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Of Loyalties And Lubbers

Chapter Text

In Port Kepler, rumors of pirates run rampant. Of course, it's a fucking seaport in This Economy, but if pirates are mosquitoes, Port Kepler is the the murky pond in your grandma's back yard that she hasn't cleaned out in at least two decades. Indeed, the city is breeding grounds for trouble.

 

The Amnesty Tavern is well-known throughout Kepler for its no-violence policy and remains a popular spot for government bootlickers and notorious criminals alike. This makes the tavern a common place for holding peace treaty meetings between opposing parties. Also, it's a tavern, so it also stands as a pretty busy place for people who want to get their drunk on.

 

The reason that so many people follow the Amnesty Tavern's no-violence policy is because it remains common sense to locals and visitors alike. See, the founders of the tavern had learned the hard way that people listen to you more the bigger your reputation for ruthless brutality is. The staff at the Amnesty Tavern is well known for their years out at sea aboard the S.N.S. Heart, hunting criminals (those whose crimes were decidedly too far off the moral compass for sane pirates) and giving them a taste of their own medicine. Although skeptical of the crew's violent and vengeful ways, the government was grateful for them wiping out the worst of the worst and was more than happy to turn its head.

 

So, naturally, it created tensions between the government and the crew after they carried out a mutiny against Captain Thacker and quit the pirating life to form a pub. The pirate leader's bloodlust had gotten carried away, to the disgust and disappointment of his former staff. Even the Quartermaster ("I go by Mama, for the love of fuck, stop calling me the Quartermaster as if that's supposed to mean something significant,"), who was closer to Thacker than anyone else, was fully willing to lead the rebellion after seeing how mad he had become.

 

Mama and the remaining members of her group had plenty of funds to start their tavern. They were so goddamn sick of violence that they refuse to tolerate it in their workspace, and again, with their reputation, nobody has to be told to act with the maturity appropriate for an adult. They also refuse to work late into the night. You can't keep loyal friends and workers if you overwork them, dammit, so its hours are strictly 1 to 8 only. The Amnesty Tavern still makes a profit, though, and it's enough to keep paying their staff fair wages and afford the process of fermenting their mead (to get it extra sweet, you have to add just the slightest bit of caramel).

 

Some workers aren't comfortable with talking to customers, whether they aren't good with social interaction or they fear meeting old rivals. Thankfully, a few employees are willing to interact with patrons, including former second mate and sea artist Barclay. He tolerates the usuals, whether it's Mr. Newton, Mr. 'Trustworthy' Chicane ("You're never going to let me hear the end of that one, are you, old pal?"), or Ms. Aubrey Little, who Barclay swears is only ever present to flirt with Dani, Barclay's fellow bartender and the ex-pilot of the Heart.

 

Barclay also puts up with the tourists and sailors who are only present in Port Kepler for one or two nights. It's not usual for people to arrive in Port Kepler with intentions of staying unless they're completely desperate.

 

That's why the story of one Sir Stern caught Barclay's attention one night when he heard about him from his coworker, Jake, for the first time.

 

And that is where Barclay pinpoints the beginning of one of the largest downward spirals in his life.

Chapter Text

Sir Stern didn't usually drink anymore, and he had his reasons for such behavior. One, he wouldn't be caught dead among the type of people who are fond of drink. Two, if his employers found out he was drinking, they'd fire him, and if tavern-goers found out he was a privateer, they'd be upon him and his wallet in an instant. Three, he had no desire to do so unless the day was particularly lousy.

 

It just so happened, on the afternoon he entered a tavern near his inn, to be one of those dreary days. He'd heard about this particular tavern from locals during the first few weeks he'd been in Port Kepler, and although Stern was reluctant to hand his money to a group of pirates, there was no other place in all of town that advertised a no-violence policy.

 

Stern pushed open the tavern door and was greeted by the strong scent of honey and alcohol. Few eyes turned toward him as he entered and made his way to the bar, most either not noticing Stern's well-to-do dress or choosing to avoid the privateer's observant gaze. As Stern sat down at the bar, a perky blond boy who couldn't have been more than 17 noticed his arrival.

 

"Welcome to the Amnesty Tavern, mister! Can I get you something to drink?"

 

"Would you happen to have any cider on hand?"

 

"Quite a bit, actually, it's one of our more popular orders." The young man retrieved a mug and a cider bottle from behind the bar.

 

"Then I'd say your customers have good taste."

 

"We're one of the few local taverns that ships cider in from out of town, but it's a bit pricey, so I'm surprised we haven't invested in a cider press yet." He pushed Stern's order towards him. "I'm Jake. I assume you're not from Port Kepler?"

 

Stern nodded and moved the glass closer to himself. "The name's Stern, and yes, my job doesn't usually land me in this particular area. I'm not on business at the moment, but I do what I'm told, and I've been told that I'm probably going to be here for a while."

