Chapter 1: Shipwreck
It would be easier to face their certain defeat if he at least had some rum.
James had shed his uniform coat out of a pragmatic desire not to be shot, and in his shirt sleeves with no waistcoat and with his hair hanging loose to his shoulders, he thought he looked passably piratical. He was not sure, however, that this was a cunning disguise that would survive a well-lit room, and so had chosen to lurk in the shadows while Elizabeth and Barbossa attended their mockery of a parliament. He had no particular hopes for the meeting himself other than that it be brief.
The other advantage of lurking in the shadows was that the shadows might contain something to drink. The town of Shipwreck was a twisting maze, and while James felt sure any town frequented by pirates must contain a tavern, he had so far failed to find one. He had, however, found a kitchen where stew and a mug of questionable ale had been available at the price of significantly lightening his pockets. He wished he had thought to empty his sea-chest before giving in to what he had expected to be a self-sacrificial impulse.
He found a dark corner to eat; the ale was sour and did nothing to blunt the vividness of his knowledge that he'd burned his bridges for good this time. Any man consorting with pirates, or giving aid or comfort to pirates ... Not that he thought he'd been much comfort to Elizabeth, but at least she would be free, for however long any of them lived.
There was the clatter of someone descending the ladder that led to his dark corner, and James glared at the feet thus revealed. This was his dark corner, and anyone except Elizabeth could go find their own. "Go away," he said.
"Oh, that's hospitable," said the last voice James wanted to hear. Sparrow dropped the last few feet off the ladder, weaving to get his balance as if they were on a rocking ship and not one that had long ago been nailed in place. "Didn't anyone ever teach you to share?"
"Not with pirates."
Sparrow smiled at him infuriatingly, showing gold teeth. "Well, if it isn't the Commodore. Or isn't it the Admiral? Actually, I'd say that circumstances suggest it isn't either one." He sat down on a crate, sprawling as if he owned the place.
"It isn't," James said flatly.
"That's what you get for consorting with suspicious characters."
"Isn't that rather the pot calling the kettle black?"
"No, that's the pot calling the kettle fucked," Sparrow said. "Although possibly not literally. I hear Beckett isn't having the best of luck in that department these days."
"Aren't you supposed to be dead?"
"I got better." He glanced over his shoulder at nothing James could see. "Shut up."
"I wasn't talking."
"Not you," Sparrow said. "Me. Him. Them." He brushed at the ends of his own hair as if suspecting it of harboring something unpleasant, which James wouldn't have been too surprised by. James watched him, wondering in what way he deserved having Jack Sparrow inflicted on him in the hours before his probable demise.
"Is there a reason you're here?"
"Lizzie felt guilty," Sparrow said. "And the rest of them had ulterior motives. Thus my triumphant return from my not-so-watery grave."
"No, I mean here."
"We elected Lizzie king," Sparrow said. "Long may she reign, and all that."
"Oh, good God."
"She's declared war on the company. We leave at dawn. Every ship that can sail."
"You do realize you're all going to die?"
"We'd die here, mate, like rats in a trap. Better to run while we can."
"Except that you can't," James said. "I've seen the armada."
"Never fear," Sparrow said. "We've got a few tricks up our sleeves yet." Sparrow investigated his sleeves cautiously, but seemed content that there was nothing unauthorized there. "Good tricks."
"Beckett has the Dutchman." He'd seen enough evidence of its lethal capabilities in entire ragtag fleets razed to wreckage. He'd wanted to wipe out piracy, but somehow the reality of it had seemed less glorious than bleak.
"Beckett has the Dutchman right now," Sparrow said. He smiled as if inviting James to follow some complex game of sleight of hand. "Wait and see."
"I can hardly do much else."
"You could drink."
"I haven't got anything to drink."
"That would be a problem," Sparrow said. "That's the problem with hell. Not a bloody drop to drink."
James stretched out, trying to make himself as comfortable as possible on a pile of canvas that smelled strongly of mice. "I do find it hard to believe you've been in hell."
"You believe in the Dutchman, but not in hell? Hell's a fine respectable sort of thing to believe in. Whereas Davy Jones and his fishy crew are rank superstition."
"It's the coming back from hell part that's a bit unorthodox."
"Happened all the time to the Greeks," Sparrow said. "Popping in and out like jack in the boxes. Jacks in the box. Jacks and boxes." His eyes seemed to focus on something unpleasant James couldn't see. "You know, coffins are nasty things. Very unhygenic."
"I didn't think you got a coffin when you were eaten by a sea monster."
"No, that was before. Just one of the obstacles that ensued but were overcome. Like the people who wanted to eat me but did not in fact have the pleasure. The kraken would be the obstacle that ensued and was not overcome." James could see the lines of strain in Sparrow's face, and was reminded of the look of men who'd spent too long under the enemy's guns. There was the same sound to Sparrow's voice, as if any moment it would break.
"If I had any rum, you could have some," James said.
"A very kind hypothetical offer. I would hypothetically accept any hypothetical rum you might hypothetically have." Sparrow sidled up to him, and James gave him a warning look.
"I have no actual rum," he said.
"A cruel trick," Sparrow said, not retreating. James could smell the man, as much as it was possible to smell anything in this place that stank of unwashed pirates and a dozen kinds of foreign cooking. Most of them smelled better than the stew had tasted, which seemed unfair.
"Where is Elizabeth?"
Sparrow shrugged with irritating unconcern. "Telling people what to do, I expect. She seems to have a taste for that. I expect she can take care of herself."
"I couldn't just leave her to ..." James wasn't sure why he felt the need to explain himself, or what charge he was defending himself again.
"I expect you couldn't," Sparrow said. "Though I expect Beckett would have been grateful for you handing her over for him to use as leverage."
"He killed Elizabeth's father," James said. "At least, she says so, and I must believe ..."
"He's dead, all right," Sparrow said. "We ran into him in the underworld. Elizabeth ..." He shrugged, as if to say that whatever Elizabeth had done was of no account, but James's skeptical words died at Sparrow's expression. "Let's just say she wasn't much resigned at their parting."
"I find it hard to imagine Elizabeth resigned at anything," James said.
Sparrow breathed a half-laugh. "You too, mate?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Of course not," Sparrow said.
"I don't suppose I've got any chance of talking her out of this suicidal plan."
"It's that or watch her sail off knowing that I've thrown away my entire life so she can be killed all of two days later."
"I expect she'd prefer it," Sparrow said. "Myself, I'd prefer not to get killed at all."
Sparrow smiled again as if he had a secret. "Sail with us," he said. "It's the right place for the likes of you."
It was strangely tempting. He had no respect left for Beckett, and the Dutchman was an abomination he wanted badly to see torn apart by clean cannon-fire. And yet in another sense it was impossible.
"And fire on my own men?" To Elizabeth they were faceless men in a uniform she now despised, to Sparrow enemies he'd long faced across the guns. It couldn't be that clean for him. If he sailed in the morning, it would be against his friends.
"Well, there's the catch," Sparrow said, his voice surprisingly gentle. "You'd know best what you can do and what you can't."
"I don't know," James said. He hated the idea, and hated the idea too of sitting here in safety while Elizabeth did what had to be done. He could hardly leave her to do his dirty work for him. "I have to think on it."
"Think quickly, mate," Sparrow said. "The king said we sail at dawn, and pirates don't argue with the king." He seemed to be thinking that last statement over. "Well, they do argue with her, but not when my father's around."
"Your father?" Somehow it seemed strange to think of Sparrow having a father. He was the sort of thing one expected to have sprung from the earth fully formed and ready to drive men mad.
"He's a bit mad, really," Jack said with a crooked smile. "I don't take after him at all."
Before James could form a reply to that Sparrow was springing up and clattering back up the ladder in one of his wild bursts of motion, his boots disappearing after the rest of him. James lay back, wondering if it was going to be possible to sleep at all. He could hear people moving around above and below, probably readying ships for a valiant and hopeless last stand.
