Jack hears the voice first—he knows it, but it takes him a second—on the wharf by the harbormaster's office.
"Oh, I'm sorry," it sneers, slicing like a keel through the sluggish soup of the loading gang's murmuring, "if I'd known mental degeneracy was a requirement of the job, I'd have applied elsewhere!"
There must have been more words, because the crack of a fist sends a man stumbling shoulder-first through a tower of cotton bales to come nose to nose with Jack. Commodore Norrington wipes blood from his mouth with the back of his hand and stares with no great surprise. He's bareheaded and sunburned, hair cropped short like an invalid's, face unshaven. "They're hiring, Sparrow," he says. He sniffs loudly, then spits. "I reckon you're just what they want." Then he staggers away.
That evening in the Faithful Bride, Gibbs has the whole story. "Court-martialed and cashiered," he explains to a table of Jack's men. "Can't get work anywhere now—not from honest fellas, who heard the tale of how 'e lost his job, nor from dishonest ones, who remember who 'e used to be. No one wants a washed-up pirate hunter for a chief mate, on either side of the law."
Everyone shakes their heads with pleasure.
Jack scratches his beard. "What was it for?"
"What was what for, Cap'n?"
"What did our friend the commodore do to arouse the Navy's ire?"
"Wouldn't you know," says Gibbs with a grim smile. "They heaved 'im over for lettin' you escape."
The table bursts into laughter. Jack joins in uneasily.
He sees Norrington again a few more times, from a safe distance. The man is talking to new captains in port, but none of them take him aboard. Jack half-expects him to come and pick a fight—Jack is the author of his current woes, after all—but he never fills the doorway of the Faithful Bride no matter how long Jack watches it.
Jack finds him cheek-down on a gummy table at the Pig and Whistle. Jack flicks his forehead a few times and he sits up, peeling his whiskers off the spilled drink, and blinks rapidly, hand flying to his belt where his sword used to be. It's almost funny, except nothing about Norrington is funny these days. His eyes cross and he slumps back down, so Jack prods him again. That chilly halo of moneyed propriety is gone now, but Jack still can't keep his hands to himself. When Norrington doesn't respond to a hard slap, Jack gets an arm over his shoulder and drags him out the door.
After the third dunking in the horse trough, Norrington coughs and gags, and Jack drops him down to his hands and knees where he can retch onto the stones.
"Men drink to escape the world," he says at last, panting, "and yet I cannot get away from you."
Jack shakes his head in commiseration. "I know, mate, I know. Terrible shame."
Norrington breathes hard and pulls himself up to collapse against the trough. "Why are you still here?"
Jack shrugs. "Slow night."
Norrington huddles into his soaked coat. It's a fine green serge coat, a gentleman's coat, but it already has a few stains. Soon he'll fit right in.
"You're lookin' for a job, I hear," says Jack.
Norrington nods, eyeing him.
"I'd hire you, but I've already got meself a chief mate."
"Why, thank you," sneers Norrington, "I wasn't enough of a failure already. Rejection by you of an application I didn't even make—maybe you can canvass the rest of the pirates in port and see who else doesn't want me."
Norrington's wounded pride is too tempting. Jack leans in. "I never said I didn't want you."
Norrington's eyes darken. "If that's supposed to be some kind of sick—"
"Joke? No joke." Jack drops his voice. "I never joke about this."
"Then am I to understand that you want to make a whore of me?"
Under the disgust, Norrington sounds almost open to the idea. Jack bites back a smile. "I would, except I've nothin' to offer. If you fuck me, you'll get nothin' out of it, I'm afraid."
Norrington smirks. "I'm sure I wouldn't." He scrambles to his feet and picks his way unsteadily into the street.
"Where you going?" Jack calls after him.
"To blow my brains out," he replies, and disappears round a corner.
Jack finishes his business in Tortuga, but he doesn't run to gather his sailors. He likes a vacation every now and then, and lately, the view is too good.
