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a rusted mirror of the heart

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Five days before Yusei turns thirteen, a cannon ball strikes the starboard side of his father’s ship and Yusei tumbles over the railing into the ocean.

He kicks his way back to the surface, gasping for air and clinging to the bits of wood that blew off in the attack. Yusei looks up to see two ships - the first that fired from a distance, and the second, that has come in close and set up planks between their ships to board. It’s an invasion, and Yusei doesn’t know if he’s safer in the water or above it. He isn’t familiar with the emblem on the flag or the colors of the ship, but they seem to be military in uniform and he can’t fathom why a military fleet would want to attack his father’s research vessel.

But he still has the box in his hands, and he isn’t dead yet, so Yusei tries to watch for someone familiar, someone he can shout to, so they know to get him when it’s all over.

Two people locked in a duel appear close to the broken edge of the deck, where Yusei can see one of them clearly. He catches his father’s eye.

“Yusei?” His father turns and stares down at him, lowering his sword and his concentration. “Yusei!

This is the first mistake, turning his back on his opponent, because Yusei blinks and there’s a sword sticking out from his father’s chest and red dripping from his father’s lips.

Yusei blinks again, the sword has been withdrawn and his father has turned around, a dark stain spreading across the white shirt that he wore. There’s shouting, the deafening roar of the canon fire does nothing to dull the sounds of someone screaming, his father is choking out blood and sounds at someone, and he smiles as a sword rips through his words and his throat - the moment is synchronous with the breaking of Yusei’s heart. The blood rains down on Yusei and it colors the water around him. His father falls forward, out of sight and Yusei finally realizes it’s his voice that has been screaming.

The attackers, the pirates, return to their ships, and leave the corpse that is the ship his father commands to its watery grave. It’s their victory, and Yusei wonders if his father’s life was worth what they’ve won.

The sea swallows up their loss, taking in the sinking remains of what has been Yusei’s home since he was a toddler, taking in the bodies of the crew that have treated him with kindness and love, taking in his father who is all Yusei’s ever had.

It’s with poor luck and just terrible timing that Yusei finds himself in the way of falling debris - the mast of the ship, splintered beyond repair, comes crashing down on him. Both of them are in the ocean by then - so it’s not the impact that kills Yusei, it’s the weight that drags him down. He’s entangled in the rope and each second passes with less and less struggling, and more stillness as he watches the light of the surface grow further away.

The box in his hand starts to slip away, the box his father had shoved at him before the attack had started, the one he was absolutely not to let go of no matter what, and Yusei decides at least he won’t fail at that, he won’t lose it now. He draws it closer to himself, cradling it against his chest with both hands and mouths an apology to his father as his last breath of air escapes him.

It’s quiet, the closest to a peaceful death one can get on the seas.

But it’s not the roaring of death that fills his ears and opens his eyes, it’s something different, something full of life that forces air into his lungs and burns his body from the inside out. Yusei screams, and finds no air, no water, no sound, as something pours into him and cuts itself into his arm. Red fills his vision, and the body of twisting serpent that swallows him whole is the last thing he sees before he is sure, this time, death has taken him.

He later wishes that was the case.

 


 

 

Four days before Yusei turns fourteen, he runs away from his orphanage and tries to fling himself off a cliff, back into the ocean because it has to be the solution.

It’s far enough that he won’t be noticed by anyone traveling down the path into town, but close enough that it takes less than an hour to get there. A local fisherman pointed it out to him once, a cliff he should avoid, since one slip could result in a quick end. Yusei is hoping he wasn’t wrong.

He’s sick of the nightmares, of waking up screaming and thrashing, still so enthralled in his dreams that Crow and Bruno have to hold him down and he won’t realize it for minutes, won’t recognize them for hours. A bright red ‘m’ shaped mark on Crow’s forehead is ingrained in his mind, just like the feeling of skin beneath his nails and looking down to see them leaking blood that isn’t his.

He’s sick of the ache on his arm, the sharp throbbing in the dead of night and harsh daylight, the feeling of something lurking beneath his skin. Martha says it’s a blessing, a sign that something saved him, and only him, from the wreckage that had been his home, had been the reason a passing ship found him floating on driftwood as the currents dragged him on a journey southward. Bruno came a bit closer to the truth, tracing its dark red lines with a shaking finger and a hard edge to his jaw, giving his opinion without a single word.

Yusei thinks it’s a curse, because that’s all it has given him; a life without meaning, a life with suffering. There’s no correlation between his father’s death and the sea serpent granting him the mark apart from the day they both occurred on, but to Yusei there was an exchange and he doesn’t like the price, doesn’t want the gift of life for what he lost. The mark may have saved his life, but Yusei never asked for it to be saved. He only wanted to protect the map - that box his father had insisted be kept safe held a folded, torn up piece of a map, to someplace Yusei doesn’t recognize and he’s scoured tons of books and globes with no luck finding a matching position. The map is broken and useless but Yusei keeps it secret, keeps it safe anyway because it’s the last thing his father told him to do.

(“Take this, Yusei,” His father said, putting a small box in Yusei’s hands and smiling. “Don’t let go of it, no matter what, okay? Promise me that. I’ll be back for it before you know it. Just say out sight and out of danger until then.”)

It’s still in his pocket now, because even if he’s trying to end it all he’s a man of his word, he won’t let it go. He promised.

Yusei hates the ocean, for all that it has taken from him. Yusei loves the ocean, for all that it has ever meant to him. And he’ll forgive it if it will just take one last thing from him, and give him back the peace he used to associate with water, the calm afternoons of sailing with the wind, his father pointing out the constellations on a clear starry night, and the sound of waves lulling him to sleep.

He takes a step back, and another, trying to gather up all his courage. Just one more time, he thinks. He just needs to be brave one more time.

Yusei throws himself off the cliff.

Or at least, he tries to.

The moment he takes a step towards the edge, the mark reacts. It’s shines with a blinding light, visible even with the sleeve he has pulled across it, outlining the head of a monster. Yusei hears the roar of his blood rushing in his ears and the howl of the sea serpent, the burning of fire through his veins and a moment of complete stillness in which he is a detached watcher of the event. His mark pulls in all of his pain and bursts, causing a backlash of energy like a punch in the gut that pushes him away from the cliff’s edge and rolls him back down the grassy incline.

He gets back up and tries again.

It’s the same result, again and again, Yusei finds himself unable to push past the mark’s desires, it’s barrier, its insistence of something Yusei can’t understand. His weariness and misery is not tied to the strength of the backlash, as he shows signs of growing weaker while the mark shows signs of, in anything, increasing awareness and power, to the point that Yusei finds the mark reacting to his fifth attempt by paralyzing him before he can even climb back up the hill.