He looked up at a sound from above and saw Sparrow crouching by the ladder looking down at him.
"Don't forget you owe me that rum," Sparrow said, and then went away.
James silently damned the man for reminding him about his current painful lack of any drink stronger than the bad ale he had already drunk. He certainly wasn't going to be able to sleep now.
Chapter 2: Thunder
Sometimes the best you can do is decide which side you're not on.
In the morning, Elizabeth made James's internal struggle over his role in the upcoming battle immaterial by aiming a pistol at him.
"I'm sorry, James," she said. "But you know too much about our plans to stay here without us. You're coming with us on the Pearl."
"A fine way to treat your rescuer--" James began.
"Actually, this is the traditional treatment of men who have the questionable judgment to rescue Elizabeth," Sparrow put in. "I think I have a set of irons somewhere about."
"That's 'the pirate king' to you, Jack," Elizabeth said.
"This is absurd," James said. "You don't have a plan--"
"Yes, we do," Elizabeth and Jack said at once. They looked at each other as if trying to ascertain if their plans were to any degree similar. James suspected not.
"-- and if you do, you haven't actually told me what it is."
"Well, that's just what you would say," Elizabeth said. She met his eyes, and he wondered whether it was actually possible that she understood the impossibility of his position. "Will you give me your parole, or must I put you in irons?"
"I vote for the irons," Sparrow said helpfully.
"I didn't think the pirate's code allowed for granting parole to prisoners," James said.
"The pirate's code only applies to pirates," Elizabeth said. "And you're not one."
James sketched an ironical bow. "I give you my word not to try to stop your suicidal experiment in attacking against pathetically overwhelming odds."
"Well, that makes one," Elizabeth said. "Now I only have to worry about everyone else."
The look on Elizabeth's face once she saw the size of the armada they faced was not reassuring. They clearly hadn't believed him when he'd tried to warn them, which he supposed was only to be expected. It wasn't likely that any of them had reached their current straits through an excess of caution.
While waiting for Elizabeth, Barbossa, and Sparrow to conclude their hopeless parlay with Beckett -- James wasn't sure which of them claimed to be speaking as captain of the Black Pearl, and half-suspected that all of them did -- Gibbs drifted over to the spot by the rail where James was standing uselessly.
"Thought you could use a spot of rum," he said offering James his flask.
James didn't make it a practice to drink while under enemy guns, but drinking while under the guns of an unstoppable armada led by the Flying Dutchman seemed like the only practical course. He restrained himself to a single long draught from the other man's flask, handing it back with an awkward nod of gratitude.
"That's not a sight any man ought to face sober," Gibbs said.
"I'm not sure many of us are," James said, although he wasn't sure whether Sparrow's oddly halting conversation and tendency to look rapidly over his shoulder as if he could catch someone lurking there had anything to do with drink.
"She'd take on the devil himself cold sober, though," Gibbs said, shaking his head at Elizabeth, a tiny figure in the distant longboat, sitting with her back ramrod straight. "Of course, that probably makes her a bit mad, but that's not exactly a change from Captain Jack."
James looked at him sideways, unsure where his allegiances lay, if anywhere. "Are you Sparrow's man, or Elizabeth's?"
"I'm the captain's man, when it comes down to it," Gibbs said, almost apologetically. "Who the captain might be is a bit uncertain at the moment. Although better either Jack or Lizzie than Hector Barbossa, from what I've heard."
"What have you heard? And please don't tell me stories about a man so evil that hell itself spat him back out."
"Well, but they do say ..." Gibbs began, and then trailed off at James's look. He shrugged and passed the flask back to James. "Barbossa enjoys killing," he said. "Which is all very piratey, but not always necessary, if you ask me. And he doesn't much care whether his women are willing or not."
"I shudder to think of Elizabeth in his company," James said.
Gibbs shrugged again. "They seem to have come to some sort of accord," he said, and then in answer to James's stricken look, "I don't mean between the sheets. More like him agreeing he's no interest in that department and her agreeing not to stab him again."
"Oh, well, in that case," James said. He handed the flask back, feeling that if he drank much more it would begin to have an effect on his judgment.
Gibbs tucked the flask away and looked out over the rail at the tiny figures now climbing out of their boat on a barren spar of sand. "It's a fine thing to choose a side, but when things start happening that all becomes a bit flexible by necessity."
When things started happening, James was too busy contemplating his own imminent demise to think much about choosing sides. After Barbossa presided over a pagan ritual -- the results of which James still scarcely believed despite bearing several deep scratches from the ensuing shower of crabs -- the skies opened and poured torrential rain, while in front of them a massive maelstrom loomed.
He had the urge to leap to the helm, but he was hardly in a position to do so; instead he only clung to the rail, unable to do more at that moment to control their destiny than hold on. It was the Dutchman that came forward to engage them, not Endeavour, and for that he felt perversely grateful. He felt he would take the greatest of satisfaction in firing on the Dutchman, however futile a gesture that might be.
The ships swung sickeningly around in the whirlpool, the cannons roaring, and then the bravest boarders were flying through the air and there was nothing to do but draw his sword and fight. It really was an excellent sword, he thought, before it was impossible to think of anything but the demanding work of staying alive.
He paused, his blade upraised, when he heard Elizabeth call across the deck for Barbossa to marry her to Turner on the spot, but did not turn from his butcher's work. He was not needed there. Instead he drove his blade through a slimy monstrosity and drew it back dripping sea water instead of blood.
Eventually there was no more use for his sword either. There was only Elizabeth and Sparrow, both grim-faced from whatever sights they'd seen aboard the Dutchman, and the breathless quiet as they drew closer to the Endeavour. It was replaced by cheers as the Dutchman towered up out of the waves with Turner at her helm. Men scrambled for the guns.
Beckett stood at the quarterdeck. James thought it was Groves who stood beside him, but it was hard to be sure at this distance. He turned away from the rail before he could possibly be sure, and didn't look back as the guns began to thunder.
The thunder gave way to another, wilder round of cheers.
"We did it," Elizabeth said, half-laughing, and grasped at James's arms as if expecting him to lift her and swing her round in celebration. When he didn't, she looked up at him, still smiling. She looked like a young officer flushed with the elation of his first victory, forgetting for the moment that her clothes were stained with other people's blood.
She looked nothing like the Elizabeth he remembered, and when he bent to kiss her forehead, he could taste the gunpowder on her skin.
What seemed like a long time later, he was sitting on the forward hatch cover, watching the distant shape of Shipwreck Island retreating on the horizon. He looked up when a shadow fell across him. "You still owe me that rum," Sparrow said.
James handed him a bottle. "It's yours, though," he said. Barbossa had dispensed liberal rations in a spirit of celebration, or perhaps only of relief. James had so far spent his time staring at the bottle rather than drinking it, unable to decide whether it would make him feel better or worse.
"Then you owe me two bottles."
"I just gave you that one back."
"A likely excuse," Sparrow said. He sat down beside James uninvited. "I must say I'm curious about your continued presence aboard my ship. In case you haven't noticed, you've missed your last chance for some time to disembark for a ... well, not a less piratey locale, in this case, but at least a locale where Elizabeth plans to remain."
"That would be the drawback of remaining there myself," James said. "That and the fact that I'm not sure anyone in Shipwreck is very likely to give me transportation back to civilization."
"Ah," Sparrow said. "Does this mean our pirate king is down one admirer? I expect she'll have to set about collecting a few more at this rate if she doesn't want to spend a frustrating ten years --"
"Elizabeth has made her choice very clear," James said. She had wed a pirate, as she had always been determined to do, and the only advances he could possibly make to her now were ones he could hardly bring himself to make to a woman who was not a whore.
