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With the Wind in Our Sails

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In the midday sun, with the gentle ocean breeze, a certain, distinct feeling of dread had found its way into Yona’s stomach. News of a new human trafficking ring in Awa had reached the ship, and even she knew it would become her responsibility to snuff it out. Yona had eliminated Kumji, after all—it was practically her job to take down the local tyrants.

After having taken down Kumji, she asked Gigan to let her and her friends join their group of pirates. The older woman had insisted that she was going to disband their gang, but part of Yona felt that Kumji was only one piece of the puzzle. It wouldn’t end with him, that was too easy.

No, if her travels had taught her anything, it was that there was always someone else, ready to take the place of those who had fallen. True, they had remained pirates masquerading as fishermen for quite some time, but eventually, a new human trafficker had taken Kumji’s place.

This leader was someone the public of Awa referred to as Yang Kage—the shadow of Yang Kumji. Before him, there were plenty of small fries; leaders who would be eradicated within weeks of their emergence. They were people with little money, power, or influence, making it easy to expose their secrets. Kage, though, was a different story. He was the eighth one to take over the trafficking trade, and had learned from the mistakes of the others to perfect his system.

They had targeted prostitutes and working women, first. Then, they moved to abducting girls—some younger than 10—off the streets. Sometimes, it was broad daylight, sometimes it wasn’t. As time went on, Awa once again became an unsafe area for women of all backgrounds.

This leader was much more insidious, one who did not take pleasure in showing himself in the public. He operated in the shadows of the city, and refused to surface. Instead, his goons were the ones who were being captured. However, they were far more resilient than they seemed, and would rather commit suicide than reveal the secrets of their trade.

Truly, “shadow” only began to describe Kage’s presence. Some of the underlings had never even seen the man, and for a while, Yona wondered if he even existed.

That is, until one fateful evening.

The mission had failed. They had fallen victim to Kage’s mind games, and psychological warfare, and had been successfully deceived. The location had been wrong the entire time—it wasn’t the warehouse they had thought, the one that all the evidence pointed to. No, they had cleared out of there earlier that day.

Yona ran to the nearest brothel, her fears confirmed when she saw several different men carrying unconscious women out of the back. That is, except for one. A tall, slender figure stood in the shadows of the building, his silhouette defined by the dim lanterns behind him.

She was alone, with only a few small blades on her person—it would be too dangerous to fight him. The others wouldn’t be along for at least a few minutes, making it reckless to even think of fighting. After all, it would five against one.

But those women—they would be sold off as slaves, or brides.

Or, in most cases, both.

Yona refused to let that stand. She would be as reckless as she needed to be.

Kage noticed her first, this woman rushing him with her dagger, a deep scar on her cheek highlighting the eyes bright with hatred, her red hair illuminated by the lanterns that surround them. Unsheathing his sword, he blocked her, effectively stopping her from moving forward. Silently, he loomed over her, holding her off without visibly exerting any effort.

Yona took the opportunity to memorize his facial features. The most noticeable of these features was the fact that he was heterochromatic—one eye was a bright hazel, the other, an icy blue. Scars etched his face more than wrinkles did—he was young, but war-torn. Probably in his late twenties, or early thirties; a change of pace from the usual 50- or 60-year-old men that tried to take over the human trafficking trade.

Shorter layers of his hair hung around his face, but the rest of his brown, shoulder-length hair was pulled back into a ponytail with a small ribbon. With his stoic expression—he didn’t even look troubled by her ambush—he gazed down at her, freezing her blood and her resolve with only one look.

Glancing over his shoulder, Kage nodded lazily at his men, signaling them to continue on without him.

No!

Throwing in a solid kick to Kage’s stomach, she threw him off just long enough to rush past him. Grounding herself, she took one of her small knives, and threw it at a downward angle, slicing the leg of one of the men. His legs buckled, and he collapsed, the woman he was carrying falling to the ground with him.

Yona was about to rush forward to take out the other three men, or at least stun them, when she was yanked back. Kage had grabbed her hair and threw her to the ground, staring down at her as he passed by. Yona kicked at his feet, aiming for his Achille’s Heel, but before she could register much more, there was a blade mere inches from her face.

Glancing up the length of the blade, she could see the triumph written into Kage’s features. With a carefree gesture, the remaining three men hoisted the women higher onto their shoulders, before disappearing into the shadows of the alley. The one that had been wounded was left behind in his agony. Glancing between the departing men, and Kage, Yona’s eyes communicated how much hatred she felt for the man before her.

She did not bother to hold back.

“Good,” he smiled down at her—cold and unfeeling—before sheathing his sword. His voice was deep, and the sound of it burned into her memory. Crouching down to her level, he stared intently at her. Part of her felt like he was appraising her, and the other part of her felt like he was sizing her up. “You are not an idiot, as most are,” he praised her, sending a shudder down her spine. His formal tone certainly didn’t help.

When he reached for her, she recoiled, but all he did was take a strand of her hair between his two fingers, and examine it. He glanced back at her, a quizzical look on his face—he almost looked as if someone had told him a bad joke. Yona hated the way she was completely at the mercy of this man—it was time to change that.

“You’re Yang Kage.” It was not a question, but an accusation.

“Interesting hair color…” he mused, ignoring her. Yona, absolutely fed up, slapped his hand away. He seemed amused by this, which somehow made it worse. “My, what a temper.”

“Don’t touch me,” she hissed.

“Very well.” He stood up, dusting off his clothes. From around the corner, a group of footsteps could be heard, approaching where they were. It was the rest of her group, finally catching up with her.

“Yona!!” they called, their voices carrying through the street. Kage looked down at her, a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.

“’Yona’...” He only looked at her for a moment longer, taking a few seconds to memorize the last of her features, before turning, and walking away casually. He looked down at the man that Yona had attacked, the one who was unable to walk, and unsheathed his sword. “We shall see each other again.” And with that, he stabbed the man in the throat without any hint of hesitation. Yona’s blood ran cold as she watched the man bleed onto the street. Kage glanced over his shoulder and gave her a twisted grin. “You may call me Jin. After all, that is my actual name. Until next time, Yona.”

And with that, he was gone.

Him, his goons, and the women. They all vanished with the cover of night.

She hadn’t done enough. Those women would end up as slaves because of her failure. She could have done more—she was sure of it. But there she remained, frozen, sitting on the ground, watching the spot where Jin had disappeared from sight.

There was something in the way he spoke to her, something that was different from the previous leaders. It was almost as if… he didn’t consider her so much of an enemy, as he considered her a prized animal that should be hunted. His last words to her made her feel like she was prey, and he would take his time to savor hunting her down.

Her blood rushed, her fingers trembling, making her light-headed. By the time the dragons had reached her, tears were already streaming down her face, the light from the lanterns catching on the small streaks. Kija and Shin Ah rushed forward, immediately checking if she was hurt, or traumatized in any way.

She had vaguely pointed in the direction that Kage had gone in, sending Kija and Shin Ah over to him, while a few of the other pirates shortly caught up with her, helping her to her feet, and getting her back to the ship.

Kija and Shin Ah’s search turned up nothing. Even with Shin Ah’s vision on their side, Kage still could not be found. It was as if he and his men had really disappeared into oblivion. But still, Yona had seen him, and could confirm that he was not just a figurehead. He existed, but she wished he didn’t.

That night, Jae Ha held Yona in his arms, being the safe space she needed to release all of her fear. He stroked her hair as she cried against him, her hands balled up into fists, clutching at his clothes. It was as if she needed a reminder that warmth existed.

After all, this was a risky business. It wasn’t something you could just walk away from at the end of the day.

Yona told Jae Ha everything—recounting every minute detail about Jin, as if she was trying to reassure herself that he existed at all. Even in the middle of the ocean, she felt as if he could show up at any moment, there to claim her life. The burn of his eyes, as if he was boring into her soul, haunted her for weeks; the apathy he expressed at killing his own subordinate always at the back of her mind.

If he can kill someone who was loyal to him like that, what’s going to happen to me?

Having his name and knowing his face proved to be fruitless information. Nobody had ever heard of a “Jin” before, and no one had seen a man with heterochromia that matched his description. He truly stuck to the underworld, it seemed. It was weighing down on all the crew more than usual, knowing that someone so unknown was lurking around Awa, out of sight from even the Seiryuu’s eyes.

Deep down, every member of the crew knew that Yona was going to be the key to capturing him. The dragons absolutely refused to let her be bait—despite Yona volunteering, because she’d rather sacrifice herself and take Kage down than let him wander the streets.

Beyond the anxiety surrounding Jin, there was something more. As Yona’s eyes scanned the ocean, her brows furrowed in thought, as if to meditate on what that other danger could be. She was picking up on something, somehow, and it meant trouble. The only logical step left was to figure out what it was, and eradicate it.

Running her fingers along her cheek, her fingertips lingered on her scar, a reminder of past battles, and a warning for battles to come. The third leader, a forgettable man in his 50s, was a coward himself, but his henchmen fought for their lives. It was one of his henchmen that had used a rough knife to try and cut out Yona’s eye.

He had missed, but only barely. The blade had torn through the soft tissue, but still, Yona fought. Some of the others that had been in the area later told her she looked like a demon, with blood pouring down her face, her eyes filled with bloodlust as she took the man down.

It had been a rare moment where Gigan would excuse the killing of another person. It was either Yona, or the man. He wasn’t showing signs of giving up until she had used his own blade to plunge through his heart.

Yona kept the weapon for herself.

As time continued on, so did the attempts to find Kage, and eliminate him. The others tried their best to keep Yona out of it, but after almost a month and a half of continuing disappearances and no sign of the man behind it all, they had no choice.

The next several days, they would be in the port of Awa once again. They had no choice but to send Yona in, most likely undercover. After all, she had been the only one to see his face, and would be able to spot him without difficulty. However, that also meant she would have to work with one of the brothels in town—that gave her the best chance of finding him again.

The dread surrounding that task weighed on her, but it was not the same as the feeling that nagged at her. Dread sat in the pit of her stomach, but this… anxiety, this foreboding resided deep within her heart. It moved her blood, controlled her body.

“Something wrong?” a familiar voice chimed in, breaking her away from her thoughts. Yona turned, a smile already pulling at her lips, as she faced Jae Ha.

“What makes you think something is wrong?” she asked, half teasing. Quirking an eyebrow at her, he leaned against the mast.

“Nobody looks out over the water like that unless something’s wrong.” He got her there. Yet her smile remained—at least she had someone to talk to. Of all the crew, she enjoyed spending time with Jae Ha the most, but she didn’t want to worry him. Her silence marked her hesitation, and Jae Ha’s teasing ebbed. “I’m sure there’s another way for them to find Kage. If you don’t want to go, I can—”

“I’m going.”

Jae Ha didn’t expect any less from her. She had always been like this: headstrong, reckless enough to keep him awake at night, and totally determined to do what was right. It drove him crazy with worry, but he could never stop her from being herself. With a reassuring smile, he smoothed the hair on top of her head, wild curls popping up from the sea breeze.

“Just thought I’d offer.”

“Thanks anyway, Jae Ha.” It honestly meant a lot to her that he was so concerned for her well-being, but he also knew when to let her have her freedom. She was never suffocated by him, or his protective nature.

Never mind the feelings behind the concern.

“Think you can help me look like an escort?” she joked, shooting Jae Ha a cheeky smile. “You’re the one always making trips to brothels, after all.” He rolled his eyes before smiling at her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. Yona had to pretend that her heart didn’t race at the contact.

 “Leave it to me, and my oh-so-expansive knowledge of brothel culture,” he replied sarcastically. He didn’t go nearly as much as he used to—part of him just didn’t feel right whenever he did. “A little makeup, and some nice clothes, and you’ll look the part.”

Yona thought, for just a moment, that his grip on her shoulder tightened slightly, but concluded that it was all in her head. He was probably just worried, as a fellow crewmember. She doubted there was anything behind it.

After all, she had gotten her hopes up before, and it had only left her crushed.

Leaning into him, an action that was barely perceptible, a sigh escaped her. It felt as if it had left her heart directly, and made the ache in her chest only more apparent.

Being around him was a comfort as much as it was a curse. His presence was a security blanket, but it only made her more aware of the reality of the world.

He didn’t think of her in that way—he never did, and he never would.

Yona knew this much, and would be damned if she ever let it show.

Reveling in that moment—warm, and bright, like the calm before the storm—she felt the anxiety melt away. Even if it was just for a moment, even if it returned when he let her go, she would let herself be happy in those few seconds.

Giving her a quick squeeze before letting go, Jae Ha gave her a gentle smile.

“Everything is going to be okay.”

And for a moment, she believed him.

Giving him a quick smile, she sighed out a farewell, and returned to her work.

 

Six years. It had been six years since she witnessed Soo Won cutting down her father, since she and Hak had escaped the palace, since her life had been changed forever. Six years since she had cut her hair to free herself from Tae Jun’s grip, since she had fallen off the cliff…

It had been six years since Princess Yona, as everyone knew her, died.

After coming to Awa, she had basically secured her anonymity. After all, the only one who seemed to recognize her was Kumji, and that problem had been taken care of. To the public, she was Rina, adopting her name that she had been given in the Wind Tribe.

There were times that she had thought about returning to the Wind Tribe, and living in peace, but she knew that word about her would spread too quickly, and too carelessly. It was too much of a threat to those she knew.

Who knew what would happen if Soo Won found out she was alive?

She had more or less remained unknown, more of a legend than anything. The girl with the red hair, the protective spirit of Awa. To anyone else, maybe that was all she was—a ghost of a former princess, killed by insurgents of the castle.

She planned to keep it that way.

Every now and again, she thought about what the people in her old life were up to. She had no way of knowing who was alive, or dead, or if anyone had gotten married, or had children. She could only hope that everyone was doing well, and was happy, moving on from their grief.

It had taken her quite some time to move on from her own grief.

That was then, this was now. She had no time to dwell on the past—the present was currently holding all of her attention. At that moment, she had Jin to worry about. Soo Won was a dream compared to that lunatic.

 

Time crawled, making the remainder of the trip to the port an absolute nightmare. Yona had too much time to think about what could possibly go wrong, who could die, who could get hurt. Imagining herself being kidnapped, tortured, or killed was nothing in comparison to what they may do to her friends. The images haunted her for the last remaining days—but she kept a brave face. If she showed any signs of vulnerability, it would shake the foundations of morale for the whole crew.

Despite this, as soon as the harbor was in sight, she wished she had more time. It had gone too quickly, she wasn’t prepared for what the shadows of Awa held for her. However, they had no time to lose, and had to start their investigation that night.

Time continued to pass her by. Before she knew it, they were already in port, and she was already being led off the ship into the town of Awa. Sights, smells, and sounds melted together, creating a Pandora’s Box of sensory overload. It overwhelmed her, mixing with the anxiety that already weighed her down. Her eyes flitting around, catching on faces, but never resting there for long.

Anyone with brown, shoulder-length hair made her nerves kick into overdrive. Rationality claimed that there was no way it could be Jin, but her fear screamed that it was. Never had she realized how many men in Awa could have shoulder-length brown hair, and how exhausting it would be to walk through town.

Yoon and Jae Ha kept their hands steady on Yona as they walked through town, noticing how unsteady on her feet she was. They didn’t bother to say anything—they could imagine the reason why. Linking his arm through hers, Yoon glanced around, keeping an eye out for anyone matching the description of Kage that Yona had given them.

He was worried about her. Yona was tough, but she had the right to be terrified. Her presence alone was challenging Kage, luring him out of the shadows. If he had any sort of grudge against her, she could be dead before morning came.

Gently laying his hand over hers, Yoon gave Yona a reassuring smile. They had been friends for a long time, and part of him was glad that he was one of the crewmembers chosen to accompany her. He would be posing as a servant boy, most likely, as he could no longer pass as a female, now that he was 21 years old.

But he would be close to her at all times. If anything went wrong, he would be one of the first people to know. He would be her anchor, and she could rely on him as much as she needed.

Jae Ha, as well, would be sneaking in to keep an eye on her. However, servitude wasn’t for him, so, naturally, he was going to be a customer at the brothel for the next few evenings. Yoon didn’t expect anything else from him, if he was going to be honest.

Once they reached the brothel, they introduced themselves, and explained their intentions. The owner’s eyes fell upon the deep scar on Yona’s cheek.

“And what about that? We don’t want damaged goods here.”

“Some makeup and you will never know it was there,” Jae Ha retorted, standing his ground. Thankfully, his height was helping their cause, as he was a full head taller than the owner. “Besides, it’s not like she’ll be here forever. A few days won’t ruin your reputation.”

 It took some arguing and “you need our help” logic, but eventually a deal was made:

“You can work here for the next five nights. You will act as a proper escort, adopt our culture, and follow our rules. If you sully our reputation, you will be banned from entering here ever again.” The owner was red in the face, but he understood the danger that Kage was posing, at the very least. “And don’t think I wouldn’t tell the other brothels about your behavior.”

“But--!” Yoon exclaimed.

“No buts.”

“I understand, and I accept your terms,” Yona said coldly, no emotion in her voice. Bowing deeply, she waited until the owner spoke once more before straightening her posture.

“Then, you shall work under the name ‘Tsubaki’. At least it matches your hair.”

“Thank you for your kindness."

Once the deal was made, and all the conditions were set, it was time for Yoon and Yona to take on their roles. At the entrance, they stood with Jae Ha, saying their quick goodbyes. Ruffling Yoon’s hair, Jae Ha smiled at him.

“Take good care of her. Of both of you,” he murmured, voice laced with concern. The lump of anxiety in his throat made his voice waver, but he put on a brave face.

“I will,” Yoon promised. All three of them were faking courage, and hoping it wasn’t obvious to the others. He watched as Jae Ha’s gaze moved to Yona, and lingered for a few moments longer than usual. Sighing, he turned. “Well, I better go in and get started with the help.”

Yona silently thanked Yoon for his perception. Once he disappeared from sight, she turned back to Jae Ha, the silence between them saying everything neither one of them wanted to admit. It was impossible to shake the feeling that something big was going to happen, and both of them could feel it in their cores.

Without warning, he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.

She gasped, before melting into his touch, and returning the embrace. He ran his fingers through the end of her hair, and took a moment to breathe her in. Closing her eyes, she buried her head into the crook of his shoulder, taking a moment to listen to his heartbeat, to ground herself. The steady rhythm of his heart was a reminder that she was there, she was alive.

“Please…” he whispered, his voice a warm breeze against her ear. She blushed, and tensed only slightly, her hands bunching the fabric of his clothes. “Please, be safe.”

His words shook her resolve. She wanted to stay with him, to never risk something like this ever again, but she knew she had to do this. Otherwise, the women of Awa would never feel safe. If she could be the one to end this regime, then she would.

Moving to press his forehead against hers, he closed his eyes, and savored the moment. She could feel his breath on her lips, and wanted, more than anything, to show him how she felt. She wanted to touch him, no matter how soft, or fleeting. She wanted to share these moments with him far more often—she wanted to be selfish with him. Whole days dedicated to lounging in each others’ arms, sleepy kisses… total security.

But that was nothing more than a fantasy.

Tears threatened to fall at the mere thought of reality.

“I will,” she breathed.

Jae Ha looked at her one last time, his hands cupping her cheeks as he glanced over the features of her face, memorizing them as best as he could in that moment. His thumb brushed over her cheek, and he wished for nothing more in the world than to hold her in his arms for days at a time.

But he just couldn’t hold her back like that. He didn’t have the heart for it.

He knew the look she would get in her eyes when she had achieved her goal. He could drown in that look. If he were to stop her, it would rot her from the inside-out, it would make her life a living hell.

No, these moments would have to do. As long as she came back in one piece, that would be enough for him. To watch her say I took down Kage! with so much pride and triumph, to have conquered the fear that was smothering not only herself, but Awa, that was what made it all worth it. Watching her grow from a young, scared princess into the woman she was now had been one of the biggest blessings he had had in his life.

It breathed life into him.

Tearing himself away, he forced a smile.

“I’ll be here tonight. As soon as the doors open.” With that, he had turned on his heel, and began to walk the other way, disappearing into the hustle and bustle of the town.

Thus, the first of five nights began.

The dressing went as well as expected—seeing as how Yona had not worn anything particularly high-end in quite some time, she had forgotten how heavy some of these clothes could be. She couldn’t help but remember those carefree days in the palace, when she would be dressed up for some special occasion or another, worrying about how her hair looked.

She felt like an eternity had passed since those days. It was impossible to even imagine her current self in the palace. She knew she would have been as ignorant and carefree as she was when she was 16. There was no life for her there.

When the women who were helping her began to prepare her makeup, she wondered how she would end up looking. That scar on her cheek was rather prominent, after all. Part of her shuddered at the thought of having to wear a full face of makeup—not only that, but being the only one who had to.

“If you ask me, the scar isn’t that bad. It gives her a certain edge,” one escort thought aloud. “It gives her this… ‘forbidden beauty’ kind of feeling, doesn’t it?”

“Do you really think so?” Yona asked, suddenly much more self-conscious of her scar than before. The escorts smiled and nodded.

“A little rouge, do your eyes and hair, and you’ll hardly pay attention to it.”

A small part of the anxiety ebbed away from Yona. It felt nice being surrounded by women. She was constantly in the middle of all the male crewmembers, and it could be a little overwhelming at times. Rather, it was extremely overwhelming, all of the time.

They all worked really hard to make sure that Yona could attract customers—they were even sweet enough to let her borrow certain accessories.

“It’s a small price to pay for safety,” was what they had said.

With her hair half-pulled back—two strands braided, and finishing in a bun, and the rest hanging loosely—her eyes and bottom lip lined with a deep red that rivaled the color of her hair, teardrop earrings, and a small hair ornament designed to look like a cherry blossom in her bun, she was ready to go.

When Yona saw her reflection in the mirror, she was pleasantly shocked. She never expected to look so mature, or grown up. It was a little hard to believe that she was looking at herself.

“Thank you,” she beamed at the other women. “Thank you so much!”

With a little more confidence, Yona headed to her own room, prepared to face the seedy underground of Awa.

However, she would quickly find out that being a prostitute with no reputation would prove to be extremely boring. Most of the evening was spent by herself, surrounded by the sounds of everyone else conducting their business.

A small knock came at her door—something uncommon for customers to do. Eyes flashing towards the panel, she watched as it slid open, her heart constricting momentarily. However, she relaxed upon seeing Jae Ha.

“Hey,” he greeted with a smile. As he glanced at her, he did a double-take, before taking her appearance in. With a whistle, he chuckled, “Look at you!”

“Does it look strange?” she asked, a little self-conscious about him seeing her in something that revealing. After all, it was showing off her assets, and he had never really seen her in something like that before.

“Not at all,” he breathed, genuinely impressed by her appearance. She had never been one to shy away from doing the work onboard, so to see her in something as demure as her current dress was a treat, to say the least. “You’re absolutely beautiful.”

Yona’s heart jumped, her cheeks heating up at his words. No matter how many times she tried to convince herself that his words held no deeper meaning, she couldn’t shake the feeling—the hope—that they did.

“You’re doing alright?” he asked, smiling, but eyes filled with worry. Giving him a reassuring smile, she nodded, and couldn’t help but notice that he relaxed just a little bit. “Good.”

“No one is here to see me, so I’ve been sitting here all evening. No trouble at all.” Jae Ha sat across from her, crossing his legs casually. “How are you? All that strenuous investigating work getting to you yet?” she teased.

“Yep, having beautiful women hang on my every word while serving me sake is hard work,” he smirked. Yona chuckled, her cheeks flushed a beautiful pink in the lantern’s light. His eyes couldn’t leave her, no matter how hard he tried. Before he could stop himself, he spoke again, “You’re seriously beautiful.”

The look she gave him nearly drove him over the edge.

He half-expected her to roll her eyes, and brush it off. But she did the exact opposite. Her eyes darted to his, shining in the light of the lanterns, her hair framing her face just perfectly in that moment. Lips parting slightly, she couldn’t say a word, she only exhaled softly. Her eyes left his, searching the room for an explanation, for something else to focus on, her cheeks reddening as she refused to look at him.

To make matters worse, his mouth ran off without him once more.

“I’m serious.”

It was too much for her to bear. Did he have any idea what he was saying to her? Did he have any idea what his words did to her? He couldn’t just compliment her like that—it would plant the thought in her head that he actually held interest for her.

She knew he saw her as nothing more than a little sister—a nuisance, a bother, someone he had to protect, or she would get in trouble with the big kids.

He knew she saw him as nothing more than an older brother—overprotective, an annoyance, someone that she coddled her and reprimanded her like a child.

The silence between them that usually rested comfortably, was laden with tense regret.

“Sorry… that came out weird,” he tried to laugh it off, but the atmosphere only became more awkward as time went on.

“No… no worries,” Yona tried to reassure him, her voice unsure. She was happy he had said she was beautiful, but knowing that he didn’t see her as a woman was frustrating. She had already convinced herself that it was true; it would take more than that to convince her otherwise.

“I should go.” Jae Ha stood up, quickly followed by Yona. By the time he tried to turn, she was already grabbing his sleeve, silently asking him not to go. A small blush crept into his cheeks, but he tried to play it cool by turning into his usual flirtatious self. “Hm? Don’t want me to go?”

“… No.” Her voice sounded stubborn, as if she didn’t want to admit it, but she did anyway.

Damnit, she’s cute!

“How about we order some sake?” he offered, a charming smile finding its way to his lips. “I’ll be your customer for the evening.”

That ended up being one of those sentences that sounded much better in his head.

The expression on Yona’s face only confirmed how awkward it sounded. A moment later, she sputtered, followed by a laugh. His heart soared at the sight of her smile, so genuine and true.

“Has that ever worked?” she giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. He put his arms around her shoulders, pulling her closer to him and shooting her a smile.

“Then we’ll just order sake. Does that sound better?” he asked, smiling. Almost instinctively, she placed her hand against his chest for support, glancing up at his face, and nodding. For a moment, Jae Ha’s mind wandered to a fantasy world where she looked at him like that every day, leaning into him just as she was in that moment.

“That sounds wonderful, sir,” she agreed, her voice smooth and charming, slipping into her role of an escort. As if it was second nature, she rested her head against his chest. After all, she was acting the part—something this innocent wouldn’t be too frowned upon. Giving her a startled look, Jae Ha gulped at the sudden change of demeanor. However, the moment was broken when a quiet laugh escaped Yona’s lips. “You were the one who said you wanted to be my customer, weren’t you?”

“I wasn’t—” Serious? No, that’s not true. I wasn’t expecting that? Brushing his bangs away from his face, he chuckled to himself. “I did.” There was no use fighting her on it—he knew what he said. His eyes focused on her once again, his fingers moving to brush her cheek so lightly she could barely feel his touch.

He was convinced he was dreaming. Perhaps it was the lantern light that was painting her in such a brilliant red; perhaps it was the smell of her perfume—floral, light, ethereal—or perhaps it was the lingering feeling of her hand against his chest. The cacophony of the brothel was nothing more than a gentle hum as his eyes searched her face.

Jae Ha’s eyes flitted over her features, her face reddened, turning his warm fingers into a cooling sensation. He couldn’t be serious—she was struggling to convince herself of such as his eyes rested on hers. They were so warm, and welcoming; if she were to take that chance, what would become of them?

She moved her other hand to his chest, turning slightly so as to face him entirely. That simple action set his pulse racing, a phenomenon even she could feel. His arm, that had been around her shoulders, found itself draped around her waist, providing the smallest bit of pressure to bring her closer. However, even without his help, they had slowly been drifting towards each other.

Yona found herself exchanging glances between his eyes—she dared to think that they held warmth for her—and his lips—welcoming, beckoning her. He was driven speechless by her, by how warm she could be, and by how she looked at him. If he could be so selfish as to take this one chance…

For three years, he had been waiting for a chance like this.

He found himself cradling her neck with his hand, his arm around her waist pulling her as close as he could. Her hand had already combed itself into his hair, pulling his face closer to hers. Her core tightened, her fingers shaking only slightly. If he rejected her there, it would all be over. She’d have to force herself to face reality—no matter how painful it would be.

She made that promise to herself.

Three years of this damned, insidious longing.

Please, give me this chance.

Experiencing three years of unresolved tension, fleeting glances to see the other turn away, and a longing so intense it could make one feel sick—any touch, any meaningful phrase, anything. It had a voracious appetite that always demanded more, and yet, it couldn’t be satisfied. It never accepted cheap gifts, like a genuine smile, or a word of praise. It always demanded more.

Yona’s eyes fluttered closed, her breath mingling with his, and as he was closing the last few centimeters of distance between them, he paused.

Her face, betrayal etched into her features, flashed through his mind. Tears streaming down her cheeks as she threw insult after insult at him.

He stopped.

And he pulled away.

He couldn’t do it. She deserved better than that.

Her eyes opened, and he felt like the biggest ass in the kingdom. Emotions pooled in them—hurt, shame, embarrassment—and bore straight into his own, asking, if not pleading, why? Looking away, Yona sighed, and untangled herself from his grip, turning her back to him.

“I think you should go,” she muttered, an undeniable edge to her voice. His mouth opened to protest, but he couldn’t argue with her.

“I’m sorry.”

“Just go.”

Without another word, he left, sliding the door closed behind him. Cursing under his breath, he made his way to the other side of the brothel.

Yona wanted to break something. Anything. She wanted to lash out, scream, cry—anything that would make the humiliation go away. It had seemed mutual! Where had she gone wrong? What was he thinking?

“Son of a bitch,” she hissed, her voice barely audible, as she pressed her nails into her palm. “Calm down.” A promise was a promise. He rejected her—that was the end. She was going to move on, and forget all her feelings for him.

If only it were that simple.

Part of her wished, even for a moment, that she had never met him. That she had never developed these feelings for him. But his sweet words and kind looks had swept her off her feet, just like every other damned individual he decided to woo.

She wanted to resent him, she really did… but she just couldn’t. Deep down, she knew they were both at fault. They had gotten themselves into this mess. It wasn’t worth the effort of denying it anymore.

It was time for her to move on.

Yona sighed deeply, feeling some stagnant air leave her lungs. It was almost relieving, in a way. Once more, she focused on the rise and fall of her chest as she inhaled, and exhaled. A slight moment of calm, a feeling of independence, and a newfound resolve to work harder at doing what was best for her.

That moment of serenity was broken when a woman’s scream broke out from just down the hall. Her legs rushed forward before the rest of her could catch up, and she found herself facing three rooms that could have been the one she needed.

Throwing open the door, the first room held no signs of trouble. The second was the same as the first. Opening the third door, a bulky man had the prostitute over his shoulder, knocked unconscious. He was already halfway out the window leading to the outside balcony; Yona shuddered at the thought of being any later.

Removing her blade from her obi, she ran after him. He jumped over the balcony, still carrying the woman, and had just made it to the ground by the time she reached the railing on the perch. However, she would not let this stop her.

Launching herself over the railing, she jumped the seven feet to the ground, landing as silently as possible. Rushing the man, she threw her arm in front of his neck, yanking him back and pressing the blade against his jugular.

“Unhand the woman,” she commanded, her voice barely above a whisper. He was one of Kage’s men, she was sure. She would not lose this chance.

Unbeknownst to her, a man watched from the shadows of a nearby alleyway. His eyes fell upon her red hair, and it felt as if he had been punched in the gut. He had seen her run past, but he thought it was a specter of his past.

Princess Yona… alive? It couldn’t be possible. There were plenty of witnesses that watched her and Hak fall off that cliff. To think they had been alive all this time was utterly impossible.

But how many women had hair like that?

The impossibility of it was only reinforced more when this apparition assaulted the man—the sheer force behind it proved this was not her first time handling someone in that way. The princess he knew could never be capable of that.

He watched as the man dropped the woman he had taken, her body hitting the ground with a solid contact. However, it was not out of compliance to the red-haired woman, but to move to grab her with more ease. His breath caught in his throat as he watched the thug reach for this woman—even if it wasn’t Princess Yona, she was still in danger.

It was reckless of her to try and take this man down alone.

At least, that was what he had thought. That thought was utterly annihilated once she pulled her arm back sharply, bringing with it her blade, and his blood. The man’s strangled cry for help was swallowed by the action, and it had never made it out of his throat. The blade, now covered in the man’s blood, reflected the moonlight as the man crumpled to the ground.

The witness felt his stomach drop, and all the blood leave his face.

It can’t be…

The woman attended to the fallen prostitute, trying to wake her up.

“Yoon! Jae Ha!!” she called, tucking her blade into her obi, her voice echoing against the walls of the buildings surrounding her. Even though time had passed, she even sounded like Princess Yona, just as he remembered. But this woman had just killed a man—a human trafficker, no less—behind a brothel. She, too, must have been a prostitute, judging by how she was dressed, he thought.

At the sound of approaching footsteps, the witness disappeared through the other end of the alley he had been hiding in. He knew what would happen if they saw him.

He couldn’t let the investigation end that easily. It was sloppy.

However, this was certainly an interesting development. One that he would keep to himself for as long as necessary, until he could verify it himself. Without another sound, the man disappeared.

Yoon and Jae Ha quickly made their way to where Yona was, and paled when they saw the trafficker’s body. Glancing at Yona’s hands, Yoon could quickly surmise that she had been the one to kill him.

Yona always adopted a look in her eyes when she had killed someone. This was hardly the first time, and it was most definitely not the last. But Jae Ha could always recognize it. It seemed as if she had seen the ultimate darkness—her eyes had no life in them. They were dull, cold, and unfeeling.

Carrying the unconscious woman inside, Jae Ha gave Yona one last look over his shoulder, thinking it better not to say anything to her at that moment. After what had happened earlier, it would probably be better to give her some space, he thought.

Yoon helped Yona up, wiping her hands with a spare rag he had on him. Both of them glanced at the now-lifeless body lying in the street—one with disgust, the other with a mix between concern and horror.

“Leave him,” Yona spat, turning on her heel. “I’m sending a message.” With one last hesitant look, Yoon followed Yona back into the brothel. It was time for both of them to retire.

With that, the first night ended.

It was already almost dawn, and despite the fact that she had stayed up all night, Yona couldn’t seem to sleep. The thought of the coming day kept her mind buzzing—no matter how exhausted she felt physically, her imagination ran wild, dragging her along for the ride.

Thoughts of the trafficker that she had killed, the state of the woman that was almost kidnapped, and the safety of the remainder of the women working there—herself included—bounced back and forth, their incessant screaming rattling her bones and her mind alike.

Exhaustion eventually won out, her consciousness fading into a quiet hum of anxieties. Right as she began to doze off, her body relaxing and her breathing becoming steady, the door to her room quietly slid open.

A presence, almost imperceptible, entered the room, silently padding across the floor until they reached her. Suddenly uncomfortable, Yona turned in her half-sleeping state, ending up on her back. Something felt off, but it wasn’t enough for her to truly acknowledge it—more a dull threat in the back of her mind.

The apparition reached her, kneeling, and sitting comfortably next to her futon. A ghost of a hand brushed her hair away from her face.

“Yona,” a voice cooed. “It is time to wake up.”

She didn’t fully respond, her body feeling heavy. A quiet protest escaped her—she was just falling asleep, she didn’t want to get up yet.

“Yona…” the voice persisted, sounding a little more urgent. “I received your message.”

Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. Dragging her body back into consciousness, she tried to open her eyes, but failed. She felt a gentle hand caress her cheek, but it felt wrong. This wasn’t anything like Jae Ha’s gentle touch—it was much more insidious.

“I do not appreciate you killing my underlings, Yona.”

Heart lurching into her throat, she jumped, eyes flying open as she scrambled away, arms swinging wildly to banish the intruder.

But no one was there.

By the looks of it, no one had ever been there. It was a hazy, fading memory of a dream.

To her, it seemed more like an omen than a nightmare.

 

Dread was not an easy feeling to shake off.

That nightmare had lingered with Yona, haunting her with its message. The weight in her stomach only worsened when they had found that the body had been moved. It could be assumed that Kage’s goons had taken the body with them, and surely that message had reached their leader.

The brothel was now on his radar—that much was undeniable.

As the other women prepared Yona for her second night, she told them of what had happened—with considerably less gruesome details. Even so, they were shaken by what they had heard.

“So we’re not safe?”

“I’m most likely their new target,” Yona answered, her voice low. “But make sure you stay safe. If any customers make you uncomfortable, tell Yoon, or Jae Ha.”

As the sun set, she watched from within her room, waiting for the darkness to come, and the lanterns to be lit. Customers began to filter in, choosing their escorts for the evening. However, she remained, sitting silently in her room, lost in thought.

Her silence was broken by a voice outside of her door.

“Tsubaki, come here.” It was the owner—what did he need from her? Opening the door, she was greeted with a sour look from the man. “You’ve been summoned. A customer wants you, specifically.”

Her stomach dropped, and the blood left her face. Swaying slightly, she grabbed the door for support—her hands were trembling, her breath escaping her in short pants. Kage moved much quicker than she had expected, and she was sure she would be met with her fate that evening.

“Are you okay? You don’t seem well.”

“I’m fine,” she insisted, swallowing down the lump in her throat. Straightening up, she took a breath. “What did the man look like?”

“I couldn’t tell. He was covering his face with his hat.”

It has to be him, she thought. If she was going to meet Jin, she would do it without any sort of hesitation. It would nearly suck up all the resolve she had in her body, but she would not show him she was afraid. His tricks would not work on her—she knew he was a tangible being, not some ghost.

“I’ll go.”

“Remember: if you ruin our customer’s stay, you’ll be out of here before dawn. You follow our rules.”

She understood exactly what she had to do.

He doesn’t scare me.

It took some repeating, but she eventually was able to carry herself as a proper escort. Pushing past the owner, she walked with perfect posture past all the other rooms. It felt as if demons were forming behind her with every step she took, as if they knew her life was in danger. With meaningful steps, she made her way to the man’s requested room—or rather, her execution.

Upon reaching his door, she knocked lightly, entering the room as she was taught. Keeping her eyes to the ground, she stepped to the cushion on the floor in the middle of the room, and sat. She was the perfect image of a respectful escort.

She had to be. This investigation was riding on it.

Bowing respectfully to her customer, she kept her eyes planted to the floor.

“I humbly apologize for the wait, sir,” she cooed, her voice as light as any of the other escorts’. “I do hope you have not been inconvenienced by my tardiness.”

“Not at all,” the customer finally spoke—but it wasn’t Jin. His voice didn’t sound anything like that. Relief washed through her. Even if she was dealing with one of his goons, it wasn’t Jin himself, and that was enough for her. “Please, sit up.”

Following orders, she straightened, returning her hands to her lap. It was that moment that she finally looked at her customer for the evening.

Her eyes widened, and she was sure that she would be sick in that moment if she wasn’t too shocked to heave. Her blood had no idea where to rush to—it rushed back and forth from her head, making her light-headed and dizzy. Her mouth parted slightly, but it was so unbelievable that she couldn’t form the words.

“So it is you,” he mused, his eyes wandering her face. “You’re alive…”

She couldn’t believe this. It couldn’t be happening. She wanted to scream, to rush out of there, but she knew she couldn’t. Even if she could, her body was frozen there, only a few feet away from him. She wasn’t sure whether she should cry, or be filled with rage.

“Yona,” he breathed, her own name sounding like poison.

“… Soo Won.”

Chapter Text

To think, at one point in her life, she would have been happy to see him. She lived for those moments. Seeing him was a rare treat—something that she believed in, something that she would foolishly prepare for.

Even the last time she saw him, she was practically tripping over herself to impress him. It was shameful.

And here he was, sitting before her. Worse than that, he had called for her, which means he had known about her prior to this. Her expression settled into one of contempt and disinterest.

“How did you find me?” she asked, her voice holding no warmth, her back straightening as much as it could. Soo Won was no fool, and she knew this. If he could organize a coup, he couldn’t be. As he gazed at her, his own expression becoming quite stoic, she felt scrutinized.

There she was, posing as a prostitute, sitting before the King, and staring him down as if he was filth on the street. A princess long thought dead, sitting in a brothel as if it was nothing—it was almost impossible for either of them to believe. If she hadn’t called him by name, he would have sworn it was just her doppelgänger, but now he knew.

She was alive.

After six years, he could hardly believe his eyes. Tae Jun had been so shaken up by the whole thing when he reported it, there wasn’t room to doubt his word. There had never been time to properly mourn her and Hak, and the grief would force itself out in the quiet and darkness of late nights. He had sworn to himself that he had thrown it all away, but logic could only last for so long in the face of one’s soul.

Six years of unspoken grief, of haunting feelings of longing for the past. There were some days that it was completely unbearable—that death was a better option. However, he had sworn that he would not die, no matter how much he deserved it, nor how much he wanted it. He couldn’t die until he had fulfilled his goal. He could swear that his heart would refuse to stop beating until the day that he could say he was satisfied with his work.

As much as he would have liked to leave all memories of Yona and Hak behind, he never could. Part of him had always felt haunted by his actions, knowing he was partially responsible for their deaths.

Perhaps now he could attain some peace.

“I was here to investigate the human trafficking issue,” he answered, voice steady. If she was going to interrogate him, then he would answer as best as he could. She may have grown, but so had he. After all, at 24, he was hardly the child or the teenager she had known.

“You? The King of Kouka?” she sneered. He knew he had no reason to expect her sympathy, but part of his heart still stung to hear her take such a tone with him. “You, a murderer, draw the line at human trafficking?”

“I did what I had to—”

“Save it.” The sharp tone of her voice clamped his mouth shut. Her eyes held a fire he had never seen as she glared at him. He always knew she had it in her, but he never thought that such an intense hatred could be turned back onto him.

He resented himself for being so ignorant.

“You murder my father, run me out of the castle, ruin my life, and you expect me to forgive you just because you have a heart when it comes to trafficking?” she spat, her blood boiling. She could feel her fingers begin to quiver with every passing moment, pins and needles setting every nerve on edge.

The memories from that night, and the ones that followed, came rushing back, overwhelming her, blinding her. The image of her father, lying, lifeless, on the ground, the fear that overcame her in that moment, and how she refused to believe any of it. It wasn’t fair! He had ruined everything for her—killed the only family she had left!

Rage consumed her. Every thought that echoed within her head screamed his name, demanding that he repent for what he did.

Repent, he would.

Grabbing the small dagger from her obi, she lunged for him, plunging the weapon down towards his throat. Expecting the tearing of skin, she was instead met with a steady pressure, as he gripped her wrist, keeping her from finishing her task.

His eyes were wide with surprise, but he did not seem necessarily afraid. In a way, that infuriated her more. Thrashing about, she moved to swing her arm against his head, but he dodged, and took that chance to catch her other wrist.

“Yo—”

“Don’t say my name!” she growled, her voice ragged and desperate. It was the voice of true hatred, the very sound of it turning his blood to ice. “You bastard!” Her words were worse than a slap to the face, but he knew he deserved each and every one that she was going to throw at him.

Continuing to hold her back, the sheer force behind the stalemate made them shake. He could see the bloodlust in her eyes, the hatred, rage, and grief. All of the emotions flashing through them right now were because of him—he couldn’t deny it.

“Calm down,” he spoke evenly, looking her firmly in the eye. “I am not here to hurt you.”

His words, so sure and calm, broke through her rage like a splash of ice-cold water. It was jarring, her resolve to kill him wavering. If she followed his orders, then she’d lose against him, wouldn’t she? The thought of him having power over her was terrifying.

The look in his eyes shocked her. As much as she knew that the Soo Won she had once loved and cherished had changed, seeing his cold gaze firsthand had much more power over her than she would have ever expected.

“But—you—” she choked, struggling to cling onto her determination to kill the man before her. Soo Won didn’t say anything, he only gazed evenly at her, his expression softening slightly, as if he felt a shred of guilt.

A lump began to build in her throat, but she absolutely, vehemently refused to show him any of those emotions. However, the more she fought it back, the more it showed in her features, becoming clearer with each passing second.

Her pushing against him ebbed, fading away until she eventually dropped her arms to her side, not meeting his eye. Slowly, he released her wrists, looking at her with a healthy amount of suspicion. Suddenly, she stood up, still holding her dagger, and took a step towards the door.

After everything that had happened, she was just going to leave.

No… I have to—

He didn’t have time to finish his thought before his hand already reached for hers, gently preventing her from moving any farther away.

“Please… allow me to explain,” he asked, trying to hide the desperation he was feeling. She was alive. He couldn’t let her walk out of that door without speaking to her. It felt like that night was going to be his only chance; if he didn’t fight for it, he would regret it for the rest of his days.

Remaining silent, she stopped in her tracks, refusing to look at him. Realizing himself, he let go of her hand, returning to his usual sitting position. He looked out the window, knowing that if he watched her go through that door, he’d never erase it from his mind.

However, the sliding of the door never sounded. Instead, she walked back to where she had been sitting before, elegantly returning to the floor. Glancing at her, their eyes met for just a second. The fire within them was still burning bright, but she seemed at least willing to listen.

“Go ahead, then,” she started, raising her chin, as if to look down on him. “Explain.”

He didn’t much care for the look she was giving him. It communicated every thought she held about him, loud and clear. At the very least, and putting it in much nicer terms, her expression screamed you’re filth. He cleared his throat.

“Even I have heard of the atrocities Yang Kage has committed. As King, I cannot let that stand,” he explained evenly, turning his head towards her slightly, his patience thinning. Something caught the light in that action—a set of jeweled earrings dangling from his ears. “It is simply the most efficient option.” Yona visibly tensed, her eyes narrowing at him slightly. “Like it or not, that is the truth.”

Despite having no desire to concede to him, her eyes flitted away from his. He was an awful person, someone who deserved all the misfortune in the world, but even she knew that he had always been helping the people of Kouka—which, from the sounds of it, was more than her father had ever done. He had no reason to lie to her then.

“That explains why you’re here, but it doesn’t explain how you found me.” Part of her felt the need to know—if Soo Won had found her, then how easily could Jin find her? Soo Won’s presence and the nightmare she had had that morning left a pit of anxiety resting within her stomach.

“Last night,” he started, glancing away from her. “I was about to go after that trafficker, the one who had taken the woman, but…” His eyes met hers, searching her. It was almost as if part of him still couldn’t believe that she was sitting before him. “I saw your hair, and—” he stopped, keeping the rest of his thoughts to himself.

“So, it is you.

She knew he must have witnessed her murdering the man. It was written within the fine lines forming between his eyebrows, his thought process—for the first time—clear to her.

“And you came here to verify it.” Quirking an eyebrow at him, she scrutinized him, and he involuntarily tensed. Soo Won was many things, and she knew this, but there was one thing he was not, and she knew this weakness, as well. He was completely out of his territory in that brothel, and she held that advantage over him.

As luck would have it, the escort in the next room over voiced her loud approval of her time with her customer.

Older or not, Soo Won was still Soo Won. And he was still just as bad with women as he was when he was 18.

Going completely red in the face, he balled up his fists, making very intent eye contact with the floor. A triumphant smirk found its way onto Yona’s face, her eyebrow raising with intrigue. After his little victory earlier, this was a nice change of pace.

“Some things never change, do they?” she scoffed, the poison in her words biting at his pride. “You’re still just as hopeless as you were back then.” Shooting an embarrassed look her way, he was obviously trying to collect himself. “What, did you forget where you are, Your Majesty?

Perhaps he did, but he’d never tell her that.

Any further taunts were cut off by the sound of two men yelling outside of the entrance, right below the window.

“I know she’s here!”

“She is busy; she will not see you at this time!” Yona recognized that as the owner’s voice.

“Show me the girl with the red hair—now!”

Turning, her blood ran cold, her eyes widening at the window. Panic began to rise into her heart, and without realizing it, she turned back to look at Soo Won—for help, for an answer, she wasn’t sure. But in that moment that she looked at him, he saw a glimpse of the girl he had known all those years ago.

Something within him stirred. He just couldn’t leave her behind, no matter how much she had changed. All the smiles she had given him in their past, the way she looked at him with so much affection, but would hide it with coy excuses—it all came back to him. Thoughts he had pushed down for years, memories that he repressed when he accepted the crown all flooded back into his head.

“Soo Won!”

Yona’s smile, genuine and true, seemed more like a dream than a memory. Seeing the woman before him, it didn’t seem possible for her to ever smile at him like that again. He certainly didn’t expect her to.

The man forced his way in, his stomping footsteps practically shaking the whole building. Without thinking, Soo Won extinguished the closest lantern, removing a significant amount of light from the room. Following his lead, Yona quickly stood and rushed to one on the other end of the room, extinguishing its light. With that, the two of them were in darkness.

Within two strides, he reached her, clutching her shoulders.

“I need you to trust me,” he whispered. She was about to protest, but he interrupted her. “They are looking for you, Yona.” There was only the slightest bit of desperation in his voice, but she heard it. Chewing her lip, she nodded slightly. “Good. Now…”

Running was always an option, but part of him knew Yona wouldn’t leave the brothel that easily, and he wasn’t about to fight against her stubbornness—especially now that it seemed she was more bull-headed than ever. The footsteps reached their floor, and Soo Won’s mind could only come up with one other option.

He knew he was going to pay for this, but they were running out of time.

Leading her out of the moonlight, he brought her to the center of the room, where it was the darkest, and guided her to a seat on the floor.

“What are you planning?!” she whispered, her voice a harsh hissing sound. Ignoring her, he untied his hair from its messy half-ponytail, running his fingers through it somewhat roughly to muss it up. Shedding his outermost layer, he could feel his cheeks begin to heat up. “You--!!”

Trust me,” he hissed back. “We’re in a brothel, so we should act like it.”

“Do you even know what to do in a brothel?” Shooting her a look, Soo Won said nothing else. Grabbing the collar of his kimono, he hesitated, wondering if it was necessary. However, he knew, with a great deal of shame, that it was. With a sigh, he slipped his arms out of the top, and brought the material down to rest about his hips. “You find out I’m alive and expect me to sleep with you?!”

“Of course not,” he grumbled, his voice low.

For some reason, that stung her heart, and her pride.

“We’re going to have to be convincing,” he whispered, although the waver in his voice marked his hesitance. Feeling her scathing glare in the darkness, he added, “You can hate me all you want, but I am currently saving your life.”

Even she couldn’t argue with that logic.

Flinching slightly when he reached for her, she tensed when he swept her hair over her shoulder—keeping it on the side that was facing away from the door. His hands lingered on her hair for just a moment, but he snapped out of it. He could ask his questions later.

The man was about halfway down their hall by that point.

Yona, glancing away for just a moment, found herself being gently pushed. Eyes flashing back to Soo Won, she could see the silhouette of an extremely apologetic look on his face as he led her to the floor, until she was flat on her back. Leaning over her, he gently grabbed her wrist and “pinned” it next to her head.

His hesitation made it worse in its own way. If she was going to be stuck in a situation like this with someone she didn’t particularly care for, she would rather they just commit to it. But then again, Soo Won wasn’t exactly… experienced. It showed.

“This isn’t exactly easy for me, either…” he grumbled, his voice barely a whisper. “You don’t need to look at me like that.” His cheeks were already a deep enough shade of red that she could tell just from the moonlight.

As Soo Won leaned closer, really trying his best not to touch her in any uncomfortable way, she eyed him. It was silent for a few heart-wrenching seconds—he wasn’t even breathing. That silence was broken by some ungodly noise that escaped from Yona’s mouth.

It was a moan loud enough to rival the one that had come from the other room only minutes before.

Clamping his hand over her mouth, he was absolutely mortified.

“What are you doing?!” he hissed, the color of his face rivaling that of her hair. Forcing his hands away from her mouth, she glared at him, a certain triumphant glimmer in her eyes.

“You said ‘make it convincing’.”

“Not that convincing!”

“What’s wrong, Your Majesty? Have you never been with a woman before, or are you realizing that the women you have been with were less than honest about your performance?” she asked, with a sly grin. It was a tiny form of revenge, he could tell that much, but did she have to do that now?!

His mouth moved to form an answer, but he quickly realized there was no winning that argument, and decided to let it go. They could have a battle of pride at another time, when she wasn’t about to be murdered by human traffickers.

With a slight smirk, Yona leaned her head back and moaned again—somehow louder than the first time. His hand immediately covered her mouth again.

“Will you stop that?!” he whispered harshly, mortified. If his face could get any redder, he’d rival a tomato. “Where—how do you even know--?!”

“I have been surrounded by men for six years—you pick up a thing or two!” she whispered back, her tone just as harsh. He could tell she wanted to pick a fight, but she would just have to be patient.

“Just—hold still!” he commanded, his voice quiet but firm. Sweeping the rest of her hair to the side facing away from the door, he leaned directly over her, making sure his hair covered hers adequately.

Her eyes wandered to his upper body, noticing how toned his muscles had gotten—

No! No!! Stop thinking about this! Don’t notice things like that!!

Yona’s breath caught as he leaned in closer, fixing his hair to cover hers. They were only inches away from each other, and had to remain that way in order for this to work. His hair had gotten considerably longer in the six years they hadn’t seen each other—before she could catch herself, she thought it suited him.

Hearing her breath catch, his eyes flashed back towards her face, noticing just how close they were, and what kind of position they were in.

What a nightmare.

It was the first time he had gotten a good, close look at her face all evening. It was also a cold dose of reality—she had grown up. She was no longer some clumsy teenager, she was a woman. Her face had slimmed slightly, giving her a mature look, as opposed to the childish one she had had when he had last seen her. The moonlight that was filtering in was reflected in parts of her eyes as they searched his face.

Her hair was framing her face just perfectly in that moment, emphasizing the red in her cheeks with ease. Recalling the feelings she had felt for him in their youth, his heart skipped a beat as his mind wandered to what could have been—if only for a moment.

Would she have become his queen? Would he have looked upon her as he was in that moment? How many memories could they have made together if they ruled side-by-side? A quiet voice in the back of his mind wondered if they could have been happy the way that they were—or if this woman before him was the one stirring those feelings in his heart.

She watched as his eyes settled on her cheek. The scar was impossible to ignore, even in the current situation they were in. Almost absent-mindedly, his hand moved to cup her cheek, his thumb grazing the deep mark. Tensing under his touch, no matter how gentle it was, she watched as his eyes flicked back to hers. Breathing suddenly became much more difficult.

The door to the room across from theirs was opened with quite a bit of force. As Yona recalled, it was empty when she had gotten there. Her eyes, much to her chagrin, revealed the panic that was welling up inside of her.

Taking her hand, and intertwining his fingers with hers, Soo Won moved, his own shaky breathing matching hers as it fluttered against her neck. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of desperation, she squeezed his hand back. Using his arm as leverage, he covered the rest of her hair with his arm.

“I won’t let them take you,” he whispered, his voice barely audible to her, despite the silence between them.

It was that moment that the door to their room slammed open.

Yona’s eyes shot to the man who entered, and was only slightly relieved when she couldn’t recognize him. Soo Won glared at him, moving to lean protectively over her, strands of his hair brushing her ear.

“Get out,” he ordered, his voice stronger than before. It wasn’t the usual tone he had, but instead, something deep and threatening. The man didn’t waver.

“That girl—is she the red-haired whore?”

Yona’s blood boiled, and for a moment, she almost gave herself away. However, a gentle squeeze to her hand stopped that thought process—almost as if he knew what she was planning.

“She’s brunette,” Soo Won answered smoothly, his voice still carrying that edge. Yona couldn’t help but notice he didn’t deny the fact that she was a whore, but that was an argument for another time. “Now, get out.”

With a snort, the man closed the door. As his footsteps thundered away from their door, she relaxed, if only slightly. Her heartbeat was finally returning to a normal pace, the anxiety finally loosening its grip on her. He was gone, and didn’t seem to be coming back. Releasing a shaky breath, Yona steeled herself once more.

How foolish of her to forget what kind of situation she had gotten herself into.

With the reminder that Soo Won was not only shirtless, but on top of her, color began to rise into her cheeks. To top it all off, their hands were still connected, fingers completely intertwined. As he looked back at her, their eyes locked, faces only inches apart.

As he gazed at her, she noticed the signs of his maturation, albeit slight. He was hardly the child who could be mistaken for a girl anymore. He had the facial structure of a man, his cheek and jaw bones more defined than they had been in the past. The light behind his eyes had most certainly changed from what she remembered, but, as he looked at her, it was undeniably there.

“You’re safe…” he whispered, almost as if he couldn’t believe it himself. Sighing in relief, his breath mingled with hers only momentarily before he moved away, fixing his clothing to an appropriate standard. Yona sat up, feeling a tangible void in her heart—she hated it.

Once again, the man’s footsteps came thundering down the hall. Freezing up, neither one of them had time to react before he reached their door. However, he passed by without any incident, continuing on his way. The owner could be heard screaming his head off, before one final and stay out!!

Practically collapsing from relief, she buried her head into her knees, hugging herself. The immediate danger was over, yes, but the close call had left her quaking, and feeling queasy. Breathing deeply, she tried to calm her overactive pulse, but couldn’t reason with herself. The fear had taken over her at that point, and she was just going to have to let it run its course.

Hearing her labored breathing, he glanced at her, finishing tying his hair back into its half-ponytail with a loose ribbon. He hesitated, instead moving to light the lanterns once more. He had been there for her so many times in the past, that it felt like second nature to comfort her when she was distressed, but he also knew it wasn’t his place.

But watching her stay there, comforting herself—no doubt something she adapted to, in a place like this—broke his heart. If he could comfort her, even in the slightest, then he would at least feel a shred more human than he did when he first walked in that evening.

Silently padding over to her, he wrapped his haori around her until she was enveloped in it—just like when they were younger. Leaning back to give her some space, he watched as she silently took the haori and pulled it tighter around her shoulders.

Taking the liberty to order some tea and food—he could care less about what they actually brought—he didn’t say anything to Yona, worried that he could inadvertently make it worse. They could have a chat over tea, and they could answer each others’ questions at their own pace.

Her head was still buried into her knees, although the shaking had subsided to some degree. Without realizing it, his hand had drifted to her back, his thumb running across her shoulder blades in an attempt to comfort her. She tensed at the contact. It wasn’t entirely unwelcome, but knowing that it was him, it left her feeling conflicted.

Of course she yearned for the days of the past—before her father died, before any of this—but to this degree? Forcing down the lump in her throat, she opened her mouth to protest, but was stopped by a gentle voice from the other side of the door.

“Please excuse me,” she said. It was one of the younger girls who worked there. “Your refreshments are ready.”

Soo Won was the one to open the door, giving her a friendly smile as he took the tray from her. Thanking her, he waited until the door was closed once again before heading back to the center of the room where Yona was.

“Here, have some,” he offered, sliding the plate towards her. If there was one thing he learned in his life, it was that food and a hot cup of tea always made the world seem a little better. “I’ll answer any of your questions as best as I can.” Thankfully, she took that opportunity to raise her head up. Her face was a little pale, and her eyes drawn downward—she refused to look at him.

Understandable, to say the least.

Taking a dumpling in her hand, she gently took a bite out of it. Pouring her a cup of tea, he tried not to stare at her. His actions were catching up with him, and the embarrassment that followed was clearly written all over his face. Focusing on the teapot was a much better idea than trying to look her in the eye.

“So you’re embarrassed now?” she asked, trying to sound as biting as before, but sounding more exhausted than anything.

“I…” he started, before sighing and looking away. “I really can’t apologize enough.”

“Well,” she started, her mouth full. After a few moments, she continued, “I wasn’t stabbed by a human trafficker, so your plan worked.” That was certainly putting it bluntly, but she had a point. It was getting harder and harder to believe this was the same Princess Yona he had grown up with, especially considering how she was acting.

Six years of no etiquette lessons—and, as she put it, being surrounded by men—was sure to do that.

“Besides, I’ve dealt with worse,” she mused, taking another bite out of her dumpling. Soo Won’s eyes practically popped out of his head and his head flung back to her, but she continued to eat nonchalantly. Collecting himself, he took a sip of tea before speaking.

“Yes, I suppose you would, having worked in a… an establishment such as this.”

His first question, albeit phrased in a very indirect way, was now out in the open.

Yona glared at him as she finished chewing, her eyes narrowing in a way that seemed to communicate are you an idiot, or something?

“This is my second night here,” she scoffed, taking a sip of tea. “I’m not a prostitute.” Rolling her eyes, she looked away from him for a moment before narrowing her eyes at him. “You really thought I was a prostitute?”

All the evidence was pointing at such, yes.

That thought was written all over his face, as well. Scoffing, she fixed her hair.

“To think that His Royal Majesty was such an idiot,” she stated as if he wasn’t there.

“To think that Her Royal Highness was such a barbarian,” he shot back, his patience thinning. She was in a brothel, dressed as a prostitute—of course he would think she worked there! He could feel her icy glare from across the plate of dumplings, but that didn’t stop him from taking one and biting into it.

“All I suggest is getting more practice before you decide to take a queen. You wouldn’t want to bore her to death, would you?” she ‘suggested’ in a ‘friendly’ manner. In an effort to save face, he moved to change the topic.

“Very well,” he sighed. “So what are you doing here?”

Yona hesitated. She wasn’t sure if she should tell Soo Won about her involvement with Jin, as well as the pirates. But if they had a common goal, then perhaps it would be worth informing him. Biting the inside of her lip, she glanced at him, before taking a breath.

“I’m… part of a group of local pirates,” she explained, straightening her posture. “I was the one responsible for the death of Yang Kumji, and have vowed to take down every last human trafficker in Awa—Kage included.”

Her explanation left him speechless.

“You—” he sputtered. “You killed Yang Kumji?”

That was when it hit him. They had been in Awa at the same time, and had just barely missed each other. How different would parts of his life have been if he had known she was alive this whole time? Yang Kumji’s death was not that long after Soo Won’s coronation.

Yona did not answer, but judging by the look on her face, she wasn’t lying.

A silence passed between them. Steeling himself, he looked her in the eye. His next question had a rather obvious answer, but there were details missing.

“I see your hair has grown out again,” he commented, as casually as he could.

“How did you know it was ever short to begin with?” she asked, suspicious.

“Tae Jun brought me your hair, as proof of your death, and Hak’s. It was a rather large chunk, so I simply assumed…” he trailed off. Yona’s face darkened; part of her reaction didn’t sit well with him. “Where… is Hak?” he asked, not sure he wanted to hear the answer. Hak would never approve of what Yona was doing—which was evidence enough, but he wanted to hear it from her.

It took her a long while. When was the last time she had spoken of him? No one in their group had ever met him—she was the only one, and she kept that grief under lock and key.

“Buried,” she answered, her mouth dry. “At the bottom of the canyon we fell into.”

His stomach lurched, and suddenly, he felt sick. It was as if he was hearing it for the first time six years ago. Only one of them had survived? The guilt that he kept to himself crept into his veins, chilling his blood, and prickling his heart.

“… I see.”

Yona remembered that day clearly. She had passed out somewhere on the way down, still in Hak’s arms. According to Yoon—what he could bear to tell her—it hadn’t been pretty. By the looks of it, he had landed almost head-first into the small stream by their shack, and his neck didn’t stand a chance.

Yoon had buried Hak before she woke up.

As much as he assured her that it was most likely painless and quick, she couldn’t accept it. He still had fallen, and protected her all the way down. He landed that way because he was holding her—she could never shake that thought from the back of her mind.

There had been thousands of what-ifs that had gone through her mind since then. But none of them changed the reality of her situation. He was dead, and she was alone. All remnants of her past life had been entirely snuffed out—she, too, in a way, had died.

No longer a princess, she searched for the dragons with Yoon. Eventually, they all found their new home in Awa. She had never wanted to use the dragons’ power to strike back at Soo Won, despite her hatred for him. Even she couldn’t deny that he was a better ruler than her father had ever been—she honestly doubted she could do half of what he had done.

If she could help, in her own way, from the shadows, that would be enough for her.

“Am I to assume that you are responsible for the deaths of the other human traffickers as well?” he asked, deciding that they should return to business. The atmosphere between them was heavy with unspoken grief, but they had no time to address it.

“Our group has been collectively responsible, yes,” she answered, her voice lifeless, without pride. Her eyes met his, the same fire from before burning within them. A quiet inferno, she spoke evenly, “If I have to kill every last one of them—so be it. I won’t wait for you to decide it’s worth your time to mediate.”

