Seeking the
North Star

Topher shifted his position on the hardwood planks of the ship's hold, stretching his right leg out before him and resettling his head in the nest of his arms, still perched on his left knee. The steel links connecting the cuff at one wrist to that on the other clinked and clanked at his movement. Colonials. If the lilting drawl of the first mate had not been enough to convince him, the materials of their imprisonment would have. No proper Englishman would use steel to confine his prisoners. Not while there was still perfectly good iron available to weight them down. Though, he had to admit, it did give the rotten lot of them a rather healthy glow.

He would have laughed, but he doubted the others would understand-much less appreciate-the humor in it, so he hid his smile in the crook of his arms and said nothing. The crew had been out of sorts since the incident on the ship. All around him, he could hear their voices, hushed and frightened, murmuring assurances and speculations. Speculation ranged anywhere from traditional floggings to the more romanticized walking of the plank. The gory tales they were cooking up about the torture they would be forced to endure were actually quite amusing. Topher hid another smile in his arms.

He could have told them exactly what would happen. He had found himself in similar situations several times over the past five years; he could almost be considered an expert on the subject. In those years he had learned a few things-the gruesome tales were started either by those with very creative imaginations, or crewmen too proud to return to port with only a tale of mild harassment and loss of wealth. The stories were peppered with blood and violence-and several dollops of bravado-that had never really occurred. He had been willing to believe it himself when he had first taken to the seas. But he had learned fast. That was not to say that such brutes did not exist, but according to those who knew, they were more often found in the Asian spheres, and they rarely entered the passages of the Atlantic.

He could have shared all that information with them. By and large he was the most educated of the crew when it came to pirates. But they did not consider that any sort of bragging right. Besides, he saw no reason to spoil their fun. If it made them happy to scare themselves witless with tales of death and mayhem, who was he to deny them the pleasure.

And the inanity of their words was easy to drown out anyway. What with the Duchess carrying on like a wounded animal in the background. He was both surprised and annoyed that neither her voice nor tears had given out yet. After what he was certain had been an entire night in the hold, it seemed inconceivable that she could still be going. But he supposed stark terror did that to some people. All the while driving the rest of the captives to near insanity-with the Duke as the only possible exception.

Not that he was any less annoying. For as long as she had been carrying on- her cries ranging from pleading sobs to hysterical wails-he had been at her side, patting her shoulders and telling her that everything would be all right. Promising that he would die before letting any of those evil men- rotten devils, plagues in the world of men, that's what they were-lay a finger on her. Just let them try.

Topher rolled his eyes in the nest of his arms and tried to block out the resounding promises of bravery and victory over this vicious scum. The whole of the crew my have been sailing a good 15-20 years longer that he, but they knew nothing when it came to pirates. In his six years at sea, he had experienced just over double that in encounters-with several leading to situations similar to the one in which they now found themselves. From those experiences he had learned a few very important things.

Such as when one should keep his mouth shut and his sword sheathed.

It was precisely that lack of knowledge that had sent the good captain to his sorry fate. Relatively young for his post, Captain Weston had been boisterous, stern, intelligent, ambitious, and completely besotted with the Duchess. To the degree that he had been willing to do anything to gain her attention and approval. Taking on a crew of pirates single-handedly had been one of those things. Which had certainly been effective in capturing her notice, but the captain had very little to show for it now. Just a fish-eaten corpse at the bottom of the sea.

In an act that would forever be hailed as bravery, but had in fact been sheer stupidity, Weston had drawn his sword, released a shrill cry, and charged the invading pirates-all six of them. After the swiftly-near blindly-thrown knife had lodged in his throat and sent him tumbling over the edge, the rest of the crew had fallen into a sad, hectic rampage. Topher was honestly surprised that more had not followed the captain to his grave.

Had they been playing on the part of observance, they would have noticed a few things regarding this particular invasion. They did not immediately open fire as soon as they were within range, nor did they board in an all out attack. Only six had even deigned to visit them, and the captain had not even been one of them. Had they bothered to ask him, he could have told the best course of action. But most preferred to ignore him, and even more looked upon him as little more than a nuisance. In the opinions of many, his past made him something of a curse-which often required him to invest vast amounts of money and spend even longer bouts of negotiations to be permitted aboard.

So, when the "battle" broke, Topher had remained right where he was, content simply to await the resolution so that he could find out what they did want. He was confident he already knew, but it never hurt to be certain. Unfortunately, the brash actions of the rest of the crew had landed them here instead. And he could only guess how much longer they would be kept in the hold before he finally found out if he was right.

