There was a giant white crocodile suspended on the ceiling.
“Goddammit,” he hissed after it’d made him jump. His violent intent to beat the shit out of the captain was disrupted by a crocodile lamp.
He’d received a letter inviting him to ‘Enjoy the night’ in a godforsaken tavern hidden in the backwaters of the moors, far enough that the chaos wreaked by the arrival of pirates went unheard. He was keenly familiar with the ambience, the loud laughter and the constant tension of fights brewing, threatening to erupt; it was air that invited dirty secrets to come to surface, along with indecency and the general absence of basic human integrity.
But he was familiar for the wrong reasons, how he stood on the other end of the law. He’d chased countless criminals in this setting or around it, vagrants smelling of piss in fetid alleyways, and pirates who’d just docked to drink and raid the businesses of poor old vendors.
Hyder kept an eye out for the owner, looking for a cowering old man or a tavern wench who looked like she could snap his neck. But when he found her she was a young, sweet thing, who, to his surprise, seemed a good friend of the entire crew. With her light steps around little round stools and the too-big men on them, effortlessly navigating dangerous waters with a tray full of drinks, it was easy to tell she had memorized their poisons by heart and served them unprompted.
She approached Hyder, doe-eyed and her lips like petals. “Haven’t seen you before,” the barmaid said, brightly. “New recruit? Never too late to be a deckhand, huh?”
“I suppose not,” he responded, desolate. What else could he tell her? The truth? That he was a Captain in the Navy with ships and men to his name, upholding a role in command of the sea and maritime security, held currently against his will by pirates using a girl he secretly raised as leverage? On top of which he was sick to his stomach with worry over said girl, and that itself was a problem, seeing as he’d already thrown up once into this pirate captain’s face after he got squeamish thinking of how two of his fingers were crushed while he was getting sacked? Should he just ask her about the crocodile?
“Can I fetch you anything?” The barmaid asked, dragging him back to the din under her roof. In response he shook his head and thanked her; he needed all the wits he could muster if he was to attack tonight.
Rigel, captain of the crew that filled the tavern was man whose notoriety traveled seas ahead of him, and whose arrogance was not suited for a man of his size. When Hyder had met him first, Rigel’s tunic had been stained with blood, and so were his breeches and the black leather boots he strode so proudly in. He had left behind red footsteps behind him. “Sorry for the wait,” he’d said. “I was humoring my other guest. For information, of course. I’m not cruel.”
He’d feared it’d be Willow, that guest, but it wasn’t. The screams of a man had filled up the galley beforehand, and afterwards Hyde was taken to see Will. She hadn’t been crying before he went in, but she broke into tiny sobs when she saw him— then burst wailing, but he wasn’t released to break her out of that secluded room, and it shattered him how helpless he was. “I won’t hurt her,” Rigel had said later. “She’s of no use to me dead.”
The bastard, with that audacity he threw in his wake was playing cards while a long-haired girl leaned onto his bony shoulder (‘I’ll get to you as soon as I kick these bastards’ asses,’ he had said to Hyder when he saw him enter the bar. The crew cheerfully responded to that, “Oh, you’ll be waiting for a long time, Doc, Cap never wins shit.’)
He’d left Hyder uncuffed, bound to the crew with nothing but his adopted kid, Willow, held captive. They even let him keep a weapon. A brass display of underestimation, he thought while wrapping his fingers around the hilt of the dagger at his belt. But Gal, Rigel’s right-hand man and the only true raw strength protecting the captain, was nowhere to be seen now. It made Rigel as vulnerable as he could be; distracted with a game and a pretty girl in a pale yellow dress. His guard was down, Hyde could tell from the way he bit the tobacco roll between his teeth, a tiny smile tugging at the scarred corner of his lips as he contemplated his next move.
Hyde looked at his reflection on the blade, contorted and made into a monster. Though in truth he didn’t look much better, his eyes deep in their sockets and his face gaunt; but he didn’t even look as horrible as he felt. His dominant index and middle fingers had both been broken during the crew’s first attack, when they mauled him then hurled him at their captain’s feet. That runt was barely bigger than the girl by his side— the knife Hyde had in his palm was more than enough to penetrate straight to his heart if it were pushed right, and dismember him afterwards. With his knowledge of the human body, it wouldn’t take much, he thought. He was a surgeon before everything, had studied anatomy through and through, knew every tendon and every ligament, every point of a man’s body that could kill him. He’d known it all before he was trained to wield a sword, and before the insignia on his uniform gave him his rank. He could tear this bastard limb from limb with a pair of scissors from a suture kit.
But he wasn’t going to. He only planned to turn the tables, take the captain as leverage and force the crew to give his girl back; that was all.
