if he ever wished to sleep peacefully again that is. He didn’t know quite how to answer, or if Barnes declaration needed any response at all, but luckily the man continued himself.

 

“The last days has simply been meetings and bad news. Ah Tabai want to filter through all Creed-members operating in or originating from The Caribbeans and their recently utilized allies. It’s gonna take fucking ages.”

 

Barnes took another gulp, his eyes mildly unfocused from the strong content. The bottle was raised when its owner was suddenly stricken by a thought.

 

“Wait, Ah Tabai was glad about one thing! He was glad Abbott was out of the way, so i can focus more on my duties for The Creed, I suppose.”

 

The last sentence was said with a certain amount of disdain and Steve’s mind struggled to piece together the picture of the man in front of him, then and now. Much had changed, but in what ways, he was still unsure of. Barnes didn’t seem faced by mentioning the murder of Steve’s old Commander, a murder he had carried out himself single handedly. But, according to the man himself, he had no reason to feel anything close to remorse. Only now, he spotted Barnes quietly observing him from the corner of his eye. A definite pregnant pause stretched between them, until Barnes broke it by holding out the bottle in a fully stretched arm

for Steve to take. A peace offering if Steve’s ever seen one. He smiled lopsidedly and accepted, their fingers momentarily brushing on the blank green glass.

 

The contents of this specific bottle agreed much more with Steve’s tastes. The woody aroma settled like a blanket on his tongue and he relished in the smooth burn and velvet warmth it provided. His eyes fluttered shut for a moment and when he opened them, Barnes was watching him with dark eyes. The constant altering flames of the torches was mirrored in those eyes, adding a splash of warm colour and extra heat. Steve was only used to see cold in them impersonated by the hues of an impending storm, mostly with the sea’s lurking horrors reflected in the iris. This, this was new, the intensity a challenge and an indulgence all at once. Steve should have run like a burned child, yet he couldn’t help being drawn to those scorched shadows and hard ragged lines. He needed to clear his mind, hang onto some sort of physical reality before his sanity seeped from his fingers like dry sand. Like a moth drawn to a flame, his desperate mind grabbed onto the first distraction, which just happened to be the delicate lines of ink smeared across and in between ragged scars on Barnes’ left arm. His sleeve was folded up to his elbows, so half of that intricately tattooed arm was fully visible. Steve swallowed audibly, before handing back the bottle and asking.

 

“Are th- are those from Abbott?”

 

Barnes took a couple of seconds to absorb the question, then looked down his own arm with a lopsided smirk.

 

“The tattoos or the scars?”

 

He asked jokingly, a coy eyebrow raised to the heavens. Steve momentarily forgot to breathe.

 

“Nah, those weren’t Abbott. He preferred my back. Those are from him, every last one.”

 

Steve remembered seeing the healed, but still unevenly ragged scars aboard The Swan for his first sword lesson with The Captain. A permanent reminder of where a mean cat-o-nine had torn skin and ripped at flesh. Barnes was focusing his eyes on a spot far away, blinking almost too calmly, slowly and calculated, like he was remembering every lash, just to recall putting a bullet in the man responsible.

 

“Why?”

 

Barnes eyes snapped to him with surprising speed. Steve was truly playing with fire now, but he wanted fulfillment in order to paint the full picture of the man before him. Instinctual fear only got you so far in knowing a person. And he was pulled in by the mystery and misery The Captain was displaying, had been for a long time now. The man in question simply observed him in his usually bone-chilling manner, as if determining Steve worthy or unworthy of the tale to come. Finally, the dam of tension was broken, but Barnes’ words never lost their edge of cautionious warning.

 

“I sailed under him after only a couple of years working Navy contracts. Before i sailed under him I was young and had nothing to accomplish but get by one day at a time. One day i returned home from months at sea only to find out that both my parents had died from yellow fever in my absence.”

 

The Captain paused, then took a good swig from the bottle like he really needed it to get through what was to come. He licked his lips free of liquor before continuing.

 

“They left behind me and my smaller sister with barely any inheritance or way of getting by. We tried to make it work, we really did, but my Navy worker salary only reached to me getting fed. She ended up marrying a fucking asshole to prevent us both from starving.”

 

Barnes’ grip on the bottle was white knuckled and Steve thought he might see the glass crack between the man’s fingers any second. Fortunately, Barnes relented if only just a little, carrying on the tale, but never losing any bitterness of tone, as if he dared Steve to judge him and secretly assured the pain that would follow such an act.

 

“I had to get her out of there, so when I got my Navy contract renewed, this time to serve under a certain Officer John. P. Abbott, I sneaked her aboard the vessel and hid her behind the crates and barrels of the full cargo space for weeks. Only very few men knew about it, Jones, Dugan, Falsworth, Dernier and Jim Morita. I trusted all of them with my life and, obviously, my sister’s as well.”

 

Steve had a hard time processing all the words flowing from his Captain. Steve saw his own choices and actions mirrored in Barnes’ own, despite the vastly different narrative. He felt the pain displayed in the other man’s face like it was his own, because their priorities and sense of responsibility was parallel like a straight coastline to the sea.

 

“We all took shifts sharing our meals with her, but when Abbott cut our daily rations it wasn’t enough, so I started stealing from the galley. The cook soon grew suspicious of me though, so Jim offered to take on the task just once and … he got caught. Even before Abbott and the entire crew, Jim didn’t snitch on me. Not once during flogging and not when his Officer condemned him.”

 

A loud sharp crack made Steve jump. The glass had finally given up and was now snapped into pieced in Barnes’ right hand, blood slowly starting to seep from the cuts between the chunks followed by a sharp metallic tinge in the air. Steve instinctually reached for Barnes hand to assess the wound, taking hold of it gently, the man himself barely seemed to acknowledge the pain. Steve sighed in relief when the glass proved to only have cut through the outer layer of skin, no muscle or bone impacted. But before he could remove the glass, Barnes simply pulled his hand back and shook it rather ungracefully, to get rid of both the larger pieces of glass as well as the small sharts undoubtedly still wedged into the wounds. Still, The Captain regarded the injury with only mild annoyance, like a wagon-owner would a hole in the road, as if the pain barely phased him at all. Before Steve could fuss any longer, Barnes continued his story, the only difference being a mild grunt of pain to his tone.

 

“I confessed only after they flogged him to pieces and only because they were gonna throw him overboard. I screamed at that pity excuse of an Officer, I professed everything in front of crew and soldiers alike, but nothing helped. ‘He’s still a thief’ they said, ‘he had it coming’. I was being restrained when they threw him in the sea like nothing but a sack of flour turned bad. It was my sister’s turn to scream for me when I got the same treatment the day after.”

 

Every word tugged at Steve’s heart like imbedded meathooks, the pain behind every uttered sentence almost too hard to listen to, nevermind live through. Something clicked in Steve’s mind then, this story of hope and suffering, of deliberate inflicted misery and systemic abuse, completely fit the previous enigma of the man in front of him. The facade was cracking and finally Steve managed to lay his eyes on the man beneath the exaggerated horror stories about James Barnes, told by children and adults alike in playfulness, hiding fear.

 

“I floated around on an empty water barrel for I don’t know how long. A day, maybe more, before I got picked up by Benjamin Hornigold. Both Edward Thatch and Stede Bonnet had recently joined Hornigold’s fleet. They pulled me from the brink of death and let me join their crew. When it became apparent that I aimed for more than that they took me in and taught me lesson upon lesson, how to sail a ship, commandeer a crew… It’s a gift I’ll never be able to truly repay. Rumlow was under their teachings as well-”

 

“You met there?”

 

Barnes blinked a couple of times as if he didn’t expect Steve to react to such a little thing, or react at all. Don’t get him wrong, Steve felt himself tense up on the spot at the mere mentioning of Rumlow’s name. But he was also too far into the story to give much of a damn at the moment.

 

“Yeah, we did. Both of us were competitive and eager to prove ourselves, so we spurred each other along and sucked up every lesson we could get our hands on. Hornigold met up with Vane, who just merged with Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny. I met Natalia then. So when I saw the opportunity to be a part of a new fleet pop up I didn’t hesitate for a moment. Hornigold and Thatch promoted me as leader of the Barnes-Romanoff-Rumlow fleet and that’s that.”

 

The end statement far from held a tone worthy of The Captain’s accomplishments. Deadly determination was always a trait Steve connected with Barnes, but now the exact source of that characteristic stood naked and transparent in both words and face. Barnes’ expression was one of a man who refused to be defeated and roll over for undeserved superiority, one of a man who’d lost a little too much, yet still got up after each blow the world had sent his way. Steve had never admired The Captain more than he did in that moment. The silence in wake of the flow of words hung heavy around them, yet Steve didn’t have enough words to express any of the awe, surprise or mild intimidation he currently felt, so he opted for the simplest question of them all, silently hoping the effect Barnes’ words had on him showed non-verbally.

 

“You call Romanoff Natalia?”

 

Barnes looked at him like he expected the simpleness of the question to be mocking, but seemingly found no evidence of this upon Steve’s features.

 

“Sometimes. That’s the name she introduced herself as the first time we met. She didn’t trust me for shit back then, which was fair enough I suppose. The fake name just sticks.”

 

Barnes shrugged heavily and finally acknowledged his injuries. He ripped into the long piece of cloth around his waist, meant to control the loose fabric of his shirt, and bound the strip around his cut-up hand. Both returned to silence. Steve was admittedly still absorbing all the new information about the man before him, but sadly that didn’t shield him from the sudden unexpected quiet between them. Every second, Barnes grew a little more tense, his eyes flickering between Steve’s form and the earth in front of him all the while the shadows upon his face grew deeper. Steve’s breathing picked up, heavy words crawling their way up his throat one at a time. The Captain’s expression hadn’t exactly been one of pute openness, but it was definitely closing up now and somehow Steve would do anything to stop that from happening.

 

“I have a sister as well. Two, actually.”

 

Barnes’ eyes snapped up to meet his, pleasant surprise and something alike to hope lightening up his face, creating a stark contrast to the closed off expression he wore mere seconds ago. Now the dam was open, that and Steve oddly didn’t feel too uncomfortable talking about home, not after Barnes just shared the hell out of his past.

 

“Well, technically they’re stepsisters, but I love them regardless. My dad died on duty in King George’s Military when I was only a couple of years old, so I don’t really remember him. My mom and I survived on savings until I was 11, but then she remarried to a newly made widower a little outside of New York. He already had a daughter of 6 and his wife died giving birth to another girl, who luckily survived.”

 

Speaking of his sisters and their previously shared home made all sorts of memories flow from a deep dark hiding place in Steve’s brain where he’d stashed them for years. How Elizabeth had been 5 years younger than Steve when they met for the first time, but still fiercely sceptical of him and Sarah. How Anna had grown from a newborn to a young girl full of life and sparkle throughout the years. He thought of how he hadn’t seen them in years now and it made his heart ache and his stomach drop.

 

“My stepdad was … he was a mouthful. My sisters loved him like children are obligatorily raised to love their parents, but he was especially unkind towards me. I was rather sickly as a child, scrawny as all hell too, and he often blamed me or my mother for the cost of my medicine.”

 

Barnes was listening in intensely, occasionally nodding, either acknowledging or encouraging. The other man’s expression, sincere and completely free of judgement, helped Steve greatly in taking a deep breath before continuing, stubbornly ignoring the voices from his past throwing punches at his self-worth. He only hoped he had helped Barnes in the same way mere minutes ago.

 

“My mom got sick when I was 15 and died the year after. She was the most important person in my life and yet she had to leave me alone in a house owned by a man I hated more than anything. I got by somehow, worked in the stables until my hands bled of burst blisters to forget the fact that she was no longer.”

 

“Hmmm.”

 

Barnes’ response was almost inaudible and Steve barely caught it over the noise of painful memories in his own brain. Still, somehow it meant something. Barnes had put weight behind the faint sound like he’d felt something remarkably similar, which Steve now had no doubt in his mind about. It kept the memories of clean forest air and the smell of hay and spring at bay, memories which wasn’t necessarily painful in themself, but the longing in his heart for simpler times tugged sharply at his very soul.

 

“I was the heir to the homestead, which was the only reason my step-father kept me around after my mother passed. He needed a son to carry on his legacy and wood-carving company. I never showed interest in it though. I got back to taking art classes in the city fairly quickly, it made me forget too. My step-father remarried within a year, and to a young woman only a few years older than me. Many of his business partners looked down on that so she was hidden away in the house most of the time.”

 

Steve sighed, having only taken brief intakes of air and feeling his lungs constrict in protest. He missed her too sometimes, her timid smile still clear for his inner eye.

 

“I saw my sisters grow up. I taught them piano and riding at times. Life went on, until my step-father’s new wife gave birth to a son barely 3 years ago. Then it all went to hell. He tried to take the inheritance from me, but since I was an adult the contract was legally binding. I had to give it up of own free will, which I refused to. It was my last link to my sisters and the only home I had left. Without it, he’d undoubtedly throw me out.”

 

Late evenings of shouting and arguing entered Steve’s mind. Memories of how his step-father had condemned him and blamed him and his mother for everything bad in the world. Steve had shouted back then, defended himself and the memory his mother with teeth and claw. He remembered how the man had taken out his frustration on his kind wife. Steve had stepped in once and delivered a punch, just one, to his face that had smelled foul of bourbon. His step-father had stumbled, tried to start a fight, but luckily Steve had scooped up his step-mother from the floor and fled the room in time. Her face had been blue and purple in several places, giving her even more reasons to hide away from the outside world. Steve had been furious, but nevertheless helpless. He had even considered giving up his rightful inheritance, but at the last second his selfishness had taken over. It didn’t matter for long.

 

“He became unbearable to be near, knowing his only true son wouldn’t be the heir to his pride and estate. We clashed more often than not, especially when he took out his frustrations on his new wife or my sisters. I became rebellious, trying to find a purpose with the fight to remain. I grew careless and stupid. All my stepfather needed was leverage and I recklessly delivered it to him on a silver platter.”

 

“Unintentionally?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Steve’s answer was clipped short, leaving no room for doubt on the matter. It was an accident. A stupid fucking moment of weakness and it had cost him everything. He was still blaming himself for it to this day, yet the only way he could prevent dragging people down with him was signing an official legal document and throwing his future into jeopardy.

 

“I left not long after that. Packing as little as I could muster and travelled for New York, searching lease on merchant vessels.”

 

“What got you aboard The Triumph?”

 

The question caught Steve slightly off guard, but he recovered quickly.

 

“It was a conveniently timed opportunity. That, and Sam talked me into it. He’d sailed under Navy before and we were temporarily out of work. The pay was shit regardless.”

 

Barnes scoffed knowingly at that. Just imagining The Captain sailing under The Union Jack confused the hell out of Steve’s brain, but different times brought different people. A few torches had burned out around them, leaving the short space between them almost pitch black. Barnes’ expression was thoughtful, at least the little Steve was able to spot of it. The man’s eyes were still bright in the darkness, reflecting what little light was left from the embers in the bonfire. The encampment around them was silent, making way for the noises of the jungle. The buzzing of insects and the occasional complaint from an animal filled out Steve’s ears, sending thoughts of New York back into their deep dark hiding place. He absentmindedly picked at some straws, but when he looked up, Barnes was observing him yet again. Steve met his gaze, this time a lot more steadfast than he’d ever been able to before. The usual calculativeness was back in that gaze, except now something softer accompanied, as if a silent thanks was passed between them over and over again. He knew and understood so much more of The Captain now, his mind more clear now, yet somehow drunk all over again on that information. They both held eye contact, even when Barnes spoke up, almost whispering in the night.

 

“We should both retire for the night. You’ve got training tomorrow.”

 

Steve nodded reluctantly, the way Barnes was still so aware of him spoke against the man’s words. None of them wanted to get up and part. That would mean breaking the delicate bubble of protection they’ve created over the last hours, effectively keeping out the outside world. Still, Steve was exhausted and he had no doubt that the day tomorrow would energise him much. He watched the man in front of him a beat longer for indulgance’s sake, then slowly pushed himself off the ground. Barnes did the same, luckily not using his injured hand. Steve nodded solemnly, kicking his tired brain into finding an appropriate parting word.

 

“Goodnight, then”

 

“To you, too.”

 

Came the low answer. Then they parted ways for the night, each a little richer on the other’s mind. Steve forced himself not to look back, walking in mostly straight lines to his hut. He found his cot in the dark, hoping to some undefined God that only his roommate was sleeping in the one opposite. Then he buried himself beneath the thick blanket and fell asleep quickly, pushing the thoughts swamping his mind into the future.



Chapter Text

Three weeks passed in a blur -  at least in James’ mind. Most days were spent planning strategic countermeasures to the constant information flowing to and from The Creed, whilst also travelling back through the forest to check up on the repairs being made on his ship. The Swan was in good hands under Jones’ command, as per usual, and every other man was working for their fair share of the money James owed them. A burden which was constantly nagging him from the back of his mind. The last time he’d been back checking on The Swan was four days ago. Simply seeing his men again, their foreheads damp with exertion and their smiles bright when greeting him, had that particular stone grow even heavier on his shoulders. Peter had done an exceptional job with repairments and replacements in the rigging. The full obligation James had for his crew hit him hard when the boy started listing all the finished work, lastly half-nervously noting the incomplete tasks as well. Fuck.

 

After Tulum, James reminded himself a thousand times. After Tulum, they’d be freer to raid wherever they saw fit and James already had a couple of targets in mind. Slow, fat merchant ships, simply there for the taking. But he had to endure the hot and stuffed jungle air a few more days before he’d return to the fresh one of the sea.

 

James was leaning on the railing of one of the watchtowers built between the village huts. This particular tower had an almost unblocked view of the bustling training area, which James had found out rather quickly. And in a makeshift ring down there, surprisingly not getting his ass beat into the dirt at the moment, was Steve Rogers. His novice cloak was no longer completely bare and plain white. Several trinkets and artful details were woven into the white fabric, sewn into his broad leather belt or hanging down unto his chest attached to a necklace. They were all won fair and square in different small challenges mapped out across the novice training by Okoye. It healthily motivated the novices according to the General.

 

Rogers was doing good, excellent in fact. Exactly how good was shown on his uniform as per tradition for every novice. A few details on the belt was added after Rogers won a climbing and freerunning challenge in the dark, which James wasn’t surprised that he’d managed to ace. Necklace was for endurance and the woven patterns for some sort of brawling match. James didn’t know the details of all the ornaments or the challenges attached to them, but the fact that Rogers were one of the most accomplished novices was impressive in itself, even when counting in his head start.

 

The 30-or-so novices of this season were in the middle of such a challenge right this second and James wasn’t mistaken about that. He’d checked their training schedule for the last two weeks. This competition was less brawl and more sophisticated fighting with technical kicks and turns. Rogers was in the semifinals up against none other than his own roommate. Yes, James didn’t let any information pass him by if he could help it.

 

She was considerably smaller than Rogers, but swift and determined as all hell. Her expression was one of intense focus, while Rogers’ own was more calm and collected. His rigger had really settled into his own bulk the last weeks, aware of every part of his body and its possibilities at all times. James recognised the traits from himself, but only after he’d gone through the training himself. Okoye must be pleased with the results.

 

The fight was about to begin and James found himself getting a little more comfortable leaning on the hardwood railing. Okoye demanded positions within the ring of rope resting on the ground, both participants fluently obeying. The match was officially allowed to start by the sharp sound of the gong. Rogers’ opponent didn’t hesitate for a second, going straight for the knees. Good move , James thought. Sadly for her, Rogers was steadfast as a tree, finally using his weight and muscle to his advantage. James had seen novices with a fighting style like hers a thousand times before. They usually ended up being great scouts or silent killers. But James’ own crew member was too big for most ghostwork, even though he hadn’t flopped stealth training once so far.

 

Rogers blocked attack after attack, keeping himself defensive and even letting hits pass through his blocks to create an opening for himself. The roommate managed several good hits, James would definitely give her that, but Rogers had his head in the game. The strikes barely phased him, his eyes flashing with concentration between kicks and punches. He was waiting for an opening… and he got it. The other competitor eventually grew frustrated and more reckless, creating far too many openings and Rogers striked swiftly like a python. He knocked her off balance, brought her down and basically wrapped as much of himself around her as possible, effectively keeping her down with his weight and strength alone. Nimbleness brought down by cunningness and a sense of advantage. James was almost fucking proud.

 

Rogers only got a quick break before the finals. This time he was up against another woman, except she was very far from swift and nimble like the roommate. James had noticed her before simply due to her sheer size and bulk. She was broad as a mast and around James’ own height he assumed, standing too far away to truly confirm that thought. Oh, this was going to be good. Judging by the competitor’s movements while getting into the ring, Rogers was going to be the swift one, but only by a tiny margin. The gong’s ringing echoed through the training grounds and this time Rogers attacked first. Well played , James thought, catch her off guard .  He seemed to manage just that. The attack got blocked effectively, the receiver stepping to the side and adding circular movements to the fight. She clearly thought Rogers to be a genuine threat as well. The two competitors circled each other for several minutes, trying to find the best entrance of attack. This time Rogers kept on the defense, awaiting charge. He didn’t have to wait long. His opposition came barreling forwards with all her bulk thrown into every kick. Rogers blocked them all quick and fluently, making her focus on quicker, but lighter attacks. James stomach jumped when this tactic seemingly worked, several attacks hitting with perfection including one to Rogers’ leg, bringing him down on one knee.

His opponent didn’t hesitate for a second. The world is cruel after all. But just as James expected Rogers to receive a fist to the face, the man visibly somehow awakened and blocked, rolled and kicked his attacker right in the back. She stumbled forwards and landed face first into the dirt. Immediately, Rogers was on her, straddling her back and pinning her arms behind her back. James damn near cheered.

 

Okoye declared the competition finished, grabbed Rogers’ hand and raised it above both of their heads. Hequiti , she loudly announced, the Taíno word for number one . A few more trinkets were handed over and Rogers left the ring, even earning a few pats on the shoulder from some of his fellow novices.

 

“Yet another title to Rogers huh?”

 

James was never startled, but this time was really fucking close. And judging by the look on Carter’s face when she approached him the rest of the way, she completely and shamelessly knew. James hummed in needless confirmation, despite the surprise he was truly happy to see her. They barely had time to chat outside of Ah Tabai’s tactical affairs.

 

“He’s one of the best in this year’s litter.”

 

Carter stated jokingly, James nodded again.

 

“He’s certainly something.”

 

“I wanted to say ‘one of the best naturals in years’, but that title is already taken.”

 

She smirked at him, getting her point through effectively.

 

“Ain’t gonna join your creed Carter, might as well stop trying.”

 

“I’m just saying, you could become one of the best.”

 

“I am one of the best, just not in this field.”

 

She snorted at him. A well-earned response to his thickly laid cockiness. James was only half-joking and they both knew it.

 

“Anyways, I get why you like him.”

 

He had no fucking idea if he even wanted to dignify that with an answer, so he settled for playing stupid. Carter wasn’t gonna buy any of his bullshit anyways.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Shut up, Barnes. You’ve been watching him for a long time now and you’ve barely ever taken interest in the novices you’ve brought here before. Somehow, Rogers is special and I get it. He is something else.”

