White Cross

*******

by nekojita

*******

"It should only be a few more hours until everything’s loaded onto the ship," Omi told Yohji, his tone as light as his step as he practically bounced instead of walked along the crowded streets. The White Cross was not the only ship docked at the busy port town, and many more would be pouring in ahead of the approaching storm. Yohji hoped that his ship would be stocked and well on its way before then, preferring to take his chances out at sea.

"That doesn’t give us much time at the market, but then again, Ken won’t be able to complain that we brought back too much stuff!" Yohji teased his first mate, whose face turned an unpirate-like red at the mention of his new lover. Whatever Ken was running from – and really, what pirate *was not* running from something – had left him surprisingly well-suited as the White Cross’s new cargo master. He was strong, agile, and gifted in cramming a lot of stuff into very small spaces. The only thing he had told Omi and Yohji about his past was that he used to pack for a lot of other people.

"Still, I’m sure you’ll find something to buy, you always do!" Omi shot back. He may look like an innocent kid who belonged in some private school filled with brats from various noble families, but he could more than hold his own against anyone. Yohji was very thankful for the fact that his first mate appeared more than pleased with his current position and not in the mood to gun for control of the ship, or else he probably would have been thrown overboard by now.

They had reached the market by then, an even more crowded section of town where speaking was made difficult by the cacophony of noises that assaulted one from all directions. Yohji placated his ruffled pride by giving Omi a rude gesture, which prompted a loud laugh from his first mate. He smiled in response and tousled Omi’s short blond hair, a feature that had led many people to assume they were related. He did not mind people thinking that Omi was his younger brother or cousin, but the one time when someone had asked if the kid was his son had left him feeling insulted for days. Sure, they both were handsome and had blond hair and light-colored eyes, but he was only a few years older than the brat! No matter what his reputation as a lover, he doubted even he could impregnate a woman when he was barely five years old.

Much like any other port market, this one had a bevy of goods to buy if one had the means to do so. Fine jewels and fabrics plundered off of various trade ships, masterpieces of art that had survived sea battles, food and wine from every corner of the earth, and of course a slave market. After all, there was a profit to be made off of the captured crew and passengers whose families could not afford to ransom them, although Yohji preferred to just take a person’s money, goods and ship from them and leave them their freedom… if he left them alive at all. Best way to deal with an enemy was just to kill them and not have to watch your back all the time for revenge.

He did his best to avert his eyes as he walked past, aware that the last time he had paid too much attention to who was being sold off had landed him with a kid of a first mate. Not that he regretted buying Omi, but he could not afford to save everyone. Also, he had such a soft spot for the few women who ended up here, a futile effort to set the past aright. There was no place for women aboard a pirate ship, and he had no right spending the ship’s hard-earned money like that. At least, that was his justification to keep on walking with his shoulders hunched forward as if to block any sound from reaching his ears.

"-pretty one, as pretty as his name which is Aya! Who wants to start the bidding on this beauty?"

The name, so similar to that of a painful memory, caught Yohji’s attention and made him spin around. At first he was relieved that the person currently being sold was a guy and old enough to not spur him into a costly bit of pity – until he got a look at this ‘Aya’. Crimson hair that had been hacked off at shoulder-length except for some longer ragged bits that framed his face, pale skin that made it clear that he had not spent much time at sea and beautiful violet eyes that almost glowed with hostility and disdain made Yohji stop in his tracks and even step back toward the auction area. The redhead’s clothes were dirty and not anything fancy, but there was a sense of bearing to the man that indicated that he had been brought up well, something that reminded Yohji of the blond youth he had bought a couple of years ago.

"Oh hell," he muttered as he found himself reaching for his purse to calculate how many gold coins he had on him, well aware of all the other interested bidders clustering around the slave market. This ‘Aya’, despite the name, might not be a woman, but Yohji would bet his ship that the other men were not considering the redhead as a new addition to their able crew. No, and something in Aya’s bearing made it clear that he would have to be broken to ever accept such a despicable fate, if at all.

Omi must have finally realized that he was not walking beside him anymore and came to a stop at Yohji’s left. He looked back and forth between Yohji and the stage, then handed over his purse with a very exasperated sigh. "At least Ken shouldn’t have to pack up this purchase."

*******

"Captain!" Despite the formality of the title, there was no respect in Aya’s voice as he shouted at Yohji, that one word thick with disdain and anger. As it had been shouted as a warning to Yohji to *finally* notice the sailor about to stab him through the back, Yohji figured he could let that slide, and then concentrated on saving his own life. He got a slice to his left arm instead of a fatal wound, and before he could gut the bastard, Aya took care of the problem for him. One very elegant sweep of steel beheaded Yohji’s attacker – and left Yohji sputtering from the spray of blood that hit him across the chest and face.

"Thanks!" he complained as he took a moment to wipe away the mess as best he could.