 

Jake frowned. "So you're a privateer? That's new, we usually don't get a lot of business from your type, seeing as we're 'filthy pirate scum' and all that." He gestured with the cork at the last part before shoving it back into the neck of the bottle and placing it back under the counter.

 

Frozen, Stern looked at him in shock. "How could you tell?"

 

"Certain people gave you a funny look when you walked in."

 

"Oh. I apologize if I made some of your patrons uncomfortable."

 

"We don't really mind who comes in as long as they don't start any trouble with other customers. Everyone who works here is sick of violence. And if they're upset with you being here and try to do something about it, they can either leave or find themself banned from this establishment."

 

Laughter erupted from a nearby table.

 

"Alright, well, it was nice getting to meet you mister, but I'd best be off waiting on the other customers." Jake left to attend to a booth of identically dressed men around the same age as him - his friends, perhaps?

 

Now that he was alone, Stern felt more out-of-place than before, but he hated to think of what could have happened to him if he'd chosen to visit a place that had no restrictions on brutishness.

 

That didn't mean he felt secure enough to test the streets outside the tavern if it got any later into the night. Stern drained his glass, paid for his drink, and exited the Amnesty Tavern.

 


 

"I got a really big tip from a privateer today."

 

Everyone at the dinner table stopped eating and looked at Jake, some with more curiosity than others.

 

"You're kidding!"

 

"Never thought I'd see them in this area-"

 

"-you're absolutely sure they were a privateer?"

 

Barclay waved his hand at the other members of the table. "Come on, let him speak."

 

Jake nodded his thanks. "Yeah, a privateer by the name of Stern came in maybe half an hour before closing? He looked pretty exhausted."

 

Mama scoffed into her drink. "Tired from a busy day of robbing innocent merchants, no doubt."

 

Dani set her fork down and snapped her fingers. "Oh, I think I saw him! The one with the collared shirt and the maroon vest, right?"

 

"Yeah, that was the guy. He likes cider. Said he was going to be in Port Kepler awhile." Jake propped his elbow on the edge of the table and rested his chin in his hand. "Weirdest part was, he didn't wait for me to come back to pay, he just left a stack of cash on the counter with his empty glass. Nearly paid double for his drink."

 

"Elbows off of the table, Jake."

 

"Moira, we're pirates, for fuck's sake!"

 

"Yeah, Jake, the table's allergic to elbows." Dani nudged him playfully.

 

Moira sighed, disappointed. "And don't swear, you're too young to be using that kind of foul talk."

 

"You alright, Barclay?"

 

Barclay turned to Mama, startled. "Uh, yeah, sorry. Just - talk of privateers - it brought me back to the old days."

 

The table fell silent. Nobody really talked about the old days much. After the mutiny against Thacker, most of the surviving crew created the tavern, and Indrid and his kid brother started performing with some inlanders with the excuse that Billy was too young to be near alcohol (yet somehow old enough to be present onboard a pirate ship for several years). They had new lives with new forms of excitement that didn't involve piracy or bloodshed. Why reminisce about the good old days if the old days weren't all, well, good?

 

But sometimes they just couldn't help it. Certain things just brought back memories, some pleasant, others painful.

 

Barclay had his fair share of run-ins with privateers. Nothing that scarred him for life, but they were weird-ass interactions, and it was where he rooted his doubt that there were many friendships (or even alliances) between pirates and privateers.

 

He shrugged it off. A privateer arriving in town meant nothing other than a conversation at dinner. Maybe it was someone new to the job, or maybe it was someone Barclay just hadn't met.

 

Dani stood, picking up her plate and mug with one hand and pushing her chair back in with the other (to Moira's relief).

 

"Jake, can you help me with dishes tonight?"

 

"I would, but then I'd have to eat the rest of my food quickly, and not only would that be impolite, that would also be an insult to Barclay's cooking, and I'd rather not be served burnt fish for the rest of the week."

 

Dani whapped the back of Jake's head with a dishtowel as Barclay chuckled, and the rest of the night passed without another thought to the privateer.

Chapter Text

"Dani, you're back on shift." Barclay tossed the towel he was using to wipe down the counter over his shoulder.


Dani turned from her conversation with Ms. Little. "I know, but there's nobody here."


Aubrey cleared her throat.


Dani rolled her eyes playfully. "Right. There's nobody here except for my lovely girlfriend who is definitely not hiding her pet rabbit in her coat."


"His name is Dr. Harris Bonkers Ph.D., and you know that."


Barclay sighed. "Aubrey, we all love your rabbit, but we can't have him spreading his- business- all over our floors."


Aubrey pouted. "Fine." She peered out the window and faced Dani. "I'd better get back to my place before it starts storming. See you tomorrow, okay?"


Dani kissed the top of her head. "Love you. Stay safe."