Her words stung him more than any insult she had thrown his way. In that moment, he saw her as she was: she was no longer Princess Yona, but a complete stranger. Her resolve was tangible, but he could admire that about her. A soft sigh escaped his lips as he took a sip from his cup, regarding her carefully.

He knew that the next thing he would suggest was beyond reason, but he also knew that he had to try. How could he leave his investigation empty-handed? Not to mention that they had to snuff out the problem once and for all—there would be no successors to Yang Kage’s regime.

“The time has come,” he started, summoning all of his resolve. “I will mediate this time—I wish to help you, and your group take down Yang Kage.”

 

Jae Ha, upon hearing about the commotion that happened on the other end of the brothel, felt his blood turn to ice when the girls told him the customer was asking for Yona.

“It was so scary!” one of them cried, clinging onto his sleeve. “He came down the hall, throwing open each of our doors one at a time! He was so scary, sir!” Within seconds, Jae Ha stood and left the girls behind. “… Sir?”

Making a beeline for Yona’s room, the twisting of his stomach setting him on edge, his hands shook with each step. His mind was filled with all manners of vicious images, what those traffickers could—and would—do to her if they captured her. He knew Yona had sense, but did she have enough sense not to take on those men alone?

Her pride could outweigh her logic. At this point, both of them had learned this the hard way.

Reaching her room, he slid the door open, only to be met with an empty room. His anxiety crept into his throat, goosebumps dotting his skin, and the hair on the back of his neck standing on edge. The room was otherwise undisturbed, though, so perhaps she was safe yet.

An escort passed behind him, and he took his chance.

“Excuse me, miss,” he started, striding up to her, trying to hide his unease. “Have you seen Tsubaki, by any chance?”

“Tsubaki?” she mused, before covering her face with her sleeve, giving him a sly look. “Yes, a customer asked for her.”

“The man that caused an uproar?” he asked, trying to confirm his suspicions.

“No, another man.”

His stomach dropped. Another man? It couldn’t be Kage, could it? No, if it was Kage, then the trafficker wouldn’t have needed to come at all. So, who was it?

“I passed by their room earlier,” she began, smiling knowingly. “It seems that Tsubaki was rather satisfied with his work,” she giggled. “Of course, you can always spend the night with me instead, since Tsubaki is currently preoccupied.”

The room spun. Of course, Yona was free to be with any man she wished, but of all the places, in a brothel? Even she couldn’t be that idiotic, could she? She knew what kind of men could end up in brothels, right?

She didn’t have to be with him. He knew this.

After the way he treated her the night prior, he guessed he deserved this.

And yet…

He couldn’t drop it that easily. His nerves were prickling with electricity, all his systems going into overdrive. He felt ready to run, to punch out the lights of any man who would take advantage of this situation to put his hands on her.

“Which room?” he asked, and the escort blinked at him, momentarily stunned. “Which room?” he asked again, emphasizing his words. His eyes seemed cloudy, and, against her better judgment, she pointed to the end of the hall.

“The second from the end…” she muttered, her voice swallowed by the lump in her throat. Without another word, he turned on his heel and marched towards the end of the hall. His hands balled into fists, his knuckles were turning white from the pressure. The thought of another man laying his filthy, revolting hands on her—

No matter how angry she was with him, he wouldn’t let her be used.

“Tsubaki,” he called as he slid open the door, thinking he was mentally prepared for anything he could see.

He wasn’t.

 

You want to help us take down Kage?” Yona asked, the surprise and sarcasm in her voice echoing around them. “You, of all people.”

“If that is what it takes to end this cycle of human trafficking, then yes.” Soo Won had already made up his mind. He would help her, if out of nothing else, then out of his loyalty to her. He had never wanted her or Hak dead, so if he were to repent at all, this would be his time.

Staring at him, her eyes were filled with suspicion, but behind that, a glimmer of hope. A ghost of a smile played at her lips, something much more mature than any smile she had ever given him before. His heart skipped a beat, as much as he would never care to admit it.

“Very well,” she sighed, that smile remaining. “I doubt I could stop you, now that you’ve made up your mind.”

The woman before him was no longer the shy teenage princess he had known. No, she was a colder, harder person—someone who had fought, tooth and nail, to get where she was. Someone who had killed to make Awa even a little bit safer for the people, and yet, remained unknown. She was so different, and yet, he admired that about her.

“Thank you, Yona,” he said quietly, her name resting in the air between them. To her surprise, it hardly sounded like a curse, as if she had wanted to hear him say her name once more. It held an unspoken promise—a promise of I will repent for my actions. At least, that was the way it sounded to her.

Against her better judgment, she found herself hoping it was true. The ground beneath this promise was shaky, and yet, she felt her footing was sure. It was written into his features: he was riddled with grief and guilt.

His eyes caught hers, and he found himself surprised by the amount of warmth she held in them. If nothing else, they were now partners, working towards the same goal. But perhaps, if he were to hope for even a second, they could build a new relationship together.

Certainly not romantic in nature, he assured himself. No, not at all.

Heat crept into his cheeks, and he felt flustered by the thoughts that were creeping into the back of his brain. He refused to acknowledge any part of it—it was better that way. Indulging in those sorts of fantasies would only distract him from his goal, and he couldn’t allow that to happen.

Of course, that would prove to be easier said than done.

After a few moments, Yona stood, pulling his haori tighter around her shoulders. Despite the fact that she had grown a little, he had grown significantly more—he realized as much when he saw the hem of his haori sit comfortably on the ground. She was practically swimming in it.

That put his past growth spurts into perspective.

“I think I should go now,” she said softly, her voice losing its previous edge. Of all the times to become timid, why did it have to be then? Perhaps it was because of the way he looked at her in those few silent moments? What was he thinking? It made her uneasy, yet she felt as if she was anticipating something.

“Ah—I… understand,” he stammered, positioning himself to stand. Taking a step to assure him that he didn’t need to see her out, or anything else he had in mind, she hadn’t noticed the fabric tangling around her feet. Letting out a short gasp—she didn’t even have time to scream—she fell forward. “Watch--!!”

Soo Won’s warning came too late, as she toppled over on top of him, his body breaking her fall. While she could walk away unscathed, he took double the damage, being caught between a falling woman and the floor. He was pretty sure he felt her elbow dig into his torso upon contact.

Both of them having the breath effectively knocked out of them, he let out a weak cough, feeling rather crushed. Looking down at him with more concern than he had seen on her features all evening, she frantically, but silently, glanced him over, assuring he was not injured.

His haori was still draped around her shoulders, covering both of them. Carefully, and without really thinking, he extended his hand to her cheek, his eyes searching hers.

“Are you hurt?” he asked, his voice a choked whisper. Somehow, in that moment, her logic failed her, and she found herself thinking that the whole situation was rather intimate. Her cheeks darkening into a deep red, she shook her head slightly, her lips parting.

“No, are you?” The color on his face quickly matched her own, and yet, he didn’t move. He almost felt like laughing at the absurdity of the whole night. If he wasn’t so exhausted from it all, he probably would have.

“No—”

“Tsubaki,” a voice came from the other end of the door.

Neither Soo Won nor Yona had time to move before he entered. With his haori covering them, it was suggesting much more than they would even dare to attempt.

“J-Jae Ha--!” she sputtered, her face paling. Frozen to her spot, she had no choice but to watch as Jae Ha stomped over to where the two of them were laying on the ground. Wrapping his arm about her waist, he hoisted her away with ease—which, to say the least, impressed Soo Won. Shifting her in his arms, her arms wrapped behind his neck as if it was second nature, and he carried her like a princess.

It seemed like it was completely natural for both of them—him carrying her in that way. Despite his logic, Soo Won felt his core constrict for a moment, although he would never admit it was out of jealousy. They had been apart for six years, of course someone like her would find a man who acted that way towards her.

But wait—Tsubaki?

He didn’t have much time to be confused, as the other man’s foot was already heading straight towards his chest. Knocking the air out of him—his lungs couldn’t take much more—he made solid contact with the floor. The kick had hurt much more than it should have, although he blamed it on the fact that he was kicked in the ribs.

“Wait, Jae Ha!” she tried to intervene, but he wasn’t listening. He had used his dragon’s foot, too, so it had no doubt hurt Soo Won much more than it should have. “I’m fine, really, it’s not what it looks like.”

“This man was—” Jae Ha hardly wanted to admit it, but he continued through gritted teeth, “violating you.”

“Sir, listen—” Soo Won attempted to start, only to have this man, Jae Ha, pin him to the ground with his foot. Although, it felt more like he was being stepped on. What was he trying to do? Crush his lungs?

“Stop it,” she commanded, cupping Jae Ha’s cheek, and forcing him to look at her. Searching his eyes, she watched as he softened, and gave him a small smile, running her thumb across his cheekbone. “He wasn’t violating me. You know I would have killed him if he had.”

Soo Won wondered if it was possible to be impressed and scared senseless at the same time—but she certainly made it possible. There was only truth in her voice.

Jae Ha must have been her significant other, although she had never mentioned being married or involved with anyone. Then again, she had kept the details about herself under wraps in general.

“He’s offered to help us with Kage,” she explained calmly, her smile absolutely dazzling. She was in love with him, Soo Won could gather that much. While he was particularly inexperienced—mostly due to an active disinterest in any and all endeavors of that nature—he could read people well enough, and it was written all over her face.

Jae Ha removed his foot, giving Soo Won a chance to stand.

“I apologize. It was really just a misunderstanding,” Soo Won smiled, despite the sadness creeping into his heart. He didn’t deserve her, he had to remember that. Even having her time was asking too much of her. Besides, they obviously loved each other, so it wasn’t his place to intervene. “You are her husband?”

Yona and Jae Ha instantly turned a deep shade of red, immediately making a reasonable amount of distance between each other. In fact, Soo Won was unsure of whether he threw her, or she jumped out of his arms with a noticeable amount of velocity.

“No!!” they both protested, their voices too loud to ever make it convincing. A glimmer of hope found itself in his heart—if they were not involved, then…

“This is—that is, we are—” she stammered, completely flustered. Her voice was wavering, and her cheeks were completely red. It was practically impossible for her to be any more obvious, Soo Won thought. “He’s just my crewmate.”

The weight on Jae Ha’s chest only increased at her insistence that they were only ‘crewmates’. They had shared a lot more than a boat, unless he had hallucinated most of their interactions. But it was no time to be selfish—if this man was willing to help with their situation, then that took priority.

“Oh, is that so?” Soo Won smiled, playing up his charming side. “My mistake. Please forgive me.”

“Sorry about earlier. Just have to make sure Tsubaki stays safe,” Jae Ha replied, giving his own easy smile. That smile made Soo Won realize he could hardly blame Yona for falling in love with him; he was a charmer.

“You don’t need to call me Tsubaki, he knows my real name.”

He may be charming, however the look Jae Ha gave Soo Won in that moment was anything but. It asked too many questions, all of which were rather intrusive in nature.

“Really?” he asked, a smile playing at his lips, although it held the feeling of a disapproving boyfriend rather than a general inquiry. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name. What was it again?”

The moment of truth. He could play it safe, and give ‘Won’ as his name, or he could avoid the most-likely-inevitable and give him his actual name. If he knew who ‘Soo Won’ was, then that would certainly create problems.

After all, this gentleman had already proven he was quite protective of Yona, and meeting the man that had effectively ruined her life would hardly win points with him.

Glancing at Yona momentarily, she gave nothing away, as if to tell him you figure it out, genius.

He could hardly resent her for that.

“I’m Won,” he answered, hoping that the pause didn’t last for too long. Yona looked away, suddenly much more intrigued with the floor. “My father was a merchant that worked closely with the palace, so I knew Yona when we were children. You can imagine my surprise when I saw her here!” he laughed lightly, fabricating the lie with such ease one would think he was talking about the weather.

“I see,” Jae Ha replied, suspicion not only lacing his voice, but his features, as well. “I’m Jae Ha.” Several seconds of silence passed them by, and Soo Won quickly realized that that was all he would hear from the man.

In the silence, the two men met each other’s gazes. Whether they were aware of it, or not, they exchanged the slightest competitive glare.

A childhood friend, huh? Jae Ha thought, sizing up this Won character. He was handsome, but was he bold? They both said that it was just a misunderstanding earlier, but was that the truth? Yona might have just been saving face—particularly if his charms had gotten to her.

Something about him rubbed Jae Ha the wrong way. Perhaps it was the way he seemed almost overly familiar with Yona, or the way he looked at Jae Ha like he didn’t really consider him a challenge. His presence almost seemed to urge Jae Ha to act on his feelings towards Yona—a dangerous thought, indeed.

“As I’m sure Won is aware,” she started, breaking the uneasy silence, eyes flashing towards Soo Won’s. “He will have to, at the very least, pose as a pirate in order to help us.”

He had briefly considered that. It wasn’t out of the question, in his opinion. He was giving himself a week, at maximum, to snuff this out. Any and all allies would be a huge advantage—pirates, or not. He was already determined to end this, no matter what it took.

His eyes caught hers for only a moment, and yet, he could swear he saw the slightest glimmer within them. It was not the same fire that had faced him before, but soft embers that held a certain hope for the future. It was if she was saying, in that one look, don’t let me down.

“Of course,” he answered calmly, a smile spreading across his features as he looked at her. For the first time in far too long, he couldn’t wait to see what happened. He wanted to see more of what she was capable of. “I look forward to working with you both.” However, his eyes remained focused on her—his message coming across loud and clear.

Jae Ha wasn’t blind—he noticed the look. Barely noticing, he wrapped his arm about Yona’s shoulders, pulling her closer to him. Heart catching in her throat, she glanced up at him, wondering what on earth had prompted that. She was hardly complaining, but she at least wanted some warning before he would test her limits like that.

“Same here,” Jae Ha fumed, trying his best to hide it. “I’m looking forward to it.”

 

Soo Won had promised to go his own way at the end of the night, after speaking privately with Yona at the door to her room. Whether or not it was a good idea for him to join forces with her would certainly make itself clear later. He had faith in his self-restraint and intuition, so he didn’t doubt that he could work together with her without any conflicting emotions.

At her door, they spoke in hushed tones, averting their gazes from each other as much as they could.

“I will have to explain all of this to Joo Doh,” he admitted, almost sheepish at the mention of the general. “He can be a little overprotective, even after all these years.”

“He’s still the same as ever, isn’t he?” she let out a short laugh. Glancing away from him, she folded her arms across her chest. “Sorry… about earlier.”

“Hm? Which part?” he asked, only half-joking. She punched his shoulder so quickly that he hadn’t had time to prepare for it, and found it actually sore. Rubbing the tender spot, they shot each other harsh looks. However, her lips twitched, and eventually, a smile broke across her features, and she giggled at his expression.

Stiffening, Soo Won stole glances at her face. Even if she was laughing at his expense, it was kind of cute. His expression involuntarily softening, his eyes finally met hers.

Yona was taken aback. Never had she expected Soo Won, of all people, to give her a look like that. It was difficult to believe he was even capable of looking at anyone—especially her—in the way he was in that moment. It was bewitching; part of her felt like she shouldn’t be able to see something like that.

“I-I, um…” she stammered, tearing her eyes away from his, her cheeks heating up. “I’m sorry about… everything...” Great. Now even she was starting to feel swept up in the moment. It was Soo Won. She shouldn’t be feeling any emotions other than rage and hatred towards this man—how had he gotten to her?!

“’Everything’,” he repeated, giving her a teasing half-smile.

“A lot has happened!” she huffed, feeling her cheeks warm up even more. “Such as… well…” she hesitated, looking for the exact event she would want to apologize for. Was it when she almost stabbed him? When he got involved with her troubles? When Jae Ha threatened him? It was hard to believe all of that had happened in a single night. Shaking her head, she pouted. “Such as falling—” Her voice had been so confident, but she choked. “… on… you.”

“Oh, that.”

Yes, that, you imbecile.

“It was an accident,” he assured her, leaning down to look at her face a little more clearly. “More importantly, I’m glad you’re safe.” His words caught her off-guard, and when she went to look at him, she noticed just how close he was. Startled, she bumped into the door, her cheeks burning a bright red.

“Y-Yes, well,” she answered, barely recovering. A few seconds passed, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say. What on earth was wrong with her?!

“Your, ah… friend doesn’t seem to like me much,” he commented, changing the subject. He chose his words carefully, since she had insisted oh-so-passionately that they were not lovers. Part of him couldn’t help but wonder how long that would last—they were obviously mutually interested in one another.

“Jae Ha?” she blinked, thinking back to his behavior in the room. “It’s weird, he’s not usually like that.”

Soo Won realized that she was still the same oblivious princess, deep down.

However, Yona had noticed the change in behavior, she simply refused to let her hopes be raised again, only to be dashed. It wasn’t worth it, at that point. Plus, with the promise she had made to herself… she couldn’t look into it that much.

“He seems reliable. I’ll have to thank him for watching over you all these years,” he smiled softly, the smallest shreds of remorse working their way into his expression. Glancing at him, she touched his shoulder unconsciously, hoping to comfort him.

Her touch caught him off guard, but not as much as the look she gave him. Of all the people, he hardly expected her to try and provide comfort.

However, she quickly realized herself.

“I… I’m pretty tired, I should retire for the evening.”

“Yes… well, I shall see you again,” he said stiffly. It was unbearably awkward—how do you talk to a woman that you had done so much disservice to? He could tell this was going to be a rough week.

“If you find Jae Ha tomorrow, he’ll introduce you to the Captain.”

It was nearly impossible to imagine: the King of Kouka, the man she had once loved, and felt a sickening mix of admiration and hatred for, joining a band of pirates. Not only that, but they would be living tog—

Yona did not have the mental energy to finish that thought. That was a problem for later. For the next several days, she would be accounted for in the brothel, not the ship.

“… Good night, Yona,” he whispered, hesitating for a moment before turning and walking away. Once he turned the corner, she rushed inside of her room, wanting to banish the onslaught of unwelcome thoughts. He may have been her first love, but that didn’t mean anything! She couldn’t be stammering and tripping over her tongue every time he showed up.

Sure, he had grown up, and was certainly handsome, but--

NO. STOP THIS.

She felt like she would be better off staying in bed for the next three days.

Soo Won wasn’t much better. As soon as he rounded the corner, he sank against the wall, his head resting in his hands. What was going on?! Why did he care what Jae Ha thought about him, or his connection to Yona? Why did he feel like that was the first time he had actually felt something in years?

What did this woman do to him?

Sighing, he picked himself up off the ground, and left the brothel for the evening. It was time to put that night far behind him. He couldn’t afford to dwell on it unnecessarily—and that meant at all. He had to focus.

But the way she looked at him… it drove him absolutely mad.

I don’t deserve her. I don’t deserve her. I don’t deserve her… he repeated to himself as he finally left the brothel in the wee hours of the morning.

 

The typical sounds of the brothel filled the halls, Yona’s footsteps hardly interrupting everyone’s fun. Customers guffawed, already becoming drunk in the early evening, the soft sound of the escort’s muffled giggles mixing in almost seamlessly.

An escort left the room to Yona’s right, and immediately flagged her down.

“Tsubaki-chan! Thank goodness you are here!” she beamed. “I am too busy this evening. Do you think you can entertain this customer for me?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper. Smiling, Yona agreed. “Thank you so much!!” she smiled, taking Yona’s hand’s in her own. “I really owe you this time!”

Leading her back to the door, the escort slid it open slowly, explaining the situation as delicately as she could.

“Tsubaki-sama will be attending to you this evening, good sir. I humbly apologize for the inconvenience,” she finished, gesturing for Yona to enter.

Keeping her eyes glued to the floor, she floated in, sitting as gracefully as she could. The door behind her slid shut, and she could hear the departing footsteps of the escort.

“Good evening, sir,” she greeted, her voice smooth as she bowed deeply. “How may I serve you this evening?”

The customer stood, and approached her, his steps calculated. Remaining in her bow, she wondered what kind of man this one was. If she were to be stuck with him all evening, it may prove to be problematic.

“To start,” he said, his voice setting her on edge. He sat directly in front of her, taking her chin in his hand, and forcing her to sit up.

The room spun. Nausea worked up in her throat, every alarm in her head screaming at her. Every instinct fired off at once, telling her to run, to stay, to fight, to do everything and nothing all at once. His grip on her chin tightened, only slightly, as his eyes glimmered in the lantern light, the different colors shining brighter than she thought eyes ever could.

“Look at me, and only me,” he commanded, his voice firm, but quiet. He found no need to raise it, as he already had complete control over her. “I wish to hear you speak my name—you remember it, correct?”

Her mouth was dry, her throat uncooperative. His touch made her run cold, and she found herself shivering within his grip. She couldn’t speak. It wasn’t out of pride, or spite, but out of fear. Letting out a disappointed sound, he tilted his head, as if to look at her clearly.

“That is too bad,” he sighed, sounding slightly unimpressed. “You seemed to be such a bright young woman, and yet, you cannot even remember my name?” He smiled, his eyes narrowing in the process, scrutinizing her.

She couldn’t breathe. Whatever curse he had put on her, it was working. Every inch of her body was freezing cold, simultaneously numb and engulfed in flames.

“I shall tell you only once more.”

He didn’t need to. She knew his name.

Twisting her head to the side, he leaned in, his lips brushing her ear. Tensing, her nails dug into her palm.

“Do you remember now, Yona?” he asked, whispering into her ear. Squeezing her eyes shut, she bit her lip so hard, trying to retain her composure, she thought they might bleed. His breath was like fire against her ear, goosebumps prickling her scalp. Every hair was standing on end, every self-preservative instinct screaming at her to run as far away from there as she could.

But if he caught her—what would happen? Would kill her for acting out? Would he torture her for all of her secrets? Would he have her drawn and quartered, or hanged? There were too many risks.

“It’s…” he started, prompting her to speak up. As if he was warping the space around them, she could tell he was smiling.

“… Jin,” she breathed, her voice raspy and choked. Letting out a chuckle against her ear, he pulled away, cupping her cheeks with both of his hands, and smiling at her. It held no warmth, no life. As his thumb brushed over her cheek, she could have sworn he was painting her with the blood of the people he had killed.

“Good girl.”

Chapter Text

“Do you have any idea what you are getting yourself into, Your Majesty?” Joo Doh asked, upon looking upon the harbor. He had been unhappy, to say the least, about this sudden—and extremely unwanted—development. Some days he wondered if the king had his head on right. It was only morning, and he was already thinking that His Majesty had lost his marbles.

“What do you mean, Princess Yona is alive?” Joo Doh had sputtered earlier that morning, when Soo Won had told him of what he had discovered the night prior. Soo Won turned away from him, fiddling with some of his belongings. Joo Doh could swear that his ears were turning the slightest shade of pink, but he was so dumbfounded that he forgot to ask about it.

“She is alive, and has been living in Awa for the last six years,” Soo Won explained, his voice flat and unenthusiastic.

“Where has she been?” The king tensed. Giving his general a sheepish smile, he chuckled lightly.

“Well…” he started, biding his time. “Apparently, she joined… a group…”

“A ‘group’?” Joo Doh asked, suspicious. As he recalled, the king had asked him to investigate further while he looked into a ‘personal matter’, and had attempted to run away. However, Joo Doh had made a point of making sure he didn’t lose sight of the king, and followed him up to the front doors of the brothel.

The general couldn’t believe his eyes.

The king had vehemently refused to take any sort of concubine for the past six years, so what in the world was he doing there? Since when had he taken an interest in any sort of relations, casual or otherwise?

So this “group”, as far as Joo Doh could tell, was a group of prostitutes. He had never imagined that the princess would end up in the middle of a bordello, but—

“A group of pirates…” the king said, as if he couldn’t really believe it himself.

Joo Doh couldn’t think for a moment. The princess—the sweetest girl, if not the brightest—had joined a group of pirates. The princess, who had found Joo Doh frightening. It was completely impossible.

And yet, there they were, looking over the harbor, the news still as unbelievable as it had been when he first heard about it. As the king’s bodyguard, he would have preferred to go with him, but Soo Won had made his case.

“I need you to keep an eye on any developments within Awa. If we are both out at sea, then who knows what could happen?”

Joo Doh could hardly fight his logic, but he still wasn’t happy about it. He would at least escort the king to the port before taking his leave. The general could tell that he wouldn’t be getting much sleep for the next week.

Soo Won flashed the general a carefree smile.

“Of course I know what I am getting myself into,” he assured him, although Joo Doh didn’t feel confident upon looking at that smile. It was the same kind of smile he gave the general public to fool them into believing him. “A little hard work is good for one’s character.”

While that was true, “hard work” was an extremely subjective term. Did he have any idea what he would have to do?

“Oh, and if anyone asks, my name is Won,” he smiled, casually patting the general on the shoulder.

As they made their way through town, Soo Won kept his head down, making sure his hat covered his face, and as much of his hair as possible. If he was to pose as a pirate, he was sure he should keep his head down.

As they reached the harbor, they spotted some individuals who stood out, to say the least. Their hair was almost comically obvious, and, considering how that Jae Ha character looked, Soo Won was sure he had reached the right place. As Soo Won walked forward, Joo Doh stayed back, watching with a careful eye—memorizing the features of the two men before them.

“Hello!” Soo Won called, getting their attention. The two men turned around, but he noticed that one of them had his eyes covered with a bandage. Strange, considering it seemed he was able to see, regardless. That detail, however, was not important to him at that time. “Do you two know a Mr. Jae Ha?”

“Hm? Who are you?” the white-haired man asked, eyeing Soo Won suspiciously.

“My name is Won. I met him last night, and wished to speak with him.” The white-haired man glanced at the other man, and returned his gaze to Soo Won, refusing to answer. “What are your names?” he asked, figuring breaking the ice would create the best advantage.

“I’m Kija. This is Shin-Ah,” he answered, gesturing towards the other man. That was one obstacle cleared.

“It’s nice to meet you both. This is Joo Doh, my assistant,” he paused, motioning towards the general. “May I please see Mr. Jae Ha?”

“There’s no need to use ‘Mister’,” a familiar voice called from the deck of the ship. Jae Ha jumped, landing gracefully on the dock, finding his place next to Kija and Shin-Ah. Soo Won found himself, once again, in awe of this man’s charisma. “Just Jae Ha is fine.”

The presence he had was undeniable. Jae Ha was carefree, yet he communicated an authority that even Soo Won had a hard time disregarding. Yona had never specified what his role on the ship was—combine that with his authoritative aura, and Soo Won felt like he was speaking to the captain.

“This is the man I was telling both of you about,” Jae Ha smiled, his features charming, although there was something in his voice that was communicating otherwise to Soo Won. “Yona’s childhood friend.”

That’s certainly one name for it, Joo Doh thought, eyeing the king.

Soo Won shot Kija and Shin-Ah a friendly smile, but before he could finish his introductions, the former shot him a bloodthirsty look, unraveling the bandage around his hand.

“You mean the rapscallion who forced himself upon Yona?!” he roared, his hand seeming to grow in size as he prepared to strike. Soo Won’s eyes widened as he scrambled back a few steps. While he was impressed with this phenomenon before him—something that reminded him of the Legend of the Four Dragons—it would prove troublesome if he died before his mission even began.

“I didn’t—!!”

Joo Doh, sword already unsheathed, rushed between the two men. Kija was unwilling to injure someone who was innocent, however, his desire to punish those who hurt Yona was greatly outweighing that logic.

Something caught Soo Won’s eye, something beyond the murderous man before him. It was the smirk that was pulling at Jae Ha’s mouth. They locked eyes for just a moment, and it was all made clear to him.

It was revenge. Payback. Whatever you wanted to call it.

Placing a hand on Joo Doh’s shoulder, Soo Won stepped past him, once again facing the man with the strange power. The general’s mouth opened and closed, although no noise came out. The king’s reckless behavior was going to be the death of him someday.

“Kija, sir,” Soo Won started, speaking calmly. “There seems to be some sort of misunderstanding.”

“And what would that be?” Kija asked, seething. “What could you possibly have to say to defend yourself, you ruffian?!”

“What Jae Ha saw,” he began to explain, trying his best to calm the man down, “was me catching Yona, when she tripped and fell. I simply happened to be in her path.”

“I am supposed to believe you?” Joo Doh tried to intervene, but Soo Won stopped him. “Jae Ha told us that the two of you were covered—that you were--!” Kija’s face began to redden, and not from rage.

“Nothing of the sort happened,” he assured him, his own face becoming pink at the implications. “She was cold, so I offered my coat to her. When she fell, it fell with her.”

“Jae Ha…?” Kija asked, turning around.

“Maybe that’s true,” he admitted. Soo Won could feel his initial adrenaline fading away, finally calming down. Kija turned back to him, looking at him with a shadow of remorse passing over his features.

“I apologize for my behavior, then.”

“I understand,” Soo Won nodded, giving him a small smile. “It is a relief knowing she has such capable friends keeping her safe.” Giving him a friendly smile, Kija actually felt his face heat up slightly at the amiability of it. What a good person—he believed that he was capable!

“T-Thank you…” Kija blinked, blushing slightly. The compliment had him completely flustered, and, thankfully, he seemed to have forgotten his original intent in casually maiming a complete stranger. Quietly, Soo Won exhaled, releasing some of the tension from his body.

“Shall we discuss the details?” Soo Won offered, his eyes glancing over the three men before him. Smiling at the general over his shoulder, he spoke quietly, “I will take my leave now. Thank you, Joo Doh.”

Nodding slightly, he eyed the three men before turning on his heel, and walking away, grumbling under his breath about the irresponsible nature of the king. He could swear that his life had shortened significantly due to that boy.

He had no idea what he was getting himself into, Joo Doh would swear it.

“After you, Won,” Jae Ha spoke up, gesturing towards the ship. “Kija, Shin Ah, leave this to me.” Taking a breath, Soo Won stepped forward, towards the end of the dock, thinking he was fully prepared for whatever the future held for him.

However, he was nowhere near prepared for what was coming his way.

Jae Ha went out of his way to talk about all the complicated ins-and-outs of pirate life as vaguely and as quickly as possible. However, despite his efforts, Soo Won was still catching on, and took diligent mental notes of what his duties would be. Saving all his smiles for when Jae Ha glanced back at him, he could feel the tension between them.

Fake smile to fake smile, the two of them were off to a rocky start, at the very least.

Jae Ha seemed to be an important person to Yona, and it was obvious that he cared very deeply for her, and she him. As Soo Won looked at the other man, he couldn’t help but wonder why they seemed to be so against being involved with one another. The conversation lulled, leaving a tangible silence between the two of them.

“So, Yona’s childhood best friend, huh?” Jae Ha probed, his voice casual, and light. It was as if he was just asking a simple question, and not holding an interrogation. Soo Won was grateful, to say the least, that their previous relationship wasn’t a lie.

“’Best friend’ is a little…” he trailed off, thinking Hak fit the role of “best friend” much better than he did. He wasn’t around as much, so it was difficult to justify that big of a role in her life. A fond smile touched his lips as he remembered the times when they were children—allowing himself, for the first time in a while, to reminisce about the past. “But we were close.”

“Funny, she never mentioned you before,” Jae Ha retorted, his mouth turning downwards into a slight frown, his eyes flashing with suspicion.

“I imagine she doesn’t talk about her past much.” Soo Won’s eyes narrowed at the other man. “Given what happened to her, and her father.”

“How do you know about that?”

“He was the king. Everybody knows he died.”

Jae Ha turned towards Soo Won, straightening his posture, only to find that—infuriatingly—the blond man was taller than him. Not by much, but by enough. The two men exchanged nasty glares, their eyes sharp with distrust.

“This will go much more smoothly if you learn to trust me, Jae Ha,” he sighed, exasperated.

“Trust? Who said anything about trust?” he shot back, patience waning. “I don’t need to trust you.” Not after what you did.

The image of Won and Yona being together flashed through Jae Ha’s mind, setting his blood ablaze. Everything about this man irked Jae Ha—the way he looked at him, the way he looked at Yona… everything. He had this air about him that practically oozed confidence and superiority, yet he wasn’t totally arrogant. He was charming. Perhaps that was what Jae Ha hated the most about him.

“You may not have to trust me,” Soo Won began, holding himself back. “However, I highly suggest that you at least cooperate with me.” They had bigger problems to address than his past with Yona. If they could get through a week without killing each other, then that would be enough.

It was looking like that was going to be easier said than done.

In the agitated silence, Soo Won could feel his pulse racing, although he tried to hide it as much as he could. Centering himself, he took a steady breath, feeling the heavy sea air enter his lungs.

“May I ask you a question?” Soo Won asked, meeting the other man’s eyes. While his expression was calm, Jae Ha could feel the animosity exuding from his very presence. With a nod, Jae Ha’s eyes narrowed only slightly, which Soo Won chose to ignore.

He couldn’t believe what he was about to say, but it was forcing its way out of his mouth. It had been something that had been bothering him since the night prior, and he wanted an answer.

“Do you love her?”

Jae Ha’s eyes widened. He hadn’t expected such a frank question, especially from the man before him. He could see in Won’s eyes that he wasn’t genuinely curious, he was looking for confirmation. His blood boiled, fingers twitching from the blood rushing to them, until he balled his hands into fists.

To provide an answer, or not, was ultimately up to Jae Ha’s pride, and nothing else. They both knew the truth. There was no reason to ask such a question, and yet, there they were.

Of course he loved her.

He had been in love with her for years. He knew he had hurt her, he knew it was complicated between them, he knew that it was all his fault. He had been the one to give her mixed signals, a constant ebb and flow of can we and we can’t.

He got to watch her grow into the woman she is, firsthand, for the past six years. He wouldn’t trade those moments for anything. Every triumph, every failure—they all meant the world to him.

It was never that he didn’t want to be with her, it was that he couldn’t be with her.

They were two of the most active members of the crew—if they were to become committed to one another, it could ruin the dynamic of the crew, and destroy their chances of success.

That wasn’t to say they had never tried. Oh no, they had tried. The one moment he lost the battle, the one night they slipped, the heat that pulled him in further than he had ever intended to go.

Three years before, after taking down one of Kumji’s successors, during their post-battle party that had become more of a tradition than anyone in town would have liked to admit. Everyone had been drinking, having a good time, forgetting about the fear that had wrapped Awa in a black veil.

The cut on Yona’s cheek had just started the last phase of the healing process, the worst of it over.

The future was looking bright for the first time in a while.

He had reached a comfortable level of intoxication, where he was still aware of his actions, but the edge had been taken off. She, too, was at that same comfortable place, it seemed—her inhibitions only a thought in the back of her mind.

Her tolerance had become much better.

She had approached him first, saying that she wanted to get away from the party for a little while, that she wanted to clear her head a bit. After everything that had happened, the sheer brutality of the last leader of the human trafficking ring, he couldn’t blame her.

She was nineteen at the time, doing things that no nineteen year-old should have to ever worry about. But there she was, doing it all without a complaint in the world. It was something he loved about her.

She could stand tall, and proud, but that didn’t mean he expected her to stand alone.

The two of them slipped away from the party, happily chatting about little nothings, having a normal conversation for the first time in months. Their shoulders brushed together as they walked, the warm night air and the starlight making their flirting bolder, more overt.

“Sorry to tear you away from all those lovely admirers of yours,” she teased, giving him a knowing smile. He laughed gently, wrapping his arm around her shoulders, and bringing her closer.

“I’m not the one worthy of admiration, Yona, dear,” he hummed, adding a slight sway to his steps. Her arm wrapped around his waist in return, setting his heart on a faster pace than before. He chalked it up to the alcohol.

“Who, me?” she asked coyly. “I only helped take down the lord of the underground human trafficking ring, nothing special.”

“Not special at all,” he teased, a mischievous smile pulling at his lips as he leaned his face closer to hers. Giggling, she smacked his chest with her free hand, still remaining close to him.

Finally, they had found a nice spot to sit down, overlooking the ocean, the crescent moon reflecting off the calm waters. Near the water, it had gotten a little colder, but with Yona leaning against him, ever so slightly, he could hardly feel it.

He could only imagine what color his face had become.

It had been silent between the two of them for some time, comfortable, calm. Only the lapping of the water on the shore broke the silence between them.

“It’s too bad about my face,” she laughed, sounding a little bitter, but mostly insecure. When he glanced at her, she had her hand over the wound on her cheek, her ears looking a little pink, despite the dim light.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’m not really cute anymore, y’know?” Chuckling half-heartedly, she glanced up at him, her eyes sparkling in the starlight, setting his face on fire. He couldn’t believe such lies. She was just as cute as ever, and he didn’t think the scar took away from her beauty in the slightest.

“I disagree,” he smiled, his voice soft and quiet. Without realizing it, he had turned his body towards hers, his hand moving to brush her hair out of her face. As soon as the stray strand was tucked behind her ear, they locked eyes, closer than they had ever been, than they would ever allow themselves to be. “I think you’re beautiful.”

He could feel the heat from her face radiating against his fingers, which still lingered.

For years, he had denied himself the recognition of his feelings for her. Calling it something else, disguising it, was the only way he could cope. Maybe it was the waning intoxication, maybe it was the setting, or maybe, for the first time in who knows how long, he didn’t feel like lying to himself.

He was completely in love with her.

He wanted to be near her, to support her, to touch her, to feel her… he wanted to share an existence with her, no matter what it took.

“Jae Ha,” she breathed, the sound of her voice whispering his name warming him to his core. He wanted to hear her say his name, to whisper it, to scream it—if it escaped from her mouth, the very sound would be divine.

“Don’t think you’re not cute, or beautiful,” he whispered, his fingers brushing the hand that was covering her cheek, gently removing it. “Or strong.” He leaned closer, his breath mingling with hers. “Or intelligent.” Fingers intertwining, he rested their hands to their sides, the soft grass filling the gaps that their fingers couldn’t. “You’re all of those things, and more.”

“So what do you think of me?” she asked quickly, her eyes sparkling with a dangerous curiosity that he had only ever caught glimpses of. For good reason, he thought, because that look was making it harder and harder to hold back.

“What do you want me to say?” he chuckled, a quiet, breathy sound.

“I want the truth.” Eyes flitting between his, and his lips, which were dangerously close to hers, she smiled slightly, just enough to make his heart pound.

Actions speak louder than words, don’t they?

Squeezing her hand gently, he used the other to cup her cheek, eyes closing as he pressed his lips against hers, without hesitation. She was so warm. If he could bask in her warmth every day, like this, he would be the luckiest man alive.

Her eyes fluttered closed, drinking in the moment she had been waiting for. Her other hand searched for his arm, her fingers trailing up his sleeve, gripping at the fabric ever so slightly. His lips were much softer than she had expected them to be, and much warmer.

His fingers travelled from her cheek to her hair, leaving a trail of warmth in their wake. He hadn’t realized how badly he had wanted to kiss her until that moment, and he felt like he could never live without it again.

Breaking the kiss momentarily, their eyes half-opened, gazing at each other. As much as he would have liked to continue, he didn’t want her to feel pressured by anything he did.

He couldn’t even get the question out into the open before she closed the distance between them once again. Smiling against her mouth, he couldn’t help but feel a little triumphant—the woman of his dreams was returning his feelings. He couldn’t believe it!

Moving to cradle her neck, he leaned over her, deepening their kiss, adding the slightest force to it. She kept up with his pace, the slightest of smiles pulling at her lips as he untangled their fingers, so as to bring her closer to him. Her arms wrapped behind his neck, her fingers running through his hair that was in a ponytail.

The sensation of it urged him forward. Gently taking her bottom lip between his teeth, he relished in the purr she gave him in response, her fingers clutching at his back. He loved the feeling of her—how soft her lips were, how delicate the touch of her fingers was.

It made all the waiting worth it.

Pressing another kiss to her lips, he parted her lips with his tongue, feeling for any and every reaction, any chance that she wouldn’t want to go further.

That wasn’t the case.

She welcomed him in, eager, her breathing becoming more erratic. Tongues intermingling, his fingers gripped at her waist, his heart nearly beating out of his chest. She released the softest of sighs, blissful, quiet, her kiss setting his body on fire.

He wanted more. So much more.

Slipping into a fantasy, he could just imagine the two of them, together. It could happen that night, if they so wanted it to. It wouldn’t be the first time a first kiss had turned into something more—not for him.

The image in his mind was tantalizing. Tempting. More than anything, he wanted it. He wanted her.

As her tongue brushed against his, sweeter than anything he was ever used to, he caught himself.

What was he doing?

He was the first mate. She was the second mate. He couldn’t just take advantage of her like that. He couldn’t forget who she was.

Breaking the kiss, he pushed her away.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice revealing just how much it pained him to let her go. “I—we shouldn’t do this.”

“What…?” Her eyes didn’t—couldn’t—hide how confused she was. How hurt she was. He couldn’t stand looking at them, not anymore. He couldn’t do this to her, to the crew, to anyone. If they were to become involved, it would be too messy, too complicated.

That was what he told himself, anyway.

“I made a mistake,” he grumbled, standing, turning on his heel. “Just… forget this ever happened.”

“What?” she repeated, her voice regaining its volume. “Jae Ha, you can’t be serious.”

“I am!” he snapped. Everything was arguing with him, within him—nothing made sense anymore. When he looked at her, the betrayal had etched itself into her features.

“What was that, then?!” she demanded, her hands shaking. Lip quivering, tears filled her eyes for the first time in over a year—at least, as far as he had seen.

And it was all his fault.

“Why would you do that?!” She was losing her grip on herself, on her persona that she had spent so long building up. She was breaking apart at the seams, and all he could do was watch. It was the last thing she needed—he was the last thing she needed. “What was that to you?!”

“I already told you,” he explained, his voice strained. He didn’t want to say this, but it had to be said. He couldn’t risk it, for the sake of the crew. “It was a mistake.”

The tears began to overflow, their tracks illuminated as they made their way down her cheeks. Stepping towards him, she didn’t hesitate to send her hand flying across his cheek.

“You son of a bitch,” she sobbed, wiping at her mouth, and turning away from him. “You scum!” she yelled, her voice raw and unhindered, echoing around them. Without another word, she ran off, leaving him behind in the moonlight.

He could never forget that night.

He could never forget that he loved her, no matter how much he wanted to.

He had caused her so much pain—that was the biggest thing he couldn’t shake from his mind.

For the next week, she had avoided him, kept their conversations to a minimum. It took her a while to talk to him the same way she used to.

He knew he deserved it.

He knew he didn’t deserve her.

But he still loved her. He couldn’t see himself loving anyone else.

There were days when he couldn’t hold back, couldn’t stop himself, when he slipped and kept her hopes up, even for just a moment. He knew he shouldn’t, he knew he couldn’t, but he didn’t want to keep resisting.

It ate him alive every day of his life.

To have some upstart come in, and threaten to win her heart, he couldn’t imagine it.

Bringing himself back to the present, he decided to call Won’s bluff. Opening his mouth, Jae Ha was prepared to give his answer, even at the expense of his pride, even if it meant letting Won have this victory, because at least he would understand how he felt about Yona. If he could have that one victory, then it would be enough.

“Jae Ha,” Gigan called, her voice interrupting the standoff between the two men. Soo Won turned to see an older woman standing on the deck above them, who had an undeniably powerful presence. He couldn’t help but be amazed. “Who’s this?”

“Captain,” Jae Ha chuckled, shaking off the tension he was feeling. “This is Won.”

“Captain”? Soo Won thought, realizing that his previous assumption about Jae Ha being the captain had been (thankfully) incorrect. A sort of petty triumph filled Soo Won’s heart, despite knowing that the other man most certainly still held a notable title.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain.”

“So, you’re the one Jae Ha was telling me about.” Quirking an eyebrow at him, she lifted her pipe to her lips, eyeing him carefully. “The childhood friend.”

If that is going to be my title, so be it.

“I would like to extend my thanks to you for taking Yona in.”

“Yona worked hard to be a part of this crew. All I did was lay out the conditions,” Gigan explained, nonchalant and rather detached. Jae Ha, however, chuckled at the captain’s insistence.

“We all know you think of Yona as a daughter, Captain, no need to be so cold,” he spoke smoothly, that usual charisma coming through. Even Soo Won could tell that, despite his teasing nature, he respected the captain immensely.

“She’s certainly a daughter that I’d be proud to have. Better than you lot,” she grumbled with a sigh. “Won, come to my quarters. We’ll discuss your role here further.”

Soo Won nodded, and began to walk forward when he was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. Jae Ha patted his shoulder like one would tenderize a piece of meat, nearly throwing Soo Won off his balance. Coming close, he whispered in his ear.

“Yeah, I love her,” he grinned, his grip tightening on Soo Won’s shoulder. “I don’t plan on losing her to the likes of you, either.” With that, he released him, letting him continue on his way. Soo Won turned, flashing a poisonous, friendly smile as he walked towards the staircase leading to the upper deck.

Soo Won remembered her insistence that they were nothing more than crewmates. How she, despite the way she looked at him with so much adoration, refused to let them be anything more. If they were to ever be lovers, they would have done it already—Soo Won knew this.

“Oh… but it would seem you have already lost your chance with her.”

 

Yoon was in the kitchen late that evening, cleaning up the remnants of the utensils used by all their guests. As much as he would have liked to be lost in the task, his senses were straining to detect any sign of trouble.

He had been in the kitchen the past several nights, making sure that no one used any of the back entrances to sneak into or out of the brothel. If there was any activity in the alleyways behind the building, then Yoon would be the first to know about it.

However, the past three days had been particularly slow on his end. He couldn’t help but feel a little helpless, just waiting for trouble.

It was already late into the night, at least two or three in the morning, when the door to the kitchen slammed open. Yona—completely pale in the face, hair disheveled and undone, and looking rather worse for wear—stumbled through, clearly unsteady on her feet.

“Yona?!” Yoon called, his voice betraying the panic he felt. However, she pushed past him, running towards the back door. Throwing the door open, she fell to her knees, trembling severely until her body began to lurch.

Rushing towards her, Yoon grabbed her hair just in time to clear it out of the way of the contents of her stomach. He rubbed her back in slow, repeated motions, knowing that it would only pass once she had gotten it out of her system.

However, he could not hide the panic creeping into his system. What had happened between earlier that evening, when she gave him a reassuring smile, and now? Who had she been with? Who had found her? What did they do to her?

What would cause her to react like that?

Praying that it wasn’t the worst-case scenario, Yoon refused to let her see the fear he felt, even as his hands quaked as he rubbed her back. Slow circles between her shoulders—he lost himself in the repetition of the movement.

If she had been with a man that evening, and he had forced himself on her—

He didn’t want to finish the thought.

His mind threw every argument and counterargument it could right at him. If a man had forced himself on her, she would, and could, fight him off, fight back, do anything she needed to. Yona was not the type to submit, and he knew this. But if that man was stronger than her, what would become of her? Certainly, she would show some injuries, wouldn’t she?

Yona, despite her current condition, was not bleeding, was not bruised, and showed no signs of external trauma.

Her retching stopped, and Yoon took that chance to take a closer look at her. Her face was extremely pale, her eyes glazed over, and darting back and forth. Her breathing was heavy and deep, as if she was trying to gulp in any air she could, and yet, it seemed like she was still suffocating.

“Yona…?” he called her name softly, keeping his hold about her shoulders. Yet, she didn’t respond. “Yona?”

Her breathing began to slow down to a normal pace, as she swallowed down any bile she could, and wiped at her mouth. She was beginning to collect herself. Taking that chance to move away, Yoon grabbed her a leftover cup and filled it with water.

“Here, drink this,” he offered, steadying her as much as he could. Taking the cup into her hands, she brought it to her lips, eyes still unfocused. “Drink it slowly, okay?” Almost mindlessly, she obeyed. Yoon continued to rub her back as gently as he could. “You’re safe now, Yona. You’re safe. You’re okay.”

It took some time. She seemed to be thinking about the situation she had just been in, running her fingers through her bangs, rubbing her hands over her arms, her legs fidgeting all the while.

“Yoon,” she finally said, her voice hoarse.

“Yona?” he asked, his voice shaking only slightly. “Yona, what happened?”

She took a deep breath, once again rubbing at her mouth. Her eyes lowered, and she fell silent once again.

“Do you need medical attention?” he asked, his voice quieter than before. Shaking her head, she stared off into the distance.

“We don’t need to come back here.” Her tone was so final, it caught his attention.

“What? But we still have—”

“We don’t need to come back here,” she said again, emphasizing each word, still refusing to meet his eyes. “We’re heading back to the ship. Tonight.”

On unsteady feet, she rose, swaying only slightly. Using the doorway for leverage, she stepped back inside the brothel, passing through the kitchen, and stopping at the door leading to the rest of the building.

“Stop! You need to rest more,” he protested, scrambling to reach her. However, she only turned on him with sharp eyes, giving him a look that he had never seen before.

“Gather your things. We’ll leave as soon as we’re ready.”

With that, she stepped through the door, and disappeared into the brothel, leaving Yoon alone, with more questions than answers.

 

Yona’s first, immediate thought was that she was going to die that evening.

With Jin’s hands cupping her cheeks, his thumb grazing over the scar on her cheek, she could feel her core temperature decreasing more and more by the second. The distorted smile he held on his face turned into a condescending sneer of pity.

“Come now, Yona, dear, do not look at me in such a way—oh, my apologies,” he caught himself, blinking momentarily, looking almost innocent. “You were introduced as ‘Tsubaki’, were you not?” Chuckling, his voice deep within his throat, he ran his thumb over her cheek once again. “Which name would you prefer, my dear?”

Her voice had been snatched up by the spell he had on her. A curse, a hex, his very presence was an omen of death. All that escaped her were shaken, broken breaths. Every muscle in her body was tense, ready to fight for her life to get out of there, but she could do nothing.

She still had her knife in her obi. How far could she get if she lashed out at him? If she fought with every instinct she had, could she survive?

Her thoughts were interrupted by his voice breaking the silence between them.

“I must say,” he began, his voice betraying his mild disgust. “I do believe ‘Yona’ suits you more. ‘Tsubaki’ gives the impression that you belong here.” Clicking his tongue, his eyes left hers as he surveyed their surroundings. It seemed like he held a severe distaste for brothels and prostitution—ironic, considering he was a customer at one such establishment.

However, his eyes landed on her once again, and a gentle smile—if she dare call it that—pulled at his features. The very expression seemed to distort the air around her, as if it was so against nature that the space around them had to compensate. The look he gave her—as if he actually held her in high regard—chilled her to her core.

The look communicated warmth, but it held none. A mask of affection—one that had plenty of cracks in it. Yona found herself wondering if he was even capable of feeling emotion, or if he had been faking them for so long that it was just second nature to him. It was entirely plausible that he thought he was feeling emotions, because he had convinced himself that he was.

His eyes were the only sign that he felt nothing.

“We both know that is not the case.” Eyes narrowing at his words, she wasn’t given enough time to analyze them before he clicked his tongue at her once more. “Your hair really does become you. It gives you a certain…” he trailed off.

He reached for her, causing her to flinch. Even if he was not going to harm her, his touch numbed her, chilled her. It set off every alarm, set her nerves ablaze. Taking a section of her hair that was draped over her shoulder, he began to run his fingers through the ends, almost absent-mindedly. Her nausea was only getting worse with each passing second, and each movement.

As was her bloodlust.

Distinctive quality.”

The weight of his words only added to the pit that was forming in her core. The implications were strong enough, but she didn’t dare to ask what he meant. Mind running wild with fears and anxieties, she stitched together any plausible reason he implied what he just did.

He knew her.

He knew her.

Yona couldn’t bring herself to ask how, but could only imagine that someone with as much power as him had quite the information network at his disposal.

Eyes flicking up towards hers, there was a noticeable edge to them. She tensed, but refused to allow her expression to shift. A small smirk pulled at his lips, and he kept their eyes locked, as if he was trying to hypnotize her, as he brought the segment of hair he was holding to his lips.

Something far too intimate for scum like him to pull.

“Will you not grace me with an answer, my dear?” he asked. She could feel that he was mocking her, bringing her silence to the forefront. Whether it was a victory to remain silent in defiance to him, or to spit fire at him with her words, she was unsure.

Wrapping her hair around his fingers, playing with it, goosebumps began to form along her scalp. Their first meeting was ingrained in her memory, he didn’t need to remind her of what he had done. Her throat began to tighten, making it difficult to breathe, to swallow, to speak.

Yet her hair remained in his grip.

Her body was screaming at her to get away, to run, to fight, to do anything she had to do in order to get as far away from him as possible. The lights were too bright, the sounds surrounding them too loud, her breathing too quick—it was dizzying.

Hand moving against her will, she found herself shoving him away, her strength only a result of her desperation. With her other hand, she pulled her weapon out of her obi, lunging for him. Her hand readied itself to resist against the tearing of flesh, the ripping of his throat, but it never came.

He had caught her hand, and despite being at a disadvantage, he quickly regained his ground, throwing her to the ground.

Her blade slid out of her hand.

Glancing back, she could see rage flash through his eyes, the first real emotion to pass through them. She didn’t care.

It was her life, or his.

That’s all it ever would be.

Kicking up, she was once again disappointed when her foot didn’t connect with his jaw. He could easily dodge any of her attacks—his skill couldn’t leave the back of her mind. No matter how much she tried, she could only think about how easily he had brought her to surrender in their first meeting.

How easily he could—and would—kill her.

Scrambling—in reality, it was a glorified crawl—for her blade, which was just outside of her reach, she had wrapped her fingers around its handle, only to have it pulled out of her reach once again by a stronger hand.

She wasn’t about to give up.

Turning onto her side, her hands shot towards his face, ready to scratch his eyes out—her last defense. It was over before it began, her hands instead ending up pinned against the ground, positioned above her head.

He could hold both of her wrists in one of his hands.

The other hand was holding her knife, pointed into her throat. Her breath caught, and she knew, if she breathed any deeper, the knife would break the skin. Taking panicked, shallow breaths, she locked eyes with Jin.

He had collected himself, and seemed mildly inconvenienced rather than enraged. Somehow, that only made it worse.

“Now, now,” he sighed, as if chastising a child. “I was only being polite.” His casual words were juxtaposed by the increased pressure of the blade against her throat, and the cold, unfeeling look in his eyes.

She returned his words with a sharp look of her own, as speaking would only drive the blade deeper into her skin. Giving her a short chuckle, he finally moved the blade away from her throat, eyeing her carefully, continuing to loom over her.

Taking a deep breath, she pressed a hand to her throat, feeling as if she had just emerged from deep underwater. The only response he gave her was a condescending smile, his eyes narrowing slightly. Finally, he moved away, sitting back, but keeping her weapon for himself.

When she saw the look he was giving her, one that practically announced his victory, even so early into the evening, she felt her resolve begin to form once more.

“Well, my dear?” he asked, toying with her blade—she made a mental note to retrieve it later. “What shall I refer to you as this evening?” A chilling smile pulled at his lips. “Unless you prefer ‘my dear’?”

“I don’t want you to call me anything,” she finally answered, her voice quiet, but sharp. He held no reaction. “You have no right to say my name.”

His smile remained in its place, as if he couldn’t care less. Unfeeling, uncaring—he must have been used to faking a smile for the sake of others. A true businessman, she thought. Her eyes landed on her knife, still in his hands, focusing on the way the light reflected off the blade.

Chuckling to himself, he brought her attention back to him before he turned, and tossed her knife clear across the room. Her stomach dropped as she heard it clatter against the floor, her eyes returning to Jin’s.

She didn’t bother to hide her hatred in the look she gave him. Leaning forward, bending his leg upwards to give himself leverage, he rested his arm against it, looking all-too-comfortable. He gave her an easy smile, as if they were old friends, and she was simply having some sort of temper tantrum in response to his teasing.

“There is the temper that I remember,” he murmured, his eyes glazing over as he took her hair into his fingers once again. Disgust filling her, she didn’t realize she was moving to slap him until he caught her wrist. His fingers digging into her skin, he loomed over her, the look he gave her freezing only her actions, but leaving her resolve untouched. “That is hardly behavior that suits a lady,” he sighed, seeming unimpressed.

“I’m not a lady,” she hissed, gauging his reaction. He didn’t have one.

“I would have to disagree.” His face fell, looking almost disgusted. “After all, even a lady such as yourself,” he sighed, folding his arms across his chest. “Could, unfortunately, take up a life of piracy.”

Her heart stopped, her fears confirmed in that single sentence. How much more did he know about her, if he knew she was a pirate?

A tangible darkness fell over his features, warping the atmosphere surrounding the two of them. For a moment, she conceded, finding herself shrinking away from him. Quickly realizing what was happening, she straightened, using all the tension in her body to steady herself.

She refused to bow down to his will.

“This is not the world of pirates that you have grown so accustomed to,” he warned—his voice flat, yet unable to conceal the threat beneath his words—his fingers tightening around her wrist. Fuming, Yona’s eyes held the same inferno he had seen on the night they first met. “There is an order here. The customer pays his fee,” he paused, leaning in so their faces were only inches apart. Their eyes met, fire and ice battling for more control. “And the escort complies.”

She saw no reason why she had to obey that “order”, as he put it. She wasn’t a prostitute, she was a pirate posing as a prostitute.

“That order,” he sighed, his voice straining. “Applies to you, as well. Temporary… or otherwise.”

“And why should it?” she spat.

“By all means, my dear,” he cooed, that same charming front replacing the cold mask he wore. Lips curving into a condescending smirk, his eyes flicked over her face. “Leave this place with a poor reputation.”

In the silence that followed, tense and strained, she remembered the terms she had accepted to even have the chance of getting into the brothel:

“You will act as a proper escort, adopt our culture, and follow our rules. If you sully our reputation, you will be banned from entering here ever again. And don’t think I wouldn’t tell the other brothels about your behavior.”

Whether he had heard about those conditions, or if he simply knew them as fact, was completely unknown to her. If the former was true, she had to wonder how he knew about it. However, if he was so familiar with this “order”, then he must have experienced it first-hand.

She couldn’t place him. Did he hate brothels, or did he frequent them?

“However,” he spoke again, that same easy smile on his features once again. “I shall offer you a deal, if you wish to take it.”

As much as she wouldn’t want to conduct business with him, or strike any sort of deals, his vague offer left her interest piqued. Giving him an incredulous look, he met her eyes with a knowing look. She knew he could tell she was interested, yet his lips remained sealed.

It seemed she was going to have to play by his rules.

“What were you thinking?” she asked cautiously, feeling uneasy.

“I shall respect that you are not a prostitute,” he started, his voice smooth, making it seem like any other business offer. “I shall not conduct any unsavory business with you, nor will I treat you as any other prostitute would be treated.”

That was quite the offer. One with quite the catch, she could imagine.

“If?” she asked, her mind racing with the possibilities of what the catch could be.

If you respect that I am here for a night of relaxation, and thus, do not physically assault me any more than you have already attempted to.”

Just add insult to injury, why don’t you? she thought. However, his deal was fair enough, she couldn’t deny that. But there was still the business of whether or not she could stay.

“So… could I… leave?” she asked, gauging his reaction. He smiled, polite and cold.

“That would be rather rude, would it not?”

“So that’s a no.”

“You are my escort for the evening. Such a responsibility was given to you; it would be in bad taste to leave a paying customer alone for the entire evening.”

Okay, okay, I get it. There’s a code, whatever.

As irritating as it was to be simultaneously treated as an escort and not taken seriously as one, she knew she didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

“So what?” Her patience was thinning more and more at the prospect of bending to this psychopath’s ideas of propriety. “You just want me to stay here?” The way he looked at her made her feel idiotic for asking. How was she supposed to know what he wanted? She was a pirate, not a mind-reader!

“Surely, you can think of something to pass the time.”

As much as she hated the idea of conceding to him and his ideals, she couldn’t afford to lose access to the other brothels in Awa. She had to go about this carefully, and she would have to—as sickening as it was—play by Jin’s rules. It took a steady breath and a tightening of the core to not betray the fear she felt at the thought.

In the silence that settled between them, she took a chance to glance at his face. His scars caught her attention, much more prominent in the lantern light than the darkness in which they first met, particularly on the left side of his face. His face was littered with scars, but a few stood out more than others. One particularly deep wound had found itself over his eye, the icy blue one. She found herself wondering if it was that color due to the injury, or if it had always been that way.

Another clean, thin scar stretched diagonally across his lips, a clear sign of a desperate attack. Yona could only suspect that the assailant hadn’t been successful in their goal, whatever it was.

The last scar that caught her attention truly had the most to tell. Three distinct, jagged, deep marks on his right cheek. Claw marks, she realized, but they were not from any animal, they were from human nails.

Her stomach churned at the thought of what happened to the person who did that to him.

“It never occurred to me that pirates were not the most skilled conversationalists,” he sighed, gazing at her. “However, I suppose I am not that surprised.”

So, he wanted conversation. Well, she guessed that could work in her favor. Maybe she could get some answers out of him.

“Fine,” she answered curtly. “It’s a deal.” His smile sent a shudder through her—he seemed too pleased with her for her liking. It was better than the look in his eye that suggested he was going to murder her, though. Sighing, steadying her resolve, she hesitated for only a moment before speaking to him clearly, trying her best to conceal her fear, “Then, to answer your first question…” she paused, swallowing the lump in her throat. He had already heard her real name, when they first met. With that in mind, she continued, “There’s no use going by this façade. Call me… Yona.” Somehow, her own name sounded wrong, even to her own ears.

His face contorted into something that almost resembled a smile, the scar across his mouth inching up, unnaturally.

Breath catching in her throat, it felt as if she had made a deal with some supernatural being, as if he would steal her name and her essence with it. It was a mistake, using her own name. Yet, she knew, in the darkest parts of her mind, that giving him any other name would be useless.

“Good.” The way the sound of his voice shifted, from annoyed to vaguely pleased, made her shift uncomfortably. “’Yona’ has a much more…” he hesitated, seeming to search for an appropriate word. It must have dawned upon him—or he knew it the whole time, she couldn’t tell—for he gave her a knowing smile. “Regal feeling, does it not?”

Her blood froze.

Her pulse stopped, for just a moment.

Her stomach lurched, dropping as her heart started itself again, pulse racing back to life.

She knew the expression on her face gave her thought process away, but in that moment, she wasn’t thinking of guarding her emotions. If he had just insinuated what she thought he had, then he knew who she was.

Showing her emotions would be the least of her problems.

“Please, enlighten me,” he smiled, seemingly to himself, as he finally looked away from her. Pouring himself a cup of tea, his eyes settled on hers once more as he brought it to his lips, gazing at her over the rim of his cup. “However did the long-lost princess of Kouka end up in a city such as Awa?” he chuckled, taking a sip. “As a pirate, no less…”

“That’s—” she sputtered, clamping her mouth shut. She had to calm down. She refused to let him see her in a vulnerable position. Speaking slowly and clearly, her voice low, she continued, “How did you know?” If he had already figured it out, then there was no use denying it, she could tell.

“It is truly an honor for someone of my status to finally make your acquaintance, Your Highness,” he droned on, ignoring her. He obviously wasn’t honored, considering he wasn’t exactly following the usual decorum, and was instead, drinking his tea, looking rather bored.

Uneasy, she chewed on the inside of her cheek, watching Jin as he sipped his tea. Any other circumstances, and it would seem normal—but he had just called her by her formal title, one that she had not heard in six years.

One that she considered long-dead.

“When did you find out?” she tried to ask, her voice unsure. It was then that she took the opportunity to piece together the evidence she had: he knew who she was, which meant, by extension, he had to know who Soo Won was. If he knew who she was, then that meant he had to have visited the castle at least once, didn’t he? No one in Kouka cared enough about the princess unless it had to do with her consort—the population wanted an heir, not a female monarch.

If he had visited the castle, then what was his status? Was he a merchant? A noble? He couldn’t have been royalty. It just didn’t match his image.

Who was he?

He watched her as she thought, long and hard, about what the answer could have been, but remained silent.

Choosing to make her point once again, she steeled herself. With a steadier voice than before, she spoke, making sure he heard her.

When did you find out?” she asked, sounding a little more confident than before. Taking a sip of tea, he chose to ignore her once again.

“This tea is of a rather high quality… how surprising…” he mused, glancing between the cup and the teapot that was set on the table. Yona could feel her temper rearing its ugly head, despite the warnings going off in her mind, and despite their deal.

“Answer me,” she demanded, her voice still low. She refused to raise it, no matter how much her temper took control of her actions.