"At least you’re still alive to complain," Aya sniped back as he moved on to another foe. Yohji could spare all of two seconds glaring at the bastard before he went off to deal with more of the sailors who had managed to put up a pretty good fight against his crew. There was no guilt at all over the lives he was taking, only excitement at the prospect of what had to be a very good catch if the crew were this skilled and determined to protect their ship. The law of the seas was ‘kill or be killed’, and he knew that if the Takatori-owned vessel had seen the White Cross first they would have been the ones to instigate the fight. After all, his ship and crew had a pretty big bounty on them, and whoever took him down would have quite the reputation. He had no interest in just handing over his head and everything else that mattered to him to make someone else famous.

Aya practically danced across the deck with that long, curved sword he was so fond of, claiming victims left and right. Not far behind him was Ken, finishing off whoever the redhead left alive with those sharp metal claws he favored, showing a ferociousness that never surfaced unless there was a fight. The rest of Yohji’s crew handled themselves almost as well, comforted by the fact that Omi was perched up on the White Cross’s crow’s nest with a powerful crossbow and picking off the enemy one by one. One bolt whizzed close enough to Yohji’s face for him to feel its breeze, which prompted another glare from him before he finished off the ship’s captain.

Despite the sailors’ skill, the fight did not last long. He barely had any time to go below deck and confirm that the ship was indeed loaded with a successful run from the Far East before he found himself being dragged off to his own ship by a furious redhead. Now that was a bit of irony for one – being treated like this by the man who had insisted they take on the target ship in the first place. Yohji’s crew, traitors that they were, laughed and shouted suggestions at Aya on how to properly chastise a captain who was foolish enough to allow himself to be injured. Yohji put on a good show and dug in his heels, not that it slowed Aya down in the slightest.

"Ken! I’ll expect an inventory of all the goods by.. er, morning!" he managed to shout before he vanished below deck on his own ship, certain that Ken and Omi would have the items stashed aboard the White Cross in a couple of hours. Damn, it was a good haul, one that should ensure that the White Cross received some necessary repairs and his crew got very well paid. They could probably take it easy for a few months, something that would be welcome after all the recent battles.

Leaving his ship in Omi and Ken’s capable hands, he grumbled under his breath as he was shoved into a chair in his quarters and told to strip off his bloody and torn shirt. Normally the command would make him smile – well, leer – but not when Aya looked so grim. Reminding himself that he was not eight years old nor Aya was his mother, he did as he was told, all the while inspecting the redhead in return. Why was he not surprised that Aya had emerged unscathed from the fight?

"At least it’s your left arm," Aya muttered as he set about arranging everything he would need to mend the wound. "But it’s going to need stitches," he informed Yohji and shoved a bottle of whiskey toward him. "Whine even once and I’m cramming a pillow down your throat to keep you quiet."

Yohji accepted the ‘pain reliever’ and took a long swallow before he answered, giving Aya time to prepare the bandages, needle and thread. "Did I miss it when you were made captain or what?" he asked, an amused grin on his face when Aya actually became flustered for a moment. Aya had never attempted to take over the ship, but he felt that he had some right to boss Yohji around. Rather uppity for a ‘slave’, which was something Aya had not been since he had reached the White Cross and promptly been freed.

"There would be no problem fighting you for the position, but I think Omi might object." Aya indicated for Yohji to have another drink, then took back the bottle so he could disinfect the needle and thread, as well as pour a good bit of the liquor on Yohji’s wound. Yohji hissed in response and began to curse; he swore it had not hurt that badly until Aya took to ‘mending’ it.

"It’s small, if deep." The words were Aya’s way of offering comfort, as was his light and steady touch on Yohji’s arm. Neither of them spoke while the wound was stitched, and thankfully Aya was quick as hell as well as skilled at stuff like this. In a matter of minutes, the wound was tended to and wrapped up, most of Yohji’s tattoo on his arm hidden by the white linen. At least the cut had not marred the cross design. Done with the doctoring, Aya wiped away the blood that had splashed across Yohji’s face and neck.

Once that was taken care of, Yohji wrapped his arms around Aya’s waist and pulled him onto his lap, where he could work at unraveling his lover’s long red braid of hair. Aya’s face was a little flushed, probably from exposure to the sun; despite over a year as part of the White Cross’s crew, he remained prone to sunburn and never went up on deck without wearing a hat unless there was a fight. Yohji adored his lover’s pale skin and could not resist stroking the fingers of his right hand along a high-boned cheek. "Are you done bossing me around?" he asked, voice gone husky with desire. He had not bought Aya with the intention of them becoming lovers, but the redhead had proven too irresistible with his looks, refined manner and fiery temper. At least Yohji had held back until it was clear that Aya wanted him as well, and not just looking for a way to repay his ‘savior’.

"I thought you liked it when I was bossy," Aya murmured, the tension in his body slowly relaxing as he slid his arms around Yohji’s shoulders. "Or are you just hoping to avoid a lecture on how you need to watch your back better?"