The greatest error of men was letting their hearts rule their minds. It always led to the same end: a quick burst of bravado followed by an even quicker death. To think that Weston would forever be remembered as some golden hero.

The Duchess' cries had died to quiet, whimpering moans. Topher took this as a good sign that she had finally reached the end of her vast reserves of tears. Sighing tiredly, he turned his head away from the loan lantern that had been lit at the other side of where they were confined. Now that he found himself in a silence conducive to peaceful rest, it seemed obnoxiously bright. He was never signing on a nobleman's pleasure trip again, that was damned certain. He was sticking with the merchant cargoes- high profile and with massive amounts of wealth, yes-but at least he did not have to worry about gold shrieking up a storm at the sight of blood. The beauty of inanimate fortunes was highly underrated.

! --- *^* --- !

Artemis bent over the map rolled out on his desk, marking various points and noting their current location with some annoyance. They were sadly off course. There was nothing for it, however; it had been his decision to chase down the blasted Duke. Though in his mind, he had imagined a somewhat smoother transaction. He had not imagined the Duke would already be so far out by the time he reached him. Nor had intended to spend the entire night anchored in the middle of this godforsaken sea with an adventure seeking Duke and his poorly seasoned crew in his hold and his ship tied up on his.

Leaning back in his chair, he crossed his ankles on top of his desk and eyed the man standing patiently before him.

"Explain to me, again, Carroll exactly what transpired."

Carroll relaxed his stance and gave Artemis an ironic look, "The captain apparently thought to protect the lady from our vile hands, sir."

Artemis raised an eyebrow. "How noble."

"I thought it was a rather foolish move myself, sir."

"Don't speak ill of the dead, Carroll. There is torment enough in death without our own mocking to add to it."

"Apologies, sir. My words were out of line."

Artemis inclined his head in acknowledgment, "How many more were lost as a result of this man's brash actions?"

Carroll wisely did not comment on the criticism. "Not more than ten, sir, but I was not bothered to keep an exact count."

"God save the rest of us from the actions of the fool-hardy and irrational." He stared absently at the map beneath his booted feet for several minutes, lost in thought.

"I'm confident the boy was not among those lost, sir." Carroll guessed the directions of his captain's thoughts.

Artemis snapped from his musings. "You're certain he's one of the crew, then?"

"We've not yet confirmed it, sir. But Jackson's missive seemed quite accurate." Carroll removed his hat and rubbed absently at his balding head in thought. "At any rate, he has little reason to lie to you, sir."

Artemis nodded absently, lost in thought once again. His left hand lifted to the soft white flesh of his earlobe, index finger running smoothly and habitually over a small, white scar that angled from a hole where a piercing had once been to the end. Carroll was right, of course. Jackson did have little reason to lie.

He also had little reason not to. The only point sustaining Artemis' trust in the infamous Jackson Fuller was that the man had been leaving him similar messages for the past six years. Jackson and the numerous other pirates who passed through the port at the Silver Crescent.

The fact that it was more than just Jackson was the convincing factor. He found it very hard to believe that the entire community at the Crescent was that interested in playing a game of this magnitude. Not that they were not getting a hardy laugh out of it. No, whoever's turn it happened to be to deliver the latest message took great pleasure-and amusement-in doing so. It had become a part of the regular business at the Crescent over the past six years. Artemis would have found it amusing himself if he were not the recipient.

For six years, the same man had been sending him requests for an audience. They were all relayed through other pirates. There was something to be said for a man who continually placed himself in a position to be confronted by pirates. There was even more to be said when that man befriended half the lot that monopolized the Crescent. And this one definitely had. Hell, Jackson and Margolese talked about him as though he were a bloody member of their crews. Many were the times they would hold off leaving port just so they could deliver the messages personally.

They also took it as some sort of personal affront that Artemis had yet to respond to any of them. In his defense, however, that was because by the time he received them, they were already months old. In that time he would have been too far out to be caught up, or he would have already transferred to another vessel, starting another round of missive passing. Admittedly, at first, Artemis had ignored them; he had been the victim of more than one over-zealous vengeance seeker to feel like dealing with it. But after six years, even he had to admit he was slightly curious. Even if it was just for revenge, it showed a great amount of dedication. The least he could do was take the chance to track him down, and he figured the latest request- sent through a courier of Margolese-would be his best chance.