"I expect she thought she did that a long time ago," Sparrow said, taking a long swallow from the bottle. "Always on as she was about how young William was the only one for her. Any sensible man would have believed her."
"I know she did," James said. "I wasn't trying to win her. I was trying to save her life."
"Congratulations, mate." Sparrow took another swallow and then corked the bottle, somewhat to James's surprise. "Somehow I don't fancy getting drunk under the circumstances," he said, with a meaningful glance up at Barbossa, who had established himself on the quarterdeck and looked ready to remain there for the duration of the voyage.
"I gather Tortuga is our first port of call," James said. "I promise I'll get off your ship the moment we make port."
"I don't carry passengers," Sparrow said. "With only occasional exceptions for those who look decidedly better in skirts than I imagine you would. You can work your way to Tortuga, or if you think that's below your station, you're welcome to swim."
"I think I still remember how to hand, reef, and steer," James said. "Unless you'd take more satisfaction in putting me back to swabbing the decks."
"Well, I would, now that you mention it," Sparrow said. "But I expect nothing would have you making up to Hector faster than indulging myself as I should dearly like."
James snorted. "You're brighter than you look, Sparrow."
"Thank you kindly," Sparrow said, giving him a mocking foreign bow. "With a talent for compliments like that, it's easy to see how you impress the ladies."
"I'm not trying to impress you."
"And easy to see how you rose through the ranks as well, with such an attitude."
James felt absurdly stung, but said nothing in response. He could hardly defend himself as having always been a dedicated officer under the circumstances. He'd been false by now to everything he'd ever cared about, and it was hard to imagine anyone ever trusting him to be be true to anything again. It was hard to imagine that he would ever trust himself to be.
After while Sparrow rose, weaving a bit from what James put down more likely to weariness than drink. They hadn't any of them had more than four hours sleep in forty-eight. "Keep a sharp eye," Sparrow said, and for once he sounded more tired than mocking. "It may take a while to talk Hector around to seeing the wisdom of my plan."
"You have a plan?"
Sparrow looked at him over his shoulder with dark-circled eyes. "I might just be making it up as I go along," he said. "You come up with a better idea, you let me know."
Sparrow turned and made his way forward to the captain's cabin, stumbling once or twice. Up on the quarterdeck, Barbossa watched him go with a thoughtful sort of look, one hand caressing the wheel. James wanted nothing more than to stretch out and sleep where he was, but for some reason he couldn't bring himself to until he saw Gibbs sit down casually near the doors of the captain's cabin, leaning back as if at ease but not actually closing his eyes.
When James closed his own, he thought he could still see flashes of cannon fire. He opened his eyes again after some uncertain amount of time; it was dark, and it was raining, lightning flashing in the distance to the rumble of thunder. They were running before the wind, putting more and more distance between themselves and the scene of the battle, and James had no desire to seek shelter below decks.
He stayed where he was long after he knew the driving rain had washed the smell of gunpowder away.
Chapter 3: Rum
Jack has a plan. James plans an escape. As plans tend to, they go somewhat astray.
James left the ship as soon as it docked in Tortuga. He had half-expected it to be harder to escape the long and unfortunate series of events that always accompanied Sparrow's presence, and had found himself hesitating on the gangplank, waiting for some calamity to ensue. He readied himself to turn down any importuning request that he involve himself further in the fate of these miscreants with a withering remark.
"Move on, mate, you're in the way," Sparrow had said instead, and James had turned and walked down the dock, his short career as a pirate now, he felt, at an end. He felt half-naked in his shirt sleeves and without his wig, but felt that drawing attention to himself as a naval officer in these parts was unwise. He had to admit it was something of a relief in this heat.
He walked slowly up from the docks to the town itself, such as it was, taking the opportunity to consider his options. What he ought to do -- what some part of him desperately wanted to do -- was find a way onto a ship bound for Port Royal and present himself at the fort, where they would greet him as a man returned from presumed death at sea and give him a hot meal and a quiet place to lie down. It was the aftermath he found daunting.
He could face the idea of being court-martialed far more easily than he could the idea of being congratulated for the success of Beckett's methods. Beckett had hanged decent women and little boys who ought more rightly have been given a good switching and a stern lecture on right and wrong. James had seen the orders and done nothing but ensured he found duties that would regrettably require him to be elsewhere.
He suspected that made him unfit for command. He wasn't sure he could bear the entire painful process of resigning once again and retreating to whatever place he could find for himself in private life. Governor Swann had offered to help him find a place as a merchant captain, which he had refused at the time for reasons that now seemed less clear than they had under the combined influence of brandy and shame. That was hardly an option now.
There were a number of ships in the harbor, though, and he suspected many of them would be willing to ship a crewman who knew his craft and was able-bodied and of normal intelligence, that being somewhat at a premium in Tortuga. Not all of them were pirate ships, although he suspected none of them restricted themselves entirely to legal commerce. He could find one bound far enough away that no one he knew would ever see how he had come down in life.
He'd seen enough threadbare men who'd tried and failed to make a go of life outside the Navy to want to stay far away from anywhere he might meet old friends. The idea of being bought a drink for old times' sake by one of his former officers and trying to keep the hunger out of his eyes as he asked if they might by chance happen to know of a situation for a man of his abilities --
"Hello, love. Buy a girl a drink?"
James looked up. The woman was a sharp-boned redhead spilling out of a dress the same alarming color as her hair. She gave him a speculative look, which he suspected involved estimating the contents of his purse to the penny.
"Sorry, can't," James said, waving said purse to display its emptiness.
"It's tough all over," the woman said, looking past him as if he had suddenly lost all charm.
The situation had to be remedied somehow, as while women of dubious virtue (and questionable hygiene) were optional, eating was not. James felt fairly sure he remembered the location of a pawnbroker, despite the rum-soaked nature of many of his memories of Tortuga. It seemed his best course.
He found it again after a brief search and parted with his uniform coat for what he felt was an absurdly small sum; he could still recall the tailor's bill uncomfortably vividly, and had to restrain himself from delivering a lecture on the price of gold frogging. Instead he reluctantly handed over his wig and shoe buckles as well, in the interest of continuing to eat for some reasonable period of time.
The sum in his purse when he left ought to keep him for some little while if he stayed out of the tavern. The thought made him think fondly of the tavern. It contained ale in great quantities, and rum in somewhat smaller but more potent quantities, and besides making the decision between the two, it required very little concentrated thought. Indeed, it had the potential to remove any risk of concentrated thought entirely. He suspected this was the same line of reasoning that had led to spending several months on Tortuga much of which time he only dimly recalled, but the reasoning seemed as sound as it had at the time.
He looked up to see a familiar and unwelcome face.
"Just the man I wanted to see," Sparrow said. "If not the woman -- no, make that women, I should hate to leave a lady disappointed -- that I intend to see just as soon as I visit this useful establishment --"
"Please spare me a description of your whoring," James said.
"Celebrating," Sparrow corrected him. "Celebrating my return to the land of the living and the end of a long and unfortunate series of events. After which I will have a proposition to put to you about our voyage onwards to Florida. One best discussed before we return to the ship but after I've concluded my other affairs --"
"I'm not returning to the ship," James said. "At least, not to your ship."
"That's technically insubordination, you know. I expect it's somewhere in the Navy's big book of regulations. After 'impressment' and before 'intelligence.'" Sparrow swayed a little on his feet. "At least alphabetically."
"I'm not your crew," James said. "I have left. Departed. Escaped."
"Without even taking your share of the pay?"
"There is no pay," James said. "We have done nothing to make a profit."
"Yet," Sparrow said brightly.
"No," James said.
"You will regret it."
"I sincerely doubt that," James said. He found it hard to imagine circumstances in which he might. Even trying to envision circumstances that dire called for a drink, and James nodded a farewell to Sparrow, removing Sparrow's entreating hand from his shirt front in the process, and took himself off in search of a quiet tavern.