Yohji laughed in response and hugged his lover closer. "Nah, you’d only find something else to bitch about if I did." He was pleased at the way Aya looked after him, even if in such a gruff and overbearing manner. If their positions had been reversed, he would have torn his lover’s attacker apart with his bare hands and not with his garrote or sword. No, this was one lover he would *never* lose, as Aya had become too important to him in such a short time. He just wished that he could be certain that Aya felt the same.

Aya tugged on the ponytail at the back of Yohji’s neck. "You do need to pay better attention during a fight." However, he left off on the lecture to lean in for a kiss, one that left Yohji feeling more exhilarated than he had during the fight. Oh yes, he definitely would be kept occupied until morning….

Mindful of his injured arm, he did not try to pick up his lover and carry him to the bed, but urged Aya to stand on his own feet. Aya did so with obvious reluctance, then displayed a heartwarming amount of impatience as he dragged Yohji across the room.

Yohji did not know what it was, but whenever the White Cross went after a ship owned by the Takatori shipping clan, Aya was always in a very… passionate mood. He would fight like a demon and make love like a courtesan afterwards, putting all the emotion he normally would keep bottled up into those moments. Even if attacking the ships did not mean a wealthy pay-off for Yohji, he would give in to his lover just to be able to enjoy himself like this.

Finally rid of their clothes, Yohji pushed Aya onto the plump featherbed mattress and followed him down, adoring how wonderful it felt to have Aya beneath him. His lover smelled of sweat, sea air and cordite, an intoxicating blend that made him lean forward and inhale the crook of Aya’s neck. Then he could not resist following the sniff with a lingering nibble until his lover writhed beneath him, obviously impatient for him to do something else.

"Yohji…."

"You’re so adorable when you growl like that," Yohji laughed before giving in to the demanding redhead. He reached out with his right hand for the bottle of oil while Aya took to caressing his back in teasing circles until he shivered in pleasure. "Don’t stop that," he moaned.

"Don’t call me ‘adorable’," Aya shot back, his hand stilling for one teasing second then moving downward to the small of Yohji’s back. At the same time, he rocked his hips upward, causing their erections to slide against each other.

"Ah… Aya the adorable pirate, scourge of the seas." Yohji was pleased that he barely stuttered out the words, and as he had hoped, being teased made Aya decide that the best way to shut him up was not with a pillow but an amorous kiss instead. Lost for a few minutes in the scintillating caresses of lips, tongues and hands, Yohji eventually reminded himself that he had been in the middle of doing something and so strived to complete the task. Grateful that someone else would have to wash the bed’s sheets, he spilled some oil onto his fingers then reached between his lover’s legs.

Aya arched his back like a cat and even hissed as he was carefully penetrated, body tense for a moment before he relaxed and rocked his hips backward to take Yohji’s fingers in even deeper. Uncaring about the ache in his arm, Yohji used his left hand to stroke his lover’s cock as he prepared him, just as impatient for the pleasure to come as Aya. They both were still on edge from the fight and pumped full of adrenaline; that did not promise for anything drawn-out but fast and intense could be just as good. As soon as he judged Aya to be ready, he pulled his fingers free, used a little bit more oil for his cock and then settled between his lover’s thighs.

That first, quick thrust made them both moan in ecstasy, Aya’s legs wrapping so tight around his waist that there was no chance he could pull free even if he wanted. While he had many lovers in the past, men and women, none of them rivaled Aya’s passionate nature or resiliency. Yohji would never willingly hurt a lover, but Aya was his equal, would urge him on fast and hard at times when they both craved release.

He groaned as Aya’s body tightened around him, clenching his cock almost hard enough to hurt. His lover’s answering chuckle to the groan made him speed up his thrusts, ignoring Aya’s own cock for a moment so he could shove both of the redhead’s legs onto his shoulders for better leverage. It was Aya’s turn to groan, the loud sound making Yohji grin in pride and wish he could lean forward enough to kiss his lover’s parted lips. Ah well, at least this position let him stare down on such a beautiful sight; long red hair unbound and strewn across the bleached linen sheets, pale skin flushed, purple eyes darkened with passion and staring at him with an intensity that took his breath away. So lovely, so dangerous and all his – he shuddered in pleasure and felt his pounding heart race even faster. His blood thundered through his veins, his lungs labored to inhale the sea air. He never felt more alive than at times like this, feeling Aya’s trimmed nails dig into his arms and exquisite tightness around him. No sea storm, no battle, no bounty could match this, and like all precious things it could not last forever.

Feeling his orgasm approach, Yohji did his best to push Aya headlong into ecstasy as well, his hand stroking and hips snapping forward as fast as possible. Then the onslaught of emotion overwhelmed him, so much pleasure that he cried out in joy as he came. There was an answering cry soon after that, one he felt more than heard as he let Aya’s legs slide from his shoulders then lay hunched over his lover, his face buried in the crook of Aya’s neck.

