It was plain to see that there weren't as many of the creatures on this ship as there had been on the last, perhaps there was a chance of retrieving something here.
Two hours later and the last of the bodies had finally been removed, each with a bullet in its head, dropping beneath the waves to rot where even the fish wouldn’t touch them. After the first man down had been destroyed the rest had been remarkably easy, though Anamaria had had a close call when she opened the hold. There were two casks of water left, and some French wine that under other circumstances Jack would have reveled in. And then there was the Commodore.
Certainly the last thing that Jack had expected to find barred in a cabin was Norrington, a near dead Norrington, but he was flexible enough to ignore the suggestions that he dump the man overboard with the last of the corpses.
Norrington didn’t regain consciousness for three days, and by that time the Black Pearl had come across four more dead ships, and lost six more men, and she still didn’t have enough water for more than a week.
Statistically, Jack knew it was unbelievable to randomly cross the path of so many other ships in such a large area of water, but there had been such a panic when the plague struck that all sail-worthy ships and boats and a good many that weren’t had been loosed upon the ocean. The poor bastards hadn’t realized, of course, that they were already carriers, and therefore doomed. Luckily the Black Pearl hadn’t been docked when the madness started; Jack thought it ironic that at the moment, of all the people of the earth, pirates were the most safe, at least as safe as anyone was.
So when Norringotnn woke up, Jack was standing by for any information that the man might have.
A close up of Jack Sparrow’s grimy face was not what James wished to wake up to, but given that waking up at all had been a near impossibility, he wasn’t inclined to complain. Then he remembered why it was a near impossibility, and promptly rolled over and threw up on Sparrow’s shoes. During the swearing that ensued James rolled back over and passed a shaking hand over his mouth.
Oh god, his crew was dead, or worse than dead. He thought of the look on Groves’ face before he was bitten and his stomach heaved again, but there was nothing to bring up.
A concerned face entered his field of vision. “You all right there, mate?”
“No, Sparrow,” he responded wearily, “I am not, ‘all right.’” Something occurred to him, “My crew?”
Sparrow’s face closed off, but he answered readily enough. “Gracing the ocean floor, luv,” and then more hurriedly, “it’s for the best.”
“I know.” And James did. Suddenly he realized…. “Sparrow,” he said carefully, “I almost hesitate to ask, but why am I naked?”
James was treated to a blinding smile as Sparrow cheerfully, “We had to check you for bites, mate.” The smile disappeared. “We’ve seen what they do.” His mood cheered and he ran his eyes up and down James’ frame. “You've got a clean bill of health, though.”
James drew the sheet from his waist to his chin, ignoring the merry laughter that the action drew from Sparrow. No matter that the man had rescued him, he remained infuriating!
“Gotta ask you, luv,” Sparrow’s mood changed again, “Gotta know how this started, on the land.”
“You don’t know?”
“Haven’t exactly found anyone in a condition to tell.”
James winced at that, and winced again at the thought of revisiting painful memories, but Sparrow had saved him, and he might well be one of the last uninfected people in the world.
James began his story.
“That morning--” he cleared the roughness from his throat and began again, detaching himself from the monologue. “That morning I was on the docks, inspecting the refit on the Dauntless, and that’s probably the only reason why we--” he flinched and continued, “--why I am still alive.
“A screaming started at the center of town. I and my officers began to leave the ship, but we were rushed by people trying to get on, sailors, soldiers, even cats and dogs. All were intent on getting on the ships. Someone, I don’t know who, cut the ropes holding us to the dock. As we drifted away those who had been on the gangplank fell into the water, but they continued to swim for the ship, like rats running from fire.
“From the ship we could see the crowd streaming from the streets, and they began to look strange.”
“How strange, mate?” Sparrow was looking at him with those great, dark eyes of his, for once no golden grin in evidence.
James shivered and pulled the wool blanket around his shoulders tighter. “You know how they looked. Like animals, like something not human, not even alive.” He took a deep breath and continued. “From the distance it was easy to see how unnaturally they moved, faster than wild cats, but not as graceful, jerky. When it was obvious that they were coming the crowd on the shore began screaming. Men, children, even women with babies began jumping into the water, as if even drowning was better than being caught by those things.
“And that was when we saw what they were doing.” He felt bile rise in his throat, but forced it down. This was necessary. “They were overtaking people and eating them. Not even killing, just biting what they could reach. I ordered the men to start shooting, but no one could hear me in the melee. Some started shooting anyway, but with the blood on those eating and the blood on those being eaten there were as many innocents being shot as there were creatures.”