 

“Romanoff taught him everything he knows.”

 

“She didn’t teach him identity or drive. Things like that can’t be taught.”

 

James kept silent and took a last glance towards the training grounds. Every novice was stretching and chatting, some getting water and wandering towards the novice kitchen in search of leftovers from last night’s dinner. When he turned around he was hit hard with the almost fond expression on Carter’s face.

 

“Don’t fuck anything up Barnes, or I’ll kick your ass.”

 

Banter, he could do. Feelings, not so much.

 

“You could try Carter, didn’t go quite as you expected last time.”

 

“Didn’t go quite as we both expected last time James, but I’m a fully trained Assassin now remember?”

 

“Yeah, that’s why I’m not calling for a rematch.”

 

They chuckled a bit together. James found himself missing the time they trained together under Ah Tabai. Things were less complicated then, or maybe they had simply just been young and naive. He followed her down from the tower, the conversation luckily shifting to more Creed related matters. Still, James couldn’t quite kill the burst of flickering in his stomach triggered by the sight of Rogers winning fight after fight.

______________________________________

 

Okoye was usually reticent with a powerful air of authority, but today she wore an expression of mischief as well. It was enough to set the entire group of novices on edge, including Steve. There was less than a week left of their basic training and The General was really digging into them as of late. After the next four days most of them would part ways, some of them would choose service and further education under The Creed and others, like Steve, were to serve as or under allies of The Assassins. He supposed it made sense for the training program to tighten at the last minute, but their teacher’s expression was truly unsettling. It didn’t make it better that they’d been dragged to the edge of the jungle, away from the safety and familiarity of the training grounds.

 

“Step closer, werehe . Today consists of a rather special activity.”

 

They all followed instructions, standing in a half-circle around General Okoye, who placed herself with her back against a broad tree trunk.

 

“I have someone you should meet. He arrived back from a mission only days ago and he’s finally ready to share some knowledge.”

 

A faint rustling of leaves from above caught Steve’s attention. Next, a sharp shredding sound of wood sliced through by merciless steel. Somebody dropped from the sky. Or rather, a man dropped from the hugely tall tree behind Okoye, which was basically just as impressive. He was dressed in purely black Assassin uniform, yet Steve spotted several modifications made to the regular garment, including the fucking metal claws attached like brass knuckles to the man’s gloved fists. The landing was barely audible and when Steve ripped his eyes away shortly to look up, he realised where the shredding sound had come from. The mysterious man had embedded his metal claws into the bark of the tree and let them easily cut through the material, resulting in him gliding down soundlessly. The last 6 feet or so, the Assassin had let go of the trunk and simply jumped and landed in that insanely graceful crouch.

 

“I present to you, T’challa, Assassin and former King of the old lands.”

 

T’challa let his gaze swipe across all the novices. The air was filled with an awe and respect that the man’s very being silently demanded. His eyes were calculating, radiating authority, yet in a vastly different way than Okoye. This man was calmer, more forgiving yet coldly stern whenever it suited him.

 

“Thank you, General.”

 

Okoye and T’challa shared an accent, which was the second thing Steve noticed, right after noting the deepness of the King’s voice. He also noticed the intricate silver outlinings of the otherwise scorching black hidden blade attached to T’challa’s forearms. The Assassin slowly pulled his hood down, another special trademark of a classic Assassin rope, before stepping closer to the novices.

 

“I’m sure The General has taught you free running, climbing and concealing your tracks correct?”

 

A few heads around Steve nodded, no one daring to speak up.

 

“Good. Today we’ll practice all that. All at once.”

 

Steve blinked a couple of times. Several people around him stirred in confusion. How were they possibly going to practice speed together with hiding tracks? And from who? The answer to the last question became horrifyingly evident rather quickly. T’challa crouched down slightly, his eyes sharp as switchblades and dangerously focused.

 

“You will all get a 5 minutes headstart. I start once you hear the gong. The last person I’m able to hunt down will be the winner.”

 

The words ‘I’m able to’ rang clear in Steve’s mind through the shock and sudden adrenaline that shot through him. T’challa would hunt them all down, no doubt about it. How quick he would do it was another question entirely. T’challa crouched just a little lower. Like a panther ready to jump prey.

 

“Now. Run.”

 

The next thing Steve remembered was the sound of his rapid heartbeat as it tried to fight its way out of his chest. Blood rushing and jungle blurred around him, still spotting a few other novices running as if for their lives and taking the same route as Steve. It was still too early to stop and consider strategy. Run or hide? Speed or cunningness? The thoughts got pushed out of his head by the sound of a gong still too damn close to his position. He sped up despite the loud protest of his legs. Now he could no longer see any of his fellow trainees, only hear faint footsteps if he really intended to. A pair of feet crawled upwards, another stopped completely, followed by a body shuffling across dirt and leaves. A various set of tactics indeed.

 

The warm jungle air felt almost too thick to breathe in, yet Steve’s lungs were screaming for it. Eventually he stopped, still heaving and trying to blink the sweat out of his eyes to orient himself. This part of the jungle was thick at the bottom, but significantly thinner upwards where snaking vines gave way for trunks and branches a little farer in between. Steve almost crawled up, looking immensely forward to cleaner air, but stopped himself in the last minute. This was still a hunt. T’Challa was an incredible climber, as already proven, and there’d be no doubt that he could run Steve down in the treetops, metal claws or not. Said claws would even allow the Assassin to jump farther between trees and save lots of time and energy, whereas Steve would be forced to take those leaps without aid. Ground it was. Stifling air or not.

 

He roamed around in a jog, listening intensely to every turning leaf, but still investigating the area. The dirt beneath his boots was moist and stuck to the soles, but more importantly it freely portrayed his boot prints for whomever might walk by to see. Shit. Okay. Leaves were thick too and hid his tracks better. Good thinking. He continued deeper into the forest. Silence enveloped him for a long time. Nothing of note except for a bird screeching or a monkey complaining. That was until he heard a startled shriek. The sound was a good distance to his right, but nevertheless effortlessly cutting through the air. It was undoubtedly human.

Steve turned in the opposite direction and ran like his life depended on it. Didn’t take long before the sounds of metal slicing straight through wood drowned just a tiny bit of the pulse beating violently in his ears. His failure was coming two steps closer every time each of his own feet collided with the sunken ground. Steve ran like he’d never run before, swerving and only just missing the thick vegetation surrounding him, vines and branches seemingly reaching for him with bad intent. The vicious, metallic sound halted only to be followed by the hollow sound of a pair of feet crouch-landing as graceful as any cat. Steve was utterly screwed. The feet barely lost any ground on him, beating with the ferocity of his own. He was running out of breath and soon he could only hope his pursuer had the same troubles. That was a stupid thing to hope for.

 

Before Steve could comprehend source or situation related to the sounds behind him, T’Challa had climbed himself onto a huge dead tree lying down, running up on Steve’s left with his black clothes swishing like a reaper’s behind him.  Then, he launched himself sideways in Steve’s direction, who found himself rather fucking helpless. Their bodies collided violently, both of them rolling first on top of each other only to later split up. Steve’s vision was nothing but a blur, his head spinning from collapsing and rolling at high speed. It took him several seconds to orient himself past collision.

 

T’Challa was already up and standing once he did, looking down at him with his chest heaving for breath.

 

“On your left.”

 

Came out surprisingly even for a man out of breath, still with the respectable accent. Steve barely managed an amused huff and a groan before just lying down, possibly for a day or two if he got his way.

 

__________________________________



Steve was one of the very last novices to be caught in the manhunt, which of course meant he could add yet another token of success to his cloak. The rest of the week passed quickly after that, both the rest of the training and the ritual signalling the end of basics training. The latter simply consisted of Okoye listing up each novice’s strength and weaknesses in a strong monotone voice, whereafter she’d ask them how they wanted to proceed their service; as an Assassin trainee or as an ally of The Creed.

 

James was honestly a bit worried about Rogers’ answer. Everyone in the camp was gathered to witness the rite of passage, which marked the novices as official members of the encampment if they so chose to be. From the start, Rogers had shown interest in both The Creed and Barnes’ fleet of allies. Only the man himself knew which one he’d prefer once forced to choose.

 

And Rogers surprisingly fit in here, not that James would have thought that in a million years. His crew member yet again proved to have an astounding adaptability. So when Rogers took a long breath just before giving his final answer, James admittedly held his own. He’d chosen to stay on The Swan of course. That idiot , thought James’ brain, while the rest of his body freed a relieved sigh. Margaret Carter stood beside him, a slight smirk on her lips. That bothered James much less than he thought it would.

 

__________________________________



The goodbye itself was certainly heartfelt in many cases. Dugan and Carter had been talking all morning and still hugged until the second the party of crewmembers and Captain of The Swan was to depart. Rogers made his farewells with the other novices, most of which had chosen to stay at the encampment for further training, including the two men recruited in Havana. Even the man’s usually stoic hutmate said her proper goodbyes. Thor had said his goodbyes to Bojekìo, who were now back with his people.

 

The walk back to The Swan was silent, yet the air was charged with thoughts of the future. James’ own wonderings surrounded their next mission for The Creed. Taking down the fat slave ship in a few weeks time. Meeting Vane and Rumlow to get the work done. He missed them, rough as they were. If everything went according to plan, they’d be laying a trap outside the coast of Cuba, waiting for The Token to arrive. After its already 2 months journey, the crew might be tired and the rations low. The attack could very quickly turn in James favour with a little luck.

_________________________________

 

Saying his goodbyes was strange for Steve. He felt like a different man, like every single one of these people had put an imprint in his soul that would soon fade without them around to uphold it. But at the same time he was excited to go back to The Swan. He missed Peter, Jones, Falsworth and even Dernier. Romanoff too, since he’d barely gotten to see her in midst of his training and her likely being dragged to tactics meeting alongside Barnes and Kidd. He was carrying his novice cloak in his sack, a token from Shuri. ‘No one else will fit into them anyways’ she had said, then handed them over sent him on his way with a clasp on his shoulder. Steve appreciated the gesture immensely. The escorted walk back through the forest seemed like the stepping stone between two futures. Steve could only assume he’d chosen the right one. Seeing Tulum slowly disappear in the horizon made Steve realise how grateful he’d been to be given a chance like this.

_________________________________

 

“But how was it really?”

 

The sentence was said like Peter hadn’t believed Steve’s first answer of ‘quite good’. The boy had immediately been excited to sail with Steve as his fellow rigger again after all the repairment work.

 

“To be fair it was an entirely new world. Sort of like a jungle fairytale. Only with a bit more hard physical training and shouting teachers.”

 

The last statements didn’t kill the dreamy look in Peter’s eyes. Steve secretly wondered if the boy wanted to join The Assassins himself one day, maybe once he got a bit older.

 

“I asked The Captain once if I could be recruited and he seemed shocked that I even asked.”

 

“Well Peter, those people may be of fairy tales, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re purely good. They fight for their own.”

 

“Yeah, just like we do. But they’re still the good guys right? Because otherwise we shouldn't be working for them.”

 

“I think they might just be.”


Was the reply Steve gave, well knowing that the real answer would be far more complicated to piece out.

 

Luckily, the dinner bell of the third day past departure saved Steve from further thinking. They both made their way down from the nest, the replaced rope of the shrouds rough on Steve’s palms.

 

At times he wondered if The Captain even remembered their late night talk. Barnes had been rather drunk it would seem, unless he functioned like a well made sponge there was a big chance that The Captain had forgotten big parts of what went on that night. Steve didn’t know how to feel about that. His stomach clearly did, since it tightened into a knot at the thought. But as they made their way to deck and then under, Peter eagerly walking ahead, Steve turned without really knowing why. And at the helm stood James Barnes.

 

Their eyes met since The Captain had already been looking his way to begin with. His eyes now reflected the the evermoving ocean again, well fitting with the colour of his irises. Barnes gaze was still sharp as a blade when he gave the smallest of nods, before turning his back and taking up conversation with Falsworth. Steve hadn’t had the chance of returning the gesture, but every emotion pulled at him like waves of the hungry sea. The most surprising was the lack of regret. Barnes remembered. Anything else would be impossible if that moment spoke the truth. Steve didn’t doubt it for a second afterwards. He had nothing to pull back.

_________________________________

 

The Swan glided effortlessly through the water the next weeks, heading for the Cuban tip reaching into the Yucatan Passage. James had barely interacted with Rogers since their drunken night. No that phrase was wrong. Nothing had happened except for an embarrassing amount of oversharing. James had been drunk enough to blame it on the alcohol, but the his eyes had been drawn to Rogers’ lips glistening with moisture in the firelight couldn’t be excused. Rogers himself didn’t seem embarrassed or as if he was otherwise avoiding James. They just had very different kind of work, so they’d barely interacted. Not that talking was topping the list of things James wished to do with Steve Rogers.

 

There was another time for these annoyingly loud thoughts, though. Said problematic rigger was on all-time duty in the nest throughout the day to possibly spot Vane’s Ranger or Rumlow’s Hydra lying anchored along the coast. Well into the 21th day, a call from the nest could be heard loud and clear.

 

“Starboard off the bowsprit! Could be The Ranger!”

 

It was Peter Parker’s voice.

 

“Get the glasses up there to make sure!”

 

James barked in return and a crew member, none other than Steve Rogers himself, came running to deliver directly from a water break. James fished the spyglass from his coat and handed it over, their fingers briefly brushing, before Rogers were off again. Climbing the shrouds like he was born to do it and then turning over the glasses to Parker.

 

“That’s The Ranger, Captain!”’

 

Came the answer and James smiled at how easily they’d managed to find them. He shouted back.

 

“Is The Hydra with her?”

 

“Can’t tell, Captain. Might lay anchored longer into the bay. We’ll have to get closer.”

 

“Thank you, Parker. Falsworth get us longer into the bay.”

 

Now he was shouting at his First Mate at the helm. The order was quickly received and soon enough they headed starboard longer into the Cuban bay. After only 30 minutes or so, another call from the nest could be heard. This time the shouting voice came from Rogers.

 

“Red Sails! The Hydra is anchored behind The Ranger!”

 

“Perfect.”

 

James added, more to himself than anyone else. He turned and ran the stairs up to the helm.

 

“Keep course, Falsworth. We’re in good time.”

 

“Aye, Captain.”

_________________________________

 

“We’re keeping the arrow formation as long as possible, we want them to feel trapped and cased in.”

 

James said, earning several nods from around the table. All the Captains were assembled around the map table in his quarters, also accompanied by Kidd, Dugan and Falsworth.

 

“In case of an attack, how is each of our ammunition stocks?”

 

James looked to each Captain. Romanoff answered first, then Rumlow after a bit of a staring contest. James loved the man, but damn could he be stubborn when dragged on mission for The Creed.

 

“My stock is plenty.”

 

“Mine is full.”

 

“Very well. How’s ours Falsworth?”

 

“One barrel of gunpowder down, but otherwise plenty, Captain.”

 

“Very well.”

 

They were to follow the arrow formation planned at Bellâcleu’s estate. The Black Swan leading, The Hydra on her left, The Scavenger on her right. Behind her, The Ranger. Surrounding The Token would be easy, James’ and Natasha’s ship gliding to the portside of the oppositely sailing ship, while Rumlow and Vane were to steer their ships to her starboard side. Here they could circle around if a firefight was initiated, harming The Token from each side with the firepower double her own capacity. If executed perfectly, this was the way of ensuring minimal casualties. A couple of hours more of planning nautical flag signals and a potential plan B, C and D, James ordered the group split up and to return to their own ships.

 

The next couple of days were filled with silent anticipation. Crew were more silent than usual, but luckily no less efficient so James didn’t have to reprimand anyone. The Token was a big prize to be taken, especially if their cargo hold contained both sugar and people. The less people they had to sail elsewhere afterwards, the better. All ships sailed in formation already, just not as close as battle positions required. James kept a trained eye on the maneuverability of all the vessels behind him. The wind picked up on the night before the third day, tackles and equipment rattled in the wind like erratic beats of war drums.

 

They were still sailing on their third day in formation when a call from the nest had everyone on edge in an instant.

 

“Galleon straight ahead!”

 

James jumped into action, ran to the bow and pulled out his spyglass. And just like reported, a galleon flying English colours had just appeared behind a couple of cliffs along the ragged coast of Cuba. He slowly lowered the spyglass, steadfastly sure in his mind.

 

“Boys, that’s The Token for ya.”

 

Hollering could be heard around him, likely spurred on by the lack of pay the last months. James didn’t care for the reason, he needed his men awake and aware. If exciting them was how it was done then no harm done. Kidd took the helm quickly so Falsworth could pull out the flags and signal to the other vessels in their fleet. We got her. And as early as on the third day. Everything was coordinated cleverly. That’s what James liked most about The Creed, their sense of punctuality and accuracy. The Token was sailing very close to the coast for a ship her size, seemingly to avoid being spotted by either Spanish Navy or retired privateers turned pirates. Unfortunately for British Navy property, James was following the same procedure.

 

“Release the topsails, get us to 6 knots at least!”

 

He shouted out, his crew immediately running for the shrouds. The Token was a beautiful piece of crafmanship. James had seen her once before. She had been docked then and seeing her now, sailing in all her glory was a sight to behold. His fingers already itched to grab onto either railing or sword. In these moments, when the adrenaline was pumping and fear tugging lightly at every part of his body, James always rediscovered why he loved his life so damn much.

 

As they grew closer and closer like a stalking predator, their prey eventually caught up. Might have something to do with the fact that Vane had raised The Jolly Roger behind them, for The Token was reacting. She steered out towards more open waters. A smart move indeed , James thought to himself. Surrounded by cliffs, The Token would be incredibly immobile. It would be hard for the Captain in charge to either fight or flee. Still, James had more than enough faith in the maneuverability and swiftness of his fleet to really give two shits.

 

“She’s turning!”

 

Someone shouted from the shrouds like it wasn’t already obvious. They were close enough to almost spot persons onboard, currently crawling the rigging like mad trying to get the galleon to speed up. Just before James shouted the command to pursue and set plan in motion, yet another ship emerged from the cliffs. Another galleon. Another fucking galleon. The Token had a damn escort after all.

 

“Galleon! Another galleon! And she’s armed!”

 

Just what was fucking needed. Truly. Brain processing a thousand thoughts a second, James made a lightning quick decision.

 

“Give command to Romanoff and Rumlow to pursue The Token! The Swan and The Ranger has the best firepower and we’ll take care of the escort!”

 

“Aye, Captain!”

 

Shit, shit, shit. The galleon laid low in the water, a witness to her stocked up weaponry. The two strongest vessels in James fleet could take her down without doubt, but they had to be awfully smart about it. They approached the newly arrived galleon, a three-master with up to  72 swift guns hidden like claws in her hull. James’ own complement consisted of merely of 50, yet so did Vane’s. If they managed to utilize their flexibility and combined superior firepower, they would stand more than a good chance of winning. Now their newly assigned target had caught up with the situation, the Captain probably more than a little upset.

 

“She’s winding up!”

 

Only a few moments later, a warning shot boomed and landed only 30 feet off The Black Swan’s bow. They were confident alright. James felt himself set aside all other thoughts besides nautical strategy, zeroing his attention in on the commands he was about to deliver his crew.

 

“Abandon rigging! All men to their battlestations!”

 

His crew set into motion, smoothly finding each their assigned position. James spotted loads of different expressions in the crowd, each and every one mirroring his own emotions. Anticipation, excitement, intimidation, fear. It all collided into one stream of thought. They had to win. And that made them efficient and deadly as all hell.

 

While the galleon wound up and made ready to fire. Vane’s Ranger had slowly gained on her and soon glided behind, heading for her starboard side. James himself was planning an attack on the port broadside.

 

“Full Complement! Give her our broadside!”

Then came the message he’d been waiting for.

 

“Guns are ready, Captain.”

 

“Fire!”

 

He shouted, his voice getting drowned in the booming of his starboard broadside erupting in fire and smoke. The sharp smell of burned gunpowder filled the air and made James voice even hoarser.

 

“Reload and turn her around! Keep us free of her broadside!”

 

Falsworth followed his orders punctually, The Ranger delivering its own half complement into the hull of the galleon. The air filled with the hollering of men indifferent to the face of death. James’ own calculating mind forcing silence on him.

 

The galleon was getting ready to fire, not managing to wind up her broadside to The Swan for maximum damage. James barely shouted out a warning of ‘BRACE’ before several hits rattled the skull of his ship. Exclaims of pain could be heard from the lower deck.

 

“Gun crews at the ready!”

 

“Still loading, Captain!”

 

Came the hasty answer from Jones standing proud besides the stairs to the lower deck, ready to shout and receive commands.

 

“FIRE AT WILL!”

 

The staccato beat of canonfire boomed in his ears, this time erratically and uneven as each canon was readily loaded at different intervals.

 

“Jones! One round of chainshots!”

 

“One round of chainshots!”

 

James command was rapidly repeated to the canonstations on the lower deck. Chainshots got pulled from their place in the armoury and spread out between stations above and below. All the while they got ready to fire again, Vane had commandeered his Ranger closer to the target. Both pirate vessels were circling the galleon, The Swan counter-clockwise and The Ranger opposite so. But now Vane was dominating the inner circle. He’d taken hits as well, about the same amount as The Swan, so James wasn’t concerned. No vessel was taking in water. Yet.

 

His and Vane’s ships were swift, easy and quick to manoeuvre, but make no mistake. The galleon was swift as well, smaller than The Token and a tiny bit lighter. She could turn quicker than Vane could react if he got too close. Ramming her would do more damage than good, mostly because it would expose them to her broadside and it’s deadly full complement of 70-or-so canons lurking beneath hatches. Vane was just reckless as usual it would seem, probably against Anne Bonny’s and and Jack Rackham's wishes. They were aboard The Ranger if James wasn’t badly mistaken. They’d rarely give up an opportunity such as this.

 

The chainshots were ready and loaded. This time, aiming high was crucial.

 

“Slow us down a bit, men!’

 

Using chainshots required precision. If James aimed his canons too high he could hit Vane instead of the galleon. So he’s rather slow his ship and take a few more hits if it meant taking out a couple of masts. Their target had just fired a round in Vane’s direction, her crew probably already loading up the next round in James’ direction. They glided, their topsails hailed in like he’d ordered.

 

“Steady. Steady, men.”

 

They needed full broadside to broadside parallel for best aim.

 

“Aim for her masts! Ready!”

 

The few seconds between that order and the next made James blood sing.

 

“FIRE!”

 

The canonfire left pressure on James’ ears in a storm of sound. A clacking of the chainshots release mechanisms followed only seconds after, swishing at deadly speed through the wind. Vane was well out of the way and the shots hit their intended target, ripping sail and tearing wood. These kinds of shot seriously damaged a ships’ maneuverability.

 

“Speed her up again, lads!”

 

A single look in the spyglass showed Vane mirroring their move and going for the masts.

 

“Give a bit of distance Falsworth! Jones! Switch to grape shots!”