Norrington turns up on the loading gang, heaving down cotton and tobacco from morning to dusk. He has a beautiful body, of course. He's tall, but not knotty and massive like the Antean forecastlemen Jack sometimes fools around with. He's not quite strong enough for the work. His back burns, then browns as the days pass.
He still drinks alone. No one speaks to him, but the men on the gang tolerate him now, and he's stopped drawing stares. So now he's alone and invisible. Smelling weakness, Jack pursues him into the Pig and Whistle. This time Norrington's wide awake, if no less drunk. His eyes are bleary, his hair stands on end, and his beard is three days old. He's gorgeous.
"I should slit your throat," is the first thing he says.
"I'd like to see you try," smiles Jack.
This seems to genuinely upset him. Perhaps he's thinking of his failure to dispose of Jack all those months ago.
"Don't blame me for your troubles," Jack says, leaning forward.
"What are you doing here?" Norrington asks.
"What do you think?"
Face thunderous, Norrington stands up, knocking back the table, and stalks without a word toward the back door. Jack follows him, confused. They march out to the wood shed, and as soon as they're alone, Norrington pushes Jack up against a wall. "Let's get this over with," he snarls, and thrusts a rough hand into Jack's breeches.
Jack hesitates. He'd only meant to wind Norrington up a bit—he hadn't expected a call to his bluff. He stares at the brown triangle of Norrington's throat in his open shirt before kissing it, and returning the fondle. Shortly they're on their knees, and Jack is nipping and sucking on Norrington's neck as they chafe each other's pricks.
"What do you want?" Jack nibbles his ear. "How do you need it?"
"Hard." Norrington squirms around in Jack's grasp to face the ground. "Like this. You've done it to me already—may as well make it official."
Jack shakes his head, worried that he'll be the victim of Norrington's second thoughts. "Are you sure—"
"Of course I'm bloody well sure!" Norrington cries, looking back over his shoulder. "Now leave me the last of my dignity and just fucking do it!"
So Jack yanks down Norrington's breeches, displaying a milky white arse beneath a dark tan line, spits in his palm, and does it. Norrington hollers and gasps and pushes back hard, which scares Jack for a moment—he'd expected something a little less, well, loud. A hand fastens on his hip and jerks him forward, and soon he's thrusting to keep up, uncertain who's fucking who, while Norrington snarls, "Fuck, yes—fuck me—" and the like. Jack's eyebrows leap up, but he does love a foul mouth. "Is that the best you can do?" Norrington growls, and so he gives Norrington's arse an experimental smack. That gets him a sharp groan and a brutal shove backward, so he does it again. He grins, astounded at how good this is. "You like it, you filthy thing," he mutters, trying to give as good as he's getting. "You like it—you'll take it—you honey-fed lily-white gilt-arsed bastard—"
Norrington comes like a thunderclap, sobbing and swearing, and Jack gets in a few unimpeded thrusts before shooting triumphantly, mighty as a god, shouting nonsense through pleasure that rolls on and on—until abruptly it passes, and he's sitting on his haunches staring at Norrington's panting form lying on the planks.
He can barely think, and yet something in the attitude of the collapsed figure puts regret in his mind. Jack's got plenty of people into trouble before, and it never bothers him. Even Bootstrap, who went down to the deep on his account, doesn't trouble his dreams. So why do Norrington's dark lashes stuck to his damp cheek produce a guilty jerk in his gut? Norrington lies on his hands, struggling to collect his breath, and Jack stares, astonished.
It's an illusion, this vulnerable creature. Norrington gets up swiftly, toppling Jack over, and reaches for his clothes. "Well," he says, pulling up his breeches, "we'd best get on with pretending this never happened." He strides off without meeting Jack's eyes.
And that's another first. When Jack wants people, fucking them usually cures him of the pain. He's never finished up wanting them more than ever.