“Weren’t much difference then, anyway,” said Sparrow quietly.
“I know that now,” said James, “I didn’t then. Even when we shot, it didn’t always kill; we didn’t know to shoot them in the head. The ship kept drifting bit by bit; it’s lucky that the ship was in the water when those creatures got to the docks or they would have been right in us. Eventually things quieted—“ he took a deep breath, things had quieted because there was no one left to scream—“and I got control back. These weren’t invaders, not some strange sort of cannibal native to this part of the world, but English people, my people. There were—“ he stopped and then said very quietly, “I recognized some of them.
“We didn’t know about the bites, so all those who were wounded were housed in the infirmary. It took only two hours for the first one to die. I was in my cabin with Lieutenant Groves, discussing the situation, when the screams came from below. We both went to the door, and from there we could see the creatures. They were everywhere; I don’t know how it happened so fast, why we didn’t see them sooner.
“He was out the door first, and one of them went for his shoulder. He didn’t even—“ he paused, then tried again. “He didn’t even try to defend himself, just threw himself back so that the door slammed shut in my face. I could hear a bolt being pulled shut, and then nothing but the screaming. After that there was nothing but silence for days. I was alone. Alone with the silence.” James was so tired, and even with a tankard of water beside him he felt parched, as if those days in his cabin had never ended. Sparrow’s form at the side of his bed wavered and he reached to rub his eyes, but there was already a hand there, smoothing them closed.
“Just rest now, Commodore. You're not alone now. We’ll figure out the rest of it later.”
So James relaxed and let sleep take him.
The next time he woke he felt a lot stronger, strong enough to get up and do his ablutions. Just as he was starting to shave he felt a hand on his shoulder and stiffened. Any other man would have simply cleared his throat, but not Sparrow.
He swung around with his best glower and folded his arms, ignoring how close Sparrow stood. "Do you mind?" he bit out.
Sparrow smiled lopsidedly, unabashedly playful, rolling an apple between his palms. "Thought you'd like a tour of the ship, luv."
James fought an internal struggle with his inner nanny (firmly established when he was four, rebelliously thrown aside when he was ten and the instigator of a coup shortly after he'd joined the navy, which approved of inner nannies), which was inclining him to politeness despite Sparrow's annoying and continual use of innapropriate endearments with regard to his person. "Yes, Sparrow, I would like to see the ship. Once I've finished." He turned around and put the razor (very carefully, as one tended to do when one spent a life onboard ship) to his throat.
True to form, Sparrow stood and watched him rather than leaving like any minutely polite person would have done (His inner nanny had no doubt been ruthlessly squashed by the time he was five).
A long swipe and he wiped the blade, taking the opportunity to say, "What am I do to on the ship?"
Sparrow took a bite from his apple and chewed meditatively before saying, "Well that's the question, isn't it?"
It really, really was, thought James, tilting his head back, raising the blade and closing his eyes. He'd never in his wildest dreams considered serving on a pirate vessel. The plague had changed many things, but not that. The worst of it, or rather, the most shameful part of it, was that it was not so much the nature of the ship and its company that caused his instinctive rejection of the concept, it was Sparrow himself. From their first encounter the man had irritated him, frustrated him, challenged his self-control. That he should be the villain that he so clearly was, and yet so happy-go-lucky, so clearly unashamed was an affront to decency. An affront to James' inner nanny, if he was honest with himself. And yet, here he was, saved by this very man and living by his grace on his ship, where he would have to make a place for himself. And to do that.....
He put the blade down, lowered his head and turned around. "I apologize, Captain, for my demeanor. I would be honored to serve aboard your ship." The words were a bit stiff, but they came out easier than he had expected them to. He breathed deeply. It was done.
Sparrow grinned, "Well, I do like the sound of that, Jamie,"--James twitched, he couldn't help it--"but we're not big on titles around here. You can call me....Jack." He made it sound positively filthy, curling his lips slowly, tongue flashing.
James stiffened his back and looked over Sparrow's shoulder. "I'd prefer captain, Captain."
Sparrow smiled slowly and stepped back, putting a bit of distance between them. "You're choice, luv." And then he took another bite out that damned apple.
