"Why? Why are you playing all these games?" Benji asked desperately, staring into the handsome—un-maimed—face of Captain Graves. "You even—even said Locke w–would sell me!"

"I'm not playing games," Alex denied, but his sly smile widened at the accusation. "I'm just enjoying some good old-fashioned payback."

A tortured noise escaped Ben at the Captain's statement that just confused and scared him even more. "What do you mean?"

Alex maintained his grin; it did not falter despite the significant change in his tone. "You heard it earlier – how he used to spank me?" Ben nodded, but his heart was already stopping—his head already spinning… "That's not all he did playing daddy," Alex intoned in a dry voice unbefitting of his smile. "One time… he made me eat apples until I puked. All because Blake and I damaged some in storage. We were just horsing around—we were kids," he stresses. "You know what eating a whole burlap sack of apples is like, Benjamin?"

There was no mistaking it now; even with his unnerving smile, Alex's voice was rising – getting angrier as he continued reflecting on his complicated past.

"He never let me talk to girls at port. No—he didn't let me talk at all unless I was spoken to. Which he actively tried never to do…" Benjamin's heart was racing as he tried to imagine a younger, unscarred Locke barking out orders—still as menacing as ever. "Locke didn't listen to a goddamn word I said until I became Captain – imagine that. It was living hell, Ben."

Staying quiet, Benji tried his best to keep up – but all of it was so terrible. He couldn't imagine what any of that had been like—he'd seen Locke explode, but even at his most violent, the most Locke had done was shake him—bite him—make him into a bitch without asking…

"It was all very unfortunate," the Captain continued, sighing wistfully as if there was nothing to be done about it now. "It's a bad childhood when your own father doesn't have time for you, and the second one shouts and shuns… that's why I'm having so much fun with this."

"I'm—" Benji started, but he couldn't even get out the "sorry" before a lump stuck in his throat. He struggled to get out words of comfort, but he wasn't able to manage it before the silence had passed and Alex was already moving on with his story.

"It's no secret Locke changed when Jasper died," Alex said – smile fading with every sombre word. "Even Bill will tell you. He stopped reacting – stopped controlling – stopped caring. He acts like he cares what happens on the ship, but he didn't even try to become Captain. He isn't the man my father knew." Pausing, Alex allowed this to sink in, then let out a disbelieving laugh unbefitting of the conversation. "To this day the crew still thinks he should be in charge… but, anything I do he lets me get away with. Case in point, taking you as hostage. I knew he didn't want to. I knew that it would get under his skin. It was fun seeing him react so passionately against it… But I didn't know he was still capable of caring. I didn't know how valuable you'd end up being."

The Captain's statements hung heavy in the air. Benjamin noted that Alex's smile was now completely gone, and when liquid black eyes met his, he knew they had long since turned serious.

"I had no clue that I'd get so upset seeing him try to treasure something – when he never went easy on me at all."

"He doesn't go easy on me!" Ben corrected immediately – surprising himself at his tremor-free declaration.

"But all that's my fault," Alex smiled, not necessarily wrong. "You know the best part of all, Benjamin? Watching him lose his mind over a boy – a cruise-boy – and ruin everything so spectacularly."

Ben was speechless; he couldn't say or do anything as Alex tightened his grip and cuddled him harder than he had ever been in his life.

He swallowed the urge to say he didn't find everything nearly as amusing or entertaining as the Captain. Playing with his life—and Locke's feelings—wasn't fair. More importantly, the heartstrings tethering him to the beast of a man were throbbing painfully at the reminder of everything he'd lost, and before he knew it, his voice was gone from him again.

It took several minutes before he turned his face up to Alex's, and voiced his next question on a shaky breath.

"Why do you want him to hurt us…? H-he said he would, Captain… he… he might... do it…" Benji's stomach flipped—pulling, twisting, and knotting inside him—and his panic-stricken look only prompted Alex to kiss him softly again.

"Oh Benjamin. I just want him to take me seriously," he informed. "But just think about it. Even after everything you did, you're still here, alive, and unscathed huh? I bet he threw you out, naked and cold, hoping you'd smarten up." Then Alex's voice lowered considerably—until it was just a deep hum that Benjamin enjoyed very much. "I don't think he'll be too happy to hear about Lamb. Just watch."

Ben hoped this was the case. The Captain's words ran hot through his body and melted the ice cold core that had found a home there.

"Will he take me back?" he squeaked, finding the words difficult to get through.