One of his favorite things about being out at sea was the gentle rocking of the ship as he lay with his lover, the motion soothing as they came down from such a blissful high. Yohji could hear the creaking of wood, lapping of waves and shouted commands of his crew, all the familiarities of the ‘home’ he shared with Aya. His lover rested against him, a quiet presence as he checked Yohji’s wounded arm with care.

"It’s fine," Yohji reassured, not about to let a minor wound get in the way of what he hoped would soon be another round of fantastic sex. This time they could take things slower, could enjoy the calm after the fight. They and the White Cross were safe once again, assured of a future where they could be together. Once their desire was finally sated, they could talk about that future, could make plans on where to repair the ship and how to spend their share of the goods. Considering the way Aya refused to discuss anything about his past, such topics should prevent any awkward discussions or unwanted fights.

"Don’t expect to turn the injury into something that’ll let you stay in bed for a few days," Aya warned as he tugged Yohji closer. "You’ll be getting up early tomorrow to make sure everything’s ready for when we reach Grey’s Port."

"See, there you go again, thinking you’re the captain," Yohji joked as he stroked his hand through his lover’s tousled hair. "Do you ever remember that I’m in charge?"

Aya’s rare grin just then was worth more to him than all the expensive goods being stowed away on his ship. "Why don’t you remind me of that fact, hmm?"

Chuckling in delight, Yohji set about doing just that.

*******

The muffled sounds of distress woke Yohji from a dream that fragmented as he returned to consciousness. At first he was grateful since the few bits he could remember seemed to focus on the last minutes of Asuka’s life, until he recalled his present love. He shook his head to clear it the same time he reached for Aya, who lay on the far side of the bed. The redhead had not been prone to nightmares for months, certainly not ones bad enough that he was covered with sweat and his skin was an unhealthy color. When he finally did wake, he knocked Yohji’s hand aside with a violence that was shocking, his eyes unfocused and demeanor threatening for several seconds. Then he seemed to recall the present as well and went limp against the feather mattress.

"Aya?" Yohji knew that his lover hated it when he pried into the past, which was the only reason why he did not say anything else. He seriously doubted the bad dream had been sparked by yesterday’s fight, not when such things usually granted Aya a sense of peace.

"I’m fine." Aya’s deep voice took on the harsh tone it always did when he felt that Yohji was being too inquisitive in regards to him. "It’s…just a bad dream." He slowly sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes. "Didn’t think to have one like that again." For a moment, he appeared vulnerable and uncertain, giving Yohji the impression that he was catching a glimpse of a younger Aya… or whoever Aya had been before taking on a girl’s name. Considering the lengths that the redhead took to hide his past, Yohji knew that he had assumed a new name when he had become a slave.

Left trying to think up something encouraging that would not sound as if he was being patronizing or nosy, Yohji was taken aback when his lover turned toward him and gave him a shove that almost sent him flying off the bed. "What did I say yesterday about not spending the day being lazy? We’re probably only an hour or two away from port, so get going!" Aya barked out orders with a skill and confidence that only reinforced Yohji’s suspicions that his lover had been at least well-off in his prior life if not entitled to some degree.

"All right, all right! I’m going!" Yohji grumbled and made a show about being grouchy as he quickly washed off and pulled on some clothes, all the while under his lover’s watchful and at times baleful eye. He would dearly love to know what it was that had happened to drive Aya to a pirate’s life, but he knew a losing battle when he saw it and figured it was best to move on for the day. "For the captain of my own ship, I certainly don’t get much respect!"

"Do a bit of work for once and maybe things will change." Aya got ready as well, which killed Yohji’s faint hope his lover would remain here so he could find a warm bunk to curl up in elsewhere for a few more hours rest. Ah well, there was a lot of work to be done before they reached port, and last night had been wonderful. Time to earn his keep, as it were. He smiled sweetly as he shoved Aya’s wide-brimmed hat onto his lover’s head, grinning as he thought about how the vindictive redhead was certain to get him back for that later. Was it too much to hope that Aya would remember his injured state and take it easy on him?

*******

"It must be nice to be the captain and get to slack off," Ken muttered under his breath as he and Yohji made their way to the Rum Haven.

Yohji, possessed of sound senses and expecting some sort of complaint ever since a grumpy Ken had left the White Cross with him, laughed and patted his friend on the left shoulder. "I’m sure Omi will be rested enough by tonight to spend some quality time with you." He knew the younger man was upset since Omi had spent the night going over the newly acquired goods to figure out how much they would be worth and what the crew would receive in ‘wages’ as a result. Everyone was happy at the thought of having some spending money in the near future, as well as the chance to put it to use while the ship was repaired.

"Hmph." Ken gave Yohji’s ribs a light and rather disrespectful smack. "Yeah, but will I be any good after spending most of the night helping him with the records and then keeping an eye on you while he gets some sleep?"