“My, my, that is no way for an escort to behave,” he scolded half-heartedly. She felt like she was being treated like a child—the same way people had treated her when she was the princess. “Do try to remember our deal, Yona.”

Taking a breath, she forced her temper down.

“Will you answer… any of my questions?” she sighed, her patience thin. Jin smiled, seemingly to himself, as he set his cup down into his lap, giving her a curious look.

Of all the ways her night could have gone, complying to the formalities of a morally-defunct psychopath was not something that had crossed her mind.

“… Please?” she emphasized, feeling her sanity slipping away with each passing second. It was going to be a long night if it was going to be spent like this. She could only wish for his cooperation, although she knew that it would most likely not be granted any time soon.

“Very well,” he said, smiling gently at her.

Yona blinked, confused. His response was surprisingly genuine, setting her on edge even more than one of his evasive answers.

“U-Uh… then…” she stammered, unsure of where to even begin. He was looking at her, but instead of feeling like prey, she felt like he was trying to welcome her.

She took it back. She didn’t want his cooperation. This was worse.

Deciding that starting off with somewhat easy and non-invasive questions may be best, she chewed on her lip for a moment, her eyes darting between his and the floor.

“How… old are you?” she asked, her voice squeaking slightly at the end. Taking a sip of his tea, he smiled innocently.

“I am twenty-nine years old,” he answered, plain and simple. “I shall have my thirtieth birthday this upcoming June.” The normalcy and simplicity of the answer only proved to unnerve her further. “And, if I may ask, what is your age, Yona?” he smiled, sending a chill down her spine.

“… I’m twenty-two.”

She despised how he had just coaxed information out of her. It felt so natural, yet it was so horribly unnatural in its reality that she felt like her actions were against nature. He had her under his spell. She could feel it, but she could do nothing to stop it.

Is this how he had gotten in? Is this how he was successful in his human trafficking? Could he just charm anyone he wanted? Could he weave them into his web of fake smiles and polite words without hardly any effort at all?

“If I recall correctly, your birthday is in April, correct?” he asked, overly polite, and bordering on nice. It was having the opposite effect, though, since she had already seen his true character. Her eyes narrowed at him, but before she could ask how he knew that, he added with a smile, “It is my duty as a loyal citizen of Kouka to honor the birthday of the beloved—formerly departed—princess, is it not?”

Chewing her lip for a moment, she averted her gaze. She didn’t like the idea of him knowing anything about her—out of loyalty or otherwise.

“I guess.”

Taking a breath, she closed her eyes, for just a moment, praying that she would wake up when she opened them again.

She didn’t.

When she opened her eyes, Jin was still there, smiling at her with cold, unfeeling eyes—just as unsettling as he was when she closed them. His smile warped, becoming knowing and condescending in nature. She’d be more than happy to wipe it off of his face for him, however, she still needed to work with him, if only for a little longer.

Once she had the information she needed, there would be no need to continue with this charade. She wouldn’t mind cutting their evening short if it meant she didn’t need to keep playing his games. If he was interested in conversation, it would be a conversation they would have.

“Were you born in Awa?” she asked, choosing her questions carefully. Eyes flicking upwards in thought, he took another sip of his tea, seeming to savor the taste.

“I have lived here for quite some time, however, I was not born here,” he answered plainly, once again. His answers weren’t giving too much away, but she supposed that was to be expected. He quirked his eyebrow at her, extending his hand towards her, brushing a loose strand of her hair behind her ear. She tensed under his touch, still unwelcome, still as chilling as it was before. She could only pray he was serious about keeping his end of the bargain. “I know there is no need for me to ask you the same question, is there, Your Highness?”

“Just ‘Yona’ is fine,” she protested quickly, quietly, her throat tight. She was in such a hurry to get away from the title that she didn’t think about the implications of him calling her by name. The realization of what she had done reached her. “I… I’m not the princess anymore. I haven’t been since…” she trailed off, not feeling the need to finish the sentence.

“Ah, yes… since King Soo Won took the throne,” he mused. Glancing away, she could feel all the memories from her sixteenth birthday bubbling up. The day she officially gave up her title as Princess of Kouka.

The cliffs.

The chaos that ensued on the cliffs near the Wind Tribe’s village flashed through her mind. Her scalp tingled, despite all the time that had passed, at the memory of Tae Jun holding her back by the hair. The same adrenaline she felt in the past, that fateful day six years ago, coursed through her veins once more.

“Hak! I’m going to help you up!”

“Idiot! Run away!”

The way Hak had looked at her as she cried, that face was burned into her mind. It was the last time she had ever seen him alive. Tae Jun’s final orders, then… nothing. Not until she woke up, not until Yoon told her Hak had died, not until she began the mourning process all over again.

That day, her grief changed her. She had lost everything. If Soo Won didn’t want her to be the Princess of Kouka anymore, then he would get his wish. She would no longer be the Princess of Kouka.

“It’s in the past,” she muttered, refusing to share her secrets with this man, of all people.

Clicking his tongue at her, he seemed disappointed that she wouldn’t continue to speak about her time as a princess. Eyes narrowing, she glared at him, making sure he was well aware of her distaste in him. He didn’t seem to mind, regardless.

“Very well. Please continue with your questioning.”

She hated that he just expected her to continue with her questions, as it was, but what she hated even more was that he was right. Balling her hands into fists in her lap, she chewed on her lip, trying to think of a question.

As he knew who she was, her former title, her current title, she could only imagine what kind of status he held to have access to that sort of information. Whether it was first-hand knowledge, or from some sort of information network, she needed to know how he came to know she was the Princess.

Asking flat-out hadn’t worked, but perhaps if she took a more roundabout approach, she could pry some details from him. Taking a breath, she steeled herself.

“Are you nobility?”

Jin hummed, pouring more tea into his cup, just as nonchalant as ever. She had no idea why he placed such importance on this interrogation of theirs if he was going to treat it like it barely mattered. It seemed to be nothing more than a game to him—for all she knew, that’s all it was.

Of course, judging by his manner of speaking, he was certainly of a higher class; however, that could easily be manipulated. He could have taught himself to speak in an overly-formal manner, to win the favor of those around him, or to make himself seem more trustworthy than he actually is.

The mysteries only kept piling up with every passing minute.

“Nobility in relation to whom, exactly?” he asked, his eyes glimmering with a curiosity that she didn’t trust as they glanced her over. She felt violated, despite the fact that she had received looks that had been much more lecherous than his in the past. He wasn’t looking past her clothes, trying to spot her figure, but past her flesh, to her very soul.

Yona didn’t answer.

“’Nobility’ in relation to… the Princess of Kouka?” he asked, taking her hand in his, and bringing it to his lips. The action was gentle, but forced. Her arm was no longer her own. “Or perhaps,” he chuckled, low and rumbling, placing a kiss on her knuckles, churning her insides. “To a pirate?”

As much as she would have loved to spit out a “Guess” at him, she knew it would only harm her progress further. She needed to stay on his good side, and she needed to remind herself to remain calm in his presence.

“You said you wouldn’t treat me like a prostitute,” she warned, her eyes landing on her hand in his, still all-too-close to his lips. Eyes flicking from hers, to her hand, he quirked an eyebrow at her, placing her words in the spotlight, bringing an embarrassed, rosy color into her cheeks.

“Yona, my dear,” he sighed, once again making her feel like a child. “Surely, you can understand what I meant by that.”

“I can, but--”

“Then whatever is the problem?” he asked, the corners of his lips curling up, only slightly. Turning her hand over in his, he pressed a kiss to her open palm. Recoiling, she pulled her hand away as quickly as she could, pressing it to her chest. “You do have a reputation to protect, do you not?”

“That wasn’t our deal,” she hissed, her blood coursing through her veins so quickly it made her fingers numb.

“This is hardly the way a prostitute would be treated,” he chuckled, cradling his head with his hand, tilting his head at her. His smile remained on his lips, his eyes reflecting the flickering lantern light and nothing else. If she had to guess, it was what he looked like when he was amused, as empty as it seemed. “One could argue that this is simply propriety.”

“I don’t want any of your ‘propriety’.”

“Mind your manners, my dear,” he scolded, voice laced with ice as his face fell. “Unless,” he paused, his eyes boring into her. Attempting to hide the shudder that went through her, her eyes never left his. “You wish to be treated as any other escort.”

Her stomach churned at the thought. Balling her hands into fists, nails digging into her palm, the blood drained from her face, and rushed to her head simultaneously.

“You wouldn’t—”

“Would I not?” he asked, the smallest of smiles playing at his lips. His blue eye melting her from the inside out, white-hot, but icy-cold. But he was right, she realized. He trafficked human beings. She didn’t doubt his ruthlessness.

He had killed one of his own men before her eyes—he had no reason to treat her as amicably as he was in that moment.

He was being kind to her, as hard as it was to believe.

The realization froze her blood, icy streams rushing through her body, chilling her to the core. She couldn’t think of a response, an answer, anything. Her mind was blank in the face of his amorality.

Despite existing before her, he was nothing. He was without emotion, without morals, without reaction. He lived in the present, he lived, it seemed, only in her eyes. The shadows consumed him, made him a ghost to the living.

His presence—dark, undeniable, omnipresent—was the source of his alias, not his elusive nature. The shadows that ate at her nerves, even in the time they hadn’t been near each other, poisoned the air between them.

Eyes flashing towards the edge of the room, where her dagger had fallen, she briefly considered running for it, fighting her way out. She needed the information, but at the risk of her own safety? Of her own life?

Settling her gaze on Jin—only to find that he was already looking at her—she knew her chance was lost. Twice, he had already proven his strength against hers. If she was going to make a run for anything, she knew he would have to be distracted first.

If that was even possible.

She, along with everyone else, was at the mercy of this puppeteer. He always seemed to be three steps ahead of her, thinking out every possible scenario before it had even occurred to her. Even she was his puppet in this charade of escort and customer.

He had total control over her, and she was only just realizing it.

Swallowing, she knew she would have to continue, lest she went against his code of propriety, or whatever it was that he seemed to treasure so much.

“In relation to the princess, are you nobility?” she bargained, hoping he would lead the conversation to where she wanted it to be. Keeping her expression as neutral as possible, she could only wish that he would confirm that he had been to the castle. He took his teacup into his hands, cradling it as if he cherished it, yet looking apathetic, and unimpressed.

“In the presence of Her Highness, I am but a speck of dirt on her shoes.”

“A pirate, then,” she interjected, her quickened voice betraying her desperation. His eyes flashed, dangerous and knowing. He could probably smell the fear on her. She didn’t care. He set his cup down, the faintest of smiles pulling at his lips, as if he found the whole thing humorous.

“I suppose I would be considered nobility to a pirate.” Quirking an eyebrow at her, he rested his elbow on his knee, looking up at her like they were old friends catching up. The look was hardly worth reciprocating. “Is that a satisfactory answer, Yona?” he asked, despite the fact that it was obvious it wasn’t. Her head shook, almost imperceptibly, her eyes never leaving his. The edges of his mouth pulled up, ever so slightly. “Then, what else do you wish to know?”

Swallowing, she took that moment to think. She had to ask her question delicately, at the risk of not obeying his warped social code. She wanted to know his ties to the castle, more than anything else. After a few more moments of hesitation, she finally pieced her words together.

“Have you ever visited Hiryuu Castle?” she asked, her eyes straining from watching his reaction, trying to find any crack, any break in his unfeeling persona. His eyes, still boring into her, narrowed only slightly in response.

“My, what a roundabout way of asking,” he sighed, his voice seeming deeper than before. Straightening his posture, he looked down on her, the illusion of friendliness obliterated, and their difference in power once again becoming clear to her.

“Well, have you?” she asked again, trying her best to hold onto what little ground she had left.

The look he gave her in that moment froze her core, sending currents of ice through her bloodstream. While his eyes usually held no warmth, no indication that he was even alive, or human, they were filled with an indescribable heat. White hot, the burning sensation of ice. Whether it was hatred that fueled that heat, or something else, she couldn’t tell.

She prayed for hatred.

His lips drew into a frown as he took his cup into his hand once again, and brought it to his lips. However, his eyes never left hers, only continuing to unnerve her. After a few painfully slow sips of his tea, he finally put the cup down.

“No, I have not.”

Her heart dropped. All that for a denial? It didn’t make sense.

“You’re lying,” she accused, her voice quiet, the blood draining from her face. She was bluffing—she had no idea whether he was lying or not.

“Whatever gave you that idea?” he asked, much too serious. He had been so carefree, almost playful, up to this point, and the juxtaposition was gut-wrenchingly unsettling.

But he wasn’t denying her accusation.

“When?” Hands shaking, she swallowed hard, refusing to allow her eyes to leave his.

“I have never visited the castle,” he repeated, seeming bored, and almost annoyed.

No! She refused to let him win. Her hands began to shake, much more violently than before—however, it was not due to fear, but to rage. Her whole body quivered, each tremor matching her pounding heartbeat.

“You’re lying,” she hissed. “Answer the question.”

He didn’t respond. He didn’t react, didn’t say anything, he simply glared at her. His gaze, ice cold and far too intrusive, only made her blood boil more. It was a look that reminded her that she was dealing with a killer, a monster, a man that was hardly human.

“This is your way of asking how I knew of your former title, is it not?” His voice was strained, betraying his lack of patience—she could only guess her insistent questioning was what was annoying him. Of course, he was infuriating her, so she didn’t particularly care.

When she didn’t grace him with an answer—knowing he already knew, anyway—his eyes flashed in the dim light. Faster than lightning, he reached for her, taking hold of her chin, and forcing her to lean closer. Her legs tangled in the sudden lurch forward, but thankfully, she was able to catch herself with her hands before she fell face-first into his lap.

She was only grateful for a moment, before she realized how close he had brought her. He wasn’t bothering to hide his irritation with her behind neutral facial expressions, or calm words.

“Is that not your intention?” he asked again, emphasizing his point. She tried to pry herself from his grip, but only felt his grip tighten, threatening to bruise. Without realizing, her eyes widened, looking up at him with the emotion he craved.

She was filled with fear, hatred, anger… a beautiful, burning mixture of fire and wit. Despite her vulnerable position, she would refuse to submit, and he could see as much in those eyes of hers.

“Then how do you know?” she asked, gaining some semblance of control. Jin’s grip on her chin loosened, his hand moving to cup her cheek, his thumb brushing over her scar. Moving to lean over her, she found herself almost cradled in his arms, his hair brushing her face. His features warped into an easy smile—as much as she hated it, she would gladly take the façade over the real, inhuman mask.

“I heard of a red-haired princess, long ago,” he explained easily, all remnants of his anger, his annoyance, disappearing, replaced by a reminiscent smile. She felt infantile in his arms, that nagging feeling that she was being treated like a child returning. “Perhaps, about six years ago now…” he mused.

Six years ago.

When she first arrived in Awa.

“I cannot quite recall who told me,” he smiled at her, his thumb leaving an undeniable chill in its path as it stroked over her scar once again. “Ah, now I remember.” He leaned closer, all too close for her comfort, his eyes locking her in place. His other hand moved towards her hair, and as much as she wanted to glance away, to move away from his touch, she couldn’t.

She felt one of the ornaments in her hair shift, yet her eyes couldn’t leave his. He had her under his spell once again.

“It was Yang Kumji.” With one smooth motion, he retracted the ornament from its place, the hair that was being held by it cascading down, brushing the ground. With a triumphant smile, he pressed the stolen ornament to his lips, the space between them so small that the beads of the ornament brushed against her bottom lip. Yona’s stomach dropped—at his answer, at the look in his eye, at his show of dominance.

Yang… Kumji…?

“Do not look so afraid, my dear,” he cooed, his voice soft, but powerful enough that she could feel the vibrations in her chest. “That man is long dead.” Setting the hair ornament down next to him, he chuckled softly, his breath hitting her lips. She couldn’t stand that he was so close. “Of course, you already knew that.”

Her breath hitched in her throat.

“After all, you were the one who killed him.”

Swallowing hard, her stomach churned again. If he was loyal to Kumji—which, she figured, he was—then wouldn’t he take it as a personal attack that she killed his superior?

“I… have my next question,” she swallowed, trying not to fall prey to his games. With a short chuckle, he glanced over her face, seeming to ignore her. Steeling herself, she inhaled, his scent overwhelming her slightly. A mixture of tea, herbs, and a hint of musk filled her nostrils. “What is your relation to Yang Kumji?”

Once again, his thumb crossed her scar, sending a slight shiver through her.

“He was my predecessor in this business.”

“Did you work beneath him?” she asked quickly, hoping to distract him before he could do anything else.

“Hardly ‘beneath’ him,” he paused, a proud glimmer finding its way into his eyes. “But beside him.”

She couldn’t understand him. When it came to a question such as have you ever been to Hiryuu Castle, he became overly defensive, and refused to answer her clearly. But when she asked a question that tied him to the human trafficking trade, he readily answered.

“If I may ask something of you, Yona,” he said, voice quiet, almost intimate, breaking through her thought process. Feeling her face contort slightly, she stared at him, not sure if she wanted to hear his question.

He pulled her back up in a sitting position, finally putting some distance between them. She could tell her hair was horribly lopsided, but that was only a minor problem, in comparison to Jin.

“As you are not a prostitute, I do have to wonder why you would… well,” he paused, eyes glancing away in thought. “I do hate to say such a thing to a lady, but,” he sighed, eyes flicking back to hers. “Why ever would you partake in the services offered here?”

Of all the questions he could have asked her, that one was the last she had expected. Shaking her head, partially in disbelief, she began to defend herself without realizing it.

“Why would you—?” she asked, voice much sharper than she had intended it to be. He thought she was selling herself? He knew she was posing as a prostitute, she was sure. “I’m not—”

“Last night led me to such a conclusion,” he explained, voice deadpan as he eyed her curiously. Her mouth opened, and closed, her brows furrowing. There were too many details to address at once: first of all, his confidence in his question, as if he was seeking affirmation of something, and secondly…

“Last night”?

She knew his goon had shown up, but certainly, he couldn’t have—

The knowing smile on his face confirmed her fears.

“You… were here last night?” she asked, barely louder than a whisper.

“I highly doubt I need remind you that we have met tonight entirely by chance,” he chuckled, a deep, rumbling noise. “Perhaps, if you had not been so…” he cleared his throat, “pre-occupied, you would have noticed that my rather incompetent subordinate did not check the room next to yours?”

Her heart lurched into her throat, blood rushed to her face, surely giving her face a color that rivaled that of her hair.

He was in the room next to hers. He heard her moan while she was with Soo Won—even if it was fake. He—

He… had been with a prostitute.

“My, your face is such a lovely color,” he complimented her, although she felt absolutely disgusted. “I do not believe I have ever seen you blush, Yona. How… cute,” he chuckled, his teasing making her skin crawl.

It wasn’t the time to be embarrassed. He had been with a prostitute the night prior, but no women were reported missing that morning. He had been with one of his usual victims, yet he spared her?

Worse yet, the realization that he had slept with her, yet he left her be. He made no sense. He could have taken her easily enough, yet he didn’t. Why?

And even worse still, he knew it was her in that room. He knew he was in the room next to her. How? Why didn’t he come and get her then? Why was he just waiting for her to appear on her own?

A deeper, darker thought entered her mind:

How long has he been looking for me?

Shaking her head, she tried to clear her mind of the flood of thoughts that followed, all of them similar in nature. She could think about it later.

Returning to his question, part of her knew that it was pointless to defend herself. It would almost be easier to accept his assumptions than it would to explain why she had moaned in the first place.

“I had to gain their trust,” she lied, hoping he wouldn’t probe further.

“I see,” he hummed, giving her another knowing smile. If he knew she was lying, he didn’t say anything about it. After about ten seconds of silence, she cleared her throat slightly. Annoyed that she could still feel the heat in her face, she thought of what to ask next.

Needing a break from the details of his life, she opted for something a little more general. Something that wouldn’t tie back to human trafficking. Racking her brain, she finally thought of a tame question.

“What is your family like?” she asked, feeling less confident than before. It felt strangely personal.

For the first time, Jin’s eyes widened. If only for a moment, she caught him off guard. His façade quickly returned, the usual cool, unfeeling mask that she (unfortunately) was beginning to get used to.

“My family?” he repeated, almost to himself. He seemed amused by her question, a reminiscent glimmer in his eyes. “I had a father, and a mother, naturally.”

“’Had’?”

“They both passed away quite some time ago.” This fact didn’t seem to bother him, so she offered no consolation.

“What about siblings?”

“I have four brothers—two older, and two younger,” he explained. So he was a middle child. How strange—it was hard to imagine him with siblings, or a family, or even as a child. Glancing at her, he laughed softly, “Are you satisfied with my answer?”

“I guess.” She hadn’t really cared about what his answer was going to be, regardless.

“Would you like to ask me anything else?” Once again, the polite façade was taking its place, making him seem more charming than before. She would have to be careful.

She asked the next thing on her mind, a simple extension of family matters.

“Are you married?” she asked, her words slipping out of her mouth before she could think about the implications behind them. This was a mistake. A horrible, horrible mistake.

A dangerous light flashed through Jin’s eyes, as his face contorted, once again, into a chilling smile. His hand invaded her personal space, tilting her face up towards his. In a desperate moment, she attempted to scramble away, only to be caught, with his other hand landing upon the small of her back.

He loomed over her, his height unmistakable. As his eyes searched hers, his thumb ran across her bottom lip, sending a noticeable shudder through her.

“What an interesting question,” he smirked, his breath mingling with hers with every released word. “I do wonder why you would ask such a thing.”

“I-It was only curiosity,” she insisted, trying to inch away from him as best as she could. Any space between them would have been preferable. Pressing both hands against his chest, she tried to push him away, but he wouldn’t budge.

Instead, he pulled her closer.

Every alarm in her body screamed at the contact.

“Come now, Yona, dear,” he chuckled, his voice low, and teasing. “There is no need to be embarrassed. It is a perfectly natural—”

“Ugh! No!” she protested, putting all her strength into pushing him away, completely disgusted. “There’s nothing natural about this!”

“If you wish to become my wife, then you need only ask,” he cooed, leaning his face closer towards hers.

“Who would want to marry you?!” she hissed, moving her hand and pushing his face away. While she was careful not to obviously hurt him, she wasn’t above making it look accidental. All she wanted was to be as far away from him as possible.

“I will have you know that I have received several proposals—”

“Good for you. I’m not one of them!” Wriggling out of his arms to the best of her ability, she was finally able to break away from his grip.

“Ah, the sting of rejection,” he sighed, his sadness obviously fake. He really was just teasing her, but she didn’t want any part of it.

“Do you mind?” she sighed, totally exasperated. She already knew the answer, even before he spoke.

“Hardly.”

That was about what she was expecting.

The smile pulling at his lips was much less malicious than any that she had seen from him before, but that didn’t make it any less chilling. The very act seemed against his natural state, as if his facial muscles couldn’t support it.

Chuckling—most likely at her reaction, she would guess—he took his cup into his hands, eyes shining as if he was just told a joke.

“I do not have a wife,” he smiled, still seeming to take too much joy in their “joke” that they shared. “My, what an honor for the former Princess to take such an interest—”

“I’m not interested.”

“You may deny it as much as you wish, Yona,” he chuckled, taking another sip of tea. Sighing, she knew better than to keep fighting him on it. The maniac was going to believe whatever he wanted, anyway. If he wanted to think she was interested in that aspect of his personal life, then she couldn’t do much to stop him. “Although, I must say, I do admire a woman with ambition.”

Her stomach churned at the thought that she was his type. She didn’t want to know for certain what he meant by ambition.

Drumming her fingers against her lap, some of her anxiety leaving her in the act, she exhaled sharply.

“Why are you trafficking human beings?” Patience thin, she disregarded the pace she had set for herself. She had no interest in finding out trivial information about this man—he was beyond reason. It was time for the details she needed to know.

The words that had slipped out of her mouth fell between them, leaving the air stagnant. It felt as if something had pervaded the space, something that didn’t belong there. Only silence remained.

Before she could react, his thumb grazed along her jawline, barely perceptible, as if a ghost had brushed up against her. A shudder rocked her spine, quaking, once again, in his grip. Turning her chin upwards, she found herself forced to look into his mismatched eyes, glazed over, reflecting her own image. Breath catching in her throat, she froze, finding herself paralyzed in his grip.

“You could rule over this country as Queen,” he murmured, seeming unfocused, like his mind was elsewhere. As he gazed down at her, his eyes void of all emotion, she could see the kingdom he envisioned. Her mind was filled with flames; a warring state. Surely, Sei and Xing would be brought to their knees before the military power of Kouka.

He said nothing, but she understood.

That was the kingdom he wanted.

“Tell me, Yona,” he started, voice soft as a whisper, but harsh as a scream. “Will you ever reclaim your throne?”

Of course she wasn’t going to try and reclaim the throne. It had been six years—she had no reason to! But all the alarms going off in her head told her that he was too unpredictable, too unstable, to just reject his ideals right then and there.

Weighing her words carefully, she decided to take the neutral road.

“I’ve never… thought about it,” she lied.

“What a pitiful lie,” he whispered, his grip on her chin tightening only slightly. In the reflection of his eyes, she could see her own shaken expression. “You deserve that throne. You… are different from the filth that infests this kingdom.”

The… “filth”…? Yona thought, eyebrows furrowing only slightly as she struggled to comprehend his words. His eyes were merciless, filled with contempt and hatred, yet it was not pointed towards her. He seemed to hate whatever “filth” he was referring to.

“What… do you mean?” she asked, cautious. Deep down, it felt like she already knew what he was going to say, but she wanted to hear him say it, to confirm her own suspicions.

“If you were to become Queen, surely…” His other hand moved towards her hair, removing another ornament, more of her hair falling onto her back. “This kingdom could become a place worthy of my loyalty.”

“What does this… have to do with trafficking humans?” With every passing moment, more and more anxiety crept into her core, shaking the foundations of her courage.

“To become a respectable kingdom, of course, we will have to be rid of the filth that resides here.”

Swallowing hard, she searched his eyes, already knowing that she would find nothing. He was serious. He believed that. She was finally getting the information she wanted, though, so she felt the need to press on.

“So why me? What difference would it make if I was the Queen?”

“As I said, I admire a woman with ambition. You are one such woman.” Another ornament was pulled from her hair. As she recalled, that was the last one. His hands found the ends of her hair, gently combing through, sending a shudder through her. “After all, I cannot recall the last time that a woman murdered one of my subordinates to call my attention to her.”

The blood left her face, leaving a pale imitation in its wake.

His eyes never left hers, holding her in place, destroying any chance of flight. The ice from his eyes crept into her veins, freezing every movement, no matter how slight. His grip tightened on her, yet even her flinch was muted, as if she was incapable of the most instinctive of movements.

The room seemed much darker than before.

“You did not forget, did you, Yona?” he asked, forcing her head to remain in place, her eyes never to wander, his other hand moving to brush her cheek.

Of course she didn’t forget. How could she?

The fingers against her cheek reminded her of a nightmare she thought she had buried. That early morning, when she had the dream that he had been in her room.

Was it actually a dream?

She couldn’t remember.

She couldn’t remember any of the details, but he could have been there—that thought alone was enough to turn her blood to ice, her stomach churning, her throat tight. Her fingers began to tremble, her body tensing until she was completely stiff.

All light from his eyes was extinguished. They were void of everything: emotion, sympathy, humanity.

“No,” he grumbled, even his voice losing the usual mask of humanity it held. She was looking at the man beneath the mask—the monster that lived in the shadows. “You would not forget such a thing.”

Scrambling for any resolve that she had left, she found herself quickly speaking.

“He deserved to die—he was taking a woman—”

“He was following orders. Does such an act warrant murder?” he interrupted, his voice remaining unfeeling, cold.

“If he was going to kill someone else—”

“You murder to stop murder. Tell me, Yona, when will this cycle end?”

“I was defending—”

“Yes, you and your morals. That is what makes your acts acceptable, is it not?”

Her mouth clamped shut in response.

“I must say, I believed you to be intelligent,” he sighed, sounding disappointed, like he expected more from her. “However, slaughtering my subordinate may have been the epitome of idiocy.” Her eyes widened, threatening to tear up. Instinct could only be held back for so long. “An act this reckless could have cost you your life.”

“So why haven’t you killed me yet?!” she spat, her words desperate, more breathed than spoken. In the face of death, her fear, her panic threatened to set her over the edge.

She couldn’t give him the satisfaction. She just couldn’t.

Despite how empty his eyes were, how void his very presence had become, he smiled. He actually smiled at her. Once again, his hand returned to brush through her hair, his other hand still clutching her chin.

“All of this time together, and yet, you have not discovered that much?” he chuckled, piecing the human mask back into place. The tone of his voice set her on edge, but for an entirely different reason. He was back to his charming, charismatic self. It was quiet, creating a sense of intimacy between them that shouldn’t have existed. Out of instinct, she tried to pull out of his grip, but he was too strong

No responses could come to mind.

Using his hand that was at her back, he pulled her closer, simultaneously tilting her chin upwards, steadily pressing his lips against hers.

All formalities died in that moment. Struggling against him, she tried to get away, but he held her in place, his mouth working against hers—gentle, but still forced. His eyes had closed, yet hers remained open.

It would only work as a reminder of who was doing this to her. It was the very one she loathed. Part of her felt that if she closed her eyes, she would forget that. It was self-preservation to burn that image into her mind.

She wanted to scream, to cry, to get away however she could, but she was at his mercy.

She could only pray it would end soon.

That this would be all he would do.

Breaking the kiss, he chuckled, his eyes opening. Before he could fully look at her, her hand was flying for his face, hand only half-open, fingers curled in slightly.

Nothing would make her happier than giving him a scar matching the one he already had.

Yet she was unsuccessful. Again.

However, as opposed to just blocking her attack, he returned it, his open palm striking her cheek, sending electric shocks through her system. The blow sent her falling, his grip no longer supporting her, her head hitting the floor with a solid thud.

He was over her before she could realize it, pinning her in place.

“Why have I yet to kill you, my dear?” he laughed, the sound low and frenzied, similar to a beast. He grabbed her face, forcing her to look him in the eyes. He wasn’t human. He couldn’t be.

Pressing a quick kiss to her lips—it lasted only a second, yet it felt like an eternity—he moved away from her, standing. Dusting off his clothes, he walked towards the doorway, completely calm. Opening it, he looked back at her one last time, that same smile plastered on his face.

“You are far too valuable to me alive.”

And with that, he left, leaving a suffocating silence in his wake.

 

The cool night air drifted in through the open window, the pale moonlight filtering through the leaves, casting flickering shadows over the figure sitting in the window. Breathing in the crisp night air, he smiled to himself, twisting the delicate accessory between his fingers. The bandages covering his eye suffocated him, but were necessary for his freedom.

Taking an injury to the eye was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

With a thoughtful sigh, he pressed the escort’s hair ornament to his lips, a souvenir of his misdeeds for the evening.

Her lips had been soft, warm. A delicacy that he shouldn’t have been permitted to indulge in. When was the last time he had felt warmth like that? If he wasn’t careful, he could end up getting burned.

But what a delight it would be, to burn in the fire of her presence.

The fire within her eyes, her hair a reflection of the color, left him yearning for warmth. Even an inferno felt like a gentle flame to him. With her at his side, surely the Kingdom could be built anew.

Her relations with the King would prove to be quite interesting. If she were alive, that was surely no accident, and His Majesty seemed prudent enough to know when to eradicate his enemies. He allowed her to live, even at the risk of his own throne?

Surely, he would live to regret that mercy.

Hiryuu Castle would fall, and land right into his lap. He didn’t have to be King. That was far too obvious of a position for someone such as himself.

The Castle, such an intimidating place in his memory, had become little more than a shack in the present. He would have to blame his past intimidation on his childish awe of the place.

It had been years, but he still recalled his first trip to Hiryuu Castle.

He had been ten years old, and had travelled there with his father and his brothers. They were to make a good enough impression on King Il to be considered for higher status.

He had never understood why he had needed to go along. The oldest son had so much potential—to bring the others along would be nothing more than risking greed, or pride.

The details of the introduction, the meeting, and all the business never stuck with him.

No, it had been something else entirely.

“Yona!” a child, no older than four or five, called out, catching his attention. He had dark hair, and was rushing towards the little girl in the courtyard. A girl with hair that was so brilliantly red, it could never be truly forgotten.

She turned, all smiles for her friend. Soon, a third joined them, a blond child. Together, all three played together, innocent, and free. Yet, there he was, participating in business at such a young age. Preparing for the future, as always.

He had his place, and they had theirs.

That was the way the world worked.

It wasn’t long after that meeting ended—the whole thing had been completely dull—that they began to walk the castle grounds. He remembered his eyes straining to find her once again, the girl with the red hair. He was fascinated by her existence, but he couldn’t place why.

He and his brothers walked along, the others completely ignorant to the existence of this girl. For a long while, they didn’t meet anyone other than servants, or various castle officials.

Then he heard the laughter.

Turning just in time, he saw the little girl running, laughing, her red hair bouncing around her round face. She couldn’t see them, she was looking back at her friends, teasing them, sprinting along as fast as her short legs could carry her.

He had found her once again.

She did exist.

Shrieking with laughter, she continued to run, unaware of the group before her. Too unaware.

Running straight into his legs, he was nearly toppled over by the sheer force of the toddler. When she looked up at him—afraid, most likely of punishment for being a reckless child—he saw eyes so pure, so hopeful, so naïve that he found himself unable to look away.

“Ah! Sorry!!” she cried, her eyes already filling to the brim with embarrassed tears.

“Jeez, Yona, you’re so clumsy!” the dark haired boy teased, an endearing smile on his face.

“Hak, that’s mean…” the blond child sighed, grabbing the girl’s hand, and gently pulling her away.

Yona.

That name would remain seared in his memory, although he could never place why. Years could go by without thinking about her, yet, he always felt that she was in the back of his mind, her name quietly buzzing amidst the overwhelming silence.

He always wondered what became of her, what kind of person she became. The last time he saw her, she was waving to him and his brothers, her pudgy hand swinging enthusiastically through the air as she beamed at all of them.

When he heard of the death of the King and the Princess, he didn’t react.

He couldn’t.

Although, because people would expect some level of mourning for the death of a princess as young as she—to be killed on her sixteenth birthday, no less—he presented the façade that people would expect to see.

Just as he always had.

If she had lived, where would the Kingdom be? Would she be married to King Soo Won? Would she have provided an heir, continued the line for her family?

He couldn’t deny that such thoughts had filled his head at the news of her death. Flooding in, drowning him, filling every crevice in his mind with thoughts of her. He had only seen up close her the one time, why had she tormented him so? Why did she haunt him?

He could never place why.

The night that, on a whim, he followed his men on their orders would prove to change reality as he viewed it. He had heard rumors of the red-haired pirate, but he never thought he would meet her, face-to-face, in the manner that he did.

It was her.

She was alive.

The indescribable feeling that had tortured him for years finally made itself useful. He knew, upon seeing her, that it was their destiny to meet again.

He didn’t love her, he knew that much for certain.

However, he was nothing if not an opportunist.

A smile played on his lips, the perfume she used still wafting from the hair ornament, intoxicatingly forbidden. A cool breeze stole the scent away, only momentarily, but her warmth remained, coursing through his veins.

The door to his room slid open, hurried steps rushing in, the soft fabric of an overcoat being roughly draped across his shoulders.

“Master Se Jin! You should be more careful!” he cried softly, his voice a harsh whisper. “You will catch your death of cold!”

“I am fine,” he chuckled, shrugging off the coat, careful to avoid the delicate hair ornament. “You need not worry, Yun-Bok.”

“Did you change the bandages for your eye tonight, sir?” he pestered, hovering around his master. “You need to keep those bandages fresh!”

“Yes, Yun-Bok,” he sighed.

“Hm?” Yun-Bok blinked, coming closer, looking closely at his hand. “What is that, Master Se Jin?”

“A gift.”

“From a lady?”

“Yes, I suppose she is a lady.”

“Have you found a special woman in your life, Master Se Jin?” Yun-Bok beamed, clapping his hands together. With a sign, Se Jin stood, walking towards the door, tucking the hair ornament into his pocket.

Special? He could tell that they had differing definitions of the word. As an opportunity, a pawn—yes. In the same sense that Yun-Bok was thinking?

“Hardly.”

Perhaps his opinion about her would change. However…

Only time could tell.

Chapter Text

The world was quiet.

It was that strange time in the wee hours of the morning where nothing properly existed yet. No birds chirped, no breeze stirred, nothing was alive. Even those who were drunk on wine or love had fallen asleep by that time.

Yet, there they were.

Yoon and Yona walked through the sleeping city, their steps the only sounds that could break the silence. Glancing at Yona out of the corner of his eye, Yoon was still unsure about the aura she was exuding. If she had been hurt, she kept quiet about it. If she had been harmed, she refused to speak of it.

What had happened to her that evening?

He knew better than to ask.

As they trudged along, the adrenaline that was coursing through her body never waned. Every shadow reached for her, every sound was giving away their position, every wafting scent was something that reminded her of him .

He was everywhere, and nowhere. Every time she shut her eyes, he was right there with her, his arms wrapping around her like the chains of fear. When her hair shifted, it was him pushing it away. When her ears strained for any noise, she could hear him, somewhere, laughing.

Laughing at her .

He knew exactly what kind of effect he had on her, and he revelled in it.

If there was one thing that was going to keep her on her feet, keep her world level, it was what little resolve she had left to fight back against him. Perhaps it was spite, to prove that he couldn’t get under her skin, but even that seemed more like superficial encouragement. Any thought that could give her the strength to continue was enough.

It was all she had left.

She couldn’t let anyone know of what had happened that night. It was her secret, her shame, and she would be the one to handle its weight.

The exhaustion that she felt, not only from that night, but from the last couple of days, was quickly catching up with her. The more she walked, the more she dreaded existing, the more she wished to be in her own bed, sleeping.

Safe.

It was something that she hadn’t felt, properly, all week. Really, since she had met Jin. Even then, she didn’t feel safe, but that was neither here nor there.

Sleep.

That’s all her mind could think of at that point. Nothing else mattered.

Part of her wondered if Jin would be the type to attack twice in a single night. It would be advantageous for him, since she was too exhausted to fight.

But then it’s no fun, a dark part of her sneered.

She hated that she could get into his mindset. It was as if he had poisoned her. Although, it was a poison that she would have to live with, for the time being.

Slowly, they made their way through town. One foot, then the other, one by one, until they reached the port. By the time they reached it, Yona felt close to collapsing from exhaustion. Her limbs no longer worked the way they were supposed to, her bones felt heavy within her skin, her eyes felt as if they would rather fall out of her skull.

It was hell.

But, as they approached the ship, she could hear her bed calling her name. She could feel the blanket fit snugly around her shoulders. She could sense the peaceful night of sleep that lie ahead. It was all she could do to not run for it, right then and there.

The sounds of laughter floated from the deck of the ship, the only thing breaking the silence of the late-night-early-morning stillness. Sharing a tired look, they approached their home, unsure of what they would find.

“Honestly, they’re so noisy,” she grumbled, her legs feeling heavier with each step. She was almost home… almost there, and then she could pass out and sleep for three days. That was all she wanted. Sleep.

With the crew being that rambunctious, she wasn’t sure sleep would be possible. But, then again, she was to the point of exhaustion where she was sure that if she were to lie down, she would fall asleep almost instantaneously-- even if it was the cold, hard ground.

The guffaws of the crew drifted down to them, now on the pier near their ship. They were all most certainly drinking. There she was, dealing with a human trafficking lord, and they were drinking . It only reminded her how painfully sober she was for the past three days.

It just wasn’t fair. She deserved better than this.

At least she could rely on Soo Won not to be completely hammered. He had always been so responsible, and knowledgeable about his own limits, no matter how they were being tested. No matter how much they goaded him, she was confident that he would be able to say no and keep his head.

As she climbed to the deck of the ship, she was sure her legs would give out. Thankfully, if only out of spite, she was able to keep climbing. Step by step, the words of the crew became clearer to her ears.

“You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me.” Yona recognized that as Jae Ha’s voice, no matter how slurred it could be. He was definitely drunk. “ You ?”

“Damn right it’s me ,” a voice retorted. This one she had a harder time recognizing. “Got a proposal ‘n’ everythin’. Practically begged me.”

Typical men’s talk, Yona thought, with a roll of her eyes. At that point, she reached the deck, the two main drunkards coming into view. One was Jae Ha, that much was clear, but the other--

“S--” she sputtered, clamping her mouth shut. “W-Won…?”

“Whoa, what happened here?” Yoon asked, his voice quiet. The din of the crew’s voices drowned both of them out.

“C’mon, Won! Tell us more!”

“Yeah, no way she asked you that!”

“It’s true!” Soo Won protested, very obviously drunk. What the hell had happened to him? She had never seen him that far gone-- she couldn’t think of anyone who had . He was always so professional, so formal, it was hard to believe he could ever get drunk off of anything. “She cried, and cried-- ‘Do I look like a woman to you?’ she said.”

Yona didn’t like how familiar those words seemed to her.

“Ahhh, it was so tough ! I’d always seen her as a kid-- but she really did look so grown up!” Soo Won whined, throwing his head back in anguish.

“What is he talking about?” Yoon asked, glancing at Yona, who could only shake her head, brows furrowed in confusion. There was something about his story that was nagging at her, but she couldn’t place it.

“Bullshit!” Jae Ha spat, leaning forward. “There’s no way that ever happened.”

“It did!” Soo Won defended, leaning forward in return. He and Jae Ha looked like they were about to tear each others’ throats out.

This was beyond Yona’s wildest imagination-- but if she could just sneak past them, to her room, and fall asleep, she would be perfectly content. Walking along the edge of the ship, she tried to skirt around their conversation, hoping to go undetected. Thankfully, enough of the crew was there that she could remain unseen.

“Please-- you’re such a pansy, you couldn’t even hold hands with a woman,” Jae Ha challenged. “But especially not Yona .”

She froze.

You mean those idiots are talking about… me?

Soo Won laughed lightly. “Oh, and you’re soooo different.”

Suddenly, the context of Soo Won’s story dawned on her-- the reason it seemed so familiar was because she was the person he was talking about.

Yona’s face practically caught fire at the realization.

It had been so long, she hadn’t thought about that interaction in years , but it was definitely her! She had told him that she wanted to be his wife, had asked him if he saw her as a woman, all around the time of her sixteenth birthday.

She could die of embarrassment. Her teenage years were haunting her in the worst way possible.

“You little punk--”

“I’ve not only held hands with her,” Soo Won challenged back, his voice filled with confidence she didn’t know he had. “I’ve slept with her!!” he announced, loud enough for the whole damn town to hear.

Yona’s heart stopped. She may have known what he meant, but the others sure as hell didn’t. The crew guffawed, roared, and cheered, drowning the harbor in their volume. Jae Ha was left speechless, and Soo Won, triumphant. Some of the crew members were patting him on the back, completely oblivious to the fact that their second mate was present for this conversation.

All that was about to change.

“OI, YOU LITTLE SHITS!!” she roared over the crew, bringing them to a complete and utter standstill. She hadn’t even realized she was going to bring attention to herself-- she supposed that, after the night she had had, she snapped.

“Oh… shit .” Soo Won gulped--drunk, but not stupid.

“Who do you think you are?!” she boomed. “Talkin’ about a lady in that way?!”

“W-We’re sorry, Yona…” several members of the crew managed. Turning her best scary-second-mate look on them, she waited until they were properly cowering to address the two main sources of this problem.

You two, ” she growled, approaching them. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Y-Yona, dear, I can expl--”

“Save it.” Jae Ha’s mouth shut, mid-explanation. It was probably wishy-washy, anyway.

“Yoooooonaaaaaaa,” Soo Won whined, looking more and more like a sad puppy with each passing second. Yona didn’t want to give him a free pass, but it looked like he couldn’t even think properly at the moment.

“Ugh-- how much did you drink ?” she groaned, giving Jae Ha a dirty look. “How much did you give him?!”

“What? Why’s it my fault that he can’t hold his alco--”

“You know what? I’m done talking to you.” She wasn’t in the mood to try and decode Jae Ha’s rationalizations-- especially when he was drunk. It would be easier to just talk to him in the morning.

Meanwhile, Soo Won tried to stand, but as Yona approached him, he practically collapsed into her arms, with only an innocent giggle.

“I’m kinda drunk.” His eyes were warm, and fuzzy-- something she didn’t expect, especially from him. It was hard to imagine that someone that had caused her so much grief in the past was now a hopeless, drunken idiot being supported by her arms.

“No shit,” she grumbled, half under her breath. “C’mon, Won. Let’s get you to bed.”

“What about me?” Jae Ha whined.

“Go tuck yourself into your own damn bed. You can walk,” she snapped. It was too late to be dealing with drunken idiots like this. Jae Ha pouted, and refused to move from his spot. Whatever . He could drink himself into a stupor, for all she cared.

Leading Soo Won to the crew’s quarters, she supported him as they walked, his head lolling forward. He was really far gone… part of her wondered if he was going to be okay.

“I’m sorry…” he groaned quietly, obviously beginning to regret how much he had. With a sigh, Yona rolled her eyes, but she’d been there plenty of times, so she couldn’t exactly judge him either.

“Just be careful not to drink so much,” she said softly.

“I didn’t have that much though…”

That caught her attention. A very strong part of her felt like Jae Ha had something to do with Soo Won’s drunken escapades.

She would definitely be speaking to him in the morning.

Slowly, she led Soo Won down the steps to the main part of the crew’s quarters, and then to an empty bed. Thankfully, most of the crew was still on the deck, and, judging by the laughter, they were regaining some of their festivity.

What a carefree bunch. She couldn’t help but be jealous.

“Yoooonaaaa… I’m sorrrrryyy…” he whined again as she helped him get into bed. As opposed to responding, she sat on the edge of the bed, giving him a tired look. The last thing she wanted to do that evening was babysit, but there she was-- doing exactly that.

To think she could ever see Soo Won in such a vulnerable position was almost hard to believe. The fact that it was even happening before her very eyes made it even more surreal. There he was, lying down, staring at her through his mussed-up bangs, the most pitiful look filling his eyes.

“You’re sorry?” she asked, the beginnings of a smile pulling at her lips. It was all too absurd.

“I’m really sorry,” he insisted, his hair falling more and more into his face. With a sigh, Yona turned herself around completely, gesturing for him to sit up.

“C’mon, sit up.” He made a pitiful attempt, and groaned in defeat when he couldn’t manage.

Really… what a mess.

“Fine,” she sighed, moving closer to him. “Turn over.”

“Okay.” He was surprisingly compliant when he was completely smashed, she realized. It was a nice change of pace, she had to admit. Flopping over onto his other side, his hair bounced all over the place, a completely tangled mess.

She had been that drunk before. Waking up in a mess of one’s own hair wasn’t exactly ideal.

Untying his hair from the messy, loose ponytail it was in, she began to comb her fingers through his hair, gently pulling apart all the major knots with her thumb and forefinger. With every stroke, Soo Won released a tiny, pleased sigh.

“You’re making this weird,” she grumbled, heat creeping into her neck.

“But it feels so gooooooood,” he sighed, releasing a few giggles. He sounded so ridiculous, she couldn’t help but chuckle. Taking his hair into her hands, she began to braid it, just well enough to keep it out of his face in the likely event he got sick.

Twisting his hair around to tie off the braid, she finished.

“There you go.” With that, her work there was done. She could finally leave, and go to bed. Right as she was about to get off the bed, his voice stopped her.

“You’re tired?” he asked, his voice too naive for her liking. When she looked back, he had turned back onto his side to face her.

“Exhausted,” she replied blandly, hoping the lack of emotion would give him a hint. He grinned at her, rather stupidly, but innocently.

“Just sleep here! With me!” he offered, losing control of his own volume. His voice was too loud, and, afraid that someone might hear and further misunderstand their relationship, she shushed him. “Oh, sorry,” he fake-whispered, still speaking at a normal volume. “Just sleep here, with me.”

“Absolutely not,” she protested, an undeniable heat rising into her cheeks.

“C’monnnnnn… it’ll be just like the old days.” The smile he wore was cheeky, to say the least. “You and I-- holding hands-- sleeping together. It’ll be great.”

“We were children . It’s kinda different now.” Without hesitation, he reached for her hands, taking them in his own. Instinctively, she jumped at the contact, but couldn’t deny that the warmth of his hands was almost comforting, in a way.

After the night she had had, having someone hold her hand-- even if he was too drunk to realize what he was doing-- was the sort of normal human contact she needed. Even after their complicated history, after everything he had done to her, she couldn’t help but feel a little safer now that she was with him.

The stress of the night was beginning to break through, becoming an unbearable burden. In that space, where she wouldn’t be judged, her tears were welling up in her eyes, threatening to overflow. But she couldn’t let herself show that weakness in front of him. He had no right to see her cry.

It was a tough reminder, but one that was necessary.

Pushing herself away, untangling her hand from his, she had barely made it to the edge of his bed when she felt a hand wrap around her wrist. Before she could realize what was happening, she was being pulled down, until she was lying right next to Soo Won.

He gave her a smile-- a mischievous, daring smile.

“Relax for a bit,” he whispered, as if anything louder would scare her off. The lantern on the wall behind her was reflected in the glimmer of his eyes, dancing in his irises, which were still fuzzy from the alcohol. However, she couldn’t help but feel that he was calculating, scrutinizing her, even then.

In her muddled mind, it was tempting. To spend the night with him, warm, safe… away from the dangers of Awa, and the dangers of the world. Away from all human traffickers, all brothels, all shadowy figures that reached for her.

It would be easy to spend the night there. That thought occurred to her, if only for a moment.

“I…” she started, the soft bed only absorbing her more and more with each passing moment. Her eyelids were heavy, already beginning to drift closed. But, with no shortage of uncertainty, she had to continue, “I can’t.”

It had been so long since she had seen Soo Won pout, and boy, did he pout . She sputtered out a laugh at his face, all scrunched up as if he had just bitten into something incredibly bitter.

“Yoooonaaaaa!!” he whined, throwing his head back to rightfully complain. It was hard to believe that she was capable of laughing in that moment, but his dramatics made it easier for her to forget everything that had happened. It was so easy to be caught up in that moment, there, with him, whining about holding her hand just like when they were children.

“I can’t!” she protested lightly, laughing a little at how focused he was on his mission. She felt like she was chastising a child.

It was as if her mind was so desperate for any form of comfort, searching for even the slightest warmth, that she forgot who she was with to begin with. In the silence that settled between them, she could feel the claws of nostalgia digging into her mind.

It had been so long since she was able to think about her childhood. About their childhood. It almost didn’t feel right that the two of them were there together, knowing that Hak couldn’t be there with them.

That he never even had the chance.

But there they were, the two survivors. A pang of guilt struck her, deep within her core.

“Stay here… please?” he asked again, quietly.

All those days when they were children, when he would hold her hands while she slept, wiping her tears away. The memories that swam through her brain were making it more and more difficult to refuse his offer, even though he was exceedingly drunk. The past they shared was so powerful, that in that moment, she could almost forget what he did.

Almost.

“You…” she started, averting her eyes from his, searching her, analyzing her pain. With a breath, she continued, “You should get some rest.” Propping her arm beneath her to sit up, she felt the lightest of touches to her hand, and paused.

Meeting his eyes, she watched as he placed his other hand on her shoulder, pulling ever-so-slightly, bringing her closer.

What the hell was she doing? She couldn’t submit to this temptation! This was Soo Won . The man who killed her father? Who ran her out of the castle? Who led to Hak’s death, and her involvement with pirates? Hello? Yona? Ringing any bells?

But, in her sleep-deprived, fatigued, totally unreliable state of mind, she didn’t fight back. Once again, she lowered herself to the bed, lying on her side, facing him. A small, pensive smile pulled at his mouth, before he moved closer.

For a moment, her breath hitched in her throat. Her mind raced with possibilities of what he might do, and yet, she still didn’t-- couldn’t-- fight back. Was it because of Jin? Had he broken her down? Did his mind games leave her completely submissive to not only him, but to other men, as well?

Or do you want this? It was a thought that had crept in without her noticing.

There had never been any closure between them. One night, it was just over . Despite the circumstances, it had still taken her months to go without thinking about him at least once a day. It had taken years to forget him, to become a new person independent of his reach.

But when he reappeared, how much of her past came back with him? Those feelings never died, they were catatonic, unresponsive, making her think she was safe. But there they were, lying on the same bed together, sharing this intimate moment that should never happen.

Who was the drunk one here?

“Do you love Jae Ha?” he asked suddenly, breaking her free from her thoughts. His eyes were fuzzy, warm, but overly curious, sparkling with genuine intrigue. Blushing, she averted her eyes from his, afraid that he would see the truth. The red in her face only deepened when she felt his arm drape over her waist, anchoring her to that spot.

She would have never cared before if he knew she was in love with someone else, so why did she suddenly feel so cornered?

“That’s, um…” she stammered, still avoiding his gaze. Yes, she was in love with him, but--

That promise she had made to herself. He only kept denying her and denying her, she couldn’t keep trying.

“It’s complicated,” she managed, knowing it was a weak answer. “But it doesn’t matter, since he’s, y’know, uninterested anyway.”

“Naaaah,” Soo Won whined. “He’s sooooo in love with you.”

Yona’s heart stopped for a few seconds. Blinking at him, she could feel even more heat creep into her face and neck, until she felt like she had quite the fever.

Jae Ha? Loving her ? Sure, they had had their flings in the past, but he was totally uninterested now, wasn’t he? Right? That was certainly what he had led her to believe, but if Soo Won was saying as much--

No.

She couldn’t let herself have hope.

Not again.

“What makes you say that he loves me?” she asked, giving him a pointed look. He wouldn’t benefit from admitting as much, so she couldn’t help but be curious.

“He told me he did! He said he ‘wouldn’t lose you to someone like me,’” he stated, giving his best imitation of Jae Ha. If she wasn’t so focused on what he was insinuating, she would giggle at his attempt. Although, her mind was wandering, digging through all the memories she shared with Jae Ha.

Every lingering look, every brushed hand, every flirty exchange-- did he actually see her in that way? The evidence was adding up, tilting the scales in her favor.

But reality was much more reliable than the words of a drunk man.

He had turned her away. He rejected her, blatantly, multiple times. Soo Won must have misunderstood Jae Ha’s words-- he was probably just looking out for her, as he usually did. While her mind was buzzing, the last rejection she had suffered washed over her like a cold wave.

“No… I don’t think he does,” she said flatly, trying her best to hide the hurt. It was still a fresh wound. “He’s just protective.” She wasn’t sure if she was saying that for Soo Won’s sake, or for her own.

“Hm.”

“What?” she asked, her defensive nature perking up at his tone. He gave her a look that she couldn’t describe. “ What ?” she repeated, suddenly aware of how close they were.

“If you don’t love him,” he hummed, his voice lower than it was before. It set her on edge, her heart jumping in response to his words. “Then what about me?” As much as she would hate to admit it, her heart was hammering against her chest, yet she still felt like she shouldn’t move away.

“Y-You?” she sputtered. “C’mon, quit joking.” Her ears were on fire, her heart pounding. It was time to leave, in her mind. Moving to sit up, she turned towards him. “Just get some rest--”

Before she could process what was happening, she was being grabbed about the waist. In a moment, she was lying on her back once more, Soo Won hovering over her.

“What the hell --”

“I’m not joking.”

Her eyes went wide, her cheeks heating up as he gazed down at her. In that moment, he seemed much more coherent than before, much more aware of what he was doing.

“Hey, c’mon--” she started, but he only leaned closer in response. He was close enough for his bangs to brush her face, for the stench of alcohol to assault her senses. His body pressed against hers, effectively pinning her beneath him. He had definitely grown since he was a teenager, she realized.

“Yona,” he said, so softly it made her heart squeeze in her chest. What the hell was wrong with her?! She couldn’t possibly be reacting like that to Soo Won, of all people. “I’ve wanted to kiss you since the other night.”

What?

WHAT?!

He couldn’t be serious. He just couldn’t be! Her childhood love, the man that she had effectively shut out of her life forever, was admitting that much to her? There was no way she could believe it.

“W-Won… you can’t be serious,” she stammered, her confidence failing her.

He didn’t respond. He only gave her the softest, most vulnerable smile she had ever seen. It was practically sheepish, as if he was embarrassed by what he had said, but he didn’t regret it in the slightest. His hand grazed her cheek, so gently she would have blamed the breeze if she could have, his eyes still holding that undeniable warmth.

Something in her stirred. She didn’t know what, but it was not going to let its presence remain unknown.

She could have easily fought back, but she didn’t. His fingers trailed across her cheek, eventually grazing her bottom lip. Her breath hitched in her throat.

“Soo Won,” she whispered, her protest caught in her throat. He leaned closer still, and even closer. Squeezing her eyes shut, she wasn’t sure if her heart was pounding because she was anticipating it, or if she was afraid.

She felt a large weight on her shoulder-- literally. Opening her eyes, she saw Soo Won, his head pressed into her shoulder, face-first. Stunned, she wasn’t sure what he was doing for a moment, until she heard a soft snore.

He… had fallen asleep.

On top of her.

Great.

“Oi, Won,” she grumbled, whatever hesitation she was feeling totally gone. Pushing on his shoulders, she tried to roll him over, just enough to get out from underneath him. She didn’t need the members of the crew finding her there, with him, in such an incriminating position.

He was much heavier than she had thought, particularly when he was blackout drunk. With a few tries, she was able to roll him over onto his side, looking like a baby while he slept. Rolling her eyes, Yona finally got up, and off the bed.

She was about to leave him, but she glanced at the blanket that was lying at the end of the bed. It would be inconvenient if he caught a cold, she thought, so she pulled it up over his shoulders.

“Good night, you idiot,” she whispered, a smile pulling at the edges of her lips, against her better judgment. He continued to snore softly, totally unaware of everything but his drunken, presumably peaceful sleep.

Sleep was calling her name louder than ever. She was going to listen, finally.

Returning to the deck, she found the crew carrying Jae Ha, supporting him by the shoulders.

“What the hell happened this time?” she asked, not in the mood to babysit yet another fully-grown man. Jae Ha, in particular, was leaving a sour taste in her mouth. Perhaps due to everything that had happened over the last couple of days.

“He just had too much to drink.”

“Well, get him to bed.”

Walking past them, she found a small, petty joy in leaving Jae Ha behind. The same petty part of her could only hope that Jae Ha would hear about how she brushed him off in the morning, once he was hungover and could truly appreciate it.

With that, she returned to her personal quarters, dropping onto her bed, and falling asleep before she even had the chance to change her clothes.

The door to her cabin opened, pulling her out of the heavy embrace of sleep. A silhouette stood in the doorway, looking at her. Stifling a yawn, she raised her head ever so slightly.

“Jae Ha… what time is it?” she asked, her voice far too heavy in her throat. It felt difficult to speak. The silhouette said nothing, but entered her room, crossing an invisible threshold into her personal space. She wasn’t sure what it was, but something about the scene seemed off.

Why wasn’t Jae Ha speaking to her?

When she tried to speak again, her voice failed her, sending her into a panic. Eyes glued to the approaching figure, she felt as if she had already lived through this.

The figure warped the space around it, as if it wasn’t even a part of the same plane, or dimension. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but it didn’t seem human, whatever it was. Frozen in place, her heart hammered within her chest.

This, most certainly, was not Jae Ha.

Gliding towards her, the figure eventually stopped before her bed. Despite the fact that she could not see its face, she knew it was looking at her. Her throat was tightening up, and she could feel the tears spilling out of her eyes, trailing down her cheeks.

“Yona, dear,” it said, its voice chilling her to her core. In an instant, the figure’s features came to her, those mismatched eyes piercing her very soul. “Come along, it is only you and I now.”

“What about the crew?” she asked, or rather, tried to. Her voice was barely a squeak, despite how much she was fighting to speak.

“Worry not, they have been properly disposed of.” A smile that was far too wide forced its way onto Jin’s features, making him look absolutely inhuman. Letting out a shrieking cackle, he threw his head back, as if he had just told the best joke of his entire life. “Come, now!” he laughed, his hands reaching for her, invading her space. His hands closed around her shoulders, his grip so tight it threatened to bruise her.

“Let me go!” she screamed, although her voice still could not escape her.

“Now, now, dearest. There is no need to fight me so.” Forcing her out of the bed, he began to walk, dragging her along whether she wanted to be there, or not. They reached the deck in an instant, and before her, the bloodied corpses of the crew littered the deck.

Her heart stopped.

“After all, they tried their hardest, and yet, here they are.”

A scream bubbled within her throat, tore through her vocal cords, and ripped the scene apart, thread by thread. The scream was enough to pull her out of the nightmare, until she realized she was sitting up in her bed, her hands shaking, her heart pounding.

Her eyes searched the cabin, although no sign of an invader was left. Slowly, the fuzzy inconsistencies of the nightmare faded away, reality settling back in its place. Through the window, she could see the bright skies of late morning.

It was just a dream.

Taking a deep breath, she pulled her knees to her chest, resting her head against them. It had been so real, but she was safe. The ship was well-protected, and it would take more than one man to take the crew down.

She had to rationalize the real world to herself as much as possible. Anything that could chase the shadows of the night away. It was over. She was safe. Jin wasn’t there.

Pulling on fresh clothes, clothes  fit for a pirate, she already felt a little better. It was much more comfortable than pretending to be a prostitute, in her opinion. At least she didn’t have to pretend to be something she wasn’t.

Brushing through her hair, she pulled it into a high ponytail. Some hard work would help to clear her mind. Splashing some water into her face, she thoroughly washed the nightmare from her features. She was sure she looked exhausted, but it would take about a week to remedy that.

Stepping out of her cabin, she was met with a problem that, admittedly, she had forgotten about: two extremely hungover crewmates. Both Soo Won and Jae Ha were looking rather green that morning, hanging on to whatever sturdy surface they could.

Yona didn’t want to know the details of how bad off they were. However, she did have an idea of a tiny dose of revenge.

“Alright, everybody!!” she shouted, as loud as she could. Jae Ha and Soo Won winced, shooting quick glares her way. “Let’s get to work!!” With a smile, she announced her intentions, loud enough to rack the idiots’ hungover brains.

Before she could get to work, however, she had some business to attend to.

“Jae Ha,” she called, her voice stern-- she was trying to imitate the captain, in all honesty. It seemed to work, as he jumped as soon as her voice reached him. Turning around, he attempted to meet her eyes with an easy--albeit pained-- smile.

His attempt was noted, but not convincing enough to get him off the hook.

“Come here,” she commanded, not bothering to hide her annoyance with him. In those two words, he knew he was in deep trouble. Trudging up the steps to the upper deck, where she stood, he met her eyes with a certain air of confidence.

No doubt, he would try to charm his way out of what he did.

She wasn’t about to let him.

“Yona, dear!” he greeted her, throwing his arms open to take her into an embrace. Pointing her finger directly into the middle of his face, she stopped him in his tracks. His eyes went wide, before he blinked at her blankly. Giving him the most innocent smile she could manage, she kept distance between them.

“Tell me, Jae Ha,” she started out, her voice soft, and almost playful. “What the fuck did you do to Won’s drink?” Playing it cool, he shrugged in response. He was good under pressure, she had to give him that much.

“Me? Nothing,” he chuckled, casually avoiding her gaze. “It seems he can’t hold his liquor.”

“Funny, neither could you,” she smiled sweetly, catching him off guard. Clearing his throat, he couldn’t meet her eyes. “So, Jae Ha, what’d you do to it?”

“I may have…” he trailed off, pursing his lips. “Laced it.”

“Uh huh,” she nodded, her eyes never leaving his face. The more he felt like a cornered animal, the better. “And why would you do that?” Jae Ha coughed in response. “Jae Ha…” she warned, her patience thin.

“You didn’t see how he was yesterday, Yona,” he explained, becoming defensive. Ignoring the roll of her eyes, he continued, “He needed to be taken down a few pegs.”

“So you drugged him?!”

“I didn’t drug him!”

“Then what do you call it?!”

“I…” he started, clamping his mouth shut, actually seeming to think about what was spilling out of his mouth for more than a nanosecond. “I…”

“Drugged him.”

“I did not!”