Yusei doesn’t have the energy to cry, or any tears left in him to even bother, so wordlessly, he turns his back on horizon and walks back to the orphanage just as the sun rises. Crow, with a bandage over his forehead, watches him squeeze in through the window to their room, wide awake and sweeping a careful eye over Yusei’s dirt stained and soaked clothing. Yusei thinks that Crow must hate him now, that he probably wants to yell at him and throw things at him, but Crow just crosses the room and pulls Yusei into a hug, shoulders shaking and a quiet hitch to his breathing.

“I lost my parents just like you, you know,” Crow murmurs. “I don’t want to lose my best friend too.”

“I’m sorry,” Yusei says, because that’s all he can say. “I’m sorry.”

A few hours later, Martha puts a bowl of porridge in front of him at the breakfast table.

The wretched mark forces him to move his arm, lift the spoon, and swallow every last bite.

 


 

Three days before his seventeenth birthday, Yusei celebrates by getting himself thrown in jail and sentenced to execution.

An American governor who has made himself quite cozy among Neo Domino Island’s bureaucracy, some man with a fake smile and fake eye, ran into Yusei along the market between the slums where people lay dying, and the lofty heights of the upper class where wine was split along with the blood of thieves and survivors.

He was man with long white hair and a suit that undoubtedly cost more than his ship, and the moment he laid eyes on him, Yusei had the urge to break a bottle over the man’s head. It was probably the alcohol that led to that decision, and the consumption of too much alcohol that led to him committing it, but something about the smirk on the man’s face, and the way he twitched upon learning Yusei’s name, leaves him feeling like a snake has nestled its way under his skin and he can’t quite get it out, even after becoming sober.

The Stardust is anchored somewhere along Old Domino, a port town that many enter, and few leave. They were low on supplies and desperate: the twins are looking scrawnier than normal and even Crow is having trouble keeping spirits up. Bruno was the only one looking mostly unaffected, spending most nights forgetting to eat anyway and too preoccupied to notice anything but ship repairs that he still needs to do, and suggested Old Domino as an option to restock on supplies and maybe find an easy smuggling job or two. Yusei didn’t like it, but with a small crew to look after and a ship he won in a card game two years back, he didn’t have many options.

Escaping the notice of Security was simple enough, they weren’t well known and apparently Yusei looks sour enough to fit in with most of the general population (Crow thought it was funny, the twins laughed and even Bruno smiled, so Yusei let it slide) so they went in and took what they needed, mostly through legitimate bartering - Crow saw some street brats and instantly took a shine to them, even though they tried to steal his money and Yusei watched one con him into buying them candy - and less legitimate methods when they needed to cut corners. They didn’t steal from the poor, at least, and Yusei knows the nobility of Neo Domino Island can’t even say that.

Even with them having to go much more inland than they anticipated to get everything they needed, things went well until Yusei found liquor, and with the images from the previous night’s dream still plaguing him, downed the bottle much faster than he should have. And possibly another, but he wasn’t counting and neither was the man he stole them from, because Yusei keeps finding shards of broken glass in his pockets, all belonging to different labels and colors and it’s an obvious, cursed, miracle that he hasn’t gotten alcohol poisoning all things considered. And thanks to the bottle incident, has found himself an entire cell just to himself. It’s a shame he’s the only one who’s managed to get himself incarcerated at six in the morning, Yusei thinks, leaning against a brick wall with a sigh, because if he had done it at six in the evening, he’d probably have someone to talk to, maybe trade tales and find a clue about the map.

Last time Yusei found himself on the wrong side of the law, he shared a cell with some crazy old man who didn’t shut up and didn’t know how to play a decent game of poker, even though he had smuggled in an entire deck of cards. But he had traveled farther than Yusei had, and gave him an idea of what the map meant besides a memento of fallen father and a destroyed life.

(“Oh, that story? It is a popular tale among pirates, so I can see why you’d want to know about it! Well, you’ve come to the right man! I know all about it from my globe-trotting days when I was younger.

Legend says there’s a mystical map that was torn into pieces - nobody really knows how many, three or four, maybe even five or six - and scattered across the sea. The map leads to an island, you see, a land where the Crimson Dragon lives, where it’s power resides. If you go to it, if you successfully solve the riddle of the map, you can have one wish granted. You can wish for whatever you want. Anything is within the power of the Crimson Dragon. But the map is cursed, and so is that island, and that’s why whoever had the full map last ripped it apart and cast it away. Too many have died looking for it., both the island and the pieces that are said to have survived and found their way into the hands of sailors and pirates alike, all with greed in their heart and misfortune destined to follow them.

My advice, sonny, is not to go chasing after this one.”)

Someone too fucking tall, with short blond hair, and a face that just bled contempt is on patrol for the entire underground holding block that consists, currently, of just Yusei, because it is a Sunday and nobody is in the mood for murder on a Sunday, so his execution has been put off until Pegasus J. Crawford decides the weather is lovely enough for the hanging of a pirate.

“Nice hat,” Yusei says, because he’s fucking sober and it sucks, and the guy has a goddamn hat that’s fluffier than a pillow.

The man, thank god, rises to the bait.

“Shut up,” He barks, a man with no indoor voice and way too much power in his vocal chords. “Filthy pirate scum. Be grateful you’re even still alive right now. Most people would be dead on the spot for the crimes you’ve committed.”

“A bar fight,” Yusei remarks. “Yes, very illegal. Well deserving of death row.”

“A bar fight, in the middle of the street?” The man scoffs. “Regardless, this wasn’t some fellow garbage you were fighting, you assaulted a military officer and nobleman. That is why you’ve got the death penalty.”

“Ah, yes, because if he had been some lowly scum like me, we both would have gotten a slap across the wrist and told not to do it again, or both thrown in the ocean to drown. The laws only protect those in power, just like always.”

“And what would a pirate,” The man says, with a growl to his voice. “Know about laws?”

“Enough to know they aren’t worth following,” Yusei says. “Enough to know I won’t get what I want with them holding me back.”

“Riches and fame, guts and glory. Pirates never have them for long.”

“Shame that’s not what I’m looking for, then. But thanks for the tip. Want to tell me where you got the hat next, your majesty?”

Some officers carry with them rapiers when they’re not actively on the front lines. It’s more a weapon for show, ceremonial and a symbol of power, even if the weapon itself is more speed and technique than much use in a cut throat fight. Useful for cutting a rope or poking someone’s eye out, but in a street brawl make itself just as useful as a pointy stick.