Much to his surprise, James fell into life on the Pearl rather easily. Rather than begrudging his role as a former pirate-hunter many of the pirates seemed rather in awe of it. And the fact that he'd been the only man left alive on an infested craft also seemed to give him a certain amount of respect in their circle. Even the fact that their captain was clearly pursuing him did not seem to lower their opinion of him. Although that may have been because he never let himself be caught.
Weeks would pass by without seeing another craft, and then there would be three or four in a single day. Usually they let them pass by, leery of moans from below deck, or shambling figures above. But there was only so much food and water aboard ship, and obtaining it from a fellow craft was safer than approaching land. It was after the fifth time that they'd boarded a boat only to find it overrun with the diseased that the idea of finding a safe port was launched.
It took another five months to find the island.
It was beautiful, large enough to sustain them all, with a harbor that would shelter the Pearl from dangerous tropical storms. They were cautious at first. Who knew what might be lurking in the lush jungle at the center of the island? Perhaps others had chosen this place as a sanctuary, or perhaps it had had inhabitants before….
But they found no sign of habitation. Guards were set to watch the sea, and in the coming months, ships came and went. Most drifted by, unmanned. Nobody presumed that they were empty.
Two months in a guard fell asleep and a ship ran aground off the east coast of the island.
After that they burned the ships. James worried that even that might not be enough. Not all the ships had gunpowder in their holds. Some things did wash up on shore, body parts mostly, but nothing whole enough to hurt anyone. Still, they were careful, for a while at least.
The island was small enough that no matter where James went, Jack could always find him. Eventually he stopped trying to avoid the Captain. Jack had taken to using logical reasoning as a seduction tactic, and to his shame, James found himself weakening. It was not that there were no women, James had never been lacking in self-control. And it was not about sex, because James really had no justification for believing that Jack would be a particularly good lover, although at least on the island he smelled better than he had on the ship.
It was Jack himself who was proving to be interesting. His paradoxical behavior, his small kindnesses and golden smiles. His ungainly walk, even after spending months on land; his unexpected brilliance. James considered all of these, considered the new and terrible world in which they both lived, and what it implied about his previous beliefs, and finally, James decided to take Jack up on his offer.
Once he had decided he wasted no time. Groves and Gillette’s deaths had taught him the precariousness of man’s life, and he did not wish to die before he had shared all the things that Jack was offering. He did not want Jack to die, not at all.
Jack was in the treasury, examining the gunpowder with a suspicious eye. The treasury did not hold gold or gems, for those no longer had value. Instead it held common weapons, rifles and cannons, and most importantly, the gunpowder. Everyone had guns and knives stashed away, but the gunpowder was part of the common store, and except in exceptional circumstances, kept locked up. If the men ever turned against their captain or each other, they would be able to do a lot of damage, but at least they could not destroy the island. That privilege was reserved to Jack.
Jack spoke without turning around. “Need something from the treasury, Jamie love?”
“Yes, Jack.” James moved to stand close behind him. He could hear the faint hum that Jack always seemed to emit when he wasn’t paying attention, see Jack’s bejeweled fingers move restlessly over the surface of the wall, smell sweat and wood-smoke, and the ever-present smell of rum.
Jack turned, his khol-dark eyes painted even here, where it was not necessary to avert the sun, preoccupied with some question or other. James could see the moment that Jack’s attention focused on him, the increase in his breath, the widening of his eyes, the way his hips tilted almost imperceptibly toward James, as though every part of him was listening, waiting, wanting. It was an open invitation, and James was finally ready to accept it.
He raised his hands and let them lightly rest on the sides of Jack’s head, cradling, watching Jack’s eyes go half-lidded with lust—but he knew that this was not just about lust; James wouldn’t have let it get that far if it had been. It was desire and possession and fierce protectiveness. It was Jack wiping the sweat from his brow when he woke from the first terrible nightmares in the Pearl’s great cabin.
When their lips met it was as a great wave over a ship, furious and overwhelming. Words were unnecessary, but Jack was a creature of words, and so, as James bore him to the ground he managed a laugh, half satisfaction, half delight. “Thought you’d never come around, mate!” The rough velvet sound of it soaked into James like hot chocolate, and he purred as Jack continued to talk, removing clothing and finding different ways to make the tone change, obscenities ridiculously sweet to James’ ear, appearing in varying volume. Jack was sensitive in all of the expected places, and in many places which were not expected. He was not browned all over, as James had imagined, but even his palest parts were darker than James’ sunburned face.