“You ass!” she shouted, right into his ear, hoping that the hangover would amplify her voice as much as possible. “Are you forgetting that he’s helping us out?” Stumbling a bit, Jae Ha placed his hand to his head.

Glancing behind Jae Ha, she could see Soo Won, squinting against the sun, up at the two of them. Both he and Jae Ha looked worse for wear, and she had to wonder…

Similar hangovers must have meant something, right?

“Tell me, Jae Ha,” she started again, a smile playing at her lips. “You didn’t happen… to accidentally drug yourself, did you?” He actually had the gall to look offended, which was the first sign that she was right.

This bunch was becoming more and more pathetic with each passing day, weren’t they? Then again, at least he had enough sense to know that he had accidentally slipped himself the same poison he had given Soo Won.

Karma was a lovely, charming lady, wasn’t she?

Of course, he couldn’t tell her that he couldn’t remember anything from the night before.

“Aww, poor baby,” she cooed sarcastically, giving him a smile that dripped with same amount of poison as the alcohol he had drank the night before. “Pull that shit again, and you’ll be begging for the mercy of the Dragon Gods, because you certainly won’t get it from me. Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he sighed, her threat obviously going over his head. Whether he would actually try anything of that nature again or not was up for debate, although she figured that he would think twice before trying. “Whatever,” he sighed.

“Good.” With that, she walked past him, ponytail bouncing with no shortage of sass. “Tatsu, what’re we taking care of today?” she called, thus beginning her campaign of icing out Jae Ha. Sure, it was petty, but he had not only rejected her, he had pissed her off, too.

He could deal with a large dose of cold shoulder.

As Tatsu explained what they would need to take care of for the day, her eyes wandered over to Soo Won. He was so hungover, as much as he was trying to hide it. She could at least commend the effort-- after all, he had gotten much more than he had bargained for.

“Anythin’ else ya need, Yona?” Tatsu asked. She was about to shake her head, and send him off to work, but she paused. Leaning in towards him, she caught his eye.

“Just keep an eye out for Won for me, would you?” she asked, with a gentle smile. “Jae Ha’s giving him a hard time.”

This, however, did not work out in her favor. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say. With a sly smile, Tatsu winked at her, a noticeable rosiness to his cheeks.

“Oh, sure thing, Yona,” he winked, nudging her a couple of times with his elbow. “Anythin’ for your ‘ childhood friend ’,” he chuckled, his voice low. Sighing, she could feel her face heating up. No matter how much she tried to stay cool, it was still mortifying to think about the night before.

“You’re completely misunderstanding,” she grumbled. “He wasn’t serious!”

“Uh huh, we’ve all heard that one before.”

“For f--” Releasing an exasperated sigh, she shook her head. “Fine. Believe what you want. I obviously can’t change your mind otherwise.”

Well, that certainly answered the question of what the rest of the crew thought of Soo Won. As if the sidelong glances and knowing looks weren’t enough indication. It was a shame that they hadn’t gotten as blackout drunk as the two perpetrators of the event.

Great. They all believed Soo Won’s tall tales about their past together, and, of course, they weren’t about to believe her side of the story.

Men, she thought, sighing to herself.

“Yona,” Gigan’s voice carried over the bustling crew, catching her attention. Admittedly, she was a sight for sore eyes for Yona. “Come to my quarters, now.” Thankfully, she knew that the harsh tone that the Captain had was just for show, but she would still have to recount everything. Information was worth its weight in gold for them.

Soo Won watched as Yona climbed the stairs to the upper deck, her hair catching on the wind. He felt like he had seen her the night before, but any time he tried to remember details, his head only pounded more than it already was.

It only nagged at him more and more with every passing minute. He had no idea what he was like, just that he was hammered . He could only hope that she hadn’t seen him like that, but he had a certain gut feeling that things didn’t work out in his favor.

It didn’t help that she had returned two days early. However, it wasn’t his place to ask for information regarding that subject. He wasn’t the King there-- he was Won, the son of a merchant.

The looks that came from the crew weren’t easing his anxieties about the night prior, either, for that matter. They all seemed to be congratulating him for something that, quite frankly, he didn’t know about. Nor did he want to know about it.

“C’mon, Won,” a man laughed, clapping a rough hand on his shoulder, practically knocking him over. As opposed to Jae Ha’s same show of “fraternity”, however, this one was much more welcoming. The man, the same one that had just been speaking to Yona-- Tatsu, he believed-- grinned at him. “Let’s get to work!”

Seeing as how Soo Won had already thrown up twice that morning, he wasn’t totally feeling up to it, but he also knew he had little to no choice in the matter. It was his choice to pretend he was a pirate-- he only had himself to blame.

He would have to make sure to omit these events from his report to Joo Doh.

“I’ll follow your lead, then,” he smiled, hoping some chores would get his mind off of his gurgling stomach, and pounding head.

That was wishful thinking, to say the least.

Within Gigan’s quarters, she and Yona sat opposite one another. Perhaps Gigan could help Yona regain her power over Jin, however hesitant she was to relive the night’s horrors. Part of her felt that if she recounted what happened, he would somehow have even more power over her.

Perhaps because she would have to admit that those events actually took place.

“I heard you returned late last night,” Gigan started, already preparing the tea. Even the reports between them had lost some of their original formality, Yona mused. “I expect you to spare no detail.” Of course, Gigan still pretended that they were going to conduct business with the same amount of formality as when she first joined.

“Of course.” The anxiety was already bubbling into her blood, her hands already finding each other, wringing together. Her eyes, unfocused, drifted away from the Captain, and she had to take a steadying breath.

This was going to be harder than she thought.

So much had happened, in such a short amount of time, that she had a difficult time wrapping her head around it. Even the panic that had effectively shut her down the night before seemed like a faraway nightmare.

Part of her knew that she would have to tell Gigan everything . She was no stranger to this business, and surely knew what it entailed, what was hidden in the ugliest of shadows.

Digging through her mind, she brought back the memory of the first night, something that seemed so long ago. Other than Jin’s goon that had tried to take one of the escorts, there was nothing worth reporting to Gigan.

Yona decided it would be better not to mention the issues she had with Jae Ha. That was between them.

Besides, the thought of Gigan knowing that much about her personal life-- despite living together-- was rather awkward.

Yona recounted how the man had entered without any notice, slipping into the brothel like any other customer. It was almost chilling to think that any customer in there could, in theory, be one of Jin’s underlings.

“Yona, I’ve told you what I think of you killing.”

“Yes, and I’ve told you what I thought of your opinions.”

“You reckless girl,” Gigan grumbled, shaking her head, as a disappointed mother-figure was wont to do.

“I was sending a message to Jin!” she protested, refusing to acknowledge that the killing of other people-- even if they happened to be human traffickers-- was wrong.

“‘Jin’?” Gigan eyed her, her steely gaze piercing through Yona’s facade of confidence.

“I-I mean… Kage.”

When had he become ‘Jin’ to her? If he was Kage, at least he still held an image of inhumanity, something anonymous and fearful. But Jin… he was unfortunately, overwhelmingly human. It would be easier if he was nothing more than a monster in the night, but she knew him.

She knew him all too well, at that point.

“Sorry… let me continue,” Yona swallowed, glancing away from Gigan’s unconvinced stare.

The second night had more details omitted from it than she would like to admit. Yona couldn’t exactly tell Gigan, yes, the King of Kouka witnessed me murder a man in the back-alley of a brothel, and then decided to rekindle our childhood friendship the next evening. Oh, did I mention this is Soo Won? The man who, you know, killed my father, and ruined my life? Don’t worry, he goes by Won now, and he’s on this very ship, witnessing all of our illegal dealings.

If it didn’t send her over the side of the ship, then it would probably break her neck. Those details were definitely omitted.

However, she did tell Gigan that she and Won happened to meet… completely by happenstance. They were having tea together when there was the ruckus from outside, and that was when they realized that the human traffickers knew who she was.

“‘The red-haired whore’, hm?” Gigan scoffed, her pipe hanging out of the side of her mouth. “Not a very creative bunch, are they?”

“I don’t think creativity is their strong suit, no.”

“Then how did you escape?”

“Won… distracted them.” It wasn’t entirely a lie. “Hid me from view, and told them to leave.”

“And that worked ?” Gigan scoffed. “Yona, I’ve seen the man. He doesn’t strike me as the ‘intimidating’ type.”

“I guess he managed?” Yona shrugged. “I don’t know, I was hidden away when this happened.”

“Whatever you say,” the Captain sighed, lifting her pipe to her lips once again. “Was that all?”

“For the second night, yes.”

“Then what happened last night?” she asked, eyeing Yona.

This was what she wasn’t looking forward to. The third night was more of a nightmare, a fever dream, than it was reality. At least, that was always the feeling she had gotten. He was a specter, some being that only ever targeted her, and haunted her every living moment.

Asleep, or awake, he was always there, resting in the back of her mind.

Lowering her head, she tried to find the words to describe everything that had happened the night prior. She had known she would eventually have to describe the events of that night, yet… no words could describe the true, unadulterated terror she had felt.

“Yona…?” Gigan asked, her voice without its usual edge. Swallowing, Yona kneaded her hands together, and exhaled, closing her eyes.

She could see his face.

“I… met Kage. Face-to-face.”

“You-- what?”

“I spent…” she started, her throat already threatening to close up. The pressure on her was immense, enough to break any person’s spirit. But she couldn’t lose to him. “I spent… the entire evening… with him.”

It would have taken an incredible amount of willpower to look the Captain in the face in that moment. It was enough that she had to admit she had met him, and was shaken by his very presence. However, admitting that she was afraid of him in general was even worse.

A soft, gentle, but aged hand found its place on Yona’s lap.

“You don’t need to tell me what happened,” Gigan started, her voice soft, but even. “Not yet.”

“No, I should--”

“Yona.” The sound of her name, from a voice that was so firm, from someone who had gone through so much in her own lifetime, was much more of a comfort than she was willing to admit. “Don’t force yourself to relive that. Not yet.”

She was already reliving it, though. She had been since it had first happened.

But to put it into words? That was something completely different.

Slowly, her lips set into a fine line, her throat tightening. Nodding, her head bobbing up and down, feeling much heavier than usual, she fought back the tears. She had to stay strong. She couldn’t let anyone know how much he frightened her.

She couldn’t show any weakness.

What would they think of her, as second mate, if she were to show how much she was affected? They were probably already talking about her, wondering why she left two days earlier than she was supposed to. If she were to show any emotional response, they would probably see her as any other woman-- write her off as hysterical, and unfit for her title.

The air seemed heavier. In the silence between her and the Captain, the air settled onto her shoulders, smoke wrapping around her neck, elongated fingers crushing her throat. Jin’s hands, she realized, reached her even there.

Perhaps she really was unfit for her title.

But in a moment, all that was taken away. Warm arms-- those of the Captain-- embraced her. It was only her and Gigan, nobody else. Burying her face into the older woman’s shoulder, she could feel her body trembling in an effort to shake off the emotions.

“Don’t fight it,” Gigan soothed, stroking her back, smoothing her hair in the action. Yona’s mouth forced itself open, a silent sob choking her. The tears, held in since the night prior, finally released.

A guttural, base sound tore through her throat. Fear, something she had felt in overwhelming amounts, something that had been consuming her, inside and out, was finally letting her go. Its claws left bruises, left her bleeding, but she was free, if only for that moment.

She could breathe again.

Gigan said nothing, her hug speaking on her behalf. Yona clung onto her as a frightened child would hold onto her mother. Tears streamed down her cheeks, freed from their prison, built by her pride. With every gulping breath, she would release another whimpering cry, trying so hard to gather air into her lungs, she felt as if she would collapse.

“Yona, slow down your breathing,” Gigan commanded softly. Making her best attempt to follow orders, she tried to swallow, interrupting her hyperventilating.

“Gi--gan…” she choked, clutching at the Captain.

“Shh…” Gigan leaned her head against Yona’s, still smoothing her hair. “You’re safe now.”

Indeed, she was. Although, it was much easier to superficially accept that as truth than it was to actually believe it. Ever since she had met Jin, she couldn’t recall a single time that she felt truly safe. He had cast his spell on her, turning her into his pawn.

“You deserve that throne.”

If it was at his side, she would rather die than ever take back the throne. She would not allow him to triumph over her, over the Kingdom. She was not the Princess any longer, but, even if it resulted in her death, she would stop him from ever taking Kouka away from her.

Soon, her buzzing thoughts waned, falling silent once more. With newfound resolve, she was able to see the world as it was, not as Jin wanted her to see it.

She refused to fall under his spell again.

Swallowing hard, Yona lifted her head from Gigan’s shoulder, rubbing her face.

“I’m… I’m fine,” she stammered, not entirely confident.

“Take your time,” the Captain stated, her rough edge returning, lest her reputation as a cold-hearted pirate come under attack. Yona didn’t mind. She could understand that reputation was everything for the Captain, and she respected it.

“Thanks…” she sighed, feeling a little better--albeit, a little embarrassed-- after crying. That had been a long time coming, but at least it had waited until she was speaking with Gigan. Standing, she wiped her brow, rubbed her eyes, and waited until any and every sign of crying was erased from her features.

Meanwhile, the morning sun was climbing higher and higher into the sky, the day growing hotter with every passing minute. The summer was nearing its end, but the heat lingered, particularly when the breeze stopped.

The heat was really starting to get to the extremely-hungover duo. Despite the fact that the work for the day would not be as strenuous as other days, the two of them were feeling the strain of their chores.

The rest of the crew, naturally, found this hilarious.

Soo Won, in his attempt to mind his own business--lest he make himself any more of a target than he already had-- tried to piece together exactly when he had gotten to the point he was blackout drunk.

Well, if he were to be honest, ever since he had stepped foot on that ship, he had been a target for Jae Ha. It had started off innocently enough, a few jabs at his assumed manhood, little more than that. However, throughout the course of the day, Jae Ha had found ways to make Soo Won’s life aboard that ship absolutely miserable.

It would have been impressive, had it not been happening to him.

“Oh, damn!” Jae Ha had shouted the day prior. Soo Won, standing somewhat nearby, turned, only to see Jae Ha peering over the edge of the ship.

“Did something happen?” he asked, heading towards the edge of the ship. Jae Ha looked convincingly distressed, and pointed towards the water. Soo Won couldn’t see anything.

“I dropped some rope into the water,” Jae Ha hissed, seemingly berating himself. “Damnit…” Soo Won squinted, but still couldn’t see anything. Although, his vision wasn’t exactly what anyone would call exemplary , as much as he tried to hide it.

“What should we do?” Soo Won asked, glancing at Jae Ha. The man crossed his arms, and leaned his head back, letting out a long sigh.

“I guess we’ll have to get it out of the water. That’s pretty high-quality rope.” Personally, Soo Won thought it was quite the rookie mistake, but figured he was better off not saying anything. After all, he was the rookie there. Maybe it would happen to him.

“Hmm…” he hummed, trying to think of a delicate way to tell Jae Ha that he should be the one to get it. Perhaps something along the lines of, well, Jae Ha, good luck with that! As petty as he wanted to be, he figured he should try to be cordial to the other members of the crew. Particularly… this green-haired man.

“This is bad,” he groaned, looking over the edge again. Soo Won joined him, thinking that maybe he would see this mysterious rope. “Won, can you swim?”

“What--?”

But that was all he was able to get out before Jae Ha had pushed him hard enough to send him flying overboard. Life flashing before his eyes, Soo Won fell towards the water, reaching for the ship, just out of instinct. In his last moments before crashing through the surface of the water, he saw Jae Ha, smiling at him, and waving.

If there was any optimism within Soo Won’s mind that what had just happened was an accident, it was completely eradicated.

Thankfully, although Jae Ha had not bothered to check before throwing him overboard, Soo Won could swim.

After sinking considerably, Soo Won swam back up to the surface of the water, poking his head out, and gulping in the heavy sea air. From the deck, he could hear roaring laughter. Looking up, he saw the majority of the crew laughing at him from the safety of the deck.

“Did you see that rope down there, Won?” Jae Ha called, barely containing his laughter, looking rather smug. Soo Won couldn’t afford to make any enemies within that crew, but on the same token, taking Jae Ha down a few pegs wouldn’t hurt . Not after being thrown over the side of a boat.

If only the man knew he had just tried to drown the King. How Soo Won wished he could tell him.

“No, but I do believe I have found my respect for you!” Soo Won shouted back. “After all, it is about as real as that rope you dropped!”

A couple of the crew members ooh’ ed in response to Soo Won’s (rather pathetic) attempt at insulting Jae Ha. With that, he began his swim to the pier, praying that he would not be met with any aquatic creatures in the meantime.

Soo Won might as well have drawn a target on his back, he stuck out that much. Jae Ha was usually the instigator in the events that led to his misfortune, but the other crew members were picking up on the momentum, as well.

During their lunch, Soo Won was trying to make friendly conversation with the other crew members, and seemed to actually be succeeding. He was the perfect picture of a personable (but not too personable) merchant, making sure to keep his nose out of the others’ business. As curious as he was, he would have to wait, and gain their trust first.

“So, Won, yer close with Yona, are ya?” one of the crewmates had asked. Putting on his best smile, he stuck to his story.

“Ah, yes… well, I haven’t seen her in some time, but we were friends when we were children.”

“She’s quite the lady now, ain’t she?” he laughed heartily, to which Soo Won politely laughed in return. Yes, she was quite the, uh… ‘lady’. He wasn’t about to argue with the crewmates about the propriety of Yona’s behavior, namely her habit of disguising herself as a prostitute.

That wasn’t any of his business. To each their own, he thought.

Jae Ha was noticeably absent from the lunchtime conversations, but Soo Won didn’t mind. To him, it was one less chance to get on his bad side. Good riddance, he thought. He had barely dried off, so it was a welcome break.

“Don’t mind Jae Ha, by the way,” another crewmate sighed, giving him an apologetic smile. “He knows all of us so well he doesn’t get to tease us anymore. He’s just a little excited.”

“A-Ah… I see.” And here, Soo Won thought it was because Jae Ha was jealous of his relationship with Yona.

“He’ll mellow out in a bit. Just give him time.” Soo Won, however, was not optimistic. They were off to a rocky beginning-- it wasn’t looking good for him. Leaning up against the mast, he didn’t respond, just nodded. Eating his lunch while listening to the other crewmates chat with each other, he wondered how long he would be with them.

He knew it was a temporary arrangement, and he had his own responsibilities in the castle, but he also knew that he should make the most of his time there. It may be easy to forget, but he was not there to have fun, nor to make friends-- he was there to aid Yona in her cause, and annihilate a threat to Kouka.

“Thank you for the food,” he muttered, figuring he should get back to work. Standing, he only made it about halfway up when his hair tugged on something, hard enough to bring him crashing down, his nearly-empty bowl spilling the rest of its contents on him.

In his dazed confusion, he tried to find the source of the problem. Soon enough, he saw that his hair had been tied to a rope that was wrapped around the mast. No matter how much he leaned against something, he knew his hair wouldn’t tie itself into a knot like that on its own.

The crew’s laughter verified as much.

“Boy, he got you good!” He being Jae Ha, he was willing to wager.

“Did you see his face?!”

The howling laughter of the crew lessened his desire to be there by the second. Hastily untying his hair, Soo Won tried to walk off his shame, returning to his work as quickly as possible. Needless to say, he was wary of everyone onboard for the rest of the day.

Once the sun had begun to set, without further incident, Soo Won wondered what kind of trickery the crew would try to pull next. However, they spoke to him kindly, with a friendly demeanor, and that only proved to set him on edge even more. Frankly, after everything that had happened to him that day, he wasn’t willing to trust any of them.

That is, until Jae Ha approached him. Arguably the least trustworthy of the group, Soo Won wasn’t about to show him any weakness.

“Hey, don’t look at me like that,” Jae Ha chuckled, sitting down next to him, holding a bottle of sake, and two cups. “I’m here to make a peace offering.”

“Oh, are you?” Soo Won asked incredulously. Jae Ha gave him a friendly smile in response, looking a little guilty.

“Sorry about all that. I thought about it, and realized I was acting like an ass.” If Soo Won really focused, then it almost sounded genuine. ‘Almost’ wasn’t good enough, though. “You’re Yona’s friend. I… I just got caught up in this whole thing, and forgot about that.”

“That is quite a large detail to forget,” Soo Won smiled, keeping the rest of his scathing commentary to himself.

“I thought maybe I could bring you a peace offering?” Picking up the bottle of sake, he waved it slightly, so as to make it clear that it was a friendly offering. However, Soo Won still didn’t believe him. How was he supposed to know there wasn’t a worm in that sake? Or that it was just sea water?

“Only if you drink first.” Narrowing his eyes at Jae Ha, he folded his arms, giving a small huff at the very thought of sharing drinks with the other man. Without hesitation, Jae Ha picked up the cups, poured sake into both of them, and raised his cup to Soo Won before downing it.

He held no adverse reaction to the sake. It… must be okay?

“There,” Jae Ha smiled easily, even making Soo Won feel a little more reassured. Obviously, this man was dangerous. Hesitantly, Soo Won picked up the other cup, and drank, expecting the worst. But… no, it was just regular sake.

Oh.

Well, didn’t that make him feel like an ass?

“T-Thanks…” Soo Won nodded, taking the bottle to pour Jae Ha another cup. A pang of guilt hit his core. Yeah, Jae Ha had been an absolute ass to him all day, and had gotten the crew in on all of his shenanigans, but he was genuinely putting forth a peace offering at that point.

He really did feel bad. Soo Won hid his surprise.

Jae Ha made an effort with Soo Won, making friendly small talk, asking more about his childhood-- most of his inquiries, however, were answered with blatant lies. Soo Won asked about Jae Ha’s childhood in turn, but he was met with awkward silence, and decided not to ask further.

He could understand how childhood memories could be painful, even though they were both adults. Even Soo Won had aspects of his childhood he’d rather not relive-- particularly in the company he was keeping that evening.

They finished their first bottle, but neither one of them were really feeling the buzz of inebriation just yet, so they decided to continue.

“Y’know Won, you’re not terrible.”

“I would say the same to you, Jae Ha.”

“But?”

But … you are ,” Soo Won gave the pirate a friendly smile, taking another sip of sake.

“Ouch,” Jae Ha laughed, taking a sip as he eyed the merchant. “A little more honest with alcohol, aren’t you?”

“Perhaps a little.” Honestly, Soo Won had been wanting to say that all day, the alcohol was just an excuse. He couldn’t afford to be loose-lipped when he was drinking, so he had trained himself for years to be able to keep any amount of secrets, even when he was nearly drunk.

He was nowhere near that point.

Jae Ha poured Soo Won another cup, and, as he looked back on the memory the next day, he realized that was when it started. That was when his memories of the night prior became fuzzy. Somewhere, in that second bottle, Jae Ha must have laced the alcohol they were having, and stopped drinking it, himself.

That was also the point that Jae Ha turned to a dangerous line of questioning.

Soo Won was just starting to feel the alcohol when the first question was put forth.

“So…” Jae Ha started, pouring Soo Won another cup. “You and Yona.”

“What about us?” he asked, his tongue feeling heavy and clumsy. He hadn’t had that much, though… at the time, he was a little confused, but figured it would pass.

“What’s the story with you two?”

“We’re childhood friends.” It seemed obvious to Soo Won-- after all, he had stated as much multiple times. There wasn’t much more to it, especially now that he was getting tipsy. Regardless, Soo Won downed the cup of sake that he had.

“Yeah, but when I found you guys, that wasn’t just ‘childhood friends’ meeting up.” Jae Ha poured him another cup, eyeing him carefully. Soo Won thought back to the night prior, and when, in that mess of an evening, Jae Ha had showed up.

Oh yeah… wasn’t it when--?

Oh.

So that’s why he’s so hung up on it.

“That was nothing,” Soo Won scoffed, moving to grab the bottle out of Jae Ha’s hands, so he could return the favor and pour a cup for him, too. However, Jae Ha deliberately moved the bottle out of Soo Won’s reach. Despite the blond’s pout, he was not going to give it over.

“Not so fast, Won,” Jae Ha laughed. Waving the bottle slightly, he kept a friendly grin plastered to his face. No funny business here, certainly. “This is my gift to you .” How nice! He was treating Soo Won for the evening!

“Oh… thank you.” Even in his seat, he felt like he was swaying, or maybe that was the ship. Either way, he wasn’t feeling as steady as he usually did. Part of him (the part that was convinced he wasn’t drunk) blamed the fact that he hadn’t gotten his sea legs yet, and that, because the sun had gone down, he wasn’t as sure about his bearings.

Yeah. That was it.

There was no conceivable way that he could get drunk on such a small amount of alcohol, and Jae Ha was drinking the sake, too, so… he couldn’t have been poisoned, or drugged. That was impossible .

The current, hungover Soo Won blamed the stupider past-Soo Won for his current pounding headache.

“So really -- there’s nothing between the two of you?” Jae Ha pressed.

“Why, is there something between the two of you ?” Soo Won retorted, and he was fairly certain he saw Jae Ha wince.

“I already told you.” So he had. After everything that had happened, he had almost forgotten about it. Almost . But it was worth asking again.

“And I already told you .” Jae Ha gave him an incredulous look, and Soo Won could feel his face scrunching up in suspicion. “ What ?”

“I don’t believe you.”

What did he want? His life story? Okay, fine! He’ll give him every minute detail-- as long as it means he’ll get Jae Ha off his back forever!

But wait… there were a lot of details that he couldn’t tell Jae Ha. He would just have to… work around that.

“Fine, I’ll tell y’all of it,” he slurred, his tongue feeling heavy. Piecing his words together as carefully as he could manage, in that state, he paused. On a compulsive whim, he took another drink, perhaps in preparation for his story. “We’ve known each other forever . It was us…” he trailed off, and peered at Jae Ha. “Did she tell you about Hak?”

“More or less.”

“Good. He’s in this story.” Another drink. “It was th’ three of us, always. Constantly. We were always together.” At this point, several crewmates were beginning to gain interest in their conversation.

“Yo, childhood friend! Tell us, too!” one of them chirped.

“Yeah, I wanna hear what kinda kid Yona was!”

“Come! Join us!” Soo Won announced, feeling much more relaxed than he had earlier. “Everyone, come listen to this! I’m only gonna tell ya once!” As if the crewmates needed any more reason to listen to the conversation that was about to happen. They gathered so quickly, the last remaining ounces of Soo Won’s rational mind thought he may be stampeded.

Jae Ha poured Soo Won another cup, and the story officially began.

So. You all know the Yona of now , but she was nothing like that when we were children,” Soo Won boasted, a feeling of pride inflating inside of his gut, taking him higher. For some reason, having this “forbidden” knowledge felt so good to him. “She was such a crybaby! It’s hard to believe they’re the same girl!”

“She was still a bit of a crybaby when she arrived here,” Jae Ha snorted, taking a drink.

“Well, sure. But she’s…” he trailed off, thinking of the best way to put it.

“Grown up?” Someone piped up, but Soo Won wasn’t sure who it was.

“Yes! Grown up!”

“She’s grown up, alright,” another crewmate laughed, making somewhat-vulgar gestures about Yona’s figure. Soo Won’s face began to heat up, but he couldn’t let a little impropriety take him off of this high.

“Oi, cut that shit out,” Jae Ha warned the lecherous crewmate.

“Why, boss? Jealous ?”

“Don’t talk about a lady like that, that’s all,” Jae Ha chuckled, an easy aura taking over his stern one. “After all, our dear Yona is a lady.” Soo Won was pretty impressed; in a single moment, he was able to go from authority figure to just another guy .

“Shut up, all o’ ye! Won, tell us more!” There were too many of them to keep track of, especially when he wasn’t sober. Soo Won made a mental note to learn all of their names the next day, when he wasn’t drinking.

“Okay, okay.” Taking a breath (and another drink), he prepared himself to continue. “Yona’s moth’r died when she ‘s’ little, so--”

“WHAT?!”

“YONA, NO!!”

The peanut gallery was already going nuts, and he hadn’t even gotten to the good parts yet.

“Gentl’men………… please .” Soo Won wanted to keep order, but it was going to be difficult with this many interjections. “I’m trying to tell a story .”

“Sorry, Won.”

“You’re forgiven.” Jae Ha poured the rest of the bottle into Soo Won’s cup, and began to ready another. Looking back, Soo Won realized that he probably drugged that bottle, too. Taking a drink, he steadied himself. “She was devastated , nat’rally. I remember… she was crying ‘n’ I went up to comfort her.”

“You’re a good man, Won!!”

“Thanks. I wrapped ‘er in my haori, and I told her… ‘no one’s around… so you can cry… it’s okay’. Yes, that’s what I told her.”

“WON!!!”

“PROTECT HER!!!”

“YOU’RE A GOOD MAN !!”

Jae Ha, however, was not as enthusiastic as the rest of the crew. In fact, he seemed rather angry at this development. Soo Won wasn’t sure why .

“Time went on, I had to…” Soo Won trailed off, trying to find the best phrase for it. “... go away for a bit… and it was a long time b’fore Yona and I saw each other again.” Having another drink, Soo Won looked towards the stars, swaying horribly in the process. “But Hak’s always there for ‘er.”

“Who the hell is Hak ?”

“That’s her other friend, moron!”

“Oh…”

“So where is he?!”

“He’s dead,” Jae Ha shrugged, a little too casual about it. Soo Won forgot that he never met him, so his death probably was arbitrary to him. Well, he wouldn’t get into it now. The focus was on Soo Won and Yona, not Hak.

Suddenly, one of the crewmates gasped very loudly.

“Did Hak try to steal her from you, Won?!!”

Soo Won didn’t actually have an answer. He wasn’t sure, because at the time he was a little preoccupied to be thinking about the relationship between Hak and Yona. But, for the sake of the story…

“Yes, he did try!” Soo Won shouted, trying his best to seem outraged.

“THAT BASTARD!!”

“But Yona wasn’t interested in Hak, was she , Won?” Jae Ha eyed Soo Won suspiciously. Soo Won coughed a little, and averted his gaze.

“Perhaps… she wasn’t.”

“Was she in love with you , Won?!”

Soo Won’s face said it all. He reddened, all the way up to his ears, and it wasn’t just the alcohol.

“She was!!”

“Our little Yona was in love with Won!!”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Jae Ha interrupted the peanut gallery. “We don’t know that--”

“He’s right!” one crewmate bellowed. “We don’t know that!”

Thank you…” Jae Ha grumbled, tired of being on the losing team. Pouring himself a cup from the hidden carafe that wasn’t drugged, he took a sip. Soo Won followed suit with his own drink.

“She’s probably still in love with him!!”

Both Jae Ha and Soo Won spit out their drinks, in unison.

“Bullshit!!” Jae Ha choked, wiping excess sake from his lips with his sleeve.

“Is it? She invited Won back onto this vessel, didn’t she?!”

That was when it dawned on Soo Won. She had done that. Maybe she really did care for him…?

Giggling, Soo Won wiped the sake from his lips, while filling his cup again. He was swaying more than he had been before, but he seemed to be much happier.

“I think he’s right. She is ‘n love with me,” he slurred confidently. “After’ll, it makes sense. She did confess to me when we were kids.”

“WHAT?!”

“SHE DID ?!!”

“Yep!”

Oh… how Soo Won would live to regret these drunken ramblings.

“It was one o’ the last times I saw ‘er,” he slurred, recalling the event. Obviously, he would have to omit some of the details… like the killing of the King. “Uh…” Omitting the intruders at the castle would probably also be for the best. “Well…”

“Get on with it, Won!”

“Give us the details!”

Right . Details.” Taking another drink, he thought about how he could embezzle his story a little more. Just saying that she walked into his room was kind of… bland for this bunch. If it was a group of grandmothers, that would be enough, but he was with pirates . “She rushed into my room, in tears--”

“Wow, she really was a crybaby.”

“Shush!”

“She told me that th’ King had… found her a fiancé, but she hated ‘im…”

The same crewmate from earlier gasped, again.

“Was it Hak?!”

“Oh shit! Maybe it was Hak!”

Yes ! It was !” Soo Won lied. If they were going to fill in the blanks for him, who was he to deny it? “The King wanted her to marry Hak! Yona hugged me for…” What was an appropriate amount of time? “An hour!” Nailed it. “Crying the whole time!”

“An hour ?” Jae Ha sneered. “I don’t believe you.”

“Were you there ?” Soo Won snapped, tired of being interrupted. Straightening his posture, he pointed his cup at Jae Ha in a vaguely threatening manner. Jae Ha, however, took that opportunity to fill it up again. “She told me she’d always loved me.”

“WHOA!”

“Won!! You did it!!”

“You won Yona’s heart!!”

With that, Soo Won took a triumphant sip of his sake.

“You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me. You ?”

“Damn right it’s me ,” Soo Won laughed, triumphant at last. “Got a proposal ‘n’ everythin’. Practically begged me.”

“C’mon, Won! Tell us more!”

“Yeah, no way she asked you that!”

“It’s true! She cried, and cried-- ‘Do I look like a woman to you?’ she said,” he sighed, remembering how her face looked. “Ahhh, it was so tough ! I’d always seen her as a kid-- but she really did look so grown up!” Soo Won whined, throwing his head back in anguish.

“Bullshit!” Jae Ha spat, leaning forward, his face red. He, too, was affected by something other than the alcohol: rage. “There’s no way that ever happened.”

“It did !” Soo Won spat back, leaning forward in return. He had had enough of Jae Ha discrediting his story.

“Please-- you’re such a pansy, you couldn’t even hold hands with a woman,” Jae Ha challenged. “But especially not Yona .”

“Oh, and you’re soooo different,” Soo Won sneered.

“You little punk--”

“I’ve not only held hands with her,” Soo Won challenged back, his voice filled with much more confidence than he would usually have. “I’ve slept with her!!” he laughed.

“OI, YOU LITTLE SHITS!!”

That was the last thing Soo Won could remember before waking up in his bed that morning, feeling completely sick, and like someone had stuck a sword through his skull. Even the memories before that were fuzzy, at best.

He vaguely remembered his heated conversation with Jae Ha, but the details were foggy, and he wasn’t sure what exactly they had been talking about. Just that Yona had gotten angry at them for it. After that… nothing .

All he knew was that he was in an obscene amount of discomfort, and he hated it.

Some time after Yona had gone into the Captain’s quarters, she emerged once more, looking a little worn-out, but also as if she was feeling relieved. Soo Won couldn’t help but notice that she looked like she had been crying.

He had been there enough to know the signs.

However, she put on a tough face, unlike the Yona he had known before. She walked as if nothing was wrong, as if she had no fear, no apprehensions. He found himself admiring her a little bit more for that. Her eyes travelled over the crew, until they finally landed on Soo Won.

He didn’t bother to avert his gaze. He gave her a small smile, and wave.

Descending the stairs, she held a surprising amount of poise. He wasn’t sure if it was because she had simply grown up, or if she had taught herself to walk that way to lure others in. A thought crept into Soo Won’s disgustingly hungover brain: Either way, it’s working.

One day with pirates, and he was already starting to lose his manners. He couldn’t believe himself.

Yona approached him, giving him a softer expression than before. She was still recovering from her talk with the Captain, whatever had happened.

“Hi,” she greeted, her voice a little quiet. Perhaps, he thought, it was to mask that it would break otherwise, but he couldn’t guarantee anything.

“Good morning,” he smiled. Lowering his voice, he leveled his stare at her, “Are you okay?”

Apparently, that had caught her off-guard. Her cheeks held a newfound rosiness to them, and she averted her gaze.

“Of course you’d ask that,” she grumbled through a smile, lowering her gaze even more. Before he could think about it, he was already reaching to place a hand on her shoulder.

Thankfully, he caught himself before he went through with something that brazen.

“You notice everything, don’t you?” she asked, almost seeming embarrassed.

“Only when it involves you.”

They both froze once those words tumbled out of his unforgiving mouth. Face heating up, he cleared his throat, trying to think of the best way to recover from something like that.

Was it because they were in such close proximity? Was it because he was hungover? Was he still a little drunk from the night prior? What on earth was he thinking?! Saying something like that ?!

“Um--” she started, but even Yona was speechless.

“Yes, well--” he managed. His brain was running a mile a minute, and he couldn’t string words together in his anxious frenzy. “H-How… are you?”

It wasn’t his strongest recovery, but it would have to do.

“I’m… fine,” she hesitated, which was the biggest indication that she was not fine , but if she didn’t want to talk about it, he wasn’t about to force her. “How’s your head?”

Of course she noticed that he was hungover. Granted, as he had no idea how he had ended up in bed the night prior, he could only assume that she had seen him in his sorry, drunken state. He could only hope he didn’t do anything too embarrassing.

Giving her his best attempt at a reassuring smile, he chuckled softly.

“I will be fine.”

Yona gazed at him for a moment, nodding, before averting her eyes once more. Biting her lip, she seemed to be thinking about something for a few seconds-- almost collecting her resolve.

“Um, Won…” she started, cautiously. Soo Won quirked an eyebrow at her, wondering what had her acting so shy, as compared to her usual pirate persona. This was much more like the Princess he had grown up with. Carefully, she met his eyes, and continued, “How much do you remember of last night?”

“Not… much…” he answered, extremely hesitantly. “Was there something in particular you were referring to…?”

“Well… uh… yeah,” she paused. “About us ?”

Oh god, I said it, she thought.

Soo Won’s face said it all. He immediately resembled a tomato, the color in his face almost overwhelming the rest of his features. His mouth gaped open slightly, trying to form words, but remaining incapable.

In hindsight, she could have phrased it better.

“U-Um, that is… after I took you--”

“To bed”? That’s not much better.

There wasn’t a good way to phrase it, she just had to admit it.

“You know what? Never mind--”

“No, wait--”

Yona turned to walk away, her face heating up, too. The last thing she needed to tell him was yeah, you pinned me down on your bed, and told me how much you wanted to kiss me, and asked if I would ever consider you, like I haven’t considered you for the majority of my early life. That wasn’t going to work. She knew this.

Soo Won reached for her, grabbing her wrist. Yona turned, and due to the momentum, was pulled back ever so slightly. Suddenly, Soo Won was much closer than she had anticipated him being, and Yona was much closer than he had anticipated her being.

Yona was reminded of how close he had gotten to her the night prior.

She was also reminded of how she didn’t entirely hate the idea of being that close to him. Either the night prior, or in that moment. Even then, she didn’t feel as alarmed as she should have been, according to her brain.

Already within appropriate, affectionate distance, her mind snapped to attention right as she got a little too close . Memories from the night before began to flood her: the arm around her waist; the offer to sleep in the same bed as him; the drunken, sad puppy-eyed look he gave her; how he had been this close to kissing her.

Particularly, that last part.

She couldn’t get his face, so close to her own, out of her mind.

What would it feel like? she wondered, against her better judgment.

Of course, she knew what being kissed felt like, but she had no idea what it would feel like coming from him . A flurry of unwanted thoughts swarmed her brain, and all she could think about was him.

Her infatuation with him when they were children, how much he had grown up, how he could treat her as a man, not a boy, if he had really wanted to.

“If you don’t love him, then what about me?”

“Y-You? C’mon, quit joking.”

“I’m not joking.”

He was drunk . She couldn’t trust the words of a drunk man.

But what if he was telling you the truth?

It was a reality she didn’t have the strength to consider, not yet. But, in that moment, when he was bringing her closer, and she glanced into those eyes of his, clear and calculating and oh, so familiar…

“No--!” Recoiling, she forced herself back to her senses, and pushed herself away from him, far too violently. It would be easier to leave his grip, if he’d just let her.

Unfortunately, she hadn’t calculated how much force would be appropriate, and ended up over-shooting it. Tripping over her own feet, she began to fall backwards, instinctively reaching for the closest thing she could grab onto: Soo Won.

“Yona--!”

Soo Won grabbed her in time, but not without putting his own balance to the test. Pulling her closer, he nestled her head into his shoulder, holding the back of her head with his hand, as if to shield her from something.

Down they went…

Despite his efforts, Yona slipped away from him for just a second, just long enough to change her falling pattern. However, he grabbed onto her shoulder, and brought her closer, in hopes of protecting her from the fall.

His body jolted as they both collided with the deck of the ship with a solid thud , but he kept his arms wrapped securely about her shoulders. His head snapped back, hers snapped forward, and they collided, eyes wide in shock.

Her eyes filled his vision, her red hair bouncing about her face from the momentum of the fall. Their noses brushed in the collision, the calm before the storm. Although it was barely perceptible, there was another contact.

One that they both felt.

In the fall, their lips brushed against one another.

Chapter Text

Everyone who was on the deck that morning-- which, to be fair, was the vast majority of the crew-- had already been watching the spectacle between Yona and Won. When she cried out, she had managed to catch the attention of the First Mate, who witnessed the disaster just in the nick of time.

While the “kiss” that they had shared was barely more than momentum, it looked much more incriminating to the witnesses of the event. Yona was on top of Won, her hair covering both of their faces, and when she shot back, both of them were incredibly red.

“Won, you did it!!” Toku shouted, scaring Kija, who was standing next to him at the time.

“Young love…” Rowen sniffed, a sense of pride washing over him.

Yona scrambled away as quickly as her body could manage, unable to stop the blush that was already spreading to her ears and neck. Shin Ah approached her, silently offering his hand to help her up.

“Are you… hurt?” he asked softly as her hand closed around his wrist, and she pulled herself off of the deck. Shaking her head, she gave him a reassuring smile.

“I’m fine, Shin Ah,” she smiled, trying to play it cool. “Thank you.” Shin Ah nodded in response, gently brushing off her shoulders.

The crew continued with their gossiping, their voices hushed but excited. All eyes were flashing between Soo Won, in the center of the deck, and Yona, only some twenty feet away. Soo Won was barely able to stand and dust himself off before a tangible, dark energy consumed the deck.

All eyes landed on Jae Ha.

Jae Ha had already been fuming for the majority of the morning. Not only was he nursing a hangover, but he had found out from his crewmates that Yona had snubbed him the night prior, when he had accidentally drugged himself, and could barely make it to bed. Now, this brat , who had moved in, tarnished his reputation, and stolen the eyes of the one woman he-- as much as he wouldn’t admit it-- truly loved, had pulled this stunt.

Won couldn’t be trusted. He was manipulating everyone on that ship, wrapping them around his little finger. Why else would he be so suspicious? The obviously fake backstory, the longing glances at Yona, the attempts to get in good with the crew… even drinking a blatantly poisoned serving of alcohol.

Jae Ha had finally snapped once he saw the blush that crept into Yona’s cheeks. She wouldn’t blush like that just for anything . That was a blush that only he had ever managed to bring to her face.

“You…” he growled, his hands balling up into fists. “You bastard !!” Without missing a beat, he charged Soo Won, pulling his fist back, aiming right for the face.

“Jae Ha-- no !!” Yona cried, rushing forward, only to be stopped by Shin Ah placing a firm arm around her waist. “Shin Ah, let me--” He shook his head firmly, knowing that this fight was overdue. Yona’s eyes returned to the scene before her, just in time to see Soo Won avoid Jae Ha’s fist.

The last time she had seen him fight was the night he had killed her father. Suddenly, she was transported to that night, six years prior, when he and Hak had battled against one another. But, she had to remind herself, this was not life-or-death, like that night had been.

Despite that, she trembled in Shin Ah’s grip, watching in horror.

The punches and kicks came quickly, with barely any hesitation between each attempted strike. However, Soo Won easily dodged each one. While Jae Ha had certainly snapped, so, too, had Soo Won. He wasn’t about to take a beating for something that was completely an accident.

Jae Ha pulled his fist back once more, sending it forward with lightning speed. The crew gasped, and hissed, but the newcomer was able to catch the Mate’s fist in his hand, holding him steadily in place. Releasing a frustrated yell, Jae Ha sent his other fist towards Soo Won, despite it being his weaker arm. That, too, was caught.

“You son of a bitch,” Jae Ha growled into his rival’s expressionless face. However, no matter how many times he would insult him, Soo Won’s cool exterior would never crack.

They pushed against each other, in a complete stalemate, both of their arms shaking from the force they were exuding. Jeers and applause were erupting from the peanut gallery-- otherwise known as the crew-- the volume rising and falling like waves.

With a firm push, Jae Ha was able to break free of Soo Won’s grip, immediately taking advantage of the moment and sending a kick to his face. However, much to his dismay, that attack was dodged as well.

Who the hell is this guy?

Soo Won, despite having the advantage, never went on the offensive. Instead, he waited for Jae Ha to make his move-- as he inevitably would-- and would choose to block, or dodge. This tactical precision, however, only proved to piss Jae Ha off even more.

“Enough,” Jae Ha growled, his voice guttural and ragged. “Stop dodging and do something!”

Yona writhed out of Shin Ah’s grip, ducking under his arm, and immediately ran for the two men, pulling her dagger out of the sheath that was resting on her hip. Jae Ha, however, continued to charge Soo Won, throwing his fists back again and again, trying, desperately, to land a blow.

“Stop it-- now !!” Yona commanded, her voice booming over the deck as she sprinted for the two, her legs carrying her as quickly as they could. Jae Ha ignored her, though, and Soo Won couldn’t afford to look away from his assailant.

Looking for any opening she could, she decided to go for the weakest link-- Soo Won. Sure, he was a great fighter, but he was entirely on the defensive. He would never see her coming. Jae Ha changed his posture, a sure sign that he was going for another kick.

Yona ran alongside Soo Won, and lowered herself to the ground, sweeping her feet against the back of his ankles, sending him flying backwards, his face only mere inches away from Jae Ha’s dragon kick. Not that Soo Won knew that a kick like that would probably shatter his skull.

As Soo Won fell, Yona rushed forward, sending a kick of her own straight to Jae Ha’s chest, hard enough to topple him over.

Neither one of them had seen her coming, nor had either one of them had any idea she would do that.

Soo Won landed with a solid thud on the deck first, shortly followed by Jae Ha. However, Jae Ha wasn’t ready to give up just yet, and was already getting ready to stand.

“You son of a--”

“Stand down.”

The command came, steady and cold as steel. Yona stared Jae Ha down, the sun haloing her head, illuminating her crimson hair, her eyes holding that familiar, red-hot flame. It had been quite some time since she turned that stare on him. Placing her dagger just inches from his eye, she assured that he wouldn’t move another muscle.

He, of course, had no choice but to comply.

“You keep testing my patience, Jae Ha,” she grumbled, sheathing her dagger. While her words were laced with poison, she offered him a hand. “C’mon. Apologize for being an ass.”

Like hell, he would. Won was the one who continued to push the envelope.

Closing his hand around her wrist, he pushed himself off the ground, and she pulled, until he was standing upright once more. Suddenly, now that the adrenaline had left him, and his rage was subsiding, his bitch of a hangover returned. His head pounded, and his vision blurred momentarily while the deck spun. However, after a moment of closing his eyes, he was able to right himself once more.

“C’mon, Jae Ha,” Yona repeated, loosening her grip on his wrist, sliding her hand into his. Turning, she led him by the hand to Won-- something he would be happier about if it didn’t make him feel five years old.

Won, however tense he was, visibly relaxed when he saw that Yona was standing between the two men. A pang of guilt rang through Jae Ha’s core. Maybe he had been too quick to act. Maybe it was just an accident, and a total misunderstanding.

Logically, he could understand that. Emotionally, however, was a different story. His pride had already crept between them, and festered. There was no turning back at this point.

However, Yona’s hand, while callused and tough from years of hard labor on the boat, was a comforting, welcomed touch. In the last several days, he hadn’t realized how much he had missed her-- and her touch.

So, there he was, being led by the hand like a child to apologize to the other child he had been fighting with. That was certainly a comfort: if he was a child, so was Won.

If it meant more chances to have her hand in his, then he’d be willing to apologize. If it meant she’d look at him with something other than irritation, then it would be worth it.

He missed her.

He missed their times together, the way she used to smile at him, the way she would say his name when it wasn’t tinged with disappointment. He had caused this, all of this, he knew that much. But to think he had taken her presence for granted… he had never expected someone to threaten his position, for someone to get closer to her.

If he could, he would pull her into his arms in that moment. But he knew that she would only reject him and any advances he would make. Who could blame her? He had been nothing but an ass to her-- and, as much as he hated to admit it, to her childhood friend-- all week.

They stopped before Won, and Yona stepped to the side, allowing the two men a chance to apologize. However, she made sure not to leave them to sort it out on their own-- these two could barely be trusted to get through a conversation without trying to kill one another.

And, considering Soo Won’s kingly glare-- one that Yona remembered all too well-- had returned to his usually-calm expression, she knew Jae Ha was skirting some dangerous territory. If she was being honest, she was surprised that he hadn’t gone on the offensive, but she figured it had to do with some calculating scheme to stay on the crew’s good side.

She was mostly right. There was one variable that she had failed to account for: that would be Yona, herself.

Soo Won was holding himself back for her sake, first and foremost.

Yes, having the crew on his side was proving to be advantageous to a degree, but if Yona were to turn against him, he would be without a single ally on the whole vessel. They were a team, first and foremost. Without her, he would be back to square one.

Yona had seen the mastermind behind this, she had met him, and spoken with him. She had a name. That was more than most people could manage when it came to the oh-so mysterious Kage.

Besides, there was simply no advantage to fighting back against Jae Ha. Remaining on the defensive-- no matter how much his patience was wearing thin-- would be worth it in the long run. The last thing he needed was that entire crew turning their back on him because of an altercation that could have been avoided.

Jae Ha met Soo Won’s cold gaze, one that he had yet to become acquainted with. It was strange, to him, that a merchant’s son would have a look so grave, so chilling. What kind of market were they dealing in that he had to use looks like that ?

Pushing those thoughts to the back of his mind, Jae Ha took a breath, and offered his hand to Won. It may have looked a little strange, as the pose was closer to that of an arm wrestling match than an apology, but, regardless, Won took his hand.

Using his free hand, Jae Ha amicably smacked the shoulder of the other man. Soo Won was left more confused than anything, but then again, he hadn’t expected a formal apology from a pirate. Hesitantly, he returned the action--although his amicable smack was more of an affectionate pat.

“Sorry about everything, Won.” However, it was apparent to both of them that he was not, indeed, sorry. “No hard feelings?”

“None,” Soo Won lied, plastering a friendly smile to his face. He had made amends under worse conditions, he supposed. This wasn’t that difficult, when he thought about it that way. All it takes is some perspective.

Jae Ha, in return, plastered his own friendly smile to his face, hoping to sell it just enough that Yona would finally get off his case. Yona, witnessing this bizarre scene with her arms folded across her chest, smiled, almost imperceptibly.

See, Yona? No hard feelings , they both (basically) thought.

“Was that so hard?” she asked the two of them, although she was mainly looking at Jae Ha. The two man-children gazed back at her, their smiles slowly becoming more genuine with each passing moment.

 

“Oi, Won.” A gruff voice shook Soo Won from his light sleep that night. It was still night, wasn’t it? As he glanced around, he could tell as much. It felt like it was still the middle of the night, although he couldn’t place how he knew. “Wake up. It’s your watch.”

Damn… he forgot they asked him to take over night watch that night. So much for sleeping off the rest of that hangover.

He quickly-- as quickly as he could, considering he was still half-asleep-- got himself ready for the several hours of looking over the sea, and the port town of Awa. Pulling his hair into a messy, high ponytail, he grabbed his overcoat, and stepped out of the crew’s quarters.

The night air was cool, even on the deck, so he was glad that he had brought his cloak with him. No doubt, in the crow’s nest, it was going to be much colder.

Climbing the rope ladder that led up to the crow’s nest, he could already feel the windchill affecting him. The breeze coming off of the ocean was refreshing during the day, but at night, it could be a little much to handle.

Hoisting himself over the side of the crow’s nest, he barely had time to adjust himself before a strong, cold breeze wailed past him. Pulling his cloak closer around his shoulders, he shivered, letting out a shaky breath. He had never been one for the cold.

His eyes slowly began to adjust to the scene before him. Many of the lanterns in Awa, hanging on doors of shops, bars, and brothels were still lit, their red glow reaching his eyes, even at that distance. Faraway dots of light-- which he could only guess were the windows-- flickered, leaving him feeling strangely serene.

If it wasn’t so cold, he could probably fall asleep up there.

Struggling to find a position that was comfortable enough to settle into, he eventually just leaned against the side of the crow’s nest, resting his arms on the edge. With that, his mind began to wander. Of course, the first thing his retrospective decided to torment him with was the whole debacle on the deck.

Particularly, the limelight he shared with Yona.

He thought he had felt contact between them when they fell over one another, although he couldn’t admit it, even to himself. The thought of her lips brushing against his, even if it had been totally accidental…

His cheeks warmed up, almost instantaneously cooled by the sea breeze. It would be easier to convince himself that the kiss had never happened, rather than hold on to the hope that it had. It was even more hopeful, he knew, to hope that Yona had felt anything other than blatant disgust towards that memory.

“How much do you remember of last night?”

She had asked him that, shortly before the whole debacle had taken place. Something in her tone, and her words, pulled at a distant, buried memory, one that he could tell was important, but for the life of him, couldn’t remember.

“About… us?”

Had something happened between them? Had he done something? If she was asking him how much he remembered, then he was sure that assumption was correct.

After everything between him and Jae Ha had cooled down, she had carefully avoided him for the rest of the day. Every time he appeared, she miraculously found something that required her attention elsewhere .

Sighing, Soo Won looked up, the endless blanket of stars twinkling silently overhead. It was easy to feel small in the presence of something so vast, so constant… not that he needed to be reminded of how small he felt.

Shaking his head slightly, he straightened up. What was he thinking? He had bigger issues at hand than what Yona thought of him. He certainly hadn’t cared about her opinions of him when he engaged in a coup d’etat, had he? He needed to remain focused on the bigger goal. On finding, and exterminating, Kage.

That was all he should focus on.

However, as usual, that was easier said than done.

 

The room was red, hazy, and incredibly suffocating. Smoke drifted, settling over the floor like a fog, the closed windows effectively shutting it all inside. Despite the windows being too opaque to see outside, Yona knew it was night, and that the night would never end.

Once again, she was dressed in garb that was far too high-end for her current lifestyle. Her hair was intricately braided into an updo of some kind, although she couldn’t see it herself. With every slight movement of her head, she could hear the clacking of small gemstones from her hair ornaments, weighing heavily on either side of her head.

Despite the smoke, she had no problem breathing. The atmosphere in the room was suffocating, but it was not due to any sort of smoke or fog. No… it could easily be attributed to the shadow sitting across from her.

A shadow of a person, one with no warmth, and no regard for other human beings. He was the one to steal all of the air from the room, not the pipe he was smoking.

Yona poured his drink for him, saying nothing. She thought nothing of it, either. She was neither happy nor unhappy about being there, and even more apathetic about serving him. She felt nothing… thought nothing.

She may as well have been a doll. His doll.

“Yona, dear,” he spoke, calling her attention to him. That was what he wanted, after all, if he was calling her name. She finished pouring his drink, setting the bottle off to the side, and straightened, staring at the man before her.

His hair was down, putting a carefree aura about him. He gazed at her, his eyes cold, unfeeling, prodding her mind and soul. Looking at her with admiration and disgust, he seemed as intangible as the smoke around them.

Part of her felt as if she was in the room alone, but she knew that wasn’t true.

He downed his drink, and held out his cup for more. Silently, she complied, tearing her eyes away from his so she could give him his fill.

Hands closed around her shoulders, suddenly, but she didn’t jump. The cup she was filling fell to the ground, all of its contents spilling to the floor.  In a far part of her mind, she acknowledged that her heart rate had quickened, but ignored it.

“Look,” he said, his hand closing around her chin, and forcing her to look ahead. Before her-- or rather, before them-- was a mirror, one that stretched from the floor to the ceiling.

The reflection of the two of them was surprisingly dull, yet fear still rushed through her. His hand remained on her chin, his other findings its way into her hair, now down, loose, and longer than she had ever seen it.

“Look at us ,” he spoke again, his voice more commanding than it had been before. Her eyes, even in her reflection, seemed lifeless, dead. Perhaps she really was a doll.

Combing her hair to the side, he exposed her bare neck, and placed a kiss to it. She felt no reaction-- averse or otherwise-- to his show of affection.

His arm snaked around her waist, holding her in place-- as if she would move-- while he placed another kiss to her pulse. Once again, she felt nothing.

“Your Majesty,” he cooed, an unnatural smile pulling at his lips as he placed a kiss to her cheek. “Purify the kingdom.” She could, and she knew she could, it would only be a matter of giving the order.

After all, she was Queen of Kouka.

 

Yona awoke, covered in sweat, her clothes and blanket sticking to her. Her heart was hammering inside her chest, and, somehow, she felt as if her space had been violated. Jin was getting to her, she knew that, but…

Taking a breath, she sat up, pushing her hair out of her face.

He’s only a nightmare. He’s not here. It’s not real.

Repeating every variation of those thoughts that she could, she pulled her knees to her chest, glancing out her window. It was still nighttime, probably the middle of the night. The moon was still up, so that gave her some indication, at least.

Not entirely eager to go back to sleep, at the risk of having more nightmares, Yona dressed herself, and stepped out onto the deck. No one was awake, except for whichever poor sap got night watch. Glancing up at the crow’s nest, she saw Soo Won, much to her surprise.

She had avoided him for most of the day prior, all because of that scene. If she hadn’t panicked, it wouldn’t have happened, but her pride wasn’t about to let her admit that. Looking up at him, resting his arms on the side of the crow’s nest, she felt a pang in her chest.

Before she could really think it through, her feet were already taking her to the base of the rope ladder, her eyes transfixed on the crow’s nest as she climbed the rungs, one by one. It was about the time that she was nearing the top of the ladder that she began to question her decision, but knew it was too late to change her mind.

Soo Won heard someone climbing the ladder, but knew it was far too early for him to be done already. Looking over the side, he was met with a pair of bright, violet eyes, extremely close to his own.

“Uh--”

“Um--”

Leaning back, she kept her hands on the crow’s nest, her hair catching on the wind. Of all the people he expected to see, it wasn’t her.

“Hi,” she greeted sheepishly.

“What are you doing up at this hour, Yona?” he asked, offering his hand to her to help her in. Instead, she hoisted herself over the edge, standing very close to Soo Won. To her credit, she played it cool, despite the blush that was creeping into her cheeks.

“Oh… couldn’t sleep, that’s all,” she lied, casually stretching and stepping to the side, putting space between them. “You got suckered into night watch, huh?”

“Hardly,” he chuckled. “If I will be a part of this crew, it is the least I can do.” Yona against the edge of the crow’s nest, her arms dangling over the sides, and he followed suit, his shoulders brushing hers as he leaned forward.

“Just give it a few nights,” she chuckled, almost bitterly. Soo Won had a feeling she had done plenty of night watches in her time, but decided against asking for confirmation. Almost imperceptibly, she leaned into his shoulder. Perhaps he was just jumpy from their earlier encounter, but he was extremely aware of each and every one of her actions.

“Even if you can’t sleep,” he started, glancing down at her, “you’d prefer to be up here, in the cold, than in bed?” Yona met his eyes for just a moment. In that moment, he wondered if she was as aware of how close they were as he was. She was, but she would never admit it.

“Eh, y’know,” she shrugged, glancing away, and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. A breeze brushed past them, amplifying the silence between them. Without thinking, she laughed-- sounding nervous even to herself-- and blurted, “Nightmares.”

Why did I say that?! she thought, turning even farther away from his curious gaze. She could feel him staring into the back of her head, and knew he was probably stubborn enough to continue until she elaborated.

“Nightmares?” he asked, gently. Shaking her head, she let out a bitter laugh.

“They’re just… stupid. Stupid nightmares,” she laughed again, but it seemed to be at her own expense. Combing her fingers through her hair, she brushed it up and over her part, giving her hair even more volume than before. It was still the same mess of red hair that she had had when she was younger, and what he had said on that fateful day still rang true:

“I love your hair, Yona.”

He still remembered how pleased she had looked when he had told her that. At the time, he hadn’t allowed himself to feel any warmth pertaining to that conversation, or to her, but now… with all that behind them, he felt he could. Finally, after all that time, he could appreciate her once again.

Hesitantly, she glanced his way, but only for a moment, as she quickly returned her gaze back to the town. Once again, she combed her hair over her part, and Soo Won realized he was seeing her without her usual ponytail.

“They must be rather bad if you would rather be…” he paused, and gave her a wry smile. “How did you put it? I was ‘suckered’ into doing this?” Yona whipped her head around, giving him an embarrassed glare. Obviously, that had struck a nerve. Softening his tone, he continued, “Do you want to talk about them?”

She did, and she didn’t. Part of her wanted to tell someone-- anyone -- about the horrors that have haunted her sleep the last several days. The other part of her didn’t want to tell him , in particular, the context of the nightmares.

If she were to tell him about the nightmares, she would have to tell him about Jin . She could only imagine all the ways that could go wrong. Chewing the inside of her lip, she eventually let out a deep sigh.

“They are bad,” she admitted, her eyes returning to the town, and the flickering lanterns in the distance.

“Do you want to… talk about them?” he asked, albeit hesitantly. He wasn’t idealistic enough to think he was worthy of hearing her problems, but he also felt awkward not offering at all. Obviously, if she was up there-- with him, he thought for a moment-- they must have been bad enough to turn her away from sleep. He could relate to that much.

Sighing, she leaned forward, draping herself over the side of the crow’s nest.

“Ugh, I don’t know.” Lifting up her head, she folded her arms along the edge, and rested her chin on her hands. “It’s just… a lot.” Feeling rather restless, she straightened once again, taking in a deep breath of the ocean air that she had become so accustomed to.

Soo Won’s mouth set into a fine line. Tearing his eyes away from her, he gazed at the city. It was almost unbelievable that, after all those years, they could share a sight like that. Nostalgia poked at both of their senses, tugging at heartstrings and dredging up old memories.

Neither one of them thought that it would be possible to share a quiet moment like that again.

For six long years, they had both lost hope. Yet, there they were.

“You do not have to tell me,” he started, his voice softening, becoming quiet. In the limited space between them, it felt wrong to raise his voice above a whisper, as if he was shattering some barrier between them. However, they both noticed it was also awfully intimate. “But… I would want to help you, if I was able.”

“Why?” she asked, her own voice-- something that had become rougher in the years she had been a pirate-- softening.

Why ? The first answer that came to mind was that he couldn’t ignore the guilt he felt. After everything he did to her, of course he would want to do something to help her. Call it repentance.

The second answer-- on that he would never utter aloud-- was because he was, undeniably, struggling to fight off the feelings he held for her.

“I…” he paused, taking a breath, trying to figure out how to word it without incriminating himself, or his feelings. “As someone who has brought so much misfortune to your life… if I can ease your pain, even a little… then I would take advantage of that situation.” He scoffed, knowing how ridiculous it sounded, even to himself. Straightening up, he looked at her. “It’s selfish, but--” The look in her eyes stopped him in his tracks, his mouth still gaping open.

Closing his mouth, his cheeks began to heat up, and he was once again reminded of how close they were to each other. Her eyes, which reflected the crescent moon above them, looked up at him with such an honest show of emotion, he could hardly believe it. He could feel the pained nostalgia in her eyes, the internal conflict of trust him or don’t .

He hoped, against all hope, that she would trust him once again. He didn’t deserve it-- that was practically his mantra nowadays-- but he would cherish her trust much more the second time.

“I won’t force you, Yona,” he whispered, his heart aching as he continued to search her eyes. “But I will listen.”

Yona’s stomach was in knots, and with every thrum of her heart, the more pain she felt. It was impossible to ignore the past they shared, the pain he had brought to her life, but… as much as she hated it, the good outweighed the bad.

For so long, she never thought she would trust him. She never thought she would feel anything other than absolute loathing for his existence. But she had grown up, she had seen more of the world, and she had seen the change that Soo Won had brought to the kingdom.

She wanted to hate him. She wanted to loathe him.

But she had already lost that battle, and she knew that.

Perhaps it had been as early as that initial night they reunited in the brothel. Perhaps it had been when she had taken care of him when he was drunk. Perhaps she had lost it just then, as he explained his reasoning.

Either way, there was no need to pretend anymore.

“Soo Won…” she breathed, a sad smile pulling at her lips, her eyes lowering. The sound of his name escaping her lips was more intoxicating than any sake he had ever had-- laced, or otherwise. His heart pounded, its pace quickening as she looked up at him once more. “Where to begin?”

