He’d gone too far again, pushed his luck just a little too much. His eye was already swollen shut, his lip busted and tender. As he knelt in Ward’s cabin, he was suddenly struck by, not a smell, but a lack of one. Booze. There wasn’t the acrid, sickly-sweet note of alcohol in the air. Hart realized he missed it.
“I’ve let this go on long enough,” Ward was muttering, running a thumb across the bruised knuckles of his other hand. “I let you play leader and it went to your head.”
The clipped sound of boots against the deck signaled Ward’s approach, and Hart tensed instinctively. But he didn’t try to get away when the Captain grabbed him roughly by the shoulder; he didn’t put up resistance when he was flipped over and thrown down on his back. He was just too damn tired. Ward was on him in a moment, one knee pressed firmly into Hart’s chest. A hand found its way to his throat, not tight enough to cut off his air, but a clear symbol of control. A threat. A promise.
“You let them off too easy. Time and again. You watch them shirk their duties, you stand in for them, and what does it get you? Their love? Don’t be fucking naive.” A fist jabbed into Hart’s gut to punctuate Ward’s point as the Captain spoke, knuckles digging deep against already-bruised flesh. “Every single one of them would sell you out if given the chance. They owe you a debt but you’re not strong enough to collect it. Every time you take up for them you make them weaker, smaller. I’d hoped you would see it on your own, but instead you got too invested. My Hart,” he said it almost sadly, “you’ve become such a disappointment.”
Ward stood, leveraging his weight for one terrifying moment on Hart’s chest before the boy tasted freedom again. Hart swallowed up mouthfuls of air, hands sliding across his own torso to take stock of broken ribs and bruised pride. In a few short strides, Ward was at his desk, pulling out a bottle of whiskey and a glass. One glass. Hart winced.
“You’re a grown man, Hart, and a man must pay his dues,” Ward said as he poured. “Your debt has yet to be repaid, but the Leviathan will no longer be your home. As soon as the crew is signaled, you’ll sail on the Behemoth. Maybe starting at the bottom will help you remember some of my lessons.”
Hart hoisted himself over to his hands and knees again, groaning. Panic surged through him and his pulse pounded in his ears. A strand of blood and spittle dripped from his oozing lip and pooled on the deck. He tried to drag his hand over it before Ward could see, but wasn’t fast enough. Ward was around the table in an instant. His boot connected solidly with Hart’s ribs and the boy sputtered, spraying droplets of blood across his own arm and the deck below him. Not a drop of whiskey spilled.
“Don’t bleed on my floor, boy.”
“I’m so–” Hart paused. Collected himself. Wiped his mouth. “Give me another chance,” he croaked with more strength than he truly felt. “You’re right: I gave them too much slack and now they’re hanging me with it. I want– I want to make you proud.” It hurt how much truth there was in that statement. He swallowed hard, finally willing himself to up and make eye contact with his Captain. “One more chance. If I step out of line even once, kill me. Use me as an example to the rest of them. Just let me have one more chance.”
Ward knelt down slowly until they were eye-level and Hart could smell the alcohol on his breath. Grinning, he patted Hart’s cheek with one calloused hand and said, “I don’t need your permission to kill you, my boy.”