He gave his ear one last tug, then turned back to Carroll. "Send for the boy then. Release the rest of the men back to their ship and pull out. Make certain he's secured on deck, though. I don't relish another crazed hellion jumping me with a blade."

"All their weapons have been confiscated, sir."

"So had the Regent's, if I recall, correctly." Carroll flushed at that reminder of his blatant oversight, acknowledging the reprimand with a stiff tilt of his head. Without another word, he stepped quietly from the room to see the captain's orders met.

! --- *^* --- !

It could not have been more than an hour-if even so much time had passed- after Topher had closed his eyes, when footsteps could be heard entering into their confinement. A lantern, carried aloft by a hunched figure approached. As it came nearer, the figure started to take shape. He was decently young, with weather beaten features, skin burned a fine bronze from hours in the sun, wearing baggy, grimy pants cinched at the waist with a bright red sash. Behind him, they could also make out another man. This one was slightly better dressed. Loose breeches, fashioned with a dark- probably black-sash, knee high boots, white shirt whose sleeves flared outrageously a the wrists, and the tri-cornered hat, so fashionable amongst the Colonials, adorned the man Topher knew to be the first mate.

He grinned again at the peculiarities of Colonials.

The men approached slowly, as though time was of little concern for them, and they were merely out for a pleasant stroll. As they neared the group of sailors, the man with the lantern started to wave the small beam of light around the group, as though in search of a particular one.

He found it hard to contain his anticipation. He had finally found it.

The men stopped in what was relatively the center of the sad group. The light passed over the Duchess' tear streaked face. She flinched, digging her face into the Duke's chest and screaming hysterically. The Duke bravely put on what he must have assumed was an intimidating face, and put a protective arm around his wife. Several men in the background shifted nervously. They were murmuring again.

The lantern continued passing in a wide arc. The first mate snapped at the Duchess, telling her in no uncertain terms that silence would behoove her. "One of you men call yourself Topher?"

"Aye, sir." Topher stood up hastily as the beam of light flashed over him. The men shared a shocked look as the light settled fully on him. The first mate gave him a quick perusal from head to toe, a smirk crooking his mouth and an amused glint lighting his eyes. "You're Topher?" His voice held a twinge of contained laughter.

"Aye, sir.

He seemed amused by the response. "You know whose ship you're on, boy?"

"I've my suspicions, yes."

"You know why Cap'n Landauer sought your ship out?"

"Aye, sir."

"No wonder they were always laughing'." The smirk tilted into a grin as he motioned the other man to undo the chains securing Topher to the floor. Topher could feel the angry eyes of the other men as they followed his shadowed figure out of the hold. But what did he care-Landauer had finally come to call.

! --- *^* --- !

The sun was a welcome sight when Topher emerged from the hold. So was the wind-rushing noise of the ship. He supposed any noise would be welcomed, after five hours with the Duchess. Shrugging his shoulders to relieved the ache and tension incurred in those near-interminable hours, Topher lifted his face into the wind, enjoying the feel of the crisp breeze and salt spray that accompanied the sound.

He was led rather leisurely across the deck. As before, he could feel the eyes that watched his progression, but unlike in the hold, there was no anger in these gazes. It was simple curiosity and a lot of shock. Margolese and Jackson must have spread quite the rumors. That or they had just kept agonizingly silent. Either way, it seemed all they had known for certain was his name.

He was taken up a flight of steps and through a door at the top. The room inside was quite large, the whole of the left side was devoted to a multitude of intricate maps and scales suspended upon the walls. Other maps lay in scrolls stacked neatly together in pyramidal shapes along the floor. He could just make out some scribbling along with various tools and utensils scattered along the map spread open on the desk. The right side was shut off from his view-courtesy of the large screen that separated that side from the rest of the room. But he could just make out the image of a bed and armoire before he was lead beyond it.

He was brought up before the desk, where he was turned to face back towards the door, the cuffs at his wrists were again connected to chains, which were then pulled through and secured in steel hoops mounted into the planks on the floor.

"You understand, sir. It's for the Cap'n's protection." Carroll explained unapologetically while his companion secured the chains

Topher merely shrugged. At least it was comfortable. An Englishman would have strung him from the masts-likely by his neck. This was practically royal treatment by comparison. He lifted his arms, experimenting with the slack and mobility the system provided. He grinned up at the two men. Carroll froze at it, taken aback as he had been below decks. "You Colonials are actually quite sophisticated about this whole thing."