 

As he found out about that fateful third night at the brothel, he came to hate Kage all the more. The man was clearly a monster, and he had his sights set on Yona.

The first detail that stuck out to him was that Yona only called him Jin , not Kage . It felt personal, and it churned his stomach that she had been stuck with him for so long. Long enough to normalize calling him by his “real name”-- which, to say the least, Soo Won doubted was true-- as opposed to the name given to him by the people in the town.

As Yona told her story, her eyes glazed over, lacking focus. The whole night had been a nightmare for her, and, at first, Soo Won thought that was the nightmare. Unfortunately, for both of them, that was not the case.

The second detail, one that took a little more analysis to pick up on, was how she spoke of him. Despite her hellish night spent with him, trapped in a brothel with him, forced to act the part of a delicate escort, her voice lacked any note of hatred, or wrath. Instead, she sounded exhausted, as if she was dealing with some pest, and not a man who was clearly unhinged.

What pained him the most, by far, was that none of them knew. None of them had known. That night, they were all drinking, being merry, getting drunk (even if it was against his will), and sharing carefree memories of the past. She had been in her own personal hell, and he… he had been reminiscing on their time together as children.

He didn’t help her when she needed it most.

He said nothing while she recounted her memories of that night. He felt he shouldn’t, perhaps out of respect for her experience, perhaps out of respect for her . The last thing she needed was his commentary.

Besides, nothing he could have said would have changed anything .

Yona spared him no detail. As if in a trance, she rattled off every piece of “conversation” that they had shared, and all the information that she had learned. Part of him felt as if she had wanted to talk about it, as she seemed rather eager to share her memories of that night. He couldn’t blame her-- if he were her, he would want to tell someone, too.

Her trance temporarily subsided when she explained that Jin had known her title, and had known who the current King was. Soo Won wasn’t entirely thrilled at the notion, but he wasn’t entirely surprised, either. If they were dealing with another corrupted noble, then it only made sense that they knew who was in charge.

“I tried to get as much personal information on him as I could,” she explained, her eyes focusing dully on the town. “But…” she trailed off, her hands balling into fists. This caught Soo Won’s attention, as it was the only time the conversation had lulled to a stop.

“Yona?” he asked quietly, leaning closer towards her. Placing his hand on the edge of the crow’s nest, their pinkies brushed together. After she didn’t shy away from his touch, no matter how slight, he hesitantly leaned more of his weight to that side.

“It backfired,” she managed, biting her slightly-quivering lip. She had put on a brave front up to that point, but it was crumbling, and quickly. The cold, hardened woman fell away before his very eyes, leaving a frightened, shivering figure in her wake. Slowly, he slid his hand over hers, his fingers resting atop hers.

Grinding her teeth, she placed her free hand over her eyes, trembling more violently than before. Her breath hitched, the prelude to a sob, and she lowered her head, trying to hide her emotions. He didn’t blame her for reacting that way, in the slightest.

A cold wind blew past them, sending a shiver through both of them. Yona, however, kept trembling even after the wind had passed.

“Yona.” Removing his overcoat, he wrapped her in it, covering her head and shoulders. With raw, vulnerable eyes, she looked up at him, as if confused by the gesture. Despite the fact that recognition flashed through her features-- after all, how could either one of them forget about this particular memory?-- she said nothing.

Pulling the overcoat closer, she bit her lip again, averting her gaze.

“You can cry,” he soothed, his voice the softest it had been in a while. Turning to face her, he gazed down at her with an understanding look in his eyes-- not one of pity. “If you want me to turn away, I can. However, I don’t blame you in the slightest.”

Her breath hitched again, and without saying a word, she stepped closer to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. Soo Won froze, exceedingly rigid, as he didn’t expect her to get that close. He didn’t expect her to hug him, of all things.

After a moment, he relaxed, and placed his arms around her, in return. Her shoulders heaved, her body trembling in his arms, as she began to sob. It broke his heart in more ways than he could count to see her this way.

If he could kill Jin in that moment, he would. He wouldn’t even hesitate.

Yona’s fingers dug into the fabric of his clothes, and, without thinking, he turned his head to the side, and rested it atop hers. Anything he could do to comfort her, he would do in a heartbeat. Once his mind caught up to his actions, however, he hesitated to move away, seeing as how he had already committed.

She didn’t recoil, didn’t push him away, didn’t falter… that was already good enough for him. However, she surprised him once more by pulling herself closer to him, burying her face into his chest. Unsure of what else to do, he simply kept her close, allowing her that time to release those emotions.

She couldn’t believe herself. She hadn’t even thought about it before hugging him, and now, there she was, teetering on the edge between complete hysterics and regaining her composure. A quiet, logical part of her brain reminded her that this was Soo Won , the man who had hurt her in so many ways.

The overwhelming, noisy, emotional part of her brain didn’t care.

He had already seen it all. She had no reputation to protect with him. She could be emotional, she could be afraid, and she knew he wouldn’t force her to give up the mission for the sake of her safety. Even if he tried, he had no right, and no authority.

Perhaps that was why she had found the story flowing out of her mouth, no matter how much she didn’t want to share details with him. He was an old source of comfort, and that wasn’t something that was easy for her heart to ignore. With his arms securely wrapped around her, his head leaning against the top of hers, he was the pillar of strength she so desperately needed in the face of Jin’s regime.

After a few minutes, her tears subsided, not nearly as violent of an episode as when she had begun to tell Gi Gan about it. She couldn’t explain what it was about Soo Won’s presence that comforted her. Perhaps because he had seen her in that exact state so many times in the past, for much pettier reasons, she felt no shame crying in front of him.

Gently, she began to push herself away. Raising his head, moving his hands to her arms, he took a step back, carefully looking at her.

“I’m okay,” she managed, her voice a little steadier than it had been before. He knew she wasn’t okay, but he wasn’t about to correct her, either.

“Do you want to stop there?” he asked, removing his hands, letting them rest by his sides. He felt that he had crossed a boundary, comforting her the way he did, and he wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about it yet. Refusing to make eye contact with him, her eyes red and puffy from crying, she shook her head. Quietly, he asked, “How did it… backfire?”

If he was being honest with himself, he feared the worst.

A man like that had no boundaries, and could take advantage of her very easily. Soo Won hoped against all hope that the worst hadn’t happened. But, if their so-called “deal” was anything to go by, Jin didn’t go that far.

However, Soo Won hardly believed Jin was a man of his word.

“It’s humiliating,” she grumbled, sighing deeply. “It was all because of a fucked-up mistake.” Her language assaulted his ears, only because it was coming from her mouth, but he didn’t say anything. “I asked about his family, and, without thinking, if he had a wife… and he turned it against me.” Yona sighed again. “Started saying all these weird things about ‘if I was interested’, and so on. But it was… what he did. That’s just the point where it all changed.”

Bristling, he didn’t interrupt her story. He wasn’t going to make assumptions, he was going to hear it from her.

“The way he treated me after that… he didn’t care about our deal.” It was becoming more and more difficult for Soo Won to hold back his temper. “He became more bold… touching my hair, bringing me closer to him… anything to show he had power over me.” Turning out towards the town, she pulled his overcoat closer around her shoulders. “As if he had to prove it. I was already scared half-to-death.”

“Did he…?” Soo Won asked, his voice carrying an undeniable edge to it. Finally meeting his eyes, Yona read his question in his features, and shook her head. Relief washed over him, but he wasn’t happy about the situation, either.

“No, he didn’t do anything like that.” To hear her say it was an even bigger relief to him. Averting her gaze once more, she lowered her head. “He did kiss me, though.” A strong wave of disgust passed through both of them-- her, at the memory of it, and him, at the prospect of it. Grumbling, she continued, “Twice.”

Using the crow’s nest as support, Soo Won leaned forward, resting his head in his hand. He couldn’t believe this mess of a situation she had gotten herself into. It wasn’t even her fault, either! Sure, she had been a little reckless, but it was a necessary evil, they both knew that!

“Shit,” he hissed, the curse fueling the disgust within him, as opposed to dousing it. He could sense Yona’s presence shift closer, their shoulders almost touching his.

“You’re tellin’ me,” she sighed, sounding just as disgusted as he felt. “After he scared the shit out of me, he just got up and left. Said I was more valuable to him alive, whatever the hell that meant.” There it was, her usual reminder that she was a pirate, and not a princess. That gruff tone she took on was actually a welcomed change-- it meant she was feeling sure of herself again.

The silence of the night weighed down on them, her experience with Jin out in the open. However, despite the heaviness of the conversation preceding that moment, she felt incredibly light. Having cried about it, having talked about it, the phantom shadow that had been haunting her had finally been exorcised.

To think, Soo Won of all people would be the one to give her that comfort.

“Soo Won?” she asked, breaking the silence. Turning his head to look at her, he couldn’t help but notice that this was the closest she had ever voluntarily been to him. No funny business, just a comforting sense of nostalgia. Giving him a genuinely grateful smile, with a voice that was so quiet it could have easily been swallowed up by the night, she said, “Thanks for that.”

His heart skipped a beat. To think words as simple as thanks for that would make him feel so giddy. Giving her a soft smile in return, one that he only wished communicated how much he respected her, and her strength, he said, “You’re welcome, Yona.”

A steady silence fell between them once again, their gazes on each other unwavering. However, this silence was much more comfortable, as opposed to the suffocating silence that had fallen between them before.

“Can I ask you a question?” he asked, after a minute. Blinking, her gaze softened at his serious tone, and she nodded. “Since we are already speaking of rather personal matters…” Anxiety pricked at the back of her mind, wondering where this conversation was headed. The blush that was creeping into his cheeks was another factor that had her on edge. “What happened… between us? A couple of nights ago?”

Oh… that.

She was half-tempted to bid him good night, then and there, and climb down the ladder, subjecting herself to whatever night terrors her mind could come up with, just to avoid that conversation. But he was looking at her so genuinely--with genuine concern, no less-- she felt he deserved an answer.

Clearing her throat awkwardly, she tried her best to ignore the heat that was creeping into her own cheeks. Looking away, she drummed her fingers on the side of the crow’s nest.

“You may have…” she mumbled, hesitantly. “Been really drunk… and, uh…” she trailed off. Soo Won inched closer, trying to hear her.

“What was that?” he asked gently. Yona still jumped at his voice, however, and slowly turned to face him, her face red, even in the pale moonlight.

“You were really drunk,” she started sheepishly, which only made him more nervous of what he did, especially after hearing all that . The last thing Yona needed that night was to take care of his sorry self, but she did . “You could barely walk, so I helped you to bed-- to your bed !!” she corrected herself, her body temperature spiking in the process. “Uh…” she laughed nervously. “Then you kinda got to rambling… and said some weird things…”

Soo Won could only imagine what kind of nonsense he had been blabbering, considering how much the conversation with Jae Ha had deteriorated.

“I braided your hair, in case you ended up throwing up, because you were so far-gone that you probably would --” And he did , so he appreciated that. “Then you… uh…” The red in her face only deepened, rivaling the color of her hair. He was afraid to ask what exactly he had done. “You started goin’ on about Jae Ha being in love with me-- which I still don’t believe, by the way--” Yeah, well, Soo Won was convinced he was, considering the way he acted, but he wasn’t going to argue with her. “I told you that you were wrong, and… uh…”

The suspense was killing him, if he was going to be honest. He could only imagine what sort of dimwitted thing he had done when he was that intoxicated. He wasn’t even sure he had ever been that drunk before.

“You asked me if I loved him…” Oh, great . “I said it didn’t matter…” Like hell, it didn’t. “And you said somethin’ along the lines of… ‘if you don’t love him, then what about me?’”

“Ohhhhhhh… damnit, ” he cursed again, burying his head into his hands, his face on fire. As embarrassing as it was to admit that he had said that, Yona knew it was even more embarrassing for him to hear about it. Enjoying her little victory, she stood up a little straighter, giving him a smug grin.

“You also tried to kiss me.”

“I-- WHAT ?!” His head whipped towards hers, his mouth agape. The grin spreading across her features was much like the one he had seen when they had first reunited. Confident, smug, and ready to torment him until the end of his days. He definitely had deserved that one, though.

The look on his face was so ridiculous, so embarrassed, so mortified that she couldn’t help but laugh at him a little bit. It started out small, but the more she looked at him, the more she laughed.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry, you didn’t succeed ! You fell asleep before you could manage anything!” she laughed, the sound so pure to his ears, even though it was at his expense.

“Well, I wasn’t completely unsuccessful this morning, ” he pointed out, trying to get his own jab in. However, this attempt, while not only pitiful, also immediately backfired, as it reminded them both of their little ‘run-in’ with each other the previous morning.

“Uh--”

“Ah--”

They hadn’t addressed that , yet. Neither one of them was willing to, either.

“I-I should probably get some sleep--”

“I should continue the night watch--”

“G’night--”

“Good night--”

Faces aflame, they parted ways there. Soo Won watched her as she departed, glad that-- at the very least-- he wasn’t the only one blushing from that incident. Turning his eyes back towards the moon, he had the smallest of smiles.

As Yona climbed down the rungs of the ladder, she couldn’t help the smile that pulled at her lips. It was all so ridiculous-- how had they ended up like that? It had only been a few days , what else could possibly happen?

Deciding it was better not to jinx herself, she tucked away that thought for later, and returned to her room.

For the rest of the night, she slept peacefully.

 

Several days later, Yona and Jae Ha were en route to the marketplace in Awa, sent to gather more provisions for the crew. It was a nice day, the temperature not too hot and not too cold. It wouldn’t be too long before the cold weather began to creep into the town-- Yona could only hope that this whole business with Jin was done before the winter months arrived.

Wearing their hats, the conspicuous pair travelled into town, fully aware that this was the first time they had been alone since her first night at the brothel. How could either one of them forget? That was a night that lived on in infamy.

It had only been the beginning, and they were nowhere near the end.

With her hair styled into a casual, mid-ponytail that bounced with every step she took, her curls holding a life of their own, she glanced at Jae Ha. That promise she had made to herself nearly a week prior had seemed so impossible that night, but it was already getting easier. Feelings were waning, logic was returning, she was able to continue her life without needless concerns of his opinions of her.

However, now that the two of them were alone once again, she had a harder time forgetting their previous interactions-- platonic, romantic, and everything in between.

Turning his head slightly, he caught her staring at him, his eyes widening before a smile softened his features. Heat crept into her cheeks. Sure, she could talk a big game, but actually forgetting those feelings would be another story.

“You haven’t looked at me like that in a while,” he grinned, seeming smug. She had known him long enough to know that his arrogance wasn’t genuine, and that he was only teasing, thankfully. It didn’t stop the blush from spreading to her ears, though.

“Like what , exactly?” she challenged, even though she knew the answer. She knew he knew the answer, too. Although, instead of answering, he simply bumped into her, gently, with his shoulder. Fighting off a smile, she bumped him back.

Ever the drama queen, Jae Ha spiraled out of their path, acting as if he had been hit with a cart, and not a woman who was almost a foot shorter than him. Rolling her eyes, Yona laughed at his show of dramatics.

“You wound me,” he swooned, throwing his arm across his forehead in a fainting gesture. Righting his path, he rejoined Yona, bringing his braid over the front of his shoulder. Glancing up at him, she grinned smugly, and he’d be a liar if he said he didn’t love it.

“Maybe it was time someone taught you a lesson,” she teased.

“I’m just glad it’s you then, Yona, dear.” With a chuckle, and a warm look, he held himself back from showing her any form of physical affection. As badly as he would have loved to plant a kiss to her cheek, he knew it wasn’t the right thing to do.

Not after everything that had happened.

“Jae Ha,” she started, giving him a look that was cold, exasperated. That look was quickly becoming the norm, he had noticed, ever since Won had shown up. “We still need to talk about the night I got back.”

Ah, yes, that fiasco. The plan that backfired so badly, not only did Yona barely speak to him over the course of the last four days, but she had been getting closer to Won . To be fair, he hadn’t expected her back so soon, but… why couldn’t he just catch a break ?

“Oh, that ?”

“Yes, that .” She obviously wasn’t in the mood for their usual banter. “Why’d you drug him?”

Why, indeed. Where to begin? The night Jae Ha had found the two of them together, Yona on top of him, tangled in his cloak? The way Won had inexplicably joined their crew? The way he looked at Yona?

It didn’t matter, all of it drove Jae Ha crazy.

“It was only meant as a jo--”

“Yeah, likely,” she interrupted his excuse. “That’s pretty far for a joke. I expected more from you than something like that.” Jae Ha’s heart lurched uncomfortably in his chest at that, a mix of guilt, jealousy, and disappointment festering within him like a poison.

“Alright, you got me,” he sighed, turning his head away so he could properly roll his eyes. “He annoys me.” Turning back, he leveled her with a bland look, only to be met with a look of moderate irritation.

“Care to elaborate?” she asked, her voice straining. Obviously, her patience was thinning.

“Not really, he just… does ,” he lied. He was jealous, and he knew he was jealous, but he wouldn’t admit that . Not in a million years. Yona scoffed.

“I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal of him being a part of the crew. He just wants to help.”

Yeah, well, can’t he help without being so close to you, Your Highness?

Jae Ha was a smart man, one who would never utter that sentence aloud. All the same, he couldn’t entirely erase its message from his features, either. Leveling him with a glare, she eventually rolled her eyes, returning her gaze to the path ahead of them.

“Why do you care , anyway?” she spat, her mouth forming into a frown. That particular jab struck a nerve. Of course he cared. He cared too much . He cared about her, he cared about who she had eyes for, he always had, and he always would.

“Bec--”

“I don’t wanna hear it,” she sighed. Actions speak louder than words, and his actions had spoken loud and clear . If he was going to claim he cared about her, then and there, it would fall on deaf ears. “You don’t have the right to be possessive of me.” Fuming, she spat out, “You had your chance, Jae Ha. Or did you conveniently forget ?”

As soon as the words left her mouth, she could tell what kind of effect they had on him. They were painful, vindictive, even to her. She couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like to have that said about her .

A petty part of her wanted him to feel that pain, though. She wanted him to hurt, after how he had made her feel. He had rejected her, and if she could have that one, tiny, miniscule victory, then she would have it.

Although, the compassionate part of her-- the overwhelming majority-- immediately regretted saying something like that to him. He was concerned about her, and she knew that, deep down. Unfortunately, she was also just extremely stubborn, and had taken her frustrations out on him.

“Jae Ha, I’m s--”

“No, it’s fine.” But it wasn’t fine. They both knew that. “You’re right.”

She didn’t want to be right. Not anymore. But what was said had been said-- she couldn’t change that, no matter what.

“I don’t have a right to be possessive of you,” he grumbled, keeping his eyes forward, refusing to look at her. “But you’ll have to pardon me for being concerned about you. Excuse me.

“I didn’t--”

“Oh, but you did ,” he sneered, his sharp canines poking through. “But good news: you don’t have to rely on me anymore, do you?” Poison laced his tone, and she knew exactly where he was going with that train of thought. “You have Won , your ever-reliable childhood friend to take care of you now.”

“Jae Ha--”

“Don’t be like that, Yona, dear.” His voice held no warmth for her, despite the pet names. His eyes finally found hers once again, but they left her feeling chilled. “I’m happy for you.”

But he wasn’t, and they both knew that.

Wincing at his words, she stopped walking, looking away from him. He stopped walking shortly after, and hesitated before walking back to join her.

“I…” he paused. He had aired his frustrations, too, and his features were softening with regret in the aftermath. Sighing, he ran his hand through his bangs, pushing them out of his face. “Yona, I’m sorry.”

They had both been frustrated, and they had both taken it out on each other. It was just something that happened from time to time, but it didn’t make her hate it any less.

Jae Ha’s steady hand found her arm, and his other gently lifted her chin, bringing her eyes to his. Not entirely ready to concede, she managed her best I’m not actually angry at you anymore but I still feel like being a brat look-- a mix between a pout and a scowl.

“Are you?”

“I am,” he smiled, softly, genuinely. How could she stay mad at a smile like that ?

“... So am I,” she grumbled, maintaining her pout. Before she could realize it, he pulled her into a hug, tightly wrapping his arms around her. It was comforting, in a different way than hugging Soo Won. Soo Won reminded her of the past, of days that she could fondly look back upon.

But Jae Ha was home .

Hugging him back, she nuzzled her head into the crook of his shoulder. Breathing in his scent, she felt momentarily grounded, wishing that moment could go on forever. Nothing could hurt her when she was in his arms.

What she didn’t know, however, was that Jae Ha had hugged her so quickly in order to restrain himself from kissing her, right then and there. Her pouts had always been his weakness, even if she didn’t know it.

He still couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t deserve her. It pained him, but after everything he had done, he just couldn’t see how someone like him could ever be worthy of the love of someone like her .

And yet, he couldn’t see himself letting her go, either.

How troublesome…

Yona broke the hug first, and immediately began to walk ahead once more, a certain, confident bounce to her step. Turning to face him, she had a large grin, and a healthy, rosy color to her cheeks.

“C’mon, Jae Ha,” she called, all remnants of the argument erased from her demeanor.

Catching up with her, he really couldn’t imagine what his life would be like without her in it. Every day was a gift if she could smile at him like that.

With a budding new resolve, he found himself playing with the idea of telling her how he felt about her, how he had always felt about her. Perhaps.

Soon.

 

Once Yona and Jae Ha reached the market, the two of them split up to gather their respective lists of provisions. Jae Ha was in charge of fruits and vegetables, while Yona was in charge of meats and grains. The sun was high, the early afternoon heat creeping into the port town, but everyone seemed rather energetic.

Making her way through the bustling market, she haggled as much as she could. Thankfully, after years of training, she had become rather good at it, and even the most stubborn of merchants would be willing to reduce the price. It also helped that she bought an obscene amount of stock from them every week.

She almost always got her way. The merchants thought she was charming, or beautiful, or just plain scary, but they always complied with her needs in the end. However, for every rule, there is an exception, and of course that exception would be there that day.

“Good afternoon,” she grumbled, knowing that the distaste she had for this merchant was mutual, to say the least.

“Hello, valued customer ,” he grumbled back.

“Alright, enough games,” she started, leaning against the front of his stall. “I need my usual: five of your best fish.”

“You want the best, you’ll have to pay the price,” he sneered. This happened every single time , why couldn’t she just get her supplies for a reasonable price and leave ? With a roll of her eyes, she settled her best don’t waste my time glare on the merchant.

So it began. He named his price, she named hers, and they fought in a verbal tug-of-war that lasted for at least five minutes, but most likely ten. He was a stubborn, old man, and she was a stubborn, young woman.

Yona was determined to get their supplies for her listed price. She didn’t care if she was there for an hour , she would do it if it meant she got discounted goods. Jae Ha could wait.

She was about twelve minutes in when the merchant sat back, looking completely disinterested in her deal. She was losing, but she wasn’t about to give up hope.

“That’s my final offer. Take it or leave it,” he huffed. Yona had gotten the price down a little , but not enough. She was about to continue her haggling when she sensed a presence behind her. Before she could turn around, or move out of the way, an arm extended past her, dropping a small bag of coins on the table.

“There,” the presence said, his voice even.

Yona’s blood froze. She didn’t register the merchant speaking to the presence, or the deal being finalized. Every sense was dulled, every limb was numb, but still, she managed to turn around and see the face of her patron.

Her face lost all traces of color. Standing-- no, looming above her, was Jin. His icy blue eye was covered by a bandage, and he was dressed a little more formally than during their prior meetings, but it was most definitely him.

“There you go, miss,” he smiled, genuinely, warmly, as if that were possible . As normal as the expression would seem to anyone else, to her, it was absolutely horrifying. He bowed to her, quick and polite, then turned on his heel, leaving her at the stall, melting into the crowd.

Gaping in his wake, Yona quickly regained her composure, gathering up her provisions, shooting glances at the crowd of people, everyone walking every which way, trying to keep track of Jin.

He wanted her attention? Fine. He had it. She wasn’t about to let him toy with her like that again.

The merchant taunted her, saying something about seducing the man, but she didn’t pay any attention to him. She had to catch up with Jin, and find out what he wanted. The thought was terrifying to her, but if he was out in the open, then she had to discover why.

His tall figure was impossible to ignore, even more so once he opened up his parasol. However, he never once glanced back at her. She could see another figure-- a shorter man, who was probably in his late thirties-- rush up to him, a concerned look on his face.

He wanted her to follow him, or he expected her to… but soon enough, she found herself trotting after the two men. As she got closer, she could hear the man’s nagging tone, although it was softened by genuine concern.

Anyone who was concerned for Jin obviously didn’t know him very well, in her opinion.

Trailing closely behind, she could hear more of their conversation.

“Master Se Jin, please stop running off!” the smaller man pleaded.

“Se Jin”...? Yona thought, her eyes narrowing. If this man was referring to Jin as master , then he must have been an underling of some kind. He didn’t seem like the human trafficking type, though.

“If you insist, Yun-Bok,” Jin replied coolly, and Yona could hear the smile in his voice.

“What about your ointment? Did you buy more?”

“Oh, dear, it seems I have forgotten about that.” Jin came to a stop, turning to face his underling-- perhaps a servant? Yona stopped, too, enough people passing by her and Jin that she seemed to remain at least semi-hidden.

Turning his head slightly, Jin caught her eye, sending a shiver through her. Of course he found her out quickly-- it was Jin.

“I am feeling rather tired out, Yun-Bok,” he sighed, returning his gaze to her servant. “I think I shall return to the manor for now.”

“Are you feeling unwell, Master Se Jin?” Yun-Bok asked, his features soft with concern. He had an almost-paternal aura about him, and Yona could tell he had been with Jin for a long time. “It must be this heat. Would you like me to accompany you?”

“There will be no need for that.”

“Very well, then I shall go gather the rest of our supplies, as well as your medicine.”

What kind of medicine does Jin need? He never seemed like he was unwell in any sort of way, but maybe he had been hiding it?

Jin and Yun-Bok said their goodbyes. Turning once more, Jin walked away from Yona, once again leading the way. Casting a look at her over his shoulder, the smile pulling at his lips said it all:

Follow me.

She had already come that far, it wouldn’t make sense to turn back now. Slinging her bag of provisions over her shoulder, she followed him, never falling more than five feet behind him. His legs were long, and she had never had to keep up with him before-- she was usually going away from where he was-- but she made do.

Turning down an alleyway, then another, and another, he eventually got the two of them away from the crowds of the marketplace-- something Yona was both wary of, and thankful for. She didn’t want to deal with the fake persona he would put up in front of others, but she also didn’t like the idea of being alone with him again.

Eventually, Jin slowed to a stop, and glanced back at her. Somehow, seeing him in broad daylight didn’t seem possible , much less as… whatever it was he was posing as. A noble? A merchant? She didn’t know, and she didn’t care.

“Yes, miss?” he asked, maintaining his facade. “May I help you?” Yona took a step closer, keeping her expression even. She would have to keep her guard up around him, but he was being rather unpredictable.

“No, not really,” she replied, a sense of pride filling her as she kept her voice steady. If she could rely on her adrenaline to get her through this, she would. Dropping her bag to the ground, she nodded at it with her chin. “You’ve already meddled enough.”

“Oh?” he blinked, still presuming that innocent image. “I meant no off--”

“What do you want, Jin?” she spat, narrowing her eyes at him. At that show of flame, the facade melted away, leaving the monster behind. The transition was jarring, leaving part of her feeling frozen in place.

“Hello, dear,” he smiled, that same arrogant aura infecting the air between them. Part of her was thankful that he had his blue eye covered, but she could tell it was boring into her, still. “Fancy running into you in the marketplace. Awa is quite small, is it not?”

Part of her felt that it was actually coincidence that they ran into each other, and not some scheme. Although, she still found it difficult to fully trust his explanation.

“I apologize for my servant. He really is quite the pest,” he sighed, seeming bothered by this “pestiness”, even though, to Yona, the man had just seemed overly-concerned.

“So he’s not a human trafficker?” she asked warily. Jin shook his head, seeming rather unimpressed.

“That mouse could never stomach the business I conduct.” His tone of voice sent a shiver through Yona’s body-- that was the closest he had ever gotten to outright loathing. The disgust was so heavy in his voice that she felt it, and it wasn’t even directed at her. Glancing her way, he sighed, “Yona, darling, do not look at me with such a pitiful look.”

“But he seemed concerned about you,” she muttered, her lips pulling into a frown. His medicine… Jin smiled knowingly at her.

“Have you become invested in my well-being after our evening together, dear?” he smirked, inching closer. Out of instinct, she stepped back, keeping her eyes glued to his. However, as it usually is with anything that involves Jin, her plan backfired.

Step after step, she backed away and he came forward, until there was nowhere else to hide. Backed up against a wall, Jin placed his arm over her head for support, looming over her. Managing her best intimidating glare, she bristled in his presence.

“Why else would you follow me?” he asked, using his free hand to take a strand of her hair between his fingers. After he had kissed her, holding her hair was a huge upgrade, so she wasn’t about to fight him off, potentially wasting energy that she might need for later.

“Your name is Se Jin,” she stated, her voice cold.

“Such an intelligent young woman,” he smiled, just as coldly. Inspecting the strand of hair he was holding between his fingers, his smile only grew. “Wonderful job with the reconnaissance work, dear.”

“Don’t call me ‘dear’.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” he said, but Yona doubted he would keep his word on that.

“So? What do you want?” she asked, sounding more accusatory than she ever had with him. Now that she didn’t need to conform to some nonsensical standard of behavior, she at least had a bit more freedom than their prior meeting. “ You interfered, so you must’ve wanted my attention for some reason.”

“Hmph, ever the impatient one,” he clicked his tongue, all semblance of playful nature vanishing under his cold tone. Closing his eyes momentarily, he sighed, his breath hitting her face. When he opened them once again, the eye she could see held no warmth, no emotion. “I have information for you.”

Yona’s ears perked up. Jin was deeply involved in the nitty-gritty of the business, so if he had information, it must be valuable.

“Regarding the human trafficking?” she asked warily. There was a deal coming her way, she could sense it, but if he had information that was valuable to her and the crew, then she would have to take it. But… what would he ask of her? Jin nodded, and Yona braced herself for the worst. “But it’s not free, is it?”

Giving her a knowing smirk, he leaned in closer. Pressing herself against the wall, she had to turn her head up towards his to maintain eye contact.

“What do you want in return?”

“Oh, nothing of import, really,” he chuckled, sending a shiver through her. The memories of the evening they spent together clamored within her mind, cruelly reminding her of what this man was capable of. Nothing of import to him could mean her left eye, for all she knew. “Considering the information I have , I believe this trade is quite generous.”

Her stomach lurched, knowing that there was more to it, but that she wouldn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Averting her gaze, she chewed the inside of her lip before raising her eyes to meet his once again.

In a softer voice than before, she asked, “What do you want in return, Jin?”

“As I said, it is really quite minis--”

“I won’t agree until I know,” she interrupted, her voice carrying the edge of fear. Maintaining her eye contact with him, she could feel the beginnings of a tremor in her fingers. Ignoring it was her best and only option. Jin’s eyes narrowed, his cold smile unfazed, as if he couldn’t care less about what her answer was.

“I only wish to spend another evening with you, my dear.”

Yona’s blood turned to ice. In a flash, all memories flooded her-- from their first meeting, their meeting in the brothel, all of her nightmares… past and present mixing together in a jarring fever dream of what he was asking of her.

If it wasn’t for all the details she could remember from the day, she would have chalked it up to another nightmare. Despite the nights of peaceful rest since her talk with Soo Won, he had come back, he would always come back.

If she wasn’t backed up against the wall, if it wasn’t supporting her, she would have collapsed at his feet, but she had no choice but to remain standing.

“You are looking quite pale, Yona.” Her eyes didn’t leave his, but she could see his smile creeping further and further up his cheeks in her peripheral vision. “Perhaps you should rest.” He gripped her shoulder, his fingers digging into the flesh, the only thing keeping her present in the situation.

Forcing herself to reach a point of rationalized calm, she steeled herself, summoning as much of her courage as she could manage. Moving his arm, he took hold of her chin, forcing her blank gaze to remain focused on him.

“If it interests you, I shall give you this,” he paused, his voice low, his expression conveying his absolute joy. “Since your time as an escort, more women have been taken.” Yona’s heart lurched into her throat, her hands reached for him, grabbing hold of his fabric, her hands closing into fists around the garments. Shaking, either from rage or fear, she glared at him, her eyes aflame. Smiling wider, he continued, “Stolen into the night… completely undetected.”

“By you , no doubt,” she growled, her grip on his clothes tightening. Rage was fueling her, overriding the fear that she had felt only moments before. “You and your fucking goons.”

“Now, now, Yona, dear… I am only a simple man who has a keen interest in business. There is no need for such aggressive language.” The smile that remained, however, communicated his intentions clearly enough.

“‘Business’?!” Her voice was raw with rage, quivering on every syllable. “You call this business?!”

Jin slowly grabbed her wrists, taking one in each hand, his eye never leaving hers. Removing her hands from the fabric of his clothes-- as much as she didn’t want to let go-- he loomed over her, and spoke in a voice that she couldn’t fully describe as human.

“This would be my business, dear.”

His hands remained closed around her wrists, and when she tried to pull away, he refused to release her. However, she tried her best to remain calm, summoning her courage to take the place of her rage. It was the logical calm before the panic could settle into her muscles, her heart, her throat.

Hear him out, listen to him. You’ll hate it, but you need to listen .

Taking a breath, she forced her expression into one of neutrality, without the distortion of rage. Slowly, she forced herself to breathe at a normal pace. Inhale, exhale… inhale… exhale-- until she could finally feel the adrenaline subsiding as much as it could.

“When?” she asked, her voice even, and sounding much more like her usual self. The smile had finally removed itself from his lips, his cold, unfeeling demeanor returning to its rightful place.

“I shall alert you when I am ready.” It was his bargain, his rules, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to fight him on it. As much as she hated it, she would have to comply. He lowered her wrists, but still did not let go.

“So tell me this, then,” she started, sounding a little more confident, even to herself. “ Why ? Why would you offer to give me information?”

“If I tell you that, it ruins the surprise,” he fake-whined, almost sounding disappointed. Realizing he was up to his usual mind games, she gave up her line of questioning. “Although, this information does pertain to several other… hm…” he hummed. “‘Threats’, I suppose you could say.”

“You mean there’s more?”

“You shall have to wait until I call upon you for all the details, but yes, in short.”

“So I just wait around until you ‘alert’ me that you’re ready?” Perhaps it was partly the panic, but she scoffed in his face, something she wouldn’t normally do under those circumstances. “How the hell will I even know?”

Jin chuckled, a low rumble rising out of his chest, squeezing her wrists slightly. The sound set her on edge, but there was nowhere she could run. The best she could do, even in her mind, was stand tall, refuse to back down, and show no fear.

Yona managed to hold her own.

“You shall know, my dear.” Looming over her, his hair brushed her face, and for a moment, she was afraid that his bandage would fall off, revealing that icy blue eye that she knew was boring into her. “Be a good girl, and do not interfere with my business until I call for you.” Before she could protest to his conditions, he moved, placing a kiss to her cheek so swiftly that she was caught completely off-guard.

With that, he released her, gave her a parting look-- one that bordered between fond amusement and keen interest-- and took his leave.

Once again, Yona was left in his wake, with more questions than answers.

 

Shortly after Yona and Jae Ha had left for the marketplace, Soo Won had snuck off the ship, relying on the others’ chores and responsibilities to distract them from his absence. He was planning on meeting Joo Doh that morning, and filling him in on his progress in the mission.

However, as Jin only seemed interested in interacting with Yona, progress was slow, to say the least.

The day prior, Soo Won had received a message from Joo Doh, asking to meet him on the edge of town. Thankfully, that way, they could both avoid unwanted attention, and Soo Won could avoid Jae Ha and Yona.

It took some careful maneuvering, but he was able to avoid the main part of town, eventually catching sight of the stern-looking man. As much as Joo Doh tried to hide it, he really stuck out from the average population, but it wasn’t Soo Won’s place to say anything.

“There you are, Your Majesty,” he greeted stiffly. After everything that had happened, Soo Won couldn’t help but feel that the general’s cold attitude was a welcome change. At least he could rely on him to be serious-- he had probably never pulled a prank in his life.

Soo Won was more grateful for that than anything else.

They couldn’t stand around and talk for long, so Soo Won wasted no time in filling in Joo Doh of the goings-on of the pirate crew, the human traffickers, and, of course, Yona’s interaction with their leader. Joo Doh listened solemnly, only grunting in response to the king’s report.

Of course, Soo Won omitted a lot of details. Being drugged by the crew, for one. He knew that if Joo Doh found out about that incident, he would remove Soo Won from the ship immediately. That wouldn’t help anyone , least of all him. He was finally beginning to fit in with the crew, and they were getting around to trusting him, treating him like one of their own.

Yona’s face flashed through his mind. Her tomboyish grin, the scar on her cheek, and the rosiness that seemed to live on her cheeks…

Well, he thought, how can I just leave her?

The emotions that pervaded that thought, however, were ones that he wasn’t ready to admit, even to himself.

Before anyone around them could think that they were suspicious, Joo Doh began his progress report. The human traffickers in Kage’s ring were skilled at keeping themselves hidden, skilled enough to even remain under Joo Doh’s radar. Kage, in his opinion, was a man who was extremely fond of deception, and he had no doubt that he would lure his targets out under a false sense of security.

That detail, more than anything else, stuck out to Soo Won. He made a mental note to warn Yona of that when he had a chance. If she was to interact with him again, she would have to keep her guard up, no matter what he may say to her.

Soo Won, of course, had faith in Yona, but when a man so charismatic, so charming, so cunning began to talk, it would be easy for anyone to fall under that spell.

More and more eyes were falling on the two men as time passed, which both of them noticed. Quickly wrapping up their conversation, they bid farewell to each other-- and good luck-- and went their separate ways.

Even on his way back, Soo Won skirted the edges of town, trying to avoid attention as best as he could. Keeping a casual walking pace, he gave a friendly smile to anyone who made eye contact to him, or even a “good morning”. No one paid him a second thought, and he was able to traverse the town without much incident.

“Good morning,” he nodded to a man holding a parasol. The man gave him a friendly smile, and a small bow.

“Good morning,” he replied.

Despite the bandages over his eye, he seemed quite cheerful. Must be making the best out of life.

Tipping the brim of his hat back, he covered more of his hair-- pulled into a neat, high ponytail-- as he passed the man. With any luck, he would be back at the boat before too much longer, and his absence would have remained unnoticed.

Worst case, if he was found out, he could always play dumb-- he knew he was rather good at it.

He was actually feeling confident that he would make it back completely undetected, at least while he was still in town. Whether or not the crew noticed was still unknown. However, he found himself facing a prompt punishment for his hubris.

Light running footsteps approached him, and he was ready to react when he felt a jolt through his body. Two tiny, obviously female hands had found the outline of his waist through his clothing, and squeezed . Holding back a yelp, Soo Won still jumped, his eyes flashing towards his assailant.

He wasn’t surprised when he saw a flash of red hair, and a toothy grin.

“Y-Yona!” he exclaimed, feeling a little breathless after such an unexpected attack. Thankfully, as he was now backed against a wall, there was no chance of a second assailant coming for him. At least, not from behind.

“Won,” she grinned, straightening her posture.

“How did you know it was me?” Giving him a knowing look, she straightened up, tossing her ponytail over her shoulder. She was exuding confidence, and he found himself a little spellbound by the show she was putting on.

“Years of practice,” she shrugged. “Back at the palace.” Her reasoning was fair enough, but he still couldn’t believe she had just squeezed his waist, of all things. A simple hey, you would have sufficed. “So. What are you doing here?” Her voice held an authoritative tone, one that was leaving him feeling a little nervous. Needless to say, he felt he could tell her the truth.

“I had a meeting with Joo Doh,” he explained evenly. There was nothing to hide. However, the truth didn’t seem to please Yona, whose cheerful grin turned downwards into a disapproving frown.

“So you just left your post ,” she emphasized, taking a step forward, and puffing out her chest. Soo Won could feel the storm arriving, but he knew better than to stop it. Lifting her leg up, she kicked the wall next to him, keeping her foot firmly planted next to his waist.

His heart skipped a beat at the sudden action, and another when she looked at him with a fiery disapproval that he had never seen from her before. He knew she took her work as a pirate seriously, but he never knew how seriously until that moment.

The sight, much to his chagrin, was intoxicating.

As easy as it would be to simply move out of the way of her so-called trap, he didn’t, taking too much joy in being “captured”. She wanted to prove a point to him, and she had made it, and he would respect what she had to say.

“You pulled this shit without telling your superior officer?” she asked, her voice low. To be fair, he hadn’t expected to be caught, much less by her. He also hadn’t expected such a reaction, even though it made sense.

He was part of the crew, he had to pull his own weight. It was the least he could do.

“Sorry, Yona.” With a soft smile, and an equally soft voice, he offered her that apology. “It won’t happen again.”

“At least tell me , okay?” she huffed, before her lips slowly pulled into a smile. Removing her leg, she picked up her bag, and slung it over her shoulder. “I’m gonna go find Jae Ha. Try to get back before we do.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he grinned.

“I already have his smartass nonsense. Not you, too,” she sighed, still smiling. Turning on her heel, she headed back towards the center of town, where the marketplace was. “Better hurry, Won!” she called, waving at him without looking back.

He smiled as he watched her go, and resumed his trek back to the boat. However, a worrisome thought had burrowed its way into his mind: why was she all the way out there in the first place?

 

Jae Ha had scolded Yona for running off in the marketplace, especially with the human traffickers on the loose. It may have still been daylight, but no one was safe-- those bastards weren’t above stealing women in the middle of the day.

Yona apologized, made up some lie about seeing some jewelry from Kai that had caught her attention, and kept her meeting with Jin to herself.

There was no need to mention it, not yet. Not until she had her information.

 

Days passed. It had almost been a week since her meeting with Jin, and she had still heard absolutely nothing. She wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to inform her of their meeting, and the anxiety began to creep in that he had informed her, but she had missed it, somehow.

However, Jin was nothing if not over-the-top. Of that, she was certain.

On the sixth day, she received her message, loud and clear.

A messenger, carrying a wrapped parcel, arrived at the boat, asking for the red-haired woman. Yona, peering over the side of the boat, down at the dock, caught the messenger’s attention. Accepting the parcel, he said that he was given specific instructions to inform the sender that she had received it.

Yona didn’t doubt it.

Naturally, the crew’s curious nature got the best of them, and they began to ask Yona what the delivery was, who it was from, and why she had received it personally. However, she claimed that she had no clue, and that she would open it in the privacy of her room.

Parcel in hand, she closed the door to her private quarters, leaning against it, and releasing a sigh. Her hands were already trembling, and she hadn’t even opened it yet. Letting out a shaky breath, she pushed herself away from the door, and walked to her bed, where she set the parcel down.

Carefully, as if it was something delicate-- for all she knew, it was-- she unwrapped it, revealing the contents.

Rich, dyed silk with gold embroidery stared back at her, practically assaulting her eyes. The garment was no doubt extremely expensive, but she didn’t doubt that Jin had that kind of money to spare.

To think, he had bought some of their groceries, too.

Lifting up the heavy kimono, she examined the style, the needlework, everything she could before checking the rest of the parcel. She knew there was more, and that made it worse.

The kimono was a deep blue, depicting the scene of a starry night sky, with opalescent flower embroidery lining the bottom hem. The obi, too, was just as extravagant, a solid gold color, the fabric shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight that trickled through her window.

Carefully, she set the garment down, her eyes returning to the parcel, as much as she didn’t want to. An ornate hair accessory, much like one of the many she wore at the brothel, was left, with a piece of parchment wrapped around it. The hairpin itself was shaped like a camellia, the petals a shade of such a light pink, it looked more like a pearl. Each petal was outlined with gold, and in the center of it all was a bright gemstone.

As if the kimono wasn’t expensive enough, he went and got something like this , too?

They were both in pristine condition, otherwise she would doubt that they were new. But, sure enough, there wasn’t a single mar on either. Finally, her eyes landed on the piece of parchment, and she carefully removed the string that bound it to the hairpin.

The note read:

Yona, dear,

I do hope you enjoy your gift. I carefully took the time to consider what would complement you the best, and I believe I have made the correct choice. I can only imagine how well this will suit you; I shall wait patiently until I shall see it in person.

She shuddered, practically hearing his voice, but continued reading, nonetheless.

I shall be waiting for you by the seamstress shop near the marketplace, tonight, two hours after sunset. If you wear your new garment, I shall give you information vital to your cause.

Of course he wanted her to wear the damn thing.

I look forward to seeing you.

Warmly,

Jin

Her eyes scanned the paper over and over again, burning its contents into her mind. If he wanted to meet that night, then she didn’t have much time to get ready. More importantly, how was she going to sneak off? It was late enough that she could bet on most of the crew already being asleep, but what about night watch?

It was a risk she was going to have to take.

Folding up the clothes, she tucked them under her blanket, and hid the hairpin next to her pillow, so she wouldn’t accidentally break it.

Leaving her quarters, she was bombarded with questions about who the sender was, and what they had given her, but she denied everything, immediately heading towards Yoon.

“Yoon, I’m going to take my dinner in my quarters tonight.”

“Oh, okay,” he replied, giving her a quizzical look. “Everything okay?” Thinking on the spot, Yona leaned in close, giving him an embarrassed shrug.

“It’s my… woman’s time, y’know?” she whispered, hoping to sell it. Yoon nodded, giving her a sympathetic look. “I’m not feelin’ the best right now.”

“That’s fine. I’ll bring you your dinner when it’s ready.”

“Thanks, Yoon,” she smiled, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. “How long will it be?”

“I wouldn’t say more than half an hour,” he replied softly. “You go get some rest. I know how hard it hits you.” Giving him another grateful smile, she returned to her quarters. Part of her felt guilty for lying, and felt that her next ‘woman’s time’ would be much more brutal, as karma.

In about twenty minutes, Yoon brought Yona her dinner, which she barely touched. She was too busy getting dressed, which, when she was by herself, was quite the feat.

The kimono fell off her shoulders, revealing enough of her chest to be risque, while still being at least somewhat tasteful. The obi cinched her waist, making her look even more shapely, which, considering the company she was going to be with, she wasn’t happy about.

Styling her hair into a loose updo, she finished it off with the hairpin, completing the look. With what little cosmetics she had on the ship-- for those rare occasions where she would have to go undercover without the help of brothel staff-- she touched up a little bit. A little rouge to her cheeks, a little stain to her lips, it was the most she could do.

She was a pirate, it was the least he could do to not hold her to the same standards as when she was an escort.

Around sunset, she flipped her hourglass, kept a close eye on it while she got ready, then flipped it once again. It had only reached the halfway point before she decided she should leave. It was dark enough by that time, and she would have to make it to their meeting spot on time.

Unbeknownst to Yona, Soo Won had the first watch that night. She had been right, he was feeling the strain of lack of sleep, but he was too proud, and too dedicated to admit as much.

The crew had already retired early, almost all of them waking up at the crack of dawn on a daily basis. So, when Soo Won heard a door open, he peered over the side of the crow’s nest, only to see Yona, in a kimono that was far too extravagant for her daily wear, quietly rush across the deck.

He didn’t say anything, but when she left the boat, then the dock, then the port, he wished he had. He had an idea of where she was rushing off to, but he debated following her.

Sure, he wanted to protect her, but what if he ended up putting her in more danger? Was that a risk he was willing to take?

It is , he thought, climbing down from the crow’s nest, and heading to the crew’s quarters to wake up Jae Ha.

Chapter Text

In the same way that Yona had learned to sense when a storm was on the horizon, she had learned to sense Jin’s presence before he had fully revealed himself. Subtle footsteps, so quiet that one would believe they are a figment of the imagination, approached her. As usual, he seemed to appear out of nowhere.

With his appearance, she could feel the power shift between them. She was no longer in charge, and they both knew that. He was using the information as leverage, using it to get to her , and that was something she would have to accept.

She would have to wait, and listen.

“You’re late,” she muttered, giving him a look out of the corner of her eye. Jin chuckled, a soft sigh leaving him.

“I do apologize. I was attending to some of my business.” The implications behind his statement-- that he may have been hurting women just minutes before-- sent a shiver through Yona’s spine. Once he reached her, his arm slid around her shoulders, and he used his other hand to tilt her chin towards his face. His eye was still covered by the bandage. “Have you been waiting long, my dear?”

Cringing under his touch, she recoiled, if only slightly. Giving him the coldest glare she could muster, she knew she had to make his end of the deal crystal clear before she could last the night. She wasn’t about to have any repeats of the night at the brothel.

“I’m here. Name your conditions.” If she could maintain any semblance of control, then it would be a victory-- a little victory, but that was better than nothing. Rolling his visible eye, ever so slightly, he sighed.

Yeah, yeah, ‘ever the impatient one’, I know.

But he refrained from making his usual quip about her patience. Instead, he stood up straight, casting his gaze towards the water, the night settling over the waves. Glancing up at him, she bit her lip slightly, turning her eyes towards the ocean.

The ocean had been such a significant part of her life for the past six years, it had become part of her home, but now… it was only unsettling her. It was too calm.

“What do you want in return for the information?” she asked, her voice quiet. Raising it, at that point, almost felt as if she would shatter some delicate balance in the world. His gaze returned to her, but she refused to meet his eyes. “What part are you gonna have me play this time?” After all, he had given her a costume to wear, it only made sense that he wanted her to act out her role.

“As I said when we last met, I am being extremely generous.” It may have been days later, but she still had a hard time believing it. “I wish to take a walk with you this evening.” Finally, she glanced his way, but only to give him a disbelieving glare. Smiling knowingly, he returned the expression, his eyes just as cold as hers. “As for how you shall behave, well …”

“‘Well’, what?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.

Well , my dear, allow me to ask the bare minimum of you: act agreeable , and you shall receive your information,” he stated, but she still wasn’t buying it. There had to be more to it than that. Her glare didn’t falter, but his did, as he scoffed at her. “My, my, you have quite the expression at the moment.”

“Because I don’t believe you,” she grumbled.

“Which part of my bargain is so unbelievable that you must look at me with that face?” he chuckled, obviously amused by whatever expression she was giving him. In her time as a pirate, she had had varied responses to her scary look . But… she had never been laughed at .

“I only have to act ‘agreeable’? That’s too good to be true.” Pausing, she gave it more thought, her mouth twisting into a frown. “And what kinda behavior is ‘agreeable’ to you, anyway?”

“As I do understand that you are no longer one for proper etiquette, my expectations are exceedingly low, I assure you.” As much as she would have loved to ignore that particular slight, she found his comment annoying her. Obviously she could act like a lady. She had done just fine at the brothel, hadn’t she?

“So, what?” she grumbled, her expression the exact opposite of ‘agreeable’, to any standards. “You want me to ooh and ahh over you? Swoon over your every word? Stay quiet? What? ” Irritation rearing its ugly head, she knew she would regret even listing those options, but the words had already escaped her mouth, so there was nothing that could be done about it.

Jin, however, seemed to find her anger more amusing than intimidating. His eye sparkled dimly, as if she had just told him a clever joke, a small smile pulling at his lips.

“Let us begin with something simple,” he paused, “do not attempt to murder me, and we shall describe that as ‘agreeable’.”

“If your only requirements were ‘not murdering you’, then what was the point of having me dress up like this?” Her voice came across as exasperated, even to her. Jin gave her another amused look.

“Do you honestly believe I would allow myself to be seen with someone dressed in rags?” Once again, Yona found herself feeling a little insulted. However, despite his reassurance, she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to his deal than what he was mentioning. Holding out his arm for her to take, he gave her a normal, charming smile. “We have much to discuss. Shall we?”

After a few moments of hesitation, she rested her hand in the crook of his arm.

 

An overabundance of curses left Jae Ha’s mouth as he and Soo Won walked briskly through Awa. Thankfully, the lanterns illuminated their path, but they still had no idea where Yona could have gone, or what she was doing.

Soo Won had rushed down to the crew’s quarters and shaken Jae Ha from his light sleep the minute he saw Yona step off of the dock. With a quiet, rushed explanation of what had just taken place, he only had to wait about 90 seconds for Jae Ha to throw himself together.

Unfortunately, in that time, they had lost all sight of her, and had no clues to go off of. There wasn’t enough time to search her room, and Soo Won was sure that she would have either taken the clues with her, or destroyed them.

Either way, they were out of options, and running out of time.

“C’mon, Won, we have to find her,” Jae Ha urged, a certain level of desperation creeping into his usually cool tone. It was the first time they had cooperated on anything, but Soo Won wished it hadn’t been under such circumstances. “Should we split up?”

“No,” Soo Won answered quickly. “We have no idea what this man is capable of. I would rather it be two-- or three-- against one.”

“Fair point.”

Thus, their search continued, both of their eyes frantically searching for any sign of the woman lost in the darkness of Awa.

 

Unlike the last time they had had a conversation, Jin did not play any of his usual games. Yona had half-expected to be met with more of the no outright questions rule, but he was being compliant, and fair to their deal. As long as she kept their arms linked, he would continue to share his information with her.

It had started with information surrounding several copycat criminals-- people who were using his town-given name and title to conduct their own unsavory business. Jin, however, stated that all of those who had claimed his title had been doing clumsy work, at best. If Yona and her crew looked into it, they would be able to see that their work was not nearly as clean-- his words, not hers-- as his would be.

As much as she hated to admit it, Jin was an extremely intelligent businessman. However, it was for that exact reason that he could get away with as much as he did. With evasive answers and charming smiles, he could keep suspicion off of himself.

“What about your actual name?” she had asked. “Se Jin.” As soon as she returned to the boat, she planned on telling Soo Won, Jae Ha, and Gigan about that vital piece of information. Having at least part of his full name would greatly help their cause.

“Ah, yes,” he had chuckled. “Yun-Bok inadvertently revealed that information to you.”

“You don’t seem worried about it.”

“That assumption would be correct, yes.” Moving to place his hand over hers, he kept his eyes forward. He had been considerably less touchy than in their previous encounters, still, she refused to let her guard down.

“Why not?”

He turned, his exposed eye staring into hers, digging through her mind and soul, invading her. Yona flinched, setting her jaw. A smile, the one she had unfortunately grown accustomed to, slowly spread across his features.

“If you accuse me, my dear,” he paused, his hand tightening around hers, his thumb grazing the back of her hand. “No one would ever believe you.”

Her steps faltered slightly, but she didn’t trip. Instead, she turned her gaze forward, releasing a quiet sigh. It all made sense, of course. He wouldn’t ever let his name-- or his family name, for that matter-- be dragged through the mud.

He had covered all of his bases, and he would continue to do so.

Of course, that only solidified her resolve to kill him, herself. If the rest of her crew got involved, then they could take down not only him, but all of his accomplices, as well.

Jin continued with his report, informing her that other nobles in the area had taken to butting their way into the trade. They had all approached him, in one way or another, to strike up a deal, or a collaboration. Most of them were the top nobles in the area, but Jin was convinced they wanted his title to protect them from further consequences of their illegal activities.

Jin’s alias of Yang Kage held much more influence than she had previously anticipated. Not only was Yang Kumji still a somewhat common topic in the city of Awa, but his “successor” was a highly-controversial figure. Kumji had been open about his illicit dealings, but Kage… Kage was someone that was practically intangible.

Yona had shared that belief until she had met him, herself.

Through his tone, she could tell he held a fair amount of disgust for the nobles that were approaching him. Although, by the sound of it, it was because he believed that they were lazy , and not because of their immoral behaviors.

However, he had not yet revealed himself to the nobles that were reaching out to him, he informed her. By the sound of it, he didn’t find them worthy of his time, and thus, only communicated either through a middleman, or through letters.

Jin was in the middle of an explanation when he trailed off, something that was incredibly rare. With a slight pull, he brought her closer to him-- but it seemed much more protective than anything else. Glancing forward, Yona saw a nobleman approaching them, his features warping when he spotted the two of them.

“Oh, dear,” Jin muttered under his breath. Plastering a friendly smile to his face, he raised his voice, “My, my, Lord Arata, what a coincidence!”

“Lord Se Jin, good evening,” Arata greeted in return, his eyes drifting towards Yona. He was an older man, probably in his late forties, with thinning hair and cold eyes. Tensing, she raised her chin, a silent act of defiance. “Who is this young lady you have with you?”

“This is Tsubaki,” Jin lied, but Yona didn’t react. It was better than having her real name dropped in front of someone who would know it. Considering the man’s age, he most likely knew of the red-haired princess.

Plus, if Jin didn’t seem to trust this individual, then Yona wouldn’t either.

“Good evening, Lady Tsubaki,” he greeted stiffly. Yona gave him her best cordial smile.

“It is lovely to meet you, Lord Arata” she smiled, and once again, Jin pulled her closer to him, just slightly. Arata, however, seemed to notice this, no matter how subtle Jin was being.

“Are you afraid that I will attempt to snatch her away, Lord Se Jin?” he asked, no hint of humor in his voice.

“That is hardly the case, Lord Arata,” Jin smiled, as charming and friendly as ever, now that his mask was fully settled in. “However, as I am courting her, you will have to forgive me for being a little possessive of her.” Her eyes flashed towards his, her body stiffening, but Jin only gave her an easy smile.

You bastard! she thought, screaming her thoughts as loudly as she pleased.

“‘Courting’ her?” Arata laughed bitterly, giving him a scrutinizing look. “You refused every proposal that you ever received, and now you are--” His eyes settled on her cheek, on the jagged scar that marked her features.

“Yes, I am,” Jin answered, his voice steady, but cold. “I apologize for refusing your daughter, Lord Arata, however, I do find Tsubaki rather charming.” Yona couldn’t believe what she had found herself in the middle of-- she had forgotten how mundane the drama of upper society could be.

A rejected marriage proposal was nothing compared to human trafficking, after all.

“Well,” Arata scoffed, standing taller, obviously insulted. “Enjoy your evening, Lord Se Jin. Lady Tsubaki.”

With one last huff, Arata left them behind, muttering under his breath. Once he was out of earshot, Yona glanced at Jin, her gaze cold.

“‘Courting’? So that’s what you’re having me act as.” Smiling, as he usually did around her, he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

“You did express an interest in my romantic prospects, dear.”

“I really didn’t ,” she grumbled, swatting away his hand.

“You did.”

“I didn’t!”

“I do believe you did.”

“I did not !!”

“We could continue with this all evening, my dear, so let us put our differences aside…” he paused, “and agree that you did .”

Yona only groaned in response. She wasn’t going to win this argument.

Moving his arm, Jin took the opportunity to take both of her hands into his own, bringing them to his lips, and pressing a kiss to the knuckles on both hands. Cringing, she glared at him, although she didn’t bother to move away.

“Besides,” he hummed, lowering her hands, but refusing to release them. “Lord Arata would happen to be one of the nobles that you and your crew would be interested in.”

“You mean he’s--?” she started, looking towards where Arata had walked off. Knowing that she had just been in the company of yet another human trafficker-- budding criminal or not-- sent a chill through her.

“I am afraid so.” With a sigh, he followed her gaze for only a moment before he turned back to her. “He is certainly a man that I would not wish to work with. Far too emotionally invested.”

That didn’t surprise her, at all. Of course Jin was detached from his business, and it would be easy to judge those who still had an ounce of humanity left in them.

No matter how corrupt the nobles could be, they would still have some idea of what was morally right or wrong. Their judgments may become clouded by greed, but somewhere, deep down, they still knew it was wrong.

Jin, however, had turned his back on morality.

Her eyes searched his face, as if she could find some clue to his story, some reason that he turned against humanity in the way that he did. Had he been hurt by someone? Had he put his trust in them, only to have been betrayed?

Or-- Yona shuddered at the thought-- was he like this from the very beginning? Had he just never cared about who or what he hurt?

“You are giving me an awfully pitiful look, dear,” he commented, not seeming as amused as he usually did. His voice was cold, unfeeling, but wasn’t defensive, either. It wasn’t as if he had nothing to hide; he had plenty to hide from her.

Yet, she couldn’t stop herself from wondering about his past. The seed had sown itself into her train of thought, quickly consuming the forefront of her mind.

Jin’s eye narrowed when she didn’t answer.

“Will you honor me with an answer, or shall I begin theorizing as to why you are gazing oh-so longingly at me?” he asked, again with no hint of mirth in his voice. While his words were teasing, his expression didn’t reflect it.

Without moving her gaze, she answered him in a voice that was much quieter than she had anticipated, much softer.

“Why are you doing all of this?”

“Why do you seem so pensive regarding a question you already have the answer to?” His patience was thinning, that much was made clear by the tightness in his voice.

“No…” she paused. The answer was right in front of her, she could feel it. “Why are you the way that you are?”

“How do you mean?”

“Why did you turn your back on humanity, Jin?” she finally asked, her voice barely above a whisper. For the first time, possibly ever, he didn’t have a witty comeback or a knowing look. Instead, he could only blankly stare at her, setting his jaw.

“Why would you ask me such a question?”

“Because…” she hesitated, carefully forming her words in her mind before speaking, “I don’t think this is who you actually want to be.”

The silence that settled between them was heavy, suffocating, and deafening. Neither one of them could hear the waves crashing upon the shore that was so close, the crickets that chirped in the nooks and crannies of the town… nothing existed in the world outside of the two of them.

Slowly, his hand moved towards her face, his eye never leaving hers. But it was unlike any other time that he had touched her. The look in his eye made that much perfectly clear.

It was as if she would disappear the moment he made contact with her. As if she was a dream, or something unreal.

His hand grazed against her jaw, gently cupping her cheek. Once the contact had been made, his gaze softened-- into a gaze she recognized as relief.

“Jin…?”

He didn’t look like himself. It was a version of Jin that she couldn’t even recognize.

How long had it been since he had shown humanity, and received it in return? How long since someone showed him genuine kindness that they weren’t coerced into giving?

Would he ever regain what he had given up?

“Oh?” a female voice cooed, from not too far away, breaking Yona out of her thoughts. “Is that the young Se Jin?” Eyes following the source of the voice, she saw an older couple approaching them. Slowly lowering his hand, Jin replaced it by his side, tearing his eyes away from hers.

“Ah, good evening!” he greeted, once again plastering that mask to his face. Even from his profile, Yona knew he had heightened his defenses, filling the cracks in his facade. “It has been quite some time.”

“Yes, yes,” the older woman smiled, warm and friendly. Her husband, too, had a warm smile. “Who is this charming young woman you have with you, Se Jin?” she asked. Her compliments were genuine, unlike Arata, causing Yona’s cheeks to warm up slightly, even in the cool night air.

“This is Tsubaki,” Jin smiled. Yona, however, was starting to feel a bit of whiplash from the quick changes. If he could just pick one persona, and stick with it, that would be fine with her.

Especially after what had just taken place between them.

“Oh? Do I smell romance, young Se Jin?” she giggled conspiratorially. Without hesitation, Jin wrapped his arm about Yona’s shoulders, pulling her against his chest. Her breath hitched in her throat, caught off-guard, but she quickly recovered.

“You always did have a keen eye for romance,” he chuckled deeply, the deep sound rumbling through his chest and into Yona’s ears.

“How did you meet such a nice young lady?” the woman’s husband asked, his voice jovial. Glancing up at Jin, she wasn’t sure what he was about to tell them, although she didn’t have a good feeling about it. Catching her eye, he turned his head downwards, towards her, caressing her cheek with his thumb.

“Ah, to be young…” the woman sighed, oblivious to what their circumstances actually were.

“Well, it is quite the story, I must admit,” Jin started. “I have never had a woman run to catch up with me before, but Tsubaki did. It is rather embarrassing to admit, but my heart did skip a beat.” Yona couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t technically lying , but he wasn’t telling the truth either. It was quite possibly the most embellished version of their first meeting she could imagine. “We exchanged a few words, but unfortunately, I was forced to cut our first meeting short. I hardly imagined that I would see her again, about a month later.”

The night at the brothel… Yona thought.

“True love really does always find a way, doesn’t it?” the woman asked, smiling first at Jin, then at her husband.