Jack reciprocated James’ explorations, so obviously happy it was blinding to look at him. But look at him James did, drinking in all that he could see and wishing that they could do this in the sunlight where he could see more. He was tracing Jack’s scars with his mouth, too greedy to be delicate, when with a surge of muscle Jack rolled them over, kicking his boots and breeches off as he did so. James’ own breeches were already at his knees, and he bucked his hips up to remove them, drawing a blissful groan from Jack as he did so, a groan which transmuted into words when James hips rolled down, Jack’s following eagerly.
“Been waiting so long for you, James, and now—fuck” The fingers of one hand clenched on James’ and his other explored below. “Now I’ve got you, I’ve Got You.”
He did have James that day, several times, even after James was too tired and sated to properly appreciate it.
So James had Jack and Jack had James. Annamaria apparently had somebody, though no one was quite sure who. Gibbs had no one, but as long as the rum lasted that didn’t appear to bother him. The crew was, if not exactly contented, at least too distracted by sex and alcohol and bellies full of fresh fruit and meat to fight or grumble. During the day they busied themselves damming the small stream to form a pool for swimming, something which some of the crew had no experience with and which James was looking forward to introducing them to. Some of the men hunted the small creatures of the island, bringing back rabbits and monkeys, and, if they were lucky, boar. Others dug clams at the beach, and watched the ocean, wary of drifting objects.
At night they told stories around the fire, drinking liberally to wash away night fears. The stories were about giants and witches, the legendary kraken, never about the dead coming to life. James wondered about what would happen when the rum ran out, but Jack claimed that he could make a coconut wine. James was not reassured.
They could see the storm coming long before it broke, a huge tropical maelstrom, lurking malevolently miles out over the water. Some of the crew wanted to run; the island did not have the shelter necessary to protect vulnerable human bodies, and the Pearl was one of, if not the fastest ship on the water. All due preparations were made, food stored, water gathered into great wood casks. No one had any idea where they would next be able to collect any; nobody was very keen on exploring.
The crew gathered at the treasury, closing in on Jack like so many ragged and dirty children, hoping that Jack would be able to save them as he had so many times before. Jack soaked up their belief, their fear, their grim resolution and gave it back to them with reckless abandon. “We’ve outrun storms before, run with fear, but we don’ need to fear this one, because we know the greater fear, and nothin' can scare us after that, no death, in a storm can compare with the death that we’ve seen. So go to it, we can outrun the bloody storm!” He grabbed James and whirled him around onto the path to make their way to the shore. Gibbs followed with a roar, leading the enthusiastic crew, and Anamaria followed behind like a silent huntress.
James ran lightly, watching as Jack looked longingly behind him. There had been no time to empty the treasury, food and water being of greater importance than gunpowder. They could only hope that they would be able to return some day and reclaim it. That it would stay dry long enough to be reclaimed.
At the edge of the beach Jack stopped to count heads. Nobody was going to be left behind to die alone. Anamaria had just passed them when there was a splash from up ahead. James looked up, startled. From where they were, he could just see the curve of the ship where she lay moored in the water. The splash had been someone hitting the water, and for a moment James wondered if someone had lost his grip, if a fight had broken out, but there would be no fighting at a time like this…and then he heard Annamaria’s hiss of withheld breath beside him, and Jack cursing, and then he saw the men on the deck of the Pearl, if you could properly call them men, that is.
Even from a distance he could see how wrong they were, how misshapen. Limbs were missing here and there, and even where there was nothing missing, the flesh hung like wet cloth, in decay. There were more splashes and screams, and with a sickened feeling, James knew that not all of those in the water were men. Then Jack was darting past him like quicksilver, Anamaria not far behind, and James only paused to check the bullets in his pistol.
He knew, as he ran, that they had no chance now. Even if they were able to clear the ship, they were too late. The winds were picking up, and the storm would take out its fury on the living and the dead alike.
The storm broke on the third day. It took a while to realize that the ever-present sound of the driving wind and rain was gone, replaced with a dead stillness unbroken by bird or monkey or man. Opening the door proved impossible, there was simply too much opposing pressure to budge it. It was Jack who suggested digging, though his arm prevented him from helping much. James struggled with the wet sand for three hours before he had tunneled a channel wide enough for he and Jack to get through. In the end he was filthy and soaked, bone-weary.
Outside the treasury he saw five feet of sand piled against the door as if flung by a very strong wind or wave. It was wet and packed tight.