Tortuga did not, as James was reminded quite early in the evening, contain any quiet taverns. Drinking in Tortuga required the ability to tolerate tuneless music, even more tuneless singing, men shouting to be heard over both of the above, crude propositions being met with even cruder acceptances or refusals, and occasional flying crockery.
The good thing was that drinking did in fact increase James's tolerance for all of the above. As the evening wore on he was actually thinking rather fondly of a rather better tavern in Portsmouth where he'd gone drinking as a midshipman, although he remembered the singing being more tuneful. Possibly the Navy was better at singing. They were better at most everything else.
He raised his glass to the Navy, and had just enough presence of mind not to make the toast out loud. A hand closed on his tankard, trying to tug it from his hand, and James held onto it firmly.
"I'm not finished," he said.
"You bloody well are," Sparrow said. "You still owe me rum." He looked as though he might already have found some elsewhere.
"I can't go on owing you rum."
Sparrow narrowed his eyes. "You can if you never actually let me have any."
"You can't have my rum."
Sparrow let go his tankard abruptly. "You're right," he said. "I don't know where you've been." He waved at the barmaid. "Three more, love. One for me and one for him and one just to be sure." He lowered his voice confidentially. "They try to steal my rum," he said. "But offering them their own confuses them."
"Worn out your welcome with the ladies already?"
"I would be enjoying their charms aboard my ship at this very minute, were it not for the small fact that my ship is gone. Again."
"I am profoundly shocked."
"If you'd gone back and watched the ship like I told you, this wouldn't have happened," Sparrow said.
"You didn't tell me to go back and watch the ship," James said, feeling unjustly accused.
"I would have done, if you hadn't been so busy deserting me in my hour of need."
"I don't even like you," James said. The idea that he would do anything in Sparrow's hour of need beyond enjoying the occasion was absurd.
"You like me better than Hector."
"No, I don't."
"I'm prettier than Hector," Sparrow said.
"Well, that's the pot calling the kettle black," Sparrow said, in a tone that played uncomfortably on James's nerves. "Or isn't it true what they say about the British Navy?"
"What, that they hang pirates?"
"That too," Sparrow said. He finished his drink and signaled for another. "The least you can do is assist me in getting truly, gloriously drunk as a partial gesture of repentance."
"I did not steal your ship."
"That's not what you stole, no," Sparrow said levelly.
"You were trying to steal the heart from Jones," James said. "Turner was trying to steal it from you. I have no idea what Elizabeth was planning to do, and I suspect neither does anyone else. It's not as if anyone really has the moral high ground, here."
"You got me killed."
"You were probably going to get us all killed."
"You tried to hang me."
"You deserved it," James said.
"I don't like you, either," Sparrow said. "Are you going to drink that rum?"
James drank. "You're buying the next round," he said.
"It's his turn," Sparrow said, glancing sideways craftily. "No, wait, he's gone."
"Then you're buying the next round."
"Treacherous sod. Can't trust him -- them -- anybody --" Sparrow clung to his tankard as if expecting it to be threatened by mauraders at any moment.
"Have another drink," James suggested. It probably wasn't a cure for madness, but it might be one for overwrought nerves.
"A wonderful idea," Sparrow said, in a quicksilver change of mood. "I shall do so directly and upon your recommendation." He waved at the barmaid. "Another round!"
Some considerable time later, James realized rather to his horror that he was singing along with Sparrow, who was leaning on his arm sketching out an uncertain time with an empty tankard. "-- t'was but to tease I answered so, I thought that ye could guess, that when a maiden answers no, she gen'rally means yes --"
"'S not really true," Sparrow said, hanging on his arm. "In fact, I more often encounter women who answer yes when they mean yes. Or at least who answer 'show me your money, then.'"
"That's possibly because all the women you know -- with the exception of Elizabeth --"
"I don't want to talk about bloody Elizabeth," Sparrow said. "I don't want to talk about women. They slap me. It's cruel."
"Poor Sparrow," James said.
"I have a name," Sparrow said, as if sharing a profound secret. "It's Captain."
"No, it's not."
"No, it's not," Jack said. "Because my bloody ship is gone."
"Have some more rum," James said.
"The rum is gone, too."
"We could have more rum."
"I'm not drinking with a man who can't even remember my name."
"It's Jack Sparrow," James said, and then, because he felt it cruel not to, added "Captain Jack Sparrow." He stood, intending to go and get them more drinks, and watched with interest instead as the room revolved.
Sparrow was at his elbow somehow. "Is the tavern spinning again? It does that sometimes. Treacherous."
"I think I'm drunk," James said. He tried to correct for the spin and only wound up stumbling into a chair. "This chair is a problem."
"I approve of drunkenness," Sparrow said. "Particularly at points of crisis such as this. I would not, however, recommend passing out in a Tortuga tavern if you want to keep all your teeth."
"Mine aren't gold."
"It might not matter."
Sparrow disappeared off into the crowd and returned shortly having apparently made some satisfactory arrangement for the use of one of the rooms above the bar. This required negotiating the stairs, which occupied all of James's attention. Sparrow fell down the stairs once, but seemed undaunted.
"Here," Sparrow said, navigating the doorway. "The lap of luxury."
"This room is horrible," James said.
"The lap of horrible luxury." Sparrow sprawled on the bed. "The horrible lap of luxury." He lifted his head and peered at the pillow suspiciously as if expecting it to have turned into a pair of thighs. "Not that bad a lap," he said, and buried his head in the pillow again.
James was not particularly keen to share a bed with Jack Sparrow, but the alternative seemed to be the floor, and he'd learned in his previous stay on Tortuga that sleeping on floors led to regretting it in the morning. He lay down and closed his eyes, trying to fight the feeling that the bed was spinning in nauseating circles.
"It's ironic," he said.
"Why nothing ever happens to Elizabeth when she's one everyone keeps worrying about saving. Whereas we --"
"She's married to a man who can't set foot on land," Sparrow said, sounding soberer than James would have thought possible at this point. He felt it was wrong for him to be drunker than Sparrow. He was letting down the reputation of the Navy. "And her father's murdered. I wouldn't say nothing ever happens to her."
"Her loyal defender," James said. He meant it as an insult, though he wasn't sure it sounded like one.
"I'm not the one who tried to marry her."
"Everyone tries to marry Elizabeth," James said. "Few succeed."
"I expect you'd prefer to take advantage of her," James said darkly. He felt that was the sort of thing pirates did.
"If I'd wanted to take advantage of her, I could have."
James considered this. "Of course, she'd probably have killed you."
"She did kill me," Sparrow said.
That was startling but not, he realized, particularly difficult to believe. "Oh."
"Also, my ship is gone."
"I know," James said. "Are you actually surprised?"
"I shouldn't be, should I?"
James opened his eyes. Sparrow was lying back looking up at the shadows in the corners of the room, not warily but as if merely curious as to what he might see lurking there.
"What was it like being dead?" James asked. He wondered it it was anything like being drunk.
"Unpleasant," Sparrow said. "I'm not planning on trying it again."
"You have to eventually."
"You don't know that," Sparrow said. He sounded very childish, and very tired.
"I don't know much of anything," James said. He felt as if he was going to go tumbling from the bed if it didn't stop spinning, and he clutched at the nearest thing for balance, which turned out to be Sparrow's coat sleeve. "I don't know what to do now."
Sparrow caught at his shirt front and dragged him close. "I have a plan," he breathed against James's ear.
"What sort of plan?" It would have seemed a suggestive position had James been sober enough to respond to any suggestion other than 'please throw up now.' His face was buried in Sparrow's hair, which smelled as though it had been doused in patchouli scent in lieu of washing. He tried not to breathe.