“I would agree, yes.” Jin’s arm slipped from around Yona’s shoulder to hang around her waist. As much as she wanted to push him away, she couldn’t-- not until these two had left. It was all part of acting agreeable , she had a feeling. “It was almost impossible to believe that I had found her again, purely by chance. We spent the entire evening talking with one another, and… well, for me , at least, the tea I had that night was some of the best I had ever had.” Jin smiled warmly at her, which only made her feel even more on edge. With anyone else, that smile would have worked, but not when she knew what he really thought of her. “I do believe the taste could be attributed to the lovely company I was keeping that evening.”

The older couple simultaneously cooed and sighed over the blessings of “young love”, both of them seeming so excited over the possibility that Jin had found his true love. Yona, however, was not as enthusiastic about her position.

“Do you think the two of you will get married?” the older gentleman asked. Yona tensed, and tensed even more when Jin’s arm tightened around her waist. He was giving her that fake, warm smile again.

“I would dare to hope so, if she would have me.” His voice was soft, unlike anything she had ever heard from him before. Despite the sweet words, she fought off a violent shudder, one that she felt crawling through her core like a parasite.

“Oh?” the woman chuckled wryly. “Tsubaki, dear, do you wish to marry Se Jin? He is a kind young man, and I doubt you could find someone more dedicated.” Trying her best to hide her utter disgust at the very thought, she smothered a shudder.

Like hell, I couldn’t, she thought.

“We shall have to wait and see, won’t we?” she smiled, covering her mouth with her sleeve. Apparently, her coy answer was the right one to make, as the older couple seemed satisfied.

“Well, we don’t want to keep you two lovebirds,” the man chuckled. “Treat her right, Se Jin. You won’t find a woman like that every day.”

“Oh, I am aware,” Jin replied, a polite smile resting on his features. With that, the couple left, calling out their goodbyes and well wishes as they went. As soon as they rounded the corner, Yona pushed herself away from him, reclaiming her own space.

“Back off.”

“Pardon me.” His tone, however, wasn’t apologetic in the slightest.

“If you’re done playing pretend, then don’t waste my time.” Their “evening together” was already dragging on for too long for her liking. All she needed to know were the details of the nobles that were trying to collaborate with Jin, as well as any other information he may have.

Other than that, she wasn’t interested.

“What other information do you have?” she asked, shooting an icy glare his way. Lips pulling into a strained smile, Jin’s eye had lost all of its warmth. Without a word, he extended his arm to her once more.

However, this time, the aura surrounding him was completely wrong. As opposed to a casual walk through town, if she took his arm, she would expose herself to his darkness once more. Large, imposing, with a shadow of his true intentions tainting his features, his mask was slowly breaking away from his face, its fragments leaving a trace of cordiality behind.

“Let us continue with our stroll, shall we, my dear?” he asked, his smile becoming less strained, but failing to become warmer. “If you maintain your end of the bargain, I shall maintain mine.”

He waited patiently until she-- against all better judgment-- linked her arm through his.

 

Jae Ha had given Soo Won the order to remain where he was, if only for a minute. As much as he didn’t want to agree, he felt partially obligated to listen to Jae Ha, as he was much more familiar with Awa than he was.

However, what Soo Won was not expecting was for his superior to jump so high in the air that he disappeared into the night sky. Soo Won had never seen anything like it-- that sort of ability was superhuman! Completely awestruck, he searched the skies until he saw Jae Ha’s figure gracefully falling back towards the earth.

“I found her,” Jae Ha stated plainly, conveniently omitting the details of how he flew into the sky. Glancing at Soo Won, whose eyes were still sparkling, he scoffed, but smiled. “What? My beautiful jump impress you that much?”

“To be perfectly honest-- yes.” Soo Won sounded giddy, even to himself. Collecting himself, he cleared his throat awkwardly. He had to focus on the situation at hand. “Anyway… where is she?”

“On the far west side of town,” Jae Ha paused, running his hands through his bangs, and undeniable darkness passing through his features. “And, as you suspected, she’s with someone.” That same darkness spread to Soo Won’s features, anxiety creeping into his core.

If Yona was with who he thought she was with, then she was in more danger than either of them were willing to admit.

“What were they doing?” he asked, managing to keep his voice even.

“Just… walking,” Jae Ha muttered, his mind elsewhere. Soo Won was sure he didn’t know nearly as much of the story, but he could still put the pieces of the puzzle together. “Won, do you know--?” Cutting himself off, he set his jaw. Turning on his heel, he began to walk to the west. “Let’s just find her.”

Soo Won couldn’t agree more.

Picking up their pace, they both refrained from sprinting. If they sprinted, then their panic would only feed on itself more than it already was. Soo Won was sure that she had managed to buy herself time, if she and this mystery man were only walking.

However, if what he suspected was true, then this was all part of the plan that Kage had in mind.

A false sense of security...

Joo Doh’s warning rang through Soo Won’s mind, and he steeled himself for the possibility that Jin was prepared for them. All he could hope for, in his opinion, was that he wouldn’t target Yona to get to them.

Yona’s cheeky grin flashed in his mind, just for a moment. He was already prepared to protect her. He had lost her once-- he couldn’t lose her again. It was hard enough to live with the guilt the first time, knowing he was the one at fault.

It was difficult to not imagine the worst. If it came to it, would Soo Won sacrifice himself? Could he?

Yona was undoubtedly a huge part of his life, but she had been absent from it for the last six years. He had a kingdom to run, people to protect… he cherished her, but could he give up his life for someone that, in all honesty, he had already prepared to lose in the long run?

Until he had to face that choice, he would be unable to give his answer.

The closer they got to the westernmost side of town, the more frantic their steps became. As much as they tried to shut away their fear, it still gripped their muscles, their hearts, and their senses. She may have been safe, yes, but what if she wasn’t ? What if the man had already made off with her, completely undetected? What if she was hurt? What if she was bleeding out at that very moment, and they wouldn’t make it in time? What if she was already dead? What if--

Rounding a corner, they spotted her.

She was alive, seemingly unhurt. Although still far-off, they could tell she was walking without pain, or injury. However, they both immediately noticed that her arm was linked with the man’s. It was far too casual for her to be in any sort of immediate danger, it seemed.

Ducking back behind the corner, Jae Ha and Soo Won peered around the wall, keeping a close eye on the two figures. Despite the distance, they didn’t want to reveal themselves, lest something happen to Yona as a result of their carelessness.

“Who is that?” Jae Ha grumbled, his voice low and grating. Even Soo Won could feel the waves of jealousy rolling off of him. “Why are they together?”

“If I’m correct, then…” Soo Won paused, chewing his lip. “That would be Yang Kage.” Jae Ha’s head spun around, rage flashing through his eyes. Grabbing Soo Won by the collar, he shoved him against the wall, pressing his arm into the blond’s chest, pinning him.

“You mean to tell me that Yona is with that fucking monster?!” he hissed, and Soo Won could swear he saw sharpened canines pointing out of his mouth. However, his intimidation tactics didn’t work, as Soo Won could feel his hands trembling.

“Jae Ha,” Soo Won spoke evenly, “I will explain everything later. Once Yona is back on the boat, safe, then we can talk about this. But for now, we must be calm.” Jae Ha’s grip loosened slightly, and Soo Won gave him a level look. “She needs us to remain calm.”

Jae Ha released a sigh, but nodded.

“Dammit, you’re right.” Letting go, he ran his hand through his bangs. “You’re always right, aren’t you?”

“Unfortunately,” Soo Won muttered. Peeking around the corner once more, he could still see Yona and the man he believed to be Kage. Jae Ha, conveniently using Soo Won as support, peered around the corner, as well.

I can only hope I am wrong this time, though…

The two figures were very close to one another. Even from their distance, they could tell that Yona was practically pressed up against the man, her arm looped through his. They looked at each other as they chatted-- although their words were unintelligible from that distance-- and overall, the mood seemed rather light.

“Maybe you’re finally wrong, Won,” Jae Ha sighed. “She despises Kage. Why would they be so close?”

“It is quite possible that he has gotten to her. Charmed her, or something along those lines,” he mused. “Or… if you wish to be optimistic, perhaps she is simply out for a moonlight stroll with a nice gentleman.”

That’s your optimistic option?” Jae Ha scoffed.

“It’s better than the pessimistic option.” Which was true.

“I guess,” he grumbled. “I just wish she told me, if that is the case.”

“From what I have seen, I’m not entirely surprised that she didn’t tell you,” Soo Won muttered, partly hoping that Jae Ha wouldn’t hear him. However, he also made very little effort to actually conceal his comment, which earned him a slap across the back of the head.

“Shut up, you’re different.”

How?

“You--” Jae Ha started, but he sighed. “You just are . We’ll discuss the details later.” With a roll of his eyes, Soo Won returned his focus to Yona and the man she was with. Soo Won just couldn’t be sure that this man wasn’t Kage… not after what she had told him about her previous encounter with him.

The man that Yona was with stopped, and gently turned her to face him. Soo Won and Jae Ha could see his mouth moving, but couldn’t even hear his voice, much less what he was saying to her. He spoke to her for quite some time, and she listened intently.

Soo Won was beginning to believe that perhaps their meeting was nothing more than a meeting between two lovers-- a thought that hurt him more than he would ever care to admit-- when all too quickly, everything was wrong .

The atmosphere between them shifted, and it shifted enough that even the two men could feel it. The man continued to speak, a slow smile pulling at, warping, his features. Yona’s eyes widened, and she took a step back, but he grabbed her wrist, keeping her close.

Shit --” Jae Ha hissed, ducking out from behind the corner, and immediately rushing for them. Soo Won had no time to think, his legs already moving to keep up with Jae Ha’s impossibly quick pace. As he ran, the two figures never seemed to inch closer, his legs feeling heavy, as if he was in a dream.

But he wasn’t.

The man-- Soo Won was positive that he was Kage-- kept his grip on Yona’s wrist, looming over her. Despite the fact that they were getting closer, Soo Won still couldn’t hear the man’s words. Whether he was inadvertently blocking them out, or Kage was keeping his voice that low, was yet unknown to him.

Jae Ha was in the midst of changing his stance, ready to throw one of his kicks towards Kage, but the man grabbed Yona, effortlessly swinging her in front of him-- a human shield from Jae Ha’s attack. Catching himself at the last minute, Jae Ha forced his momentum to change, but at no small cost to his defenses.

“Jae--!”

That was all Yona could get out before Kage landed a kick into Jae Ha’s stomach, knocking the breath out of him. Yet, his arms remained around Yona, as if protecting her from the men that were there to rescue her. Taking a few steps back, he dragged her with him, putting space between the two groups.

“Oh, dear, it seems we have been rudely interrupted.” His voice was practically inhuman, on its own, but his expression … Soo Won froze in the path of Kage’s unfeeling gaze.

In his years as King, no matter how many unsavory types he had come across, they had had some shred of humanity left in them. They were still people .

Kage, undoubtedly, had lost his humanity a long time ago.

Soo Won had no doubt he had thrown it away willingly.

Standing tall, Soo Won locked eyes with Kage, refusing to take his eyes off of the man before him. Jae Ha recovered, but knew better than to try again. They all knew that he would use Yona as a shield again.

“Now, now, gentlemen. Let us have a chat, shall we?” he asked, his voice charming and warm. Taking one hand off of Yona’s shoulders, he grabbed at the bandages that covered his eye, and pulled, the cloth easily unraveling from his face.

The icy blue eye that lie beneath it was the stuff of nightmares. Now that they could see his entire face, they could see just how little he felt.

This was a man who killed, raped, and sold other human beings, and had absolutely no issue with what he was doing. He had the same easiness about him as someone who made toys for children.

“It is lovely to finally make your acquaintance, gentlemen.” His tone was light, and he carried himself with a dignified air. His arrogance, however, was maddening. “I believe you know me as Yang Kage.”

The two men didn’t react at first. They had both known that he was Kage, on some level.

“You bastard,” Jae Ha hissed. “Let her go.” Soo Won would’ve given him a warning look, but he still didn’t trust Kage enough to take his eyes off of him. His smile only inched higher. He was feeding off of the rage, the hatred…

Kage used a single finger to tilt Yona’s chin up towards him, and she complied. Eyes wide, she gazed up at his face, not bothering to fight him on it. A shudder threatened to fight its way up Soo Won’s spine, but he forced it down.

He had trained her.

The bastard had her obeying all of his little cues as if she were his dog .

“We were only having a friendly little chat. Is that not so, Yona, dearest?” he cooed, gazing down at her with a twisted kind of affection. Shaking in his grip, her eyes never left his face, desperately searching for that fiery rage to channel, for any way to fight her way out of his grip.

But what will he do to Jae Ha and Soo Won?

That was the thought that kept her there, docile, unmoving, right where he wanted her. They both knew she was thinking about it. She knew he’d kill them in front of her, no matter how hard they tried to fight him off.

He was always one step ahead.

He always had that advantage over them.

He always had… and he always would .

“You--!!”

“Jae Ha, don’t!” Breaking free of her trance, Yona’s eyes flashed to the first mate, wide and pleading. As much as she hated it, she had heard her voice quiver, strained from fear. Lowering her gaze, her fingers curled into her palm, her nails threatening to break the skin. With a voice that only he seemed capable of bringing out of her, she whispered, “Please… don’t hurt them.”

The image of the strong woman that Jae Ha and Soo Won had known, and had come to love, crumbled before them.

“I’ll do anything you want, Jin, but don’t hurt them.”

“Yona, don’t--”

“You have my word.” Her voice regained some of its strength, but it was all a facade, and it was obvious. “But…” she paused, a new edge finding its way into her voice, the fire returning to her eyes. “You hurt either one of them, or my crew, you have my word...” Grabbing Jin’s kimono in both of her hands, she forced him down to eye level with her. However, he seemed more pleased with this development than anything else. “ I’ll fucking kill you.

Jae Ha was about ready to boil over, and Soo Won could tell as much. As Yona currently had Kage preoccupied, Soo Won walked between Jae Ha and the other two, hoping to avoid as much conflict as possible. Kage paid him no mind, his attention solely focused on Yona and her bargain.

“Yona, dear, you are truly a woman after my own heart.” Such a sentence did nothing to ease the disgust that the two men felt, to say the least. “Very well. I accept your conditions.” Relief washed over her, but her features refused to reflect it.

Every deal with Jin came at a price.

However, unlike his usual practices, this time, Jin wasted no time in collecting his end of the bargain. Momentarily locking eyes with Soo Won, he grinned as he leaned closer to her, quickly pressing his lips to hers.

Yona accepted it, but not without any shortage of disgust. But, if one measly kiss was all it would take to keep both Jae Ha and Soo Won safe, then she would do that much for them.

They were in a losing battle. Desperate times called for desperate measures. That was what she told herself as Jin broke the kiss, his eyes finding hers, a triumphant gleam hidden behind the emotionless surface.

Soo Won’s temper threatened to flare up, but he forced himself to keep his cool. Jae Ha, on the other hand, was about to go ballistic. If it wasn’t for the fact that Yona was sacrificing herself for their sake, he would have exploded. But her safety was on the line, and he was not going to compromise it any more than he already had.

The thought of the monster before them laying his filthy hands on her sickened both of them to their cores.

With a deep laugh, Jin straightened his posture, pulling Yona into his arms, pressing her against his chest as he stared the other two men down. Leaning his head on top of hers, he taunted them, that same infuriating grin finding its way onto his features.

“Now that my business has concluded, shall we move on to proper introductions?” Fear gripped Yona once more as she glanced between Soo Won and Jae Ha. If her fears were to be confirmed, then what would that mean for Soo Won?

Catching Soo Won’s eyes, her fear was communicated in her features. He knew, but gave her a reassuring, albeit slight, nod of his head in return.

Soo Won…

“First, the man with the raging temper, the first mate, Jae Ha.” Jin’s voice was confident, with no trace of hesitation as he stared Jae Ha in the eye. Yona wasn’t surprised that he knew who Jae Ha was, considering what his information network seemed to be.

“Who told you?” Jae Ha asked, standing straight.

“Oh, no one of import. It is hardly information to concern yourself with,” Jin scoffed, his grip tightening around Yona. Glancing down at her, he smiled as he continued, “He was there the night you murdered one of my men, was he not?”

“He deserved it,” Jae Ha growled, but Jin ultimately ignored him.

“Tell me, Yona, for I have been rather curious about this for some time,” he smiled. “Was he the one with you on that night?” Her heart stopped as Jin lifted his head, gazing down at her, knowing full well what his intent was with that sort of questioning. Meeting Soo Won’s eyes, a knowing smile pulled at his lips. “Or was it this quieter gentleman?” Clicking his tongue, he returned his gaze to Yona. “I must admit, he does not seem to be the type.”

Soo Won’s eyes widened, despite his best efforts to remain expressionless. Yona had never mentioned that detail in her original retelling of the story, but he couldn’t entirely blame her, either. Jae Ha inched closer, practically pressing himself into Soo Won’s back. However, no matter how much the first mate pushed, he didn’t budge from his spot.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Jae Ha asked, his voice raw with rage. Soo Won was sure that if he let Jae Ha through, he would tear Kage apart-- or, rather, try his best to. But, with Yona being in the position she was in, they couldn’t risk it.

“Well…” Kage hummed, his mouth pulling up into a knowing smirk. “Judging by the reactions, it was this quiet gentleman. How very surprising.”

“Won, what is he talking about?” Jae Ha whispered, grabbing Soo Won by the shoulder, both of them keeping their eyes locked on Kage. His voice was laced with anger, suspicion, and hatred, but Soo Won couldn’t answer him.

There was no way to explain the events that Kage was insinuating to.

“Just remember, he’s trying to get to you,” Soo Won whispered back, forcing his voice to remain even. Kage had both of them right where he wanted them, and it wouldn’t be long before it all came crashing down. Nothing that Soo Won said could fix the situation they had gotten themselves into.

“As there seems to be some confusion, allow me to explain,” he chuckled, his smile unnaturally pulling at the muscles in his face.

“Jin, don’t--”

“Oh, nonsense, he deserves to know, does he not?”

“Know what ?” Jae Ha demanded, baring his teeth.

“Jae Ha, don’t listen--” Soo Won started, but was interrupted by Kage’s cold voice.

“It seems our dearest Yona had quite the tryst with your newest friend.”

“That’s not true!” Yona cried, desperately trying to push herself away from her captor, her eyes finding Jae Ha’s. But it was too late, he had already heard it, loud and clear.

“You seem rather defensive about this, my dear,” Jin chuckled. “There is no need to be embarrassed. It is a perfectly natur--”

“You shut your damn mouth!!” she roared, shoving against him. “He’s lying, Jae Ha! I swear !”

“Jae Ha,” Soo Won said quietly, casting a glance over his shoulder. “She’s telling the truth.” Returning his gaze to the man before them, Soo Won levelled him with a cold glare. “Yang Kage is the one who is lying. That seems to be all he ever does.”

“Oh? Such unkind words,” Kage sighed, but didn’t look terribly concerned. “Especially from a hypocrite such as yourself.”

“Hypocrite…?” Soo Won repeated, his eyes narrowing.

“Which one of us is the bigger liar?” he asked, smiling coldly. “True, I am not the most honest of individuals, but you…”

“Don’t--!” Yona tried, but it was too late.

“You are telling quite the lie yourself, are you not, Your Majesty?”

Chapter Text

The world stopped with those words.

“You are telling quite the lie yourself, are you not, Your Majesty?”

The blood left the faces of the two men, and the young woman-- although, one could be much more attributed to rage than fear. It was not until the monster before them moved again, the slightest tremor in the muscles near his mouth, warping his face into a cruel smile.

It was all a game, and he had just gained an insurmountable advantage.

Swallowing down his rage, Jae Ha couldn’t feel anything . He forced himself to feel nothing . That was all he could do, all he could feel. An undeniable lack of emotion, replaced by the sense that his insides had turned to stone.

Deep down, part of him had figured it out. He hadn’t wanted to admit it, mostly out of fear for what it meant for Yona, but he had known.

So he’s really the King…

He had no time to be blinded by rage. For just that moment, his rationality won out, and he refrained from acting on his emotions. Yona’s safety was compromised, and he couldn’t act out. He knew he couldn’t.

His hatred for the murderous King had been replaced, twice-over, for the hatred that he held for the monster in front of them. The one whose smile was nearly ripping the skin from his face, that chilled him to the bone.

A single finger curled around a strand of Yona’s red hair, connecting her with the monster, more than she had ever wanted. It was a shared vein between the two of them, her blood running as cold as ice. As cold as his .

Her violet eyes reflected the primal levels of fear, juxtaposed only with the emotionless, heterochromatic voids that she was met with. Quaking in his arms, her heart hammering against his chest, Yona did the unthinkable.

“Jin,” she spoke softly, only loud enough for him to hear her.

She had broken the facade once. She would do it again.

All it had taken was acknowledging his humanity. Reaching past the monster, and speaking to the broken man that was beneath it all.

“Because… I don’t think this is who you actually want to be.” That was what she had said to him only minutes before. It felt so long ago, time moving slowly, as it did in every nightmare that he inhabited.

“Jin,” she breathed, knowing that if her voice was any louder, it would break. “You don’t have to do this.” Searching his eyes, she swallowed down the knot forming in her throat, and the bile that came with it. Choosing her words carefully, she continued, “I saw you… the real you, just for a moment.” Jin’s eyes narrowed, his expression set. “Let them go, and…” she swallowed, mustering up the fractured pieces of a smile. “I’ll help you. I know I can, and… I think you know that, too.”

The world, in the midst of melting away, was frozen in a deformed, perverted reflection of itself. The world, reflecting what was in his eyes, his soul, refused to budge.

The facade didn’t shatter. It reinforced itself.

She had reached for his humanity, but instead, she had been met with an abyss filled with putrid hatred for the world. A soul that had gone sour.

He shut her out, and, suddenly, the world had returned to its former state, although lacking signs of life, or color.

“How very kind of you, dear,” he smiled, ripping apart the natural order with the simple action. “However, we already have a deal. I believe you are asking far too much of me.” His voice was quiet, yet she could feel the lack of warmth, the lack of humanity. In the process of shutting her out of his head, he had shut down every redeeming quality with it.

Soo Won and Jae Ha looked on, noticeably uneasy, despite their efforts to hide it. One false move, and he’d hurt Yona. Even that assumption, however, was overly optimistic. Realistically, if they moved an inch, he’d kill her before their eyes.

Both of them knew this far too well. Despite barely knowing the man for more than 20 minutes, they knew he was willing to do anything if it meant his victory was assured.

While Yona pleaded with the monster, desperately attempting to reach the human within, Soo Won realized they were not alone. As hesitant as he was to take his eyes off of Jin for even a moment, he forced himself to look around.

Ten… maybe twelve men, hiding in the shadows. Even when Soo Won met their eyes, they didn’t react, apathetic to if they were caught or not. That only proved to make Soo Won even more nervous than he had been before.

He knew they didn’t stand a chance.

“Well, my dear, it has been lovely acquainting myself with your estranged lovers, however, I am afraid it is time to bid farewell to these two gentlemen,” Jin announced, his charming persona locking back into place. Snapping his fingers, he signaled to his men waiting in the shadows. Without a moment’s hesitation, the men rushed out, surrounding Soo Won and Jae Ha, weapons pointed at the two men.

“You bastard!” Yona screamed, trying to force herself away. “You promised not to hurt them!!”

“That I did. Now, now, gentlemen, a promise is a promise.” Yet his men refused to move. “They shall not hurt those two, however, they shall assure that those two do not hurt us .”

“I don’t believe you,” she growled, her eyes flashing wildly between Jin, Jae Ha, and Soo Won. “Order them to stand down!”

“Please do attempt to maintain some semblance of calm, my dear.” There was that tone again, the one that marked the thinning of his patience. The tone that meant she was in trouble.

Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself, staring Jin directly in the eye, unwavering.

“Okay. I’ll maintain my end of the bargain, then.”

“That is a good girl,” he said, although he did not smile, nor did his voice carry any praise. It was as if he was speaking to his pet dog, not a human being. Yona lifted her chin, her eyes never leaving Jin’s.

“May I say my goodbyes?” she asked, her voice sounding meeker than usual.

“I suppose I would be quite the monster if I denied you that much,” he sighed. Grabbing her arm, his nails dug into her flesh, even through the fabric of the dress he chose for her. “But you shall remain here.”

“I understand.” With those two words, his grip on her lessened, almost imperceptibly. Sighing, she turned her head, looking at Soo Won and Jae Ha with a warm look.

Even in the grip of a man who was the embodiment of evil, she could smile at them, her warmth reaching them, despite the dire circumstances. The two men froze, floored by the radiant light she presented to them.

That light was going to be extinguished before their very eyes, and they knew that.

“Jae Ha… I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth,” she spoke evenly. Her voice, despite the slight tremble that had crept into it, carried a certain confidence. “Soo Won… I’m sorry we dragged you into this mess.”

“Yona, no…” Jae Ha breathed, his voice strained.

“And the two of you…” she smiled, bitter and beautiful and strong, all at once. Returning her gaze to Kage, she took a deep breath. “Run!!” she roared, slamming the top of her head directly into Kage’s nose.

Kage screamed, an inhuman roar of pain and rage, sending a shudder through all who heard it. However, the two men wasted no time, immediately attacking the goons that surrounded them, taking down as many as they could, as quickly as they could.

Yona, still in Jin’s inhumanly strong grip, watched in triumph as blood poured down his face, his eyes reflecting the ice-cold, white heat of lightning. Using his hand to try and stop the seemingly-endless stream of blood, he stared her down, a different kind of facade breaking.

“You little wretch !” he spat, the true monster revealing itself. His bloodied hand left his face, immediately closing around her throat, crushing her windpipe beneath his grip. Choking, she clawed at his face, his hands, anything , trying to force him to let her go.

A promise is a promise, Se Jin.

Jin’s men continued to fight against Jae Ha and Soo Won, finding themselves at an odd disadvantage.

I promised you that if you hurt them…

But it wasn’t enough. Much like their master, they had seemingly lost their grip on humanity, and refused to stay down. No matter how many times they were knocked down, they stood back up.

That I’d fucking kill you.

“Yona!” Jae Ha yelled, desperate to catch her attention, or perhaps Jin’s. However, it was entirely ineffective. Instead, Jin used his free hand to pull out his dagger.

I will see that I do, you fucking monster.

Using the handle, he swung it towards Yona’s temple at dizzying speeds, cracking it against her skull. With that, the world went dark.

“YONA!!”

The first sensation that emerged in the void was dryness. Her throat-- although it was difficult for her to recognize where the boundaries of her body were-- was excruciatingly dry. The world wobbled and swayed, although she felt as if she wasn’t moving. Was her body moving, or was the world collapsing in on itself?

Carried on the waves of consciousness, she drifted towards and away from the shore. There was no sky, and although she felt the waves, she could see no water. It was only a void, swallowing her whole. Even her body faded into and out of existence in nebulous patterns, as opposed to defined limbs or digits.

The only part of her body she could feel was the inflamed, cracked pipe in her neck. For a while, that’s all that she was.

It was hard to say how long her body floated in that void, spiraling in a never-ending whirlpool, yet remaining entirely apathetic about her situation. All she wanted was for the pain in her throat to stop.

Then, all at once, coolness rushed down her throat.

Water! More water!!

Greedily, she drank, desperately attempting to quell the fire in her throat. She had only received an ounce of relief, but it was a vast improvement to her previous circumstances.

She could feel her stomach, lurching from the sudden intake of so much liquid, weighing her down like an anchor. But, as the seconds ticked by, her body steadily disappeared, until there was nothing left of her.

After eternities, the spiraling stopped. Everything did. Her proprioception had reoriented itself, and although her body was numb, she could at least tell she had a body. At least, she thought she did. The side of her face was pressed firmly against something, cool and sturdy and still.

Her body was heavy, and numb. For a split moment, she was unsure if she was still alive, or if she was made of stone. Although she willed her fingers to move, they disobeyed her. Did she still have fingers?

Questions began to bubble to the surface of her mind.

How did I get here? What happened? Who am I? Where is this place?

No explicit memories came to mind immediately. It wasn’t entirely surprising, considering she wasn’t even sure if she had a body. No body, no memories. Perhaps she was only a spirit.

Unfortunately, Yona was very much alive.

Once again, the burning within her throat brought her back to her senses. Not only that, but also the throbbing in her temple. As the pain in her head reverberated with each heartbeat, she felt another distinct pain rearing its ugly head. Twining itself around her wrists and ankles, the pain sank its fangs into her.

“You little wretch!!”

The words lazily floated into her mind, as if they were of no import at all. She could remember red-- too much red -- a dull green, and a burning, icy blue. Along with it, a promise. Did she say it aloud? Did she ever speak those words?

“I’ll fucking kill you.”

The grating reverberations of her vocal cords as she growled those words to the monster before her. It made sense… perhaps she did say it. That was all that she could go off of, though.

But everything else was… fuzzy, at best.

Slowly working her way back to her body, she tried to swallow, only to find her mouth was dry. At the realization that there was no way for her to quench that thirst, a small whimper bubbled in her core, escaping as a pained sigh.

Something grazed her face, leaving behind a trail of ice. It was only then that she realized she must have had a fever. However, she was anything but concerned. All she wanted was something to alleviate the dryness, the inflamed scratchiness.

Time passed. Eon after eon, it passed. With only a slight connection to her body, but a strong connection to pain, she was unsure of when she was conscious, and when she was nothing more than a speck of dust in space.

Finally, her face scrunched-- although she was unsure of whether or not it was she that willed it. Taking advantage of her newfound ability, she contorted her face, willing her eyes to open. At first, they refused, but, with a few more tries, she was finally able to pry her eyelids apart.

Dim morning light assaulted her senses, her head crushing under the pressure of the stimulus. But she could see… she could finally see. The pain was worth it if it meant she could see .

Finally, she was able to orient herself. She was on her side, on the floor, in a luxurious room. However, she had no idea where she was.

Nor did she recognize the person laying opposite her, his face relaxed with sleep.

Despite finally having a body to claim as her own, she had very few memories to go with it. Yet, for some reason, as she gazed upon his scarred face, her core twisted.

With no knowledge of who she was, nor who this man was, she came to one conclusion:

I’m in danger.

Call it instinct, a hunch, or divine intervention, but she knew .

Attempting to move her body, starting with her fingers, she simultaneously began to take stock of what she knew. With each passing second, things began to click, and the disorientation that once overwhelmed her began to fade. She knew that, wherever she was, she had limited movement, and her body felt unusually heavy; the man before her-- Jin, his name is Jin -- was not to be trusted; she had been with other people-- Jae Ha… Soo Won -- before she had blacked out.

But why had she blacked out?

As soon as the thought emerged, her temple answered with a deep, nauseating pounding. That made some of it clear, at least.

In rapid succession, her autobiographical memories returned, despite the unnatural circumstances under which they had escaped her. Her name was Yona; she had been the Princess of Kouka, but was now a pirate in Awa. Awa registered as her home, despite its issues. All the people she cared about lived on the ship with her.

Had she been kidnapped? Casting her gaze towards the rest of her body, she could finally see what was holding her back. With a thin rope, her ankles had been bound. Her arms, however, were behind her back-- although, she was certain her wrists were also bound in the same manner.

Before she could contort her body in a desperate attempt to free her arms, Jin stirred. Freezing, she was unsure if she should keep her eyes open, or pretend to be asleep. However, his eyes did not open. Instead, he lazily draped an arm around her, pulling her closer to him.

Her heart lurched into her throat, strangling her for half a second. Almost protectively, he tucked her against him, yet she knew that this was not his intention.

Whatever this man was, protective was not it.

With a soft, content sigh, he rested his head atop hers, his arm still hanging over her, making no effort to stop any of her movement. Perhaps—the thought crept into her head without her full acknowledgement—he didn’t feel the need to stop her, even in his sleep. He knew she wouldn’t be going anywhere until he said so.

Writhing slightly, she attempted to pull away as delicately as she could, in fear of waking him. Yet, with his arm over her, she found it difficult to make distance between them without alerting him.

If she had more control over the sack of potatoes that was acting as her body, she would just headbutt him, and make a run for it. As tempting as the thought was, she knew it was fruitless, and thus decided against it.

For the time being, as much as she hated to even think it, she knew that she couldn’t do much more than wait.

Somewhere along the line, in her seemingly-endless waiting, she had dozed off again, fading in and out of consciousness. An alarm sounded, in the far reaches of her sleep-induced haze, screaming at her, however distant, wake up.

She stirred, but did not awaken.

She did not dream—not totally, at least. If she did dream, it was only muddled sensory input from her environment. Mumbled words, dim light, indefinite shadows. Nothing that could give her any idea of how much time was passing.

Wake up…

At times, she grew cold. When she could register her body shivering, there would be a gentle pull over her skin, a gentle weight resting on her body, and she would grow warm once more.

Wake up!

The alarm grew closer, yet she did not—could not—follow its warning. There was a sense that something was wrong, that she should not be as comfortable (or complacent) as she was. Yet, the claws of sleep kept her pinned to where she was, stopping her from ever reaching full consciousness.

A shadow loomed over her, alerting her of her environment, of the layout of the room in which she rested. Closing in on her, she could feel the space warping around her, rushing her until there was nowhere left to go.

YONA, WAKE UP!

With a snap, she tore through the fogginess of sleep, forcing herself back into the waking world around her. Her breathing was erratic, her heart pounding in her chest, and—if only it weren’t true—she was back in the room she had found herself in earlier.

Night had fallen.

With a twinge of distaste, she chastised herself for sleeping for the entire day—especially when she knew she wasn’t safe. As much as her body couldn’t help it, she should have been more focused on not falling asleep. Particularly when she was in the arms of the man who brought her there.

But, to her relief, he was nowhere to be found. The only sign that he had been there at all was the blanket that was draped over her.

Wriggling as if her life depended on it—which, for all she knew, it did—she tried to find a position in which she could bring her arms in front of her, shaking the blanket off in the process. With adrenaline coursing through her body, she forced herself onto her back, using her legs and shoulders to anchor herself as she tried to lift her body off the ground.

At least I still have arms, she thought, although she wished she hadn’t.

After fumbling around with her own limbs for about a minute, she came to the conclusion that it was useless from that angle. While she had a lot of faith in her physical strength, her flexibility was a different story. It would probably take popping her arms out of their sockets to get out of those bindings.

Laying on her side once more, she couldn’t stop her thoughts from taking the negative point of view. In her situation, it was unlikely that she would get out of there any time soon. And, with what little she could remember of the events leading up to her kidnapping, she wasn’t on good enough terms with Jin to play up to his ideals of her.

“I’ll fucking kill you.”

Ugh, why did she say that? In hindsight, she cringed at her words, wishing she knew better. If her damn pride didn’t always get in the way, she probably could have avoided about three-quarters of this mess.

Approaching footsteps pulled her out of her thoughts, and she froze, her eyes searching frantically for the door. In a moment of clarity within her panicked state, she thought it best to close her eyes, pretending to be asleep. After all, she had been asleep all day, it wasn’t that much of a stretch to still be sleeping.

Squeezing her eyes shut, barely a second passed before the doors slid open, and someone stepped inside, poisoning the room’s energy with their own.

It could only be Jin.

Whether it was Jin, or some specter approaching her, she couldn’t entirely differentiate between the two. He was moving closer, she could tell, but he wasn’t making any noise. If he was kind-hearted, she would have attributed it to he doesn’t want to wake me , but she knew that wasn’t the case.

The presence was closing in, yet she forced herself to remain completely still, to only breathe slowly, and give no indication that she was awake.

Icy fingers brushed her bangs out of her face, taking care to brush against the scar that was etched into her face. Instinctively, she shivered.

“Yona, dear…” Even without looking at him, she could hear the smile in his voice. The same smile that was pulling, distorting all of his features, as if it was the most unnatural thing for him to be doing. It was a smile that revealed the monster she had grown accustomed to. “It is time to wake up.”

If she didn’t know any better, she would call that tone a coo, but she did know better, and refused to acknowledge it as something that gentle. His voice was soft, but his intentions were clear.

Slowly opening her eyes, she glanced sidelong at him, unwilling to look directly at his face just yet.

“My, you must have been quite exhausted,” he clicked his tongue, as if talking to a child that napped for too long. “Come, dear. I recognize that you are rather fatigued, but you must eat.”

Food… How long had it been since she had eaten? Judging by the hollow feeling in her core, it had been quite a while. As much as she wanted to defy him, to not do as he said, she knew that she wouldn’t get anywhere if she didn’t have the energy she needed.

Gently— too gently, she thought—he grabbed her by the shoulders, and slowly sat her up. It was the first time she had been upright since she had entered that nightmare, her head spinning slightly from the change.

His fingers caressed her cheek, his mismatched eyes searching her features. If she looked half as bad as she felt, she couldn’t imagine that she was the picture of health. Now that she was sitting up, the pounding in her head returned, harsher than before, and the nauseating emptiness of her stomach was forcing itself to the forefront of her attention.

As he cupped her cheek, he turned his head over his shoulder. Yona hadn’t seen—or cared about—the boy standing at the threshold of the room.

“Bring us our dinner. We shall dine in here.”

“Yes, Master Kage,” he said, his voice trembling slightly. As much as he had tried to hide it, he couldn’t completely mask the fear. Bowing, he shut the door, his footsteps retreating. Jin returned his gaze to her, his eyes settling on her face with an unnatural warmth.

So it’s just you and me.

“How are you feeling, my dear?” he asked, almost sounding like a doting husband. This, however, did nothing to ease the panic building up in her mind. Despite her efforts to push through the fear, to give him an answer— anything, just say something —she couldn’t come up with anything. Frowning slightly, he answered in her place. “As I thought, you are feeling rather poorly?”

At this, she could at least provide an answer.

“… Yes,” she croaked, the first words her throat had made in quite some time. Concern—if you could call it that—pulled at his features, and he placed his hand against her forehead, checking for fever. Although, under his touch, she was sure she was ice-cold.

As she watched his expression—far too caring for someone such as him—memories from their prior conversation bubbled up in her mind.

“Because… I don’t think this is who you actually want to be.”

Those words had broken the façade, if only for a moment. In her efforts to understand his reasoning—as warped and ugly as it may be—she had broken through. Yet, in the time that followed, he had seemed to seal himself off from her even more, snuffing out his humanity as one would extinguish a candle.

As much as she hated to admit it, even to herself, this “caring” façade that he was wearing was better than his violent side. It was possible that she could use it to her advantage, maybe negotiate with him.

But was she really in a position to negotiate ?

A new memory emerged within her mind, overshadowing the moment of humanity he had, an abyss a mile deep. His eyes, crazed, unfeeling, completely murderous, and a sea of red across the lower half of his face. Her throat burned, the distinct feeling of her windpipe being crushed coming back.

It was as if he was making up for the ground he lost with this act of his. The kind-hearted, doting Se Jin juxtaposing the shadow of the murderous Kage. Now that she had seen the monster within—and the human, for that matter—it was much harder to buy into any of his so-called “good intentions”.

His servant from earlier—perhaps one of his goons, considering he called him Kage and not Se Jin —announced his presence, and brought in their dinner. As he set the tray down, his eyes caught Yona’s, for just a moment.

He was afraid.

Before she could do anything, he left the two of them behind to eat their meal.

As she currently lacked the function of her arms, she wondered how she was going to go about this. A thought bubbled up, forcing its way into her stream of consciousness: Jin will continue to play the role of doting husband, and feed her.

“Yona, darling, say ‘aah’.

She shuddered at the thought, quickly followed by I’d rather die, thanks.

However, he went against her previous expectations in one of the most unexpected ways possible. Standing, he moved behind her, out of her view.

“Do not move,” he ordered, his tone still soft, but not as coddling as it was before. She obeyed, although she couldn’t entirely place why. The bindings around her wrists moved slightly, loosening, and, before she knew it, she was free. Even more to her surprise, he moved to the bindings around her ankles, as well.

Slowly moving her fingers, forcing the feeling back into them, she held her wrist where it had been bound, the red line still etched into her skin.

He had given her back the option to run. Surely he knew that.

Right?

For a few stunned moments, she didn’t do anything, only watched him as he returned to his seat opposite her, picking up the teapot before him, pouring both of them a cup of tea.

“There, now you may eat on your own,” he stated, completely casual despite their circumstances.

“You…?” Her mind couldn’t keep up, still struggling to wrap itself around his actions. Picking up his bowl of rice and chopsticks, he gazed at her.

“Eat, my dear.” Despite the honeyed words, his mannerisms did not match up. He seemed… too neutral.

Well, how can I say no?

If she ran, could she even make it out of that building alive? She had no idea where she was, what the layout was… for that matter, she didn’t even know if she was still in Awa. Besides, she was too hungry and too thirsty to do much of anything at the moment. The least she could do was get some of her energy back.

With enough feeling back into her fingers for fine motor control, she picked up the bowl of rice in front of her, and her chopsticks, slowly moving various other ingredients into her bowl.

Carefully, she took a bite of fish, as she didn’t totally trust Jin. He wasn’t above poisoning her, she figured, but was so hungry that she didn’t entirely care, either way. Flavor exploded in her mouth, and she didn’t realize how much she had missed food until that moment.

Setting her bowl down, she took a sip of tea, the warm liquid soothing her dry, cracked throat. Forgetting herself, she sighed contentedly after she swallowed. Jin was gazing at her from across the tray, an odd smile on his lips.

“I am glad you are enjoying it.”

Of course I’m enjoying it, you maniac.

Thankfully, she didn’t actually say that, although she was tempted. Instead, she ate slowly, keeping a close eye on her physical condition, in case he did try to poison her.

As she ate, the image of his crazed, unsettled gaze returned to her mind. It was in that moment that he had become completely unhinged. Yet, there she was, eating dinner with him as if the whole thing had never happened.

Glancing up, her eyes landed on his nose. A little swollen, but not broken. Pity, she thought. Stuffing another piece of fish into her mouth to fight off a satisfied grin, she returned her eyes to the floor.

“If you wish to have more, you need only ask,” he offered, setting his bowl down to take another sip of his tea. However, his offer only served to unnerve her further. Eyes flashing towards his, he met her gaze with a neutral look. “You do not trust me, I see.”

Why should I? While she was sure it was clearly written across her face, she didn’t feel entirely brave enough to say it aloud.

Jin’s face twisted into an amused smile, the shadows from the lanterns dancing across his features.

“I have no intention to poison you, if that is what you are concerning yourself with.” Did he always have to be such a damned mind-reader? His word, however, meant little to her. Another memory resurfaced—the most recent, she assumed—a group of his men surrounding them.

Hadn’t he promised not to hurt Jae Ha or Soo Won? Look at how far that had gotten them. He was a master of sly smiles and smooth words, so his promise of worry not, my dear, that food is not poisoned—by all means, eat up fell on deaf ears.

For that matter, did those two make it out of there alive? Had Jin’s men hurt them? Or had they been able to fight their way against nearly impossible odds?

A small smile formed on Yona’s lips. No, she thought, they’re alive.

Both of their fighting skills were nothing to scoff at. That much, she knew for certain. Jae Ha had gone against much worse—she could remember how he had taken on a full crew of men during their raid of Kumji’s ships—and Soo Won, well…

As much as she hated to remember it, he had been able to fend off Hak on the night of her sixteenth birthday. Even at eighteen years old, he had managed it.

They were alive, and that realization brought a solid relief to her. Although, in the case of her own situation, she didn’t nearly feel as sure. In fact, the sheer amount that she didn’t know was staggering. How long had she been there? Where was she? Why hadn’t Jin done anything to her?

Yet?

As much as she hated it, that one word unsettled her more than anything. He hadn’t hurt her yet , he hadn’t poisoned her yet , he hadn’t killed her yet .

What did he want with her, anyway? What good was she to him?

Taking a sip of her tea, she swallowed slowly, raising her eyes to her warden. He was already looking at her, as if aware of her rising doubts. Yet, he was not smiling. In an odd way, he almost seemed exhausted, too.

“… How long was I asleep?” she asked, her voice unnaturally gentle. Despite all the time that had passed, she still couldn’t shake their first full night from her mind. All the rules, all the consequences . However, Jin’s face did not contort in one way or another. Instead, he kept an unusually neutral expression.

Her eyes unwavering, she came to realize something, although she could hardly believe it.

He was cautious of her, too.

“Three days,” he answered, not bothering to attempt to charm her. If anything, his lack of persona had unnerved her more than any mask he had put on.

Three days?! The words sent her heart lurching, but she forced herself to remain calm.

The heaviness of her body… the doubt drifted into her mind, shrouding her thoughts. There was no conceivable way she could have naturally slept for three days.

“Did you--?” she almost asked, but stopped herself. There was something vaguely dangerous about the question. Swallowing again, in a fruitless attempt to relieve the dryness in her throat, she forced herself to say it, “Did you drug me?”

The two of them were quiet, eyes never shifting away from one another. If she blinked, it felt like she would lose some unspoken battle. Fighting off the dryness in her eyes, she kept her gaze even, refusing to concede to him until she got an answer.

“It seems you have already found that answer yourself, have you not?” he asked, surprisingly cold. Narrowing her eyes, she finally blinked, but did not look away.

“With what?” Her voice was becoming harder; she was regaining her courage.

Jin moved his eyes to the cup before him, and took it into his hands, as if weighing the tea along with his answer.

“With what ?”

“Tell me, my dear,” he began, the smallest of smiles playing at his lips as his gaze finally returned to her. “Have you heard of the drug that has been ravaging the Water Tribe?”

She had. Oh gods, had she. They had even made a trip down to the Water Tribe once they caught wind of it, themselves. She had seen the effects of it with her own two eyes, what the addicts looked and acted like.

Nadai , she thought, stiffening.

“I have.”

“The amount was only very slight, I assure you.” So he said, but she wasn’t exactly confident. “Such a narcotic is unfitting for Her Highness, after all.”

Patience thin, she lowered her eyes, her brow furrowing. How much longer was she going to have to deal with this whole problem? How much longer was she going to have to deal with him ?

“Jin,” she spoke, her voice deeper than it had been around him in a while. “What do you want with me?”

But he didn’t answer.

“What do you want ?!” she growled, eyes flashing towards his. He had kidnapped her, drugged her, forced himself on her— what next?! Was he planning on raping her while he was at it, or was he just going to slit her throat and call it a day?

Part of her wished he would just kill her already.

“Why do you need me ?” Gritting her teeth, she dug her nails into her palms. It was taking all of her self-control to hold back from throwing his bowl at his face. Self-control, as well as self-preservation.

The fear won out in the end. What would happen to her if she attacked him?

She had already done it once, and this is what happened. If she did it again… he wouldn’t let her go so easily.

Nor would he kill her. He’d make the rest of her living days miserable, but he would not kill her.

“Just let me go,” she whispered, almost afraid that he would hear her.

By the time the meal had ended, Yona had been on the verge of tears. Jin, despite his usual chatty games, said nothing the entire time, only delicately ate his meal. After about two more tries, attempting to get even the smallest answer from him, only to receive nothing in return, she gave up.

How much more of this could she take? Very little.

Once she had finished eating—she couldn’t stand the thought of eating any more—he had stood, and approached her, kneeling by her side. She didn’t bother to look him in the eye.

Part of her braced herself for him to touch her. Tensing, as if his hands were already on her, she kept her gaze focused on the floor, her back to him.

Yet, he did not touch her.

“What do you want?” Folding her arms across her stomach, she hugged herself. She was still fighting off the remnants of the drugs, her body far too heavy, and far too fatigued.

Jin did not answer immediately, and his silence was far more grating than his voice had ever been. Frustrated, she quickly turned, her vision blurring.

What?!” she cried, her patience—and her sanity—waning.

I can’t cry. Not here. Not in front of him.

Tears did not fall, but they flooded her vision, and she knew it was obvious. Yet, in her blindness—rage, desperation, fear—she found a moment of clarity.

The look on his face was the same from three nights before.

“I don’t think this is who you want to be.”

When she had made her appeal to him later that evening, it had been useless. But now that they were alone again, did he remember it?

His eyes, reflecting a distant sadness, focused on her face, empty and dull. Yet, there was a strangely dreamy quality to them, as if he could hardly believe she was there at all.

Who hurt you so deeply? The thought wormed its way into her mind, but she refused to answer it, even hypothetically. He wasn’t the sort who deserved kindness, not when he had hurt so many others.

Could it have ended up differently? No… it couldn’t have, could it? It was if this was his nature.

As if without thinking, he raised his hand to her cheek, grazing it ever so slightly. Despite the roughness of his hands, the gesture was ultimately gentle. Slowly, his empty eyes raised, meeting hers.

A broken man stared at her, eyes wavering in the lantern light. There was something desperate about them; a deep, almost imperceptible pain.

An ounce of sympathy poisoned her mind, a light that she quickly snuffed out.

This man was a murderer. He had killed people in front of her . She couldn’t just accept one sad look for repentance. For all she knew, this was just another one of his mind games, meant to draw her in.

“Don’t.” Her voice came out sharp, a last warning shot before the artillery began.

With that, he seemed to become aware of himself again. The empty wells of his eyes filled, a dark miasma overcoming him. Withdrawing his hand, he leaned back, and stood.

The look he gave her next topped them all.

Looking down on her, a mix of pure loathing and absolute adoration, he sneered. She was nothing more than a bug, but she was his entire world, practically divine. Somewhere, deep in her mind, she felt as if he was doing all of this for her sake, as if she wanted this.

“I’ll ask one more time,” she started, her voice sharp, as if she had any right to negotiate with him. “What do you want with me?”

One of those typical smiles morphed into place. This one, however, was far more poisonous than any other he had given her.

“You wished to know why I turned away from humanity, my dear?” he asked, his tone dripping with irritation, as if talking to an unruly child. When Yona didn’t reply, his eyes narrowed. “I have no desire to acquaint myself with humanity as it is now.”

Scrambling to stand, she ignored the screaming fatigue in her limbs, and the pins and needles that shot through them. She was not about to have this conversation at his feet.

“Humanity is filthy, petty, and utterly detestable,” he continued, taking a step towards her. It was the first time she was standing in three days, which made her sway slightly.

“And you’re not?” she asked, against her better judgment. Jin’s eyes narrowed at her, and he took another step forward, looming over her. Although she had no desire to, she took a step back.

“’This is not who you wish to be’, that is what you said to me, correct?” His voice was unfeeling, completely without warmth, or humanity. “Quite presumptuous of you, I must say.” Taking another step back, her eyes never left his, the quagmire of his emotions finally surfacing. They were ugly, all of them. They were hardly human.

“Then why answer the question, if I was so wrong?” Desperation was creeping into her voice, her hands shaking, her legs losing feeling except for the pins and needles.

“Oh, it is not that you are incorrect , per se,” he smiled, twisted and wrong and without an ounce of humanity. “It is that you are nearly correct.”

“’Nearly’?” she asked, her throat tightening.

“My dear, I have, for the overwhelming majority of individuals that I meet, very little to say or feel. They are the same as everyone else: practically faceless, without distinguishing features, simply another person.” As he explained, she finally understood how he viewed the world, if only by a margin. However, she could also hear that there was an exception to this mass of people. It was all she could do to hope she was wrong about who the exception was .

Attempting to take another step back, she was stopped when he grabbed her chin, forcing her forward. Once again, she met his gaze, only to be met with an inhuman level of apathy, with one little glimmer of warmth—if you could call it that.

“You’re crazy,” she managed, but he only scoffed at her.

“Why I require you , my dear, is simply the solution to your earlier question.”

An image forced its way into her mind, pushing all her other memories out of the way. She had seen this once before, when they were first spending the evening together, during their interrogation, but she had been so afraid of it, she had never wanted to remember it.

Kouka, brought to its knees by another coup, Jin, rising as a phoenix, above it. It was a kingdom that would wipe out its enemies, and then its own civilians.

But he couldn’t do it alone, could he?

No, of course not. Perhaps that was why he had focused on her.

She was the Queen to his King, the most powerful chess piece that he needed. Without her, he might as well forfeit his little game.

“Let go of me!” Squirming, she swatted his hand away, immediately making room between them. Bristling, she glared at him, the inferno within her eyes a mix of rage and fear. “Whatever you want me to do, I won’t do it.”

“Oh, but Yona, dear,” he cooed, his voice patronizing, poisonous. “If you were unwilling, then why did you ever wish to know more about me?” With a deep laugh, he took a step towards her, making up for lost distance. “You have had a certain look in your eyes several times, my dear. You, as much as you may loathe to admit it, have developed some feelings towards me.”

“I haven’t —”

“There is no use denying it, my dear,” he cut her off. She couldn’t tell if he was just saying it to get to her, or if he actually believed it, but he sent her into her head.

Do I?

Even for a split second, the doubt was enough. She couldn’t deny his assumption with confidence. Why did she care? A monster was a monster— she had been the one to push humanity onto him.

With an easy smile, he reached towards her, slow, steady, as if she were a frightened animal. “There is no need to fight it.”

Panic shot through her body, her mind charging into overdrive. Fear and confusion broke through first, sending rush after rush of adrenaline through her mind, her body. Was that why? Was that why she had felt so strange? So broken ? What was the truth? She couldn’t say for certain.

Taking another step back, her head reeling, she tried to come to terms with herself. No, the rational part of her mind screamed over the din, you don’t! You could never have feelings for this monster!

But there was another part—quiet, but still heard—that fought it. But… if any other man treated you that way, you wouldn’t stand for it. So why him?

Heart pounding, the room began to spin, her head completely reeling. Whether it was the adrenaline, the poison he most likely put in the food, or the rage, she wasn’t sure. She couldn’t place anything anymore. Taking another step back, she hit the wooden wall, the only stable thing in her life.

Yet, Jin closed the distance between them, leaning his arm against the wall near her head, sidling up to her. Her breath caught, then quickened, to the point of hyperventilation.

“Fret not. Your feelings are not unrequited.”

Her heart lurched, feeling as if it would stop, as she raised her eyes to meet his. Two sets of hollow, emotionless eyes met one another, the exchange so intimate, she immediately felt sick. Her mind was a flurry of emotions, blind cacophony that was screeching, yet incomprehensible.

“No--” A pitiful whimper was all she could manage before he took her chin into his hand, tilting her face upwards. With shaking hands, she tried to move his hand away, to push him, to shove him, anything , but it wasn’t enough.

It would never be enough.

As the realization settled on her, weighing her down, her empty eyes filled with tears. It never would be enough, would it? Deep down, part of her felt as if she had known that for quite some time.

“Yona,” he breathed, his voice mimicking something tender. In the lantern light, his icy blue eye sparkled, reflecting some deep, unspoken emotion. She had never seen anything so hideous in her life.

The last of her walls finally broke, crumbling into dust under his icy gaze. The tears escaped, trailing down her cheeks, months and months of fear finally catching up to her, breaking her down.

His lips grazed against hers, and he spoke, but she only registered the way his breath mingled with hers. He spoke briefly, only three words, but it fell on deaf ears. As he leaned back, ever so slightly-- met with hollow eyes, tear-stained cheeks-- he sighed, content.

His eyes closed as he leaned closer once more, his hand working itself into her knotted, matted hair. Firmly pressing his lips against hers once more, she went rigid under his touch, her dull eyes never closing in the unrequited bliss of the moment.

In his arms, with nowhere else to go, she only had a single option.

In her exhausted state-- physical, mental, emotional-- she saw her option, one that would have been out of the question a week prior.

As Jin broke the kiss, infecting the air around her with another smile, she accepted that option.

In that moment, Yona gave up.

The next morning came, bearing the same sense of unease and disgust, with little to no hope for the future. Despite the morning light filtering in through the window, when Yona’s eyes opened, she felt no more hope than she had the night before.

Once again, Jin’s arm was draped over her while he slept, a weight that-- although it was strictly physical-- she knew she wouldn’t shake off for quite some time. Having full knowledge of who he was, what he was capable of, of what he had done… and yet, there she was, cuddled against him.

Although, it was hardly by choice.

While she wasn’t bound with rope this time, she did seem to be bound by some emotional barrier. As she lay there, motionless, in his arms, there was an undeniable heaviness to her being. As it was, she didn’t have the energy to even sit up, or shake his arm off of her.

For four days, she had been there.

Would she be there for the rest of her life? Would he ultimately end it prematurely? She couldn’t say anything for certain. Particularly when it came to her feelings regarding him.

“You, as much as you may loathe to admit it, have developed some feelings towards me.”

She still couldn’t form a reply to that accusation; not a coherent one, anyway. Almost desperately, yet with a noticeable weariness, she searched her mind for answers, for any clear emotion—one way or another.

Although her emotions were still too much of a mess to handle, she knew one thing for certain: he had finally gotten to her, and had finally settled inside her head.

Four days, and this was the second time she had woken up in his arms, only this time, she had much more emotional turmoil about her circumstances than she had before.

Disgust wormed its way into her consciousness once again, its self-deprecating nature giving her thoughts a certain bite. You could leave, but you don’t, you worthless piece of shit, they said, their oppressive miasma overshadowing the rest of her thoughts.

You’re right, she thought back. That’s all I am.

What would those two -- fragments of memories floated towards the forefront of her mind, her memories of Jae Ha and Soo Won-- think of you if they saw you like this?

Well, it certainly wouldn’t be flattering, as far as she could figure. There she was, sleeping with the enemy, unable to quantify her emotions regarding him, to define their relationship.

Jin stirred in his sleep, his arm tightening around her waist, pulling her closer to him. With no other alternative, she let him. At least her back was to him.

At multiple times throughout the night, she had woken up, her mind screaming at her to claw, kick, punch, do anything to get away from him. He was asleep, she would have that advantage over him. But she never could. The most she had done was sit up and stare at him, her eyes hollow.

Even that hadn’t lasted long.

While another part of her mind-- quieter, more timid-- had tried to reason with her, claimed that being on his side wasn’t so bad, she never ended up listening to that argument, either. There was nothing she could do-- good or bad or otherwise.

Jin stirred again, but she could tell just by the way his hand trailed over her abdomen, the way he shifted, the way his breathing changed, he was awake. She didn’t bother to address him, nor did she attempt to hide the fact that she was awake, too.

“Good morning, my dear,” he mumbled, his voice still heavy with sleep. He began to brush her hair away from her face, slowly, meticulously. Eventually, once the obstacle had been cleared, he pressed a gentle kiss to her shoulder.

Yona didn’t react, nor did she respond. However, this didn’t seem to bother him, not in the slightest.

A thought bubbled up, blooming until it overtook the rest of her mind. She imagined reaching back, digging her nails into his eye sockets, and ripping her hands out, soaked in his blood. At least then, his eyes would never stare at her again.

It didn’t take much to convince her body not to follow through. Although she did allow herself to indulge in the mental image.

Finally, she turned to face him. He was lounging on his side, gazing at her with a twisted sort of admiration, his head propped up with his hand. A small smile pulled at his lips. To her surprise, she thought it was one of the most natural she had ever seen on him. He looked particularly more rested, although the long-term fatigue was still evident in his eyes.

“You slept well, I hope,” he cooed, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, his fingers caressing her cheek in the process. Averting her gaze, she turned her head away slightly.

“I did,” she lied. Slowly, she raised her eyes to meet his, searching his scar-ridden face. With an easy smile—she recognized this persona, but wasn’t particularly fond of it-- he gazed down at her.

“Why do you look upon me with such saddened eyes, my dear?” As if it was the most natural thing in the world, he began to comb his fingers through her hair, gently untangling it. Her stomach lurched, only slightly.

She weighed her words carefully, trying to pinpoint exactly what she wanted to say.

Was it even worth trying to reason with him?

That pessimistic side of her responded with a resounding no . The optimistic side was nowhere to be found.

Before she could answer, a soft voice came from the other side of the door.

“Master Kage,” they said, “may I come in?”

“Enter,” he responded, pulling on yet another mask. It never failed to surprise her when he switched so easily between his different personas.

Sitting up, he wrapped the blanket around her, as if protecting her from the roaming eyes of his subordinates. She was already decent-- having fallen asleep in her clothes-- so she didn’t see the need, but she wasn’t about to argue with him.

His subordinate entered shortly after, the same one as the night prior. Apparently, this was the errand boy. Bearing a tray with two servings of food, he set it carefully on the floor before his boss, and his boss’s lover.

At least, that’s how it seemed to him.

“Once you have finished your breakfast, Master Kage, you have a meeting to attend.”

“Very well. I shall be there as soon as possible.”

At his words, a small sprout of an idea emerged in Yona’s mind.

He was leaving. He hadn’t given an order about bringing in someone to watch her, either, so… she would be alone, wouldn’t she? Even if he ordered someone to watch her later, that could not stop the light of hope from spreading throughout the abyss of her mind.

He was leaving .

This was her chance.

After his servant left, and they began to eat their breakfast, her mind was working faster than it had in some time. The timing of this was perfect-- almost too perfect-- but it was her chance. For the first time since waking up in his headquarters, she knew what she wanted, and she had hope of achieving it.

Her mind weighed every possibility, every obstacle, every outcome. Best-case scenario, she was still in Awa and could escape back to the ship in a timely manner. Worst-case scenario… well, she acknowledged it, but didn’t want to think about it for too long, in fear of losing her nerve.

As they ate, neither spoke. There were a few moments where she had been tempted to say something, perhaps to alleviate some of the tension that had built up in the room, but eventually decided against it.

Once he finished, Jin set his bowl down and sighed, looking a little torn-up about not being able to stay with her.

“I do apologize, but I have business to attend to,” he explained, standing slowly. Walking over to her, he leaned down, and placed a kiss on her forehead, followed by one to her cheek. “I shall return before too long, my dear.”

“Okay,” she replied, trying her best not to sound too happy about it. He gave her one last smile, his face reflecting that twisted admiration once again, before turning and heading for the door. Thinking quickly, she scrambled to her feet, rushing over to him. “Jin, wait.”

The thought disgusted her, but she figured it would better her chances of escaping undetected. As he turned, she was already within arm’s length of him, all it took was one final step. With a swift movement, she cupped his cheek with her hand, and tilted his face down, pressing her lips against his, her eyes closing briefly.

He went rigid under her touch-- perhaps she had surprised him-- but he quickly relaxed. Breaking the kiss, she stared up at him, smiling shyly before burying her head into his shoulder.

“Come back soon, okay?” she mumbled, surprised that she could even manage that meek tone. His hand caressed her jawline, urging her to look back up at him, and, to her surprise, his cheeks were rosy.

She actually flustered him. That wasn’t part of the plan.

“Yona, my dear, you make it so difficult to leave you behind,” he cooed.

You better leave, she thought.

“I shall return soon,” he promised, his voice sounding strangely genuine. With one last look-- affectionate, but not quite-- he turned and exited the room.

Wiping her mouth with her sleeve, her face melted into an expression of pure hatred, and disgust. Now that he had left the room, her thoughts were beginning to take on a new sense of autonomy, one without his influence.

Everything he had said was a lie, and she knew it for certain. While there may have been shreds of truth, it was not enough.

She could analyze her own feelings towards him once she was out of there.

Busying herself with trying to tame the mess that was her hair-- four days without a brush was like a new circle of hell for hair like hers-- she waited until he was surely in his meeting before attempting her escape.

Sure enough, he never sent anyone to watch her.

Listening at the door for any sort of movement, she was only met with silence. Slowly, she slid the door open, half-expecting to be met with some stony-faced guard. However, the farther she slid the door open, the more apparent it became that she was completely alone.

Her luck was finally beginning to turn around. Maybe that act had been worth it, after all.

Rushing back towards the window, she gazed out at the scenery, relief rushing through her when she recognized it as Awa. She could make it back to the port, tell the crew where the hideout was, all perhaps before he even knew she was gone.

Quietly, she slipped into the hallway, sliding the door closed. There was still no sign of anyone—perhaps they were all in that meeting? With cautious steps, she padded down the hallway, only hoping to find an exit without alerting someone of her presence.

As she wound down the twisting hallways and pathways, she began to piece together information about where she was. It was certainly a type of manor, although it seemed to be poorly managed, which only pointed to it being a temporary residence. Perfect for the headquarters of a human trafficker, she supposed.

Eventually, she reached the front of the manor, the only thing standing between her and the rest of Awa being a pair of large, wooden doors. Taking one last look around, she made a mad dash to the gate, desperately pulling at the handle.