Jack crawled through the tunnel after him, dragging his useless arm without a sound, and his silence worried James. After they were out of the tunnel James bandaged Jack's arm with scraps from his filthy shirt, trying to ignore Jack's ragged breathing. They went to the harbor first, though there could be no question as to the fate of the Pearl.
Along the way they found Gibbs. His body had been caught between two tree limbs, and he was cold and bloodless. There was a great hole in the back of his head, and the grey matter of his brain was visible. James reached for a limb to move the body, but Jack grasped his arm and shook his head.
“Dead is dead, mate. We can pay our respects later.” He moved down the trail and James followed him.
The trail was difficult, littered with fallen trees and debris. Everywhere signs of destruction dominated the landscape. James reached for a tree branch and found himself with a hold on a human arm.
Just an arm. It ended in a bloody chunk above the upper bicep. James didn’t recognize it, so he carefully put it down and said nothing to Jack.
They broke through the battered foliage to the beach at the head of the bay, and for a moment James thought that the Pearl had been utterly consumed by the storm, because there was no sign of it on the water. Then he felt Jack’s hand on his arm and turned to see the great black ship like a beached whale, lying on its side, it’s masts smashed, hull dented on one end.
Jack made a low, rumbling sound and James reached to steady him, but he was already making his way down the beach and all James could do was follow, slowly.
James had seen Jack angry, and worried, and sad, but he had never seen him so completely distraught. Jack’s hand trembled as he raised it to touch the side of the Pearl, and his mouth was closed so tightly that his whole tanned jaw appeared white.
James stood awkwardly, feeling useless. The joining that he and Jack had enjoyed was a recent thing, a product as much of their enforced confinement together on the island as of the latent attraction that had existed for years. Jack’s ship was part of his identity as a man, more than as a pirate, and James was uncomfortably aware that he could offer only a token comfort. But he had to do something; he could not do nothing while his lover suffered.
But before he could do anything, Jack was whirling around, in his face, hand clutching the back of his neck desperately, lips moving urgently against his, dry and uncomfortable, but still James could not help but respond, yield to Jack’s hurried pull and sink to the ground. Jack’s hands were impatiently stripping him, ignoring his attempts to help, and finally James relaxed and lay still, only spreading his legs when Jack pushed at them, immediately thrust in, hard and fierce.
It was so unexpected and painful, that James immediately clenched his legs and drew a long stuttering breath; Jack was a tender and careful lover; as careful of his companion’s pleasure as he was of his own. His actions here were completely uncharacteristic.
He could never be sure, later, whether it was the sudden pressure on Jack’s cock, caused by James’ clenching, or the sound from his throat, strained with withheld pain, that brought Jack back to himself. Whichever it was, Jack immediately stopped his movement and focused on James for the first time since they’d left the treasury. He looked shocked, and his lips moved, a silent phrase that James did not recognize. He held James’ eyes a long, heavy moment, and then made to pull out, bracing himself with his one good hand in the sand next to James’ head. But James clenched his legs once again, this time purposefully.
Jack paused, hesitation clear in his eyes. James, feeling that there was something bright and infinitely fragile at stake, brought his hands up from where they had lain quiescent at his sides. With one he gently grasped Jack’s straining wrist, caressing it with rough, but sensitive fingers, then moving up to help support Jack’s good shoulder which was trembling with the effort of holding himself steady over James. With his other hand he carefully picked up Jack’s other, useless with his shoulder as damaged as it was, and brought it to his lips, holding it there in a soft kiss as he kept Jack’s eyes. There was no other comfort he could offer, no ship or even certainty of life. The only thing that he could give was himself, his body and affections.
And Jack accepted. He leaned down and kissed James on the forehead, a gentle touch that wandered downward and became more carnal. Jack’s hips began to move slowly, and eventually he spent himself quietly in James’ body, falling with a groan on James as his arm gave out.
James put both arms around Jack’s shuddering body and sighed. He wished that they could stay where they were, rest on the sand until the tide rolled over them. His mind was sluggish from the three sleepless nights in the treasury; his body ached from the work of digging them out, and from Jack’s body moving into his. Jack was not in any better shape, with his broken arm and ruined ship. But they had to move, had to look for food, for bodies to bury, friends to mourn. James would splint Jack’s arm as best he could, and they would have to find a place to spend the night, as Jack could not make it back through the tunnel to the treasury with his arm as it was.