"Don’t tell me the legends about your stamina are all lies!" Yohji laughed at the way Ken blushed as a result, a trait the brunet had not shed even after being a pirate for almost two years. There was something inherently ‘decent’ about the young man, something that had drawn Omi in and made Yohji give Ken a chance even though he had never worked on a ship before.

"I wish Aya would come ashore and so be the one stuck with you," Ken whined, and for a few minutes both of them were quiet as they made their way to the bar.

Yohji wished the same, even though he knew it was useless. Aya very rarely left the ship during any of their port of calls, claiming to prefer the peace and near solitude of a docked White Cross to a town full of ‘drunken and rowdy idiots’. While that attitude did not surprise Yohji at all, he did not think his lover wanted to be left alone so much as to avoid running into anyone. Such an irresistible mystery the man was, leading Yohji to fear that if he ever learned about Aya’s past he would lose him as a result. Not that the fear made him stop trying to figure out his enigmatic lover.

The Rum Haven was crowded as usual, full of sailors and pirates eager to make up for all the time spent at sea. The bartender never stopped pouring drinks and a new prostitute arrived whenever another one left with a customer, an often enough occurrence that the door was barely closed for more than a minute or two. Motioning to one of the harried servers that he and Ken wanted two pints of beers, he waited for his friend to scare off a couple of drunks so they could take over the scarred and rickety table.

"Looks like Murphy’s here, as well as Berchand." Ken glanced around the room to see if there were any other fencers to be found. "I’d rather deal with Murphy, which means we’ll have a bit of a wait." The Irishman was in the middle of a negotiation, although he did nod in Yohji and Ken’s direction.

"So would I. It’s not like we’re in much of a hurry." Yohji smiled at the young woman who finally served them their beer, her tired expression becoming a smile when she was handed a few coins and not manhandled in any manner. Considering the ample cleavage she tucked the coins into, he was certain she rarely got off without a pinch or grope. Ah, how the love of a short-tempered and possessive redhead who was way too skilled with an uncomfortably long and sharp sword could change a man, he thought to himself with a grin.

He and Ken spent the time waiting for Murphy to be free by acknowledging various acquaintances and enjoying their beer. They had just started on a second round when a black-haired man who was *not* Murphy sat down at their table, a lean, scarred and one-eyed man with cropped white hair standing behind him as an obvious bodyguard.

"Look, I know there’s not many places to sit in here but it’s customary to ask before you claim a spot." Yohji smiled as he chided the stranger, even as his right hand slid beneath the table to wrap around the hilt of his sword. Beside him, Ken crossed his arms and was clearly fingering the hilts of the knives in their forearm sheathes.

The stranger returned the smile, a mere curve of the lips that did not convey any warm emotions. His black hair was neatly groomed, his clothes expensive and the wire frame of his glasses appeared to be gold. Whoever he was, he clearly had some money, now to see if he had a reason to be risking his life like this.

"It’s also customary to be seated if possible while engaging in a private conversation with someone, hence my being here. My name is Crawford." The stranger, his tone crisp and quick in a manner that all but screamed ‘upper class’, placed both hands on the table as if to show that he was not here to fight. Yohji would feel more comfortable if the guy behind him did not appear ready to draw one of the many weapons he was wearing at any moment.

"That’s nice, now go away. I don’t have any business with you." Yohji leaned back in his chair, putting a little more space between him and the strangers.

"What if I have business with you? I’d heard that the captain of the White Cross was an affable young man interested in ways to increase his fortune." Crawford paused to adjust his glasses and returned his right hand to the tabletop. "Don’t you want to hear my proposal before you send me away?"

This guy sounded too confident for words, as if he knew something important that Yohji did not. That just got on his nerves, as did the fact that the white-haired man was staring at Ken with an eagerness that made his friend pull one of the knives halfway out of its sheathe. "See, the funny thing is I’m here to do business… with *someone else*. You sitting your ass down in that chair is interfering with that." He bared his teeth at Crawford in a manner that no one would take for a smile.

Still, the stranger did not seem bothered at all. "Ah yes, the cargo from the Painted Doll. From my understanding, it’s worth at least twenty thousand pounds, all in all. I hope you don’t fence it away for a fraction of that."

Yohji stared at the man as an uncomfortable prickling sensation ran across his scalp. They had taken down the Takatori ship just yesterday, killing all the crew. There was no way anyone alive should know about their catch, let alone its worth. "What makes you think I’m here about that?" he asked, hoping to find some sort of answer that would not lead to a fight. There was no way of telling if this Crawford had any more people in the bar, and the White Cross was halfway across town.

Crawford’s smile took on a hard edge. "Please, don’t play the fool, Captain. You’re here to sell off the goods and then tend to some much overdue maintenance of your ship, and I’m here about one of your crew." He leaned back in his chair as well, his arms now folded across his chest. "There have been tales about the White Cross’ newest member, a redhead who possesses an enviable talent with the sword." He paused again, as if to give Yohji a moment to get over his shock of someone asking about Aya. "I think you’re the one who is lacking information, and that ignorance can spell fatal disaster for you, your ship and your crew." As he threatened Yohji and everything he held dear, the white-haired man sneered and began to draw one of his swords.