"He might… but I don't think I'll let him."

Benji's heart plummeted at the latter part of the answer. He knew it was foolish to get his hopes up for anything else… but he couldn't help feeling disappointed.

"You're a pretty big deal, Benjamin, and honestly, too valuable to be wasting your time on a hopeless case like Locke. I can give you everything you want," Alex explained calmly – using a soothing voice that Ben didn't hate at all. No—he didn't hate the hand in his hair, petting softly—and he didn't hate the comfort of someone next to him, showing him affection.

But green eyes were hard to forget.

"The kitchen; your room… what else do you want?"

The arms that Alex had locked around Benjamin were not as warm or comforting as the Quartermaster's—but the intimacy had a strange effect. The longer that their limbs remained entwined, the more Benjamin was able to think.

"Hmm?" the Captain prompted with a harder than necessary kiss to the crown of his head.

All Ben wanted was to finally have a home; a bed… someone to share it with – and the opportunity to do what he loved day in and out.

He wanted a family to belong to.

In his head, the clouds parted, and after a quiet eternity, he was finally able to accept a crucial decision; he wanted to stay, and he wasn't ever going to leave the Casket—whether Locke accepted that, or not. Even if it meant dying on the ship…

But, he said all this in an entirely different way to Captain Graves.

"I want… to know… your favourite dessert…"

Whatever Alex expected, it wasn't this. His dark eyebrows lifted in surprise before he answered. "I've never really thought about it. I guess I like strawberries… so anything with them…"

A shortcake, perhaps...

After drifting off into uneasy sleeps, hard knocking woke the two up at an unknown hour.

Alex tightened his hold of Benjamin momentarily, before further knocking forced him out of bed. The tall figure groaned with frustration as he pulled on a pair of loose pants and walked to the door, opening it an inch.

The next greeting sent an icy chill down Ben's spine.

"Locke, what a nice surprise!" Alex said happily, springing aside as the exquisite oak door burst open and slammed into the wall next to it with a loud bang.

Benjamin sat up in the luxurious bed so fast that he suffered a head rush, but despite his darkening vision, his eyes connected with livid green ones.

Fear ripped his body in half, leaving him paralyzed and open-mouthed at the unexpected visit. He knew the situation couldn't have looked any worse, and he was stunned speechless as a result. The heart-stopping moment didn't last forever, though. Almost as soon as Locke laid eyes on Ben, he'd turned, grabbed Alex by the throat—and slammed him to the wall.

"What's—hhgh—the matter—Locke?" the Captain managed—forcing the words out between the tight hold on his neck. "Ben's—free game—"

The Quartermaster didn't reply; instead he sent Alex flying to the ground in his blind rage.

Ben flinched at the sound of Alex's body hitting the hard floor—a hard thud that continued to echo in his head. He tried to move his shaking hands to the blanket to remove it, but they vibrated beyond his control and wouldn't bend the way he wanted them to. As his mind spun faster than ever, he could hardly keep up with the scene in front of him. All he could focus on was the body of Locke and trying his best to get his own to cooperate without short-circuiting.

Alex was as jubilant as ever. Dark eyes looked – thrilled. It wasn't just Ben's imagination, because the Captain started laughing next as a fist came flying at him and he barely rolled in time to dodge it.

"Actually—I guess you know he wasn't even your bitch to begin with!"

Locke's fist finally connected with Alex's face, and Benjamin gasped before screeching the man's name.

"Locke! Stop—!" His bare feet found the floor and he stumbled in his haste to reach the Quartermaster in time, but he was already pummelling Alex's stomach. "Stop you're—going to hurt him!"

As soon as Benjamin laid a hand on Locke's arm, the man rounded on him. He stood up, grabbed Ben by the elbow, and marched him out of the Captain's cabin half naked.

Ben tripped over his feet in his own haste to keep up, and he was only distantly aware of the things coming out of his mouth.

"Locke—I'm sorry—I'm sorry about last night! I waited for you and Lamb—he… tried… like you said… but Blake found me a–and he took me to the Captain! I swear it Locke! I tried the cell but he took me to the Captain! I—"

"Shutup!" Locke snapped, and not for the first time since Benjamin had boarded The Casket. He turned his scarred face to Ben once they'd descended the stairs near the kitchen. "Blake already told me everything."

Feeling the harsh sting behind his eyes, Ben furiously tried to blink the oncoming tears away. He didn't want to cry anymore, but it was so hard to see Locke in front of him again without thinking about the way he'd been kicked out the night before.