He would have gotten up to do these things, rolled Jack off of him and struggled to stand, but even as he steeled himself for the effort, a dark shape moved in the shadows at the trees he could see over Jack's’ shoulder. "Jack!” he hissed, body tensing, hands moving to shift Jack off of him.
“Hm?” Jack sounded half-asleep, his one good hand clutching at James’ arm like a pillow, but he lifted his head an inch or two, eyes glassy.
The movement in the trees coalesced into a form and James froze, unable to take his eyes off her. At first there was only dark skin in the shadows, wide eyes glittering. Her name was half out of his mouth, joyful and relieved, when she stepped out of the shadows and he saw her fully. The dark flesh and hair had been stripped off of one side of her head, and the bloody mass left behind showed white bone in several places. It was shocking enough that it held his attention for several seconds, and that almost proved to be their undoing.
He should have been looking at her mouth, her bloody mouth bared to show white teeth. She was down on the sand by them in a moment, reaching for Jack, for his poor wounded arm, and James reacted without thinking, rolling over and pulling Jack with him. Jack gave out an anguished shriek as his arm was crushed under James, but James was too busy feeling the snap of teeth against his leg to pay attention. He kicked out and felt his foot connect with something that gave sickeningly, and then there was a shot over his ear, deafening in its closeness, and something heavy and wet fell against his side.
For a long moment James held himself motionless, tense and ready to move, though he could hear nothing, not even the ocean. But Jack was moving underneath him, his chest jerking spastically, and James abruptly remembered Jack’s arm. He lifted himself up, careful not to put more weight on Jack in the process, and then rolled to the side and sat up.
Jack was still on the ground, one hand clutching his pistol, his eyes screwed shut and his cheeks wet. His crushed arm was at his side, and the bandages on it were darker than they had been. James averted his eyes, and looked instead at the thing that had been Anamaria. There was no head to speak of anymore, only a pile of brain tissue and bone shards drenched in blood. He looked at it and felt numb. Gibbs was gone, Anamaria was gone; if Jack’s arm was as bad as it looked then Jack would soon be gone as well. He would be alone with the dead and the worse than dead. He could not hear anything, and he could not feel anything. He wondered if he would go blind next, and the thought inspired no feeling; perhaps he would never feel anything again.
And then his head jerked to the side with a snap and pain blossomed in it and he could hear Jack shouting. “You bleeding idiot, what did you think you were you doing?”
He raised his pistol to strike again and James flinched back, saying, “Jack,” in a voice that sounded raspy and unused. He pointed to the body on the ground next to him.
Jack swept his eyes over the beach, taking in the body, James and the broken Pearl, and his lips tightened. Without a word he stuffed his pistol, grabbed James’ hand and heaved him to his feet. Then he pointedly stomped over to the Pearl, and James followed.
Exploring the Black Pearl proved to be an exercise in climbing. Luckily, Jack’s first destination, the great cabin, was easily reached. There he ran his working hand over the woodwork lovingly and whispered to his ship. James pretended not to hear.
Eventually Jack left the cabin with one last regretful look, and they made their way to the hold. James was hopeful that they would find the food that had been stored on the ship. Even hard tack would be gladly received, provided it was accompanied by water.
Getting into the hold proved more difficult than the cabin had been, and eventually it was decided that only James could go down.
Because the ship was on its side, the ladder that would normally serve as a passage between decks led to a side rather than the bottom, where the casks of water and food rested. James could have jumped down easily enough, but he would need a method of getting the food and water back up. Jack suggested a board, but they couldn’t find one long enough, and eventually settled on cutting some of the rigging up and fashioning a sort of harness.
With this in hand, James jumped down into the hold and found himself thigh deep in water. Above him, Jack’s head was in profile against the opening. “The rum should be on the far end.”
“We don’t need rum, Jack.” But he waded over to the end anyway. There were only a few casks of rum left, and of those one was leaking and one half-cracked. It was obvious that the ship had been tossed around like a child’s toy. With a sigh he began to maneuver a cask back below the patch of light.
Something grabbed his ankle, and without thinking he kicked backwards. Then he realized what it must be and abandoned the cask, struggling for the rope, impeded by the water, heavy against his thighs. He yelled for Jack, felt the water surge against his back and dove, striking out strongly. He was at the rope in only a few strokes, scrambling to gain a hold on it with numb, slippery hands.