"See here," Sparrow said, and began writhing against him, disarranging his clothes in the process. James was about to point out that this was less suggestive than peculiar when Sparrow pulled an odd object from out of the back of his coat with an air of triumph. He unrolled it to reveal an ornate set of concentric circles painted on what looked like bamboo. "Hector thinks he's got them, but he's got a nasty surprise of his own coming." He managed, with some fumbling, to get the circles to rotate. "Voila! The Fountain of Youth."
"That's a myth," James said.
"What, like a ship with an immortal captain --"
"Well, all right," James said. "But why would I want that?"
Sparrow shrugged. "How long do you think it's going to take to fix everything wrong with your life?"
"Here's your forever, mate."
James looked at the charts. It was absurd, and yet he felt a flicker of the same excitement that burned in Sparrow's eyes. And there was a certain appeal to having a goal, regardless of what the goal actually was.
And then there was Elizabeth to think of, much as he was trying not to think of her. Elizabeth with her husband bound to only set foot on land every ten years. He wondered what she would say to a gift of eternal youth. He couldn't help wondering just how grateful she would be.
It was an awful and unworthy thought, and he distracted himself by wondering how Sparrow had acquired such dramatic scars on his chest without actually dying in the process. Unless he had in fact acquired them in the process of dying. Said chest was now confronting him at close quarters, along with a tanned expanse of bare shoulder. It was very much not reminiscent of Elizabeth in any way.
"All we need to go find it is my ship. Which is gone." Sparrow tucked the charts away somewhere about his person, looking as if the process were uncomfortable. "We'll get another ship," he muttered. "A better ship."
"Or we could just wait for Barbossa to notice he doesn't have the maps anymore and come back," James said.
"... we could do that, too."
Sparrow shifted against him again, in a way that James wasn't sure had anything to do with the map. He felt the first flickerings of response as Sparrow's hip rubbed against him, unable to control his reaction and not entirely sure he wanted to.
"I don't think so, Sparrow," he said, shifting against him. He could feel himself starting to get hard.
"My bloody luck," Sparrow said, and closed his eyes. After a long pause, James could hear him snoring.
"Oh, damn it," James said, and closed his own eyes.
When he woke up, the morning light through the window was agonizing. He glared at Sparrow, who had prodded him. "What?"
"We'd better go," Sparrow said. "Unless you intend to pay for the room."
"Didn't you ..."
"I persuaded her I'd already made arrangements with one of the girls," Sparrow said. "But unless you like being slapped ..."
"I'm coming," James said wearily. He wasn't entirely sure why. It might just have been that arguing about it seemed unbearable at the moment. "Oh, where in God's name are my shoes --"
"Here," Sparrow said, tossing him something small and heavy that clinked instead of the shoe he expected. James opened his hand to reveal his own shoe buckles. "Wouldn't want your shoes to fall off at an inopportune moment."
"I ..." James said, feeling that he probably ought to object to being the beneficiary of Sparrow's petty larceny. "Thank you."
"Now you owe me a lot of rum," Sparrow said, and slipped noiselessly out the door.
Chapter 4: Alligators
James supposes it was too much to expect the Fountain of Youth to be located somewhere he wanted to go.
Hector Barbossa arrived in Tortuga the next evening; it couldn't have taken him long to discover that he was no longer in possession of the charts to wherever it was they were going. James persuaded Sparrow that occupying a table in a tavern was a more sensible way of waiting than wandering around town seeking out opportunities for mayhem to ensue. They had barely started drinking when Barbossa came stalking in, looking like he was trying not to look like a cat who'd lost his mouse.
He crossed the room and rested both hands on the edge of the table table. "Jack," he said as if scolding him fondly. "Did ye really think I'd not notice?"
"Well, you didn't, mate," Sparrow said, putting his feet up on the table. "Now, let's talk about how you'll be handing over my ship."
"That's a high price for a set of charts," Barbossa said. He gave James a measuring glance as if weighing how he might figure into Sparrow's calculations. James shrugged in as unhelpful a fashion as possible.
Sparrow smiled smugly. "These charts are unique."
"I could just shoot you and take the charts," Barbossa said.
"And then James here would shoot you and take the charts," Sparrow said. "You can't take us both."
Barbossa looked at James sideways. "Ye don't want these charts," he said.
"You can't be sure I don't," James said.
"You can be sure he does," Sparrow said. "Our James is after a present for his lady-love, and what better gift to loosen her thighs than eternal youth?"
"I don't have a lady-love," James said. "And I'm certainly not --"
"He doesn't have a wench," Barbossa said.
"Ah, but he did once," Sparrow said. "None other than our sovereign king, long may she do whatever she's doing. Thus giving him the best of motivations to shoot you, take the charts, and win the fair lady's --"
"I think he gets the picture," James broke in. He was becoming familiar enough with Sparrow to predict that his next word was not going to be "heart."
"Oh, for the love of ..." Barbossa looked as if he was out of patience for anything involving Elizabeth Turner. James felt a certain sympathy for his point of view. Barbossa smiled, his manner changing entirely. "All right, then, Jack, come on back aboard, and we'll forget this whole unfortunate misunderstanding."
"I said my ship for the charts," Sparrow said. "I never said anything about allowing you back aboard."
"And where will ye go, if I have the charts and am not on board?"
"There's the whole wide ocean, mate."
"And only one Fountain of Youth."
They were watching each other intently. Sparrow finally shrugged elaborately.
"I suppose you can come along. In some capacity. I've always wanted a cabin boy."
Barbossa smiled cooly. "I was thinking more like captain."
"My ship," Sparrow said. "I'm the captain."
"First mate, then."
"That should go well," James said.
"I'm sure we've all learned our lessons," Sparrow said. "Let us be off."
Barbossa held out his hand. "I'll be having those charts."
"When I have my ship."
"I'll be having another drink while you two work this out," James said.
"No time for that," Sparrow said, getting up abruptly and towing James after him by the sleeve. "We're all getting older by the minute."
"Everyone is always getting older by the minute," James pointed out, but he allowed himself to be towed.
"Wait!" Sparrow said when they were out in the street. Barbossa rolled his eyes.
"We must find Gibbs."
"It is, for reasons that I am regrettably unable to share with you at this juncture, crucial to the success of our plans."
Barbossa sighed. "And how do you suggest we should be doing that? Tortuga is a good-sized town."
"But with only so many taverns."
"You would know," James said. He had largely confined his own drinking to a few haunts that were usually unoccupied by the Navy. In the next hour, however, he began to get an idea of the sheer number of places there were to drink -- or for that matter to throw up -- in Tortuga.
"I'm losing my patience, Jack," Barbossa said as they ducked out the back door of one of the taverns. He shouldered aside a pair of sailors engaged in an activity that would have earned them a flogging at the least in the Navy. James was busy enough trying to decide whether to try not to look that he nearly tripped over Gibbs, who was sitting with his back against the opposite wall, seeming less interested in any activities taking place in the alley than in the bottle in his hand.
"Up you get," Sparrow said. "We mustn't waste time."
Gibbs looked up at him blearily. "Do we have a ship?"
"I have a ship," Sparrow said. "But a ship needs a crew."
"I have a crew," Barbossa said.
"I want a better crew," Sparrow said. He reached down and snatched Gibbs's bottle from his hand without warning.
"Never take a man's rum when he's drinking," Gibbs said. "It's powerful bad luck."
"I prefer to think of it as leverage," Sparrow said.
"On your feet," James said, and Gibbs scowled but staggered to his feet.
"I love it when you're all commanding," Sparrow said. "Just remember she's mine."
"Are we talking about the ship, or Elizabeth?"
Barbossa looked short on patience with this turn of the conversation. "Can we please have less on the subject of Mrs. Turner? I'm finding myself powerful weary of it already, and we haven't even left port."
"I was talking about the Pearl," Sparrow muttered. "I don't know what you think we're talking about."