"Well, we would certainly hate for it to get back to the English that we mistreated one of their noblemen." A rich baritone spoke from behind Carroll; Topher looked up. And felt his breath leave him. God there he was, leaning against the wall just inside the screen, staring at him with his hard, blue gaze. It was so real, the image of the man standing before him, that he almost believed it to be too real. Perhaps he was dreaming. Maybe he really had gone over the edge with the captain.

Artemis Landauer, captain of the North Star, pirate by trade, known mostly to occupy the seas just south of the Spanish territories-a span of sea and islands known as the Caribbean. Rumor claimed he made his home in the Carolinas, one of the newly formed colonies in the new world. The actual location was a place called the Outer Banks-Hatteras, he thought, but he could not be sure. His knowledge of the colonies was limited.

But where he made berth was far from what concerned Topher at the moment, anyhow. What concerned him was that he was here. After ten years, he had finally found him. Ten years of training and searching had finally brought him here. Chained in the captain's quarters of the North Star and staring straight into the eyes of Captain Artemis Landauer.

He had not changed much. He was still as tall as Topher remembered, with the toned body of one who had spent nearly his whole life at sea. His dirty blond hair reached to the center of his back, bound only in a loose braid, which released strands more than it held them. Several smaller locks in the front had been bound together in tiny clumps, and they framed his sharp, angular features in a wild, but fitting disarray.

He wore tight, camel-colored breeches, adorned with a deep, violet silk sash. His shirt was a crisp white, left open at the top and covered mostly by a greatcoat of the same royal violet. The cuffs of the shirt poked through the sleeves of the coat in a flurry of white. Yet the ruffles did more to enhance his appearance, than detract from it. A saber was secured comfortably against his right hip, and a the hilt of a dagger flashed brilliantly from the top of one of his boots.

But what attracted Topher's attention the most were his eyes-a piercing midnight blue, rimmed with silver. He could see them clearly, even from this distance, and he was just as entranced by them. It may have taken ten years, but damned if it had not been worth the wait.

He had to smile at the observation of his heritage. "Do you often find yourself in the company of those of my ilk, then Captain?"

Artemis stepped away from the wall and started forward, motioning for Carroll and the other to leave. He did not miss the teasing glint that lit Carroll's eyes as he passed. He, too, subjected Topher to a perusal, but his was more thorough, his gaze lingering and memorizing. The boy cut a relatively small figure, but he had some bulk, which hinted to at least a few hours of physical activity. Shouldered-length hair the color of walnut was bound back with a strap of leather. The mildest hint of gold was evident in the sunlight streaming through the windows behind him. His clothing, though fashioned in the guise of the simple sailor he pretended to be, were cut from the finest cloth and composed of finer stitches. And even in his current disheveled state, they suited him very well.

He felt a twinge of familiarity, as though he should know this boy.

"Often enough that I can see through your disguise. The style may be right, but no sailor could afford those materials." He smirked as though pleased with himself. "And your manner of speech would give you away no matter if you were wearing a potato sack."

"Would you be surprised if I told you my intent was not to disguise myself?"

A tilted grin. "Given much of what I've heard about you over the past six years, I'm not certain much of anything you could say would surprise me."

"I dare say my intent for seeking you out may."

"Maybe, but humor me, if you will." He took a step back, crossings his arms over his chest, and giving Topher an appraising look. "I ravaged you sister, the most dire act possible against such a sweet-natured girl. She is now and forever broken, possibly dead-in spirit at least. Never again will the sun shine down upon her smiling face." He turned and started walking a slow circle around Topher. "Your brother, I slew without remorse when he attacked me after I heartlessly and ruthlessly tossed you father over the side when I invaded his ship." He stopped when he was once again before Topher. "Your mother, the dear woman, was sent to her grave with a broken heart, never having recovered from the tragedy that I, vicious cur that I am, wreaked up on your family." He glared down, expression bored. "And so now you've come to have you revenge."

Topher grinned. "Get that a lot do you?"

Artemis paused, taken about by the laughter sparkling in his golden-brown eyes. Why did they seem so familiar? He blinked it back, hiding his confusion behind a wry grin in response, "I've had my fair share, yes."