 

Two immediate ‘aye, Captain’s drowned in the sound of the galleon firing directly at their hull. This time he didn’t got to shout for brace. The round metal teared through The Swan like a knife through butter. It was at these times James concentrated all his anger and love for his ship into one goal. To tear the other Commander and his ship apart by the thread. Newly repaired too. They’d pay their dues.

 

“Grape shots ready, Captain.”

 

“Fire when Vane is out of the way.”

 

James’ hands was clamped around the railing besides the helm, his First Mate carrying out orders like an extension of his own brain. Smoothly and surely, as soon as Vane glided out of range his complement went off yet again, this time aiming for a small impact over a large area, taking out crew on deck. The grape shots were miniature cannonballs packed into sacks and as they were shot, they’d take out any sail or man in their way. The air was thick with gunpowder and smoke by now, hard to breathe and even harder to stand the taste. James loved it.

 

Their target had lost speed, clearly in a distressed situation. Yet another complement of chainshots from The Ranger permanently took out the galleon’s mainmast and seriously damaged the sail of both foremast and mizenmast. They were now easy prey for boarding and a single look in the spyglass told James that Vane had the same idea. James quickly grabbed the spyglass and quickly confirmed that Rumlow and Natasha were handling The Token just fine. Decision made.

 

“Half of crewmembers are to leave battlestations! Prepare to board!”

 

James himself strode down the helm stairs, ducking as the galleon fired a desperate last shot their way. As hits tore through the hull of his ship, Captain James Barnes swore to vigorously do the same to the galleon’s Captain.

_________________________________

 

Steve had horrid flashbacks to the deck of The Triumph, smoke clogging his lungs and making his eyes water with the burn. Visions of men lying dead and the metallic smell of blood in his nose. Iron, iron, iron. Too much iron and steel surrounding him. Kill or be killed was the general rule set, but all Steve hoped for was to magically float above and beyond it all. Seeing and hearing nothing of the bloodshed. Smelling no death. Yet they were boarding now. Unintelligible shouts filled the space around him, hooks and ropes were being thrown back and forth to be used. Steve had his battlestation under deck and his lungs were screaming for air. Down here it had been impossible to gain a proper view of the battle or their position within it. The crew below deck simply had to blindly follow orders and trust their Captain with their life. Oddly, Steve didn’t have a lot of problems doing just that. Captain Barnes is an experienced sailor, he told himself. That’s why .

 

A pat on his back brought him back to reality. Charles had found him in the chaos and cast him a sympathetic, yet knowing look. Like he knew exactly what went through Steve’s mind. Truth be told, he probably did. After that, he set into motion. Getting his rapier from underneath his hammock was easy, figuring out exactly why he’d bring it to a boarding was much harder. A bad blade is better than none, he figured, before quickly making his way upon deck.

 

Crew milled about in a frenzy for grabbing either hooks or weapons. Only now Steve managed to get a good look at the galleon they’d been attacking. Her main mast was as good as broken, holes in sails and huge splinters of wood everywhere. Steve wondered suddenly if The Triumph had looked like that as well, rammed and vulnerable as she’d been. He was determined to shake that thought off as quickly as it appeared.

 

Barnes came hurrying down the helm stairs just as another shot was fired from the galleon. Steve instinctually ducked, almost loosing his balance when the hits rattled the ship to her core. The Captain cursed violently, spotted Steve and then strode straight into his quarters only to emerge moments later. Barnes was carrying his own equipment, cutlasses and four loaded pistols in a chest strap, as well as another pair of swords, which he handed to Steve.

 

“They’ll kill you of you don’t kill them first. Remember that Rogers.”

 

Only then did Barnes let go of the cutlasses in Steve’s hand with a dead serious expression. Steve only managed a nod in turn before The Captain turned and barked orders at the helm. Barnes had stated the obvious, but his words finally made the thought settle in Steve’s mind. Kill or be killed. It’s neither or perhaps both. Steve was too far in to back out now.

 

The new weapons were quickly stripped to his belt. Their handles felt familiar against his palm when he tried them out. He’d been practicing with some familiar ones in Tulum, well knowing that it would be convenient in the future. Falsworth was steering them dangerously close to the compromised galleon. Luckily, the sea was relatively calm, thereby minimising the chances for a violent collusion between the two ships.

 

The crew who was ready to jump and board was now crouching in cover of the gunwall. The opposing crew had without doubt loaded muskets and pistols ready for them once they boarded. They’d had time to prepare for man-to-man battle. Logan pulled Steve down by the arm into a similar crouch, mumbling something alike to ‘get ready you moron’. Apparently, two men were required to steer the plank that was to lay between the two ships as a gangway and Logan didn’t have a partner. If Steve hadn’t been terrified out of his mind, he might have scoffed. The crew grew more silent as more men got ready and covered at the gunwall.

 

“You know the Two Call Rule, men. Now get ready.”

 

Shouted Barnes. The two ships were almost completely aligned now. Barnes himself hid behind the gunwall on the quarterdeck, ready to jump on his own order. A screeching of wood made the hair stand up on Steve’s nape and back. The two ships were now, quite literally, rubbing against each other. Then, a heavily pregnant silence. No one moved and Steve barely dared to breathe. Out of nowhere, Barnes started hollering wildly, the rest of the crew followed like well oiled clockwork a mere second after and pistols started going off from the opposite deck. Steve almost raised himself up, but a strong arm and a sour expression from Logan held him down. Smart tactic. Utilising the slight smoke from cannons to get them to fire and loose shot before the actual fighting began. The Captain stomped his foot into the deck hard and loud, the sound almost echoing in the silence following the gunshots. All at once, the crew moved.

 

The men besides Steve took up the hollering again, keeping the spirit high and sprang from their cover. Steve quickly helped Logan raise the plank intended at their gangway. It slit smoothly across the gunwalls of both ships and as they made their way across, several guns were already going off. Sword on sword clanked in the chaos as more men boarded, almost the entire crew running to overtake the vessel by surprise and intimidation. Steve’s boots were harshly planted solidly on a foreign deck. He quickly spotted the opposing crew taking cover behind barrels strapped down mid ship like barricade. Steve watched in horror as one of his own crewmates jumped up on said barricade only to be shot and fall lifeless down again. That was the moment Steve’s brain let the adrenaline and survival instinct take over.

 

When the barricade was stormed, he was there. When the true fighting started, he was there. And when the bodies started falling, he was there.

 

__________________________________

 

British Navy was always so fucking stubborn and hard to kill. This, James knew already, yet somehow it still irritated him immensely as his crew was fighting and falling. His hair was free of the ponytail he usually wore it in, flowing freely and wild. James supposed he looked like every over exaggerated description ever made of him. Good. Fear was always the best manipulator.

 

He was fighting an Officer. Not the one in command he assumed, but still a well trained swordsman. Until the second James drove a sword through his stomach that is. Pulling his cutlass from the collapsing body and pushing it aside with his boot, James turned and tried to gain an overview. Smoke was still drifting through the air around them, the scent of sweat and blood intertwined with it. The galleon’s deck was still a chaos of bodies and fighting men. It took a few seconds more for James to spot what looked like a Captain through the masses of bodies, both moving and lying still.

 

A dangerous grin spread involuntarily on his face as he made his way towards the bow and his opposing counterpart. James had to fight his way there, showing soldiers aside as soon as a hole in their defense appeared. The last was extra stubborn, but a slash of  sword down his midriff did the trick. The other Captain was a middle aged man. Stoic, and about the same height as James, but with too big of a body for his short-range fighting style. The man was occupied fighting one of James own crew, so he placed a forceful blunt hit at the base of the man’s neck with the pommel of his cutlass. That caught his attention.

 

The Captain spun around and James could pinpoint the exact moment the man realised who he was up against. His eyes turned impossibly wide with a fear and surprise. How neat. James sent him a wide grin in response, bordering on insanity, and let the man strike first.

 

As expected, The Captain’s fighting style was much more on the defensive. He barely managed to place a good hit on James’ own defense before the latter ducked under his arm and drove his elbow into the man’s gut. A violent exhale and coughing followed. James awaited patiently, which seemed to make his opponent replace his fear with anger. Terribly predictable. James saw his attack coming from a mile away.

 

Blocking and spinning, James managed to get behind the Captain and pushed him forward with his shoulder. A cat playing with the mouse and prolonging the inevitable. James’ opponent grew more and more agitated and desperate, leaving big holes and offering opportunities on silver platters. James didn’t take any of them. Not yet.

 

Until the opposing Captain pulled a flintlock on him. He clearly saw it as a last resort to rid him of the nuisance that is a pirate. This time even a pirate lord, so fame would follow him everywhere if he managed to take down no other than Captain James Barnes. James himself saw it as a cowards trick.

 

He swiftly grabbed the barrel of the gun from the top and turned it away before the Captain could fire. Then got in real nice and close before piercing his cutlass through the man’s gut. A grunt of surprise and pain followed, a throaty gargle when James slowly pulled his sword out. Watching as it was painted the same crimson as the deck surrounding them. He was still supporting the other man’s body, holding him up in a sitting position, and only let it fall once the hateful glare faded and life had vanished. It was over.

 

James always felt the adrenaline falter a bit in these moments. Watching his own reflection in a dying man’s eyes, knowing that it might as well have been himself lying there. Being loomed over instead of the other way around. One day that might come to pass and James would either be ready and settled, or screaming and kicking till his last dying breath.

 

Standing up from a crouch , James quickly saw that his own crew was slowly getting the upper hand. Especially now that Vane’s crew had boarded from the opposite side. Bodies of the dead and dying were still strewn everywhere. Vane himself jumped eagerly into the midst of the fighting, roaring and shouting as he went. James grinned to himself. Anne Bonny was holding her own against two men more than a head taller than her and Jack Rackham was keeping himself out of most trouble. Midship, in the centre of the worst fighting, James spotted a blond tuft of hair and a swinging blade. Still standing, Rogers held off, but was leaving his flank and back open more and more with every blocked attack from his opponent. This made James move from his previous position.  

 

James swept in exactly a few seconds before an Officer would have slashed Rogers’ back open. Breathing heavily from running to get there in time and throwing himself into the fight with renewed vigour.

 

“Watch your fucking back, Rogers!”

 

He shouted over the metal clashing sharply and men shouting in pain around them.

 

“Why would I when you seem to be doing an excellent job of it?!”

 

Rogers shouted back before ducking under an Officer’s arm and delivering a blow with his elbow into the man’s ribs. They were both still affected by the adrenaline pumping through their veins, making movement instinctual and pushing aside unwelcome thoughts. The fucking nerve on this guy.

 

Soon enough, soldiers started falling to their knees and holding their hands up in defeat. The galleon’s crew was heavily outnumbered by now and they saw no reason to continue getting slaughtered. James could respect that. All pirates, both under Vane’s and James’ command, were left breathing heavily on the deck between kneeling men.

 

“Wise choice, gentlemen.”

 

James said, before sheathing his cutlasses. He then commandeered all surrendering men to be piled together at the bow so the ship could be raided. Now came the time to salvage both wounded and dead. James found this part to be the hardest. To look through the gathering atop the foreign deck and count the men no longer with them, while still pretending he cared equally about all his crew. The most important positions were luckily accounted for. Jones, Dugan, Falsworth, Dernier. Parker was never allowed to board with the others. Bruce Banner was hopefully still hiding in his room aboard The Swan. And in the middle of the rest stood Steve Rogers, out of breath, with sweat making his hair stick to his forehead. He was holding every ounce of his body with newly learnt power and grace. A sculpture not yet finished, but nevertheless inspiring in its early potential. Warmth tugged at James stomach and just as suddenly turned to ice when seeing blood seep through Rogers’ left sleeve on his upper arm. Without thinking, James strode up to him and grabbed the wounded arm. Rogers hadn’t expected that. His surprise almost turned to irritation, but James spoke before the transition could take place.

 

“Get that looked at.”

 

His voice was gentler than he’d intended, almost as if he’d added a ‘please’ at the end. The thought itself was ridiculous, James’ brain fighting itself on two fronts. Rogers replied with a slow nod, all annoyance gone from his eyes and now replaced by something James dared not name. Only when Rogers moved to return to The Swan and Bruce Banner did James’ hand leave his arm.

__________________________________

 

Banner was half a wreck when Steve went to get treated. The man hadn’t been a part of the fighting, but nevertheless it must have been a lot for him. Steve sported a relatively superficial cut across the with of his arm on the outside of it. Only now that the trance of fighting and adrenaline had faded it hurt like a bitch. Steve had been lucky though and he knew it. Finally, the thoughts was invading his mind. Thoughts of the battle and his Captain shouting at him to cover his back and possibly saving his life. And of the one-way conversation that had just taken place. Barnes had seemed sincere and maybe even worried. It had made Steve’s heart beat a little faster when he’d grabbed his arm.

 

When he returned to deck, Vane was in the middle of raiding the galleon for everything that wasn’t bolted down. In the distance, Steve saw that The Hydra and The Scavenger had been successful as well. They too were loading their own ships, but with people instead of cargo and guns. A quick exchange of word with a man from Vane’s crew told Steve all he needed to know. The Captain had ordered every ship to stock up and rescue the men, women and children previously intended to be sold. Then, the entire caravan would sail north-west to find a bay to regroup and rest in. They were to leave all surviving members of the opposing crew on their vessels to be picked up by Spanish Navy, these were busy waters after all.

 

Steve went to help Jones with a crate, but the man stopped him with a simple hand motion.


“Rogers, The Captain wants to speak with you in his quarters. He told me to let you know.”

 

“Oh. Thank you.”

 

Jones simply nodded and returned to his work. A thousand and one thought battled each other for attention in Steve’s mind as he slowly made his way to Barnes quarters.

Chapter Text

“Did you get patched up?”

 

Rogers didn’t dignify the question with an answer, simply replying by turning slightly and showing off the bandage around his upper left arm. James had purposefully let his map table create a barrier between them from the start, but Rogers didn’t seem on edge. A bit suspicious,  perhaps, but no other withdrawn emotion was showing on his features. So naturally, James broke the barrier, testing limits and pushing boundaries bit by tiny bit.

 

He walked to the other man, who looked a bit perplexed, raised his hand towards the bandage in question.

 

“Can I?”

 

He asked delicately. The way his muscles automatically relaxed was enough permission in itself, but James still looked to Rogers’ face and eyes for confirmation. A tiny, hesitant nod spoke for itself. James slowly took hold of the arm in front of him, all warmth and smooth skin, and slowly pushed the bandage aside.

 

The wound was luckily not deep. It still looked painful, though, and James found himself drunk of the way that Rogers barely seemed to care. Instead, the man was intensely observing his profile like he wanted to memorise and map out every last detail. It made James’ heart beat faster and his blood rush with awareness.

 

“Does it hurt badly?”

 

“A bit.”

 

Both question and answer were pointless from the start. A snare to fill the silence with something aligned with relevance. It didn’t work and they both knew it. And they both didn’t care.

 

James had had countless lovers. Some for a single night. Some paid and some not. They barely made a difference for him, no matter how good they had been. He might have found himself returning a few times, but attachment was never a goal of his. James practically never found himself wanting to map out their every trait and quirk. Never wanted to know their backstory or fill in the blanks on the painting that were the people he shared bed with. He already knew parts of the man in front of him. James couldn’t stay away, the many blanks too alluring and taunting with unknown possibilities.

 

Fingertips were gently inspecting the muscle around the wound, dancing lightly across skin and downwards. Rogers was so close. All James would have to do was raise his gaze to meet strikingly blue eyes, but somehow that single motion would seal his fate. It would be too obvious and the magnificent character in front of him would tense and move away. Instead, James let his fingers brush down the wounded arm directly in front of him, almost reaching the hand at the very end. A single stuttering breath entered his ears and made the warmth in his blood bloom brighter. His eyes flicked upwards and met similar heat in the pair opposite his own. Rogers’ eyes were heavy lidded, the extensive black a stark contrast to the thin ring of sky-blue. James was in the middle of wondering whether such a colour was even possible to describe when Rogers surged forwards.

 

He was on James’ lips in less than seconds, kissing him breathless and making James gasp out the little air he had left. The force behind Rogers was to be reckoned with. He kissed like he’d waited a thousand years to do so. As if he didn’t just want this, but needed it with a burning passion as well. James was only in for the ride, despite him giving the best he got.

 

His hands were gripping at Rogers’ hips with bruising hands, but the man simply grunted into James’ mouth and continued his wondrous onslaught. The fire in James blood was almost burning him up, the want of what felt like years finally catching up to him, all scorching and flickering brightly. James’ lungs were screaming for air, but he refused to leave Rogers’ lips before the second the burn grew too much. James pulled away only slightly and took a deep breath. He refused to open his eyes, scared that the sight of the man in front of him would be too overwhelming. It was, however, impossible not to notice Rogers’ entire body pressed to his, deep into his personal space like it simply belonged there. A warm forehead rested against his own and the temptation to open his eyes grew larger than the fear of what he might find. Rogers’ eyes were closed, looking both peaceful and restrained at the same time.

 

Reality hit James like a tidal wave; He was holding this beautiful mysteriously different man in his arms and damn if he wasn’t going to take advantage of that fact. His hand moved from Roger’s hip to the back of his neck, resting there firmly and feeling the light blond hairs at the nape. The movement made Rogers’ open his eyes and James was yet again met with a sky-blue gaze. They created a dizzying contrast to the man’s red-kissed open lips and the urge to kiss those exact lips suddenly became too much. James pulled Rogers’ down by his neck, slitting their mouths together in a kiss no less passionate than the one a minute ago.

 

Rogers enthusiasm drove James backwards and up against the map table. Half sitting on the cool surface, James smiled against Rogers’ mouth in amusement as his heart was almost beating its way out of his chest. His fingertips itched to touch skin instead of rough cotton, so he let his left hand curl and pull suggestively at the other man’s shirt. Rogers let out a tiny groan of appreciation into James’ mouth once he caught on, only kissing deeper and letting his tongue dance against James’ own. The shirt was on the floor in no time, soon accompanied by James own.

Getting his hands skim over all that golden sun-kissed skin made all of James’ senses extra susceptible. He noticed Rogers’ uneven breaths in his ears, the taste of him on his tongue and his warm hands skimming down his sides. James felt Rogers’ skin shudder under his own touch until the muscles bundled and rippled when the man moved forward yet again. Rogers pushed him all the way up on the map table and placed himself firmly between his legs, which James, for the record, had absolutely no problem with. He scooted to the very edge and pressed himself against the other man, leaving not one ounce of air between their bodies. Rogers’ fingers were snaking around his back and lurking between the ridges made by the scars there, but James was far too gone to care. His senses all mingled together, Rogers’ hands on his body, the warmth in his stomach, the fire in his blood. It all intertwined and James lost himself in the sensation.

 

Rogers’ deepened the kiss even further and with a hint of teeth, he had James groan his appreciation into his mouth. This man kissed like he was born to do it, no hesitations or second guessing. Rogers was waiting for something, not hurrying things along any longer. He simply kept kissing James with the same urgency that wouldn’t reach any longer before confirmation. Frustrating indeed, but James also knew when and exactly how to push. His hands wandered downwards and toyed with the band of Rogers’ breeches, silently asking if this was where the other man wanted to go.

 

Rogers’ body moved like it fit right there against James own, shifting whenever James wanted it to. Like swells from a ship or tide coming and going, fully controlled by the moon.

 

The magnificent creature standing between his legs reacted in complete sync with James  own body. Like swells on the ocean, each body reacted to the other’s, which then reacted again and created a beautiful dance of pleasurable movement.

 

This time, Rogers reached for James’ pants in turn, toying with the band and letting curious fingers wander just beneath. So much for innocence.

 

James suddenly became painfully aware of how hard he’d grown the last long minutes. It was obviously showing, but so was Rogers’ and said man was clearly on a mission. He rolled his hips in against James own, the friction making them both groan. That was all the encouragement James hadn’t needed in the first place.

 

Yes… please, come on.”

 

“I thought they were coming off?”

 

Both their breathy voices hid none of their arousal. Still, James could have snapped at Rogers horrible humour if the man hadn’t dropped to his knees that very second. Oh, that was a sight to behold. James didn’t get nearly enough time to visually enjoy anything, before Rogers gripped tightly at the hem of his trousers and pulled. It took some light shuffling, since James quite frankly was sitting on his ass, but at last they came off.

 

Looking down at this man, on his knees, face inches from James erection was almost enough for him to lose his mind. Rogers started kissing his was up James cock one peck at a time, and he hissed through gritted teeth at how good everything felt already. James’ hand cupped around Rogers’ jaw and cheek instinctually, searching for cohesion in the sea of sensations. Rogers’ clearly misjudged the move, glancing upwards and looking a tiny bit worried, which was nothing but laughable. James was fucking peachy. Everything was just so much all at once, but he truly resented the idea of stopping. Their eyes met and yet again, James’ breath was stolen directly out of his lungs. This magnificent creature was making sure everything was alright so James nodded, albeit a little frantically. Rogers smiled up at him, an innocent little thing before he swallowed as much of James’ cock as he could.

 

A violent full body shudder went through James. His entire body felt like it was on fire with want. This was definitely not the first time Rogers had been with another man and that thought both turned him on so much more and awoke something deep, dark and possessive. The latter thoughts were quickly forgotten, though, since the man between his legs was now trailing the entire underside of James’ erection with his tongue. Blistering heat and wetness filled James entire world, together with the steady build of his own heart. His abdominal muscles clenched and unclenched in beat with Rogers’ wonderous ministrations. James found himself curling forwards, holding on to the other man’s nape and shoulder like lifelines.

 

Oooh … I’m - I’m gonna … please .”

 

James was truly losing all his bearings when asking sweetly like this, but the pressure behind his groin was building and shiftling like molten lava. He pulled at Rogers’ a bit, wanting him to know, but the man already seemed to have caught up. He hadn’t even touched himself yet, presumably setting his own needs aside in order to tend to James’. Yet the bright blush on Rogers’ cheekbones bore witness to his still very present arousal. Rogers pulled off with an obscene pop, only to replace his mouth with a hand. His eyes were dark and secure, his voice raspy from working his throat for several long minutes.

 

“You want me to stop?”

 

“No, I… I’m gonna come soon.”

 

Rogers smirked up at him, legit smirked, before diving back in and taking James as far down his throat as possible without gagging. James shouted, biting his lower lip to avoid doing it again, but Rogers were just too damn good at this. The tension only grew and threatened to spill over, Rogers still showing no sign of stopping anytime soon. With a strained groan, James came, all his senses wipes out and replaced by a mind-numbing pleasure washing over him in waves. Slowly ebbing out, twisting and flickering with aftershocks, James opened his eyes to pair of blue eyes observing him like something astonishing, lips still stretched around James cock. Catching his breath took longer than anticipated, but once he did, pulling Rogers’ up for a all-encompassing kiss was the very first thing James did. Rogers’ had had his turn and James refused to shatter his own reputation as a generous lover.