"I'm sure," James said.
"Now that ye have your pair of lap dogs, can we be moving along?"
"I don't want Mr. Gibbs on my lap," Sparrow said. "No offense, Joshamee."
Gibbs shrugged philosophically.
"I'm not sure I appreciate the implication that I –" James began.
"We don't care," Barbossa said. "Are we sailing or not?"
When they were back aboard the Black Pearl, Sparrow made his way to the wheel, ignoring the sheepish looks from a large portion of the crew.
"Well, that was interesting," he said. "I hope we've all learned a lesson here."
"Aye, that we have," Ragetti said solemnly.
Sparrow gave him with a skeptical look. "And that would be?"
"Next time, I'll make sure I have the charts," Barbossa said, putting a hand on Ragetti's shoulder to silence him.
Sparrow smiled crookedly. "Somehow I thought that's what the lesson was."
"Can't expect a tiger to change its stripes, Jack."
"There could be stripes involved next time."
"Oh, I'm frightened." Barbossa snorted. "I'm as like to get turned over your knee."
"Well, I could just shoot you again."
Barbossa smiled, but he did look a bit more ill at ease. "But ye won't."
"Not unless you take my peanut."
Barbossa raised an eyebrow. "What peanut?"
"You would say that," Sparrow said suspiciously, and on that less than reassuring note they got under way.
James had half-expected Sparrow to make some indecent proposition at the first reasonable opportunity. Instead, Sparrow merely shut himself in his cabin in the evenings without a word as soon as Barbossa vacated it and made his way up to the wheel. The first night, James was ready enough to fall into a hammock and sleep off the effects of two days spent ashore with Sparrow, but the next evening, with the stars just coming out and the warm wind ruffling his hair, he didn't feel tired.
Most of the crew appeared to be continuing their former practice of ignoring him as much as possible except when speaking was unavoidable as part of their duties. For most of them he felt it was a matter of disdain for the Navy in general and him in particular, although in Murtogg and Mullroy's cases he suspected it was more out of some lingering horror of speaking to officers without being spoken to. Gibbs gave him a friendly nod, though, and after a moment's hesitation James joined him where he was comfortably seated on a crate.
"I never did find out why you're so crucial to the success of our plans," James said.
"Aye, well, I don't expect Captain Jack's had time to make something up yet," Gibbs said. He took a long draught from his flask. "Truth be told, I think he just likes having a few friends about him. And I expect he feels men as have mutinied against him a time or two don't so much count."
"Nor, I suppose, do men who've tried to hang him."
Gibbs shrugged. "Well, it's not as if you made any pretense about your intentions."
"Not for more than ten seconds," James said.
"Well, then," Gibbs said, and drank again. "At least that's a change from the way it usually goes." He offered James the flask, and they passed it back and forth in silence for a while. That on top of his own ration of rum wasn't enough to get drunk on, just enough to keep him from trying too hard to remember what it had been like to be the man who had been so sure Sparrow would keep his dawn appointment with the gallows.
Just in case, he had pocketed his own bottle of rum, left tragically abandoned in one of the taverns they had visited the night before, and he felt its comforting shape under his coat. He lay awake in his hammock for some while without giving in to the temptation to open it. He wasn't sure if there was any point to remaining sober, but some part of him resisted sinking to the level of pirates and drunkards.
Not that he'd seen Sparrow drunk since they'd come aboard. On the other hand, he had seen Sparrow apparently having a long argument with the mainmast, which ended with Sparrow ordering that it be given ten lashes, an order Gibbs had quietly ignored. At least James wasn't mad. He felt he had to take his sources of pride where he could find them.
The coast of Florida had little to recommend it, a fact that James had observed on one past occasion which had involved looking for water in sandy, fly-infested dunes for what had seemed like an eternity. The spot Sparrow eventually settled on looked no different from any other bit of beach, and Barbossa squinted skeptically at the charts. "You're sure about this?"
"A simple problem in navigation," Sparrow said, looking innocent, or at least like he was trying to look innocent. "We land here, have an easy few days walk to here, and there we are."
"Hmph," Barbossa said, but he didn't argue. He and Sparrow seemed to have reached some sort of truce for the moment, and James found that he wasn't sure how he felt about that. Being trapped on a ship with two quarreling pirates might actually not have been worse than being trapped on a ship with two pirates who were conspiring together.
It was not, to James's utter lack of surprise, an easy few days walk. It was, in fact, a miserable few days walk through a series of sandy thickets, dank marshes, and occasional near-impenetrable mangrove swamps. Sparrow clambered over roots and under branches as if he were an old hand at it, while Barbossa swore and hacked at things with his cutlass and Ragetti repeatedly had to be dragged out of the mud. They'd left Pintel and Marty behind to guard the ship, which seemed like inviting further mutiny to James, but had met with approving nods from the rest of the crew.
"Enough," Barbossa said finally when they reached what James supposed qualified as a spot of dry ground in that if you stood on it, you didn't sink. "It's getting dark, and I don't think we want to be wandering around in a swamp after sundown."
"That's the best time for it, mate," Sparrow said, but he obligingly dropped down cross-legged to the muddy ground. "Just watch out for the alligators."
Most of the men edged closer to the top of the hill. Sparrow smiled and leaned back on his elbows. "Wake me when you're ready to go on," he said, and lay down with his hat covering his face.
"I'll take the first watch," Barbossa said, seating himself on the low branch of a tree and settling down to trying to put an edge back on his cutlass. No one but Sparrow seemed inclined to sleep. Murtogg and Mullroy began building a fire, assisted by Cotton and Ragetti.
"Wish we'd have brought the dog," Ragetti said.
Murtogg nodded solemnly. "Then we wouldn't have to worry about alligators."
Gibbs shook his head. Somehow he'd managed to find the driest spot near the fire, perched on the broad knee of a tree root, and had kicked off his boots to dry them. "I once knew a man who went hunting alligators with a dog," he said. "When the dog started barking, he crept up behind it with his pistol, ready to shoot, when, bang--"
Gibbs smacked his hands together, and more than one man jumped. "Right out of the water it came, fast as lightning, and had its jaws round the dog's neck before he could move an inch. Dragging the dog under, see. They drown their prey."
"Why didn't he shoot it?" Mullroy asked.
"Well, he was going to," Gibbs said. "But what he didn't realize was that a second alligator was creeping up on him, and just as he was about to shoot, it clamped its jaws round his ankle and dragged him into the water."
Ragetti looked rapt. "How'd he survive?"
"We don't know that he did survive," James pointed out, but no one was listening to him. "Or that he ever existed."
"He wrestled the alligator," Gibbs said.
"Until finally he ..." For the first time Gibbs hesitated, as if trying to remember the end of the story, or more likely invent it."
"She," Sparrow said from under his hat. "And I persuaded her of my many fine qualities, if you take my meaning. Now will you all shut up and get some sleep?"
James attempted to do so, despite the various mutters of "alligator" and "Capt'n Jack" and "does an alligator even have a ..." still going on around the fire in stage whispers.
"Well, it must have, or how could it lay eggs?"
James threw his arm over his head and tried to pretend he couldn't hear them. There were also unnerving noises coming from deep in the swamp, rustles and splashes and the occasional low rumble, as if an entire menagerie were moving out there in the darkness. He tried to pretend he couldn't hear them, either. He had spent little time in parts of the wilderness other than beaches, and this was not inspiring him to do so in the future.
He was woken by someone shaking his shoulder. He could see at once from the clear night sky that it was some hours after midnight.
Sparrow was bending over him. He put a finger to his lips and beckoned James to get up. James did so, noting that no one appeared to have been devoured by alligators in their sleep.
"We'll be needing more firewood before dawn," Sparrow said quietly. "Anyway, I want a word."
James followed Sparrow into the mucky water with a certain amount of reluctance. "Tell me you didn't really seduce an alligator," he said.