On Aubrey's way out, a couple of locals ambled in past her and plopped themselves down at a table.


Barclay gave Dani a pointed look.


"Okay, you don't have to tell me twice."


Barclay collected the pile of dirty glasses that had been accumulating since opening. Humming a tune he'd heard on the streets, he pushed through the swinging kitchen door with his shoulder before dumping the dishes in the basin.


Tuesdays were slow, almost unbearably slow. It didn't help that a particularly nasty storm was due to start at any second; as much as Barclay loved living in a port that supplied fresh fish and interesting customers, storms were a major pain in the ass.


Thunder bellowed outside, and heavy raindrops began pelting the roof upstairs.


Barclay heard the tavern door creaking and the clack of shoes across the floor. He left the kitchen, the door swinging shut behind him. "Welcome to the Amnesty Tavern, mis-"


A rain-soaked man sitting in front of the bar looked up at him.


Barclay took in the embroidery on the customer's green vest, the quality of his shirt, and the condition of his hair. He seemed a little too manicured to be from around Port Kepler.


"Uh. Welcome to the Amnesty Tavern, sir, what can I get for you?"


"Cider, please."


Barclay nodded. Right, this must be the man Jake was talking about at dinner a few days ago. The privateer. What was his name? Stan. Stone? Fuck, something starting with 'S-t', right?


Uncomfortable with the silence, Barclay desperately tried to find a conversation topic as he filled another glass with cider. "So, uh, sir, how long have you been in Kepler?"


The man gratefully accepted the drink. "Long enough to find a hotel, hear about this place from some locals, and get stuck in a storm or two. I hoped there would be fewer storms on land."


Barclay nodded. "Storms like these certainly remind me of the time I spent out at sea, but they don't usually get this intense."


The privateer laughed inwardly before correcting himself and resuming his posh demeanor. "You all were pirates at one point. That completely slipped my mind. I don't think I caught your name?"


"Please, call me Barclay. Yours?"


"Stern."


STERN. That's the fucker's name.


Dani shuffled past Barclay to fetch a couple of mugs before filling them with her customers' preferred drinks. Barclay absentmindedly drummed his fingers on the counter as Stern stared out the window at the onslaught of water outside.


"Excuse me, but would you mind if I asked something?"


Barclay raised his eyebrows. "Go ahead."


"Why did you all quit the pirating business? Why was the decision made to start a tavern? And why is there a no-violence policy?"


"Uh, I'd say that's more than one 'thing', Sir Stern."


Stern blushed, embarrassed. "Right, you don't have t-"


"No, no, really, I don't mind." Barclay scratched at his beard. "Uh, we stopped because we just got tired of all the violence, and we wanted to make a place that wasn't dramatic or aggressive, I guess." Barclay gestured to the space around them. "So, we started the Amnesty Tavern. Did that answer your questions, or-"


"Yes. I apologize for intruding, I shouldn't have asked."


"I've given the same spiel to plenty other customers, sir, there's really no need to apologize."


"Thank you. Yes. Sorry." Stern nodded and straightened himself. "Starting a tavern with your close friends. Sounds pleasant."


"And you? Why haven't you quit the privateering business to start your own tavern?"


Stern looked up at Barclay, amused. "Excuse me?"


"What's so interesting about privateering that you're willing to keep going down that career path?"


"If I'm being completely honest, Mr. Barclay, the pay isn't half bad. Even if I did want to quit, I'm not going to upset my employer."


"So you're terrified of quitting, but you're not terrified of being seen at a bar?"


"I'd think you would know firsthand not to criticize people on their life choices."


Barclay looked at the other man, startled by Stern's change in tone. Stern himself seemed taken aback by his harsh words.


"I'm so sorry, I truly didn't mean for it to sound like that."


"Me neither, I wasn't trying to judge you."


An uneasy silence filled the room save for Dani's customers telling her the latest street gossip. Nothing new worthwhile overhearing.


Stern sighed. "Look, if you want to know why I'm risking being here, it's because I know their eyes can't see everything." He sipped cider from his glass. "If they ask, the only reason I'm here is to get out of the rain."


Sensing the tension had ended, Barclay decided against his better judgement to press further. "But really, what does your job involve? It can't be more than tracking down cargo thieves, can it?"


Stern shook his head. "Can't say. Strict orders to stay silent."


"Alright, well, surely you must have some big life plan to go along with your big privateering lifestyle."


Stern peered into his glass and sloshed around the pale liquid. "It's incredibly unrealistic."


Barclay shrugged. "I don't mind."


He sighed. "Long story short, a pirate found me when looking for some hostages my higher-ups had been keeping illegally. They spared me and sent me to shore with the captives as long as I promised to join a different crew. I want to find the pirate that saved my life and repay the debt if I can."


Oh.


Oh, shit.


That story sounded all too familiar to Barclay. His stomach turned.