"Go to hell!"

At first Yohji thought he was the one to shout those words, only to realize it was Ken who had when his friend shoved away from the table and pulled free his knives. He was on his feet an instant later, his own sword in hand since his garrote would not be of much use in a fight against edged weapons. Crawford’s bodyguard went after Ken, cackling all the while like a madman, prompting Yohji to turn away from the know-it-all bastard to make sure his friend did not end up gutted in some bar. Omi would kill him if he allowed such a thing to happen.

Normally Ken could hold his own in a fight, and had already managed to score some hits against the white-haired asshole. Despite the fact that his right arm was dripping blood from several slashes, the guy kept going after Ken as if he did not feel any pain. Yohji slashed the asshole along the back and got no response whatsoever. Disturbed by how the freak did not seem to notice the wounds, he grabbed the nearest chair instead and bashed him over the head.

By that point, the whole bar was participating in the fight, people taking advantage of a chance to settle some grudges or just let off a bit of steam. Being smacked with a chair knocked the white-haired freak off-balance, giving Yohji the chance to grab Ken by the arm and drag him out of the bar. Too much unknown and odd shit was happening to remain here, and when he looked behind him before going through the door he believed running away to be the wisest choice; Crawford was still seated at the table, an oasis of calm in the middle of a nasty fight, with a very pleased grin on his face.

The surprises did not end with the bar, unfortunately. When Yohji and Ken reached the White Cross, it was to find Aya on deck with his sheathed sword in hand, prowling about as if he was expecting trouble. His expression was concerned when he first saw Yohji, quickly becoming a mask a moment later.

"Aya! What are you doing here?"

"Getting some fresh air," Aya responded, which made Yohji grit his teeth in frustration at the unhelpful explanation.

"Right, with your sword in hand and during the middle of the day." Aya was not even wearing his hat and had a bit of sunburn on his nose and cheeks to show for it; he swore the thing blocked his vision which was why he left it off in anticipation of a fight, but wore it any other time outside. That and the sword made Yohji very suspicious. Aya *may* be up here for that ‘fresh air’, but that was not the only reason.

"Where is everyone?" Yohji asked before he got into an argument with his lover, hoping against hope that the crew was nearby so they could take off as soon as possible.

Aya shrugged and motioned with his sword below deck. "A few people are getting some rest, and everyone else is in town." He stared at Yohji as if he were an idiot to ask that question, and then his demeanor became grim. "Did something happen?"

"Why, are you expecting something?" Yohji demanded to know. "Something that you should have told Ken and me about before we left?" Beside him, Ken stopped cleaning his knives to pay attention to the conversation.

"Nothing that should affect you," was Aya’s quiet response a minute later. He almost appeared guilty about something before that damned impassive mask of his cut off all expression.

"Aw, come now, I’m not a ‘nothing’, *Aya*!"

Yohji, Ken and Aya spun to the right to see a stranger with long, reddish-orange hair standing on the deck, his dark green coat almost foppish with the extra material at waist and wrists. Behind him, Crawford and the freak made their way up the plank.

"We meet again," Crawford said, sarcasm thick in his deep voice. "And in the company of a certain redheaded swordsman. What are the odds?"

"Fuck off," Yohji spat as he took a step toward his lover, only to find his way blocked by the newly arrived stranger. "Get away from him!"

"Nah, not gonna happen." The stranger leered as he circled Aya, not seeming to care about the now unsheathed sword that followed his every move. "You look good, *Aya*. Much better than you did this morning."

Yohji frowned at the confusing statement since they had still be out to sea that morning, whereas Aya made an ineffectual slash in the stranger’s direction. "Go away, Schuldig." There was a sense of resignation to Aya’s voice, a weariness that Yohji had never heard before. "I warned you that I’d kill you if you ever bothered me again."

The other redhead – Schuldig – smiled and shook his head. "No can do. I promised you that you’d never be able to run away forever, and for once I intend to keep my word." He continued to circle Aya, still acting oblivious about the length of very sharp steel that was only inches from his chest.

Mindful of how Aya could take care of himself and unwilling to leave his back exposed and Ken alone to deal with Crawford and the freak, Yohji stayed where he was and turned so he could look at everyone, his sword held at the ready. "Whoever the hell is not part of my crew needs to get his ass off my ship *now*." If he raised enough of a ruckus, Omi and the others should be able to hear it.

Crawford did not appear to take the threat seriously, although the freak beside him now had a sword in each hand. "We’re not leaving until our business is concluded, which means that Aya will come with us." He looked past Yohji at Aya, his expression as blank as the redhead’s. "I must admit that you’ve impressed us with your ability to disappear for so long. However, you’ve been tracked down and there are very important matters back home that require your presence. I don’t really care if you come willingly or not, but the former will ensure that your new colleagues remain alive."