Jack lingers in Tortuga long enough to collect more crew, including a band of Lascars who've had their fill of the East India trade. They're a cheerful, bloodthirsty bunch, led around by a smiling murderer called Leech. They're superb sailors, but Jack makes a note not to take his eyes off them.
He hears that Norrington's been getting work as a pilot, on the west coast around Petit Goave. He wonders why anyone in pirate waters would want the Royal Navy piloting them through the shoals, but then he recalls what a good pirate hunter Norrington was, one notable failure notwithstanding, and any hunter knows his hunting ground. Jack pictures Norrington at the con of a ship, eyes flicking from compass to shore, absorbed in his craft, and feels some relief. Nothing heals proud men like the chance to be good at something again.
So he ruined a man's life. The man had it coming. It doesn't give the man a right to invade Jack's sleep like a bad memory. It's perverse, anyway, wanting someone he's got guilty feelings about. He doesn't do guilt. He doesn't do wanting either, come to that. Not this kind.
They prowl the Crooked Island Passage, but all they find is sugar bound for Europe and rum for the Eastern Seaboard. They borrow some of the rum. Then Jack watches the Bahamas crawl by and longs for something new, some adventure, some swag worth chasing—he's had enough cursed treasure, but something along those lines. His crew are impatient too, especially the Lascars, who aren't used to his unique style of command. They're clamoring for cash, and he's not going to admit he hasn't a clue where to look these days because he's been chasing his ship for ten years and he's rusty on the day-to-day business of piracy. Ever since the Spanish treasure fleets went away, you just don't find much shiny metal lying around unattended anymore.
Finally he gets wind of a bullion shipment on its way from Trinidad to Havana, and while every pirate from Barbados to the Yucatan thinks they can take it, Jack knows he can. He touches at Tortuga for a few days, then slips his moorings at first light.
A boat is cutting across the choppy water. Annoyed, Jack heaves to, and takes out his spyglass. A figure in the prow stands up and waves, and Jack recognizes it instantly. "We don't need a pilot," he calls peevishly, but the figure keeps waving. Five minutes later, the man comes over the side.
"I'm not here to keep your ship off the ground," Norrington mutters, striding up to the helm like he's in command. "I come with a tip. The British squadron lies just off Cape Tiburon. The word is that you're headed into the Windward Passage; well, I wouldn't."
"Is that all?" Jack sniffs. "If it is, you can get back in your boat."
Norrington smiles, white teeth gleaming in his tanned face. Jack has never seen the man smile before. "You don't mean to say—" Norrington laughs. "Don't tell me you're still angry about—"
"I"—Jack pokes a finger into Norrington's chest—"was never angry."
Norrington is still laughing, and Jack softens, under protest. Damn the man for his pretty face.
The boat leaves, but Norrington stays aboard. Jack doesn't look at him as he orders a change of course for the treacherous Old Straights of Bahama, and doesn't argue when the man offers to take the helm as the soundings grow shallow. To shut him up, Jack tells himself.
They take the back way to Havana. Six days later, they capture the bullion without a fight. Norrington observes that the rest of Jack's colleagues must have met the Royal Navy before they could reach the Spanish ship. Reluctantly, he joins the boarding party. To Jack's smug look, he says, "In the old days, I'd have wanted this ship just as much as you if England and Spain had been at war." But he's sullen for days afterward.
Once everyone's a little richer, Jack expects Norrington to go ashore, but he stays. He probably has nowhere else to go. Jack had hoped they'd fall to fucking immediately, by way of payment for passage, as it were, but Norrington is cold and brittle and generally a nuisance with nothing to make up for it. He works aloft, and eats without speaking. The crew try to play with him, but no one can get a rise out of him, not even Marty, who's always right behind him to trip over. Gibbs avoids him entirely. Jack stops trying to chat him up and glowers at him every chance he gets.
One morning, Jack awakes to find the Lascars in his cabin.