Rain tapped against the windows. There seemed to be a break in the storm. Stern took another drink, his glass nearly empty.


"Yeah, that's one hell of a life plan you've got there."


Silence.


More customers burst in through the door, dripping wet.


"Well, it was nice meeting you, Stern, but I gotta tend to these folks."


"Of course! It was nice to meet you, too."


Barclay left to take the new customers' orders, and when he returned to the bar, Stern's seat was vacant, an empty glass and payment for his drink left on the counter. His mind was still racing from what Stern had said.


So much for probably not knowing this privateer.

Chapter Text

Stern sat on his pile of scratchy cloth, taking swigs of mead from a mug and ignoring the rocking of the galleon.

 


"Oh, you've got a problem with what we're doing? You can sit belowdecks on your bunk and stay out of our fucking way, then! You're lucky you've made it this far with us, Stern, just be grateful we don't throw your uppity ass over the side of the boat. Our minds can change easily, remember."

 


He shook away the memory of the captain screaming in his face.

 


Stern joined to make a living protecting his country on the seas, not to accidentally board a group of rebels aimed at attacking every ship they can see, holding hostages for ransom, becoming richer, repeat.

 


The only benefit he had above the hostages was the mead.

 


He took another gulp from the mug.

 

 


 

 

"You're sure Thacker wants us to actually kill the members of their crew?"

 


The sun had set, and the moon was slowly but steadily crawling up the sky to the east. Everybody above the S.N.S. Heart was preparing to board the Investigation, a privateering ship originally commissioned by the government. Unfortunately for everyone, the highest ranking members of the Investigation had gotten their own ideas about how to make money. Over 20 innocent cargo ships had gone missing over the past month, and ransom notes had appeared at the doorsteps of the families of the missing vessels' crewmen.

 


Mama huffed and tilted her head to the side as she adjusted her baldric and pistol. "Listen, Thacker just told me we're supposed to leave only the captives alive for this one. That's -" she shook her head - "Barclay, Captain Thacker's not one to give anyone a death sentence, we all know that, but this one's a job from the government, and Thacker's going to make sure we follow their orders as best as we can."

 


Barclay looked up at Mama, pleading silently.

 


"Look, you can go with Moira and help her free the captives, get them on this ship, and patch them up. But you can't run from fighting your whole life, especially if you're the second mate."

 

 

Indrid shouted something unintelligible from the crow's nest, but the message was understood.

 


Surely enough, a galleon much bigger than Barclay expected to see was visible on the horizon.

 


Mama gestured to the rest of the crew. Everyone took their places, Jake scooping up little Billy and taking him belowdecks where he'd be safe.

 

 


 



Miraculously, Moira and Barclay were able to make their way belowdecks without a scratch. The sounds of the fighting above were now muffled, but it sounded like a difficult fight. There was no reason for it not to be; these privateers were commissioned by the government, and the government only hired the best.

 


Moira clenched her jaw. "Well, they would keep the captives in a well-sealed place, away from food storage but still easy to find for the crew members tasked with giving them their meals, so we should check - " She pivoted towards the back of the ship - "behind the ammunition stores."

 


Barclay nodded. That seemed sound enough. "You think we'll see anyone down here?"

 


Moira tapped the wall furiously. "It's a big ship, but the government doesn't like hiring a lot of people, so the most powerful fighters will be occupied with our men upstairs - "

 


" - So unless they dozed off in the cabins, we're not going to see anyone giving us a lot of trouble. Got it." Barclay jabbed his thumb towards the sleeping quarters. "Do you want me to double check, or will you need help tending to the captives?"

 


"I'm not the one to ask for orders, but you should go ahead and check; we don't want to risk leaving any crew members alive. Come back quickly. I can't be sure how many hostages we're dealing with."

 


Barclay nodded, and Moira started the descent to the bottom level of the ship.

 


He passed through the gun deck, stepping over junk strewn about the wood floor. Swinging open the door, his eyes were met with a trashed cabin - no hammocks, just cheap blankets arranged in rows.

 


Near the back of the room was a man lying on his own pile of blankets, a mug of mead spilled on the floor near his mat.

 


As Barclay drew his cutlass, the privateer sat up, startled. He looked so... tired.

 


Mama's words rang in his head. You can't run from fighting your whole life.

 


The man's dark, dazed eyes drifted to Barclay's sword, and as soon as he had fully assessed the situation, he laughed grimly.

 


"Did the government sent pirates to slit my throat for being guilty by association?" He hiccuped. "You don't even want to fight, do you? It seems we've both been forced into fighting for causes we don't believe in." The man beckoned Barclay forward. "Come on now, let's get it over with. The sooner I'm dead, the better. I've got the worst fucking headache."

 


Barclay hesitated from correcting him, from telling him that he fully believed he was on the side of good. Instead, he sheathed his cutlass. "I'm not going to kill you."