"Go to hell." Aya’s face remained impassive, but his voice and eyes betrayed the hatred he felt. "I have no more business with… your lord other than to see him dead and everything he owns destroyed. Even the official records list ‘Ran’ as deceased, which you should very well know since you helped establish that lie," he spat.

Despite the danger of the situation, Yohji found his interest piqued – who was ‘Ran’ and this mysterious lord? Why the hell could Aya not mention a few more names and details? At least he now had an idea of what had driven his lover to become a pirate, if not a very well fleshed out one. "No one’s taking Aya from the White Cross if it’s against his wishes," Yohji warned the strangers, prepared to let loose a yell to wake up the others.

Before he could do that, Schuldig laughed and did something so fast that Yohji could not follow it, something that put the bastard closer to Aya and almost knocked aside the long sword. Aya staggered to the side, clearly dazed, and Schuldig moved quickly to grab hold of him the same time that the freak leapt toward Yohji and Ken.

The exact moment that Yohji yelled, Schuldig did too, the sound one of pain and not warning. Before the bastard could touch Aya, a feathered bolt protruded from his arm and caused him to step back.

"I’ve plenty more ready for anyone who thinks to harm this ship’s crew," Omi remarked from his position on the bridge, in the process of exchanging the crossbow in his hands for the already loaded one that rested on the railing before him. "Whoever you are, I suggest you leave." He must have been there for a minute or two since he aimed the weapon at Crawford, as if having figured out that the dark-haired man was the one in charge. Aya moved to take advantage of the situation, his sword once more at the ready to slash a wounded Schuldig, who now seemed willing to keep a healthy distance between them.

The white-haired freak backed away from Ken, only to step toward the bridge. To Yohji’s surprise, Crawford extended an arm to stop him. "Farfarello, no." He stared intently at Omi while his bastard companions watched him and waited for a command or signal.

The strained détente was broken by Crawford bowing in Omi’s direction. "Very well played, and by someone I had thought removed from the game. This bears some thinking about." He motioned toward Schuldig and Farfarello, the gesture making the white-haired freak sheathe his weapons and for Schuldig to curse and step closer to Aya.

"Schuldig, *no*. Now is not the proper time."

"To hell with *proper*! You told me I’d have him this time!" Schuldig yelled as he spun around to face what appeared to be his boss. "How long have we been looking for him, and you want to give up without a fight?"

Crawford appeared unaffected by his companion’s foul mood. "The situation has changed, which requires a new plan. Besides, with that wound he would have you gutted in three minutes." He brushed something from the sleeves of his dark silk coat and inclined his head in Aya’s direction. "Consider this a temporary reprieve only. You still have an important role to play."

Aya held his sword steady by Schuldig’s throat and glared. "Unless it involves revenge for my family, I have no use for you or your plans. Now go away."

"Right." Yohji was relieved to see more of his crew appear at Omi’s back, but even though the odds were now in their favor, he had a feeling that it would not be very easy to take on these three men. "Come back again and you’ll be killed on sight." It galled him to let them go like this, but he was not about to risk everyone’s lives on only a semi-decent chance of taking down a couple of freaks and whatever the hell Crawford was. If the bastards ever showed up again, he hoped to have all of his crew on hand and some more long-ranged weapons.

"Good day." Crawford bowed in Yohji’s direction then motioned with his right hand again. Swearing out loud for a moment, Schuldig blew Aya a kiss and was gone in a blur, so fast that all Yohji could see was a streak of green, white and red. Farfarello laughed as he followed the bastard at a more natural pace, the sound so broken by madness that Yohji knew that it would take several skilled fighters alone to take him down. Crawford was the last to depart, after a lingering look split between Aya and Omi.

"Orsen! Go ashore and gather up the crew to report back here in two hours," Yohji ordered, and the man hurried to do as commanded. "I want the plank pulled back as soon as he’s on shore, and for the White Cross to head out a good hundred feet." That should make it difficult for anyone to sneak on board the ship. "Once the crew’s accounted for, we’re out of here." They could sell the stolen goods at Sweetwater, and hopefully put some distance between Crawford and his associates.

As the crew ran about to complete his orders, Yohji turned his attention to Aya and Omi. His lover stood with his once-more sheathed sword in hand, his face so blank that Yohji knew he was hiding a hell of a lot. Ken had his arms wrapped around Omi as if to convince himself that the kid was fine, which was almost funny since Ken was the one sporting a couple of wounds from Farfarello’s weapons. At least Omi seemed to realize that he had to placate his lover before he could tend to them.