Sparrow smiled in the moonlight. "I'd say no, but I'm afraid you'd be disappointed."
"More likely relieved."
"It got its teeth in my boot right enough, but I let it take the boot off and grabbed for its mouth instead," Sparrow said. "They're a devil at biting down, but not so good at opening up. You can hold their jaws shut with your hands."
"So it never dragged you underwater?"
"It might have," Sparrow said.
"But in fact it didn't."
"Details," Sparrow said. "You try it if you're so keen."
"Why were you hunting alligators with a pistol anyway?"
"It had swallowed a bloody great diamond, that's why," Sparrow said. "At least, one of them had. My own fault for hiding it in a chicken."
"I would ask you why you hid a diamond in a chicken, but I am sensing that the more of this story we hear, the longer we will be wading around in this swamp."
"Your instincts are superb," Sparrow said. "However, I may as well enlighten you about the chicken, as we are in fact wading around in this swamp to give Hector a chance to set off for the Fountain of Youth without us."
James looked back toward the firelight. "Why would we want him to do that?"
"Well, otherwise we'd have to put up a convincing show of trying to keep him from leaving, and that might involve pistols drawn and people being tied to trees and other unpleasantness," Sparrow said. "Much better this way. When he sees us gone, he'll conclude we've already left, and take off on his own."
"What about the rest of the crew?"
"They can fend for themselves, as far as Hector's concerned. Which is short-sighted of him, because if they all drown in a swamp, how's he planning to sail away? That's always been a flaw in Hector's logic." Sparrow snapped a broken branch off one of the overhanging trees and handed it to him. "Here, firewood."
"He'll get there first," James said.
"Not if he follows that straight line I showed him," Jack said. "Not unless he wants to wade through a swamp six foot deep in mud."
"You know where you're going?"
Jack reached into the inner recesses of his clothing and extracted a wrinkled sheet of parchment. He held it out to James, who peered at it in the moonlight. "This is another map," James said.
"Of this very swamp," Sparrow said. "Now, swamps change their channels, right enough. But some of this high ground ought to still be there, and this --" He pointed to what looked to James in the moonlight like a smudge. "Doesn't have a single bit of high ground unless you want to go miles out of the way."
James felt he ought to object to this plan on some grounds, but it actually seemed remarkably sensible. "Do I have to hear the story about the chicken?"
"Not necessarily," Sparrow said. He climbed up to a low branch, and waved a hand in a way that invited James to do the same. James was unused to climbing trees, but it wasn't precisely a challenge compared to making his way up the rigging in a storm. He settled into the crook of a tree branch despite the way it swayed under his weight.
"No alligators yet," James said.
"They're not so bad as crocodiles, really," Sparrow said. "Mostly want to get out of your way, though they're a menace when they're breeding. As female creatures of all kinds often are."
"How do you know all of this?"
He wasn't really expecting an answer, but Sparrow shrugged, leaning back into the shadows. "Spent some time in swamps. They're useful places for people who need to keep out of the way of other people, as I find sometimes happens."
"Through no fault of your own, I suppose?"
"Depends on the occasion," Sparrow said.
"I have a hard time imagining you innocent of much of anything."
"Depends on the crime," Sparrow said. "But then I suppose you stick to your favorites."
James tried to see his face through the shadows, to tell what he was supposed to make of that. "I don't know why you persist in implying --"
"Hanging, the lash, that sort of thing."
"Hanging criminals isn't a crime."
"And if they aren't criminal enough for you, you can always make yourself some new laws."
"I ... what Beckett did was wrong. I know that."
"I'm not your father confessor," Sparrow said. "I'm just suggesting that your moral high ground may have turned out a bit swampier than expected."
The idea of Sparrow as a priest was so disturbing that James found it momentarily hard to formulate a response. Sparrow grinned as if reading his thoughts.
"That should be enough time for Hector to make his move," he said. "Mind your feet, there's a snake down there."
James looked down at his feet in some horror. "I hate this swamp," he said.
"What's life without a few snakes?" Sparrow stepped cautiously around the snake, and after a moment's hesitation James did the same.
James considered that while ankle-deep in mud. "Better? Is this a trick question?"
"You're learning, mate," Sparrow said, and James followed him through the darkness.
Barbossa was indeed gone. Ragetti looked guilty about this, as if expecting Sparrow to blame him. Gibbs and the parrot seemed more philosophical. The rest of the crew was asleep.
"I suppose you've still got the charts?" Gibbs said.
"Of course," Sparrow said, crouching down to stack branches on the fire. "Get some sleep if you want, I'll take the watch."
Gibbs stretched out on the muddy ground. James lay down nearby. The sky was barely beginning to lighten in the east.
"You seem remarkably untroubled," James said in a low voice.
Gibbs shrugged, rolling over onto one elbow so they could talk without waking the others. "It's to be expected, when you get enough pirates in one place. They're not naturally cooperative creatures, pirates. Now on shipboard, the men have got to work together, but get them on land and they act like pirates act."
"We've left a pair of pirates to guard the Black Pearl," James pointed out.
"Aye, but they can't likely sail her by themselves, can they? Marty's a fine sailor in his way, but there's things as you need a proper man's height for, and not one of them can read a chart. And Pintel won't likely sail without Ragetti."
"How sure are we?"
"Sure as you can be about a pair together these fifteen years." Gibbs shrugged one shoulder again. "It's hard enough to find someone to take up for you, being a pirate. It's not a thing a man likes to put by lightly." He rummaged in his shirt until he drew out his flask. "Now me, I stick to women, given the choice. But Captain Jack --"
"Can hear you from over here," Sparrow said quietly from his perch on the branch where Barbossa had formerly been sitting. "I think that's enough alligator stories for the night, Joshamee."
"I hear you, Captain," Gibbs said, and after that he kept quiet, though he gave James what James thought was intended to be a meaningful look of some kind. James put his head down on his arm. The low rumbling sound echoed between the trees again.
"What is that?" he muttered, at the point where the noises were loud enough to make it difficult to sleep.
"Alligators," Sparrow said, and after that he couldn't sleep at all.
The Fountain of Youth, when they found it, was in a cave. They had climbed out of the swamp into dense cypress thickets that required a great deal of hacking at the underbrush and swearing, although possibly the swearing was optional. The cave was little more than a crack in a hillside, but it had a rough cross scratched above its entrance.
"D'you think that's it?" Ragetti asked.
"It doesn't look much like a fountain," Murtogg said.
Mullroy snorted. "You can't expect it to look like a fountain."
"Why not? They wouldn't call it the Fountain of Youth if it didn't look something like a fountain."
Cotton's parrot alit above the entrance to the cave. "Awk! Fountain of Youth!"
"You heard the parrot," Sparrow said. "Cotton, Parrot, and the rest of you lot, guard the entrance. Mr. Gibbs, Mr. Norrington, follow me." He pushed forward through the overhanging vines and disappeared through the crack in the rocks.
"Why us?" James asked as he ducked inside, pushing through on Sparrow's right. Gibbs squeezed through himself with a bit more struggle on Sparrow's other side.
Sparrow made a noise that might have been a laugh. "Because I trust Joshamee, and because I don't trust you."
Inside, a crack in the ceiling let in just enough light to illuminate a muddy trickle of water that ran down one wall and pooled in a depression on the cave floor. Something moved in the shadows, and James reached for his pistol.
"Not so fast," Barbossa said. He had his pistol leveled at Jack's heart. "Draw, and I'll shoot him."
"Not this again," Gibbs said, but he didn't draw his pistol.
"What makes you think we care?" James said.
"Well, if ye don't care, why would ye want to be drawing your pistol?"
James didn't have a ready answer to that.
"Hello, Hector," Sparrow said. "I admit I did expect you to be a bit longer in arriving."