 


The privateer, nonplussed, ran a hand through his black hair. "Well. Look who's decided to be a noble hero. Do you honestly think I'm worth sparing?"

 


Barclay scowled, frustrated with his own decision. "I'm going to smuggle you into the group of captives, and you're going to find a better job aboard a better ship with better officers, you hear me?"

 


The man frowned. "Seriously?"

 


Barclay rested his hand on the hilt of his blade.

 


"Fine." He raised his right hand, half mockingly, half apologetically. "I swear to turn my life around and start working for a different group of privateers without corrupt morals."

 


Barclay strode over to where the man was sitting, hoisted him up, and started walking him back through the cabins to the ladder. This would come back to bite him if anyone found out, but as much as he hated running from his orders, he hated going against his own conscience more.

 


After a few seconds of walking on the bottom deck, the privateer spoke up from where he was dragging along beside Barclay, his arm draped around the taller man's shoulder for support. "Wrong way."

 


"Right. Of course."

 


The two were silent as they struggled to the brig. The man slipped into the crowd of liberated hostages without anyone noticing.

 


Barclay found Moira tending to a young hostage with an injured wrist, and the two herded the crowd out of the brig. The fighting had ceased above.

 


Before they could climb above the decks, Mama peered down the ladder. "Barclay? Let 'em know to keep their eyes down."

 


A chill went up Barclay's spine. He turned to the small crowd behind him. "You all caught that?"

 


Some nodded. Some just stared back, still scared.

 


Barclay was used to carnage, but the sight that met his eyes bothered him more than usual. He didn't know how many more of these missions he could stand.

 

 

The sail to shore was uneventful, though Barclay sensed his unease was shared among the rest of the crew.

 


Change was coming. No - change was here. And none of them liked it. 

Chapter Text

It had been some time since Sir Stern had become, unbeknownst to his higher-ups, a frequenter at the Amnesty Tavern.

 


The ex-pirates manning the bar had now become familiar with the privateer, most often seeing Stern whenever he'd drop in to avoid rain, but occasionally just stopping by for some cider.

 


Barclay had introduced Sir Stern to a few of the other regulars earlier on. Although Stern still seemed apprehensive to some degree around most of the folks at the pub, he seemed to be less guarded.

 


"Ned, Duck, and Aubrey here are all part of a street performing group, and they're here quite often." Barclay left out the part about the more religious portion of Port Kepler wanting to drive Aubrey out of town for witchcraft.

 


Stern's eyes widened with recognition. "I believe Ms. Little and I have already met, if I'm not mistaken?"

 


Aubrey nodded. "Yeah, we're staying at the same inn! We've talked before."

 


Barclay glanced back and forth at the two, stunned.

 


Aubrey grinned at his expression as Stern fought to hide a smile.

 


"Wh - really?"

 


"Are you that surprised?"

 


Barclay tried to regain his composure. "There's tons of inns in Port Kepler! How was I supposed to know that you two were - "

 


" - oh my god - "

 


"It's not a big deal, Mr. Barclay, really."

 


Barclay hid his face in his hands. 

 

 


 

 

Barclay admitted that yes, it was nice having Stern around. And don't get him wrong, he loved his friends, but he often felt out of place when talking to his younger associates. Moira and Duck didn't have much in common with Barclay. Ned was Ned. As for Mama - well, he and Mama hadn't spent time together as friends since before Captain Thacker went insane.

 


One rainy afternoon, Aubrey, Ned, and Duck cut a performance short and stopped by the tavern to take shelter from the downpour.

 


"Some time back, Barclay said you three were part of a performing group?"

 


Ned piped up. "The finest in town!"

 


"What entertainment do you provide your audiences with?"

 


"I, for one, inform the people with tales of the creatures lurking in our seas!" Ned lowered his voice to nearly a whisper. "Say, have you heard of the mighty kraken? It's a terrifying, tentacled beast, and it's much more real than others would lead you to believe."

 


Duck sighed. "Don't listen to him, he's full of shit. Uh, I mainly just help run the whole thing and take care of fiscal matters."

 


"And you, Ms. Little?"

 


"I have a magic act or two that I'm working on."

 


"Are you self-taught?"

 


She nodded. "Yeah! All with a little help from my assistant."

 


Barclay didn't like where this was going.

 


"Your assistant?"

 


With a smirk, Aubrey retrieved a very large white rabbit from the inside of her jacket.

 


And there it was.

 


Barclay would never understand how she managed to hide her rabbit in her coat without anyone ever noticing.

 


"Meet Dr. Harris Bonkers, Ph.D.!"

 


Stern turned to Barclay, amused. "Mr. Barclay, you allow this?"

 


"Not really, but there's not much I can do to stop her."

 


Aubrey nudged Stern. "And hey, you don't have to call us 'Ms. Little' or 'Mr. Barclay', we're all friends here."