It becomes evident to Yusei that this man with the fancy hat is a man who carries a weapon that’s not just a symbol, when a thick double edged sword gets in between the bars of the cell and finds its edge about to graze his throat. Yusei can see his reflection in the polished steel, as well as the glowing red light that bounces off it. His reflection smiles.

“W-what?”

His opposition does not.

The man falters, the sword retreats and he takes a defensive stance on the other side of the bars. The mark ceases to light up the room, but the glare and unspoken threat remain. It fills the air with the promise of violence, and honestly Yusei could go for a brawl right now. Anything to pass the time until someone tries to unsuccessfully tie a noose around his neck.

“What was that?” The officer demands. “What kind of sorcery have you done?”

“Want to find out?” Yusei says, offering a hand through the gap in the bars.

“Disgusting,” The blond-haired man says instead. “It’s not enough for you just to be a pirate, but one who’s sold his soul to the devil as well.”

“If I sold my soul for this, then I was ripped off,” Yusei says, lowering the arm and losing the smile. “I’d prefer hell to this mark on my arm.”

“Blasted pirate. What are you even saying? You’re a crazed fool if you think -”

“No,” Yusei says, softly. “I don’t think you understand. I’ve meant every word I’ve said: hell is where I’ll likely end up one way or another, but if I could get there sooner, I’d do it in a heartbeat if this mark would let me.”

The man has purple eyes, like the color of royalty, and Yusei finds them hard and unforgiving, just like all the men who have ever looked down on him, all the nobles who tossed him out after he turned up at his home with no father or crew to vouch for him, and all the ones who have feared him and his mark, before Yusei took theirs in turn. This one is no different, someone with dreams of being powerful and creates their power from abusing the weak, and Yusei knows he will find him again, because the pride of kings is so fragile, so easily bruised, and so easily manipulated.

The mark pulses in the dim light.

Someone upstairs yells for Jack, and the only person that could be is the man who breaks eye contact with Yusei, who grits his teeth, sheathes his sword, and turns away without a sound. He strides past Yusei’s cell with a rigid set to his shoulders and a bone white grip to the handle of his sword, one he isn’t meant to see but Yusei does anyway. The light from his mark fades and Yusei closes his eyes in his windowless cell.

“Goodbye, your majesty,” Yusei says, as the door to the prison block slams shut.

 


 

 

Two days before his twentieth birthday, Yusei runs into a ghost while trying to settle things with Commodore Jack Atlas.

It’s the second time Yusei has seen him since dodging his public execution in Old Domino - they tried to hang him three times before Jack had attempted to sever his arm off with a sword, and the mark had reacted rather violently to that. Supposedly, one can see still the crater in the center of the town to this day, and Crow had thought that was absolutely hilarious when a slightly singed Yusei finally returned to his ship and rallied everyone into a hurried escape, but it became less funny when a week later Bruno found a wanted poster with Yusei’s face clearly drawn across it.

(“This isn’t nearly a high enough bounty,” Rua had said, while Ruka elbowed him. “What? Oh, um, sorry Yusei. The uh, picture really gets your face right? Ow, Ruka, stop that!”)

The last time Yusei had seen Jack Atlas, after the wonderful spectacle that made him infamous for ‘cheating death’ - Yusei really wishes he was allowed to play fair - it had been in Heartland, some up and coming city with lots of ships sailing in and out and lots of things to barter for. It was pure coincidence that Jack Atlas walked right into the same bar that he was trying to out-drink Crow in, and Yusei hopes Jack had to pay for everything they broke in the immediate fight and flight that ensued.

(“Holy shit he’s loud,” Crow laughed, then shrieked as Jack flung a chair at his face. Crow ducked, just fast enough that the chair harmlessly passed over his head and managed to break over Yusei’s back instead. “Oh. My bad, Yusei.”

“Haha,” Yusei had said, turning to Crow and swaying to the rhythm of the fight and the beer in his blood system. “I’m taking this out of your pay, Crow.”

“What? Oh come on, that wasn’t my fault!”

“Face me like a man, pirate!” Jack had roared. “I will kill you for the disgrace you caused me last time!”

“Okay,” Yusei said, while Crow shouted over him: “Fucking try it city-boy!”)

So when Crow shouts that they’ve been spotted by Neo Domino military and a red and black vessel was changing course to intercept them, Yusei knows it’s probably the Red Dragon Archfiend. He’s not wrong either, when the larger ship gets within boarding distance someone in an annoyingly white uniform swings in from a rope and kicks him in the face.

The fight is on, and despite being the first one to board the Stardust for the sole purpose of killing Yusei, Jack actually ends up being waylaid by Crow, who drops down from the crow’s nest with the element of surprise and a reckless abandon for danger. Yusei rolls out of the way, mostly because the mark propels him to get his shit together and not in the direct path of someone else’s sword. Bruno takes the wheel and rams the enemy ship, enough to unbalance everyone standing on it and knock over some planks that were being used to cross over, and that’s when it happens.

Yusei opens his eyes to storm clouds that hadn’t been there seconds before, and props himself up on his elbows to observe as the rottenest ship he’s ever seen pushes itself between the Stardust and the Red Dragon Archfiend. The ship looks like death itself, wooden panels that are decrepit and discolored, sails with large tears in them, giving off an agonized groaning sound as it wedges itself between the two ships, and someone screams, “It - it’s a ghost ship!”

“Who the fuck said that?” Jack yells. “There’s no such fucking thing as a ghost ship -”

“Hey!” Crow lunges forward, and Jack parries the strike. “Pay attention to me, asshole. You’re Jack… something, right?”

“Commodore Jack Atlas, pirate scum.”

“Right, right,” Crow says, shrugging. “I’m Crow the Bullet. Pleased to meetcha. Your ship is leaving; would you mind going with it?”

“What?” Jack chances a quick look to his right, and indeed, he’s being abandoned like a puppy in a cardboard box. His ship is pulling away, despite having superior numbers, and seems to have set a course that will pull them away from the Stardust and the ghost ship. “Oh for fuck’s sake. I’ll get back at them later for this, cowards.”

“So… You’re not leaving, then,” Crow sighs. “Well, fine. I’ve got a bone to pick with you anyway. You’re the one that’s been making things hard for Yusei.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around.”

“Ah, but Yusei’s such a kind soul,” Crow winks, and Jack looks about ready to throw his sword right into Crow’s face. “But if he’s been causing trouble for you, then let me apologize on his behalf!