"Oh, Ben!" Alex sang as he caught up with the two; a clean, white shirt billowed behind him as he jogged to meet them. "Don't forget your shirt. I wouldn't want anyone else getting ideas of who you belong to…"

The tone was dripping with double-meaning.

Benjamin spared a glance up to Locke's unimpressed face—silently determining if it was okay. He wanted Locke to fight for him… like he always did… but that cold, stoic face offered no comfort whatsoever. The Quartermaster even motioned for him to get dressed quickly with a spin of his hand.

So Benjamin slid his arms through long sleeves and started buttoning up the shirt with trembling fingers. Alex—nursing a black eye and a bleeding cheek—looked happier than ever as he pulled Ben by the neck and planted an exaggerated smooch to his temple, emphasizing it with a playful 'mwah'. Then, without mentioning Locke's attack, or what would come of it, he turned on his foot and headed for the helm.

Young Ben offered the Quartermaster a guilty, apologetic look but—

"Don't look at me," the man snapped coldly. "You may be the Captain's bitch now, but you're still my cook. Breakfast was supposed to be served a half hour ago."

After jerking his thumb to the direction of the kitchen door, the man made to turn around and head back up the stairs after Alex. Unexpected panic gripped Ben's body and it flung itself against the Quartermaster's—his hands latching on to it impulsively.

"Please—Locke—! I'm not—I'm not the Captain's bitch. I'm yours! I did… what you said—I did the thing you said!" Everything was pouring out of him so fast, Ben could hardly catch his breath. "I fought off Lamb—like you showed me!" He brandished his free wrist, and it seemed to have some effect, at least.

Locke stopped in his tracks and turned to stare down at him curiously, but, he did not praise Benjamin or his actions.

"Get in the kitchen and cook," Locke snapped, ripping his arm out from Ben's hand and shooting him a narrowed look. "It's all you're good for anyway."

Ben's lip trembled. He felt it vibrate but didn't allow it to get in the way of choking out his next words. "No it's not…"

Dangerous green eyes widened and sparked at his statement. It took everything Benjamin had left in him not to look away – and he still didn't have as many guts as he wanted because his eyes flicked to the floor before resolutely falling into place again.

"What was that?"

Gulping, Benjamin curled his hands to fists anxiously, trying to steel his resolve. "I—I said, cooking's not all I'm good for…"

The formidable Quartermaster turned fully around to face him—and Benjamin tried to calm his leaping heart. He was getting too hopeful now that Locke was finally listening to him; so instead of throwing arms around the man again, he locked them tightly to his sides in an effort to control himself.

"What else are you good for then, cruise-boy?" Locke challenged. "Seducing men? Getting injured? Lying...? I can't even think of a time you were able to walk straight on your own two f—"

"I didn't seduce anyone!" The words surged from Benjamin's mouth at the chance to finally set the record straight. "I w-was scared—and didn't want to die!" he explained helplessly. "But – but I do way more than cook...!"

A 'go-on' look gave him the courage to continue. It forced away any shakiness in his voice so it rang clear and confident.

"I got you all that money out of the vault," he reminded. "I cleaned the entire kitchen. I even put in a more efficient order for port that saved you hundreds of dollars! Not to mention, the food I make boosts morale, productivity, and quality of life on this ship!"

Locke didn't look as impressed as Benjamin wanted him to, but at least he kept his lips in a thin line and didn't bark out any more abuse. Ben's heart hammered, but that was normal now—he was becoming used to the permanent flow of adrenalin. And, as they shared the silence, a thought struck. It curled Benjamin's fists resolutely, and he stared up defiantly at a scarred, bearded face—echoing something the Captain himself had hinted at.

"You need me."

Apparently, this was taking it too far, because Locke grabbed Benjamin once more and flung him through the open doors of the kitchen.

"I need you to do your fucking job!"

Then, for the second time in twenty four hours, Locke slammed a door in his face.

Ben was numb as he set to work preparing breakfast.

He was past the point of wanting to cry, and instead, felt lonely, confused—and unsafe. He didn't know what was going to happen to him next. He didn't know what the Captain was going to do after being openly assaulted by his Quartermaster. And he certainly didn't know just how much longer he had to live.

All of these unknowns just made him feel cold; made him desperate for the warmth of Locke's embrace… Alex's kisses… Blake's hand…

Occasionally, things he did know pierced through his permanent state of confusion; because these things he felt to the core of his bones.