 


Stern's eyebrows lowered slightly. "Friends?"

 


Barclay shrugged. "I mean, if Edmund Chicane gets to call himself my friend, I'm sure you do, too."

 


Ned's indignant protests could barely be heard above Aubrey and Duck's laughter.

Chapter Text

Friends were not a luxury Stern usually had. He chalked it up to a general history of mistrust, and that worked as a fine enough excuse for him. Trust is tricky business, after all. Stern's learned his lesson from trusting a number of things over the years. You can trust a job application to save your future. You can trust your boss to have good morals. And you can trust yourself to only visit a bar every once in a while and to not get addicted to spending time with folks who, for once in your life, are actually nice to you.

 


If you choose the first, you can mess up so badly only a miracle saves your life. If you choose the second, you can find a death threat knocking on your door only a month later. And the third? If you choose the third, well, you just might find yourself getting invited to have dinner with the entire staff and their friends.

 


The invitation was presented as just an offhanded question, to Stern's further perplexion. If the government knew about his recurring visits to the Amnesty Tavern, they would have let him know, so dinner wouldn't put his job in danger. Besides, what other plans did he have?

 


Jake grinned. "Nice! Duck had his schedule filled for tonight, so it'll be good to have you with us."

 


"Is there a special occasion?"

 


"Not really. We just invite friends over for supper every once and a while."

 


"That's... really nice. What time should I be here?"

 


Jake peered out the window at Port Kepler's tower clock. "We have another hour-ish until closing, and Barclay and Mama should have finished preparing by then."

 


"What do I need to bring?"

 


"Just yourself!"

 


This frienship thing seemed a little too good to be true.

 

 


 



Nobody had belived it when Jake told them Sir Stern would be joining them for dinner, but Barclay noticed Mama managing to mask her amazement behind a chipper face after hearing the privateer enter the kitchen.

 


"Stern! You made it."

 


Stern smiled. "Barclay, nice to see you."

 


Mama held out her hand. "You must be Stern. The name's Madeline Cobb, but everyone around here calls me Mama."

 


Stern took it, a rookie mistake. Barclay saw him wince. "Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Cobb."

 


"'Everyone' includes you, you know. There's no need to be formal. We really are glad you could join us. The rest of the folks should be upstairs at this point - actually, Dani and Aubrey may be on the roof. If you don't see them in the dining room, would you tell Jake to get them?"



He nodded and started up the narrow wooden staircase.

 


Tonight would be interesting.

 


Barclay peered inside the oven. "What do you think?"

 


Mama sighed, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. "The fella's pretty quiet, you sure this is the guy you all have been telling me about?"

 


He blinked. "I'm talking about dinner?"

 


Mama chuckled. "Yeah, yeah. It should be ready by now. Still, he seems nervous." Her voice dripped with sarcasm. "What is there to be so wary about?"

 


Well, for one, Stern was a pair of eyes working for the government present having dinner with a group of ex-pirates. In addition, those who didn't know those ex-pirates in person usually still knew they were led by the infamous Quartermaster.

 


"I reckon I'm just being paranoid. Anything I can do to help get dinner ready?"

 


"Some people upstairs could still use a drink, but otherwise, we should be set in about five minutes or so."

 


"On it."

 


Barclay returned his attention to the oven.

 


Roasted fish and potatoes. It's a simple recipe, and Barclay had plenty of time aboard the Heart to learn what spices (garlic, paprika, and parsley) work best with Kepler's few varieties of fish (mostly cod) and how to make the potatoes crispy on the outside and soft on the inside (after countless failed batches of charred potato bits).

 


Barclay placed a small bowl of lemon wedges on the pan and made his way upstairs to the rest of the gathering.

 

 


 

 


"So, Mister Stern, how long have you been a privateer?"

 


Stern froze mid-bite. "Excuse me?"

 


"You're a privateer. How long have you held that profession?"

 


"Fifteen years or so, perhaps?"

 


"Huh. That's around the same time we started gathering members for our crew." Mama gestured a potatoed fork at Moira, Jake, Dani, and Barclay.

 


"Was it always such a small group?"

 


Stern saw Barclay tensen and shoot him a look. Not a good time.

 


Mama's face darkened. "There were a few more of us back in the day."

 


Stern nodded, understanding. "My apologies. I shouldn't have asked."

 


"When's your next mission?"

 


"I'm not sure, but my employers will surely let me know within the next month."

 


"And you're loyal to the government?"

 


"Although I'll be the first to admit privateering is not the most honorable profession, the government keeps a roof over my head, and I have no alternatives at the moment."

 


Mama cleared her throat. "Alright, one last question."

 


"Go ahead."

 


"Would you happen to know if the government specializes in tracking down ex-criminals?

 


"No, not that I'm aware of."

 


Everyone save for Mama relaxed, Jake letting out a sigh of relief.