Yusei tunes out the sound of metal clashing with each other for a moment to do a quick head count: Bruno is grabbing a hold of the other few soldiers that got onto their deck with his surprising amount of strength that few knew he had and throwing them off the ship and into the ocean; Rua and Ruka were nowhere in his direct line of sight, but Yusei sees some green strands of hair poking out from the window to the his quarters, and he hopes they locked the door behind them because he doesn’t have time to check on their safety otherwise; Crow is fighting Jack, except Jack just punched Crow in the face with a powerful combo that leaves him wide open so Yusei darts forward and -

His spacial awareness kicks in just in time for Yusei to side step a sword to the heart.

“Long time no see, Yusei.” A man in black clothing drawls, swinging around his sword like it weighed less than a feather. Yusei looks around, and the only thing he sees left is the mystery ship that pulled up next to them but showed no signs of any crew or passengers - nor this guy in a long torn up coat, who Yusei doesn’t remember seeing a few moments ago. “Or is it Captain Fudo now? Haha, what a joke.”

“Sorry, have we met?” Yusei says, unsheathing his sword. “I’m in a bit of hurry, can we catch up later?”

“So you’ve already forgotten me,” The man says, a twisted smile on his face. It’s really the only part of his face that Yusei can see - his eyes are obscured by a mess of hair that makes Yusei wonder how he can possibly see past all those bangs and the rest of it is covered by the brim of his hat that’s been pulled down. The voice doesn’t register as familiar and the behavior is reminiscent of someone that Yusei’s wronged, and there aren’t many people still alive on that list, aside from the idiot Crow is fighting. “I knew you weren’t loyal, but this is a now low even for you, Yusei - oh, sorry, Captain Fudo.”

Behind the goth pirate, Crow is still dueling Jack, but there’s an obvious wound on his arm that Jack must have stuck recently that is weighing him down. Jack hold an obvious advantage in strength, and Crow won’t be able to keep this up for much longer, even with his much more fluid style of fighting. His crew comes first on the list of priorities, so Yusei decides on his actions accordingly.

“Out of my way!” Yusei snarls.

He strikes down his obstacle with haste, but finds that his sword meets no resistance, no substance, no blood. His sword cuts through air instead of his opponent's heart, and the man takes a step back when a gust of wind from the storm blows at them, knocking the hair from his face and revealing a golden tattoo that reaches from his forehead all the way down past his cheek, and pure white eyes. Eyes that had once been a clear blue like the shallows of the ocean on a bright day.

Yusei forgets how to breathe.

“K… Kiryu?” Yusei whispers.

(“Traitor! You betrayed me, Yusei!Kiryu screamed, and those were his last words before the anchor was released and Kiryu plunged straight into a bottomless cavern beneath the waves.)

“Naive little Yusei,” Kiryu says, with a smile full of teeth. “You can’t kill a ghost.”

Yusei doesn’t realize he’s shaking until he takes a step back and nearly stumbles, his balance is off and he doesn’t have the presence of mind to correct it. Kiryu just keeps smiling, and walks forward with slow and precise steps, like he has all the time in the world.

“It took me a while to find you,” Kiryu says, “But now that I have, let me leave you with a little gift.”

Yusei isn’t expecting it, he isn’t expecting anything that happened today but Yusei just finds himself shaking and staring at Kiryu like it would compel him to explain, explain his appearance, his crooked smile, his sheer antithesis of what Kiryu is supposed to be, the Kiryu full of life that Yusei knew. The only explanation Yusei gets is the searing pain of Kiryu’s sword, striking him down and across the chest. The mark throbs and Yusei expects it do something, but nothing happens, nothing happens and Yusei clutches at all the blood, red and seeping through his shirt and in between his fingers. The cut is deep and Yusei chokes out disbelief along with more blood.

“Farewell, Captain Fudo,” Kiryu says, and the last thing Yusei hears is Kiryu’s laughter, broken and twisted like madman, as he falls to his knees, still holding onto the wound he never knew he could get. Kiryu turns away and Yusei watches the back of his coat as it fades away the moment Kiryu leaps over the railing back onto the ghost ship, which soon departs along with the remnants of the storm and the rest of Yusei’s consciousness.

(He met Kiryu at the orphanage. A boy too old to be at the foster home for more than a year, but with dreams too big to be contained to such a small house anyway. Yusei didn’t think much of Kiryu when introduced to him, too busy with thoughts of cliffs and how to be less of a burden on his friends and Martha, but Crow came back one day and said, “That Kiryu guy says he wants to buy a ship and sail away.”

“Then he’s an idiot,” Yusei said, peeling an apple with a knife. The mark keeps his hands steady. “No one in Satellite can afford to buy a ship, especially a poor kid with no parents.”

“Gotta think positive Yusei,” Crow says, taking the knife from him, even though he’s almost done and there’s no point, but it made Crow feel better so Yusei doesn’t complain. “There’s no harm in going outside for once and hanging out with him. Bruno even seems to like him a little, and you two can’t keep repairing everything here. Martha has flat out run out of things to fix.”

“Some things will always be broken,” Yusei replied, but let Crow bring him to the docks, where the fishing boats were about to set out and Kiryu Kyosuke awaited.

The first thing that Yusei noticed about Kiryu was that he had eyes the color of the sea on a peaceful day, eyes that matched his hair that was bizarrely the same color. The second thing Yusei noticed about Kiryu was that he had an undeniable sense of charisma and charm to him, an overwhelming aura of life to him, that let him get along well with Crow’s determination to look to the future and talk like they’d all been friends for years.

“You’re not satisfied, right Yusei?” Kiryu asked him, holding a fist up to his heart. “This town, this life? It’s not enough. I know I can reach something better beyond the horizon, something worth living for, something that will satisfy me. I hear you’re are good with repairs, and that you used to sail. When I get a ship, I could use your help.”

Yusei opened to his mouth to tell him off, but what came out was, “Sure.”

It was already too late. Kiryu had caught Yusei up in his stupid dreams and magnetism, and it would take him months to figure it out, after meeting with Kiryu at the docks became a weekly, then daily thing Yusei and Crow would do. They chased after Kiryu’s dreams with him, until it became inseparable from their own, and even with the mark as an eternal damper on his mood, Yusei was happy.

It didn’t last long.)

Yusei wakes up to Rua crying over his body, and the strangest sensation of pain coursing through his chest and his heart.

Yusei’s dead,” Rua wails. “This is all your fault, you jerk!”

“Oh my god please shut up,” Jack says, “He’s awake, not dead.”

“Yusei?” The blurry image of Ruka - or maybe it’s Rua - comes into view, and a soft hand touches his shoulder. “Yusei, can you hear me?”

“Y-yeah,” Yusei coughs, as colors and lines realign and clarity in his vision resumes. “What… What’s going on?”