The dimming light glossing over wooden planks made the air warm and pleasant, and in any other circumstance (and in the absence of the crocodile), Hyde would’ve found a comfort in it, that din and the scent of polished hardwood; it reminded him of his childhood and something long forgotten in it. It made him want to sleep.
Before he drew his next breath, he heard the chime of steel meeting its kind. He’d darted and pounced atop the round table, knocking glasses to the floors and the breath out of the girl’s chest. Cards fluttered around him to the floor, then for a second, all else made no sound.
Rigel had drawn his sword, partially, only to block the tip of the dagger coming his way. From where he crouched, Hyde could see the eyes behind the blade, something otherworldly or wild, serpentine in its yellows and green. “You bastard,” he heard, whispered from beneath him. “And I was finally winning.”
Then he unsheathed his weapon, fully.
The force had Hyde instinctively recoil, kicking his foot firmly on the edge of the table and drawing back. They had the attention of everyone in the tavern by now. He blew it, he thought. The crew will interfere soon.
But all he wanted was to take his Will and get the hell out of here, wash up and go to bed. He’d bet all he had on that first strike, and it got blocked by the half-pint.
Hyde took a defensive stance, the knife pointing towards the opponent staggering his way. But in a beat Rigel was sprinting, sure-footed and swift, until their blades met again, the clink louder this time as two forces collide, opposing.
Hyde dropped to avoid the attack— did this kid want him killed? In the midst of strikes and parrying, his mind wandered to that first meeting, when Rigel had made what he sought clear. ‘Be my eyes and ears’ he’d told him, with no reserve. ‘Betray the Crown.’
His words had come as unbridled as his strikes. ‘How would I be your eyes and ears if you end up killing me?’ Hyde lamented, dumbfounded. He could hold his ground, but Rigel’s feet were all but planted in the planks, sea-legs accustomed to duels on water, and movements fluid and decisive.
Rigel attacked, his blade drawing a clear arch above Hyde’s head. Lower down, Hyde finally found an opening. He drove the pommel of his weapon into Rigel’s stomach and felt it hit his hipbone, pulled the dagger back in a blink, and thrust it into Rigel’s gut this time, harshly.
Rigel toppled forward, but his sword was still in his grip. Hyde was vaguely aware of a betting pool forming around them, and as Hyde reached down to seize Rigel, finally..
He felt the impact on his shin, a kick that had him grit his teeth in pain as he fell to the ground. In the second it took him to rise to his feet, he heard Rigel hissing to his crew, “You shits are betting against me?!”
“He’s a big shot in the Navy, Cap,” one of them said, laughing.
Rigel grunted something with the crude gesture he raised to the men behind him. “No choice now,” he said, pointing his sword towards Hyde again like the duel started anew. “I can’t have my own men look down on me”
Hyder looked down to his feet; he was a big shot in the Navy, but he’d rusted after being shackled behind his desk for so long, a pile of documents growing by his side, waiting to be signed. Ignoring the protests of his joints, he pointed his own blade towards his opponent, and watched as a small grin stretched along his lips; if he’s in this neck-deep, he might as well enjoy it.
Two swift strides ate the distance between them, and Hyde crouched seeing Rigel’s sword come for his neck. Shoving a breath past his teeth, he pressed his entire weight on the point where their swords met, sending Rigel sprawling on his ass; but then he was up again in seconds, striking like he knew how— fiercely, and without reserve.
The roar of the blades filled the tavern to its brim and mingled with the cheer of the crowd, looking after their bets. He felt his shirtsleeves clinging to his back, and the trickle of sweat down his brow.
And then it hit him.
‘No,’ he thought, his eyes opening to the truth, bound by a piece of cloth and the air of authority. He was blind to it by choice, but it all made sense, too much sense. Rigel’s palm was splayed flat behind the pommel while his dominant hand was wrapped around the hilt, firmly driving it forward. He really was coming for the kill; and distraction meant Hyde’s end, but he couldn’t stop his mind from spiraling, repeating all the little instances of the past two or three months when he found himself staring at this Captain, considering his size and his slender forearms and his narrow frame and his choice of weapon; a short sword, a small, deadly thing— just like him.
But he didn’t, not for a second. His sword spun on the apex of his wrists, then hit the back of Hyde’s hand. Hyde’s weapon shot to the planks with a loud clank.
Rigel sneered, trapping him between himself and the wall behind, and when Hyde grabbed his collar to defend himself, he was kneed between the legs. Hard.
The pain sent him sliding down the wall with a grunt, and, “Yield,” Rigel said, triumphant, holding him by the collar like it was payback, and placing the tip of his sword beneath Hyder’s chin.