 


Stern supposed he should have seen that question coming.

 

 


 

 

Soon enough, the gathering had finished dinner. Barclay and Dani began taking dishes downstairs when they heard Mama address Stern again.

 


"So, Stern, what do you do to pass time?"

 


"Uh, I've been working on a novel for a while, and a few of my coworkers and I play cribbage during idle stretches on missions."

 


Barclay swore he could almost hear Mama's grin.

 


"Cribbage, you say?"

 

 


 



Stern took his jacket from his seat and draped it over his arm. "Thank you for dinner and the game of cribbage, it's truly been wonderful to spend time with you all."

 


Mama gave him a little salute. "Of course. You can come over and get beat at cribbage again anytime, Stern."

 


He chuckled. "I appreciate the offer."

 


"Take care on your way home. Try not to get merked."

 


All humor disappeared from Stern's voice. "I'm sorry. What did you just say?"

 


Mama grimaced. "Right. Uh. Sun's down. Crooks are out. You're wearing fancy clothes. Might not be a great idea to go home alone."

 


Barclay waved. "I could join you, if that would make you feel better?"

 


Stern took a deep breath. Yeah. Okay. Port city. Lots of inhabitants, therefore lots of criminals. Makes sense. "If it's no trouble to you?"

 


"Not at all!"

 


Mama raised a singular eyebrow. "Well, Stern, I'll see you when I see you?"

 


"Sounds good." Stern inclined his head to the rest of the group. "Take care!"

 


A small chorus of 'Good night!'s and 'You too!'s echoed behind Barclay and Stern as they descended the stairs and exited the tavern.

 


The two walked in silence for a short time, Stern occasionally looking behind them to make sure they weren't being followed.

 


He racked his brain for conversation topics, anything to break the silence.

 


"Mama said something about Dani and Aubrey being on the roof?"

 


Barclay glanced at the other man. "Oh, yeah, the roof? It's a good vantage point over Port Kepler. Don't worry, it's pretty sturdy as long as you know where to sit."

 


Not the strangest aspect of the tavern, Stern guessed.

 


"I want to apologize for what I said about the group at dinner, it was distasteful of me. I should have thought about it first before speaking."

 


Barclay sighed. "It's not a big deal." Stern was sure that was a lie, but he decided not to press further.

 


"I'm sorry for whoever you lost."

 


"Not everybody was really... killed. Duck's mentioned his boyfriend once or twice while you've been around, right?"

 


"Yes, he has." Stern's eyes widened. "Oh, was his boyfriend - ?"

 


"Indrid and his little brother were with us when we were on the Heart, but when we quit, he didn't want to join us. Something about Billy being too young for a tavern. Instead, he's a fortune teller on the streets now." Barclay kicked at the gravel, sending pebbles skittering across the path.

 


"Hm."

 


The silence resumed, a little more uncomfortable than before.

 


Eventually, Stern stopped at a stone brick building and turned to Barclay. "This is where I'm staying for now. It wasn't necessary for you to walk me here, but thank you for doing that anyway."

 


Barclay smiled slightly. "It's no problem, I'm happy to help."

 


"Good night, then."

 


"Night, Stern." Barclay turned and started the short trek back to the inn.

 


Stern entered the inn and headed to his room, giving a friendly smile to the innkeeper on the way.

 

 

He closed the door behind him, throwing his coat on the cot. Hell, maybe friendship wasn't too good to be true. Everyone there was so welcoming. There was young Jake, who was always looking for ways to make others happier no matter the situation. There was Dani, who was constantly looking on the bright side while still staying realistic. Mama, who seemed to know what people had been through just by looking at them.

 


And Barclay. He was always so patient, so understanding, so willing to help. Not to mention his cooking, his hair, his beautiful smile -

 


Stern's thoughts came to a screeching halt.

 


"Fuck."

Chapter Text

"I've got an update on my next job."

 


Barclay looked up. "Really?"

 


"I didn't expect to hear about it this early, but I’m supposed to pay a visit to the nearest outpost in a few weeks to learn more."

 


Dani walked over to the two of them. "What's this I'm hearing about your job?"

 


"He's getting the details on his next mission soon."

 


Stern nodded once in confirmation.

 


"Any ideas about when or what it is?"

 


"Not yet. I might have a year left in Port Kepler, tops." He brushed a lock of hair away from his face. "It's a shame. I really do enjoy spending time with you all. I'll try to stay in touch, if that's okay?"

 


Barclay smiled. "Of course it is. We're friends, aren't we?"

 


"Key word being try. The postal system here..." Dani shook her head, irritated. "You'd think a city built as a trading center would have a decent communication system."

 


"I'd drink to that, but we're low on mead." Barclay gestured over his shoulder. "I'll go see if Moira has another batch we can bottle yet."

 


"Send her our regards."