“You were…” Ruka pauses, exchanging a glance with his brother and then back at Yusei. “That man you were fighting, the one from the ghost ship, got you pretty bad. We were… We were worried, Yusei. You were pretty touch and go for a while.”

Yusei tries sitting up, but two identical arms immediately push him back down, and Yusei discovers that he doesn’t physically have the strength to resist. The aching of his arm, a normal, consistent irritation that’s been with him for years now, throbs in tandem with his heart, and even the short attempt at sitting up causes a flash of severe pain.

“What happened?” Yusei asks again, from his bed with his jacket pillowing his head. He feels the fabric rustle with the various knick knacks he’s lost in them, and detects the scent of blood and alcohol on them.

“You nearly died,” Jack says, and Yusei turns his head to see the commodore, tied up and looking fairly put out about the whole situation in his corner of Yusei’s cabin. “You’re certainly great at not living up to your ‘unkillable’ reputation when it involves other people, it seems.”

“That’s not…” Yusei mutters, feeling nauseous. He covers his face with his hand, brushing his bangs aside. This is around the time he realizes he’s without a shirt, just the bandages around his chest, and his arm is bare. The mark of the monster glowers down at him as he holds it up to inspect it.

“Why didn’t it protect you?” Ruka asks, looking between the man and curse, looking for correlation and cause, like he’ll find the answers if he just looks hard enough. Ruka was too bright for this, Rua and Ruka were too good for a life of piracy and smuggling on the seas, but they had nowhere else to go and Yusei has never been able to turn his back on those who’ve helped him.

“I don’t know,” Yusei says, “I don’t know… Where is Crow and Bruno?”

“Crow’s steering the ship,” Rua pipes up. “He looked to be in a bad mood, I think the ghost pirate guy has him on edge. Bruno is fixing some of the damage that Jack’s ship did to ours.”

“That’s Commodore Jack Atlas to you, brat.” Jack says.

“More like prisoner Jack Atlas,” Rua says, turning to face Jack and sticking his tongue out.

“Yusei,” Ruka says, quietly, in that voice where he makes himself much more distinct from Rua by being softer, wiser, and much more perceptive than any kid should be. “Who was it? That man who hurt you. Do you know him?”

“...No,” Yusei says, gripping his mark so hard that it hurts, but not as much as the memories of a friend’s voice, or the pain of the cut across his chest, or the knowledge that death has escaped him once again. “Just the man he used to be.”

 


 

 

One day before Yusei turns twenty-one, he tries to have a quiet evening in a bar called Bootleg.

Everything is swaying but everything is great. It’s like looking at the world through a magnifying glass except nothing is enlarged but everything is shiny. The whiskey burns his throat, the rum adds some sweetness to his mouth, the gin - well, the gin and the vodka and the tequila have all mixed into a composite mess on his tongue and in his stomach that there’s no differentiating them anymore. Still, his head is heavy and he can’t feel his arm, so Yusei is trying to remember basic addition so he knows how much his tab is and whether he has enough to pay for it or if he needs to skip town for a year. He’s pretty good with arithmetic, but he keeps forgetting how much the vodka cost and whether or not he actually ordered that bottle of rum or if he snaked it off someone else’s table.

“Is this really how you spend your evenings?”

“You’re gonna take up that attitude with me here?” Yusei slurs, turning to the woman who has taken the empty seat next to him. “We’re in a bar, drinking is what you’re supposed to do.”

“Every night?” Aki casts a disdainful eye over the place, glancing over some men in the corner yelling an off tune rendition of some old sailing song and the copious amount of liquids being spilled all over the furniture and other patrons. “I hadn’t realized the Stardust’s captain was a such a drunkard.”

“Hey,” Yusei says, pointing a finger in her direction. “Stowaways don’t get to have an opinion on what I do in my free time.”

“Stop calling me that,” Aki frowns. “I’ve been on your ship for two months now.”

“Still without my approval,” Yusei says, laying his face on the counter, because it’s cool and smooth and so damn shiny he can see his reflection in it. “The only reason I can’t kick you off is because my crew won’t let me and you still have my hat.”

“You can have it back if you make me an official crew member,” Aki says, folding her arms. “You made Jack a part of your crew, and he used to be a part of the Neo Domino military and tried to kill you several times.”

“He still tries to kill me,” Yusei looks for another drink, reaching around with his arm and fishing a half-finished bottle of rum from behind the counter. “I just can’t get him to leave either, but at least he knows how to use a sword and has experience on the sea. You don’t.”

“Then teach me,” Aki says, back straight and proper and oh so not like a pirate, so very not like a pirate that Yusei wants to yell at her to go back home, to her noble aristocratic life where she won’t get herself killed playing at an adventure on the ocean.

(“Let me ask you a question,” Aki said, standing tall and proud and defiant. “If you had to choose between a short but glorious life, or a long and worthless life, which would you choose?”

Yusei had let his silence answer for him.)

“You really don’t intend to back out of this, do you…” Yusei murmurs, wondering if she seems so radiant because of her determination and goddamn awful stubbornness, of if he’s just had too much to drink. He sits up and tips his head back, lifting the bottle to his lips so he can wash his thoughts away, just like his pain and his memories. “Being a pirate isn’t fun. We steal, we hurt, and then we run away to do it all again. We’re free, but you have to give up your past for this, Aki. There’s no turning back once you commit a crime, or steal from another ship, or take someone’s life with a sword. All you have left are the clothes on your back, and the crew you live with.”

Aki snatches the bottle from him, and before he can ask why, she takes a swig from it. Yusei just stares as she downs half the amount left in it, and while her face scrunches up and she puts the bottle back down right after, she doesn’t falter and turns back to Yusei with stupidly wide bright eyes.

“Teach me,” Aki says again. “I understand, Yusei, that there are risks involved, and that’s it’s not some fun easy life on the ocean. What you don’t understand is that that’s exactly what I want. I don’t want to return to my past life, I want it gone. I want to live with people who love me for being me, who will protect me just as much as I can protect them. I want a life that means something to me. I swear, I won’t be a detriment to the crew. I want to be helpful. I want to understand the sea as you do, to see it as you see it. Please, Yusei.”

Her eyes are so fucking brown, it’s like staring at a garden from a bird’s eye view and seeing all the spots of the ground in between the foliage, the earth that nurtures and the earth life returns to. The trees of aging and rough bark and the soil teeming with life and Yusei wonders what getting lost in a forest would feel like, if it’s anything like getting lost in her eyes.

“Okay,” Yusei says, like the fool that he is.

Her goddamn eyes light up.

“Yes! You said yes! You have to keep your word now,” Aki cheers, then composes herself. “Come on, we’re going before you drink so much that you forget you’ve promised this.”