"We don't want him here," says one of them.
"We could ransom him," says Leech.
Jack heaves an impatient sigh. "Ransom only works if the party in question wants him back," he says, as if to a simpleton.
"Then heave him overboard," says another man.
"Gibbs!" barks Jack.
On deck, Norrington is not in evidence. Jack looks skyward. He's up at the crosstrees, reeving ties through the topmast cap. Jack looks back down.
A knot of Lascars is gathered around Gibbs. "He's no use if he'll bring no money!" says one.
Gibbs pushes through them. "Did you mutton-heads forget all that treasure in our hold?"
"That won't last us a month!" sneers Leech.
"An' maybe you forgot who helped us get it," Gibbs shoots back. Up above, Norrington has taken notice of the argument, surprised perhaps that Gibbs is defending him.
"Who cares?" The men close in, and it's no longer just Lascars on Leech's side. "What sort of pirate ship keeps the Navy aboard?"
"If you're roundin' up ex-Navy men, you'd better start with me," Gibbs growls. Marty and Cotton have come up beside him, closing the ranks. "We all have somethin' in our past, lads—don't tell me you're any different."
The Lascars have been pirates long enough to know not to cross the quartermaster, so they shut up.
The Pearl scours the Gulf of Florida for two weeks without a single sail spotted. For three days, they're becalmed off Freeport. For three days, they lie under awnings on deck, quietly sweltering, watching one another and nursing resentments. Norrington strips to his breeches and lies under a cannon, sweat running down his chest and ribs, and Jack tears his eyes away in frustration. He can no more will the wind to rise than he can lure Norrington into his bed. He stares at the limp sails instead.
Mr. Cotton dozes at the helm. Marty and Tearlach play high-stakes knucklebones. The Lascars fan each other. Gibbs drinks himself into perpetual twilight. Finally, Jack gives in and drapes his body over the cannon that's sheltering Norrington. It burns his chest.
"You must have a family," says Jack.
From under the arm that's shielding his eyes, Norrington mutters, "We're not on the best of terms."
In other words, he's too proud to go back to them. "I hear the law is a good profession for a young man," Jack suggests.
The arm lifts enough to show a raised eyebrow. "I'm here because I broke the law, Sparrow."
"The church, then? Medicine? The stock exchange?"
Norrington shifts. "I'd rather pay seams aboard a pirate ship."
"You could have a nice office overlookin' the Thames."
Norrington sits up. "Are you trying to goad me into some kind of admission?"
"Just wonderin' what you're still doing here," Jack smiles.
Norrington replaces the arm over his face and doesn't say another word.
Jack reaches out and runs a finger down his shoulder.
"Am I going to have to move?" Norrington grumbles.
"I'd rather you didn't," says Jack, and strokes a tendril of hair. At that, Norrington leaps up and goes to crouch in the shadow of the scuttlebutt. Jack sighs.
"First no money, and now no wind," says Leech from his spot next to the mast when Jack comes within earshot.
"At least if we had money, we'd have enough liquor to last while we wait for the wind," says another Lascar.
In the evening, the topgallants fill and a breeze sweeps down on deck. Mr. Cotton awakes to the tug on the helm, and they're back underway. As the stars come out, the Pearl throws up a feather on her silent track toward open sea, and everyone on deck breathes in the wind with eyes closed, content at least for a moment.
A day later, as they crawl down toward the Caicos, they sight their first sail in three weeks. A cheer goes up on deck when Marty calls out from the crow's nest, and Jack is instantly up the mast, spyglass in hand. It's too soon to tell, but he thinks she's Dutch from the cut of her jib. She's not Navy, that's for sure. She's beating toward them at three or four knots.
The deck hums with anticipation. They have a good while before they're close enough to act. Norrington hangs around at the taffrail, looking away from their chase, sulky and tense. Jack tells him if he's going to be like this, at least to stay out of the way when the action starts.