"It might please you to learn then, that my sisters are both alive and well, driven happily insane by my nephews, and without a single thought to the idea of death. My brother-when last I heard-is alive and well." He shrugged indifferently, "But a lot can happed in three months, and it's highly possible he did something to incur my father's wrath, though that's hardly your doing." He smiled cheerfully, "My mother is still contentedly wasting my father's fortunes, and he is happily letting her do so. So I can assure you, revenge is not what I seek."

"What then, do you seek?"

"You, as it were." Before Artemis could begin to form a response, Topher reached his hands beneath the fall of his hair, tilting his head slightly to the left and undoing the earring dangling from his ear. His smile faltered, the uncertainty of what he was doing finally coming to the fore, and his hand shook slighlty as he stretched it out towards the pirate. Artemis held his palm out to accept it, breath catching when he realized what Topher had handed him.

A small hoop, white gold and no more than an inch wide, braided with sapphires, amethysts, and diamonds. He simply stared at it, mind not quite comprehending-not believing-what was so obviously before him. There was just no way...

//- ^^ * ^^ -\\

Topher bent over the basin and willed his stomach to stop trying to mimic the motion of the ship. Deciding to sail out with Tucker and Charlie had definitely been a bad idea. He owed his father a very big apology when he got back. Always assuming he would still be alive when he got back, of course. At this rate, however, he was not counting on it.

Damn he felt vile. Head still bent, hands clutching desperately to the small table on which the basin sat, and feebly hoping his legs would not give out underneath him, he blindly reached for the bottle of wine set nearby. He swirled a small amount around in his mouth before spitting it back out, hoping to rinse the taste of bile that haunted there.

Above him, the boards thumped and echoed with footsteps and shouts from on deck. It was entirely inconceivable that any of them could go gallivanting about without cause or concern for the tumultuous motion of the sea. He did not give a damn for the captain's assurances that today the waters were quite calm. The man must be imperceptive to roiling jolts. He had to be; they all had to be. How else could they remain standing on these turbulent waves? Those thoughts combined with what felt like a massive tidal wave-what they identified in the east as tsunami-brought a fresh wave of dizziness and nausea. Holding his head in his hands, he sank obediently to the floor, falling forward to rest his forehead against the coarse surface of the floor. More footsteps and shouts carried from above, and he turned a dark glare to the ceiling. Or would have, were he not completely immobilized by the pounding, unforgiving ruthlessness of the sea. Dear God had they landed themselves in a hurricane?

The door behind him opened then slammed shut again. Topher struggled to pull himself from the floor, but a fresh wave of nausea convinced him he did not really need to stand up, anyway. "Go away, Charlie. I don't care how fascinating the damned dolphins are. I told you this morning, the only thing I want to see anymore is dry land."

A warm, rich baritone laughed lightly and responded, "Given you're current location, I'd say you may as well enjoy the dolphins."

Knowing neither Tucker nor Charlie could ever hope of acquiring a voice like that, Topher valiantly tried to lift his head to see who had disturbed him. Even in his less than cohesive state, Topher recognized that this man was not of this ship. True he had not spent any time on deck since first boarding, but he liked to think he knew a pirate when he saw one.

Long, sun-streaked dirty blond hair splayed about a sharply angled, but surprisingly young face. He wore a long crimson coat over a crisp white shirt, which was secured in the front by an intricate pattern of lacings and buckles. Although half of those appeared to have been left unsecured. His breeches were a smooth chocolate brown and fit entirely too closely for decency's sake. His boots were a soft leather and stopped just below his knees. And that was definitely a saber swinging, hidden, within the folds of his coat.

"No hook?" Topher knew he should probably be concerned that he was trapped in a room with a pirate, but that would require him to expend energy that he did not possess. Besides, if the man was down here, then he had obviously gotten through the obstacle of people above deck.

The pirate's mouth tilted into a wry grin. "That honor has not yet been bestowed upon me, no." There was something odd about his voice. Something that, were he feeling better, Topher knew he could have pegged immediately.

The ship rolled again, and he released a pained groan, setting his head back down on the floor. "My trunk is over there," he lifted a hand and waved listlessly and vaguely to his right. "Just take whatever you want. Hell, take the whole thing. I'm certainly in no position to stop you.." As if to prove his point, the ship seemed suddenly to lurch forward. His stomach surrendered the battle, and what little of his breakfast he had managed to hold onto spewed forth onto the rough wooden floor. After that he gave up all pretense and promptly lost consciousness. Damn Charlie and Tucker and the ship and the sea and the pirate still standing in his room. He just did not care.