For a split second, they didn’t budge, and she feared the worst. As the panic began to take over her body, she pulled harder, and they finally began to move. Hope and relief rushed her, almost making her light-headed, but she persisted, pulling until there was a gap large enough for her to squeeze through.

As soon as her feet passed the threshold, she broke into a sprint, convinced that if she slowed down for even a moment, Jin would appear, and make her life completely and utterly miserable.

Smoke drifted easily around him, his pipe resting against his lips, turned upwards into a knowing smile. He watched the young woman run from the manor, running as if her very life depended on it.

Which, for all she knew, it did .

“She’s getting away, Master Kage!” one of his subordinates cried, frustrated. They were having a meeting, but he knew she would figure some way out. Not that he made it particularly difficult.

“So she is,” he replied easily, not a care in the world. That little show she put on before he left still weighed on his mind, polluting his thoughts. Some strange, unidentifiable emotion was nagging at him, but he ignored it.

“What will we do, Master?” another faceless subordinate asked.

“Well, someone allowed her to get away.” Standing, he set his pipe down, and unsheathed his dagger, the morning light reflecting on the blade. “Would any of you care to step forward, and claim responsibility for this misstep?” He was met with silence, although their fear was obvious. “No? Very well, then.”

Stepping forward to the one he had last interacted with-- the one who had brought them their meals-- he smiled, his eyes completely void of emotion. With one swift motion, he plunged the dagger into the boy’s throat, watching his eyes bulge with surprise. He continued to force the dagger through until its hilt collided with his skin, then removed it, and plunged it in again.

“Any more mistakes such as this one,” he said easily, removing the dagger, flicking it to remove the blood from its blade, “and I shall not be as forgiving as I was this time.”

Returning to the window, he didn’t turn when he heard the boy’s body slump to the floor. The young woman was already out of sight.

“Now then, you all know what you must do. Do not make me repeat myself.”

“Yes, Master Kage!” they all shouted in unison, rushing out of the room.

Once he was alone, he pressed two fingers to his lips, cherishing the lingering sensation of the Princess’ kiss.

“YONA!!!” The single cry from the deck of the ship quickly turned into many, everyone rushing to the edge of the deck in hopes of catching a glimpse of their returning second mate. Jae Ha, however, wasted no time in jumping down to the dock to meet her halfway, immediately wrapping his arms around her, pressing her against his chest.

“You’re alive,” he breathed, his voice shaking. Wrapping her arms around his waist, she buried her head into his shoulders. It only took mere moments for her emotions to take control, overwhelming her, drowning her. Taking in a deep, shuddering breath, the tears forced their way out, her nails grabbing at his clothes, seeking any support she could gather.

A heartbreaking howl tore its way through her throat as she buried her head against his chest, her whole body quaking with each sob, again and again, showing no signs of ending.

Jae Ha, who had barely slept the entire time she was missing, joined her, his sobbing silenced by hers.

The rest of the crew, including Soo Won, watched from the deck of the ship, hesitant to come between the first and second mates, their hearts breaking as they wept. The crew would have their time, but for the moment, they knew that to interrupt the moment would be more detrimental than anything else.

At least five minutes passed, Jae Ha and Yona holding onto each other for dear life, each heartbeat chipping away only an ounce of their anxiety at a time. They were slowly regaining their composure, although it was no easy task. The crew waited patiently, all their duties put on hold.

Slowly, they disentangled themselves, at least partially, and began to walk back to the ship, each with an arm around the other, as if they couldn’t stand without that support.

Finally, they joined the rest of the crew on the deck, and all it took was one look from her crewmates to make her break into tears once more. However, these tears were mainly fueled by relief, and it showed in the smile she gave them. Moving towards them, she opened her arms, welcoming anyone and everyone to embrace her.

Soo Won, for one, wasn’t about to let this opportunity slide. He was practically first in line. Wrapping his arms around her small frame, he could feel her shaking, and his heart broke for her.

If he—or Jae Ha, for that matter—ever saw the bastard that did this to her again, he would slaughter him. This had gone on for far too long.

The other crewmates quickly joined them in their hug, piling into one giant group-hug, trapping Soo Won inside. Making a small choking sound at the force, it quickly turned to light laughter as he glanced over the heads of the crew, meeting Jae Ha’s eyes. As they made eye contact, his face fell, the seriousness of the situation becoming clear.

There was a silent agreement between them. They would never let Kage take Yona again, much less let him approach her. Despite the puffiness in Jae Ha’s eyes, the intent was clear: he would protect her with his own life if it came down to it.

“I’m back, everyone,” she managed, her voice strained, but they could tell she was smiling. The crew responded by calling her name, the sheer volume of it mimicking a war cry. Soo Won smiled to himself, thinking that if Geun Tae’s men had heard that crew, they would have a run for their money.

Once everyone had collected themselves, and all the crying had stopped (which took much longer than anyone was willing to admit), Gi Gan called an emergency crew meeting to discuss what had taken place over the past five days.

The first order of business was to send men to Kage’s hideout. During her escape, Yona had taken note of a few key landmarks, and drew out a map for her crewmates to follow. A small group of them were to leave immediately to investigate.

After the small group—consisting of Kija, Shin Ah, and a few others—had left, Yona explained all she knew (or rather, what she was willing to admit to the crewmates) about Kage, or, as she knew him, Jin. Keeping her chin up high, she explained the night in the brothel, running into him at the marketplace, and finally, what had taken place the night she had disappeared.

“But where have you been the last four days?” Ryou asked, no doubt speaking for the rest of the crew. Swallowing hard, she glanced at Jae Ha and Soo Won, who looked no more eager to hear this story than she was to tell it.

“Hey, why don’t you let her have a few days first?” Jae Ha spoke up, leaning back easily. Relief rushed through her, and she silently thanked him for stepping up for her. “She knows where his hideout is. Isn’t that enough?”

There were some unenthusiastic comments—but understanding, all the same—and the crew backed off.

Thinking the meeting was over, she moved to stand, ready for bed, despite it only being the early afternoon, but Gi Gan stopped her, extending her arm across Yona’s torso, hindering her movement.

“Hold on.” Narrowing her eyes at her young apprentice, Gi Gan forced Yona to sit back down, pointing her pipe at the elephant in the room: Soo Won. “You owe us another explanation.”

Soo Won straightened his posture, his expression icy. With dull eyes, he gazed at the Captain, knowing that she had only waited out of respect for her first mate, knowing he was less welcome on that ship than he had ever been before.

“I am willing to speak in her place, Captain,” he said, his diplomatic nature overtaking him, his voice steady.

“Charming, but no.” Lighting her pipe, she gave Yona a sidelong glance, waiting to hear it from her mouth. “You keep your mouth shut, Your Majesty .” Locking eyes with the King, he didn’t shrink away from the Captain’s gaze. At the very least, he would leave with his dignity.

Yona was in deep shit now, and they all knew it. The least she could do was be honest about it.

“I guess I should start at the beginning, then,” she said, with a surprising calmness to her voice. Raising her gaze, she looked at the crew with the same icy diplomacy that the King held in his eyes. It wasn’t until that moment that they realized that their first mate was much more connected with the King than they were aware.

Start at the beginning, she did. She told the story of how she had seen Soo Won kill her father on the night of her sixteenth birthday, how she only witnessed it out of a fluke, but had to flee the castle with Hak, all the same.

As she told her story, the crewmates listened with a respectful seriousness, most of them hearing all the details for the first time. Jae Ha had always been the only one who really knew everything. Even then, there had been aspects of her past that she hadn’t shared with him.

When she explained how Hak had fallen to his death, all the while trying to save her, Soo Won could feel the judgmental glare of the crew resting on him. In his defense, he hadn’t known about those details until just a little while ago, when this whole mess had started, but he kept his mouth shut.

Finally, she skipped to the present, the night when she met Soo Won in the brothel. Although, having been there himself, he noticed how many details she had decided to skip over there, as well.

Well, it was all for the best, and they both knew that.

“I invited him to join our crew,” she explained, “because I knew that having the King on our side would be advantageous.” Lowering her gaze, she rested her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry for lying to everyone. I didn’t think this would happen.”

A heavy silence weighed down on everyone, but the crew knew that they could hardly blame her. Partially because they all had a source of support from their past that they would gladly call upon to help in this situation, and partially because they had all gotten so used to Won being a part of the crew, King or not.

“I’m not happy about it,” Jae Ha spoke up, crossing his arms. “But… I’d be lying if I said he hasn’t helped us out.” Her eyes flashed towards him, the first shimmer of hope twinkling in her eyes since she had returned. Soo Won was touched, as well, but knew he had to play to the Captain, not the first mate.

“However,” Soo Won said, “if the Captain wishes for me to leave, then I shall. It is her ship, and I will not overstay my welcome more than I already have.”

Nobody seemed to move, nor breathe, except for the Captain, who carefully smoked her pipe, sizing up the young intruder before her. Bowing her head, Yona waited for the Captain to kick him off the ship, and banish him from the crew.

“Fine,” she sighed, her voice sounding gruffer than usual. “You can stay.” For the first time since the inquisition had begun, his expression shifted, changing to one of complete surprise. “If it hadn’t been for you, who knows how long it would’ve been before we knew she was missing?”

Bowing deeply, he sighed, all the tension that had been in his body leaving along with his breath.

“Thank you, Captain. It is an honor to be a part of your crew.”

“Damn right it’s an honor,” Gi Gan grumbled, but everyone knew she was a huge softie on the inside. For all they knew, she had adopted Soo Won along with all the other idiots on that ship. “You can stay until this mess is taken care of, but you won’t be a king here. You’ll be like every other member of this crew. Got it?”

“I understand completely, Captain.” Raising his head, Soo Won glanced at Yona, his heart squeezing at the relief that was written into her features. Smiling at her, he knew he looked relieved, too, but he didn’t care.

The Captain noticed this exchange, and knew that-- if Jae Ha was still going to insist he felt nothing for the girl--the King was going to win her heart before he returned to the castle.

 

That evening, shortly after the sun had set, Yona was already within the grips of exhaustion, her eyelids drifting closed, her body feeling heavier and heavier by the second. After all the excitement she had been through that day, it was warranted, but she had had plenty of sleep over the past week, in her opinion.

Her body, however, had other ideas.

“Yona,” Soo Won had called her name softly, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder to bring her back to alertness. Kneeling before her, he looked at her, concern written into his features. Although she tried to give him a casual smile and wave off her weariness, he didn’t believe her.

Honestly, if there was anyone who would call her on her bluff, it would be Soo Won.

“You have gone through quite a bit the last few days,” he said, his voice lowering, perhaps out of courtesy for her, or for her situation, she couldn’t tell which it was. “No one here would blame you if you were to retire for the evening.”

“I can’t believe you ever passed for a pirate,” she yawned, blinking away the tears that formed in her eyes as a result, “when you speak that formally.” Her little jab didn’t seem to bother him much, because he smiled easily at her. Typical Soo Won smile, she thought.

“I will have to tell you the whole story once you’re feeling a little more rested.” He was coddling her, and she could tell, but after what she had been through, she didn’t seem to mind it as much. “You look exhausted,” he commented, frowning once more.

“Okay, okay, I’ll go to bed.” With a toss of her hair over her shoulder, she gave him a faux pout, which quickly faded into a natural smile. Standing, she stretched out her back, stifling back another yawn. “Good night.”

“Good night, Yona.”

There was something in the way he said her name that made her pause. When she glanced at his face, she saw the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, how his gaze seemed just a little bit distant, and not entirely clear. Hearing his voice, and seeing his face, she realized it was exhausted relief that had caught her attention.

The thought occurred to her that he may have thought he would never get a chance to say those words again.

“Good night, Yona.”

A pang of guilt struck her, deep in her core, and she made a mental note to apologize to the crew in the morning, after everyone had gotten more rest.

 

Despite her deep sleep, she had this nagging feeling that the ship was creaking much more than usual, although she mostly chalked it up to paranoia. Being on edge the way she had been, it only made sense that every little noise would get to her.

It was that reasoning that allowed her to continue sleeping in peace, however ignorant it may have been.

No matter how much her waking mind nagged at her, even begged her to wake up, she refused, too comfortable in the grip of sleep to even bother acknowledging it. Even when the door to her room opened, she hardly stirred.

Near-silent steps approached her, and it wasn’t until she felt a weight settle on the edge of her bed that she was finally brought back into the waking world.

Her eyelids-- still heavy, far too heavy-- drifted open, and for a moment, she was disoriented. She couldn’t remember where she was for a quick moment, nor did she remember much leading up to her falling asleep. Of course, none of this was important information.

What was important, however, was the figure that was staring down at her.

Her breath caught in her throat, and for a moment, all she could do was stare at the specter. Her mind was running faster than what she could keep up with, but, somewhere in there, there was a shred of logic that claimed this must have been another nightmare.

Yeah, this is just a nightmare, she thought. Although, the thought hadn’t even finished before she realized she couldn’t be further from the truth.

Her heart was racing inside her chest, her thoughts buzzing in her head, so loud and so incoherent that it made her dizzy. It can’t be him it just can’t be how did he make it onto the ship there is no way what about the night watch and the crew oh gods he murdered the crew just like I dreamt he would and --

The buzzing stopped when his fingers caressed her cheek, carefully aiming for her scar. At the very contact, her blood turned to ice, and she swore her heart stopped. Yet, he said nothing, only stared down at her with that same twisted admiration that he had had at his headquarters.

Scream, Yona, for the love of all that is good, just SCREAM they could hear you they could kill him they could help you but you need to SCREAM.

She couldn’t. That was the only nightmarish aspect of this-- her voice had completely escaped her.

“Good evening, my dear.” His voice, a low, grating whisper, assaulted her ears. This was far worse than any nightmare-- it was reality . He was winning, had already won, and they both knew it. He had made it onto the ship, where she had always thought she was safe .

Nowhere is safe anymore .

“Get out.” It was ideal to think she could get a command out in that state, much less intimidate him. She hadn’t moved, and giving orders while lying down was hardly something that could establish dominance.

“Oh, I shall, I assure you. I simply wished to speak with you, however brief.” His words, while polite, left her feeling much more unsettled than before. A large, inhuman smile pulled at his face, his lips separating, his teeth bared. His eyes-- unfocused, cloudy, yet completely hardened-- bore into her, his irises shaking slightly from the strain. “You escaped from me today, my dear, but I assure you...”

With a calloused thumb, he traced a line, starting at a spot above her left eyebrow, and dragging his thumb to her cheek.

“You escaped because I allowed you to...”

Without taking his eyes off of her, he pulled something out of his pocket, although she could only barely make out its shape in the darkness. Her body tensed, but, deep down, she knew that whatever he had planned, he would be faster than her.

“You belong to me, and...”

Faster than she could register, he clapped a hand over her nose and mouth, the impact only softened by a thin cloth. However, as soon as she took in a breath, she immediately felt herself slipping from consciousness once more.

Swinging her arm out of the blanket, she tried to claw his hand away, her strength fading away with each second. Her vision crossed, doubled, and finally began to fade. As she drifted out of consciousness, she saw his face inching closer to hers, and forced herself to listen to his words.

“You will always return to my side.”

Darkness overtook her, and she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. No nightmares plagued her, except for the one she had lived through.

When Yona awoke in the morning, she was alone in her room.

Chapter Text

During Yona’s absence, the crew was in an obvious state of panic. Even the Captain, who usually seemed so level-headed, was having difficulty hiding her fear. No one knew what had happened to her after Kage had taken her hostage, and no one knew what could happen to her.

Soo Won wracked his brain for any clues he could manage, but always came up empty-handed, or contradictory to the facts. Yona had made it sound like she and “Jin”, as she called him, were operating on an unspoken agreement. She complied to his strange, stomach-churning requests, and he would bring her no harm.

However, she had nearly broken his nose that evening—Soo Won doubted that was a mental image he could erase any time soon. She had explicitly gone against his expectation of her, and she was paying the price for it.

What the price was , he didn’t know, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. If she was alive—a fantasy that he barely allowed himself to indulge in—Kage was, no doubt, making her life miserable. In the few minutes that Soo Won had spent around the man, he could realize that he was completely unhinged. Unhinged people tended not to take too kindly to threats.

The morning after Yona’s disappearance, Soo Won was faced with a predicament of his own. Joo Doh wanted to meet, and Jae Ha wouldn’t let him go alone. Not out of concern for his safety, but because he didn’t trust him.

After what was revealed the night before, Soo Won could hardly blame him. However, he was trying his best to be as candid as possible.

“I must meet with my general. He is the man that you met the first time I arrived,” he had explained, but knew as soon as the words left his mouth that he would get nowhere, fast.

“Your general is your top priority right now?” Jae Ha seethed, his voice strained. It hadn’t been easy on him—he had barely slept at all that night, endlessly searching the city for any sign of Kage or Yona.

But just like every other time he had escaped, it was as if Kage had disappeared into thin air.

As soon as they had been able to triumph over his goons—who seemed inhuman, in their own way—they had gone their separate ways. Soo Won had returned to the ship, alerting the crew, and beginning the manhunt, and Jae Ha had started his search of the surrounding area.

It was apparent, by the time they had reunited and combined their forces, that finding Yona was a futile effort. Kage knew the ins and outs of the city, and was able to keep his presence undetected from even the best searchers.

As rage and desperation began to claw at Jae Ha, his nerves beyond frayed, his patience began to wane. The Captain hadn’t seen him in that state for quite some time. Standoffish, touchy, and ready to snap at anyone… it was as if he was a scared teenager again.

No one in the crew could blame him.

The only one who had been gutsy enough to even attempt to snap Jae Ha out of it was Soo Won. As they had nothing more to lose—their relationship was beyond sour, and that was just the way it was going to be—Soo Won had no qualms about saying it as it is.

In the early hours of the morning, before the sun had risen, Soo Won approached the first mate, his own patience thin. The rest of the crew watched as the chaos unfolded before them, uneasy the entire time.

“You need to get some rest, Jae Ha.”

“Don’t you talk to me like that , you damn traitor,” Jae Ha sneered, his teeth shining from the nearby lantern light. Soo Won said nothing, but grabbed him by the arm, trying to pull him in the direction of the ship. “Let go of me!”

“You’re not in your right mind,” was all that he said in return.

“I don’t give a shit! You think I’m going to rest while Yona is with that monster ?!” The look in his eye as he glared at Soo Won was enough to send a chill through anyone else. However, he was dealing with the King now, and he wasn’t one to put up with such childish babbling. With a low, grating voice, Jae Ha continued, “If you cared at all about her, then you’d be just as worried about her, but you’re not . You’re only concerned about your own skin, aren’t you?”

Several members of the crew winced, knowing that those words cut deep. Sure, Jae Ha was sick with worry, but it didn’t give him the right to talk to their ally like that… right?

However, the icy glare that Soo Won gave him in return was enough to shake the crew to their core. No one challenged Jae Ha like that, especially when it came to Yona, or her safety, but Soo Won was unrelenting. A few of the crew members in the front actually took a step back, the iciness of the glare affecting them, too.

Despite the way he was acting, Soo Won made no effort to defend himself, or his actions.

“You cannot look for her effectively if you deprive yourself of sleep.”

Those words diffused a good portion of the tension that was building up between them. Despite that, Kija pushed his way to the front, intervening between the two men.

“Yona would want for you to take care of yourself,” Kija whispered to Jae Ha, as if it was a promise of her safety, of her life. “Fighting in this way will do her no favors.”

Perhaps because he realized he couldn’t fight an entire crew, perhaps because he realized he how he was acting… Jae Ha stood down, and relented. Without a word, he turned, and marched back towards the boat.

“Thank you,” Soo Won said, glancing at Kija. The question was written into Kija’s features, but Soo Won readily ignored it: what did he mean by “traitor”?

The next morning, facing an obstinate first mate, Soo Won really had no patience to play those games.

“I must report to him,” he repeated, with a sigh, “in order to alert him of the situation at hand.”

“You’re unbelievable—”

“I really don’t think that in-fighting is the best way we can be spending our time or resources,” Soo Won shot back, giving Jae Ha another icy glare, successfully shutting him up. “I am going. That is final.”

Jae Ha grumbled something under his breath, something about fine, but I’m coming with you , and allowed Soo Won to leave, tailing behind him, dragging his feet the entire way.

As they approached the meeting place, Soo Won could see a rush of several different emotions flash across his general’s otherwise stoic expression—most of them being related to anger, in some way, shape or form.

“Your M—er, Won …” Joo Doh corrected, clearing his throat, “Why did you bring him with you?”

“It is a long story, and hardly a good one.”

Soo Won took his time relating the events of the past several days to Joo Doh, and found himself surprised at just how much had happened since they had seen each other last—namely, how his secret identity was revealed. He spared no details, even including his own retelling of how Yona had seemingly broken the nose of her assailant to give Jae Ha and Soo Won a chance to escape.

However, Soo Won did not ask for Joo Doh’s help. On the contrary, he denied it at every chance he could.

“I need you to return to the capital.”

Even Jae Ha was a little stunned at this demand, but said nothing. Soo Won continued to explain—through his general’s protests—that the capital had been left in the hands of others for far too long, and he needed someone he trusted in his place.

Two weeks was all he asked for. Give him two weeks to wrap it up, and, for better or for worse, he would return to the capital. They were to communicate by sending their hawks to one another, but this would be their last physical meeting.

“Your Majesty,” Joo Doh said, his voice steady and cold. With a deep bow, he continued, “I hope Her Highness will be brought back safely.”

It was at those words that Jae Ha saw Soo Won’s icy façade crack, and a softer, worried expression tinge his features with concern.

“As do I.”

On their way back to the ship, Jae Ha and Soo Won said very little to one another. However, the former kept shooting glances over at the latter, as if he wanted to say something. Finally, he was able to manage.

“Why didn’t you let him help?” Jae Ha asked, his voice quiet. “Can’t you do something about this?”

“Kage knows I am the King,” Soo Won explained, that same iciness taking over his features once more. Jae Ha was beginning to recognize this as his kingly persona, as he wasn’t always like this. “If you knew one of your enemies was the King, what would you do?”

The answer was clear: prepare for an all-out war.

“Until we have Yona back, do you think it would be wise to antagonize Kage further?”

The answer was clear, once again: absolutely not.

For the next few days, the crew searched frantically for Yona, to no avail. They took shifts, searching every nook and cranny of Awa to find their second mate, only to turn up empty-handed every time.

In the first 24 hours, there was hope. They could still find her, they knew they could! She was out there, somewhere, they just had to keep looking and find her.

Soo Won approached the Captain, along with Jae Ha, and explained who he was to her. Gi Gan, however, did not seem totally surprised, and Soo Won could only guess that she had figured it out somewhere along the line.

He told her that he would only take up space for two more weeks, at most. If, by the end of the first week, Yona had not returned, he would leave, and they would never hear from him again. As thanks for their hospitality, Soo Won agreed to turn a blind eye to their piracy.

After all, he had seen, first-hand, that they were not bad people. Even their piracy was riddled with good deeds.

The following day, despair began to creep into the backs of the minds of the crew. It wasn’t looking good. Two full days, and nothing ? But they couldn’t give up on her. Not yet.

Tensions were growing, people were becoming short with one another, deprived of sleep, and of a shining light within the crew. The uncertainty surrounding them was far worse than any definitive answer.

The third day was even less promising. By that point, there was no saying what had happened to her. No one had seen or heard anything from a red-haired woman, or a man with mismatched eyes, or wearing a bandage. They had disappeared.

There were rumors whispered throughout the crew that Kage had fled Awa, taking Yona with him, and that they were already somewhere far away. But they had to stay positive. They had to. This was Yona they were talking about.

The fourth day started, and everyone was quiet. No one dared to speak, afraid to share their worst fears with one another. Either she was dead, or she was gone. That was it.

Soo Won’s first week was already half-done. With each passing hour, he could feel his insides twisting more and more, anxiety ripping away at every frayed nerve in his system.

Jae Ha wasn’t much better. If they thought the first day had been bad, they were wrong. As the days passed, he eventually stopped speaking altogether, spending long periods of time with his head in his hands, muttering to himself. The crew had reported to the Captain that he wasn’t sleeping, either. Or, if he was, he was having fitful naps, plagued with nightmares.

YONA!!”

When the first cry erupted on the deck, the whole crew was spurred into action, sprinting for the edge of the boat, throwing their gazes towards the docks. Sure enough, there she was, running for them. Ragged and afraid, but mostly unhurt.

It was enough to bring tears to all of their eyes.

Although, their hopes of capturing the man behind it all were dashed shortly after her return. With her information, they immediately rushed to the location that she was held at, only to be met with an empty house.

The manor loomed above the crewmates, dark and lifeless. Even in the morning, it had an eerie feeling surrounding it. However, when they entered, they weren’t even met with ghosts. The place had been completely abandoned. No sign of Kage, or any of his men. They had made a getaway once again, leaving no signs that the manor had even been lived in.

The morning following her return, Yona emerged from her room, looking a little dazed, but fine otherwise. Most of the crew was willing to blame a deep sleep—however, they would never have thought that it was due to a certain shadowy man drugging her.

When she first awoke, she wasn’t sure if her run-in with Jin the night prior had just been another nightmare or not. She was too disoriented, and the details were muddled.

However, as she lay in bed, watching the horizon through her window, she became more and more certain: he had definitely been there. She forced her mind to remember the details, no matter how much it fought her.

As unlikely as it was, she could still feel his hand pressing the cloth against her face, his fingers leaving a distinct imprint on the bottom half of her face. His eyes, lacking all signs of life, burned in her memory. He was hardly human.

There was an aspect of herself that felt disappointed at that revelation. She didn’t want to pity him, he was a monster , but the first shreds of sympathy had already taken root in her mind.

Part of her wondered if it could have ended up differently, once upon a time. Perhaps if they had met again, many years before, she could have helped him. It pained her to turn her back on someone—monster or not, he had been human once—particularly when there was so much pain in his eyes.

Someone didn’t end up like him on their own. Not without chronic emotional pain.

Who hurt you?

The thought bubbled up before she could stop it, and while she hardly wanted to admit that the thought had occurred, she couldn’t help but acknowledge it.

It wasn’t long before she shut down that train of thought, adding, it doesn’t matter who hurt him because it’s too late to help.

Too late.

With those two words, she felt surprisingly guilty. She knew he had done unspeakable things, and he was planning even more, but she couldn’t stop herself. There was something so final about them, a pang of helplessness striking her heart.

… Too late.

The words floated around in her head for a while, and continued even when she forced herself to sit up, placing her head in her hands.

She couldn’t help him. For now, all she could do is help her crew, and the people of Awa.

But…

As she sat there, her head in her hands, but her eyes open, her mind whispered the truth. It was the way it all had to end, and she wasn’t about to let him take advantage of her again.

I’m going to have to kill him.

The words carried a new sort of heaviness, unlike her previous threats. This was not killing out of rage, revenge, or bloodlust, but out of necessity. For some reason, that made it feel so much more real, and she struggled with the idea.

She would have to look him in the eye as she killed him, because she knew that if anyone else did it, she wouldn’t believe them. She would have to see the body with her own two eyes.

The thought didn’t give her the strength she expected it to. Instead, it made her feel empty, sad.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Forcing herself out of bed, she pushed her sluggish body to get dressed, brush her hair, tie it up, whatever she could to try and busy herself. However, even with the menial tasks—something, she would admit, she had missed terribly—her mind still ran at incomprehensible speeds, focusing on the inevitability of Jin’s death.

He was nothing more than a monster, so why did she feel so horrible about having to kill him?

The thought occurred to her that it was all part of his mind games that he had played with her, that he had carefully trained her to feel… well, anything more than outright hatred. It held water. Whatever he had been expecting, she didn’t blindly hate him as she once had.

If anything, she had gotten used to him, and that was bad enough.

Exiting her room, she pushed all thoughts of him aside once she opened her door, bathing herself in late morning light, exorcising all darkness from her life, at least for now. It would only be momentary relief, but it was all she could ask for.

The eyes of the crew landed on her, notably worried. However, once they saw she was up, walking around, and seemed to be emotionally sound, they left her alone. All of them were careful not to crowd her, although she could tell they wanted to talk to her, to ask her questions. The kind-hearted idiots… it was written all over their faces.

The sight of their transparency warmed her heart. While she felt it was slight, an undeniable smile pulled at her lips.

Without wasting any more time, Yona turned towards the staircase leading to the upper deck, and knocked on Gi Gan’s door, and, when she was granted permission, entered.

“You slept well?” Gi Gan asked as Yona approached her, sitting and smoking her pipe. Yona hesitated, but ultimately pasted a smile to her face.

“Like a baby.” It wasn’t a complete lie. Once she was drugged, she did sleep like a baby. However, Gi Gan wasn’t totally convinced.

“What happened?” she asked, her patience for secrets waning. Giving Yona a look, her eyes narrowed, as if to say you should know better than to keep secrets from your Captain. That was something that Yona did know, however, she also chose to ignore it.

“Just… nightmares. But it’s fine.” If she told Gi Gan that Jin had been on the ship, then the whole place would go on lockdown, and the crew would have to pull all-nighters until the problem was taken care of. But, if she was being honest with herself, Jin had made his point, and probably wouldn’t try it again.

She didn’t know why, but she just felt that was the truth.

Gi Gan gave her another look, but Yona spoke up instead.

“My sleeping patterns aside, we need to talk about our next step.” Puffing her pipe, Gi Gan’s eyes never left her.

“Funny. I needed to speak to you about that, too.” There was a quality to Gi Gan’s voice that sounded strangely final. Concern crept into Yona’s core, sharpening her gaze. With a short, bitter laugh, Gi Gan continued, “I’m not dying, you silly girl. Don’t look at me like that.”

Then don’t make it sound like you’re gonna die, Captain.

“I’m old as hell. I want to retire.”

For some reason, that was more surprising to Yona than a potential death. True, the Captain was getting up there in years, but retirement had never seemed like an option. She would always be their Captain until the end of her days. That was what Yona had always thought.

“You’re gonna retire? And do what ?”

“Like I know. Maybe fish, or something.” Gi Gan shrugged, and continued to smoke on her pipe. “At least I won’t be watching you brats anymore.” So she said, but Yona knew she loved every person in the crew. “I haven’t told anybody yet. Y’know they’ll all start weeping as soon as they hear.” It was true, and both of them could clearly envision it.

“When were you thinking of retiring?” Yona asked, her voice strangely quiet.

“Once this mess is over and done with, and I don’t have to worry about you anymore.” Crossing one leg over the other, the Captain gazed at her. “You gave us all quite a scare. I hope you know that.” Her voice was tinged with motherly disappointment, and Yona’s face flushed with guilt.

“I’m sorry.”

“Well, you’re alive. That’s more than I can ask for.” Setting her pipe down, she blew out the remnants of the smoke. “Once that bastard is taken care of, I’ll step down as Captain.”

“Are you gonna make Jae Ha captain then?” He was the first mate. It made perfect sense.

“Hell no. You think that boy can run a ship?” The words were harsh, but once again, tinged with that sort of motherly disappointment that only Gi Gan could have. “He’s too much of a free spirit to deal with that much authority.”

“So who is it gonna be?”

As she looked at the young woman, Gi Gan’s eyes had a mischievous sparkle, making her seem younger, in a way. A few moments of silence passed between them before the Captain’s lips turned upward into a smile.

“Only a strong woman could run this ship.”

The last time Yona checked, she was the only woman in the crew, but…

“Gi Gan, you can’t be serious ?” she gaped, the color leaving her face.

“Yona, you’re the only one who could take my place and not sink this damn thing within the first three days.” While the Captain’s words held a certain amount of truth—and no shortage of mistrust in the rest of the crew—she still had a hard time believing them.

Me? Captain? Yona thought, the words weighing on her mind.

The ship had been her home for a long time, and had opened up opportunities to her that she never would have had otherwise. It was a huge step forward, and the very thought of her life as Captain made her feel dizzy.

It was also exhilarating.

Sailing the seas, helping those who needed it, meeting people, trading stories and goods… sure, there was a good amount of work involved, but… she could manage it, couldn’t she?

For the first time in a long, long while, Yona beamed, truly and genuinely.

“I’ll do it.”

“That’s my girl.”

“Alright, you schleps, gather ‘round!” Gi Gan roared from the upper deck. The crewmates scrambled towards the staircase, everyone looking up at the Captain and Second Mate. Soo Won and Jae Ha joined them, immediately noticing how confident Yona looked, a welcome change to how she had been looking, even before she was kidnapped.

While she had physically returned the day prior, they both felt that she had actually returned now, looking at her grinning from ear to ear. Whatever news they had must’ve been good.

“I’m not about to mince words here,” Gi Gan continued, her voice carrying over the lower deck. “My days as Captain are coming to an end.” Immediately, an agonized wail arose from the crew, excepting only a few of the members.

“Captain, don’t die!” a crewmate cried.

“What makes you think I’m gonna die, you fool?” Gi Gan sighed, an undeniable trace of a smile resting on her face. “I’m retiring, and Yona’s gonna take my place as Captain.”

There were a few moments of stunned silence before the crew broke into cheers so loud, the other ships in the port could hear them perfectly, and people on the docks below stopped to stare at the ship. The crewmates began to chant Yona’s name, gaining more and more volume with each passing syllable.

Jae Ha, however, didn’t cheer aloud, instead smiling softly. His heart swelled with pride—he always knew she could do it, and that she probably would . She’d make a wonderful captain. That much had been clear since she had first joined the crew.

The Captain’s soft spot for Yona aside, she had everything it took to make a great captain. Under her leadership, they would surely be able to keep the people of Awa safe for a long, long time. She had a good heart, and a sharp mind—two of the most important qualities, in Jae Ha’s opinion.

Beneath his pride, however, there was a new thought, one warped with triumph.

If Yona was meant to become Captain, then that meant…

Shooting a quick glance at Soo Won, he saw that the other man shared the same thought, the despair subtle, but not entirely erased from his features. He was, after all, the only one that wasn’t smiling. That was all Jae Ha needed to see.

If Yona became Captain, she would stay there.

Soo Won, being King, couldn’t leave his throne behind.

It was all working out for Jae Ha, just as it always should have. Sure , Soo Won had been there first , but it didn’t change the fact that Jae Ha had been there the most .

He couldn’t help the smile that pulled at his mouth. The one that seemed to scream see? She’s mine. Sure, Yona could choose whoever she wanted, but by choosing the crew, she had, in a way, chosen Jae Ha, hadn’t she?

Soo Won turned slightly, catching Jae Ha staring at him, smiling at him.

In that moment, they both knew that Soo Won was going home empty-handed, and without her affection.

“Too bad, buddy,” Jae Ha whispered to him, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe next time.”

Soo Won knew better than to react.

“Listen well!” Yona called out over the crew, her voice carrying clearly over the din. “The days of Yang Kage are coming to an end! This is a promise!” More cheers followed. Jae Ha and Soo Won, however, abstained. “I won’t stop until I see that he, and his followers, have paid dearly for what they have done to the people of Awa.”

“And you !” a crewmate cried in the crowd. Murmurs of agreement followed, but Yona shook her head.

“I can’t let my personal feelings hold me back anymore.” With those words, Soo Won realized that she would not only make a great captain, but a strong queen . He knew it was only fantasy, but he could see her leading any kingdom to peace and prosperity. “It’s time to let this nightmare end, once and for all!” The crew erupted into cheers once more. Once they died down, she continued, “I know that we can take him down. This crew is the strongest I have ever seen. Stronger than Yang Kumji, stronger than his successors, and definitely stronger than Kage!”

Perhaps only Soo Won had noticed it, perhaps Jae Ha did, as well, but her confidence wavered on that last sentence. Whether or not she actually believed what she was saying was yet to be determined.

The scene from earlier that day weighed heavily on Soo Won as he sat in the crow’s nest, his eyes fixed on the horizon. His mind kept replaying the words, over and over, until they drowned out the rest of his thoughts.

“Yona’s gonna take my place as Captain.”

“Too bad, buddy. Maybe next time.”

Of course, deep down, he had always known that she wouldn’t just leave everything behind to be with him. She wasn’t that desperate teen anymore, and, if anything, that’s what he loved the most about her.

How the hell he had managed to fall for her was beyond him. One day, she had him at knifepoint, and they begrudgingly agreed to help each other out; the next, he was practically swooning over her because she looked confident .

It was a little pathetic, he would be the first to admit. Out of all the foolish things he could have done while searching for a human trafficker, falling for the former princess—that was almost killed because of him , mind you—was definitely at the top of the list.

It had snuck up on him. He was always so careful, planning each and every action and reaction, but this time, he had miscalculated.

Miscalculated in the worst way possible, he thought, releasing a bark of bitter laughter.

Him and Yona ? Yeah, right. It would never happen. Not in a million years. He knew this, and hated it, but he couldn’t deny that it was the truth.

His thoughts spiraled, turning darker as they did. Of course she would never love him—he was an awful person who had brought nothing but misfortune to her life. He had had a hand in killing her father, had run her out of her home, had carefully strategized against her.

It was his fault that her—their—best friend had died in the way that he did.

“Soo Won?”

Her voice broke him out of his thoughts. At first, he thought it was an illusion, but, sure enough, there she was, climbing into the crow’s nest. She looked tired.

“Yona? What are you doing up here?” he asked. “You should be sleeping.”

“Yeah,” she laughed, breathy and nervous. “I should be, but I can’t.” With a shrug, she continued, “Nightmares, y’know?”

He did.

“Mind if I hang out here with you for a bit?”

“Go ahead.” With that, she stepped up beside him, her presence so much more stressful than it had been even a week prior. Now that he was aware of his feelings for her, he couldn’t stop thinking about them, especially when she was nearby. It didn’t help that, with the limited space in the crow’s nest, her hip was practically grazing his.

There were so many things he wanted to ask her—more about her time with Jin, about her decision to become captain, about her feelings regarding Jae Ha, regarding him —but he knew it would only pressure her more.

That was the last thing she needed right now. Especially if she was already being plagued by nightmares. It was the least he could do to alleviate her worries as best as he could.

After all, their time together was coming to a close. It would do both of them some good to get some closure.

“Gi Gan told me that you’re leaving soon.” Her voice sounded sadder than he had anticipated, although he was sure it was just his imagination. “I guess I always knew it would have to happen, but…” she trailed off, chewing her lip.

I never thought it would be so soon, he thought. For the first time since his coronation, he didn’t want to return to the throne. He wanted to stay there, with Yona, and the crew, and Gi Gan, and, miraculously, even Jae Ha.

Although, with Jae Ha, he more wanted to stay out of pride, not friendliness. He wanted to wipe that smug grin off of his face, once and for all.

“Too bad, buddy.

But Soo Won wasn’t bitter, or anything. He had his emotions perfectly under control. Always.

“I need to return to the capital,” he said, without any particular amount of emotion. It was just a fact; his opinions on the matter meant very little.

“I know.” Her voice was quiet. They both knew what his responsibilities were, and why he’d have to return. It couldn’t be helped, basically. “I kinda wish you didn’t, though.”

His heart skipped a few beats with those words, his eyes immediately flying to her, reading her body language, trying, desperately, to search for any hidden meanings. She wasn’t looking at him, and, while it may have been the light reflecting off of her hair, her ears looked a little red.

But, he couldn’t hope. He couldn’t let himself hope.

“Me, too,” he breathed, his voice barely a whisper. He wasn’t sure if she had heard him, but part of him had wished she did.

For a few moments, they stayed there, looking out over the horizon in silence. The only sounds around them were of the waves quietly lapping against the side of the ship far below, and the ocean breeze that picked up every now and again.

Putting his feelings aside, he focused on the situation at hand.

“Yona,” he started, his voice seeming too loud, “what are you planning to do about Kage?” She didn’t answer, or look at him. It wasn’t as if she was thinking about it, however. To him, it seemed that she already knew the answer, and knew he wouldn’t like it. “ Yona.

“I’m not gonna do something stupid, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she blurted, shying away from him even more. “I just… there’s no good way to do this.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that I can’t go after him alone, but I can’t bring others into this mess, either.”

Her logic was flawed, but he could understand why she would be thinking that way. Now that she was back, though, he could weigh the option of bringing in his resources.

“I know you are hesitant to involve others, but…” he hesitated, “if we were to call in some of Geun Tae’s troops—”

“Absolutely not.” Her voice was sharp, her command clear. Her eyes finally found his, and he could see the resolve in them, although it was almost masked by the fear.

This was too strong of a reaction on its own. There was another reason underlying it, and it was clearly written into her expression.

Soo Won had a hunch about who instilled this sort of fear into her. He wasn’t about to force it out of her, though. Not verbally.

Gazing at her, his expression neutral, he watched each and every one of her moves. The way she crossed her arms, the way her breathing was short, and shallow, the way that she tucked her hair behind her ear…

“It’s Ji—” she cut herself off, faking a cough. “Kage.” Turning away, she focused on the horizon once more, and he didn’t stop her. “He’ll know if we bring in outsiders.”

Ah, yes, the omniscient Yang Kage, Soo Won thought, his core twisting in disgust at the memory of the man’s face.

“Did he threaten you?” Soo Won asked, his voice neutral.

“Not me ,” she sighed. “He threatened Awa.” Running her hand through her hair, she straightened slightly, although she was still visibly uncomfortable. “Right before you and Jae Ha showed up, he told me that he knew you were the King, that you were working with us, and that if…” she trailed off, lowering her head.

So he knew all that time, he thought.

Glancing at Yona’s hand, he leaned closer, and gently placed his hand over hers. He wanted her to continue, but he didn’t want her to feel unsafe.

As long as he was there, he would protect her.

“He said… that if you brought in any outside resources, he would know… and he would…” With a shiver, she sighed. This was obviously no small threat.

“If His Majesty dares to call forth his troops, then I shall eradicate the population of Awa,” Jin had said, his grip on her hands tightening as he gazed at her. “I can see that you do not believe me, Yona, dear, but I could wipe this pitiful town off of the map, and you would never know. Just as you did not notice our little audience that has been following us all evening.”

“What the hell do you mean?”

“My underlings can go undetected for quite some time. What makes you so confident that they could not murder every man, woman, and child here?”

It was shortly after he had said those words that Jae Ha had emerged, and the rest was history.

“He’d wipe out the people of Awa,” she finally managed, forcing her voice to remain steady.

Soo Won’s heart dropped, leaving him feeling hollow. Kage was in a league of his own, compared to the other human traffickers that had plagued this area. He wasn’t just a blight, he was an infectious disease .

Forcing his mind to work through the shock, he began to think, and think harder. Every scenario that his mind came up with was horribly flawed, to say the least. Sure, he could think on his feet, but he would need time to come up with a solution for something of this magnitude.

He couldn’t bring anyone into Awa, otherwise Kage would know. He couldn’t rely on his resources as King, but their crew wasn’t enough to take on Kage and his men. Both sides knew that for certain.

“You see why I’m drawin’ blanks here?” she groaned, retracting her hand from under his. Burying her face into her hands, she sighed deeply, as if trying to expel some evil from her system. “He’s a lunatic.”

“Did he give you an ultimatum?” Kage obviously liked her (unfortunately), so it would make sense if he had given Yona some sort of god-awful ultimatum to follow. Soo Won could think of a few, but decided not to provide examples.

“No, nothing,” she sighed again. “He’s just gonna do what he wants, so how the hell am I supposed to stop him?”

The answer was obvious, of course, but neither one of them wanted to say it aloud.

“I know I’m gonna have to kill him,” she said, her voice quiet. The words drifted around them, tinging the air with tension, weighing down on the two of them. It obviously wasn’t something that Yona was proud of, but there was also no other feasible way to rid Awa of Kage. It wasn’t as if they could nicely ask him to leave. “But what about the people here? How can I help them ?”

He could understand the hopelessness of the situation at hand. When there are no other desirable options, what can you do? When there are mass amounts of other people involved, which action is the right one?

Unfortunately-- and they both knew this, far too well-- murdering the one at the top was usually the only option. It’s just a question of how .

“Are you against killing Kage?” he asked, watching her reaction carefully. However, she was careful to hide her expression from him, forcing herself to remain still-- which was a tell, in and of itself.

“I’m… not.” Her voice, however, was uneasy, hesitant.

“Then what are you afraid of?” Although Soo Won was sure he knew the answer, he wanted to hear it from her. The sooner she admitted her fears, and aired them, the sooner she could move past them.

He hated to do this to her, but it was something he had learned a long time ago. If one doesn’t air their fears, and expel them, then they can have a tendency to overwhelm you.

“I’m…” she hesitated, shifting her weight between her feet. Taking a shaking breath, she continued, “I’m afraid of what will happen to my home if I don’t succeed.”

The words struck him harder than a slap. Not so much the meaning behind them, but the words themselves.

“My home” she had said. Awa was her home, and he couldn’t deny that any longer.

Forcing his mind to focus on her once more-- as opposed to wallowing in his own emotions-- he pushed himself to continue speaking.

“And that’s fine,” he said evenly, turning his eyes away from her. “I think that is very honorable of you.”

“But honor isn’t going to make this situation better. Only action will.” Throwing her arms into the air-- startling Soo Won in the process-- she groaned, a deep, painful sound. “I mean, it’s not like I can just-- get rid of the people of Awa!”

Immediately, she fixed her posture, placing a contemplative hand at her mouth. As her words settled, Soo Won, too, began to reach the same conclusion.

“But… But! Soo Won! What if I could ?” Her eyes reached his, bright and feverish, a genuine smile illuminating her face. Grabbing for his shoulders, she looked at him with the same sort of excitement as a child. “We can’t bring anyone in , but if we do this right, we can get everyone out !”

It was an insane plan, to say the least.

“Let me hear what you’re thinking.” Grabbing her shoulders, he gave them a little squeeze, encouraging her, reassuring her.

Yona eagerly, but quietly, explained her mind’s workings to him.

A quiet, forced evacuation of Awa. Moving everyone out of the city, one family at a time, so they could go up against Kage freely, and fight him without fear of what he could do to the citizens.

If they prepared military troops outside of the city limits, far enough that he couldn’t find them, then they could get the people to a safe place until he was dead, and his group, disbanded. It would take a lot-- particularly a lot of planning-- but they could do it.

The hardest part would be keeping it all under wraps, and knowing who to avoid. But, if they would be able to distract him off of the coast, they could know who he was working with, and cut his resources on the land in half, at least.

In the heat of the moment, she threw her arms around him, practically jumping into his embrace. She laughed, light, almost breathless-- music to his ears. It was the first time she had had hope in a long time, even in his eyes.

Wrapping his arms around her waist, he cherished the moment while it lasted. Her hair, which was as wild as it usually was, brushed his face, and he could smell the ocean air in it.

“We could do it,” she breathed, keeping her arms around his neck. He could feel her relax in his grip, and she pulled away, giving him a tired, hopeful smile. “We can actually do it.”

The next morning, Jae Ha, Soo Won, Gi Gan, and Yona all met in Gi Gan’s quarters, planning out every detail of their hare-brained plot. The meeting itself took four hours, but as soon as it was finished, Soo Won began to write his letter to Geun Tae.

“We’re pirates, damnit,” Yona had said, with much more gusto than she had had for quite some time. “We can outsmart this bastard. We just need to be sneaky.”

Sneaky, they were. Dressing him up as if he would go to the market, they sent Yoon with the letter. Soo Won had a connection within Awa with a hawk-- all they needed was a way to send the letter to the Earth Tribe capital.

The plan had to be executed quickly, but discreetly. All information that was given was on a need-to-know basis, with only the four that were in charge knowing all the details.

First things first, they needed to make a big enough ruckus on the coast that Kage’s men came to investigate.

Yona and Jae Ha tackled the task on their own, approaching some of the local fishermen that they knew. It took bribing them with a fair amount of alcohol, and some flattery from Yona, but they eventually agreed to let the pirates borrow one of their boats for the evening.

While they handled that, Soo Won and Shin Ah traveled to the market with a heavy coin purse, with the intent to buy out the stock of fireworks that Awa had to offer. Thankfully, when money was doing the talking, merchants were willing to do just about anything you asked.

As the sun began to set, about a quarter of the crew-- excluding Yona, Jae Ha, and Soo Won-- boarded the other ship, fireworks in tow. Another quarter of them ran into town, preparing to bring all attention to them. While they were distracting Kage and his men, the other half would be camped out throughout the city, watching for any suspicious movement.

They needed to know which people were working for Kage. While Yona had a few names that Jin had given her-- courtesy of their date night-- she doubted that she knew even a quarter of them.

Just how many nobles did he have on his side?

The decoy ship was sent out onto the still waters, until they reached a point when they were directly parallel with the rest of the town, and stopped, waiting until the last of light had left the sky before they sent up their first firework.

The meeting was interrupted by the sound of a sharp, whistling sound, cutting off the dull, emotionless speaking of Yang Kage. With a lazy sort of movement, he turned, facing the window, catching the moment that another firework exploded in the sky.

“What is it, My Lord?”

It was not time for a festival, that much he knew. Although, judging by the looks of the ship, it was just a fishing boat, and nothing more. Hardly worth investigating.

Another firework shot into the air, exploding in an array of colors. Then another. The third, however, was entirely red-- his new favorite color.

He was about to continue droning on about facts and figures, and their next move, when he could hear the sound of raucous cheers and laughter from the street, accompanied by what sounded like handheld bells.

“Protect our women! Down with Yang Kage!” they chanted, seeming in particularly good spirits, despite their words.

This, paired with the odd festivities, was cause for investigation.

“Yang Kage doesn’t stand a chance! Awa will stay strong! Down with Yang Kage!”

Well, now, that was just irritating .

With a snap of his fingers, he brought the attention in the room back to him.

“Take care of it.”

“Yes, Lord Kage.” With that, about a dozen armed men ran out of the room, leaving Kage alone with his swirling thoughts.

“Hey, you!” A particularly gruff-looking man called out to the small group that had been throwing insults at their lord.

“Uh oh.” With that, they began to run. Tatsu grabbed a string of firecrackers, stopping at a nearby lantern to light the fuse, immediately throwing it towards the group of thugs. Small explosions rang out, bright light blinding their pursuers, and the pirates made their getaway.

“Follow them!” the leader ordered, but by that point, the group of pirates was long gone, having disappeared down one of Awa’s many back alleys.

As they turned onto another street in town, they began their parade once more, ringing the bells that they brought with them.

“Protect our women! Down with Yang Kage!”

As the small groups traveled throughout the city, they were being watched by a higher-up in the crew. Yona watched carefully, taking note of anyone who exited their household to confront the men about their protests.

Sure enough, several of the nobles that Jin had mentioned approached the pirates. Some were more docile than others, reactions ranging from reprimanding them, to trying to start a physical altercation.

What she hadn’t been expecting, however, was for some of the citizens of Awa to join them. Soon after the pirates had started their chants, they had built up a small group of followers, everyone uniting under the same motivation: bringing down Kage.

Awa was truly a beautiful city.

“They escaped ,” Kage repeated his men’s words, which left a bad taste in his mouth. “The long and the short of it, then, is that you failed .”

“I’m-- I’m terribly sorry, My Lord.”

“Apologies mean nothing in the face of insubordination.” Well, he had been good for long enough-- the last time he had hurt someone was when the princess had escaped their manor a few days prior. Honestly, what would it take to get some competent help?

Picking one of the men at random, he took his dagger out of the folds of his haori, and slit his throat with ease. For some reason, he was suddenly nostalgic for the good ol’ days, when killing someone actually brought a reaction out of him. Now, it was more just a chore.

The lifeless body hit the floor, bleeding out, creating a mess. Someone would have to clean that up later, but it most certainly wasn’t going to be him .

“Fetch Lord Arata, and inform him that we shall need to borrow a ship.”

“But, Lord Kage, it’s the middle of the--”

“Are you questioning me?” Kage spat, turning a sharp, hollow eye onto his men. They flinched at his words, and some of them glanced at the body before them. “Investigate that ship, find the source of these protests, and,” he paused, an unnaturally warm smile making him almost seem human, “if you see the red-haired woman, bring her to me.” The smile slipped off of his face, replaced by his usual expression-- or lack thereof. “Do not fail me again.”

“Yes, My Lord!”

The imbeciles ran out of the room, nearly knocking each other over in the process. With a sigh, he returned to his room, grabbed his bandage, and his hat, and left the manor.

He had little faith in the help he had employed, so it was up to him to find more answers on his own.

How typical.

In case of the event that Jae Ha, Soo Won, or Yona saw Kage come out of his hiding place, they were each armed with a small firework, meant to grab the attention of the crewmates that were wandering Awa.

As he was watching his crewmates, a shadowy figure in a nearby alleyway caught Soo Won’s attention. Watching him from a close distance, he waited until the man approached a light source.

However, the man was too careful, making sure to stay out of the light. This, however, was almost reassuring-- although Soo Won couldn’t light the firework until he was absolutely positive that the man was Kage.

Quiet steps approached him from behind, accompanied by a whisper.

“Soo Won.” It was Yona. Keeping his eyes glued to the man across the street, he motioned for her to stay close to the wall.

“I think that may be Kage.” He kept his voice low, turning his shoulders out so as to keep her from view, just in case.

“Then we should do something to get his attention,” she said, her voice sharp, despite its soft volume. If she wasn’t careful, he thought, her hatred could eat her alive.

“No, it’s too dangerous.”

“But we need to see if it’s him,” she insisted. He agreed with her thinking , but not her methods, which were going to create a problem. They did need to alert the crew that he was out on the town, if possible, but he wasn’t going to let her sacrifice herself, or some other reckless nonsense.

With a sigh, he pointed at the ground, still keeping his eyes on the figure, who hadn’t moved.

“Grab me a rock.”

She did, placing it into his hands. Tossing the rock, he aimed for the base of a lantern, making sure that Kage would have to pass by their little cranny if he investigated.

For an added plus, Soo Won called out, in a harsh whisper,

“Yona! Get back here!”

Turning around, he pushed Yona further into the alley, away from the street, finding a place where they were well-hidden in the shadows. Positioning her against the wall, he placed his hands on either side of her, and leaned in close, hiding her from view.

Sure enough, Kage walked by, nonchalant as always, one of his eyes covered by bandages.

Yona’s breathing hitched, but she remained silent, otherwise. Soo Won leaned in closer, practically pressing up against her. However, Kage was his only focus, and he hardly realized what he was doing. He passed by their hiding spot without incident, and Soo Won released a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.

“We need to find a way to light this,” he whispered, moving away from Yona, and taking out the firework. Grabbing her hand, he ushered her along, starting off at a slight jog. Without saying a word, she followed, matching his pace with her own.

They exited the alley onto another street, yet she was still silent. Glancing at her over his shoulder, there was an undeniable redness to her cheeks. Now that he was focusing on her, he realized how warm her hands felt in his.

“Yona?” he asked, slowing to a stop, and turning to face her. “What is wrong?” Shaking her head, she tried to duck past him, heading towards the closest lantern.

Perhaps she was shaken up by Kage’s presence, he thought, not thinking for even a moment that he had anything to do with it.

The two of them reached the lantern, and Soo Won fumbled with the fuse, struggling to light it. After a few fruitless attempts, he finally lit it, and aimed the firework for the sky. With a loud screech, the firework shot into the air. For just a moment, the two of them were illuminated by the red light of the explosion, but they had no time to admire the sight of it.

“C’mon, we need to get going!” she whispered, sounding a little frantic, taking hold of Soo Won’s hand, and leading him away from their spot. They were out in the open-- if someone were to see them, they’d have a much harder time losing them.

What began as a steady jog ended up becoming an all-out sprint. In an attempt to put as much distance between them and Kage as possible, they headed for Jae Ha’s sector.

They were about to round a corner at breakneck speeds when Yona screeched to a halt, backpedaling, both she and Soo Won almost falling in the process. Turning around, she immediately began to push him in the opposite direction, into a nearby alleyway.

They had barely managed to hide themselves before a sizeable group-- about six or eight men-- passed by, led by an irate nobleman. Yona recognized him from her night out with Jin: Lord Arata.

“What is the meaning of this? Pulling me out of bed in the middle of the night to demand use of one of my ships .”

“Lord Kage’s orders,” one of the henchmen grumbled, not offering much more explanation outside of that. However, despite the lack of details, Arata conceded.

“Fine. I am, after all, only a mere servant to His Lordship.”

The group passed by without incident. However, the two royal pirates didn’t move from their spot until they could no longer hear the grumbling of Lord Arata.

When all seemed clear, she sighed, relaxing against Soo Won, who tensed at the contact. It only lasted for a moment before she straightened up, and began marching through the alleyway.

“That’s Lord Arata,” she explained, her voice quiet and strained. “I’ve met him before. With Jin.”

Somehow, hearing her say “with Jin” hurt much more than Soo Won had been anticipating. She sounded far too casual about it for his taste, as if she was talking about an old friend.

He was really beginning to detest that man.

Jae Ha and the other crewmates saw the firework, and knew that their night just went from challenging to stupidly difficult. The crew had been informed of Kage’s modus operandi, as well as his appearance, prior to the operation, and had been told to flee if they came across him. He was far too unhinged to fight-- it would quickly become a slaughter.

Gods help them if he had any sort of reinforcements with him.

It didn’t help that Kage knew what Jae Ha looked like-- that was one major disadvantage to their mission for the evening. What was more chilling was that he seemed to know too much about the crew, in general.

The man seemed less and less human the longer he was alive. Jae Ha could only hope to amend that someday soon. Personally. Preferably with his own two hands.

As they raced through the city, ducking down alleyways and flinching at every passing shadow, he remembered the look on Yona’s face as she approached the ship after her kidnapping. The way her entire presence just seemed lacking ; it was the closest she had ever been to her younger self since joining the crew.

His life had become so much better once she had come into it. He looked forward to waking up in the morning because it meant he was that much closer to seeing her again. He loved the mundane and the exciting, all of it, because at least they could go through it together.

Those few days that she was missing weren’t filled with darkness, they were completely void of light, of anything . He had taken her presence for granted-- he hadn’t realized just how much her light had reached him.

She never shunned him like others had. She saw him, his powers… even his leg , and she hadn’t even flinched. She didn’t shy away from what he was, nor did she shy away from what she was. It had become the first time in his life that he had felt truly accepted.

The Captain and the crew had accepted him, sure, but this was on a completely different level. Yona could empathize with him, at least to some degree. Even where her personal experiences ended, she did her damnedest to make up for it.

She never gave up on him.

Now it was time for him to return the favor.

He believed in her. He believed in everything she stood for. He knew, deep in his soul, that she could achieve anything she set her mind to.

And, damnit , he’d be the one standing by her side when she did.

“You two get to the harbor and help the others,” he commanded, half-turning over his shoulder, running down a narrow alley. They nodded, skidding to a halt, and turned, heading in the opposite direction towards the water.

He couldn’t have sent them away at a better time. As soon as he turned the corner, who else was he met with but the very man that he detested?

“Don’t try to fight him.” That’s what Yona had warned the crew. “You can’t die on me. Not when we’re this close.”

Jae Ha wasn’t going to fight, but, after meeting Kage’s unsettling eyes, he didn’t run, either.

The nearly-constant barrage of fireworks and firecrackers barely even caught Soo Won’s attention anymore. He was starting to become desensitized to the crackles, the explosions, and the shouting.

Every now and then, he and Yona would come across a group of protesters, chanting and shouting that Yang Kage’s reign of terror would soon come to an end. That much, at least, left him feeling hopeful. If the people of Awa were sick and tired of him, then the crew had a much better chance of getting rid of him without societal repercussions.

The closer they got to their goal, the more it sank in that Yona would be the one to kill Kage. It was almost certain, at this point. While he was quite content with how she had matured, there was still a part of him that felt a deep sense of guilt for driving her to this.

Even if he hadn’t driven her from the castle, he still would have planned to rid Awa of Yang Kumji, and Kage emerged out of Kumji’s absence. The people in this town would have suffered, even if Yona hadn’t been the one to kill these crime lords.

“Wait, Soo Won.” Holding out an arm, she stopped them both in their tracks, her features twisting with focus and concern. Soo Won didn’t sense anything out of the ordinary, and there was no one nearby… so what was wrong?

“What is it?”

“Do you hear anything?” He stopped, listened… but, no, he didn’t hear anything. Shaking his head, he met her quivering gaze.

Realization dawned over him, both of their eyes flashing towards the shoreline, the silence of the night weighing down on them with a newfound power.

“The crew,” she breathed, her eyes glued to the dark ocean, vague outlines of boats poking through in the starlight.

Taking a step forward, he stood at her side, searching her face. Just as she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the ocean, he couldn’t tear his eyes from her. Her courage, her determination, her perseverance… they had shaped her into a completely different woman.

Despite the time that had passed, he couldn’t help but picture her as the young princess he once knew. It was only in moments like this, when her expression was set, that he was brutally reminded of who she had become.

She had forged herself in a fire he had made with his own hands, and she was beautiful.

Without looking away from the ocean, her hand found his, her fingers grazing his with no shortage of uncertainty. Although he thought himself quite bold, he easily took her hand into his own, her calloused palms scraping against his blisters.

She squeezed his hand, hard.

“They are going to be okay,” he said, his voice sounding much more certain than he felt. Yona didn’t respond. Instead, she only squeezed his hand harder.

“Hmmmm, hu- what seems to be the problem, gentlemen?” the crewmate slurred, his breath reeking of alcohol as he breathed into the face of the corrupted nobleman. With a frown, Lord Arata fanned the pungent air from his face, wishing that Lord Kage had chosen some other poor sap’s boat to borrow.

“You are--” The man burped in his face, interrupting him. Waving the stink away once again, he continued, with no shortage of disgust, “You are causing a disturbance of the peace, and we demand that you cease and desist, at once.”

Ohhhhhh ,” the man grimaced, turning towards the rest of his crewmates, and shushing them loudly. “We’re being too noisy,” he fake-whispered, although it was loud enough for all of them to hear it. Turning back to Arata, he stumbled, seeming to lose his balance momentarily. “I ‘pologize for that, gentlemen. How very…” he burped again, “ rude of us.”

“Yes, well… cease this nonsense at once.”

“Aye, aye, cap’n!” The drunken man saluted, swaying uneasily on his feet. “Cap’n… Cap’n…” he squinted, leaning closer to Arata. “Say, what’s your name, anyway?”

While he was hesitant to give his name, he supposed they were drunk enough where it wouldn’t matter.

“Arata.”

“Cap’n Arata!” they cheered, whooping loudly. “Cap’n! Cap’n! Cap’n!” Chanting the title, they were making even more noise. Rolling his eyes, Arata supposed there was no point in trying to reason with them further. Pointing to the next one, the main representative asked, “What’s your name, Cap’n?”

“Ko.”

“Cap’n Ko!!”

“And you?” And so they went, down the line of the dozen or so men, getting each and every one of their names, cheering for all of their new captains. Finally, Arata, completely fed up, cleared his throat.

“Your captains ask you to stay quiet for the remainder of the night.”

“Aye, aye, Cap’ns,” the main crewmate whispered loudly again. “Sorry ‘bout that.”

With a curt nod, Arata returned to his own ship, watching the drunken crew carefully to make sure they didn’t start their nonsense again. But, no, the drunken crew just waved at them, far too happy-go-lucky, considering the time of night.

“Bye, bye, now! Come join us next time!”

“Sake’s on us, gentlemen!”

“Bring a pretty lady with you next time!”

Honestly , Arata thought, exhausted and at the limits of his patience.

However, once he was out of earshot, and his ship was far enough away, the crew-- stone-cold sober, in actuality-- shot off one more firework, their signal to everyone on land that they had met Kage’s men, and their task was complete.

They didn’t get to meet Kage, himself, but his henchman will do.

“Yoon, can you remember all of those names?”

“Of course I can,” Yoon scoffed, crossing his arms across his chest. “I’m a genius, after all.”

When the final firework shot into the air, the crew that remained in town breathed a sigh of relief. Yona knew that Yoon would be the most capable for talking his way out of anything, and could stop a slaughter in its tracks.

Still, she didn’t let go of Soo Won’s hand, even after she knew the rest of them were safe.

Now that the main mission of the night was finished, the protests slowed, and grew quiet, the whole town seemed to fall into a deep slumber.

All was peaceful again.