 


Stern watched him go.

 


He pretended not to see Dani raising a single eyebrow at him.

 

 


 



So yes, Stern was completely and utterly screwed, and there was no positive way of looking at it.

 


He closed his door, double-checked the lock, and sank into a sitting position against it.

 


Don't make this more difficult than it has to be, now. State your problem. Find its root. Chop away at it until the problem’s gone.

 


Easy enough.

 


My problem is, I'm falling for Barclay. It most likely started when he walked home from dinner night a couple of months ago.

 


It's a start. Keep going.

 


If I don't know how pacing friendships works, then it’s clear that I shouldn’t be in a romantic relationship, especially one with a pirate who's apprehensive about all people of the government.

 


Stern inhaled, trembling. Besides, it’s impossible for Barclay to return my sentiments. Even if he did, we both have too many trust issues to actually be in a relationship.

 


He broke the line of thought to take another deep breath, this one less weak than his last.

 


When my next mission rolls around, I’ll be leaving Port Kepler presumably for good, and I’m unprepared for that as it is.

 


Stern had regained his composure. His complexion had returned from its earlier pale state. But his heart still stung at the thought of Barclay.

 


God above couldn't help him now.

 

 


 

 

"Has something seemed off about Stern to you guys lately?"

 


Aubrey shrugged. Duck shook his head. Ned made a face.

 


"Dani? What about you?"

 


"I guess, yeah."

 


"I don't think either of us would know." Ned gestured at himself and Duck.

 


"What he said." Duck took a swig of mead, cleaning his mouth with his hankerchief. "What's so different about him?"

 


"His head is in the clouds more often. He’s not as focused, really." Barclay, half lost in thought himself, drummed his fingers on the counter of the bar.

 


Aubrey spoke up. "Maybe he likes you?"

 


Barclay stared at Aubrey, disconcerted.

 


She shrunk back. "Just saying it's a possibility."

 


Barclay's tone turned sour, his eyes narrowing. "How the hell did you come to that conclusion? Do you honestly think that's the reason?"

 


"I said it was a possibility, not a probability! I didn't mean to imply anything about your friendship, and I should have thought before I spoke. I was being immature. I'm sorry."

 


He slumped. "Right. I'm sorry too, that was harsh. I shouldn't have lost my temper like that."

 


Aubrey nodded slowly and turned to address the group. "Maybe we shouldn't discuss this. Stern clearly isn't comfortable sharing with us, so can we let it go?"

 


The rest of the gathering were in agreement.

 


Everyone's focus shifted onto Ned, who had been staring off into the distance for some time.

 


Aubrey nudged him. "You okay?"

 


"Yes! Of course. I got lost in thought for a few seconds there." He sat back. "I was brought back to a time long past when I had a... partner... who served in a position similar to Friend Stern's, and, well."

 


Barclay knew from Ned's tone that it hadn't ended well for him.

 


Ned sighed. "It wasn't my intention to bring the mood down." He met Barclay's eyes. "Still, I'd tread lightly if I were you."

 

 


 

 

Stern's situation was only getting worse with each passing day. He could barely look at Barclay without his face turning red as blood. Fair Barclay, with his soft hair and his smiling, dark eyes. Lovely Barclay, with his quiet chuckle, his need to keep the bar absolutely clean, his attentiveness to everyone around him.

 


As much as Stern tried to maintain his friendly demeanor, he was almost certain everyone at the tavern was aware of his feelings.

 


It would almost be easier to confess, be turned down, and never show his face in the Amnesty Tavern again than to go on like this, but Stern was not a courageous man.

 


It's not like he'd be able to stop visiting altogether. They'd notice and maybe try to find him, and he and Aubrey stayed at the same inn.

 


His single shot at getting the massive weight of the truth off his chest was to tell Barclay right before he left. If Stern truly was to leave Port Kepler and possibly never return, being rejected and then not having the means to see any of them again wouldn't hurt nearly as much as being rejected and then having to live in the same city as them.

 


It might save him quite a bit of money on postage, too.

 

 

This is hopeless.

 


At least he wasn't much of a dreamer; he'd consider dropping his profession and moving across the continent if he had to manage dreams about his crush amidst everything else.

 


He did, however, have to deal with another dinner invitation.

Chapter Text

Hey all! It's been a while since you last heard from me. Sorry bout that, freshman year's been hectic as all fuck.
I've been rereading some of the earlier chapters, and to be honest? I'm not all that happy with some of them. I don't know what the future of OLAL is going to look like. If I decide to keep working on it, I'll most likely be going back and revising some chapters. If I end up not finishing this, I want to re-emphasize how grateful I am for the kind feedback y'all have been giving! This started as a silly little self-indulgent project, and hearing that other people are enjoying it no matter the quality always makes me feel incredibly happy.
Thank you all, have a wonderful rest of your week!
- atomicpleb