Artemis blinked at the unconscious youth slumped haphazardly on the floor before him. Not quite how he had envisioned any of this coming to pass. He turned and opened the door, ordering one of two men waiting outside to fetch him a glass of water. The other he sent to pass the message to the rest that the crew and passengers were to be detained in the captain's quarters, and they were all simply to wait. And keep an eye on their temporary captives.

Closing the door once more, he turned and crossed the room, coming to kneel beside the boy and lifting him to rest across his lap, head pillowed against his shoulder. He pulled a kerchief from the pocket of his coat and gently wiped his face, clearing away the small amount of sick that clung to his pale, white features. He was young-younger than Artemis had been led to believe. He traced a gentle finger along the smooth features of his face, relishing the feel of it against his calloused skin. He stopped when he reached the line of his jaw, then moved his hand back up, brushing away the few strands of hair that had fallen over his eyes. It, too, was soft. The color of the beaches back home, pale brown and glinting with the faintest hint of gold from the sun peeping through the porthole.

The tap on the door reminded him where he was, and he pulled his hand and eyes away with some reluctance. What was he thinking, anyway? The boy could not have been more than 15 or 16 summers. Certainly he had more control over himself than that. Another tap on the door brought him back fully, and he ordered gruffly for whomever it was to enter.

Carroll. Coming to investigate the cause of the delay. And the necessity of the water. He paused just inside the doorway, staring disinterestedly at the youth lying in his arms. Artemis was not fooled. "Go back and join the others, Carroll. I'll be up soon." He accepted the cup with a slight nod.

"We haven't the time to dally, sir."

Artemis titled an eyebrow humorously, "We're in the middle of the ocean; we've all the time in the world."

"We're in the middle of a nobleman's sea. This ship isn't the only one out for a recreational jaunt."

"He's ill." Artemis dipped a corner of the cloth into the water and ran it once more over the boy's pale, pale face.

"Briggs can look him over once we set off."

"He can barely stand. I'm not putting him on my ship in this condition."

A moment of strained silence. "You're the captain."

"Yes, I am," Artemis snapped. "Now go back and join the others. We'll leave when I give the order." Carroll appeared taken aback, but he quickly covered it with a stiff nod before exiting, shutting the door quietly behind him. Artemis released a small chuckle; Carroll would give him hell for this once they were back on their ship.

The boy released a soft moan, and Artemis turned back to him, watching as his eyes fluttered, then opened fully to reveal warm-though slightly glazed- honey brown eyes. They blinked up at him, confusion written clearly within their depths. Seconds later, they lit with recognition, followed immediately by realization of just where he lay. A pink tinge slowly blossomed on his cheeks, and Artemis fought valiantly to keep from running his hand over them again.. The boy tried to make a hasty retreat; Artemis laid a restraining hand gently on his chest, forcing him to remain where he was. "Don't move too quickly; you wouldn't want to upset yourself again."

Topher blinked at the silver-laced blue eyes smiling down at him, still not quite comfortable with lying in this man's arms, but finding that he was getting that way. Which only served to make him more uncomfortable. He did not remember much from when he blacked out, but he distinctly remembered the pirate. The pirate with this smile that could outshine the sun. And who had apparently not abandoned him to his rather pathetic state in a pool of his own filth. Not that any of that meant much to him at the moment. As before, he knew he probably should care that there was a pirate in his room at all, but his mind had latched on to something that seemed wholly more important than even his smiling midnight eyes. "You're Colonial."

The pirate threw his head back and released a short bark of laughter. He slowly guided Topher into a sitting position. Resting with his back against the baseboard of the bed, knees bent before him, he supported his head half-heartedly in his hands. "I'll try not to offend your sensibilities. Here." A cup of water was place in one of his hands; Topher took of small sip of it. It felt refreshingly cool against his sick- ravaged throat. Topher felt himself blushing again. It was impossible to be offended-not with a voice like that. He liked the lilt of it. There was a calm, relaxing quality in the way it rolled out, unhurried or hassled. Entirely lacking in pretentiousness. It was a good thing his face was hidden now. His thoughts were entirely too rampant for even the likes of a pirate.

Several moments passed in silence. Topher kept his head down, sipping his water periodically, and trying his best to ignore the pirate who was apparently in no rush to leave. On the plus side, he did not feel nearly as sick anymore. He smiled wryly to himself-not that he had anything left of which to be rid. The silence, however, was slightly unnerving. If only because it left him perfectly free to contemplate his rampant thoughts.