Like no matter the precarious situation—or how his life hung in the balance of an unsteady ship—he wouldn't want it any other way. He didn't want to go back to the Pearl Pacific. He didn't want to ever set foot on land again.

He wanted Locke; to love him… treat him with rare tenderness… call him sunshine…

He wanted those things, and that man, so badly he felt like he would die on the spot of longing. He didn't understand why Locke would even show he was capable of those things in the first place, just to back-peddle and disown him. It wasn't because he was a hostage, he was sure of that much—he'd been special, so why…?

Alex had suggested that he'd done it to smarten him up—and even though Ben was well aware of the Captain's history in telling the truth, he still hoped that this was the case; that, for reasons currently, unknown, Locke wanted Benjamin to hate him…

The morning passed quickly as a result of Ben agonizing over the mysterious men aboard The Casket.

Since he'd been late starting breakfast, he served scrambled eggs with tomatoes and toast. He didn't have time to fry up the bacon he'd wanted to use, and after rearranging his schedule to fit it in for the next day, he realized it was already time to start lunch.

Thankfully his hands worked without much instruction amidst his tumultuous thoughts. Cooking was second nature to Benjamin, and once he started, he was pulled back to the magnet in his mind that was the Quartermaster. His head had finally caught up with recent events, but he was stuck in a never-ending cycle of longing for Locke, painfully agonizing over losing him, and hopelessly trying to think of ways to get the man to take him back—all to no avail.

Benjamin's forehead wrinkled. His brows furrowed. He thought as hard as he could through his frequently sluggish mind to find the point where it had all changed.

Because—he was sure—it was before any mention of being Alex's bitch.

Wasn't it when Ben had started thinking about staying? Hadn't Locke tried to convince him that he was a criminal; a murderer—and that Ben was better off without any of them? Benjamin couldn't remember much of that conversation now. As he tried thinking back, all he could bring up was how badly he'd wanted to kiss Locke—and then he quickly became absorbed in remembering the sensation of actually kissing that bearded man.

Suddenly a beautiful sense of ease filled him.

It made all of the fears disappear.

Benji couldn't worry about a war on the ship when he vividly recalled how Locke climbed on top of him and used more force than necessary to connect their mouths.

He couldn't forget the hairs of the man's beard tickling his chin… the taste of his cock… the strong arm that helped him grind against each other to climax…

In the middle of his vivid recollection, the kitchen door burst open and Benjamin dropped the mixing bowl he was carrying; it fell to the floor with a loud clatter, and his homemade marina sauce spilled all over the otherwise gleaming, spotless surface.

Then his heart stopped at the sight of the Quartermaster entering the kitchen, closely followed by the First Mate, and Benjamin shut his gaping mouth before reckless, desperate words spilled out of it.

"Benjamin," Locke snapped. "Follow me to the helm."

Knowing he was in trouble, but not particularly caring as much as he would normally because the Quartermaster was within arm's reach, Ben set down his spoon and followed – pleased that the lump in his throat wasn't as large as it could be.

"What is it about?" he asked as they ascended the stairs and took the now-familiar route to the helm together. The young cook glanced from Locke to Blake, but both men looked grim, and much paler than normal.

Neither responded.

Once they reached the helm, it was clear to Benjamin that the situation was serious; all of the officers were gathered in the room; Bill was seated at the navigation system, and Maciej was leaning against the wall furthest to them.

Alex didn't look as somber as the rest of them, however. Sporting his black eye, he hopped off the control panel and practically slithered over, beaming. "Ben," he greeted, embracing the younger—shorter—male in front of him with his long arms.

Locke didn't like this. A tanned hand shot out and grabbed Alex by the bicep before pushing him off. "Can't you be serious for one fucking minute?" the man snapped.

"I am," Alex argued, mocking an offended look and brushing off the part of his arm Locke had touched. "You should be more grateful, Locke. I'm doing this for your sake…"

Benjamin had no clue what that meant. And he still wasn't sure why Alex hadn't killed the Quartermaster yet for losing it earlier that morning. Their relationship was a mystery… a power struggle like no other… and it was clear the tension between the two was at an all-time high.

Benji felt uncomfortable being in the middle of them—he wasn't even sure who to look at. So he asked his next question to the floor.

"Why am I here?"

"Locke's a bit upset about the whole Lamb thing," Alex shrugged. "I want to set it straight. I can't stand being on his bad side—"

"Alex I swear to God—" Locke warned.