She takes his arm and pulls him off his stool, and Yusei’s balance is such shit that he just lets her drag them both towards the door while he stumbles along in the same direction, pretty sure that she knows the way. Yusei means to toss a couple coins at the bartender, but what Yusei actually does is throw them as hard as he can so the coins will reach and he’s pretty sure the bartender ducks and the coins break a bottle behind him, which, whoops, wrecks his whole equation of how much he owes. Someone laughs, someone curses him, someone throws a glass at his head and Yusei decides it was close enough, and picks up the pace so that he matches Aki’s speed as they both hightail it out of there.

“Is this how things always are with you?” Aki asks, pulling his arm and forcing him to turn a corner with her. “Wild, messy, and always on the run?”

She’s smiling.

“Only when I get lucky,” Yusei says, face split into a grin he can’t control.

That’s how they return to the Stardust; breathless and red faced, from the alcohol and the exertion and the night air, smiling like fools. No one else is on the deck when they arrive, and that’s good, because the last thing Yusei needs is an audience, especially if Jack was a part of it.

Jack has been constantly needling him for a rematch for weeks. Yusei’s still waiting for the day Jack finally leaves because they tried getting rid of him only to find the Neo Domino military wouldn’t take him back and feeling betrayed, Jack stuck to the Stardust because apparently, losing to Yusei in both a sparring match and a card game meant they were officially rivals, and thus it was best for Jack to stay at the only place he had left; a pirate ship that was reluctantly warming up to him.

“First,” Yusei says, stumbling up the steps to his cabin. “You’re going to have to ditch the dress.”

“Excuse me?”

“You dress like a governor’s daughter,” Yusei says, trying to open his door for several seconds only to find he was pulling when he should be pushing. “If you’re going to be a pirate, you need to drop the upper class wardrobe. A dress isn’t ideal for working on a ship either.”

“Oh. O-of course.” Aki says, Yusei looks over his shoulder to see her fidgeting. “I don’t have any money at the moment, though, so I can’t really afford to buy anything.”

“I figured,” Yusei says, scouring his drawers, pulling out what he thinks are probably the most modest shirts he owns, and making a general mess of his room. “So here. Wear these until you can buy your own damn clothes.”

He shoves a bundle of shirts and trousers at her and Aki, for some reason, turns even more red than when they had been running down the streets. She refuses to make eye contact but Yusei is so tipsy he’s not sure if that’s her choice or his fault for swaying on his feet.

“They should fit you,” Yusei says. “If you have any issues with them, talk to Crow or Ruka. They’re pretty good with sewing and adjusting things.”

“I think I’ll be fine,” Aki says, and then in a quieter voice. “Thank you. I won’t let you down. I’m going to prove to you I can do this just as well as all of you can.”

“For your sake Aki,” Yusei says. “I hope so.”

They part with those words; Aki strides to the lower decks with her head held high and the clothes clutched to her chest, while Yusei stumbles back up into his cabin and onto his bed. Evidently in between planning lessons because he just fucking signed up to be a teacher to the goddamn stowaway on his ship and thinking about how much Crow is going tease him for it, Yusei dozes off and dreams of the map and the sea serpent tied together by blood, and a rusted mirror that Yusei looks into but can’t find himself in it.

The mirror shatters and Yusei watches as cuts appear on his hands, and they spread across his entire body, over every inch except the mark. The mark glows and glowers at him, and he hears the roar of sea serpent, a screeching, horrendous noise like nails on a chalkboard. They’re both underwater now, and he’s acutely aware of the sensation of being unable to breath and unable to die, the sound of suffering in his ears, and the blood leaking out of him and mixing with the water. It paints a picture of a man with a fake golden eye, and another man with dark skin and flat pointed hair. They each hold a piece of the map, but when Yusei reaches out to take it from them, the sea serpent roars again and barrels into him and they both break into pieces and wash away with the tide.

Yusei opens his eyes to sunlight landing right on his face. It goes great with the headache he’s developed while unconscious, and his mark hisses at him with its usual disdain, throbbing in tandem with his head to pound in the fact that he didn’t drink any water last night to dilute the liquor in his system.

His shirt reeks of booze, so he gets up to swap it out for a different one, only to find he’s short a handful of his clothes. The events of the previous night hit him then, and Yusei drags a hand down his face and it stays there long enough for him to regret all of his life choices. He’s absolutely never going to hear the end of this from Crow, who will probably think it’s funny, and Jack, who will probably think it’s dumb, and the two of them were far to vocal about their thoughts on his life.

The one good thing about the situation, Yusei thinks later, when he’s trying to get Aki to keep a proper defensive stance, is that at least she looks damn good in his shirt.

 


 

 

The day Yusei turns twenty-two, he draws his sword against the King of the Sea, the infamous “nameless” pirate known only as Yami, and another holder of the piece of his father’s map.

“Yusei Fudo,” Yami says, his sword already pushing against Yusei’s, steel to steel and neither willing to chance the first move just yet. “I know who you are. Your ship is the fastest this side of the military Academy Island, and you’re earning quite the name for yourself: King of the Wind, I hear.”

“I’m honored,” Yusei says. “Unfortunate we couldn’t meet on better terms. You have something I need.”

“I could say the same to you,” Yami says. “I have no plans of giving up my goals either.”

The thing about Yami, Yusei knows, is that he isn’t called the King of the Sea for nothing. He’s been undefeated since the day he first helmed a ship and is the bane of navies across the globe, being a strong oppressive force that both spurs the military into aggressive retaliation tactics and also puts them on the immediate defensive should he even be rumored to be the same sea as any of them. Only one ship was known to be even close to rivaling the Millennium, and sadly the Stardust wasn’t that ship.

Yusei takes the first move, a thrust that’s parried to the side. It’s his ship they have started their duel on, with both of their crew already scattered between both ships, fighting and shouting and moving. Yusei knows this ship like the back of his arm, so he has the home advantage, however brief it may last. And while Yami was legendary, Yusei was unkillable. So he has that going for him, at least.

Yami’s moves are refined, Yusei learns, blocking his attacks with a fluid and graceful sense to his movements. Each move is matched with swiftness and a returning strike that Yusei struggles to defend against. He was probably trained properly somewhere, as opposed to Yusei, who recalls learning how to use a sword in the back alleys in Satellite, with Kiryu at his side and a wall at his back. Still, with proper training came repetitiveness and predictability - with learning on the streets, you had to get creative.