Slowly and deliberately-as his head felt alarmingly heavy-he lifted his eyes so he was no longer staring at the floor and found himself staring directly into the pirate's blue gaze. How long had the man been watching him? He opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a strangled crack. Taking a larger sip of water, he licked his lips and tried again. He winced at the harshness of his voice, but at least he was producing recognizable sound. "Shouldn't you be looting or something?"

"I had been doing just that when you decided to take a nap." Artemis winked at him, wide smile breaking his features when the boy's cheeks flushed pink once again. The boy was really too cute.

"I make for a pretty ransom, do I?" He seemed wholly unbothered by any of this. He was either that sick, or simply used to being ransomed. Artemis guessed the former over the latter.

"For some yes."

The kid raised his eyebrows at that. "Not the cause, just the pay." He folded his elbows across his knees, resting his head to one side on his stacked hands, a faint smile crooking the corners of his mouth. Artemis took that as an indication that he was feeling better.

"Something like that." Standing up, he leaned over the oddly complacent youth, grasping his hands and pulling him up. The only resistance offered was a curious pout. Artemis found the look endearing.

Standing the boy obviously was not as confident about. His balance seemed immediately thrown-though Artemis could detect no motion that was out of the ordinary. One of the boy's hands clutched desperately at the wrist of his left hand, the other fisted tightly in the stiff material of his shirt. Artemis smiled down at him, serving to color his cheeks and make him turn away to stare down at their feet. The hand at his wrist fell away, and the grip on his shirt loosened. Artemis tamped down on his disappointment.

"Will they uh. be rather upset that you're taking so long?"

"They'll wait for me." Artemis grinned. "Are you concerned for me?" Artemis did not have to see his face to know the kid was blushing. It was really too easy.

More silence passed as Topher fought back his embarrassment. He had never felt so flustered before. Not even around all those society misses his mother liked to toss at him. The floor shifted slightly, and he resisted the urge to latch onto the pirate again. Willing away a brief flash of dizziness, Topher chanced a look up, smiling shyly, "If it's all the same to you, I think I'd prefer not to go with you."

He was gifted with a dazzling smile. "It may come as a surprise to you that most people prefer not to find themselves guests aboard a pirate ship."

Topher flushed and ducked his head again, mumbling to the floor, "It has little to do with the company, and more to do with my constitution." He stumbled forward slightly when the ship rolled, and this time he could not keep his hands from clutching at the stiff material of the pirate's coat. He could feel his stomaching preparing another revolt. The top of his head pressed into the pirate's chest, and he took several moments drawing in breaths slowly and steadily, trying to calm his stomach. He offered a wry smirk of his own when he looked back up, freeing his hands once more from the pirate's clothing and taking a tentative step back. "I think just making it to my door would be a trial. And do you truly relish having a seasick captive for the remainder of you voyage?"

The pirate grinned. "He said you were quite the diplomat."

A lock of hair had fallen in his face, and Topher lifted a hand to brush it back. "I'm certain he did." The ship took an abrupt lunge forward, and though this one was not an exaggeration of his mind, Topher was still the only one unable to remain upright. He plunged forward, arms flailing to keep him balanced, landing smack against the wall that was the pirate. One hand caught in the pirate's hair, ripping free with a savage jerk when a wave of dizziness caused him to become more disoriented than he already was.

When his vision did finally clear, one hand was fisted tightly at the pirate's shirt. His other lay open, palm up, between them. He stared uncomprehendingly at the small ring for several, seemingly endless seconds. Less than an inch in diameter, it was studded in a braid of sapphire, amethyst, and diamond, mounted on a base of white gold. It and his fingertips were also smeared with a decent amount of blood.

Wide-eyed, he slowly lifted his head up, meeting first the pirate's silver- blue eyes then trailing his gaze slowly to the right. He blinked, then visibly blanched. "umm. Tha-that's a lot of blood." He was not really sure if he actually spoke or merely thought that particular observation. His attention was completely caught by the thin but steadily streaming line of blood flowing from the pirate's ear and down his neck, even now staining the collar of his white shirt.

He tried to take a step back, certain that the good humor that had pervaded the situation previously was going to dissipate. He could not get very far. He was locked in by a strong band of arms. He did not know if it was physically possible for his eyes to get any wider, but it felt as if they were now as wide as one of his mother's tea saucers. He felt ill again. "ah. I umm."