 

James blood was still singing with post-orgasm tremors once he’d maneuvered Rogers behind the map table. Apparently, he managed to distract the man immensely, judging by the surprised look on his face once James pushed him backwards into the soft sheets and pillows of the bed. Rogers’, once caught up, crawled backwards up the bed to make room for James, who in turn grabbed and tugged harshly at Rogers’ breeches. A breathy laugh came from the bed, which slowly turned into a groan once James managed to rid Rogers of the rest of his clothing.

 

The man before James was utterly beautiful, muscles twitching in unfulfilled anticipation. Rosy blushes down his chest tore James eyes away from anything else in that moment. His eyes eventually travelled longer down, landing on a perfectly curved cock lying against Rogers’ stomach, red with the disregard being shown to it so far. James would change that very soon.

 

He crawled up the bed, purposefully making his movements lithe and fluid, until he was hovering over the other man. Rogers’ chest was heaving with erratic breaths, hands already clutching the sheets like he couldn’t quite believe he was allowed to touch. James dove down and licked a thin stripe up Rogers’ stomach, relishing the shudder he got in return. The crooked grin that spread across James features was instinctual. A hand curled around his neck and pulled him down into a searing kiss. Finally , James thought, letting go of the intoxicating control he’d regained for just a minute to press their chests together. Rogers’ hands were everywhere, on his neck, on his back and finally in his hair. Rough eager hands pulled the thin strip of leather usually keeping James hair assembled at the back of his head. Said hands returned shortly after to pull and clutch at the wild strands. He groaned at the feeling, Rogers keenly swallowing down any noise he made before it reached the air around them.

 

This was nice and all, but James was also very much on a mission to see this beautiful man beneath him squirm in pleasure. He sneaked a hand beneath Rogers’ head and pulled it back by the hair, just roughly enough for their mouths to separate as Rogers gasped out into open air. More noises followed as James kissed his way down the man’s neck, tasting salt and faint traces of gunpowder from the fight before. He kissed his way along Rogers’ jaw and finally reached the little horizontal scar beneath his chin, souvenir of their first meeting.

 

“Sorry about this one.”

 

“No you’re not.”

Came the answer in a snarky laugh. James couldn’t help but smirk.

 

“You’re right, I’m really not.”

 

James brought his attention back to the task at hand, breathy moans continuing as he moved his way down Rogers’ body slowly, enjoying every second of prolonged torture he was putting the other man through.

 

At last he came face to face with Rogers’ cock surrounded by a patch of golden hairs. This man was truly a marvel and James couldn’t wait to get his mouth on him. Licking a teasing strip from bottom to head, he grinned again at the now louder noises he was receiving from the man above him. Rogers was warm and velvety on James tongue, but unrelenting on his throat. Trying to take him all the way would just end in a whole lot of gagging on James part, so he brought up his hand to cover the length where his mouth couldn’t. Sucking hard up and down got a long stream of moans, mapping out the veins with his tongue resulted in breathy groans and hitched breaths. James continued playing Rogers like an instrument despite his jaw beginning to ache slightly. A single tear couldn’t be stopped by his eyelashes and fell down over his cheek, only to be caught by Rogers’ thumb. The man had finally caught up to James’ ministrations and was touching him in turn. One hand on his cheek and the other in his hair, keeping it out of his eyes while also grabbing it rather possessively. James hummed at the strain, grinned as much as possible with his mouth full. Rogers breathing picked up slowly, steadily, and became hurried and labored.

 

“Oh God… ungh ooh … please just -.”

 

James luckily knew what he was after. If the man hadn’t seemed directly desperate, James might have teased him for using The Lord’s name in vain. He relented and swallowed Rogers all the way down, as far as his throat allowed and sucked hard. Rogers jolted, his breathing completely stopping momentarily before shakingly stammering incoherent words for a few seconds.

 

“Fuck - I’m gon … I’m going to come.”

 

Message delivered. And because James was at least fifty percent between Rogers legs only in order to torture the man, he placed featherlight kisses all around the head of Rogers cock, before taking him in again, sucking up and down like he was dying for it. Which was practically the truth, regardless. Rogers groans only grew as his entire body tenses up, abs rippling and tense. James finally pulled of and continued to jerk Rogers off with his hand. James’ mouth placed small kisses littered with teeth on his hip bones while feeling the other man unravel underneath his touch.

 

James had seen countless waterfalls and sunsets in his lifetime, but the most beautiful sight of all was undoubtedly Rogers falling apart at the seams. His brows furrowed deeply and his mouth opened in a perfectly round shape, lips still red from kissing and biting. Chest still heaving several minutes after coming, Rogers seemed to be in a complete other realm, so James silently slipped from the bed to get a wet piece of cloth from his basin with clean water. Being Captain definitely had its perks. James returned to slowly wipe Rogers chest and stomach down, apologising quietly when the man shuddered under the cold water. James was almost done when he looked up and saw Rogers observing him.

 

“Can I call you James?”

 

The question did surprise James quite a lot, so he let out a huff of a laugh.

 

“Yeah sure. If I can call you Steve? Steven?”

 

“Steve is just fine.”

 

Rogers - well, Steve -  said with a timid smile. James threw the cloth aside and got pulled down unto the bed again, or rather unto Steve himself. They were still both completely naked and James felt his own body start to cool down. Luckily for him, Ro- Steve’s body was a brightly lit furnace. God, the new name would take some time to get used to.

 

He got pulled into a kiss yet again, sweeter this time, the details more prolonged and less frantic. Steve kissed him like he still wanted to, almost just as badly as before, where they’d both been buzzing with desire. It turned into a session of tired lazy kisses and lying about, caressing and exploring the other’s body simply for curiosity’s sake. James almost dozed off, Steve still mapping out his left arm with his fingertips.

 

“You told me these weren’t from Abbott.”

 

James blinked his eyes open, brain only now catching the meaning of Steve’s words. His fingers were slowly tracing the outside of a particular thick scar, and James mind recalled moist air filled with the tinge of blood and gunpowder. He answered Steve with a simple hum of confirmation.

 

“Where are they from then?”

 

James had seen the question coming, but it didn’t mean it was any easier to answer. Steve’s eyes were cautious, ready to retract the question if James refused to answer it. His fingers were still drawing the same lazy and slow patterns on James arm.

“I ended a life and someone tried to end mine in return. They didn’t want it to be quick though.”

 

Steve fell silent after that. James had expected him to. Maybe his paranoid subconsciousness was pushing the man away, holding him at a safe distance where James’ heart couldn’t reach. Steve looked like he was thinking a million thoughts a minute, brows slightly furrowed. James found himself counting the small freckles on his nose.

“I’m sure you did it for a reason.”

 

“What?”

 

Steve speaking up had him surprised after several moments of silence. The man wasn’t wrong per se, but the fact that he naturally trusted James’ judgement of who should live and die was scaringly relevant regardless.

 

“I’m sure you killed for a reason.”

 

James didn’t get a chance to comment further before Steve bent forwards and kissed each long scar snaking up his arm. This gesture, together with the blind trust put in him by this man, was almost too much and James had to pull him into a kiss to hide that fact. Pouring every ounce of thankfulness he felt into it. Eventually, they both idly dozed off, curling towards each other with arms intertwined.

 

James never wanted to be reminded of the outside world again. Considerably less sunlight shone through the windows behind the bed, the sun setting outside. The little that still fought for the day, however, was enough to reflect the dye of the coloured glass unto Steve’s naked skin. James was lying there, watching the hues dance and flicker with the last daylight across golden skin. Steve was still asleep, his breathing even and deep. He wanted to touch, while also not daring to awake the man in his bed. Yet again, Steve had proven to be everything he secretly hoped for and more. But reality would soon catch up to them and Steve would have to leave. That thought only made James appreciate this silent moment even more, even though it added a sad tinge to it.

 

The man before him furrowed his brows and stirred slightly. James alone-moment was broken when Steve opened his eyes slightly, only enough to catch him staring. Luckily for him, Steve got distracted by the pain of lying on his left arm and didn’t ask questions. He grunted in dismay and James instinctually reached for his wounded arm, which had seemingly caused him no problems when they’d been fucking around.

 

“It’s no problem. The corner of the pillow simply caught the bandage.”

 

“You idiot.”

 

Steve barked out a laugh, shuffling a bit so he wasn’t lying directly on his arm anymore. He hummed then, as if half in agreement. James was brought back on the deck of the galleon, watching Steve fight from a distance. And it occurred to James that there was one important question he hadn’t asked.

 

“Are you alright? After today I mean.”

 

Steve’s expression turned sour, but the man looked to think it over more than once before answering.

 

“I’m not quite sure yet. But I will be.”

 

“Did you kill anyone?”

 

James curiousness was definitely getting the better of him. But a little voice in his head demanded to know the answer. Steve took a deep breath, only a little shaky. He gave a little nod.

 

“I think so. Why?”

 

“Wouldn’t have been the first time.”

 

Steve nodded again, still deep in thought like he’d been at times that night in Tulum. James sort of wanted to catch him off guard.

 

“You told me once that the Spanish soldier outside Tulum wasn’t your first kill.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“Then who was?”

 

Steve’s eyes were focused on a spot behind James, still looking like he was caught in the loop of the past.

 

“Back ho- … at my old home in New York we had an old stable-master. He’d always been considered weird and I was only 12 or 13 when he died. He had tried to make the newest mare of the stable rideable, people thought. He fell off her and broke his neck. Only me and two other boys from the neighboring village had shifted the horses out for fun. They looked awfully alike and the stable-master’s sight was bad with age. We killed him that day. No other way about it.”

 

Steve didn’t look as broken as James necessarily expected him to. Sad and guilty, sure, but the cold steel James recognised all too well was sneaking into his eyes. It both scared and thrilled him. Steve was truly adapting, but the fact that he’d blame himself on an accident wasn’t anything James would let slip by him.

 

“It was an accident, Steve. You didn’t know that would happen and shouldn’t be to blame.”

 

“Yes, I should.”

 

Steve said, with such conviction that James truly knew he believed it. Still didn’t make it any more right.

 

“Why the hell?”

 

“Because someone has to. He deserved that much.”

 

James stared at him in disbelief for several seconds, in awe of what kind of man he’d invited into his bed. Or rather Steve had invited himself. Said man was simply smiling a little sadly, like he knew that his reasoning made no sense, but chose to stand behind it regardless.

 

“You’re too good a man for this world, Steve Rogers.”

 

He laughed at that, humour penetrating the sadness. James liked his smile better, having meant every word nevertheless.

 

“Now get the fuck off my bed. Silk is only for Captains.”

 

Steve only laughed harder at that, sitting up and scooting off the bed like it had personally offended him.

 

“Cruel. Truly.”

 

“That’s the world for you, pal.”

 

James simply answered nonchalantly. Earning another grin from his crew member. Or whatever they were now. He wasn’t gonna even try to think in those patterns. Steve took a lap around the map table to gather up his clothes while James sat stock still and stark naked on the bed observing him getting dressed. He finally pulled the shirt over his head, looking to James and smiling lopsidedly.

 

“I better get back to work, Captain. Rigging won’t take care of itself.

 

He said jokingly, well-knowing that The Swan was anchored inside a quiet bay and most men were playing cards or sleeping below deck.

 

“Liar.”

 

James countered, walking up to the other man and pulling him down for a final lingering kiss. Steve’s fingers skimmed down his naked back, the other set coming to rest against his rips, fitting themselves in the small indents in between. James had to force himself to let go and Steve seemed like he was right there with him.

 

“Go now, before people start asking questions.”

 

“Captain, yes Captain.”

 

Was the least cheeky remark James received before Steve was out the door, effectively leaving him alone to play the evening’s events over and over again in his head.

Chapter Text

The next two weeks went by as normal. Steve joked around with Dugan and Jones, had long conversations with Parker in the rigging, kept to his job and occasionally helped Logan sweep the deck despite not having to. It was all routine aboard The Swan, except now Steve was very much sleeping with his Captain.

 

The first time he’d emerged from The Captain’s quarters, body still tingling from being touched in all the right ways, he’d almost panicked in the face of being asked of his previous whereabouts. The Swan was anchored and any work except scouting was postponed to tomorrow morning. So naturally, Dugan had casually asked him where he’d been. Luckily, Steve had spent the last many months in pirate company so a little lie came easier to him than expected. Romanoff was owed at least half the credit.

 

He’d been in the rigging he had claimed. ‘I needed the air’ and surprisingly only for Steve, Dugan had merely nodded and invited him to play chess with him. Steve relented, only because anything else might seem suspicious. He’d gone to bed not long after that.

 

Two weeks passed by like that. The Swan herself on the way back to The Bahamas. Where in The Bahamas was not specified, but Steve’s fellow crew seemed excited nonetheless. Personally, he silently begged higher powers that Nassau wouldn’t be their destination. To see that shed where he’d spent all those restless nights, terrified for his friend’s life, would be too much. He didn’t even know where Sam and Clint was, what work they’d gotten. If Clint had returned to his family up north.

 

Luckily, Steve had a steady distraction and no choice in the ship’s course. James had been everything Steve had hoped for and more. Both the first time, the second … the third. Bruce had almost caught them below deck a silent night in the corners. Fortunately, James was an exceptional liar and Bruce had seemed too tired to give a shit. Steve did know he was still playing with fire. Had been in practically every interaction with The Captain since they met for the first time. But now the fire had burned its way to embers, still containing the possibility of roaring itself back to life if given fuel. They kept Steve warm nonetheless, instead of scorching and burning him. It felt good. It felt really really good to be in James’ company, even if they were simply discussing books or if James was talking Naval strategy to Steve’s untrained ears. Guess he still had much to learn about sailing a ship.

 

On the fourth night they’d shared, still in the safe confinements of The Captain’s quarters, James had revealed the course of The Swan, but only after Steve coaxed it out of him, both of them naked in James’ bed and stupidly playful in the post-orgasmic glow.

 

“We’re heading for Great Inagua. It’s a little hideout of mine. I’m too high on the Navy’s notoriety list after The Token, so no pirating for a few weeks. I think you’ll like it there.”

 

James had said, his tone sincere. Steve believed every word he’d said. He’d kissed James then, both relieved by the lack of blood in the next weeks and grateful for the decision made by the man in which bed he found himself.

__________________________________

 

It took almost another two weeks to reach The Bahamas and then 4 days time before Steve and Peter was told to spot a certain narrow passage between islands. Peter luckily knew what they were looking for, because Steve thought all these tiny cliff islands looked completely identical. It was getting harder to steer between them, the passages getting narrower and narrower. Falsworth was on constant duty together with Dugan, making sure The Swan didn’t hit all the reefs and sand banks Steve and Peter could spot well in time from the rigging. Most of the day went by but around an hour before the 6 o’clock bell, Peter shouted from the nest.

 

“Passage right ahead.”

 

James ran to the gunwall, jumped up on it and climbed the shrouds halfway to confirm. Judging by his smile and nod, it was indeed the correct passage. The Captain demanded the ship to slow down as much as possible and glide through the narrow space. They glided for several minutes, until Steve finally spotted a village in the middle of jungle and cliffs, big enough to leave him speechless. It was a certainly a hide out. A little place perfectly stored away from the outside world. It was probably self-sufficient as well, it had to be. The Bahamas consisted of loads of big and small islands, too many for all of them to be properly inhabited and James had clearly taken advantage of that. This was, evidently, Great Inagua. The name taken from the island itself with an additional adjective.

 

The village was even more beautiful up close, the houses looking surprisingly similar to the ones in Nassau. The place itself emitted freedom of choice. From this distance Steve could faintly spot workers in the fields in the outskirts and a few children playing in the narrow sand streets. The place itself looked like a relatively normal village on a slope, but this one was so well integrated into jungle territory that Steve barely dared to think how much work had been put into its creation and maintenance. The harbour itself had several docks, all think planks put together in search of stability. The Swan only needed twenty more minutes to be fully docked and fastened there, so Steve hoped the construction was tougher than it looked.

 

James stepped down from the helm, where he’d previously sailed his own vessel into harbour. He looked utmost pleased with himself and their whereabouts.

 

“Go settle, men. We’ll handle cargohold tomorrow.”

 

His command was met with loud cheering from the crew, who were all clearly looking forward to treading land in this village again. Steve let himself take a last glance at the small wooden houses and interwoven palm trees. At the top of the slope, longer to the west and relatively secluded from the village, was a white mansion. Its size and colour was almost blinding through the few trees that covered it from sight, demanding to be seen and admired. Steve couldn’t believe he hadn’t spotted it before. He had stopped so quickly in his infatuation that Peter walked directly into his back.

 

“UUNF”

 

“Oh! I’m sorry!”

 

“It’s alright man. It’s not everyday you get to see Great Inagua for the first time.”

 

“Who owns that mansion on the hill?”

 

Peter blinked a couple of times like the answer to Steve’s question couldn’t have been more obvious.

 

“The Captain, of course. He often shares with Kidd and Romanoff though. They’ll probably be here soon after taking care of the prisoners of The Token. The Scavenger is really a lot more swift than ...”

 

Something caught Peter’s gaze in the direction of the docks and the boy visibly picked himself up, then shouted.

 

“Aunt May!”

 

Before barreling towards the gunwall and the docks beneath it. Steve, who was rather shocked, looked at the running boy and quickly spotted a middle aged woman with long dark hair and a smiling face. They embraced enthusiastically the second Peter reached her, both of them seemingly never wanting to let go in the near future. Steve couldn’t help but smile to himself, forcing the ache of longing for his own family down until it was nothing but a brief sting in his heart.

 

Jones suddenly showed up besides Steve, having come from below deck judging by all Jones’ belongings tightly clasped in the man’s arms. He smiled at the pair on the docks, grin soft and mirroring Steve’s own.

 

“May is only Peter’s aunt, but she takes care of the village when The Captain isn’t here, so everyone just calls her Aunt May.”

 

“It’s noted.”

 

Steve answered, smile unwilling to leave his face in the near future. He didn’t get to introduce himself to this Aunt May, since her and Peter soon vanished into the village, arms still around each other. He got to be introduced to his sleeping quarters, an old building with several rooms upstairs and a single kitchen and bar area. Steve guessed it was an old hotel now used for when the crew of The Swan came for a visit. It was cozy enough, no visible bed bugs. He even got a small room for himself, courtesy of Dugan who had insisted since Steve had just survived his first active boarding.

 

The rest of the day went by quickly since they’d arrived quite late in the afternoon. Steve had bunched his stuff into the small chest at the end of his bed, quickly caressing the novice rope with its trinkets of success in doing so. Almost the entire crew ate dinner together in the same building, some men having families here like Peter had. The old wooden chairs and tables created a cozy atmosphere when illuminated by candles and the big fireplace in the open kitchen. Falsworth offered to show Steve a bit around when he expressed interest, but the man quickly got into a heated discussion about alcohol with Dugan so Steve would have to observe and learn without a companion. He excused himself silently. No one paid him attention when he slipped out the door only to be met with a beautiful sunset to the west. It dyed the sky in astonishing pinks and reds and reflecting into the ocean like a blank mirror. This village was a picture of peace and Steve already felt at home here, easily falling into the rhythm of the crew who clearly felt the same.

 

Steve used the next half an hour to explore the harbour and the beach besides it. The Black Swan lived up to her name, standing proud and creating a stark contrast against the colourful palette of the sky. Steve’s fingers almost itched to paint her like this.

 

A single thing Steve still prided himself in was seeing the beautiful details in the mundane. After having worked on The Swan for months in a row, he never once found her any less magnificent. Evidently, it was possible to respect a ship. Or maybe some of that respect and fondness was reflected upon her by Steve’s biased opinion of her Captain. Not too hard to tell honestly.

 

The evening was still warm, the soles of his boots temperate as well and being heated by the sand and dust of the streets. At this hour, Steve could recognise the jungle sounds as well. They were similar to the ones of Tulum, but with fewer screaming monkeys it would seem. His forehead was damp, making his bangs cling wetly to it. They were getting long as well, but Steve didn’t really mind this time. Maybe he could let his beard grow out as well, just to try it out. He could always ask James what he thought of the idea if he got the chance to see him the next couple of days. Steve had no excuses to enter the large one-story mansion, but maybe The Captain would come to him. He looked towards The Swan again as he began to walk back again, committing her stoic masts and the sunset behind her to memory. Maybe he’d have it as a drawing to show James next time they met.

 

__________________________________

 

The day after was spent unloading the ship and counting crates and barrels to account for spare food, water and ammunition the last month. Surprising to no one, the amount of spare ammunition was relatively slim, a big chunk of it having been used on the escort galleon of The Token. They’d probably have to restock after their off-time in Great Inagua and Steve had no doubt that Dernier would make sure to remind The Captain rather often the next couple of days. The Master Gunner was surprisingly affectionate towards a fully stocked arsenal.

They’d started unloading ship early in everyone’s best interests, since the sun was now slowly rising to its highest. Luckily, they had almost finished and merely an hour after, The Captain let them go in the knowledge that they’d done a good job. James wasn’t finished speaking though.

“Men! I just so happened to spot a crate of rum and other goods in my depository earlier today. I’m thinking it mustn’t go to waste! All that wants to take part of the festivities can arrive at my door after dinnertime.”

The invitation was met with loud cheering and an excited crew. Steve let himself be carried on the wave of enthusiasm, now having a perfect occasion to admire the mansion up close. He didn’t know exactly why the building seemed so interesting to him, but the exterior was fit for a Governor and Steve sensed an intriguing story behind it.

 

The rest of the day before dinner was spent, on Steve’s account, on reading inside to avoid the worst of the heat and sun. His room had a single window that provided him with enough sunlight to both read and sketch, so he switched in between the two when inspiration struck. The urge to sketch only grew from every page read and at last Steve put away the book completely. He’d read it a thousand times anyways and there were limits even to this. The small desk in the corner served its purpose well and Steve sat and let his pencil glide over rough paper in straight lines of masts, rigging and rope with the sun setting in the background. He sat there until dinner, so emerged in his work that he nearly jumped and fell off the chair when Jones came to get him for dinner. He followed the man and the savoury smells from the kitchen down to the floor beneath with a sheepish expression.

 

__________________________________

 

“And you’ll NEVER GUESS! You’ll never guess what happened next!”

 

Boasted a rather inebriated Dum Dum, drunkenly waving his arms around so Steve got rather worried that the bottle in the man’s hand would spill over. Behind him, Jones grumbled, also not completely sober.

“Yes we will. An alligator jumped up from the grass and snatched him.”

 

“An alligator sprang up and SNATCHED - what the hell?!”

 

“You tell that story every damn time you get drunk. Ask anyone. Even Rogers has heard it and he’s only been here half a year.”

 

Steve’s eyes grew wide at being pulled into this little drunk dispute. He held his hands up and smiled apologetically when Dugan turned to look at him, question clear in his eyes.

 

“If it makes you feel better, I’ve probably only heard it twice before.”

 

“You’re full of shit, Rogers.”

 

Countered Jones. The man always grew a bit restless when he didn’t have work and that frustration mixed with grumpiness once alcohol came to the table. Steve simply snorted a laugh at him inelegantly and took a sip of his own bottle. The crew was more or less all assembled around on the huge porch of the manor with perfect view of the bay and the setting sun. Loud boastering could be heard from every corner, but Steve, Dugan, Jones, Falsworth and Logan had found themselves a quiet corner. That was before Dugan got drunk of course. Falsworth was falling asleep over his bottle and Logan was smoking an opium pipe and wore his usual expression of ‘I don’t give a damn’. So the conversation was more or less reserved for the three other men.