In the silence of the town, something more refreshing than Yona and Soo Won had ever realized it could be, they returned to their ship, hand-in-hand, never saying a word to one another. In a way, that felt the most comfortable.

To think, they had gotten used to the other’s presence.

To think, they had started to crave it.

Yona wasn’t sure when it had happened, but somewhere in the course of the night, she had really started to view Soo Won in a different light. Or, perhaps her views had already changed, and she only realized it due to the night’s events.

She wasn’t sure which one it was, but either way, she was starting to feel more complete now that her hand was in his. She felt that she had regained a part of herself, a part that had been missing for so long, she thought she could live without it.

But now? She wasn’t so sure.

While she had no desire to return to the world and mindset of her ditzy, bubbly, younger self, she didn’t hate the way Soo Won looked at her, or the way he made her feel.

Sure, it was different from Jae Ha, but… maybe different was what she needed. After all, she had been pitifully rejected-- why not try something new?

Or, rather, something old?

After everything she had been through, wasn’t it time to be kind to herself? To follow her heart, and let herself have even a moment of happiness?

When Soo Won’s hand gave hers a small squeeze, she was brought out of her thoughts, and back to the present. He was smiling at her. That usual, gentle, Soo Won smile. The one that made her love him in the first place.

Yeah, she thought, smiling back, why not?

By the time everyone in the crew returned to the ship, it was about three in the morning. Once everyone was accounted for-- Jae Ha personally counted heads-- Gi Gan conceded to the whining of the crew, and allowed them to get a late start the following morning.

“Jae Ha,” Yona called, approaching him. “How did things go for you?”

“Fine,” he replied, much more tense than she was expecting. With that, he went into his quarters, not even bothering to say good night.

Soo Won watched this interaction with no shortage of curiosity. He wasn’t sure what had Jae Ha in such a bad mood, but something sure did. Yona bid the crew good night, told them all that they did a great job, then retired to her own quarters.

“Soo Won, you’re first on night watch,” Gi Gan ordered.

“But Captain, he worked so hard tonight!” Maya whined on Soo Won’s behalf, a gesture that he appreciated.

“Then he can keep working,” Gi Gan grumbled, blowing out smoke. This was the response that he had been expecting .

“Understood, Captain,” he agreed, although he didn’t do much to hide his exhaustion. He had been running all over the city for the entire night-- his body ached from the overexertion.

But, then again, he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep much, anyway. His mind was running a mile a minute, practically buzzing from processing so much information at once. They had a good idea of the current situation, but he simultaneously had to plan for the next three steps ahead, in all directions.

A couple hours in the cool night air, alone, would do him some good. He could let his mind run itself as ragged as his body.

Climbing into the crow’s nest, he watched as the rest of the crew retired, the leftover tension from the night fading away. Now that everyone was together again, there was nothing to worry about. They could all breathe a little easier.

As the crew settled in, a sleepy quiet falling over the ship, Soo Won let his mind wander anywhere it wanted. Switching between the plan, Yona, the crew, his deadline, and his responsibilities, he was drowning in his own thoughts.

There was just far too much to do, and not enough time to do it.

Before his anxiety could overtake him, he forced his thoughts to change direction, focusing on more positive things. Namely, one future pirate captain.

There had been one point during the evening when she had become a little quiet. While she had seemed fine during their return trip, had there been something bothering her before that? Or had it been the obvious stress of Kage’s presence?

It was around the time when they saw him, after all… perhaps she had been a little shaken up?

Then, like a wave of ice-cold water, the memory crashed over him. Soo Won had cornered her, hadn’t he? He had her pinned against the wall. And, now that he was remembering things a little more clearly, wasn’t she blushing after that? Or was his mind altering his memories to fit what he wanted to happen?

Oh, no…

He must have surprised her, and that was why she had gone quiet.

Guilt flooded him. How could he be so insensitive? He hadn’t thought about her at all ! He just thought of protecting her, but it didn’t once occur to him that she might have hated it.

I’m such an idiot .

Taking in a deep breath, he held it for a moment, before releasing it in the form of a deep sigh. It wasn’t much, but some of the tension left his body, at least.

“Something wrong?”

He jumped slightly, not completely aware that someone had climbed the rope ladder. Two hands grabbed onto the edge of the crow’s nest, and sure enough, Yona peeked over the edge, her bright red hair preceding her.

Speak of the devil, he thought.

“I thought you would be sleeping,” he commented, not completely surprised that she was there. They had both had quite an exciting night, and while he was exhausted, his mind wouldn’t shut off anytime soon. He was sure it was a similar case with her, too.

“I’m too wound up.” Twisting her mouth into a frown, she climbed into the crow’s nest.

“I suppose that makes two of us,” he chuckled, a nervous, bitter sound. This remark gained a small, tired laugh from Yona, followed shortly by a sigh.

He felt far too aware of her presence, where she stood, where she looked… everything she did called for his attention, but he couldn’t make it obvious by staring at her.

“So what had you sighing like that?” she asked, crossing her arms on the edge of the crow’s nest, and leaning forward, trying to get a better look at his face.

He couldn’t tell her the truth, could he? He couldn’t be as suave as Jae Ha, or even Hak, and say I was thinking about you , and then brush it off like it was nothing. He couldn’t ever really do that, or sweet talk people in such an intimate way.

“I was thinking of everything that I must do before I return to the capital,” he lied, his words coming out as a sigh. Looking towards her, he smiled slightly, hoping to reassure her.

“Oh.”

Did she sound disappointed, or was he just hoping too much?

“Here I was, hoping it was because you were going to miss me,” she quipped, flipping her hair over her shoulder. Her words caught him by surprise-- she hit the nail on the head, after all-- and he tried to form words, his cheeks growing warm.

She looked away, towards Awa, her back towards him, an awkward silence forming between the two of them.

He wanted to reassure her, tell her the truth, that he would miss her, he’d miss her so very dearly, he couldn’t even think straight anymore, but… if it wasn’t what she wanted to hear, what would he do? If he strained their relationship, he would feel so much regret, he probably wouldn’t be able to speak to her again.

He didn’t want that to happen. More than anything, he wanted to cherish the time he had with her.

“I’ll miss you,” she mumbled, almost too quiet for him to hear. Once again, he doubted himself, thinking that he was only filling in the blanks of what he thought he heard.

“I will miss you, too,” he whispered, the words tumbling out of his mouth. His heart had won out over his mind, which was indeed a rare occurrence. She looked at him, pushing her hair back with her hand, her cheeks a lovely rosy color.

“Will you?” Her eyes bored into him, searching his face for answers. “Or will you return to the palace, and become so buried in work that you forget about me?” Biting her lip, she looked away. “Forget it. It’s stupid.”

“It’s not.” Once again, the words forced their way out, and his body followed suit, one hand grabbing her shoulder, the other turning her face back towards him. She was warm to the touch, leaving him feeling relieved. She was blushing; it wasn’t just his imagination.

Up until that moment, he had been so careful not to touch her, not to get too close, as if she might shatter just by being near him. She could touch him, but he could never touch her, unless the circumstances were dire enough.

But it just wasn’t enough anymore. It had never been enough, but now, especially… he had to feel her, to make sure this whole thing wasn’t just a dream.

Her eyes shimmered in the starlight as she gazed up at him, but she didn’t move away. Despite the trembling in his fingers, and his grip on her shoulder, she didn’t move.

Instead, she did the opposite, taking a step closer to him.

“I know you, Soo Won,” she breathed, her voice almost stolen away by the sea breeze. “You’ve always been married to your work, haven’t you?” Despite her words, there was a smile on her face-- knowing and sad. “Even when we were kids.”

He knew that what she said was true. There was no point in even pretending to deny it.

A thought, completely invasive in nature, but not entirely unwanted, bloomed in the presence of her words.

But I would marry you, given the chance.

It was a realization he hadn’t necessarily wanted, but one that immediately changed his view of the situation he was currently in.

It was incredibly selfish, and utterly stupid, borderline impossible, given the circumstances of their situation, but… damn , he wanted it. He could never have it, and he knew it. That didn’t stop him from wanting it, though.

An awkward smile spread over his lips, his eyes darting downwards-- towards her lips? He hoped not-- then left, then right, before settling on her face once again.

“You are right, of course.” A slight breeze picked up, pushing her hair forward until it draped over the hand that was closed around her shoulder. Letting go, he moved to tuck her hair behind her ear, leaning in close enough for his breath to mingle with hers. Once he had tamed the unruly strand, he remained there, meeting her gaze.

For a moment, he battled with himself-- move to kiss her, or not-- but he already knew the answer. Of course he wouldn’t. If he couldn’t tell her, outright, that he was going to miss her, why on earth would he kiss her?

The least he could do was stay where he was.

“I could never forget you.” His voice was low in volume, but had all the strength and power of a scream.

“But what if you do?” she asked, her eyes searching his. She wanted the truth, and he knew it. He could see it in the way she looked at him, filled with painful hope, as if she knew it was futile, but she was trying anyway.

Her courage never failed to floor him. She was truly fearless, wasn’t she?

“You have my word,” he paused, moving to cup her cheek with his hand, smiling at her, “I could never forget you. You are far too precious to me.”

She opened her mouth, but closed it, eyes shifting downward.

Anxiety pricked at his senses. Had he gone too far? Had he said too much? It was just like what he was expecting-- he shouldn’t have said anything at all.

He straightened, creating some distance (although not much) between them.

“It’s kinda funny, isn’t it?” she sighed, her eyes slowly raising to meet his once again. “All these years, and… here we are again.” Taking a step forward, she had to crane her neck to meet his gaze. He knew what she was referring to, of course, but… it was odd of her to bring it up.

“I love your hair, Yona.”

That interaction seemed like centuries ago, taking place between two completely different people.

“Here we are again,” he repeated, his voice low, as if he was speaking to himself.

With a smile, she placed her hand over his, leaning into the hand that cupped her cheek.

“I should… probably go to bed. A lot happened tonight.” Almost uncertainly, she moved away, crossing the small space within the crow’s nest. Climbing over the edge, she stood on the rope ladder, keeping two hands on the edge for support.

It didn’t take much for Soo Won to follow her, only about two steps in the other direction. Supporting himself by leaning against the edge of the lookout, he placed his hands a little wider than hers, leaning closer.

“I meant what I said, Yona,” he said, his voice quiet, but even. “I won’t forget you.” When she looked up at him, her eyes were sparkling again, filled with awe, and, dare he say, admiration. “And I will miss you. Terribly.”

He felt particularly compelled to tell her this. Perhaps because the future was so uncertain, perhaps because he was running out of time.

“And I’ll miss you,” she whispered, smiling sadly. He returned her smile with one of his own.

“You should get some rest.” He leaned back, moving to return to the opposite side of the crow’s nest, but she grabbed onto his sleeve, stopping him.

“Wait.”

“What is it?” He turned back, facing her head-on.

Yona bit her lip, her eyes darting this way and that, before she reached for him, her hand grazing his jaw. Leaning in closer, slowly, she looked up at him, her eyes filled with that pained hope once again.

“Can I…?” she trailed off, hesitating, her breath hitting his lips.

Whatever courage she needed, she found, long before Soo Won could even form an answer. Closing what little distance was left between them, she pressed her lips against his, leaning all of her weight against the crow’s nest so she could be closer to him.

His hand grazed her cheek, moving to cradle the back of her neck. He had only just begun to return the kiss when she pulled away, her cheeks almost as red as her hair.

“I should, uh, go…”

“Yona, wait.” His hand reached for her, grazing her cheek. In that moment, he looked at her like she was a clear sky filled with stars-- with a sense of awe, and a sense of belonging. He looked at her as if she was the only solid source of comfort he had ever had. “Thank you.”

She leaned in close, only once more, pressing a quick kiss to his lips once again.

“You’re welcome.”

The smile she gave him rivaled all the beauty in the world.

“Good night.”

And with that, she climbed down the ladder, and crossed the deck, returning to her room. She didn’t notice Jae Ha, who had been standing in the shadows, having seen the whole exchange.

Chapter Text

It took all of Jae Ha’s self-control to stop himself from climbing up the rope ladder, and— well, there had been several possibilities that went through his imagination, but none of them were smiled upon in society. At the very least, he and Soo Won would be exchanging some rather unkind words.

No matter what, even the thought of taking all of his anger, disappointment, and jealousy out on Soo Won didn’t make him feel any better. He could practically see Yona’s frown, the hurt cutting deep into her features.

She really didn’t love Jae Ha, did she? All those years together, all the shared moments, all of the emotions that passed between them— for what? For her to choose Soo Won ? The man who murdered her father? Was she actually insane?

His hands shook at his sides, his fingers trembling, itching to punch something, to have control over something , anything in his life. Ever since Soo Won had shown up, everyone’s lives had plunged into a downward spiral.

He didn’t want to be on the ship anymore. It was stifling him, reminding him of his childhood residence.

To call that place his childhood “home” was a flat-out lie. It was a prison, and the ship was quickly becoming the same. While Soo Won was still there, that’s all it ever would be.

He needed to get out of there, and he needed to leave now .

With a powerful jump, he leapt into the air, the cold ocean breeze clearing his head, if only a little. Up there, in the sky, it was easy to remember that he had always survived when he was alone.

It was easy to realize he’ll continue to survive even when Yona makes the worst decision of her life.

He never thought he would take the word of a man like Kage, but as he travelled into town, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, the monster’s words held far too much truth, and weighed heavily upon his mind.

 

“Well, what a surprise seeing you here,” Kage murmured, his eyes seeming much more hollow than usual. Jae Ha had come across him in the street, but hadn’t run, as he had been warned to do. “I suppose you would have no idea how all of this has come to pass, would you?”

Jae Ha didn’t respond. He wasn’t particularly fond of Kage’s condescending tone, as if he was asking a child where his mother had run off to.

“No, I suppose you would not.” When Kage smiled, Jae Ha was reminded of his childhood, of the men who looked down upon him and saw him as nothing more than a nuisance, a waste of resources. One little expression from the man, and suddenly, he was thrown back into the darkest times of his adolescence.

How? How can he do it?

“How surprising that your dear Yona is not with you,” he mused, sending a chill down Jae Ha’s spine. The way her name slid out of his mouth, as if he was praising some ancient goddess, made his stomach churn. “I was expecting that she would have a hand in this. That is,” he paused, his smile growing wider, “unless she does have a hand in this whole ordeal, and you were sent ahead, alone, while she remained with His Majesty?”

Jae Ha knew that wasn’t the truth, but he didn’t like the look on Kage’s face, as if he knew something that he didn’t. After all, he had mentioned something about Yona’s relationship with Soo Won when they had met previously, too.

“Tell me, Yona, for I have been rather curious about this for some time. Was he the one with you on that night? Or was it this quieter gentleman?”

The look of embarrassment that had poisoned Yona’s expression, the shock of it all coming to light.

“It seems our dearest Yona had quite the tryst with your newest friend.”

Blood boiling at the memory, he forced it aside. He knew better than to believe anything that came out of this man’s mouth. He knew this, and yet…

“You’re a liar.” He has to be.

“My, what confidence,” Kage hummed, almost seeming impressed. “As someone who loves her, surely you must be aware that her loyalty to you is wavering?” With a nonchalant shrug, Kage cast a glance around their surroundings. “Of course, in favor of His Majesty.”

“No, she’s not—” Jae Ha cut himself off, his mind stopping him from playing into Kage’s games. Unfortunately, he had said enough.

“Fret not, first mate. I, too, am quite unhappy with this development.” Sighing, his eyes landed on Jae Ha once again, unsettling him, hypnotizing him. “At least when it was you, she would remain within Awa.” Another smile. “After all, even if she did not reciprocate your feelings, you could at least remain close to her, correct?”

How does he know all of this?

“We have a common interest in this, then. A shared goal, as it were,” he hummed, pressing a finger to his lips. “We both wish for our dear Yona to remain within Awa.” Grinding his teeth, Jae Ha knew he wasn’t wrong, but hated so much of what he had just said. How could he claim that he cared about Yona, after everything he had done to her? “His Majesty had his time, once, and now… he believes himself entitled to her heart.”

There had been a change in Yona’s demeanor since Soo Won had arrived. Jae Ha had seen the way she smiled around him, the way her eyes softened, how everything he did seemed to be erased by time. Because of him, she had started to forget what had been important to her, to her crew .

“I would hate to alarm you, however, I have information that you would be rather interested in.”

“And why should I believe any information you give me?” he asked, eyes narrowing. He didn’t trust Kage, or that freakishly unwavering smile.

“Why, because I have already provided you with multiple truths, have I not?” The air around him was— Jae Ha couldn’t believe it— easy-going . “My sources have informed me that His Majesty intends to bring your dear Yona with him when he returns to the capital.”

What…? But Yona just agreed to become Captain…

“And, I am afraid that by the way she has been looking at him… she is more likely than ever to accompany him, would you not agree?” Clicking his tongue, he folded his arms across his chest. “A pity, truly, that she is straying from her true calling.”

Grinding his teeth, Jae Ha asked, “And what do you know about her true calling?”

“Why,” Kage’s smile grew wider still, “we share an opinion on this, first mate. Our dear Yona is best-suited to a life of piracy, not of royalty,” he explained, as if he was bantering with a childhood friend. “She is already becoming softer, would you not agree? I am sure you would also agree that—”

“Shut up—!”

“You like your women strong , do you not?”

In a deep part of him, Jae Ha knew that it was pointless to try and argue with Kage. The man was living in his own, separate reality— something that was becoming more and more apparent the longer they talked.

Still, he may be delusional, and psychopathic, but Kage knew too much for his own good.

“I shall reiterate: at least if you win her heart, she shall remain within Awa. As it stands, she is far too close to His Majesty… and you are dangerously close to losing her.” With a sigh, he turned, giving Jae Ha a tired look over his shoulder. “Do take care to keep her close, would you? That King has taken enough from her— are you truly willing to let him do as he wishes?”

Jae Ha couldn’t believe his ears. Soo Won had a lot of nerve, sure , but… to step between them? Yona wouldn’t— couldn’t— possibly leave Awa behind for his sake, right?

“After all, there is no guarantee that His Majesty will not enforce strict piracy laws once he returns to the capital with his beloved princess.”

And, with that cryptic warning, he left, disappearing into the shadows once more.

 

Thinking back on that conversation, it became clear to Jae Ha, as he sat in the company of some rather beautiful, working ladies, having sake poured for him, that he really would never have Yona. That she would choose Soo Won, and return to the capital, abandoning not only him, but her crew.

To hell with her, then.

“Jae Ha~” the prostitute cooed, wrapping her delicate arms around his bare waist. “Come on, I know you aren’t nearly satisfied yet. It’s been so long since you’ve been here as a customer…”

Well, it would be better if he kept himself distracted for now, anyway.

 

As she woke up, the first emotion that hit Yona could have been pride, or romantic jitters, or dreamy bliss. But, naturally, it was none of those things.

No, the first emotion that Yona felt upon waking was a deep sense of why the fuck did I do that?! Call it shame, embarrassment, the voice of reason… either way, the only thought that filled her head for the first hour she was awake was WHY DID I DO THAT?!

Obviously, she didn’t have an answer.

She had been swept up in the moment! She had been close enough to kiss him, and so she— she did , and she wasn’t sure how to feel about it now that she had gotten some sleep and was thinking slightly coherently again.

Did she regret it? Sort of? Part of her did, but part of her didn’t, too, and that only made the emotional turmoil worse.

Did she like it? Yes…? No? Again, it was hard to say for sure.

The problem with facing her first love is that she had that horrible voice, in the very back of her head, that had been screeching what if you kissed Soo Won? You know you’ve always wanted to!!

And now that she had , she really wasn’t sure what to do with herself.

So there may have been a tiny, miniscule, nearly-imperceptible sliver of romantic feelings towards Soo Won— it was, obviously, much larger than a sliver, but she was not nearly ready to admit that to herself yet— that didn’t mean that she could just kiss him! Not when there was so much going on! Not when they had Jin and Awa and Jae Ha and Gigan and every other damn thing in their lives to worry about right now!

Did she regret kissing him? No.

Did she regret her timing ? Very much so.

“I’m a fuckin’ moron…” she grumbled, burying her head into her hands.

As she voiced her thoughts, she felt foolish for wallowing. There were much bigger things that she had to worry about, and there she was, regretting one little kiss .

She had kissed plenty of people— the sensation wasn’t exactly foreign to her— so she decided that was how she would think of it: just another kiss. The fact that it was Soo Won was irrelevant.

It really wasn’t irrelevant, but she was going to make it irrelevant.

Taking a deep breath, she exhaled sharply, emptying out her lungs as much as she could, and stood up, shoving her way into her new day. With a great amount of force, she pulled her hair back into a high ponytail, pulled on her clothes, and wrapped her shoes, making each movement worth something.

She had a whole hell of a lot to tackle that day. No amount of petty romance could change that.

Opening the door to the deck, she stalked out, immediately taking part in her daily chores. Several crew members noted that she looked particularly pissed off. Naturally, they checked the two most important players in this whole fiasco.

Soo Won looked fine , completely unbothered. He went about his business, acting just as he always did.

Jae Ha, on the other hand…

He looked ragged— as if he didn’t get any sleep the night before— and just as pissed off as Yona, if not more so.

One by one, the crew began fabricating the tale of the night prior: Jae Ha and Yona must have had a fight. Possibly about Soo Won’s presence on the ship— certainly, the elephant in the room for everyone . Or maybe it was about Yona risking her life, or who knows what else?

With how tense they had been lately, any little thing could set them off. Their tempers kept getting the best of them; it was only a matter of time before they both said things they didn’t mean.

No matter how they looked at it, no one could see this mess ending well for all three of them.

Despite the fact that the crew liked Soo Won enough as a person, they were far more loyal to Jae Ha. Jae Ha had been a part of the crew since before most of them had joined. It would be unfair to turn their backs on him.

However, Yona, to them, was a sister, a friend, and to some, a daughter. They wanted her to be happy.

If she chose Soo Won over Jae Ha, then who would they side with? It was a lose-lose situation.

Returning to their work, most of them silently agreed that they had bigger problems to face.

 

Later that afternoon, Jae Ha saw the very woman that— for the first time in a long while— he didn’t want to see, her hair caught in the sea breeze. Mere days ago, his heart would have skipped a beat at a sight like this, but now, it only filled him with bitter resent.

Their conversation was short. A few orders, a few objectives… a job that she could trust him with. He nodded, said he understood, and that he’d do what he could. Her eyes searched his face, but she didn’t comment on the frown he knew he had, on the disdain that was written into his features.

Then, they went their separate ways.

 

Just before sunset, Yona pulled on her hat, and ventured into the city, a clear goal in mind. It wouldn’t take long, and, honestly, she was still so fired up about all the messy goings-on in her life, she felt sorry for whatever bastard that was stupid enough to try anything.

She needed the outlet, and boy, would she appreciate a good, low-down, dirty fight.

Keeping her head down, she wandered into the back alleys of the red-light district, heading for a few specific venues.

At each point, she would talk to the person in charge, and several of the workers, spreading the news, keeping it quiet.

She didn’t need anything spectacular, like the night before. She needed something discreet, a network that she, and she alone, could rely on.

Turning Jin’s victims against him was only the beginning.

 

Under the cover of night, Gulfan, Soo Won’s falcon, flew silently through the air, an encrypted letter tucked into a small container tied to his leg.

When the letter reached its intended target, Gulfan squawked quietly to get his attention. It was only his first delivery of the night, and he had a lot of ground to cover before returning to his master.

“Oh! Is that not His Majesty’s messenger?” Yun Ho cooed, approaching Gulfan and giving him a little pat on the head. “You have worked hard. Good job.”

Geun Tae forced himself to his feet, groaning in the process. After a few hours of lazing about, he didn’t want to stand, but it seemed he had no choice. If the King was sending a message, he had to answer.

Taking the tiny scroll from the container tied to the falcon’s leg, he read the contents, and grinned.

“Things’re about to get real interesting.”

Yun Ho drew closer, linking her arm with his, and leaning her head on his shoulder.

“What is it?”

“Awa, again.” Untying the cord around his hair, he tied it to Gulfan’s other leg, replacing the letter inside the container, as per Soo Won’s instructions. “Alright, off you go.” Gulfan squawked, and took off into the night. Immediately, Geun Tae set about writing out instructions for his attendants.

There wasn’t much time, and they would have to work quickly and efficiently.

 

“No. Absolutely not.”

“But—”

“No! You’ve already risked your life how many times? I’m not gonna let you do something this reckless!”

“But Captain —”

“You listen to me. We were lucky to get you back alive this time.” The dim light shimmered in Gi Gan’s eyes, her tears nearly imperceptible to the untrained eye. There was hurt in them, both fresh and from years past. “You have a good head on your shoulders, Yona, and I trust you, but—” With a heavy sigh, Gi Gan lit her pipe, leaning back, brooding. “We can’t let him get his hands on you again.”

“That’s why all of you would be with me, every step of the way,” Yona reasoned. “You can follow me, we can find out where his hideout is, and you could get me out before anything happens.”

“No. This is suicide.”

Yona straightened, her gaze unwavering. That fire was back in her eyes, and Gi Gan couldn’t help but see remnants of her younger self in her expression.

“Is there really no other way?” Gi Gan sighed, knowing full well that Yona’s stubborn streak would withstand all questioning.

“I’m valuable to him,” she grimaced.

“No shit —”

But , that also means I’m a weakness to him.” Her eyes sparkled with the fire that burned within her. “He doesn’t care about anything, about anyone… with the exception of me.”

Gi Gan didn’t say anything for a long time, only idly smoking her pipe, blowing out smoke every now and again.

“You’re playing with fire, you know,” she finally sighed. “Even if you’re ‘important’ to him, that doesn’t mean shit if he catches on to what you’re planning.”

“I know—”

“Do you?” Gi Gan’s harsh tone cut her off, as jarring as a slap across the face.

It was true. Yona was putting on a brave front, but she was scared out of her wits at the thought of coming face-to-face with Jin again.

Did she have a choice? Probably not.

Chewing on her lip, she gazed at her hands, knowing there wasn’t going to be another way.

“It would be suicide if I was working alone. I’m not making that mistake again.” Sitting up straight, she met the Captain’s eyes, her jaw set in determination.

“Jae Ha’s not gonna like this.”

“No one’s gonna like this, but that’s not about to stop me. It has to be done.” Standing, she stood with the poise of a former princess, and the authority of a pirate queen. “I’m gonna go check in with Soo Won. He reached out to General Geun Tae and General Joo Doh last night.”

“Not so fast, young lady,” Gi Gan interrupted, standing, her authority quickly overshadowing the feeble confidence Yona had.

Yona scoffed, “‘Young lady’?”

“That’s another thing we have to talk about. You and him.” Gi Gan stared at her, her eyes wise, knowing. “Sit.”

There was just no standing against a command like that. With a sigh, Yona plopped herself back into the chair, slouching like a true tomboy. Sighing again, she pouted her lips forward, blowing the air into her bangs.

“What’s this attitude for? You really thought I didn’t notice? The whole damn crew’s talking about it,” Gi Gan scoffed, taking a seat in her own chair. “You’re being reckless.”

“Yeah?” Yona asked, not caring to comment further. Eyeing her with no shortage of motherly disdain, Gi Gan blew out a small stream of smoke.

“Have I ever involved myself with your personal decisions before?”

“Plenty of times—”

“Shut up. This is for your sake.” Pausing for a moment, she sighed. “You’re really content with getting that close to him? Your father’s killer?”

Yona didn’t answer.

“You shouldn’t let yourself get distracted,” she said, although her voice was low, as if she regretted the words as they left her mouth. “At least… until this whole mess is done. Pulling both of them along… that’s not the right thing to do.”

“I know,” Yona answered, ashamed. “I… the other night, I don’t know what came over me. I guess… I don’t know, maybe I felt like I had nothing to lose.”

“That’s the problem. You have plenty to lose.”

Gi Gan was right, of course, but that didn’t make it any easier to hear.

“You want Jae Ha? Fine. You want Soo Won? Suit yourself. But at least finish your work before you get caught up in your playthings.”

A playful, coquettish smile bloomed on Yona’s face.

“What about stress relief? They might help.”

“You honestly mean to tell me that having those two idiots fighting over you is anything less than stressful?” Gi Gan laughed bitterly. “If you need a good lay, work faster. Otherwise, this’ll just keep getting messier.”

Rolling her eyes, Yona smiled all the same, standing up once more.

“If it was as simple as needing a good lay, I wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with,” she smirked, sticking her tongue out at the Captain. Playful smile fading, she continued, “I’m just… gonna have to see where we end up.” Heading for the door, she didn’t look back at Gi Gan. “You’re right. I have bigger things to be worrying about.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” Gi Gan sighed, her motherly undertone shining through her abrasive voice.

“I know.”

Her voice was low, filled with the shame of knowing she had messed up, was currently messing up, but could do nothing to stop it. Sighing, she finally turned, and faced her.

“Captain?” Yona asked, a small smile spreading across her lips. “Think you can have the crew spread the rumors that I’m back in business?”

Gi Gan harrumphed, which she expected, if she was being honest. But, she didn’t deny her request, so that was more than she could hope for. With that, she left the Captain’s quarters, heading back onto the deck, the sun’s warmth and light pouring down on her.

Making her way to Jae Ha, she was already mentally preparing herself for his objections to her plan, chastising her for being too reckless, and so on…

But when she told him about her plan, he just gazed at her, expression completely neutral.

“Alright.”

The response took her aback, if only out of its utter neutrality.

“‘Alright’? Is that all?” she asked, despite herself.

“What, you want me to try and stop you? You’ll just do what you want, anyway.” Searching his face, she tried to find any hint as to why he was acting like this, but to no avail. His expression was completely neutral, with no trace of mirth to be found. He was being completely serious.

“I— well… what’s with you?”

“Were you waiting for me to tell you it’s a bad idea?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow at her. After a moment, he rolled his eyes, turned, and began to walk away. “If you need someone else to tell you it’s a bad idea, why don’t you go ask Soo Won? He seems awfully interested in you.”

“Wait— Jae Ha—”

“I’m gonna take care of some prep for this plan of yours. See you later.”

“Hey!” she called after him, jogging to catch up, and blocking his path. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you acting like this?”

“Acting like what ?” His eyes, unwavering from hers, didn’t give anything away. He was keeping his poker face.

“Like an ass.”

“Maybe I’m always an ass, and you’re just now noticing,” he retorted, his frown deepening. “Seems to me we’re just noticing a lot about each other.”

Jae Ha.

“Gotta say, though. Fitting that you chose now to go and act the part.”

Against her better judgment, she asked, her patience thin, “What do you mean by that ?”

“I think you know exactly what I mean.” With a venomous smile, he pushed past her. “See you in the brothel.”

He must have thought that was the end of the discussion, as he never once looked back at her. That wasn’t good enough for Yona, though. Taking off one of her shoes, she threw it directly at the back of his head. When the shoe collided with his skull, it made a slapping sound loud enough to get the attention of the rest of the crew.

The argument suddenly became very, very public. The eyes of the crew focused on the two of them, and the storm brewing between them. There were a few murmurs of uh-oh , but otherwise, the rest remained silent.

Wincing, Jae Ha turned around, glaring at her.

“C’mon, Yona, dear,” he sneered, his words laced with poison. “Let’s be adults about this.”

“I’m trying to be. You’re the one who’s being an immature prick! You won’t even say what’s wrong!” Taking a breath, she tried to collect herself. It wasn’t entirely working, if she was being honest. “Jae Ha, please . This is hard enough without you making things difficult.”

I’m making things difficult?” he asked, laughing bitterly, his fangs bared.

Yeah , you are.”

“You two! That is enough!” A voice called from the crowd. Soo Won emerged, giving both of them a level-headed, disappointed frown. “We cannot have in-fighting. Not now.”

“Easy for you to say,” Jae Ha frowned. “But, now that the man of the hour’s here, maybe you two have something to share with the crew?”

An uneasy atmosphere settled over the deck. This entire conversation was like watching a storm tear apart a house, wall by wall. Although, the crew couldn’t settle on which one was the storm, and which one was the house.

“What are you—?” Yona started, before Jae Ha’s glare cut her off. It was there, written in his features. Frowning, she folded her arms across her chest.

“I saw the two of you a few nights ago.” Sneering at Soo Won, he continued, “Great job on night watch, by the way.” Flushing a deep red, Soo Won couldn’t defend himself.

“Alright, that’s enough. This conversation is over ,” she snapped. “All of you, get back to work!”

The crew wasted no time in busying themselves with menial tasks, quickly making distance between themselves and the bickering trio.

Lowering her voice, she turned to Jae Ha.

“What I do with my time, and who I spend it with, is none of your business. If you’re jealous , maybe you should’ve done something when you still had the chance.”

“I’m not—”

“I’m gonna be out there, risking my life tonight, and you’re worried about who I decide to kiss? I’ll be lucky to get out of this fucking mess alive .” Taking a step closer to him, she grabbed him by the collar, yanking him down to her level. “But fine, if that’s what you want so badly, you’re willing to throw a hissy fit over it—”

Pressing a kiss to his lips, filled with years of irritation and frustration and yearning, she didn’t allow herself to indulge for long.

Breaking the kiss, she glared at him, and shoved him away.

There’s your kiss.” Turning away from him, she immediately saw Soo Won, looking particularly pained. A pang of guilt hit her in her core, giving her a moment’s pause. Pushing past both of them, she grumbled, “Maybe the two of you can do your damn jobs, and spread the rumor that the red-haired whore will be back tonight.”

“Yona—” they both started, but she ignored them.

“I need to get ready. Make yourselves useful, for a change.”

 

“Whoa, look at that beauty…”

Passersby gaped at Yona as she stood on her balcony, fan coquettishly covering her mouth and she smiled at each of them. Once more, she was fully dressed in the gowns suiting the ladies of the brothel, with delicate ornaments decorating her hair, and tasteful accessories.

The more people that saw her, the better.

She knew her plan was working to her benefit when the comments went from wow, look at her, to wow, she’s really there. The more people that expected her to be there, the more likely it was that word would make it back to the individual she was trying to meet.

All potential customers were turned away, unless they matched Jin’s description. Those who were a close enough match were sent up to her room,  where they would be turned away by Yona, herself.

That is, until a gentle knock came to her door.

Somehow, she just knew it was him. Perhaps in the way that she never heard him approach, perhaps in the way he knocked, but when he spoke, she wasn’t surprised to hear his voice.

“Good evening, my dear,” he cooed. “May I come in?”

“Come in.”

His slimy presence poisoned the room, slinking up behind her, constricting her when he placed a hand on her shoulder, gently turning her gaze to him.

“I must say, you do know how to call a man’s attention.”

“You will always return to me.”

“What can I say? I wished for the attention of only one man, and here he is.” With a dazzlingly charming smile, she drew closer to him, keeping her touches light. “I wasn’t sure how to call you, so I had to pull some strings.”

Trailing her fingertips across his collarbone, she played as coy as she could. It was nauseating, but the more he felt at home, the better chance of success she had.

“I thought of what you told me… everything you’ve told me, and I realized I’ve been thinking of it in the wrong way the entire time.” Drawing closer still, she craned her neck back to look at him. “You’re right, Jin. This world, and the people in it… they’re disgraceful. But you , you’re a visionary. You’ve figured it all out.”

“You flatter me,” he smiled, still more monster than man.

“Would you need an extra hand, perhaps?” she asked, watching him carefully. “After all, I’ve already opened the path to this particular brothel…” Leaning onto her tiptoes, she pressed a kiss to his jaw. “... What’s to say I couldn’t do it with the others?”

“Hmm,” he chuckled, grabbing her wrists, and recoiling slightly from her. “You must think I am rather unintelligent, my dear.”

Damn.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because this is quite obviously a trap.” Grabbing her by the chin, he grinned, his eyes void of emotion. “However, I do appreciate your attempts at seduction. It is rather charming.”

Before this evening began, she knew she’d have to stick to her guns no matter what. She knew he’d see through it at first, but if she kept at it, there was a possibility that he might give.

“You’re guarded,” she cooed, caressing his cheek with the back of her hand, smiling fondly. “Of course, you have every right to be.”

Already, with those words, there was a chip in his armor, his façade faltering. His eyes widened, his breath catching in the slightest stumble over a gasp.

“Jin, I know you,” she whispered, her smile unfaltering. “You don’t have to pretend with me.” Letting go of her chin, his hand moved to cup her face, his eyes searching hers. For the final touch, she added, “Let me help you, my love.”

His expression faltered, and he leaned back, his grip on her losing its power.

“You… must be lying.”

So even he knows that it’s impossible for me to join forces with him.

Deflating a bit, she glanced away, sighing softly to herself.

“Somehow… I thought you’d be happier to hear this.” Turning away from him, she wrapped her arms around herself, looking down into the street below. “You’re the one who made me understand. I thought, this way, we could…” she trailed off, wrapping her arms tighter around herself.

“You cannot possibly mean that…” he said, although it sounded like his confidence was wavering.

Good.

“Why would I lie about something like this?” she huffed, turning around. “Do you need me to say it outright?” Forcing the words out, she continued, “I made this decision for you , Jin. It may be impulsive, but I really, truly want to do this for you. I want to be the one to wake up in your arms, I want to be the one to share every meal with you…” Taking a breath, she averted her gaze once more. “I thought Soo Won or Jae Ha could make me happy, but… they’re nothing compared to you.”

He said nothing, only stared at her in disbelief.

She had been right. She was his weakness.

“Please, Jin… say something ,” she pleaded, pouring on as much charm as she could physically muster. This conversation was the equivalent of looking into the lion’s mouth, but she wouldn’t go down without a fight. If anything, it was a nice change of pace to see him lose his grip on his plans for once.

Gently reaching towards her, he took her hands, and stepped back into the room, leading her away from the prying eyes of the public.

“You… you are speaking the truth…?” he asked, much more tender than she had been anticipating. Shaking off her surprise, she nodded, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye as coyly as she could.

Pulling her closer, he cupped her face in his hands, smiling at her in what she could only guess was a genuine way. It was entirely unnerving, all the same. Pressing his forehead against hers, he sighed, almost sounding relieved.

“I shall make the world fit for us to live in, my dear,” he promised, his voice wavering, filled with a sick sort of hope.

“I know you will,” she answered, mimicking his tone.

He pulled her into a hug, gentle, somehow desperate, as if she would vanish, or that this was all a dream.

“If it is for you, then anything,” he murmured, running his fingers through her hair. “Of course…” His tone shifted, immediately putting her on edge. “If I were to find out you were lying, then you understand the consequences.”

Heart hammering in her chest, she wrapped her arms around him, swallowing the lump in her throat.

“Of course, but I’m not lying.”

“No, you are not.” Despite the fact that she couldn’t see his face, she had the sinking feeling that he was smiling. “I do not appreciate liars, I shall be the first to admit. They do put me in quite a sour mood.”

All the more reason for her to make sure he didn’t live long enough to do act upon his anger, then.

“As they should,” she agreed easily. “Now, enough talk of lies and deception.” Pulling away from him, she smiled as easily as she could, somewhat shocked at her ability to look him in the eye, despite everything that happened. “How about a hot meal, and some tea? Or perhaps some fine sake?”

“Very well, my dear, but not here.”

“Oh?” she asked, although she was sure she knew what he meant.

“Alas, I abandoned some rather pressing business to come fetch you before some wretch could put his hands all over you,” he explained, eyeing her with that twisted type of affectionate look that only he could manage.

Managing her own affectionate smile, she took his hand.

“I know it’s selfish of me, but I’m glad you did.” Pausing a moment, she tested her newfound position of power by asking, “Shall I accompany you while you take care of this business?” Eyeing her with no shortage of impatient suspicion, his smile never faltered.

“Oh… this work is not suiting of a lady’s presence, I am afraid.”

Plastering a smile to her face, she fought to keep her ground.

“Now it’s you that’s flattering me. I’m no lady.” Straightening the folds of his kimono, she acted as if she couldn’t care less about his plans, although it was quite the opposite. “What type of work are you attending to? Perhaps I can be of some assistance?”

“Oh?” he hummed, his eyes burning holes into the top of her head as she continued to casually touch him.

It would take a lot of guts, and a lot of perseverance, but she had to stay by his side.

“I’ll be helping you achieve your plans, won’t I?” she asked as innocently as she could. “Then, tell me what I can do to take some of the burden off of you.” For good measure, she trailed her fingers along his jawline, smiling dreamily. “That way, we can build our world. Together.”

Ugh… I sound just like him, she thought, smothering a shudder that was building up in her core. She wasn’t just playing with fire anymore, she was igniting it, she was creating the inferno.

It was what she had to do. It was what he wanted from her, and if she had to play into his good graces in order to save the whole city, then that was a sacrifice she would have to make.

At least she knew her humanity was intact. She wouldn’t be changing sides any time soon.

“Alas,” he said, frowning. For a moment, she thought he would turn her away, that all of her kissing-up would have been for nothing… but that was before she saw the look in his eyes. He looked… concerned, in a way. “I would fret over you, were you to meet my subordinates. They are not at all worthy of your presence, my dear…”

You’re kidding me, right?

“Then I won’t leave your side, even for a second,” she smiled, gently taking his hand into her own, intertwining their fingers. “After all, only we understand each other.”

Finally, as he gazed down at her, his eyes softened. While there were still hints of suspicion in them, he seemed to be pushing his doubts aside.

“Then, shall we depart, my dear?”

 

Some time later, Kage and Yona left the brothel together. Soo Won and Jae Ha, watching from nearby alleyways, remained in the shadows until there was a decent amount of distance between them, and their targets.

Soo Won hadn’t been sure she could do it, but seems like she had worked her charms, just as she had promised.

Setting off after them, he knew that he wasn’t alone. For one, Jae Ha was trailing close behind, but for another, both of them were being followed by some of Kage’s subordinates.

Jae Ha and Soo Won continued, pretending to be blissfully unaware of their pursuers. Running through back streets, dark alleys, and behind buildings, they made sure to keep Kage and Yona in their sights, all while keeping their distance.

Ducking into a particularly dark corridor, Soo Won watched as his pursuer rushed by, failing to notice him. Not long after, a second, and a third, followed.

Kage was a lot of things, but he was not an idiot. If anything, Soo Won had to commend his caution.

However, his caution wouldn’t be enough. Not with a pirate crew of this standard.

“Where’d he go?” one of the pursuers growled.

“No idea.”

“Split up. We gotta find him, and that other one.” Soo Won could swear he heard the smile in the man’s voice as he continued, “We can kill ‘em, if we want.”

He doubted they would have the chance.

“Who are you—?!”

Ah, so his insurance was there.

“I do apologize, gentlemen, however, I cannot allow your transgressions to stand much longer,” Kija sighed, his formality only making him even more intimidating. Seeing no reason to stay, Soo Won continued in the opposite direction, heading for the exit.

The screams of his pursuers rang out in the night. While he wasn’t the violent sort, he did find an odd sort of satisfaction in giving those men exactly what they deserved.

… Especially after what their boss had done to Yona.

Making up for lost time, he continued, chasing after Kage and Yona.

 

The men’s screams reached Jae Ha’s ears, a rough smile pulling at his lips, his fangs bared.

So, Soo Won had been able to outrun them long enough for Kija to catch up. How surprising. With the way that man was built, he hardly looked like he could skip through a field of pansies, much less outrun human traffickers.

He was surprised, but not entirely impressed.

No, he’d never be impressed by that bastard.

Crouching on the roof, he watched as Kage ambled along, Yona hanging on his arm. She really was playing the part, much to Jae Ha’s chagrin.

Cursing under his breath, he reminded himself that he shouldn’t be mad at her, but at the circumstances they were all in. So she chose Soo Won— so what? That didn’t mean shit when she was being sought after by a madman.

Planning to apologize to her later, he kept a close eye on her, making sure Kage didn’t try anything funny.

If there was anything they had all learned, it was that appearances didn’t mean a thing. The amount of men pursuing them, despite Kage’s lackadaisical façade, was proof of that.

He didn’t trust her.

Well, he didn’t have to trust her for long. Just long enough to take her to headquarters. If there was anything he seemed to be banking on, it was that she’d be alone. Then, if things went south, he could just pack up and leave, like he did last time.

Yona had her own failsafe for that.

As three of Kage’s subordinates rushed into the alleyway below, Jae Ha decided to take that chance to blow off a little steam. After all, there was little that made him feel better than beating men like this into a pulp.

 

While all of this was happening, the rest of the crew worked at evacuating as many people from the city as possible. Moving them in the night, on the outskirts of the city, they began to make their way to the camps set up by Geun Tae and his troops.

Carefully avoiding the households that had shown even an ounce of loyalty to Kage, the pirates quietly helped people pack up their belongings, promising them that they would be able to return once the danger had passed.

The prostitutes from the various brothels in town, as well, had already been notified of this. Those who were unwilling to fight were being quickly evacuated, led by the Captain, herself. If the owners of the brothels raised any type of fuss, they were quickly silenced by her ice-cold glare, along with the threats of violence from the crewmates that accompanied her.

There was the minority, however, that were tougher than the rest, and refused to let Kage get away with hurting their sisters. Only they remained, arming themselves with hidden daggers, and sharpened hairpins.

Those that would fight were given their instructions, and sent to chase after Soo Won and Jae Ha.

 

“More tea, my love?” Yona asked, doting on Jin, using every ounce of her etiquette training from her days as princess.

She hadn’t expected to be invited into his meeting, with all of the nobles that had the closest ties to him, but there she was. Her presence unnerved them, she could tell, but Jin had insisted. Obviously, no one had been willing to argue.

“Yes, thank you, my dear,” he cooed, trailing his fingers through a loose strand of her hair.

With a bright, loving smile on her face, she thought of how much she wished to wring that neck of his.

Soon, Yona. Soon.

Still, all of this torture was worth it, as she had a clear view of each and every person who was working closely with him. If she could get all the information she needed, then she’d be set.

But still… part of her had to wonder why Jin would bring her to this meeting in the first place. It was unlike him to reveal his cards like this, which only made her think that he had something else up his sleeve.

In all honesty, she doubted that he fully believed her little act. Instead, it was entirely possible— and plausible— that he had no intention of letting her leave there alive. Not with the information she was receiving, not with what she now knew.

Taking Jin’s cup, she gently placed it before her, and poured him more tea.

The meeting continued, with Jin’s underlings shooting her either uneasy or disapproving stares every now and again. When their eyes would meet, she would just smile sweetly, as if to say there’s nothing to worry about .

There was. There was plenty for them to be worrying about. They just weren’t aware of it yet.

Some time into the meeting, the attendants brought in the main meal, accompanied by fragrant teas in extravagant teapots. The aromas reminded her of her days at the palace, although she had already decided she wouldn’t be indulging in the meal that evening.

Sitting pretty, she met the gaze of the attendant, who sized her up with a steely gaze. She returned their look with a knowing smile, and an icy look.

As the attendant set Jin’s meal before him, she noticed the teacup with an ornate gold trim around it. That was a cup from the very brothel she had been in earlier. One that she had picked out.

The meeting continued, with the nobles eating their meals.

While those that were there— Jin included— were rather vague on the details, no doubt because of her presence, she got a good enough idea of what they were planning. A large-scale move was coming up, with mainly the brothels being targeted.

She was just in time, by the looks of it.

“There have been reports of women escaping, as I recall,” Jin hummed, eyeing his subordinates. “There would seem to be some inefficiency in the methods of capture.”

“Yes, sir… however, that is entirely due to—”

“I do not wish to hear your excuses.” Glancing down, Yona realized his food had been left untouched. Tucking her arms into her sleeves, she absentmindedly ran her thumb along the hilt of the dagger hidden in her sleeve. “If the women escape, it is either their throats, or yours.”

“Sir— some of these women could fetch a great price—”

“Yes, and so could you,” he said pointedly. “If you should fail to recapture those women, then perhaps I should not trust you with this business.”

“My Lord, we are trying —”

The doors opened. A group of about a dozen well-dressed women entering, their hateful smiles fitting of a group of thugs. The leader of the group was a prostitute that Yona recognized. Speaking confidently, her voice boomed within the room.

“No need. We’ll save you the trouble of having to come find us.”

“What the—?!” a noble cried out, interrupted by the dull sound of another man’s head hitting the floor behind him, unconscious.

For a moment, no one moved.

One, then another, then another fainted in quick succession. Taking a quick look around the table, Yona noticed they were the ones who were the farthest into their meals.

Jae Ha really had found the best the town could offer, as far as tranquilizers went. Just as fast and effective as advertised.

The others, although not as far into their meals, swayed with a certain unease, sweat dotting their foreheads, their eyes bulging out of their sockets.

Jin was the only one who was still in control of his capacities, and he couldn’t seem less concerned. Yona watched him, wary, waiting for him to make any sudden moves.

“Very clever,” he said, without a hint of praise in his voice. Bringing his cup to his lips, he showed no signs of mirth. “Poisoning my underlings, are you?”

The prostitutes stayed where they were, watching Yona with a careful eye. However, she didn’t say anything.

“No matter. Unfortunately, my dear, you overlooked quite the large possibility: that I have built up an immunity to most poisons.”

As she had suspected, of course. A man like him, like most unhinged nobles, didn’t get through life without training himself with a certain kind of precision.

“I didn’t doubt it,” she answered, watching him carefully. “However, that would only apply to what you’ve gotten your hands on, wouldn’t it?” As he continued to drink his tea, she smiled. “Awa is a lovely port town, with plenty of imports from faraway places.” With an unwavering gaze, she watched him. “That’s why I didn’t poison your tea.” Taking another sip, he seemed to ignore her. “Instead, I made tea out of your poison.”

He stiffened, refusing to look at her, gently moving his cup from his lips, and setting it back on the table. It was most likely the last movement he would be allowed to take for quite some time.

“Don’t be shy. Drink up, darling .”

Standing, she moved away from him, taking out the hairpin that held her hairstyle in place, waves of red cascading past her shoulders. Unsheathing the small blade hidden within it, she signaled to the women standing at the doorway to get to work.

The prostitutes immediately jumped into action, tying up the nobles that were now passed out around the table, binding their wrists and ankles.

Jin had no choice but to watch, the paralyzing effects of his herbal tea slowly overtaking his body, until he eventually collapsed, fully conscious, but entirely helpless.

Yona never took her eyes off of him as the women tied up the remaining nobles, working quickly and efficiently.

He stared at her, unable to speak, unable to move.

As she moved around him, catching some rope that one of the women threw to her, binding  his wrists and ankles, she remembered her request to Jae Ha.

“Do you think you can find me an herb that can incapacitate him without killing him?”

Once again, he had delivered.

Finishing his bindings, she moved to face him, staring at him, forcing her expression into neutrality.

She wanted Jin alive, only long enough that she could hand him over to city officials, and let them unravel the empire that he had built from the ground-up.

He’d hang, and she had every intention of watching his execution.

Still, a completely irrational part of her felt guilty, as if she had given up on him. As much as she knew he wasn’t a person worth saving, she still felt partly responsible for not being able to help him.

The man was unhinged, staring at her with so much hatred in his eyes, all traces of warmth completely wiped from his otherwise neutral expression. Part of her felt that, if he could, his expression would be contorted in a sickening grimace, spitting curses at her.

One thought, in particular, stuck out to her: I don’t feel like I’ve won.

“Where are the others?” she asked, raising her voice to the women, without looking away from Jin.

“They should be heading this way now.”

“What do you want us to do about him ?” another woman asked. Yona noticed they were all keeping their distance from him, and for good reason. Even if he was paralyzed, there was no telling to what degree, or for how long.

“I’ll keep watch,” she replied, her eyes unwavering from Jin’s. “Half of you, escort the authorities in here. The other half, go rejoin the crew. You’ll get your orders there.”

“Yes, Captain,” they answered in unison, their voices bringing a new sense of pride to her. She wasn’t Captain yet, but these women sure saw her as such. Perhaps with a little training, they’d be interested in joining the crew.

The majority of them left, with only one or two staying behind, positioned close to the doors. While Yona was sure they could take care of themselves, she wasn’t sure they could help in taking Jin down, should he regain feeling again.

One thing was for sure: if he could move, she’d be dead within moments of finding out.

Delicately sitting on the ground, she watched him, holding her dagger, never once turning away. She didn’t look away, even when rushed footsteps resounded down the corridor outside the room, even when the door opened.

“There he is,” Soo Won said, using his authoritative voice.

Even when he was apprehended, hair falling into his face, Jin’s eyes never left hers. The guards lifted him up, and carried him out of the room, other guards quickly filing into the room to take care of the rest of the unconscious nobles.

Walking over to her, Yona could see the concern written into Soo Won’s features. 

I don’t feel like I’ve won.

There it was again, that thought.

“Are you hurt?” Soo Won asked, his gentle voice breaking through her haze. Giving him a small smile, she shook her head. Shedding his coat, he held it up before moving behind her, carefully draping it over her shoulders.

Ever the gentleman.

Then why is he with me?

“Let us return to the ship. There is nothing left for us here tonight.”

Pulling his coat closer around herself, she smiled at him once more, exiting Kage’s headquarters by his side.

The two of them didn’t say much on the way back to the ship, although, after about five minutes of walking, Soo Won held his hand out to her. With a pang of guilt, she took his hand, intertwining their fingers.

 

When they were around the corner from the harbor, Yona awkwardly let go of Soo Won’s hand, making distance between them. Everyone already knew, thanks to Jae Ha’s prior outburst, but still, she wasn’t ready to reveal that aspect of her personal life with her crew.

She was even more thankful that she made this decision when she realized that their crew had expanded, practically doubling in size.

As Soo Won and Yona walked onto the docks, cheers erupted from the ship. The original crew, who had just returned from their mission, as well as the ladies who had just joined them that evening, were waving from the deck, whooping loudly.

Their cheers broke the silence of the night, echoing off the water, the sounds of their voices practically carrying over the whole city.

Leaving Soo Won behind, she ran up the plank to the deck, throwing her arms around her crewmates in a big group hug.

Smiling, laughing, various crewmates were practically climbing over themselves to get a chance to hug her. Amidst all of the cheer, she looked over just in time to see Soo Won reach the deck.

His smile said it all.

He was proud of her, that much was plain to see. Behind the smile, however, was a bittersweet resolve.

This is it… isn’t it?

This is the end of our time together.

 

As much as the crew wanted to party, Yona refused. There was no proof that everything was done yet— she couldn’t rest easy until she saw Kage dead with her own eyes.

Retiring to her room for the evening, she paced the small space in her quarters, hoping to put her buzzing mind to rest. It didn’t help that so much would happen in the next few days. At the very least, Kage’s execution, Soo Won’s return to the capital, and her promotion.

How was she supposed to sleep under these conditions?

A knock came to her door, breaking her out of her thoughts. Answering it, she already felt the frown forming on her face.

“Hey,” Jae Ha said, looking none too pleased to be there. “Can we talk?”

Against her better judgment, she opened the door wider, gesturing for him to enter. Closing it behind him, she crossed her arms across her chest, watching him carefully.

“So? What did you want to talk about?” she asked, her voice curt.

“I… want to say sorry for how I’ve acted lately.” He didn’t sound completely genuine, though. Instead of feeling remorse for his actions, he seemed more remorseful that she wasn’t siding with him.

“Go ahead. I’d like to hear it.”

Meeting her gaze, he took a deep breath. It seemed to her that he was biting his tongue— interesting, considering he was supposedly there to apologize.

“Alright, alright, look,” he started, which was truly the best way to start any apology. Struggling to form the words, he eventually continued, “I can tell you really like Soo Won. I can… even respect that.”

Can you?

The thought was written across her face, quirked eyebrow and all.

“I don’t like it—”

“That much is obvious,” she quipped.

But ,” he emphasized, “I can respect it.” Taking a step closer to her, he managed a smile, albeit a slightly uncomfortable one. “So, I’m sorry for how I acted. I shouldn’t have said anything, especially in front of the crew—”

“You’re right. You shouldn’t have,” she interrupted, poking him in the chest, advancing forward with each point she made. “It’s none of your damn business, it’s none of the crew’s business, and you should’ve kept your big mouth shut .”

Jae Ha stood his ground, staring down at her, his patience waning.

“Maybe you should be more careful about how you act out in the open, then,” he retorted, his voice low. “Do you think I expected to see the two of you making out in the crow’s nest?”

“We weren’t ‘making out’. It was two tiny kisses.” Craning her neck, she tried her best to appear intimidating to him, puffing out her chest. “Who are you to talk? No one in this crew sleeps around more than you.”

“This isn’t about me.”

“Oh, so your promiscuity is totally fine , but the minute I kiss another man instead of pining over you, I’m a complete whore? I’m— how did you put it? ‘Acting the part’?” Sneering at him, she looked him up and down, finishing with a scoff. “Big words, coming from the likes of you."

Turning away, she made distance between the two of them, busying herself with some trifles on her table. However, it wasn’t long before he approached her, gently turning her around.

“Would you listen ?” he pleaded, grabbing her by the upper arms.

“What is there to hear?”

“Okay— you know what? Fine. I’ll admit it. I’m jealous of him, okay ?” Realizing himself, he let her go, instead choosing to lean forward, placing his hands on the table on either side of her. She was pinned, but had more than enough freedom to leave.

Not only that, but this way, they were finally at eye-level with one another.

“I saw the two of you up there, and my blood boiled ,” he continued, his voice low and even. “I just— I knew it should’ve been me.” He sighed, his breath hitting her lips. “If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t’ve cared, but it was him .”

“You had your chance, Jae Ha,” she said softly, although not without resent.

“Yeah, but to choose him —”

“I’ll choose who I please!” she shouted, her temper flaring. “So you’re jealous! Big deal! Do you think I’ve never been jealous of the women you’ve been with?! You don’t see me starting shit just because you decide to move in on some other woman!”

“Yona, listen to me!” he shouted back, desperate to be heard.

“No!” she cried. “You always do this, Jae Ha! You deny and deny and deny, never letting me have a chance with you, and then you just change your mind when it’s most convenient for you!” Grabbing onto the front of his clothes, she pulled herself closer, searching his face. “ Why do you keep doing this?”

“Because I love you !”

His words hung in the silence between them, his eyes searching hers, as he gently raised his hand to caress her cheek.

Struggling to form words, she let him go, heat rising into her cheeks.

“You sure have a funny way of showing it,” she grumbled.

“You wanna know why I never made a move on you? Because I always thought you should’ve had someone better than me. I always thought you could’ve done better than me.” Biting his lip, he averted his gaze, although it didn’t stay away for long. His eyes found hers again, raw and truthful. “I’m sorry.”

For a long moment, she looked at him, her heart stirring.

“I wanted it to be you, y’know,” she admitted. “I waited, for years and years, for it to be you.”

“I know,” he sighed. “I wanted you, too, but…” Shaking his head, he leaned forward, pressing his forehead against hers. “It’s stupid.” He paused, then scoffed. “ I’m stupid.”

Cupping his face with her hand, she couldn’t help the smile that formed on her lips.

“Yeah… you kinda are.”

“Shut up,” he chuckled, airy and light, just like he always did.

It was far too easy to fall into their usual momentum. After years of living together, their habits were so predictable, their flirtation so natural, that it took little to bring them right back to it.

“Make me,” she challenged, relaxed and mischievous, as she had always felt with him.

“Hmm, dangerous words,” he hummed, leaning back to look at her. His eyes had a mischievous glimmer in them, particularly once he looked down at her lips, before returning his gaze to her eyes.

For a split second, she thought of Soo Won, of the chaste kiss they shared. That thought, however, was immediately overshadowed by the gratification of years of pining finally amounting to something. Not only that, but Jae Ha would be here , with her , while Soo Won would be back at the palace.

As he leaned in, her eyes gently closed, smiling as his lips brushed hers. It was a quick, teasing kiss.

Yona, however, was not in the mood for teasing, and pulled him closer, her lips parting for his tongue, hand curling into his hair.

Leaning into him, she moved away from the table, although their lips would only ever part momentarily. His hands travelled over her body, caressing her with the adventurous nature she craved, pulling her ever closer to him.

As he led her to her bed, she desperately clawed at his clothes, somehow managing to shed his outer layers. Tumbling onto her bed, he hovered over her, breaking their feverish kisses just long enough to look at her.

He wasn’t hesitating. He looked at her in a way she had only ever dreamed he would— as someone he loved and cherished. Her eyes shone in the dim light of her quarters, filled with the same affection, the same yearning.

Finally, it was their time. After so much confusion, and so much pain, they could finally love one another as they had always meant to.

“I love you,” she whispered, carefully caressing his face as if he would disappear, as if she would wake up any moment.

But, no… she knew this was reality.

“I love you, too.”

He said those words as if they were only ever meant for her, only meant for her ears. As he kissed her, carefully undressing her, she felt that he had never told anyone else he loved them.

Those words, and all words to follow, were only ever meant for her .

 

Lying awake in his bed, Soo Won couldn’t fall asleep, no matter how physically exhausted he felt.

His mind was running a mile a minute, thinking of all possible outcomes for what would transpire in the next few days.

Of course, after seeing the way Yona had looked at him, had smiled at him, he wished he could have her at his side. However, he knew it could never last. Her home was this ship, where she could have adventures, and live her life freely… not back at the palace, where she’d basically be a bird in a gilded cage.

Still… he couldn’t be satisfied knowing he never expressed his feelings towards her. Even if they couldn’t be together, at least they could cherish the time they had left, right?

It was late. She was no doubt already asleep, but… he knew he would lose his nerve if he waited.

Summoning his courage, he got out of bed, pulled on his overcoat, and went upstairs, heading straight for her quarters. Padding silently across the deck, he reached her door, and raised his hand to knock—

He stopped when he heard sounds from within, his fist hovering over the door, blood simultaneously rushing to his face, and from it, completely.

He heard her, as well as someone else. He heard her, crying out Jae Ha’s name, moaning it.

Nauseated, heartbroken… Soo Won stepped away from the door, his hand awkwardly lowering to his side.

Of course… of course she’d choose him in the end. It just… made sense. No matter what happened, they had always been together, hadn’t they?

Soo Won wouldn’t be enough for her, and he knew it. He had always known, on some level.

Walking to the other end of the deck, he looked out over the water, desperate for fresh air. There, he remained, watching the night sky kiss the horizon, the moon reflected on the water’s surface.

At least he knew where he stood.

It made facing the future easier.

 

Yona was coaxed out of sleep by the gentlest of caresses against her cheek, sunlight filtering into her room.

Sure enough, when she opened her eyes, there was Jae Ha, looking down at her like a completely lovestruck fool, brushing the hair out of her face.

“Morning,” she mumbled, giving him a dreamy smile. Leaning down, he kissed her, his hair cascading over her bare chest and shoulders.

The night prior really had happened. It wasn’t just some wonderful dream she had had.

“I could get used to this,” he grinned when he broke the kiss, pressing his forehead against hers.

“So could I,” she sighed happily, coaxing him to lay next to her once more. Snuggling up against him, she was ready to drift off to sleep once more, although Jae Ha seemed to have different ideas.

“No one’s expecting us for another few hours, at least .” Hands travelling over her body, he was becoming a little adventurous, even for her.

“Mm…” she hummed, grabbing his hand, and intertwining her fingers with his. “Sleep first, sex later.”

Chuckling slightly, he pressed a kiss to her forehead.

“Alright, alright.”

“Now’s no time to complain, Jae Ha,” she teased, closing her eyes, and tucking her head into the crook of his shoulder. “I just took out a human trafficking lord; your libido can wait.”

“Fair enough.” With a sigh, he settled in, finally relaxing.

Dozing off, she was teetering on the edge of sleep, feeling herself ready to fall into yet another slumber, before running footsteps approached her door. Immediately roused from her sleepy state, she sat up, shortly followed by Jae Ha.

In their years of piracy, they had learned that when someone is running first thing in the morning, it’s hardly ever a good thing.

Desperate, hard knocking came to her door.

“Yona?!” Yoon called. “Yona, are you in there?!”

“Just a second, Yoon!” she called, scrambling out of bed, and grabbing whatever clothes she could cover herself with. Jae Ha followed suit, silently moving behind the door, so as to not be seen.

Opening the door, she saw Yoon, looking much more pale than usual.

“What is it?” she asked, her heart already hammering in her chest.

“It’s Kage,” he panted, eyes wide with fear. “He’s escaped!”