When they draw close enough, Jack makes a depressing discovery: she's not a merchantman at all, but a pirate called Van Zandt who Jack's had a laugh or two with in the past. The ships heave to, and Van Zandt is rowed across, regal and ridiculous in his purple velvet coat.
They exchange the usual pirate pleasantries and a drink or three. Then Van Zandt gets down to business. "It's as simple as this, Sparrow: I understand you've got old Commodore Norrington aboard. I'll pay you for him."
The world tilts a little. When Jack looks around, the Lascars are all facing him. How did there get to be so many of them? Between them, he spots Gibbs's worried frown, and Norrington, who has gone pale and wide-eyed.
"Captain," growls Leech, "do it. Or you'll have a mutiny."
That word "mutiny" sends a current down his spine. He looks around again at his sailors closing in, then sends Van Zandt a brilliant smile. "How much?"
As they haggle, Jack avoids Norrington's eyes. There's no way he can explain, so why try? Norrington looks back as he's pushed down the ladder, his eyes accusing and terrified, and this time Jack absorbs it all, unable to blink, convinced for a moment that he deserves it. But he has work to do. He looks away.
Both ships anchor for the night. Once Van Zandt's handsome payment is stowed in the Pearl's hold, Jack makes his plans.
They won't expect him. They believe he was happy to hand over the commodore to almost certain sadism, and once upon a time, he might have been. As he swims, stripped to shirt and breeches, he hears them singing on deck, as pirates are so fond of doing, and hopes they're as drunk as they sound.
He climbs up the stern and makes his way down the slovenly deck, hiding behind barrels and messy coils, until his adversaries are in sight. Then his heart sinks. Norrington is right there among them, lashed to the mast, arms bound over his head in a kind of crucifixion. When he'd thought of this plan, Jack had figured that Van Zandt would only have Norrington a few hours. Now he thinks of all the things one could do to a man in that time. Norrington's face is blank; he looks unconscious. That's a relief.
Jack crouches out of sight and waits for the merriment to fade. By dawn, the deck is strewn with comatose bodies. Jack steps over them carefully, jumping at a noisy snore, then kneels beside Norrington and saws at his bonds. Norrington wakes with a murmured protest and Jack presses a hand over his mouth, then eases it away, holding Norrington's gaze until the man can grasp what's happening. He cuts the last bond and Norrington sags into his arms, head falling onto Jack's shoulder, and they kneel together, propping each other up, in what feels briefly like intimacy.
There's a noise behind them, and Jack spins around to find a deck full of quickly rousing pirates. He draws his cutlass and fends off the closest one, then darts for the scuttle with Norrington's arm slung over his shoulder. They hide under the ladder as the pirates stampede past, then move deeper into the ship, away from the voices. Norrington groans with the strain on his abused shoulders and Jack wraps him tightly in his arms.
Above, Jack hears Van Zandt's furious voice, and thinks of the danger he's put his ship in. He had been counting on getting away quickly, without raising the alarm. Pirates are swarming belowdecks now, and only Van Zandt's carelessly kept ship saves them as they crouch behind bolts of sail cloth and piles of supplies. Carefully, Jack drags Norrington from dank corner to dank corner, but there's no way back to the upper decks where they can jump over the side.
"There's always the hawse-hole," says Norrington, and Jack smiles.
They creep forward along the orlop deck, pausing when parties of searching pirates get too near. Jack has to push Norrington up a scuttle and drag him past the fore-bitts, but eventually they crawl to the hawse-holes where the great anchor cable leaves the ship. It's a tight fit, especially for Norrington, but they squeeze through and drop into the sea just as they're spotted.
Musket fire follows them into the water, and Jack swims as hard as he can pulling the weak Norrington behind him, one arm clutched tight around the man's chest. When they're close enough to the Pearl, Jack shouts, "Gibbs!" and within moments, the ports are open and the guns are run out. Jack swims under the counter and grabs the line thrown down to him just as the first broadsides fire. Then they're back aboard Jack's ship—and it's still Jack's ship, which was the whole point.