He caught it and began pulling himself up. Adrenaline was giving him energy, but not enough, no not enough, and his breath rasped in his throat painfully. Something moved in the air next to him and settled with a splash. He looked up at his hands moving slowly on the rope, out the hole of light for Jack, but Jack wasn’t there.
James’ heart pounded with fear for Jack and overwhelmingly for himself. There was another swish in the air and he braced himself for teeth, for grasping fingers that would pull him down, but then the rope jerked beneath his fingers and suddenly he was being pulled upwards, foot by foot, until he could grab the edge and pull himself gasping over the side.
Jack was wedged above him between a mast and a door. The rope was wrapped around his good arm, and he was shaking harder than James was. James slowly got to his knees and looked down into the hold.
There were four of them, staring motionlessly up at him. It was too dark to see what they looked like, or who they might have been, which was probably a mercy. James turned away, looked at Jack, at the beach, and on the beach….
He edged slowly towards Jack, pushing himself up the slanted surface of the deck, willing himself not to slide, not to make a sound.
He wondered how many bullets Jack had left, he wondered if they would be enough.
James tore through the bushes, jumping the fallen limbs of trees. Jack was clearly visible ahead of him, crashing through shrubbery with a hand before his face. He'd dropped the gun on the shore when he'd run out of bullets. Under the sound of their panting there were sounds all around them, the cracking of branches, the soft squish of mud and the eerie moan of the wind, or perhaps not the wind. He didn't look behind him for fear of what he'd see, fear of the things crawling from the sea, half rotten, flesh falling from their bones.
Jack stumbled as they burst into the clearing, James had him upright in a moment and then looked down to see the arm that had tripped Jack flopped towards them, fingers still groping despite the fact that the arm lacked the usual accompanying body.
They were both still staring at it when the creature, bulbous, bloated and completely naked broke from the trees and threw itself on Jack. There was no time to act, and even if there had been James would have been paralyzed by Jack's agonized scream. As if in a dream he saw himself snatch the arm from the ground and bash the creature over the head.
It went down like a lump of rock, taking Jack with it. James went to roll it off of him and then realized with a twist of his stomach that it was still moving, still chewing at his shoulder. He hit it again. And again, and again. Some time later he heard Jack repeating his name over and over and saw that it was dead, or at least as dead as they could be.
It took their combined efforts to roll it off and it was a mercy that they were not interrupted, because James' hands were trembling so hard that he doubted he could have picked up so much as a twig to defend them with. It was Jack who finally led them into the tunnel, dragging himself along with agonizing slowness. He was turning an odd unhealthy grayish color and James knew, in the back of his mind, that this ought to mean something but he could not think what.
Once they were in James made a cursory effort to fill in the tunnel, blindly shoving at the sand with hands and even feet.
"Jamie," came Jack's voice out of the darkness, ragged with pain and exhaustion, "leave it be. Just leave it be."
James sat back on his heels and put his hands on his thighs, gasping. His lungs felt tight, like there was not enough air in this dark, tight space for him to breathe. He couldn't see Jack, and only the sound of his breathing made it real that he was not alone in here. He dropped to all fours and followed the sound of that breathing till he bumped into Jack propped up against a wall, legs out. He dropped to his side and put his head in Jack's lap with a groan. There was the sound of Jack's sigh and then James felt fingers running through his hair. He reached out and fumbling, caught those fingers and brought them to his lips.
They were cold, and he blew on them to warm them, kissed them to warm them, but they would not warm.
"I'm sorry, luv," said Jack suddenly, sounding whispery but still shockingly loud in the silence of the dark. "I never wanted to leave you alone."
James rubbed the fingers he held with affection. "I'm not alone now."
He could feel the motion of the rise of Jack's chest, the sluggish beat of his heart, the whisper of his voice in the air. "You will be."
That made James raise his head, staring blindly. It couldn't-- he couldn't-- "Jack--"
"On the ground, next to me."
Falteringly James brought one hand around to feel on the sand along Jack's side. His questing fingers caught the muzzle of a pistol, and then the handle. He picked it up and laid it against his thigh, curling his finger along the trigger. He slid the safety off and heard the familiar click, heard a matching click from Jack's far side, and he felt.....at peace. He would not die alone, surrounded by the undead. He would die with Jack, and there was some comfort to be had in that.
"On the count of three?" he asked Jack.
"One," came Jack's fading voice.
"Two," said James, clenching Jack's cold fingers tight.