Once he’s taken a few too many hits - a jab from the elbow, a slice on his cheek - Yusei learns his general style, his process for basic attacks. And Yusei retaliates. The overhead swing is predicted, and countered; Yusei slams the dull side of his sword against Yami’s knee, and is rewarded when Yami stumbles backward, losing his balance over that one uneven plank that Bruno has never quite gotten around to fixing. It’s only for a second, but a second is enough, and Yusei aims for the throat.

Instead of meeting flesh, his sword meets steel, his opponent’s sword rising up at incredible speed to block the fatal blow, and Yusei watches as the outline of something gold and ancient glows on Yami’s forehead.

“You’re good,” Yami smiles, not quite right, not quite the same man Yusei started his fight with. “So let’s see how well you fare when I turn this shadow game up a few levels.”

Yami’s sword pierces the air and Yusei finds himself with a few less strands of hair as he moves just in time to avoid a collision with his face. It sets the pace for the rest of the fight, with Yami moving for a full assault that Yusei can barely counter, and often fails enough that a few more cuts have been left on his body.

The mark glows in tandem with each strike, shielding him enough that no hit is fatal, but each spike of accompanying pain almost makes Yusei wish it was.

“So this is your secret to immortality,” Yami muses. “A blessing. Or maybe a curse. Either way, it may prevent you from dying, but it won’t stop you from losing.

Yami steps forward, Yusei steps back, again and again, Yusei parries half the blows and suffers half the damage until his back is against the rails. He looks over his shoulder for a second: treacherous sea awaits him, the ocean rocking both boats with no mercy, no calm, and only certain death should he fall.

“Nowhere left to run,” Yami says, sword level to the mark on his arm, and eyes wild and wide with a red glint to them. “Give me your piece of the map.”

“No.”

“You may think you have nothing to lose,” Yami says. “Since you can never lose your life. But they can lose theirs.”

Yami points to his ship, where Crow is in a fist fight with a boy with blonde hair and a strangely distinct chin, doing well but staggering, his leg is bleeding - Jack is kicking a boy with brown hair in the face, it’s clear he had the advantage in power but the his opponent proves more than capable of taking a hit and then throwing it back - Rua and Ruka, why were they fighting, are fighting a woman who fights like she is dancing - Aki, Aki is nowhere to be seen - and Bruno is losing a fight against a tag team of two younger boys, one with two shades of brown in his hair, the other a color of blue almost identical to Bruno’s.

Yusei’s voice almost catches in his throat.

“Leave them out of this,” Yusei manages to say.

“I will,” Yami says. “If you give me your piece of the map.”

“I can’t. I have to - I have to find the island; I have to have my wish granted.”

“So do I,” Yami says, lowering his sword, with the eye on his forehead flickering. “You’re not the only one looking to reclaim something they have lost, Yusei Fudo.”

Somewhere, Rua starts to cry, and Yusei looks over but he can’t see, can’t see over Crow’s limp body on the ship’s floor, can’t see over Jack who is now trying to defend Crow while facing two opponents with swords while he is without a weapon entirely, can’t see over Bruno trying to get to Jack and Crow but is continuously blocked by his own duo of enemies.

“Don’t! Don’t. Let them… Let them go,” Yusei stares at his hands, wondering why he never insisted on doing this fight on his own, why he never insisted Crow and Bruno leave him to his own devices and let him sail to either his doom or his salvation by himself. Either way, it would have been what he wanted, but only for himself, never for them.

He should never have put them in danger. Their lives weren’t worth the map nor what lies beyond it - his mortality wasn’t worth theirs.

“You know what you have to do,” Yami says. He lifts an arm high in the air, and the battle across ships freezes. All eyes are on them, and no one moves, no one breathes. Jack stands with his hands balled up into fists, his shoulders rigid and his mouth twisted in a snarl, like he wants to say something, but a sword pointed at his throat keeps him silent.

The box with his father’s map piece. It’s in his coat, in a pocket sewn on the inside. Yusei fishes it out with a shaking hand, and stares at it.

(“Take this, Yusei,” His father said, putting a small box in Yusei’s hands and smiling. “Don’t let go of it, no matter what, okay? Promise me that. I’ll be back for it before you know it. Just say out sight and out of danger until then.”)

“Sorry, Father,” Yusei murmurs, and moves to drop it into Yami’s outstretched fingers.

No.

The second Yusei’s hand means to lose the last thing promised to never let go of, many things happen. The first is that Crow is really good at playing dead, using this talent to sweep the legs out from underneath the ones holding Jack at knifepoint, and stagger back to his feet with a grin on his face. The second is that Jack remains an opportunist, stealing the sword that had been used against him and wielding it to even the odds against Bruno, making it a fair fight. The third is that despite what he taught her, Aki remains as reckless as ever.

“I hope you weren’t thinking of giving up, Captain,” Aki says, lips curled into a smile while her hand held steady, pointing her sword to Yami’s back.

“The thought may have crossed my mind.” Yusei says, blinking, maybe due to the sea salt in his eyes, maybe due to other, stupid reasons.

“And here I thought you were sober for once,” Aki says. “Guess I’ll have to intervene on my Captain’s behalf, since he must be drunk if he’s not thinking straight right now.”

“You’d interfere with a duel,” Yami says, narrowing his eyes. “You crew knows no shame, Yusei Fudo.”

“Sorry,” Yusei shoves the box back into his pocket, and readies his sword. “But we are pirates, after all.”

And just as everything once froze, everything begins to move again. He doesn’t look, but Yusei can hear the cheer in Crow’s laughter, Rua and Ruka’s battle cries as they rally against someone, the roar of Jack as he initiates another fight, and the stuttering of Bruno as he apologizes for punching someone in the face probably.

Aki and Yusei clash blades against the King of the Seas, and while they both aren’t a match for him alone, together, they cover for each other that it’s just enough to push Yami back: every strike that leaves him open, Yusei exploits, every attack he deflects from one the other goes to support, and every time he attempts a defense, Aki pierces right through it with her rapier, creating an opening for the two of them to advance with.

It’s all working well, until another ship crashes into Yami’s, the force reaching even the Stardust and unbalancing them all.

“What the hell is it with ships just ramming into us when we’re fighting?” Crow’s voice, Yusei hears, over the sounds of a ship scraping against another.

“You gotta be kiddin’ me. Hey Cap!” The blonde man, one of Yami’s crew, shouts. “Hate ta say this, but we got company! And it’s the fucking rich boy!

Yusei looks at the ship, then at the bowsprit. The colors imply a navy ship, one that was incredibly massive and couldn’t have normally snuck up upon them had them all not been collectively distracted by each other. The bowsprit confirms it as a navy vessel, if only by reputation, because while Yusei has never seen it in person before, the Blue Eyes White Dragon is said to have an elegant white dragon carved upon the bowsprit, and it’s nothing short of what looks to be a regal and very expensive winged creature that the ship has.