Rigel was so close Hyde’s voice caught in his throat, the tips of their noses almost touching — he drew a shuddering breath, and tried to avoid looking straight towards the scars between them, under Rigel’s white tunic, three ragged lines starting below his collarbones and disappearing into the bindings. Hyde wasn’t sure why right then he was reminded of the morning after a storm at sea, that unbelievable stillness and the first breath of relief. He was tortured with it, some longing or pain, and what was it that dropped his heart so desperately, reaching out for something he didn’t know. It was the booze, he decided, that made light look like this on Rigel’s scars, that made him tremble with the need to touch them. It fucked him up, and he couldn’t help but direct his eyes towards the ceiling.
He knew it somewhere inside him, that he’d seen Rigel before, amidst fire and carnage and death; Rigel’s head was shaved then, and his bony body was barely covered with rags. He remembered the scars; how could he possibly forget the hands that placed the tiny red-haired Willow into his own, then pointed at a dead body nearby; a woman with hair like fire.
“Because you’re a woman?” Hyde hissed, defiantly. He waited for a reaction of shock or offense. He knew, after all, and he could very well announce it to the world, that the pirate that turned it on its head was a woman. “Or because you kicked me in the groin?” Hyde continued.
“Because I have a sword at your neck.” Then, once more, and more fiercely this time, “Yield.” It was the only word said loud enough for the crew to hear.
“Make me,” he challenged, rashly, like a man much younger than he was, like he hadn’t seen as much of the world, like the exhilaration was worth living for.
But then she did. She made him yield— crushed her lips onto his, caught his breath and his entirety and closed her eyes in reckless abandon, and she smelled of the sea and gunpowder and something like ink. Soft, he thought, like it was criminal— how did she feel so soft? This pirate who was all shards and anger and sharp edges, leaving him stupefied like he had turned back into a boy, unsure of where to put his hands. Push her back by the collar he had in his grip? Slide to the rounds of her shoulders to draw her nearer, then sink into it?
Then it ended as fast as it started, with him left breathless and overcome on the floor and their audience ignorant of what had happened. “What?” Rigel asked, hunching overhead. She was so close he could count the scars on her face, pale ridges and curves against her lips and down her collarbones. “Never been kissed by a pretty girl before?”
(Later when what sat between them was no longer malice and hungry rage, after he’s seen all of her— burned off the secrets on her back with iron and fire, and called her real name— she tells him about every scar and ragged old wound, and shudders when he touches the lines on her neck like they hurt still. Then she closes her eyes, eyelids heavy with burdens and memories of crueler things, not wanting to see his expression for fear that it would be disgust or pity. “Hey,” he starts, but she only responds with a sigh, and by then he’s learned how happiness truly looks on her, and how anger does, too, and other things. By then he’s run his fingers across her ribs enough times to know by heart which ones haven’t properly mended after being broken in her past, and how the curve of her ribcage fits in his palms, but her eyes don’t part until he reminds her of that night. “You know,” he tells her, lightly. “Those scars were the last thing I saw before a pirate once kissed me. She was so pretty my legs buckled.”)
“What?” Someone from the crew asked, disappointed and not bothering to hide it. “Cap won?”
“Hah!” She exclaimed, gloating. “Serves you bastards right.”
While coins were begrudgingly passed around, Gal barged through the batwing doors, leaving them creaking as the clatter quieted down. His imposing presence was acknowledged thoroughly, and the brows above his deep-set silver eyes were drawn together. “What the hell?”
“Cap got into his first bar fight,” said one crew member. “And won, somehow. Or at least it looks like it.”
“Gal,” Rigel called. “Your shitty crewmates bet against me, their own captain.”
Gal picked Hyder’s dagger up and flung it towards his captain. “I would’ve done the same,” he said, a scoff following his words.
“Saved your coins then.” Rigel bent down again towards Hyder, her presence fierce as she handed him back his weapon. “No one hears of this,” she told him, about the kiss or her secret, he couldn’t tell. He nodded to his own surprise, not hers, and then she laughed. As she headed to the dark staircase, “Oh, my darling scalawags,” she announced to her crew. “This’ll teach you to trust me a little more. And sorry for the mess, Eli. The boys’ll take care of it,” she told the barmaid.
(The crew had their protests, though. “Take care of it yourself, Cap,” they laughed. But when the owner fluttered her eyelashes and asked, “Won’t you?”
“Of course we will!” They exclaimed, and got to work.)
A large arm extended towards him. “Get up, Doc, Rigel’s going to be waiting,” Gal said. “We’ve got government secrets to discuss.”
He looked again at the crocodile, no longer the most absurd thing of the night. This crew had a nickname for him, and they called him by it like he hadn’t spent the evening trying to kill their captain, like they were friends.
He’d just become Doc.
Flower prompt: Protea — transformation, courage
A/Notes: The croc lamp was a gift from Rigel. She thought it was cute.