"Okay, so who’s going to give me an explanation for what happened just now?" Yohji demanded, and was not surprised in the slightest when Aya’s lips pressed tighter together. Angered for a moment at the man’s silence, he shook his head at the realization that any hope he had of getting answers would be when he and Aya were alone in their room. "Omi? Not that I don’t consider you a dead-shot with your bows and personally more terrifying than a sea dragon when you’re angry, but how the hell did you scare them off like that?" He had a feeling that things would have been very bad and bloody if his first mate had not shown up like that.

Omi shook his head and patted Ken on the arm to make his boyfriend step aside. "I don’t know. I thought… I thought I heard some familiar voices and so came up here to see what was going on," he explained, his voice weak and tinged with a little pain.

"With two loaded crossbows?" Ken asked. "I mean, I’m glad you did, but…."

"Yeah, but I thought you said you recognized our voices," Yohji finished. Omi was usually the level-headed one out of them, pushing for discussion over fights most of the time.

Appearing just as confused as everyone else – well, except for Aya – Omi shrugged and held up his hands. "Like I said, they sounded familiar, and I suddenly had a bad feeling. Whoever they are, if I knew them at all, it wasn’t good." His blue eyes were shadowed by something, his expression almost vacant as if he tried very hard to remember something.

Which was damn odd, considering that when Yohji had bought the kid, Omi did not remember anything of his life save for the last month or so. Oh, he knew how to read and write well enough to have had a proper education and spoke two languages, which meant that he did not come from a poor family, but he had not even known his name, just what another slave had taken to calling him. During the almost five years they had been together, Yohji knew that Omi had not recalled anything of his past.

He turned toward Aya again, wondering how the hell it was that armed and spooky thugs for some unknown lord were involved with two of the White Cross’ crew members. Aya sure as hell knew who they were, but would he say anything? Yohji had the terrible suspicions that he was more likely to get answers from his first mate than his lover.

"As I said, as soon as the crew’s all back, head out to sea," he told Omi as he motioned toward the bridge. "Aya, I believe we have some things to discuss in private.

His lover did not say anything as he followed Yohji to their room, and Omi and Ken were unusually quiet as they set about doing what Yohji had asked. Most likely, they wanted answers, too, but they knew how much Aya hated to supply any.

It was a very quiet walk to their room. Closing the door behind him, Yohji leaned against it and watched his lover. Aya sat down on the bed with his sword on his lap, his expression carefully blank.

"So, three very strange guys show up who know something about your past, try to kidnap you and threaten me, then leave just because of Omi." Yohji did not believe for one second that retreat had anything to do with the young man’s weapon but Omi himself. He got so caught up in Aya’s mysterious past that he forgot Omi had one himself. "Do you have anything to say about today’s events?"

Aya shrugged and set aside the sword with care. "Nothing that has not already been said." He looked at Yohji for the first time since entering the room. "I have no plans to go anywhere, especially not with them."

Had it been too much to hope that Aya would give some sort of explanation? Yohji sighed and shook his head. "That’s all you have to say? Do you really think they’re going to leave us alone when they were so determined to take you?"

Aya seemed to consider the questions for a few seconds then shook his head as well. "Yes, that’s all and I don’t care about the rest."

"Aya…." Yohji wanted to tug on his hair in frustration. "You’re hiding a hell of a lot, I know that. Why won’t you tell me anything?" He loved Aya so much, was willing to risk life and ship for the stubborn fool and yet he got nothing back in return?

Remaining still for a moment, Aya slowly got up from the bed and crossed the room to stand right in front of Yohji. "The past is the past, Yohji. Telling you about it won’t change anything. All that matters is what happens now, and I know what that will be. I will never leave you." He was perfectly serious as he spoke, voice rough with conviction and intent gaze never leaving Yohji’s. "That’s all you need to know."

The promise struck Yohji much like a physical blow, making his body tense and his breath to catch in his throat. He would bet his ship that Aya was telling him the truth just then, and remembered that the redhead had never lied to him during their year together. Oh, he was a secretive bastard and evasive as hell, but he had never said anything that he did not plan to honor.

For the first time since he had seen Aya, the man’s past became unimportant. Like Aya had said, the past could not be changed. The mystery was still there and at some point he might have to throttle a few answers out of his lover, but for now… for now he would much rather have any doubts on what Aya felt for him settled than some questions.

"I’m not gonna let the matter drop, you know," he told his lover as he reached for him, pulling Aya close for a kiss. The way that Aya held him back reinforced the promise that had been made to him.

Pulling away a little a minute later, Aya snorted as if amused and began to walk backwards, toward the bed. Of course Yohji was only too happy to follow. "Save the energy of trying to out-stubborn me in case those bastards come back. I’m not leaving you or this ship, and I’m not saying another word about the past."

"Stubborn bastard," Yohji teased.

"That makes us a matched pair," Aya shot back as he sank onto the bed. "Now, do you want to ask questions that won’t be answered or spend the next few hours in a much more productive and enjoyable manner?"

"That’s the stupidest question I’ve heard all day," Yohji said as he leaned in for a kiss.

*******

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