 

In another corner, perched atop a table with expensive rum in his hand, Steve spotted James. He was sitting besides Dernier who was without a doubt rambling about attack tactics or alternative ammunition storage. Steve couldn’t help but stare out the corner of his eye. The Captain’s hair was tied up as usual, but this time in a bun instead of the ponytails he so often preferred at sea. A few strands were escaping and they framed his face perfectly. Seeing the man so laid back and chatting with his crew, Steve yet again understood why The Captain was so popular among his men. He’d truly mastered the craft of balancing command and camaraderie.

 

James was clearly rather bored getting told all Dernier’s drunken suggestions, but seemed to somehow humor the man despite it. He nodded along and laughed when his Master Gunner did, but his mind was clearly elsewhere. James’ eyes sweeped the crowd with practiced precision and their eyes met. A warm sizzling feeling shot up Steve’s spine at the eye contact and the feeling only doubled once James smiled amusedly at him, giving a little nod towards Dernier. Steve declared his sympathy by being a little shit and holding his bottle up as in toast. Barnes simply rolled his eyes and flipped him off. Steve laughed quietly to himself, fortunately going unnoticed by Dugan and Jones who were still bickering in the background. Soon, he was pulled into the conversation unwillingly yet again when Dugan yet again tried to convince Jones of his genius storytelling.

 

The next time Steve’s eyes met The Captain’s, the sun had vanished behind the horizon, and the small world around them started to darken. A few people lit torches on the path from the mansion to the village so drunken sailors could still find their way. Dernier had left and James was sitting with a new group of men now, but the only one he was taking notice of was Steve. The fire of the torches lit up his dark eyes and the moment Steve looked into them, he was pulled back into their night at Tulum. Warmth bloomed in his stomach, anticipation growing when reminded of other times those eyes had rested on him in that exact way.

 

The James broke the moment and got up. At first, Steve let disappointment flood his body, but then The Captain gave just the smallest of nods in the mansion’s direction, before excusing himself for the night at the men sitting around him. New hope laced with caution grew inside Steve once more. If he went inside now, some people might surely grow suspicious of his errands in the Captain’s home. So he waited. And waited.

 

Most men were drunk or sleeping, some having quiet conversations and others retiring. The groups were slowly thinning out and only then did Steve dare to get up and excuse himself. He walked towards the path to the village, only to turn on his heels and sprint the other way as soon as he thought himself to be in the shadows. Getting into the mansion was no problem in and of itself. Several side entrances were open to bring in cool air from the outside. Steve took the closest one which led him into a dining room of magnificent size, fit for a Governor indeed. But before he could truly enter the room, he was forcefully pulled and pressed against the wall. He let himself go easily, trusting the hand on his arms and the body melting close into his own.

 

James showed no hesitation kissing him once he was well planted against Steve’s body. He could feel his entire body soften as his worries of getting caught got kissed right out of his mind. It was soft, with a hint of tongue serving as a possible promise.

 

“What took you so long?”

 

James barely left before he was back on Steve’s lips, prodding and licking playfully before continuing.

 

“I thought you might have grown second thoughts.”

 

The absolute ridiculousness of that possibility shot through Steve like a bullet. His gaze met James’, his eyes even darker than usual in the unlit room. They were both breathing the same air, standing so close that Steve could feel the heat radiate off the other man like a furnace.

 

“No. Never.”

 

Steve’s tone weighted the words down, pouring every desperate urge to remove the thought from James’ mind into them. It seemed to work because a second later James was pulling him in by the neck again, kissing him like he wanted Steve’s knees to grow weak and give out. A very real possibility at that moment.

 

“Good. Because I have something to show you.”

 

Steve raised an eyebrow at that comment, but James smacked him on the arm and stepped away a bit before taking his hand.

 

“Not like that, Rogers, you dog.”

 

Steve simply laughed heartily and let himself be dragged off into another room. It was completely dark inside, the curtains blocking all light from the torches outside. James lit a candle in a candleholder and he was immediately bathed in a small ring of light. He held it up, letting the light shine on a full wall-to-wall-to-ceiling bookcase filled to the brim with litterature. Steve might have let out a little gasp in surprise.

 

“There’s a lot of my own personal favorites in here. You’re welcome to borrow just about anything, if you want to.”

 

Steve was lost for words. Instead of answering, he walked to the books and let his hand skim gently over the backs and worn titles. They were hard to read in the low lightening, but it didn’t matter. The sentiment behind it did. The only words on Steve’s tongue burned to be let out.

 

“It reminds me of the library back home.”

 

He hadn’t quite meant to let it sound like he still lived there, but it was the most stable home he’d ever known, despite the new one he was slowly building atop The Swan, with her Captain now dropped squarely in the middle of it.

 

James said nothing, only nodded a bit like he knew where Steve was coming from. Otherwise he was just standing there with the candle, letting it illuminate the bookcase and all its contents for Steve to admire. Finally, words seemed to return to Steve’s mind, if only just a little.

 

“Thank you. I mean it. This is … wow.”

 

His limited usage of the English language had James smiling lopsided, like he was both proud and fond of the sight in front of him. The little light provided by the candle showed a huge bed behind James as well, even bigger than the one aboard The Swan.

 

“Is this your bedroom as well?”

 

James seemingly got snatched out of his own thoughts rather violently. The man blinked a bit, clearly not having anticipated the question.

 

“What? Uhm - yes, I had all the books moved here from the depository.”

 

Steve nodded, then tilted his head in question.

 

“So … this was a ploy to get me into your second bedroom? You could have just asked.”

 

James snorted a graceless laugh, holding his hands up in mock humour.

 

“Damn it. You truly caught me there, Rogers. I was simply too fearful of thy rejection to a-.”

 

Whatever long string of sarcastic words James could muster got cut off once Steve stepped into his space, slowly taking his chin in hands and letting their lips graze. It was a hint of a thing, promising of softness and warmth. They both smiled into it, relishing in the quiet moment of only them.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“You already said that.”

 

“And I’m saying it again because I’m thankful.”

 

“Hmmm you’re welcome.”

 

James snaked his hands around Steve, holding flush against his own body, before suddenly falling backwards. It surprised Steve quite a lot, but he was held in the unrelenting grip of James’ arms. Luckily, the soft bed sheets caught them, but Steve still bounced a bit on top of the other man, who audibly displayed his dismay.

 

“Ufff. I should have thought that one more through.”

 

Steve laughed freely, more so than he could remember doing for a long time. James simply chuckled, laugh dying into a strangled sound once Steve sat himself confidently up in his lap, rocking their hips together with the movement. The sound made Steve’s heart jump a bit in excitement. He rolled his hips again, earning yet another sound together with a strong inhale. James hands flew to his hips, clasping hard. At first it was unclear if James wished the movement to stop or continue, but then he moved Steve’s hips in circles while pressing up against him. Steve groaned from deep in his throat, breath hitching and picking up. They continued like that, James’ eyes burning holes in Steve’s own with the intense want displayed in them, only for him to see and bathe in. At last, none of them could keep their lips off each other. Steve surged forwards, supporting himself on his arms on each side of James’ head as he kissed the man beneath him breathless.

 

The well known desperation was back in their movements. Steve let his tongue explore every part of James, lips and mouth, teeth biting occasionally and pulling more sweet noises from the man under him. Steve kissed James like he was dying for it. Like he wanted the other man to steal his dying breath directly from his lungs that very second. And James reciprocated with the same passion, rocking their hips together in rhythmic movements and giving as much as taking.

 

James was just as hard as Steve beneath his trousers, that much was evident from their rocketing. Steve felt his need grow and grow until the minimal skin-to-skin contact simply wasn’t enough. He wanted their bodies flush against each other, no layers in between, only skin to lick and kiss and touch. So Steve started crawling up the bed and over James, who had been rather caught up in their actions and looked both flushed and confused for a few seconds. He quickly composed himself, though, as Steve plopped himself down on his back, snaking his shirt off before lying down completely. He didn’t have to wait long. James scrambled to get his own shirt off, before he crawled fluidly up the bed until he was the one to hover over the other man. Then he kissed him again, forcefully and demanding with loud exhales and lips clashing together.

 

Steve’s hands cupped the back of James head like he held something incredibly precious. The grip quickly turned harsher though, but no less appreciative since James was now rubbing a hand over the front of Steve’s pants. Hoarse moans was ripped from his throat at the stimulation, rising in pitch as James continued the slow pace with hard strokes.

 

Ahh I - I want you in me. Please.”

 

James movements slowed at the request, then stopped completely. For a quick second, Steve thought he’d said something wrong, but James’ eyes were big in surprise with the want of burning embers desiring to burn into flames yet again. James hand were now slowly caressing Steve’s thigh with tiny circles of his thumb.

 

“You sure?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

It probably came out more desperately and breathy than he meant to, but yes he was sure. It had been so long and the want burning just under his skin was scorching. More than that, he trusted James to take care of him, to make sure he wasn’t hurting too much even in the good moments. James himself looked carefully at his expression, their eyes now able to distinguish a lot more in the dark.

 

“Alright. Hold on.”

 

And then James’ body was very quickly missing from atop Steve, who found himself shivering in the lack of heat. The other man was fumbling with  something in a drawer at the other end of the room, fishing up what looked like a wooden box. Steve sat up on the bed, furrowing his brows at the little box, apparently of metal instead of wood, when James handed it to him.

 

“What’s this?”

 

“It’s coconut oil. It’ll make it a lot easier.”

 

It took a couple of seconds for Steve’s brain to remember exactly what the oil were supposed to make easier.

 

“I’ve never tried it with oil before.”

 

Now it was James’ brows that furrowed deeply.

 

“Really? What did you use then?”

 

“Uhm … Not really anything. Spit?”

 

Now James eyes grew even fucking bigger, half in shock, half in sympathy. He placed the box on the nightstand quickly before returning his worried glance to Steve.

 

“God, Steve. That must have hurt a whole lot. I promise it won’t hurt nearly as much with this.”

 

James words were calming a big part of the newly arriving nerves Steve was sporting. He did remember that it had hurt a whole lot the first time, but it had gotten better and better with time. His partner hadn’t been very good at opening him up first. Although that was a long time ago and Steve was not living in the past any longer. Now he was in bed with this incredibly considerate man, who had been slowly learning Steve’s tells and likes the last few weeks.

 

“Alright.”

 

He answered. Now completely sure of his choice, he reached up and pulled James the rest of the way up the bed and on top of him again. The other man kissed Steve gently, like he wanted to reassure him and that was not what Steve wanted at the moment. He wasn’t made of glass and the buzzing nerves were now replaced with a surefast energy. Steve wanted to quite frankly be devoured by the man above him and he wasn’t going to wait patiently for it. His legs swiftly wrapped around James’ hips and grinded upwards, and at the same time, Steve pulled the other man down into a real kiss, all tongue and teeth. He gladly swallowed the loud surprised gasp and moan he received for his troubles.

 

James luckily caught up quick, now rolling his hips down into Steve’s, which were trapped between the bed and the hard, smooth body above.

 

“Come on. Fuck me. Please.”

 

Steve’s request was met with another frantic roll of hips, as well as a gutteral possessive growl. James sat up so quickly that Steve dropped his legs from the man’s hips. Luckily, James was merely attacking Steve’s trousers like they’d personally wronged him for existing. James’ own pants were soon bunched up on the floor together with Steve’s and finally, God finally, there was no cloth between them. Steve’s hands wandered down James’ sides, relishing a little too much at the shudder he received, on his hips, back and finally settled on cupping the man’s shoulder blades. The form above him was all smooth, warmth, and hard yielding muscle, encasing Steve and making him feel safe and so, so turned on at the same time.

 

James kissed his way down Steve’s body, mouth catching a nipple on the way, sucking on it and maken Steve pant harder with pleasure. When he reached Steve’s stomach and the aching cock just waiting to be touched, he simply kissed the tip gently and looked up.

 

“You want me to stretch you? Or do you want to do it yourself?”

 

“You. I want you.”

 

Steve answered, not a single ounce of doubt in his mind or tone. Those fingers felt so good in his hair, on his skin, around his cock. How would they feel inside of him? Just as good? Or maybe even better. Steve was almost dying to find out. James nodded at his eagerness, the want burning in his eyes a little brighter at the reply. He reached for the metal box on the nightstand and scooped a bit up.

 

“It might be cold at first.”

 

James warned, looking for signs of regret on Steve’s face one last time before dipping his fingers between Steve’s legs. The oil was indeed cold, but it posed no problem because Steve was soon distracted by a single digit prodding and pressing at his entrance. The finger slid in smoothly and slowly, Steve grunting softly at the slight stretch. It went in so easy, no shuffling or repositioning. Steve sighed quietly, closing his eyes for a couple of seconds only to open them and see James smile down at him. A soft thing momentarily replacing the desire, like Steve was precious and important, not just another warm body in James’ bed. Like Steve was giving him a very cherished gift by letting James take care of him.

 

Steve shifted his hips a bit. Feeling the single digit rub against his insides forced a breathy moan from his lips, which only served to call back the darkness in James’ eyes. The finger started to pull out, only to press back in a second later, prodding at his insides and curling deliciously. The sensations burning through him like waves of molten stone only intensified when James prodded closer and closer to a certain mark inside of him. It felt like he was being teased on the very edge of promised pleasure, but being denied in the most cruel of ways. Then, a single harsh press directly in that spot left Steve shouting out into the dark room. James looked unusually pleased with himself, like a cat who caught the biggest goldfish in the private pond.

 

“Good?”

 

Steve’s head was spinning a little too much to answer properly at the moment, so he settled for a short nod and a breathy ‘yeah’.

 

“Good.”

 

James declared. A second finger pressing against Steve’s rim a mere second later. This one stretched him more, but a certain previously sharp pain was still lacking completely. Again, Steve was taken aback by the smoothness of the glide inside him and the pleasure that followed. Now James was actively pressing at the glorious spot inside of him, circling it and scissoring his fingers as well, effectively leaving Steve a panting mess of exposed nerves on the sheets. The pressure behind his groin was building, but this time the feeling of oncoming bliss was deeper, more profound and all-consuming than ever before. A third finger was prodding and asking for entrance. This time, the stretch was harder to take, but Steve was still riding on the high of not being in any specific pain whatsoever. James went slow as well, only pressing more in as soon as he felt that Steve’s body was ready for it.

 

Steve soon realised that the feeling of three whole fingers moving inside him felt better than two. The feeling possibly only being bested by having James inside of him. The man above him moved slow, took care of Steve so well, but the want in his eyes didn’t portray the same patience. He was clearly holding back the question for Steve, making sure he was well prepared instead of thinking of his own needs. James cock was still achingly hard between his legs though, twitching occasionally when Steve let out an especially enthuastic moan.

 

Ahh, oh … Come on. I’m ready.”

 

James’ eyes flickered back up, meeting Steve’s eyes once more.

 

“You sure?”

 

“Yeah, please .”

 

James naturally couldn’t deny him anything then and Steve saved that information in his lust-hazed brain for later. The other man moved up Steve’s body, placing featherlight kisses on his way and pulling shudders from Steve’s body with each one. James reached for the night table yet again and slicked himself up. Before Steve could properly absorb anything else but the strength and power in which the body above him moved with, James was lining up and silently  checking in once again. The blunt head was pressing gently against his rim, not nearly enough to breach him, but still very much present. Steve nodded gently, head falling back at the stretch he received for it. James’ cock finally slipped past the head, the stretch spreading and softening to a dull ache, much like the one Steve still felt building. James let out a strained groan as he glided all the way in, placing soft kisses along Steve’s throat and shoulder. Steve’s arms wrapped around the man above him with lightning speed once they started moving. The heavy drag of James inside of him making him see stars behind his eyelids.

 

James pulled almost all the way out, before pressing in achingly slow, then repeated. He was still holding back and Steve was having none of it. Yet again, he wrapped his legs around James hips, pulling him back towards his own body and making the cock inside him grind up against his walls. They both let out a surprised groan at the feeling, James giving him a dirty glance before picking up the speed. Steve’s legs only clenched harder, James now finally changing the angle slightly and grazing that perfect spot inside of him that begged to be touched. Steve’s moans slowly got more high pitched, James’ groans more strained. Their bodies lying as close as physically possible, sharing heat and breathing the same air over and over again.

 

James brought Steve’s pleasure to a new high with every thrust, arousal like thorns and butterflies deep in his stomach, prickling and fluttering. Steve felt like he was drowning in the best of ways, in the body above him and the intense pleasure James so quickly offered, nervousness and cation long gone. Both their movements turned frantic, almost primal in their search for release. James bit down a groan in Steve’s shoulder, leaving a bright red mark and several moans in his wake. The kiss Steve reached up for was wet and desperate in a whole new way, stealing the breath from his lungs.

 

Steve’s hands wandered everywhere as James’ thrusts came quick, the pleasure threatening to burn him up alive. His arms finally rested around his lover, a single hand clutching at the back of James’ neck, curling in the hairs there and pulling. The glorious drag of James inside of him only became more acute with every thrust, like Steve was an exposed nerve taking whatever James was willing to give. The pressure and heat in his stomach grew to almost painful highs, but Steve barely reached for his own cock before James was there for him, pumping up and down in a solid grip. Steve arched his back, the stimulation he didn’t know he’d craved for so long was now finally being granted to him. It didn’t take long after that. Steve’s body was twitching and moving beneath James, trapped between two points of endless pleasure. James kissed him then, filthy and uncoordinated, but nevertheless perfect. Steve came, sharing the same breath as his lover and swallowing his groans like they were his own. His entire body went rigid, muscles tensing and back arching. All his arousal and pent up pleasure was released at once, leaving Steve spiralling as wave upon wave of mind-numbing bliss settled deep into his bones. His cock spurted white between them, James slowing down slightly to accommodate Steve’s sensitivity. He thrusted a few time more, harder and deeper, before coming. Steve could do little more than whimper out his ebbing bliss, catching the man above him once he damn near collapsed.

 

They lay wrapped in each other’s arms for a while, breaths turning more even and sweat cooling. Then James looked up at Steve, who gave him a lazy, tired smile in response. James’ hair was a mess from where Steve had pulled at it and he suspected his own to be no better. Still, there was a safe silence between them, until both started chuckling softly, not quite believing the intensity of what had just conspired between them.

__________________________________

 

Steve could do nothing but watch in shock and horror as James face contorted into a wide cheshire grin, his eyes squeezed together in glee and creating small wrinkles in the corners. It was as if time was going too slow as Steve could do nothing about the loud peel of laughter erupting forcefully from the other man.

 

“Oh, God! Please say it ain’t so. Steve, please!”

 

James was clutching at his stomach, writhing on the bed and getting completely caught up in the mess of sheets around them. Steve gave him an evil look and a single comment of ‘shut up’, which only drowned in James’ very audible mirth.

 

“Oh no. You’re serious! This is too good to be true.”

 

Steve was seriously regretting ever answering the stupid question to begin with. A sneaky plan started forming in his head and at the next bout of wild laughter, Steve planted his foot securely on James’ hip and pushed . With an undignified yelp, the notorious James Barnes went down and off the bed, landing with a hollow thump on the wooden floor, taking the majority of the bedding with him. A few seconds of silence was all Steve was able to buy himself, because another deep chuckle came from the mess of sheets and human limbs on the floor mere moments after. And it escalated into bark of laughter when James apparently had absorbed his new situation well enough to remember what happened just before.

 

“I really really regret ever telling you that.”

 

“OH! But Steve! The stable boy? Of all people? You were fucking the stable boy?”

 

“You asked me who I’d been with before and I answered you.”

 

Steve’s cheeks were turning a slight pink at the crass language mixed with the topic of conversation. He peeked over the edge of the bed and saw James clearly accepting of his place on the floor. His arm was slung over his eyes casually, his stomach still rippling with deep laughter.

 

Ahhhhhhh . A roll in the hay indeed.”

 

Steve turned completely silent at that comment, cheeks and ears going even more red. James, who had previously been chuckling at his own antics, removed his arm and peeked up at Steve. It took not even a second for James to catch up, another peel of high-pitched laughter erupting.

 

“OH NO! No you didn’t! In the hay?!

 

“No! I mean …”

 

Steve’s false protests only spurred James on. He was now writhing on the floor, legs kicking in uncontained excitement for Steve’s embarrassment. This hell never seemed to end. Steve had been so starved of life experiences back then, stubbornness and a raging crush spurring him on. It had been wild, but short. James laughter slowly ebbed out, tremors still shaking through the man’s body.

 

“It was fun alright? Less fun when your step-father catches you, admittedly.”

 

A shocked face popped up from behind the bed, James’ face stricken as if he had gotten caught doing something he absolutely shouldn’t be.

 

“Oh no …”

 

“Even less fun when he blackmails you to sign away you legal rights to his homestead and leave.”

 

Steve was really just fucking with James by now. He’d settled himself with the ridiculousness of the situation a long time ago. But this was a rather fun way of getting back at the man for finding Steve’s youthful exploring so laughable. And on the plus side, James’ expression really was something. He still looked absolutely overcome by the turn of conversation, his hair a wild bundle where the ends were just touching his shoulders. Now it was Steve’s turn to laugh heartily, James giving him the stink eyes from his position on the floor.

 

“Damn it Steve, now i feel bad.”

 

“Don’t. I’ve learnt to accept it more or less. Plus, if it hadn’t happened I’d never be here.”

 

He gestured slowly to the bed he was still lying in, propped up on his elbow to properly look down at James. Said man smiled timidly before climbing back in the bed and and quite literally wrapping himself around Steve like the very thought of him not being there was despicable.

 

“That’s probably true.”

 

James simply answered, smiling again before sneaking his hand, which had previously been resting on the cold wooden floor, right up against Steve’s ribs. Steve squealed rather undignified, body squirming in attempt to get away from the cold onslaught. James was persistent though and in the midst of twitching and writhing bodies, they’d found themselves a fire both big and warm enough for two.

__________________________________

 

Later in the morning, after they’d eaten breakfast together, James had matters to attend to. More precisely he needed the full update on how his little hideout had been doing in the months where he hadn’t been here. He’d offered Steve to take advantage of the full blown library in the bedroom, which Steve didn’t have the heart to turn down. So after he’d combed through a god portion of Greek Mythology as well as some Shakespeare, Steve was starting to get bored. He knew James to be in the depository, which apparently lay in the other end of the house, so venturing out a bit wouldn’t disturb the meeting there too much.

 

He walked out into the dining room, the same he’d been in last night and again this morning for breakfast. James evidently had a maid, since the meal had been set up for them in advance. That man never seized to surprise Steve.