He was not allowed to get much farther in his failed attempt at a stuttering apology. The pirate's head swooped down, mouth claiming his in hard, lip-bruising kiss. Topher was too stunned to be offended by the fact that another man was kissing him. Nor did he find himself overly inclined to put up much resistance. And it only facilitated the pirate's attempts to deepen it. He would be forced to question his own eager response to the kiss later, but at the moment, he could not be bothered by such mundane things. The whole experience was heady and wild and distracting.

The more logical part of his brain told Artemis that this was probably not the most proper reaction to having his ear painfully ripped apart, but the boy's fumbling incoherency and animated distress made him entirely too irresistible. And pain eventually receded. It already was. Besides, he tasted sweet.

Reluctantly he pulled away, grinning wolfishly at the small moan the boy released when the kiss broke. He started to say something, but Artemis silenced him with a wink, grin widening when he again flushed. "I think, my lord, you have won your argument."

Judging from the way the boy sagged against his arms, Artemis determined he was probably not up to standing on his own. Grasping his hands, Artemis forced him to release his shirt, then slowly guided hit to sit on the edge of his bed. Almost dazedly, brown eyes still lit with a trace of fear, he held out the hand with the earring. Smiling devilishly, Artemis folded the boy's hand to fist around the small hoop, leaning in to speak into his ear. "When you find you are fit to join my company, seek out the North Star." Then, because he could not resist, he ducked his head for a quick, chaste kiss before turning and rushing from the room. Oh, Carroll would have plenty of words for him now.

Topher stared after him for several seemingly endless seconds as though waiting for him to come back. Hoping he would. At long last, he collapsed on the bed, fisted hand resting comfortingly against his chest. For the second time that hour, he lost consciousness.

//- ^^ * ^^ -\\

Artemis blinked at the small hoop glinting brightly in his hand for several long moments. When it still seemed to be there, he at last looked up, locking gazes with Topher. A wry grin defined the tilt of his lips.

"You can stand on your own."

"You told me to find you when I could."

"I didn't think that you would."

A small smile, "It never occurred to me not to." That was certainly true. Not being much accustomed to the sea and all that it held, Topher had assumed-at the time-that Artemis had been referring literally to the north star. He had spent the rest of the voyage wondering how a damned star would possibly lead him to the pirate. Not until they had docked some weeks later, and the captain had recounted the entire tale to his father had Topher figured it out. It was also when he first learned the pirate's name. Odd, given the amount of time they were together that he had not learned it then.

The only part of the tale that remained unknown was Topher's. He had woken up to find Tucker, Charlie, and the captain crowded into his small room, staring down rather anxiously. It was clear they thought the pirates might have come through his room, but aside from that, they knew very little. They must have thought he would be only too willing to share the details with them. Unfortunately for them, Topher had not been so forthcoming. Tucker and Charlie had tried several times to get him to tell them, and the captain had made an unsuccessful attempt at ordering him to tell them. Topher had not considered any of what had transpired between himself and Artemis to be their concern.

And he had maintained his silence on the subject until he arrived home, where he pulled his father into his study, locked the door and spent three hours recounting everything, from what had transpired to how he felt and what he intended to do about it.

Of course, his father had called him a damn fool. But then, his father tended to call him that on a regular basis. Topher took it as his odd way of showing his affection. His father's only stipulation had been that he wait until he had actually come of age before setting about his "damned foolish errand". And that he keep his intentions clear of society's ears, but Topher had figured that was a given.

Two years later he began working at the docks. Another two-almost three- and he had finally mastered the sea and the ability to stand without his insides threatening to revolt. That same year he set off on his first overseas trip, and three months later had the run-in with Miguel Margolese that set the next six years in motion.

And never once since waking with the studded earring in his hands had the thought entered his mind not to seek the pirate out.

Topher tilted his head, grin spreading widening his features, and a teasing glint entering his eyes. "It took you long enough to answer."

"I didn't think..." Artemis stared back down at the ring, lost in thought. An odd smile tilted one side of his mouth, then, without warning, he tossed the ring to the floor and covered the few steps that separated them. His hands grasped both sides of Topher's face and forced him to look up. That wolfish smile that he recognized from so long ago. "You know I'm not letting you go this time."

Topher slipped his arms inside the greatcoat and around his waist. "The thought never crossed my mind."

Artemis growled his approval, swooping down to seize his lips in a ravaging kiss. This time, Topher was prepared, and he met him halfway.