"—I'm being serious," the Captain insisted before making an impatient noise and lifting Ben's chin. "Poor thing's shaken up," he announced like a doctor making a diagnosis. He stared down at Benjamin with a twisted smile. "Right? You're not over that thing with Lamb, are you?"

Ben wasn't sure what to say. It was less about Lamb, and more about the two men in charge. He glanced over to Locke who was looking pointedly away, before meeting ink-black eyes once more.

"Are you?" Alex prompted.

"No…?" Ben offered slowly.

"Mhm – that settles it," the Captain murmured softly. He looked up and snapped his fingers, barking out his next order to Blake. "Go find Lamb and bring him here."

"Wh-what?" Ben's legs felt weak enough that he was afraid he'd live up to all of Locke's insults and fall to the floor right on the spot. He clutched Alex's arm for support and turned his terrified eyes up at the tall man. "Why—why Lamb—?"

Alex leaned down, lips almost meeting the shell of Ben's ear. "Quiet," he whispered. Then he patted Ben's head like he was dealing with a dog and addressed the other officers in the room instead. "I think it's time we agree upon some facts. Benjamin is—and always has been—my bitch."

Benjamin didn't think twice about disputing this.

"But – I – I don't wa—ow!"

He was silenced with an unexpected smack—the force of which turned his head.

Benjamin's cheeks started stinging as an immediate shock surged through him. He was used to this sensation now; reality becoming too thick. It took him longer than normal to make sense of the fact that it was Alex's palm that collided with his face this time.

The young male stared dumbly at the ground before he was grabbed and was forced to look up and meet wide—dark eyes. "Quiet, Ben," Alex said, sounding as sincere as ever as he gently pet through Ben's chestnut brown hair. "I don't want to have to hurt you."

Have to?

Ben tried fighting the tears, but the blank shock was escaping him faster than ever and he was becoming more distressed by the second. Water pooled on the brim of his eyes before Alex—seeing exactly what was coming—pulled his face into his chest and allowed him to sob ungracefully into it.

"I guess it was silly of me to think Locke would know how to train a bitch properly…" he said heavily.

A low growl filled the helm and Benjamin sobbed harder than ever. His terror escaped him in short, unstable bursts—hiccups, wheezing, and all. Still, Ben felt the way his fingers curled harder into the Captain's back the longer he was soothed… he hated how good it felt… was thankful no one—especially Locke—could actually see the kind of face he was making…

Though his appreciation didn't last long.

As soon as the door to the helm opened again, Alex pulled Ben off, leaned in seriously, and breathed critical instructions to, "Stay still."

The words rang on repeat in his mind until they didn't make any sense whatsoever.

Stay still. Stay still. Stay still.

Then, the unruly, wild-haired Lamb entered the helm and for a brief second, Ben met his eyes.

Stay still.

They were scared; a reflection of how Benjamin felt in the moment, too. Yet seeing such a large, formidable man look as frightened as he did intensified Ben's horror tenfold. His limbs vibrated and he wanted nothing more than to sit but…

Stay still.

"Ah—Lamb. Glad you could join us. I think we have a little matter to settle...?"

Ben didn't want to look at Alex, so he stared into the middle distance—focused on a spot beside Maciej's head; but he was sure—by that playful, teasing tone of Alex's—whatever was coming next wouldn't be good.

Stay still.

"Ay—Cap'—s'like I says t' Blake! Cruise-boy was runnin' roun' wi'f no shirt on, wunnit he? Thought 'e was free game I did—!"

The panic in Lamb's voice made Benjamin flinch—he physically recoiled against Captain Graves and tried not to listen to anything else… tried to block it all out…

Stay still.

"I didn' know 'e was claimed…!"

"Well… apparently, neither did Locke," Alex chuckled. "But I've agreed to make it so no one forgets Benjamin's off limits—even without a shirt."

Captain Graves drew his revolver from its holster.

Stay still.

He clicked off the safety.

Stay still.

With a simple pull of the trigger, he shot Lamb dead.

Benjamin couldn't look away in time, either; the bullet pierced above the man's ear and literally exploded out the other side upon deafening contact. He watched with wide, unblinking eyes as reds, creams, and pinks of gore spattered through the air and landed all over the floor of the helm.

It was impossible to fight his weak knees this time.

Benjamin felt all of his blood drain south. His vision darkened, and a second later he fainted on the spot.

A/N: Much more plot progress and character development to come. We're getting into the final part of the book – so buckle up those belts and hang on.