 

The large doors on each side of the large dining table were open, leading to the terrace and letting in air from outside. Steve followed the sounds of the ocean, quickly finding himself looking out over the village from the high vantagepoint of the mansion’s porch. Yet again, he spotted the fields being taken care of, birds circling over the farmers’ heads. Considering Great Inagua to be a pirate hideout was rather difficult when seeing its beautiful exterior, as well as the people living in it. The farmers, carpenters, all the ordinary people going about their normal lives like they’d been taken out of any small village up North America’s east coast. Steve liked it here, he truly did, and he’d not even spent an entire day in this sanctuary-like refuge.

 

Steve took a small walk around the house, spotting another smaller building in the trees and filling the information for later use. Another day he might be able to explore, but he also wanted to be back when James finished his meeting. With that thought in mind, he returned to reading in the bedroom, but not before giving the blue sky and beautiful bay underneath the mansion another appreciative glance.

__________________________________

 

“Steve?”

 

Half an hour later, James was calling Steve’s name from the dining room. Steve had been listening to the approaching footsteps and knew James wasn’t alone. He quickly put away his latest findings of books on the beautifully decorated night table and followed James voice.

 

Just outside James’ quarters, Steve was med by the sight of his lover talking quietly with the dark haired woman Steve had been told simply went by Aunt May. He smiled at her, only slightly worried she’d ask into why he’d find himself in James’ quarters in the first place. She reached out her hand for Steve to take.

 

“Hello, my name is May. So nice to meet you.”

 

Steve shook her hand, not at all surprised by the firmness in her grip.

 

“I’m Steve. And the pleasure is all mine.”

 

May chuckled a bit at that. Her bright face lighting up even brighter.

 

“I wanted to thank you personally for the drawing of Peter you did. He gave it to me yesterday and I think it might just help me worry a little less for him. You’re truly a talented artist.”

 

Steve stammered for a bit at the praise, ears turning pink as he scratched the back of his own neck.

 

“Eh - I mean thank you. It was just a small sketch really.”

“The smallest things can make the biggest difference, Steve.”

 

Aunt May winked at him, her tone light as air and kind as a cooling breeze. Steve blush just bloomed all the more for it. James looked absolutely delighted.

 

“Anyways, I won’t keep you both any longer. It’s nice to finally have you back again James.”

 

“It’s good to finally be back.”

 

James replied easily, smiling crookedly as May waved a goodbye at both of them before heading out the door. Then, James turned to Steve.

 

“Not one for flatter huh?”

 

“Shut up.”

 

Steve answered, voice lacking venom altogether. Sketching was a very personal thing for him and he rarely showed anyone his works. James has already seen loads, he reminded himself. Back when all the men of The Triumph had their personal belongings confiscated. God, that seemed years away from now. Setting those thoughts aside, Steve had a whole other set of questions just waiting to be asked.

 

“Aren’t you afraid she’ll tell the others I was here? And in your bedroom nonetheless?”

 

James was walking past Steve, into the bedroom and started searching through a couple of drawers for some new clothing.

 

“No, why would I be?”

 

“Well, if people found out about us, especially the crew … someone might get angry.”

 

The mere thought made Steve’s stomach churn uncomfortably. Having the business of who he slept with or not publicly discussed maliciously between people he knew was the very last thing he’d want for himself and James. The latter furrowed his brows in confusion.

 

“The crew?”

 

“Yes, the crew. If they knew they might …”

 

“Steve, the crew already knows.”

 

An ice cold weight spread through Steve’s body, swift like an oncoming winter. He was gaping, but the only thought that filled his head in that moment mirrored the one from two and a half years ago. He had been told he was something unnatural, something not worth knowing or caring about and he’d pull other people down with him in his fall. Now, James would be in trouble with his crew. He might be voted out of his position as Captain, he …

 

“Hey! Steve? It’s okay.”

 

James voice shook Steve out of the dark place in his mind he’d disappeared into. His hands were cupping Steve’s cheeks, thumb slowly stroking and all Steve could see was the worried lines of James’ face.

 

“But … they know.”

 

“Yes Steve. They know but they don’t care.”

 

Now it was Steve’s eyebrows that pulled together in confusion. The heavy weight in his gut was a little lighter with James this close.

 

“They- they don’t care?”

 

“No Steve, they really don’t.”

 

“But … people always care.”

 

The lines of concern in James’ face turned harder and angrier. His tone was laced with something bitter, as if the words in themselves tasted foul.

 

“People can mind their own fucking business. If anyone on my crew believes my personal interests makes me a worse Captain, they can challenge me for the position.”

 

Steve’s mind tried to come up with a name of a crewmember of The Black Swan that would have that much courage. No name popped up. The thought in itself was laughable. If anyone were to complain about whatever The Captain did in his spare time, the Quartermaster/First Mate, the Boatswain, the Master Gunner or the Sailing Master would surely punch them in the jaw before any serious trouble would occur.

 

“Okay?”

 

“Okay.”

 

James declared, like a promise. The uncomfortable churning of Steve’s gut slowly stopped, trusting the word of the man in front of him.

 

“Nothing can be held a secret on The Swan for a long period of time. But the crew, the men I’ve chosen … we’ve all done things to be on a pirate ship you know? And what we’re doing here? Between us? That’s so far from the worst of it.”

 

Relief flooded Steve’s entire body, all the while it truly hit him how different the normal world was to the one James Barnes had created for his crew and creed. If they could live like this free of judgement like James claimed, then Steve wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the cold world surrounding them.

__________________________________

 

“Come on! Don’t be so slow!”

 

Steve shouted from atop his high horse. Literally. Steve was on a horse. It was even James’ horse and the man had somehow managed to coerce James into taking the other one. Daring was probably a better word. For the first time in a very long time, James felt completely out of his depth on this large animal. Steve, who had quickly proved to be an excellent rider, had apparently spotted the stables in which James stored the horses he’d once stolen from an English merchant square rigged galleon. It hadn’t been planned at all, but Rumlow had plainly refused to take them and James didn’t have a cold enough heart to leave them to starve. He just hadn’t really gotten around to selling them yet, which was now biting him very much in the ass.

 

“Fuck you!”

 

James shouted back, only receiving a hearty laugh for his efforts. He hadn’t gone riding since his childhood and a lot could evidently be forgotten since then. Steve had ventured the jungle the last days, their stay now counting almost two weeks, and he’d found a relatively dry river delta,which just so happened to be the current place for this little shit show of an adventure. Steve, the fucker, was cantering around him in small circles, his mare bowing her neck beautifully.

 

“I can’t believe a horse was all to make the notorious James Barnes uncomfortable.”

 

“I’m not uncomfortable.”

 

James said uncomfortably. The reigns seemed too long. Were they too long? Could he even control this horse at all? Sadly, there was only one way to find out.

 

“Prove it then.”

 

Steve said at last, taking off in a hasty gallop across the large delta on his white mare while looking like every fairytale princess’ wet dream. What of the stirrups? Too long or not long enough? James had literally no way of knowing. James was, in his very discontented state, almost regretting asking Steve to temporarily move into the mansion during their stay in Great Inagua. Almost. To James’ surprise, Steve had looked at him for several seconds, pleasant surprise read easily of his face, before cheerfully agreeing. James had blushed a tiny bit back then and the unfamiliar colour was returning at the mere thought.

 

“Fuck it.”

 

He grumbled, tensing his thighs to at least stay on the beast under him. If he fell off he’d be sure to never hear the end of it. With that thought nailed to his mind, James pressed his heels slightly into the horse’s flank. It snorted, evidently a bit annoyed at this entire affair. You and me both, buddy , James thought briefly, before the horse beneath him started moving in a light trot. James was bumping up and down like a sack of flour, reigns held too high while hectically trying to remember what Steve had told him. Reigns low. Grip with your thighs and wrap them around the saddle, use the stirrups as support. Then, follow the horse’s movements.

 

Easier said than done. James tried his best to wrap around and make himself heavy, but he continued bouncing a bit until he loosened his hips a bit. From then it went relatively smoothly. James kept to a steady trot, following Steve, who was already very far away towards the other end of the delta. Steve steered his horse back around to meet James in the middle.

 

“You’re doing quite well.”

 

And James almost doesn’t snap grumpily at the ridiculously attractive and godsent picture of Steve Rogers with windswept hair and a boyish grin splitting his face almost in two. But then again, he has a pride and ego to maintain.

 

“Go jump from a cliff, Rogers.”

 

“Nah, I think your bed would miss me. You’d be all cold in the dead of night.”

 

Damn the man. James stammered a bit, opened his mouth in scandal to throw back an equally heinous comment, but nothing came out. How the fuck could this man be proud as a damn peacock that he was fucking James, only to be turned into a blushing mess once receiving simple praise from his art? James yet again found himself baffled in the face of Steve Rogers, but it was far from the first time and most likely, it wouldn’t be the last. James pressed his legs against the horse’s flank, ignoring yet another disapproving snort from the creature, before steering towards Steve. No one can claim James Barnes a coward, even in the face of sitting astride a very large animal for a very complicated reason. Said reason being Steve Rogers.

Chapter Text

Steve couldn’t find James anywhere. He’d woken up to an empty bed and a young messenger at the door, knocking hastily to announce that The Scavenger was in port. The young man had looked rather befuddled at finding Steve in James Barnes’ bed instead of James himself. It hadn’t posed a problem though, just like James had promised.


Steve was looking forward to seeing Kidd and Romanoff again, but his lover was still very much missing and Steve was determined to find him before anything else. The dining room was empty, without traces of breakfast having been served at all. Steve wandered further into the depository, a huge room with crates and barrels lining the walls and surrounding the support pillars everywhere. Opposite the door sat a huge desk on a little space of elevated floor with a few steps leading to it. But its owner was not sitting and planning out economics and payouts to his crew, like Steve had found James doing in the last two weeks of him living in The Captain’s mansion. The giant room was completely empty of any presence but Steve’s own, so he continued to the kitchen.


Having searched the entire house, Steve was getting a little worried. It was stupid, really. James was more than capable of handling himself and he’d probably just gone for a walk. Steve had done that several mornings while the sun was not yet beating down heavily. Still, Steve headed out of the house, looking around for the most plausible route James had taken. Around the stables maybe? Behind them? Steve walked in that direction, quickly peeking in and stroking the few horses in there, being met with a affectionate neigh from the stalls in return. The small path behind the stables led longer into the jungle. They had followed the same path yesterday to get to the flood delta, but it was admittedly easier to make the trip on foot than on horseback, much less getting tangled in vegetation.


The trail split up longer ahead and Steve went right, the opposite of what they’d done yesterday. Continuing along the path, he almost instantly noticed the sound of water falling on stone. The sound only intensified as Steve walked further ahead and soon, the waterfall showed itself behind thick trunks and hanging leaves. There, Steve found who he was looking for, standing naked under the falling stream on stones sure to be slippery. James clothes lay on a fallen tree at a distance, so the cloth wouldn’t be wet. The entire cocoon of trees creating this tiny little piece of heaven was almost unreal. Like taken directly from one of the fairytales Steve had read out loud to James until the man had fallen asleep on him last night. It took Steve several moments before moving again. The place and the man it in, somehow fitting in perfectly, simply too breathtaking to ignore. James was washing himself with his back turned, which Steve fully intended to utilise.


Stepping on light feet all the way over to the fallen tree trunk, Steve quietly stripped. His clothes ended up folded beside James’. As soon as Steve’s feet hit stone, it was much easier to keep his steps quiet. The waterfall was rather noisy and probably the main reason why James hadn’t noticed him yet. He continued until he was practically standing right behind James, whose hands were carding through his own hair to wash it. Steve wanted desperately to replace those hands with his own. James’ shoulders fell and rose with his breaths, making Steve want to touch even more. But at the same time, startling a man with that amount of hand-to-hand combat skills might not be the best idea. Steve didn’t wanna get hit. Or stabbed. Technically James might have a knife near. Still, it would be sorta funny, on the expense of own body and mind.


“Please don’t stab me.”


The only sign of shock James gave was a sharp inhale and a barely there tensing of his muscles. Steve only noticed the latter because he’d been studying James’ powerful body and its tells for weeks now. James hands had stilled and was now leaving his hair as the man turned around.


“Why would I stab you?”


“You never know with reflexes like yours.”


“Hmmm.”


James hummed, stepping in close and finally dragging Steve into the spray, a lopsided smirk tugged at his lips. The water beat down around them in thick streams and sharp droplets, the temperature much warmer than Steve had anticipated. James’ head was slightly tilted upwards, lips inches apart from Steve’s and still stretched in a smile that could mean pain or pleasure however well you interpreted it.


“And what kind of instincts might that be?”


James never quite got an answer. Steve settled for letting their lips meet in a strong kiss, effectively telling the other man exactly how missed he’d been that morning. Their tongues danced lightly over each other, pressing lips and insistent minds colliding.


“No but seriously, could you possibly have stabbed me accidentally?”


“Well … I would have to get to the knife in order for that to happen.”


“So you did bring a knife.”


Steve turned away a bit and looked for the blank blade before he could stop himself, but came up short. When he turned around, he saw the unusually amused expression on James face. Steve sent him a very dirty look.


“Of course I didn’t, Steve. This is my island.”


“Not if you ask the British Government.”


“But I won’t. So shut up.”


With those final words,  James pulled Steve back into another kiss. Steve’s hands quickly wandered up James’ hips to his sides and further up to frame his face gently, but still firm enough to control and tilt the man’s face whenever he needed better access. The wet slide of their mouths held a special place in Steve’s heart, as had the feeling of James’ hands wandering over his body, curious and anticipating. James skin was chilled from the water, but still warm enough for Steve’s own body to search for condolement from the harsh spray in it. Steve was just as drenched as James now, his hair clinging wetly to his forehead. The tresses was only guided back by the water when James sweeped them back and away from his face. A single arm slid around Steve’s midriff, pulling slightly and pressing their bodies flush against each other. James body slided along Steve’s like it was formed specifically for that purpose. Like the existence of their physicalities was aligned as illuminating stars on a dark night.  


The kiss turned deeper, each of them craving and demanding more of the other. Taking and giving more with each swipe of tongue and hint of teeth. James was growing hard against him and Steve’s own body mirrored the reaction with precision. But before he could do anything about it, James beat him to it. A single hand wandered downwards and came to rest low on Steve’s hip, frustratingly close to his cock that needed only a little bit attention to become fully hard. James fingertips skimmed over skin in featherlight touches towards where Steve needed him most, then dancing around in a slow tease.


Steve inhaled sharply as James’ fingers pressed light shapes back and up his shaft, stopping and giving the head a little extra attention. Tiny pinpricks of pleasure spread through Steve’s body, alight and burning like fireflies. The teasing touches were exactly that, yet unhurried and undemanding. James clearly took his time while Steve turned hard and needy beneath his skilled fingers. At last Steve couldn’t take the teasing and the desire to touch every inch of James at the same time. One hand snaked around the other man, while the other went directly to James aching cock resting up against Steve’s hip. James let out a breathy, needy moan, broken up and so damn filthy it took definitive effort for Steve not to come on the spot. He returned a shaky one of his own, choking on it as James hand wrapped around him and gave one firm stroke.


Steve’s skin was on fire, his insides and face as well, all alight with the hottest fire imaginable. His shoulders were practically numb from the streams of water beating down on them constantly, but he didn’t care. His mind was solely concentrated on the rough pressure and drag of James’ hand on his cock, the man’s hand holding possessively at the small of his back. James was all silky smoothness in his hand, his body responding perfectly to Steve’s every ministration in a way that had proven addictive too damn fast for his heart to truly comprehend. All he could taste was James and the water around them, dripping down in the tiny space sometimes emerging between their lips. Steve didn’t have to open his eyes to know that James was gorgeous at this moment. With thick drops and tiny streams of water gliding smoothly down his skin, gathering in the gaps between his muscles, in his clavicle. The water playing with the long strands as plush goosebumps erupted across the man’s skin. Steve could easily lose himself in this, in the water’s chill and his lover’s body. This little cocoon created a whole tiny world around them as hands continued to move and press in the best of ways.


James groaned and rested his head in defeat on Steve’s shoulder, thrusting into Steve’s hand swallowly, like he didn’t quite wanna break the slow pace, but simply couldn’t help himself. Steve turned his head and smiled against the side of James’ neck, giving an insistent stroke and basking in the groan he received for his enjoyable troubles. The light kisses he placed on James’ neck seemed as natural as breathing. Steve treasured every tiny sigh, every surprised sound when the angle was changed or when he let his thumb rub at the head of James’ cock.


At some point, James raised his head and pulled Steve into a kiss stronger than any current, long and languid. Steve’s head was still spinning once James came to a halt, simply resting his lips on Steve’s with a content sigh. He thrusted into Steve’s hand and gasped open-mouthed and needy directly into his lover’s mouth. Steve swallowed it with his next breath as if the sound was only for them to hear and no one else. Their pace quickened slightly, Steve reaching down to take them both in his right hand. James choked on a groan, his hand flying to wrap around both their cocks beside Steve’s. Their bodies moved fluidly in waves, constantly moving to accommodate the other and never crashing. Now it was James’ turn to place featherlight kisses against Steve’s throat, whispering praises and promises into his skin as he went. Steve tilted his head back to ease the other man’s access. The heat low in his belly were violent waves of molten gold threatening to spill over at any moment and not to be cooled by the waterfall.


James was no better. The man thrusted erratically  into their combined hands once, twice, before coming with a broken whine into Steve’s neck, the vulnerability of it shuddering through Steve until he followed not long after.


It took several moments for both of them to recover from the onslaught of pleasure and sensation. The water cleaned them up quickly and by then, both of them had had enough of the water beating down and drowning out most sounds around them.


They sat and air-dried on a stone which had been warmed by the sun, basking a bit in the warmth of its surface.


“I didn’t know where you’d gone. I was a little worried.”


Steve finally admitted quietly. James’ eyes snapped to his, face confused and perplexed.


“I told you I headed out early.”


Steve’s brows furrowed.


“When?”


“This morning. Maybe you weren’t quite awake, but you answered so I figured you’d remember.”


“I probably just answered so you’d let me sleep.”


James barked a laugh, his eyes shining with mirth.


“Well it’s not my fault you’re grumpy in the mornings.”


“Am not.”


“I beg to differ. Besides, I don’t mind too much that you came to find me.”


“Good to know.”


James leaned over and placed a lingering kiss on Steve’s lips. The moss was soft and yielding beneath their naked bodies. All noises from the surrounding jungle and waterfall went ignored, James looming over him slightly, his arms bracketing Steve’s hips. The kiss evolved again, just like previously, but this time Steve really did have to deliver the message he’d been given. Steve took James’ chin in his hand, halting the man’s movements just as the glimmer in his eyes turned to the mischievous side.


“No more of that, my good Sir.”


James snorted unattractively, a clear question accompanied with slightly contained want in his eyes.


“Why not?”


“Because I came here to tell you that The Scavenger docked in his excellency's harbour more than an hour ago.”


It took several seconds for James to absorb that information with a dumbfounded expression. Then, he sprang from the log towards their clothes. Steve followed him with an amused expression, only half dressed once James was ready to leave. Soon they were heading back through the jungle.


“Soooo … what’s that reaction about?”


Steve asked, observing James through the corner of his eye.


“If I’m not there when Natasha gets to the mansion because I’m with you, I will never hear the end of it.”


“Does she know about us?”


“She will very soon. And not because we tell her.”


That was a cryptic answer if Steve’s ever heard one. Still, he trusted James and Romanoff, perhaps also Kidd. The mansion was soon in their sights. Steve spotted The Scavenger lying docked in the harbour nice and secure before they entered through the wise doors of the mansion. They arrived too late. Kidd was already perched on top of the dining table, Romanoff leaning against the nearest support pillar looking annoyed. James went up to her, trying for a normal approach.


“Natalia! Sorry I was …”


A single hand shot up in the air, cutting him off. Romanoff stared at Steve, then her eyes wandered between them several times. Steve couldn’t shake the feeling of being utterly transparent to her eye. Somehow he’d almost forgot she was easily capable of such a thing. When she talked, it was clipped and stripped of emotion or context.


“The depository, James. Now.”


James’ shoulders slumped, not unlike a child about to be scolded. Except this was a grown man wanted for piracy in The Colonies as well as Great Britain and Steve knew of the strength hidden behind every corner of his persistence. It would have been funny if not for Romanoff always being more or less terrifying. They both disappeared into the depositary, leaving a baffled Steve and a half-amused James Kidd on the table. Kidd let out a low whistle and smacked his lips together.


“Good thin’ it ain’t me for once.”


“What’s going on.”


“I could ask ya’ the same, buddy. You and James, huh?”


Steve could feel the colour in his cheeks rise to the surface by being figured out so quickly. Kidd didn’t seem to be malicious by any means, he was simply asking a question he already knew the answer to. Steve had missed this man’s accent and demeanor despite the uncomfortable situation.


“Yeah.”


“Marvellous. Well, in tha’ case, I don’t hope good ol’ James is being torn apar’ back there.”


“What did Romanoff want to talk about?”


“She’s probably scolding him for rushing into things he might not be able to finish.”


“What do you mean?”


Kidd shuffled a bit on top of the table, resting a booted foot on a chair beneath. Never had Steve seen the man even slightly out of his element, but now James Kidd seemed almost … a bit uncomfortable? He dared not confirm.


“Look. Natasha. She protects her friends. Whether they’d like it or not. And even if that means protecting them from her other friends.”


“I’m … I’m a friend?”


“You wouldn’t be here if ya weren’t, pal. And Barnes … well, he’s usually not the settler. Nat’s not protecting your honour here believe me, but she wants to know if he’s gonna be an asshole about this.”


So Romanoff was protecting his heart? His feelings? Making sure James wasn’t planning on dumping him after he’d gotten what he wanted out of their little affair? The thought was directly ridiculous, but still, Steve felt a new wave of appreciation for Natasha Romanoff. Steve never necessarily thought of him and James as temporary. He had never imagined a clock ticking away in the background as they lay in bed together. Still, this entire arrangement was never confirmed permanent or serious in any way and Steve had never thought it to be. It was square in the middle of some kind of indefinity.


Before Steve could think much more about the issue, James and Romanoff emerged from the depository. James looked rather sheepish despite him trying to hide it. Romanoff’s features were just as steely as when they’d left, but once she approached Steve, her cold demeanor gained a humorous edge. She punched Steve on the arm rather hard, then cracked a smile. Steve managed to believe that she was somewhat happy for them, before Romanoff sauntered into the other bedroom of the mansion, door on the other side of the large decorative fireplace. Kidd jumped elegantly from the table before following, giving the other James a sympathetic look. Steve was very confused, but James looked like he was scolding himself for not seeing it coming.


“So…”


Steve started, leaving it to James whether the sentence needed to be finished or not. The other man kept quiet, still stewing in Romanoff’s words perhaps. He did pierce Steve with a sharp glare though.


“Care to share?”


James grumbled a string of highly unpleasant words before leaving hastily. Steve couldn’t help but laugh at the look of utter discontent on James’ features as he left.

__________________________________


James blew the strands out of his face for the thousandth time in the mere hour he’d been working in the depository. He was sitting at his desk, Steve perched up behind him in the wide windowsill, using the light streaming through the windows to work on yet another sketchpiece. A couple of days ago, he’d given James a beautiful pencil sketch of The Black Swan in Great Inagua harbour, the sun setting behind her. James had been silent for several seconds, trying to figure out how best to convey the immense gratitude he’d felt flow through his body. At last he’d thanked his lover, eyes never leaving the delicate lines spreading across the paper.