"Make sail!" Jack shouts, and then across the water he calls, "Fare thee well, Captain Van Zandt! Maybe another day!"
There's no way Van Zandt can keep up with the Pearl, and soon they're running on a sea empty of other sails. Jack lays Norrington down in his cabin and lets him sleep. On deck, he and Gibbs discuss their mutinous Lascars, and elect to put them quietly ashore. Then Jack retreats to his cabin. Some hours later—and he spends them all in his chair, sunk in thought—Norrington yawns and gets up, stiff and weak. "You're wounded."
Jack looks down at his bloody forearm. "Well, I'll be damned."
He finds some water, a needle and a bit of floss, and Norrington sews him up with a fine sailor's stitch. "I suppose I've lost your good opinion," he says roughly as Norrington winds the linen bandage tight.
"Good opinion?" Norrington looks amused. "You were never in danger of my good opinion, Sparrow."
"Oh. Well, then. Good." He shifts nervously. "Seems I'm nothin' but trouble for you."
Another amused smirk. "I dare say I'm used to it by now."
"Is that all?" Jack feels a surge of irrational anger. "You've nothin' more to say?"
"I appreciate your taking a slice on the arm instead of running merrily on your way, as I expected you to do." A half-smile. "I think so little of you that any act suggesting a glimmer of humanity is a pleasant surprise to me."
Jack takes the hand that is tying off the bandage and kisses the inside of the wrist. "I've an abundance of humanity," he says. "There's no man on Earth more human than me."
"If you refer to man's weaknesses, I'm sure that's true."
"I refer to it all, Mr. Norrington. And you're welcome to some of it, if you choose."
To his relief, Norrington takes his meaning. He leans forward and gives Jack a hard kiss, then pushes him back onto the table, scattering a chart or two onto the floor. Jack lies there like a pinned butterfly for a moment, startled, but then his shirt is up over his head and a hot mouth is sucking his nipple and a hot hand is rummaging around in his breeches.
Norrington doesn't ask him what he wants. He just yanks Jack's breeches off—they dangle from his foot before joining everything else—and gets his cock out and then they're fucking, just like that, before Jack can even think about it. Like a gift from fate—some days you just wake up and the universe gives you something you thought was out of reach. He groans and wraps his legs tight around Norrington's waist and lets the man take him for a ride. It's rough, and the table bites into his arse. Norrington leans down stiffly and they kiss, sort of, more like a sucking bite that's over quickly, but it's so sweet. Suddenly Jack is grateful for everything, and Norrington's hand on his prick is an overwhelming kindness.
Norrington comes with the same abandon as before. "Oh God, Sparrow!" he cries, with his face turned upward as though addressing the heavens. Jack squeezes Norrington's hand around his prick, and it only takes another stroke or two and he's there, arching, calling out, reaching for Norrington's body wherever he can get at it.
The stillness afterward is deeply awkward. Jack spends a minute staring at the beams before sitting up, peeling damp skin off wood, and hobbling to his bunk. When Norrington doesn't follow, Jack waves him over. They curl up together, sweating and sticking to each other, and again Jack marvels at his good fortune. They don't say anything for a long time.
At last, Jack can't take it anymore. "If I hadn't turned you over, I'd've lost me ship and probably me life, an' you too."
"An' you didn't have to try an' hang me, you know. That one was entirely your fault."
"I don't owe you a bloody thing, or a bloody explanation."
"Yet you're attempting one."
"You must be rubbin' off on me."
"One can hope."
Jack sighs. "Let me get straight to the point: would you be averse to doin' this again?"
"Ah, now I understand."
"I—suppose I might not be."
"Good." Jack leans his cheek against Norrington's warm back, and sleeps without dreams.