“Kaiba,” Yami spits out. “Of all the times… Time to end this quickly, then.”

They let their guard down, Yusei realizes, mostly because Yami punches him in the face. He reels back from it, seeing stars explode even behind his eyelids, and hears Aki yell his name. When Yusei blinks the light away and can focus again, he’s regained his sight just in time to see Yami toss a struggling Aki over the railing and into the sea.

“Aki!” Crow shouts, from the railing of the enemy ship, and begins to climb over it to reach theirs. Bruno follows suit, bigger and with a longer reach, but none of them will make it in time, none of them can do anything when she’s in the water.

He might, though.

Yusei ignores Yami, who passes him with equal shortsighted focus to return to his ship. Their duel is suspended, a shadow game for another day, another battle. Yami’s crew begins to deal with the new threat, Yami moves to intercept a tall man with brown hair and a stone cold face, Yusei’s crew moves for a full retreat, and Yusei runs to the edge of the deck.

Yusei throws himself off the ship.

“Yusei?”

Yusei!

The water is freezing and immediately Yusei gets water in his mouth and sea salt in his eyes. The ocean stings at the cuts he gathered from his fight. He splashes around, screams Aki’s name a few times, then dives down when she doesn’t pop up to yell back at him.

She’s there, although visibility is so poor an entire fleet of navy officers could have also been there and Yusei wouldn’t be able to tell. He’s only able to tell it’s her, slowly sinking into darkness, by the color of her hair, and that rose hairclip she insisted on wearing, shiny even when submerged and just enough to get his attention.

Yusei loops an arm around her torso and hopes he’s got enough strength to pull them both to the surface. She’s not exactly heavy, but the ocean and currents and general tiredness Yusei has going for him doesn’t make it an easy swim. Still, he breaks to the top, a someone with the hairstyle of a broom spots him from above.

“Yusei?” Crow shouts, and then many more faces appear at the railing. “Yusei!”

Bruno throws a rope down, and Yusei does his best to tie it around them both. He gives it a tug and then flashes Bruno a thumbs up, and they begin to pull, slowly lifting Yusei and Aki out of the water. Yusei still holds on tight, to the rope with one hand and Aki with the other, until they reach the top and so many hands reach to them, to lift them back onto the deck.

“You’re alive!” Crow cheers, then punches Yusei in the face. He doesn’t even try to stop it, so Yusei falls back, lying on the deck as he reaches up to feel the bruise that Crow and Yami have both probably left. “You had me worried you asshole. Bruno, let’s get going, now.”

“You got it!”

“Yusei, Yusei!” Rua worms his way into Yusei vision, peering down at him with a smile that could brighten the entire planet. “You’re okay! You’re okay I was so worried -”

“You could have died,” Jack says, looking only mildly miffed as they made a speedy exit from the battle waging on the other side, where the Millennium was locked in a battle with its only rival. “With all our ships butting against each other and the temperament of the sea today? It’s a miracle you weren’t swallowed by the waves.”

“Jack’s right,” Bruno says, from the ship’s wheel. Stardust set sail, detangling themselves from a fight that was no longer theirs, putting distance between them. “Shouldn’t have the mark stopped you from jumping?”

“Probably,” Yusei says, sitting up and pulling his shirt sleeve aside to stare at the dismal red blotch on his arm, the angry mark and the irritated skin.

“Nah,” Crow says, throwing his arm around Yusei’s shoulders like a best friend, like someone who didn’t just punch Yusei in the face. “It only stops Yusei when he’s doing something that’ll get himself killed. But I’m willing to bet a whole ship’s worth a rum that death was the last thing on our Captain’s mind when he jumped over. After all, can’t save Aki if you’re dead, right?”

“...Right,” Yusei answers, cautious of the growing grin on Crow’s face. Yusei narrows his eyes while Crow continues to wear the look of a secret keeper who just learned something new and compromising.

“You’ve totally fallen for her.” Crow says.

“Oh my god,” Yusei says, covering his face with his right hand, much to the laughter of Crow and the twins.

“You’re all children,” Jack says, but it lacks the usual bite in his tone, and he almost looks fond of them, staring at them from his ridiculously tall height of 6 foot 500 or something, Yusei doesn’t know how tall Jack is but it’s too tall.

Aki, naturally, chooses this moment to regain consciousness and cough the water out of her lungs.

“What happened?” She says, sitting up and looking around for something: enemies, a sword maybe. Until her eyes land on Yusei, and he figures out she was probably looking for him. “Yusei, tell me we didn’t lose.”

“We didn’t lose,” Yusei tells her.

“We ran away,” Bruno chirps.

Aki sighs.

“Not exactly a glorious way to end a battle,” Aki says.

“Maybe not,” Crow says. “But we’re all alive, so there’s that. Sorry, I know you’ve got big dreams of this whole pirate gig, but we figured that Captain Yami would prefer to meet up with Admiral Kaiba without us acting as awkward houseguests in the background.”

“Yami, that jerk threw me off the ship,” Aki frowns, feeling around the back of her head. “Think I hit the railing on my way down… Speaking of, last thing I remember is that. What happened after?”

“Oh, Yusei heroically and stupidly threw himself off the ship after you,” Jack says. “We pulled you both back up. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Thanks for the attitude, Jack,” Yusei says, and earns a scowl from Jack as his reward.

“Did anyone give me mouth-to-mouth?” Aki says, touching her lips with the tips of her fingers.

“No,” Crow says. “I checked, you were breathing fine enough when we hauled you back up.”

“Oh,” Aki says.

“This isn’t some romance novel,” Jack says. “You fell off the ship for like, five seconds.”

“Disappointed?” Rua and Ruka say in tandem, identical grins on their faces as they move to surround Aki, who swats them away with a fond smile on her face.

“Maybe,” Aki says, with a note of laughter in her voice. “I’ll have to make do with the next best thing, then.”

“With what?” Yusei asks, and for some reason, Crow abandons him with a burst of laughter and limps over to where Jack is standing, who looks like he’d like to be anywhere else at the moment. The twins follow suit, and suddenly it’s everyone up against the rails, the wind blowing in their hair, as they watch Yusei stare at them from the floor of the deck with no clue as to why they were smiling.

Aki doesn’t answer, she just puts her hand on his shoulder and pulls him forward.

The day Yusei turns twenty-two, he kisses the woman who stowed away on his ship with rose colored hair and warm brown eyes, and for the first time in years, thinks about a life ahead: with or without the mark, he begins to dream of a future of happiness.