He blew at a new strand, which also had managed to escape the bun he’d put his hair in. James could feel Steve’s raised eyebrow from his spot at the desk. The man chose to stay silent though.


“God, long hair is insufferable sometimes.”


Steve scoffed humorously. Shuffling a bit on his ass in the sunlit windowsill.


“Why are you keeping it then?”


James smile purposefully turned sultry and teasing at the same time. He turned in his chair.


“Firstly, because you’ve got an unhealthy obsession with it.”


Steve actually looked like he had the gall to protest on the matter for a second, but then he simply narrowed his eyes.


“Alright, maybe.”


“Ha!”


James exclaimed triumphantly. It was one thing knowing a fact about Steve, a whole other to get him to admit it himself.


“Fine! I like your hair. What a scandal!”


“Hmmmm.”


James leaned back in his chair, feeling very satisfied with himself. That was until yet another strand got blown into his mouth by the gentle breeze from the half open windows. He sputtered a bit while Steve, the asshole, looked on smiling.


“I have an idea. Give me your hair tie.”


James squinted his eyes suspiciously, but Steve seemed genuine and the sunlight entering behind him made his hair shine gold. He reached up and undid his hair, before giving over the thin strap of leather to a still smiling Steve. The man jumped from the windowsill and came to stand behind James’ chair.


“Turn around.”


And James found himself obeying easily, once again blindly trusting Steve Rogers. Said man started carding his fingers through his hair and James was sold immediately. He leaned his head back slightly, enjoying the light scrape of Steve’s fingers as he straightened the hair and parted it. Then, Steve started to intertwined the parted strands into a braid. At this point, James didn’t really care as long as Steve kept touching his hair, but soon the man was finished and tied the braid off with the hair tie.


“There you go!”


Steve finally said, kissing James’ cheek with finality and making him blush just a bit. He looked down at his papers again, containing lists on different economic matters of this island, and no strands brushed in his face. James smiled up at Steve.


“Where did you learn to do that?”


“Braiding? You forget I have sisters.”


James noted how Steve still considered his family’s existence in present tense. He returned to his previous position in the windowsill, tucking up his legs and getting comfortable.


“Thank you, Steve.”


“No problem.”


__________________________________


Living closely with Romanoff and Kidd truly knocked loose a secret or two. For example, one of them snored and Steve had yet to know which one. The image of it being either one was ridiculous in his mind as he lay awake some nights listening to it. Nevertheless, there were much bigger secrets in the world, one hiding just beneath a well-built disguise. It had completely knocked James’ brain from his skull, or so it seemed when the man walked into their shared bedroom.


Steve put down the book he’d been reading only to be both disturbed and humoured by the look on James’ face. The man looked like he’d been struck by a lightening, hair windswept and out from its usual ponytail or bun. His eyes flickered from the floor, to Steve and then back again, finally fastening. Steve could almost see a thousand thoughts projected on James features, his brows furrowing in disbelief and doubt. For a short moment, Steve expected the man to ask him to hit him hard over the head, just in case he was still dreaming. Then, finally, the matter arose out of James’ throat.


“Kidd … Is a woman.”


Steve burst out laughing. The book fell from his stomach and closed, but at the moment he couldn’t care less. James looked at him like he’d turned utterly and completely insane. Steve simply continued to clutch at his own sides as the other man grew more and more agitated.


“What the fuck, Steve!?”


Aaahhh … I had my suspicions.”


“You what ?!”


“Listen, no man has legs like that.”


“Legs?”


“Yes, James. Legs. Those you stand on.”


Steve had sketched too many people not to recognise when someone’s physicalities were a bit off. And sure, some people simply looked different from the norm, but Kidd was … well himself. Herself? He’d have to ask.


“Yes, I know about legs now shut up!”


James started pacing opposite of the bed all the while Steve looked on, still beyond amused by the situation. He was, however, also very interested in what scenario had left James in such ruin.


“How did you find out?”


“The bastard climbed the mill with me, cut himself and painted his lips red with his own blood. Then released his hair.”


That simply served to release a new bout of loud laughter from Steve. Kidd might just be the most dramatic of them all and that said a lot.


“This explains a lot. Natasha never showed interest in any man besides Kidd, who’s not a man… apparently.”


Said James, who still had problems fitting the thoughts in his head. That did technically make sense though. It didn’t leave James any less shocked though. The man was still pacing and mumbling to himself. It took Steve several seconds to decode the murmured words.


“Mary Read, Mary Read, Mary Read…”


Ah, so that might be Kidd’s real name. Might. Not James Kidd, not Mark Read, but Mary Read. That was certainly a line of names to be proud of. James abruptly stopped pacing and thereby caught Steve’s attention again.


“And you knew! I can’t get over that!”


“I didn’t know per say.”


“I can’t believe I didn’t see it.”


“To be fair, he was rather good at hiding it. Very good actually.”


James just grumpled and took up pacing again. After they’d stayed silent for some time, Steve grew a bit worried.


“Do you have a problem with Kidd being a woman?”


“What? N- No! I just … I don’t know. He’s one of the few people I call friend. I guess i wish I’d known sooner.”


James’ features hardened, then softened at the end of his statement. Steve was paying close attention to his features and hunched up shoulders.


“That’s fair. But he probably had his reasons.”


“Yeah … I’ll make sure to ask him about those.”


“You do that then.”


Steve got up and held his arms out. It took only a few seconds before James was in them. There they stood, hugging each other close in the fading sunlight of the day. Secrecy were and would always be a strange thing, but today it didn’t shatter any hearts. Besides, Steve asked Mary how she’d like to be addressed the day after and apparently she didn’t mind the name James Kidd one bit. As long as they only called her by her real name and pronouns when none but Steve, Romanoff and James were present.

__________________________________


They stayed in Great Inagua for a month and a half total. Steve felt as if he could fill books upon books with the feelings he now associated with the place. The long evenings lying in bed, the walks, the stables where he’d be if he wasn’t with James or reading, the waterfall they’d visited together on hot days more often than not. But the sea was where they all belonged, even after being grounded for so long. James in particular missed being at sea. Only a few days after they departed he perched right up and started chatting with his crew much more than normal. James had patted Jones on the back while he and Steve were checking the lower rigging. Jones had simply turned to Steve after The Captain had left, a grin on his face, and said;


“The Captain is in good spirit lately.”


Steve could do nothing but agree.


__________________________________


Four months went by, both as usual and as never before. Each day relatively normal, but they all served to count on a larger scale. They took some good prices, Steve learning about the different tactics of boarding a vessel from Falsworth and Dernier. That duo could blow up anything and make it look planned, Steve was sure of it. The Hydra joined the fleet after two months, having been hunting on her own before then. Luckily, Steve hadn’t been on the same ship or in the same room as Brock Rumlow in all that time. James’ smile grew with the crew’s as the monthly pay went up and every man on board could afford to live and eat a little better each time they were in port. But after exactly 4 months since Great Inagua, Steve found himself in Havana again. He’d missed the bustling streets and the life of such a large city. More specifically, he found himself wandering the streets on one side of James, Jones on the other. The people around them parted for them, James’ stance and his expensive jacket and boots enough to entertain an image of importance. They had some business to take care of in one of the city’s brothels. One Bellâcleu owned and controlled from the safe neutral lands of Tortuga. James had a lead on the spy the had infiltrated the Assassin Order or one of the crews in James’ fleet.


Apparently, a man had walked in one day and utilised their services. He’d been a previous soldier from British Navy and he’d complained about having to attack a ‘savage village’ on Cuba. Now, James wanted to interrogate him. The establishment they entered was painted in loads of exotic colours and plants and couches were lining the walls beside the bar. A tree was planted in the middle of the room, a huge fat snake lounging in its branches. Steve was beyond taken aback by the strange decoration. Luckily, James was more straight to the point. He evidently knew the leader of this particular establishment, because he strode directly up to her and without greetings, she pointed at the staircase to the basement with her pipe. James went down immediately.


Steve and Jones stayed a bit back, taking in the place and holding an eye on the basement stairs. Steve’s training was good enough for him to feel whenever a heavy set of eyes landed on him and right now, he felt the familiar tingling down his back. Turned out the brothel owner (secondary to Bellâcleu of course) was watching him intently. Steve raised an eyebrow at her and she turned away with a scoff. Whatever her problem was, it could evidently wait. Or not.


“So … you’re the reason.”


She had strided up to him steadfastly, before speaking, her voice stripped of any emotion but mild irritation. Steve had no idea what she was talking about.


“Excuse me?”


“You’re the reason James Barnes, a stable customer, chooses to come in here only for business and not for my girls … or boys.”


Steve was far too alarmed to be embarrassed. He might just be that exact reason, even though he never demanded exclusiveness of James. Maybe the man simply liked to have a lover at a time, how was Steve to know. What was far more important was why this woman specifically was asking him that question.


“How could you know a thing like that?”


“I know Jones, and you were wearing new clothes. Barnes likes to spoil. Besides, rumours run fast of a certain blond, blue-eyed right hand man. It wasn’t hard to connect the dots.”


True. It was all true. Steve was wearing clothes given to him by James. The man had started out excusing it by telling Steve they were his own clothes he didn’t like anymore, but the cloth had been unworn and was completely new. And most importantly; in Steve’s exact size. For the second part of the statement, Steve had been helping James a lot more on Creed matters the last months. Plus, he’d been fighting aside him on the boardings, always checking in on James after the fight to make sure he wasn’t hurt or needed help with anything. It was still disturbing to be read this easily, especially from a person clearly lacking manners. Steve almost snapped at her, until he noticed that the pipe she was carrying clearly contained opium. The woman was clearly high, which might just explain her directness. Instead of getting angry, Steve simply raised his eyebrow nonchalantly.


“Seems like you’ve got me.”


The brothel owner scoffed at him, then leaned in close like she was about to tell a very important secret.


“Be careful, boy. There are more bodies buried in James Barnes’ mind than in all of Havana’s graveyards combined.”


“As long as they stay dead I see no problem.”


“Oh, but they never truly do, do they?”


It was a rhetorical question. She took a drag from the pipe in her hand. Steve still didn’t like the authority with which she spoke. She’d called him boy and even though she might be middle aged, Steve was almost two heads taller than her. Still, Steve wasn’t about to make a scene out of it when on a business errand with James, so he swallowed the bitterness of being disrespected down together with the illogical chill he got from the words spoken.


“Let me tell you. There’s more love in a dead man’s arms.”


Steve’s brows furrowed. The owner of this establishment pointed towards James emerging from the basement. Then, as James came walking over, she strided away as if nothing had happened. James looked after her with a raised eyebrow in question.


“She’s high.”


Was the only thing Steve managed to say as explanation. James nodded slightly, before redirecting his attention on Steve.


“She’s really good at putting ideas into people’s heads. What did you talk about.”


“Oh, nothing in particular. I asked her about the retired soldier downstairs. Speaking of which, did you find something out?”


If James caught Steve’s change in subject he didn’t show it. He simply nodded and called Jones over.


“I’ll tell you about it on the way back to the warehouse.”


Steve nodded in return and they made their way back. They were inhabiting the same warehouse as the last time they were in Havana. James even took up the same spot under the window as last time. Steve had taken the cot beside James’. All men were sleeping in the same room so their options were limited, but sometimes Steve liked to reach out his hand only to feel James take it in the dark.


On their walk back James told them what he’d gotten out of the interrogation. Apparently, the man said his superiors had met up with the informant only a single time. Otherwise, the communication had been by letter. Apparently, one of the Officers had expressed gratitude that British Navy didn’t have to communicate with ‘savages’ or ‘slaves’. James therefore believed the snitch to have light skin. He had a hard time holding in his anger when telling Steve and Jones this. Jones’ jaw clenched in anger in tandem with Steve’s own.


The fact the leak had fair skin limited the options considerably in The Creed. Very few Assassins in these waters fit that description. It also meant that the chance for the traitor to be aboard one of the vessels under James’ command was considerably heightened. This clearly set James more on edge than the man was comfortably admitting. The information wasn’t delivered to the ordinary crew yet. There’s nothing ruining good friendships and work like potentially having a traitor onboard. Besides, being left out on secrets were almost a part of the job description for The Swan as long as James Barnes was Captain at least.


__________________________________


Steve walked the streets of Havana again later in the day. As far as he was aware, James had concluded his business for the day, which meant no more work for him today. Steve wandered around blocks and markeds for almost an hour, trying to put off what he intended to do, but at last, he found himself standing in front of Harlem, Luke Cage’s inn. His heart was trying to beat its way out of his ribcage. If he walked in there and found Sam sitting at one of the tables, no matter how small the chance, Steve wouldn’t know how to react. Would he walk over and wrap his friend in his arms? Would he beg for forgiveness he might not even want, much less deserve? It seemed a lost cause from the start.


Thinking about the past and the future wouldn’t help him in this moment, so he pushed all those thoughts of despair in the very back of his mind before entering Harlem. Everything looked normal and trivial, except there was no smiling Luke Cage at the counter. It both made Steve breathe out in relief and tense in worry. Luckily, his daughter Danielle was around. She was serving customers to Steve’s right, moving effortlessly with several cups of ale on her tray. Steve slowly approached her.


“Danielle?”


“Oh! Hi, Steve! Luke has gone on some errands I’m afraid.”


Her expression was surprised, eyes scanning behind Steve, possibly believing Sam to be nearby. Steve wished, or feared, the same. Her reaction told him that if Sam was in town, he hadn’t been to Harlem.


“That’s alright. I just wanted to check if Sam got my letter from last time?”


“Of course! I gave it to him myself, but …”


She trailed off with an expression of worry and pity.


“He seemed very upset with you.”


Steve didn’t know what to answer to that. He obviously knew Sam would be upset, if that word could even cover it. But having Danielle tell him that fact to his face hit harder than he could have prepared himself for. Judging by her expression, it had been bad.


“As he got every reason and right to be. Did he say anything otherwise?”


Sam had been here and that meant Luke probably knew the true story behind their split up, which also meant he knew Steve had lied. Steve would rather get the hell out of the man’s inn before he might show up and start asking questions. Coward move, but Steve could beat himself up over that later.

“He left and came back a couple of days later. He brought a letter for you. I’ll go get it if you want it?”


“That would be lovely, thank you.”


Steve didn’t intend to read the letter here. It would be emotionally easier to lick his wounds in the familiarity of the warehouse. Still, once he held the letter in his hands, the want to rip it open was almost too much. This was the only word he had from his friend in almost a year. Steve would take all the blame and heartbreak if it meant still being in contact with Sam.


“Luke will be back soon.”


“It’s okay, I’ll come back tomorrow.”


He lied, fully not intending to be roasted on the open fire by a man as huge as Luke Cage. A man he’d lied to directly. A friend. Maybe not anymore. You weren’t supposed to abandon and lie to your friends, yet here he was. Steve left Harlem with both a sinking and a excited feeling in his guts, the letter from Sam feeling surprisingly light in his pocket, a stark contrast to the probable weight of the words it contained.

__________________________________


Steve knew something was wrong even before he entered the warehouse. There was no sound of banter between crewmembers seeping out from the tightly closed shutters. None at all. His suspicions only got confirmed when he entered and found the entire warehouse empty and abandoned. Someone even bothered to take Steve’s belongings with them. Only the mats remained, stacked somewhat messily in the corner. The crew had left urgently for some reason and whatever that reason was, Steve didn’t suspect it to be good. He stood at the staircase for several long moments, pondering about what to do. Flashes of James’ smile, flickered in front of his eyes. Romanoff’s sharp stare, Kidd’s nonchalance, Jones’ cool-headedness and Dum Dum’s boisterous nature followed. Each crew member had been in this warehouse not even two hours ago and now they were all gone.


Steve ran from the building and turned a sharp right unto one of the busy main streets. His boots beat against the cobblestones in a symphony of helplessness. There had been no message for him. No sign of where the his crew and Captain-made-lover might have been heading. Steve was suddenly gripped by the cold panicky thought of being left alone in Havana. He’d have nowhere to go, no one to answer to, but himself. That thought terrified him more than words could describe. He’d finally found somewhere to belong. Someone. Damn if Steve wouldn’t fight tooth and nail to keep it before it fell from between his fingers like dry sand. He turned quickly at the next corner, steering desperately towards the harbour, hoping desperately to spot the familiar masts of The Black Swan lying docked in the harbour. He didn’t get that far though.


A pair of rough hands pulled him from the street into a quiet alley. All of Steve’s fight instincts were activated at once, his legs following his training and bending into a fighting stance. His heart rate spiked and his pulse was roaring in his ears. He managed to get a grip on reality only when he identified the assailant to be Dum Dum Dugan. He was holding up his hands in surrender and Steve’s muscles easily relaxed a bit.


“Dum Dum?! What the hell?!”


“Captain sent me out to look for ya. There’s been another breach of intel. This time, James got targeted.”


“What?! Is he okay?”


Dugan looked at him like he might have grown two heads.


“He’s alright physically, only a bit of a cut. Otherwise … I’ll let you see for yourself.”


The man took off down the alley with those words hanging heavily between them. Steve’s worry for James only tripled with the mentioning of an injury. The thought of what could have possibly conspired sitting like a block of ice in his guts. He quickly ran after Dugan, who was already leaving the alley and turning into another at the corner longer down. It took them about 20 minutes of fast paced worried walking before they reached a brothel. It wasn’t the same as the one Steve had been at earlier that day, but the facade was similar. Once inside, Dum Dum led them upstairs, nodding quickly to a young lady who Steve assumed to be the owner of the place. Dugan looked both left and right before leading Steve into a room.


Taking in that room was a hard task that Steve had to accomplish in merely a few seconds. James was on a stool, shirtless with Romanoff tending to a cut across his ribs. It didn’t look deep, just like Dum Dum had said, but Steve’s brain still helpfully spiked his system with a fair amount of adrenaline at the sight of it. Behind them was Kidd, sitting indifferently atop the desk in the room as he did best, except his worried expression didn’t match his casual body language. A few other crew members were strewn around the room. But the biggest unpleasant surprise was the wolfish face of Brock Rumlow looking surprisingly concerned. Steve hadn’t previously expected to ever watch that emotion so clearly on the man’s face. He was standing behind James and Romanoff, leaning on the same large desk as Kidd was perched upon.


Steve could pinpoint the exact second James registered his presence in the room. He flew from the chair, injury completely forgotten. His hands clasped painfully unto Steve’s shoulders and he staggered back a few steps.


“Where were you?!”


James shouted, worry and anger all mixed with the burning fire in his eyes. Steve’s breath stopped momentarily at seeing it. Never had he seen James’ anger directed at himself and it terrified him beyond reason. James crumbled in on himself just as quick as he’d flown from the chair, the pain from the wound to his naked ribs making him shudder. Steve instinctually grabbed him before his knees gave out, Romanoff following closely behind, giving James a sharp glare before directing him back to the chair he’d previously been sitting in. The room had fallen completely silent, the only thing audible being James’ pained breathing. Steve felt his every muscle tense, his mind putting up defenses and trying to figure out what scenario could have possibly sparked this reaction from every character in the room.


“What happened?”


He finally asked. James scoffed mockingly, but refused to meet Steve’s eyes. It hurt. Kidd took over from  there.


“We got attacked in the streets in front of the warehouse. The assassin was highly trained, maybe even from The Creed, but it’s hard to say. All we know is that they directly targeted James.”


“Is it bad?”


Steve was specifically asking Romanoff, since James was busy staring blankly at the floor, his features twitching in pain when she prodded at something too tender.


“It’s not bad, simply painful due to the amount of skin being torn. The knife was well sharpened and had it hit its mark … Then we would be having a completely different situation on our hands now.”


A cold shudder ran down Steve’s back. Then James wouldn’t have been alive. That’s what she meant. They’d be without one of their most important leaders, both in collaboration with The Creed of Assassins, but in James’ fleet as well. The pirate counsel would have lost a valuable member. It suddenly struck Steve how James’ possible death would affect hundreds of people, him especially. The cold block of ice in his stomach had only melted a bit at seeing James alive and with strength enough to greet him in such a way.


The easing of worry stopped, however, when he saw that Kidd’s gaze was fastened to a certain pocket in his pants. The figure on the table suddenly seemed a lot more hostile in nature, his features pulled in a grim expression of condemnation.


“What’s tha’ in your pocket?”


He jumped from his previous position on the table, only to walk over to Steve, shoulders squared. The question only served to catch the attention of every other crew member of the room. Steve wanted to take a few steps back, to clear his head. He didn’t like the suspicious edge to Kidd’s accent.


“It’s private.”


He settled for, well knowing that it wouldn’t satisfy any curiosities in the room. Every eye were on him. Steve could feel the questions circle him like hungry feral wolves ready to strike on defenseless prey. Kidd tilted his head and squinted his eyes, clearly not liking the answer.


“Where were you? Every other crew member was accounted for, but you.”


“I was at an inn, visiting an old friend.”


Steve wasn’t gonna lie about a simple thing like that. Sure, that situation could be interpreted as suspicious and this was truly a cautious lot, but the truth was the truth. They could interpret it however they wanted.


“Got any proof of tha’?”


Kidd countered. Steve simply shrugged, knowing that proof was scarce when he’d barely been there in the first place.


“Objectively? Probably not.”


Kidd’s eyes squinted more at that answer. Steve could physically feel the tension rise in the room. The wolves were circling in. He could spot Romanoff’s conflicted face at Kidd’s back, a new look on her entirely. Rumlow’s eyes were piercing-sharp, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.


“I’m sorry, bucko. But I’ll have to check what’s in that pocket of yo-”


“Stop.”


James spoke up so suddenly that Steve could almost see the air shift in the room. The single word was more command than suggestion, demanding not to be questioned. Kidd turned to the other James, ready to lash out with only a bit of hesitance. His dismayed face hurt more than Steve would have ever thought. They were pushing him away, slowly. Inch by inch, but he could feel it in his very soul. He wasn’t the traitor. He hadn’t done any of the things they’d like to condemn him for. Steve wished with his entire being that James could see that.


“You don’t have enough evidence against him.”


“He was the only one unaccounted for.”


“That doesn’t make him a traitor.”


James snapped back and Kidd shut his jaw with a clacking of teeth. James got up from the chair with no protests from Romanoff, his path walking to Kidd slicing the tension of the room in two.


“Whatever he has in his pockets, it’s private and you don’t have any evidence allowing you to mettle in his private affairs.”


Kidd looked like he’d swallowed a sea urchin raw. James looming figure didn’t help at all, his voice stern and unyielding as steel. The situation escalating around Steve bore witness to how shaken up the group was. This was a new playing field. Sea battles, cannons and notoriety was one thing, assassins and traitorism a whole other. This had been too fucking close. Mortality was knocking at the door of the people, who otherwise thought themselves above the law. Steve suspected that it wasn’t their own mortality they mourned, but that of their fellow cause. If James had been taken out, the link to The Creed would have been weakened and even Kidd might not have been able to save it. The ties to Bellâcleu would have gone out the window together with trade of tons of information keeping each of these pirates alive. A house of cards. If one pillar went, so would the rest.


Kidd was still staring at James, doing his best to save face in the incredibly uncomfortable situation. At last, he stepped back and left the room with slow steps echoing threats and curses. If Steve thought he’d be able to breathe once Kidd left the room, he clearly wasn’t prepared to have all the intensity of James’ glare concentrated on himself that very moment. James eyed him like one would a hunting dog who ate the prey for itself. Steve saw anger in those beautiful grey eyes. An anger deeper than the sea and more horrifying than the wildest of storms or the sharpest of reefs. That anger had made James who he was today. It had held him above water in the hardest of times and now it was aimed at Steve. Not in its full strength he suspected, but strong enough to make him forget the breath in his lungs and make chills run down his rigid spine.


“And you .”


James spit out the words as if they were poisonous, tone both ice and fire. Something in Steve bent and almost broke at hearing it.


“Get. Out.”


James spoke with such resolution that only a tiny part of Steve’s stubborn rebellious self twitched inside of him. Every pair of eyes in the room were aimed at him, every ear was listening. Steve felt utterly powerless. With something like teeth ripping at his heart, he turned, not letting a single emotion show, before leaving the room with heavy steps. It felt like walking away in more ways than one. It felt like giving up in the worst of ways. It felt like heartbreak.

Chapter Text

James was drinking again. It had only been a couple of days since the attempt on his life, but his wound was hurting like hell and Natalia refused to give him anything to mend the pain. So he did what any other sensible person would do. He drank his worries away. At least she couldn’t stop him from doing that. Come to think of it, he was drinking away more than physical pain.

 

He’d commandeered his crew back on The Swan the day after the attack, ignoring all their worried and sympathetic faces. He didn’t need them worried, he needed them ready. All the anger, helplessness and fear that had raced through him when the dagger slashed at his side had now turned to bone seething bitterness. This fight had turned dirty long ago, but luckily for all of them, Bellâcleu was cashing in information from all over the Caribbean. Transport was slow, though, and James couldn’t afford to wait. Not when hired knives lurked around more corners than previously thought.

 

Still, Steve’s face when he’d sent him away was permanently edged into his consciousness. It hurt more than it possibly should to be reminded of it every day and night, and James wasn’t about to leave his quarters to face the man. Rogers was stubborn as all hell though, so James would give him a day’s time or so to show up.

 

He took another swig from the bottle. Someone threatened to take down the world and refuge James had managed to build with his blood and tears and damn if he’d let them. Furthermore, this entire situation strained his personal relationships and all the people he cared about suffered for it. Mostly because he pushed people away. He was good at that, selfish as it was.

 

The bottle was empty now. James put it down on the table with the other ones in similar states. The attack was plaguing him as well, how the assassin had managed to follow them through the crowd. They’d been reckless to take the bigger streets, he could see that now. The hired knife had only been aiming for him, moving fluidly through the masses like a ghost. A spectre merely there to bring him down to the gates of hell with it.

 

But what had shook James the most was not the attack itself, nor the wound. It was the few seconds before the knife had struck. Time had slowed down completely, leaving him barely breathing as he realised that he might die. That week. That day. That hour. That second.

 

Then what? What would he have left behind? He had too many things he had never done, or desperately wished to do. James wasn’t stupid, he didn’t have any childish fantasies of growing old. Not in this world. Someone would eventually off him, that was simply a fact, but now he felt painfully didn’t feel ready for that to happen and it shook him to his very core. Too many people depended on him, a weight on his shoulders that had never been heavier than in the moment of realisation. His allies were highly trained and capable people, but the enemy, the Crown, had more power than they could hope to dismantle in several lifetimes.

 

And then there was the pair of beautiful blue eyes that kept popping up in his imagination. Sometimes they shined with mirth or sparkled with happiness. Lately, the picture in his mind has turned grimmer. Now the eyes were widened in unpleasant surprise or fear, at times laced with hurt and betrayal as well. James knew he’d caused that and it hurt more than he ever thought it could. A cold fist clenched around his heart. Just thinking about the possibility of Steve … no he couldn’t have, yet every little crack in James’ certainty was filled to the brim with worry and doubt. He had a lot of enemies. Smart enemies, even he had to admit that. James could name several people or institutions who’d gladly send a spy into his ranks, especially if said spy had the chance to get close to James himself. The fist got a better grip around his beating heart, squeezing it tight. Maybe Steve had somehow shifted side along the way, after The Triumph. He might have been contacted in Havana? Perhaps even Nassau.

 

This plan could be so much deeper than James had ever anticipated. His brain was spinning out of control just thinking about it. Oh God, Kidd would gut him if Steve turned out to be the intel breach, even though the very thought was compelling to him. Maybe Steve got hired, then called it off once he got too close to James? Or maybe he didn’t know Steve at all. Then it all would have been an act and the reality of Steve’s kindness had a dark side. No, the man couldn’t possibly be that good of an actor. Or maybe he could?

 

What would have happened to Steve if the assassins’ knife had struck true for James heart? Would he have mourned at all then? James let out a strangled sound, trying desperately to clear his brain both of alcohol and unreason. What if Brock hadn’t pushed him out of the way so the knife simply sliced at skin? He’d saved James life once again and would hear none of it once James had tried to thank him. A new wave of thankfulness washed over him, but it didn’t erase the guilt and hurt he’d been feeling previously. All these feelings at the same time were fucking confusing.

 

Three knocks on the door sobered him right up and stopped every thought flying around in James head. He wasn’t the least surprised when Steve walked in a few seconds later, not waiting for an entry call. His features were set gravely in stone, a look James hadn’t seen on him before. Good thing the map table stood as an anchor in the space between them, or James might have found himself walking over to the man and doing something stupid. Like beg for forgiveness. Or kiss him.

 

Steve stood just inside the door, closing it behind him and not moving a muscle. His shoulders were squared, a roaring storm barely contained in his eyes. It made James’ breath hitch uncomfortably to know that he was the cause of it. He was beautiful and strong despite the darkness under his eyes and the tired lines around them.  James mentally kicked himself. Get a fucking grip. He was a pirate Captain and his duty was first and foremost to his crew as a whole despite his heart telling him otherwise.

 

“Rogers.”

 

The formal statement made something like hurt or anger flash in Steve’s eyes and his eyebrows furrowed slightly. Then the man took a breath and seemed to be over it, as if he hadn’t expected it and blamed himself for that fact.

 

“Barnes.”

 

Came the answer. Just as formal, just as cold. James’ insides recoiled. A silence stretched between them, longer than any journey James had ever been on. He wanted to ask Steve why he’d come. He wanted him to jump around the map table and shake all unreason and doubt from James mind and let him drown in those lips. But he didn’t ask for it. The anchor of confusion and danger kept his feet nailed to the floor. James’ tongue felt too big for his mouth, but luckily Steve spoke up first.

 

“I didn’t do it. Whatever specific wrongdoing you thought I did, I didn’t do it.”

 

“I want to believe that.”

 

Steve tilted his head, both sceptically and curiously.

 

“Do you really?”

 

James settled for not answering that question. Instead, he jumped right to the centre of the problem, keeping his brain away from the possibility of mulling over it.

 

“Look. You were the only member unaccounted for in Havana. On our previous journey there, you disappeared as well. I’m taking precautions, not condemning you.”

 

“Bullshit. Everyone thinks I betrayed this crew. Including you.”

 

Anger flared in Steve’s features, days of tiredness gathered there as well. James snarled.

 

“If I knew you to be a traitor, you wouldn’t be fucking alive right now!”

 

The statement slashed through the air between them like a deadly blade striking true. Neither of them moved for several seconds, then James let out an agitated sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. He could feel a headache coming. Steve stood still like a marble statue, until he walked down the few steps from the door. His stance was straight, all harsh lines and threatening muscle. He walked to the map table separating them and rested both his palms on it.

 

“If you don’t believe I ratted you and The Creed out to the British Government, then why let me go through this? I can’t work, can’t even fucking eat or take a piss without someone staring at me like I killed their goddamn dog.”

 

“This is war, Steve,. I can’t afford to take chances. My duty is first and foremost to the crew and if you stood out in hard times, they might be fucking prickly about that.”

 

“Fuck you, Barnes. I didn’t do a damn thing.”

 

“So you say.”

 

Steve’s eyes were somehow sharper than the knife that had carved the wound into his flesh mere days ago. They flashed again at James’ statement, none of the anger disappearing. James was having a hard time remembering to breathe, a chunk of ice in his stomach keeping the air out of his lungs. Steve looked absolutely incredulous, like he couldn’t possibly believe James was saying this to him, betraying him like this. It certainly felt like betrayal on James’ part, despite all his excuses about crew and Creed.

 

Then, Steve straightened his spine and removed his hands from James’ map table. A disbelieving smile tugged his mouth lopsided but his eyes were blue granite. Steve took one more look at James before walking out, a certain finality to his every step. It made James’ guts lurch with worry. This was it. He needed another fucking drink.

 

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Everyone was acting a bit different around Steve. Not enough to confront anyone, but nevertheless different. Even Dum Dum was slightly more nervous around him, not because he thought him guilty, Steve reasoned, but because he knew others to. He was worried about him and Steve was thankful to his very core for that. Jones acted normal until the day where Steve walked into the galley at breakfast and the group Jones had sat at suddenly turned too quiet. The man had later apologised and told Steve he was trying to break up the group, who’d been spreading rumors of course. Even Peter was different, but a good different. He spent more time together with Steve than ever before, always telling other crew members to shut up whenever someone tried giving Steve a piece of their mind, which had happened more than once. He’d been called a traitor, together with a ray of other less kind words over the days. It bothered him a lot more than he dared admit or show.

 

He found strength in Peter though. Strength enough to confront James about the matter. That argument had drained his entire spirit, not to mention breaking a few things inside. The fact that James allowed him to be ruled out, allowed the rumours to spread like wildfire when no evidence against Steve ever popped up hurt like hell. The one man he counted on more than anyone else had turned his back and Steve hadn’t felt this alone since he’d first sat foot on The Black Swan.

 

On top of that, he’d missed his old home these last days. If he got thrown off this crew, or worse, got condemned for leaking information, he’d have nowhere to go. That is, if he’d still be alive by then. Steve would probably try to find Sam, but the Caribbean was big, it might take months or even years. In other words, his options were limited at best. Maybe it was time to write home. It had been a long time since his sisters received any word from him after all. They might be worried. Steve reminded himself to write whenever he got the time.

 

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Natasha cornered him at mealtime, the only actual times he left his quarters to sit alone in a corner and eat. No one usually bothered him, but The Swan had been anchored in a little bay off the coast of Cuba since yesterday, together with The Scavenger and The Hydra. Brock had needed some time for repairs of his vessel, so naturally the entire fleets stopped. For some reason, Natasha had rowed to The Swan. She even went to the galley to get food like the rest of the crew judging by the plate she set down violently on the table to announce her arrival. James was really not in the mood.

 

“What are you doing here?”

 

“Emotional support mostly, I’m assuming.”

 

“I don’t need it.”

 

“Sure.”

 

She started eating with a very sceptical line between her eyebrows. James had left his meal in order to pretend to not give a shit. He came about this by squinting his eyes at Natasha until she started speaking.

 

“I don’t think he did it.”

 

“How can you be sure.”

 

“He has no motive, not after this long. That, and he’s quite infatuated with you.”

 

James narrowed his eyes even more, feeling his insides being squeezed yet again by a familiar pain.

 

“He has plenty of motive. We kidnapped him and almost got his best friend killed.”

 

Natasha rolled her eyes hard.

 

“That was a long time ago, before he settled down on this crew. He’s a valuable member and you know it.”

 

“You don’t know him well enough to tell whether he’s a spy or not.”

 

Natasha fixed him with a dubious glare, before chewing and swallowing her food.

 

“I’m good at reading people, James. And you know what? You could force him to tell you what happened in Havana both times, where he went, but you’re too afraid of the answer.”

 

That hit a little too close to home. Yet again, Natasha proved brilliant, but James would rather have her and himself fooled for the time being. Then he wouldn’t have to deal with his feelings and thoughts by alcohol again. He’d gotten quite a headache after last time.

 

“It doesn’t matter. He acted suspicious and therefore he’s under supervision. I can’t afford not to.”

 

Natasha sent him a glance that was almost pitying, her food momentarily forgotten.

 

“This is going to hurt you more than you think it will, James.”

 

“So be it.”

 

He answered coldly, both angry with her and himself. He moved to stand and abandon his food, planning to replace it with liquor in his quarters, his own little world of confusion. Natasha didn’t try to stop him.

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Steve,

 

It took me a long time to figure out how to answer you. I didn’t react well when I first read your letter and frankly, I think Danielle became a little scared for me.

What the hell, Steve? I can’t possibly know the reasoning behind you joining those people, since it sounds absolutely insane to me but you’re a good man. Will always be a good man. You can still get out of this.

I’ve been looking for you, both me and Clint have, before he finally decided to take a break and go home to his wife and children. I’ve been looking a damn year and now you’re telling me you’d rather stay? I don’t know what to say to that.

And don’t make me believe you’re in safe hands, not with them. These are perilous waters even if one doesn’t surround oneself with the very people that makes it so. I don’t believe you’re safe until I’m there to make sure.

Despite all of this, it’s actually nice to hear from you. I thought you may have died long ago and that I would just have to search for you for the rest of my life. I hope you know what you’re doing.

 

Sincerely,

Sam Wilson

 

September 27th - 1716

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Natasha’s words rattled around in James head for the days to come. His vessel was still anchored by then, the repairs on The Hydra going slower than anticipated. James assumed it to be alright, since unfortunate events pulled his crew early out of their resting time in Havana. He had met with the other two Captains earlier that day to plan out their next move. Despite there being a traitor amongst them, they all agreed that it shouldn’t take their focus away from each of their crews wellbeing. Rumlow apparently had intel on a merchant vessel owned by William Beckford, one of the leading sugar merchants in the area. The prize was big enough to secure the payment of all three crews for a least two months, but small enough that they wouldn’t be raising too much attention. Beckford had powerful friends in British Government, but none that weren’t already out for James’ head. All of their heads really.

 

Their next target was decided to be the Beckford vessel. A smaller galleon after all accounts. The ship’s route was scheduled to go through The Bahamas to the west, most likely trying to avoid any pirate activity. The fleet would meet it there, south of Nassau. It was another three weeks of sailing from their current whereabouts. The possibility of catching the merchant vessel was getting slimmer each day, so they all agreed to sail by the morrow. But then, Natasha had turned around and proclaimed.

 

“I won’t be going with you gentlemen.”

 

Rumlow had immediately demanded to know why. But James had seen something like this coming since she’d been unnaturally silent during the planning.

 

“I’m a Captain myself, Rumlow. I don’t need to justify anything to you.”

 

James had allowed her to go hunt on her own, since two vessels were more than enough to take down a small galleon. They made a plan to meet up again in Nassau after the the merchant vessel had been taken.

 

Having a new goal, a target, finally made James’ brain kick into gear. He became more focused, previous thoughts of Steve possibly being a traitor fading into the background for the meantime. Now, his priority was standing atop the helm and making sure The Black Swan sailed as she was supposed to, efficiently and under supervision from her Captain.

 

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Steve woke up that day with an uneasy feeling in his stomach and no explanation as to why that might be. It had been weeks since their rest in the little Cuban bay and since James had announced their next target, but Steve still stuck out like a sore thumb. It was getting scaringly familiar, but instead of confronting or calling him names, most crew members stuck to ignoring him at this point. Evil eyes still lurked in the masses and Steve did his best to ignore them in return. He still had a few members who still talked to him; Dugan, Peter, Jones, Dernier. Falsworth kept his distance, but that was more him not wanting to take sides as quartermaster, Steve suspected.

 

It still hurt though, to finally find a home again only to have it snatched from him. Again. It was becoming a damn habit at this point. Swallowing his bitterness, he got up, the heavy feeling in his stomach not quite fading despite his tries to overlook it. Their course was set straight for where the supposed merchant ship would appear in the horizon soon, but nothing out of the ordinary had shown up the last three weeks. Steve could feel himself getting antsy together with the rest of the crew, simply from lack of instructions. It seemed like they were searching blind for a single ship in a huge ocean. The Hydra was leading the two-vessel caravan, her Captain seemingly certain that the course was right. Steve hoped it to be. There was really not much else to do, but wait and hope for the best.

 

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The merchant vessel was spotted on on the 24th day, off their port beam. James stormed from his quarters early in the morning when he heard the call from the nest. The Hydra had spotted her as well, sailing 300 yards in front and to the left of The Swan. James immediately ordered the entire crew from their hammocks with only mild complaints to follow. They’d all been waiting for this specific prize for weeks instead of attacking random vessels, so everyone's’ patience was wearing thin. Even James’ own, despite the promise of pay.

 

“Raise the topsails! We’ll hunt her down!”

 

He shouted at the deck crew, who followed orders quick and precise. To their port side, The Hydra mirrored the command as well, setting full sail in pursuit of the merchant ship. Catching up to her could take hours, especially if her Captain found out he was being hunted sooner than later. James commanded Falsworth to send a flag signal to The Hydra. If they steered directly for the vessel, her Captain would soon catch up and most likely flee, but if they steered slightly off her course, then they might gain the benefit of the doubt until they were in firing distance. Rumlow followed the instructions, changing his ship’s course a little and The Swan followed.

 

Just as expected, pursuit took around three hours before they’d gained on her enough to make threats. The Hydra shot a warning shot slightly out of range, which didn’t slow down the merchant vessel, Atlantis, in the slightest. James ordered a warning shot of his own, standing with both hands secured to the railing besides the helm. The shot splintered the silence on deck, landing with a splash just behind Atlantis’ starboard broadside with a splash . The ship’s course wavered, then she turned starboard, a white flag wavering from their bow. That was easy. Surprisingly easy. The sight of James’ fleet usually awoke fear in the hearts of many sailors and admittedly, sometimes that made the job extra easy. He hadn’t expected it with one of Beckford’s vessels though. That man prized his possessions and fired every Captain not willing to protect it. Sometimes went further than that as well. Guess Atlantis’ Captain didn’t have much of a spine.

 

James’ hands were white-knuckling the railing, eyes squinted as he observed Atlantis. She swerved to the right, practically begging to be boarded. Rumlow sure knew how to choose targets. Falsworth shook him from his thoughts.

 

“Orders, Captain?”

 

James blinked, then released the railing to address his crew and quartermaster. The Hydra was already preparing to board on their port side.

 

“Prepare to board.”

 

His men atop deck set into motion immediately, moving down into the armoury. James himself walked quickly down the helm stairs, heading for his quarters to fetch his pistols and cutlasses. Darkness greeted him once he swung the doors open, even darker thoughts left behind in this place awoke anew. James shook his head. He hoped Atlantis still had a bit of fight in her. A man needed a good amount of fighting once in a while and James was growing desperate. Strapping his flintlocks to his chest, he looked through his swords and finally chose a pair stolen from a British Commanding Officer a couple of years ago. Stolen was a hard word. James had bested him in honest combat. He’d earned them.

 

Atlantis was coming up on their port side once James returned to deck. His crew was already kneeling at the gunwall, all along the broadside. Another row of men right behind, taking cover behind water barrels and other stolen cargo from the last months. Silence and anticipation filled the air. James heard the tell tale clings of hooks being thrown over and fastened to Atlantis’ gunwall. He kneeled besides his men, cutlasses lightly scraping at the deck beneath his feet. James cringed slightly for his ship once the two broadsides collided and grated. A habit he’d never quite loose.

 

The rough sound of wood creaking and scraping violently ebbed out and almost stopped. James counted every second and no sound could be heard from the other deck. Either they were complete cowards and already giving up - , or they were planning a counterattack. Only one way to find out.

 

James raised a hand slightly and pointed to Dernier, who had geared up with smoke bombs stripped to every inch of his chest. The palm-sized balls were quickly distributed and James raised his arm again, every eye in his crew fastened on him. Seconds passed, no sounds besides the occasional silent shuffle of a crew member could be heard. James’ hand flew downwards and the bombs followed in the opposite direction, leaving a trail of smoke behind them before exploding and covering the other deck in a thick mist. James’ crew followed right after, jumping both gunwalls and the gap in between. Some came swinging from the shrouds or walking over planks laid out between the two ships. They were making one hell of a spectacle.

 

James knew the second his boots hit the other deck; something was wrong. The deck of Atlantis was cleared of any crates and barrels, a battleground essentially. Not a man from the other crew was in sight and not a sound could be heard besides the ones of their own making. James squinted his eyes. Through the smoke, the Captain’s quarters had a barrier built in front of it, with … slits?

 

“Get down!”

 

He shouted frantically, his crew automatically turning to him at the outburst. Then the gunfire started. James threw himself on the ground, not knowing if the men that fell around him had been hit or simply followed orders. He rolled, his arms raised to his head, until his body collided with the gunwall. The bastards had built a barrier around the Captain’s quarters and carved slits as shooting holes into the wooden walls.

 

Cursing them to high hell, James saw some of his men fall, others trying to shoot back but without luck. The wood of the barrier too thick and the slits too narrow to shoot through from the outside. Painful cries followed almost every loud gunshot. With nowhere to hide, most of his men had chosen to drop and roll like himself. Like this, the deck resembled a battlefield. Soon, there was longer and longer between each gunshot and James gathered himself and hoped for the best. If they were to break down the barrier, they’d most likely need explosives, which they didn’t have at the moment. Dernier hadn’t been told to bring them along because James hadn’t seen this coming. Fucking shit.

 

Now sounds of shouting and shuffling could be heard from behind the barrier and James crawled closer to it using only his arms, still staying low, but beneath the shooting slits. Suddenly the wall collapsed outwards, pushed down from inside, and the shouting became harsher and louder. James sprang up, ready for attack, just as waves upon waves of men in red stormed out from behind the barrier, swords raised.

 

It took several seconds for James to recognize their attire as what it clearly was; British Army Uniforms. The sight of bright red momentarily stunned him -, that is until several men were was storming towards him. It had been a fucking trap. He caught the first one in the stomach, ducking beneath his raised arm and slashing open his stomach. The second was smarter and put up a defense. James’ sword met equal steel, sliding down the blade and piercing through flesh with the blade of his left hand. Letting the body drop, he spun around only to catch a downwards swing with both his blades crossed above his head. James kicked the assailant in the stomach, sending him flying backwards a couple of steps. He barely had time to recover before a couple of other soldiers were on him. One tried to aim a shot for his head, but James stabbed him in the stomach, spun so the man’s bleeding wound was pressed against his back and took hold on the flintlock. The shot rang through the air, momentarily deafening him, and another body in red fell. Blood can’t be seen on red uniforms , James thought bitterly, before letting the half-dead body behind him drop. He pulled out two of his four flintlocks and aimed with both arms into a crowd of red uniforms still emerging from behind the broken barrier. Another two bodies down. Clean shots.

 

James had a few seconds to look around. That was all he needed to know that his crew was st