"Ye got that map from my cabin, Jack. It's not my only copy."
"It's my cabin."
"Shut your mouth for once," Barbossa said. "I realize that's hard for ye to do when you're not on your knees."
"Well, you're one of the few who wouldn't know," Sparrow said. He was smiling, but despite the fact that Barbossa was the one holding the pistol, James wasn't sure he'd have wanted to be in his place.
Barbossa jerked his head in the direction of the pool of water without lowering the pistol. "Drink," he said.
Sparrow looked at him sideways. "Whose side are you on?"
"I'm here for the water," Barbossa said. "But I'm not about to test it on myself."
Sparrow smiled again. "Where's your monkey, Hector?"
"Never mind the monkey," Barbossa said. He smiled himself, unconvincingly. "This is what you wanted," he said. "Eternal youth."
"I'm getting the distinct impression there's a catch," Sparrow said.
Barbossa cocked the pistol. "There's already a catch, Jack. I got here first."
"You can't make us drink," Gibbs said.
Barbossa sighed. "No, but I can shoot ye."
"That's a very persuasive argument," Sparrow said. "But if you've reason to believe the water is poisoned, it's not quite as persuasive as I might like. And if I've reason to believe the water heals all wounds ... well, then it's not quite as persuasive as you might like, is it?"
"What happened to the monkey?" James put in.
Barbossa glared at both of them for a moment, and then reached for something with his left hand. James's hand tightened around his own pistol. Barbossa drew out something from his coat pocket and held it up into the light. It was, James realized when it squeaked, a baby monkey.
Gibbs raised his eyebrows. "You reckon he drank a bit too much?"
"That could be," Barbossa said. "Or it could be that the water's meant for men, not monkeys. Or it could be it would have killed him outright if he weren't cursed not to die. You see my problem."
"I see," Sparrow said. He was looking at the water, not at Barbossa, looking suddenly very tired. He'd been keeping himself going by promising himself -- what was it he saw in the pool of muddy water? Safety? Time?
"I'll drink," James heard himself say. "I'm not really sure I care what happens."
"My Fountain of Youth," Sparrow said. "All right, move aside, Hector, and if I wind up a babe in arms I expect you to find me a nurse with an absolutely enormous bosom."
"It could kill you," James said.
"So could I," Barbossa said.
"So could that rattlesnake, mate," Sparrow said.
Barbossa's eyes didn't flicker away from Sparrow's face. "What rattlesnake?"
"The one right by your right foot." James tried not to move his own feet. They'd lost a man from that ill-fated water party to snakebite. It had looked like an unpleasant way to die. But Sparrow was bluffing. He knew Sparrow was bluffing.
"I don't think so," Barbossa said.
There was a sudden, dry rattling sound, terribly loud in the small cave. Barbossa looked at his right foot. James trusted what he knew and leaped for him, grabbing his pistol hand as Sparrow pulled Gibbs down.
Barbossa fired, and there was the splintering noise of the shot hitting rock. He rolled James over and kneed him painfully in the stomach, slamming James's hand against the cave floor, which did indeed make him let go the pistol. James scrambled back, and then Sparrow had his own pistol leveled at Barbossa's head. The monkey squeaked reproachfully.
"Capt'n Jack?" Ragetti called from behind them, peering in through the entrance.
"We're all fine here," Sparrow said.
"Where's the bloody snake?" Gibbs said, not sounding entirely fine.
Sparrow turned over his left hand to show the dried rattlesnake rattle lying in his palm. "Useful things sometimes, snakes, although best encountered in daylight. Now, Hector, I imagine you're feeling a bit thirsty."
"Don't mind me," James said. "I'll just be over here trying to move my wrist."
"Just because you can move it, that doesn't mean it's not broken," Gibbs said. "I once knew a man --"
"Oh, for God's sake," Barbossa said. "I may as well drink and be rid of the lot of you." He frowned down at James. "I'll expect ye to look after Jack."
"What?" Barbossa handed James the little monkey. "Oh, that Jack." The monkey gave him a thoughtful look and bit him on the thumb. "Ouch!"
"He takes some time to warm up to ye," Barbossa said. He went down on one knee and cupped his hands for the water. "It's powerful cold," he murmured, and then drank.
James had, he realized, not really expected anything to happen, despite the evidence of the monkey curled up in his hand. He had certainly expected that if anything did happen, it would be gradual. Instead Barbossa swallowed, lowered his hands, and took a deep indrawn breath in shock.
"Mother of God," Gibbs said, looking at the boy kneeling on the cave floor.
Barbossa looked to be ten years old at most, dwarfed by his clothes, his face beardless and unmarked by time. He looked up, pushing his suddenly-too-big hat away from his eyes. "Tell me it's not what I think," he said.
"Congratulations, Hector," Sparrow said. "You'll make a fine cabin boy after all."
Barbossa let out a furious breath, and then shrugged, looking suddenly philosophical. "That's a good fifty years I've got back," he said. "It's worth making my own way as a lad again for a while." He looked at Jack with a smile that looked odd on such a young face. "But it's a problem for ye, isn't it? Ye haven't got fifty years to lose."
"Neither did the monkey, I shouldn't think," Jack said, but he made no move toward the water.
"The monkey can't die," Barbossa said. "I think ye've no such protection."
"Test it on something else," James said. "There's the parrot ..."
"And then where would Cotton be?" Gibbs said. "Besides, have you ever tried to make a parrot drink?"
"There's Cotton," Sparrow pointed out.
"Who is definitely more than fifty," James said.
"We'll find something," Sparrow said. He withdrew a stoppered bottle from somewhere about his person. James pulled out the rum bottle, which he had emptied for just this purpose. Gibbs hesitated, and then drank deeply from his flask and emptied the last dregs onto the cave floor.
"I'll just be going now," Barbossa said. He held out his hand, and James gratefully handed him back the monkey, which clung to Barbossa's wrist.
"What's the hurry?" Sparrow said. "It's a long walk to St. Augustine."
"I've no desire to go there as your cabin boy," Barbossa said. "I think I'll take my chances with the alligators, if it's all the same to ye." He pushed past James out of the cave, to the sounds of general astonishment outside.
The three of them dipped their containers into the water. It was indeed cold.
"You never know," Gibbs said. "It might not make us babies. Or make us blink out of existence as if we'd never been born. Either one."
"All very well for you to say, since you're fifty-three," Sparrow said. He filled his bottle, and held it up to the light, looking at it thoughtfully.
"It's not permanent, anyway," James said.
"It's fifty years," Sparrow said.
"Or ten seconds."
Sparrow looked at the bottle for another long moment, but he finally lowered it and corked it. "We'll find something to test it on."
As Gibbs headed outside, Sparrow hung back, watching the water trickle down the cliff face with an expression James couldn't read. The reflected light was unkind to the lines of his face despite the dark kohl smears around his eyes. "Well played," he said. "You'll make a pirate yet."
"You told him the snake was on his right, so that he'd look away from me, not from Gibbs," James said. "I wonder why."
"You move faster," Sparrow said. "And there's a lot of things I'd trust Joshamee Gibbs with, but not to jump towards what might be a snake rather than away."
"But you trusted me," James said.
"That's always been my besetting sin," Sparrow said. "Now come on, before they decide we're off buggering each other."
"Not bloody likely," James said.
"So you've made perfectly clear," Sparrow said. He brushed past James on his way out of the cave. James wasn't sure if that was meant to be a flirtatious gesture or a hostile one. It made his bruised wrist sting.
Outside Gibbs was showing off his flask to the assembled crew. Barbossa was nowhere to be seen.
Sparrow looked around. "Where's Hector?"
"Said he meant to walk to town," Gibbs said. "I suppose there's one around here somewhere."
"His funeral," Sparrow said. "I thought he knew me better ..."
"Than to think you'd make him the butt of every joke you can think of on a long voyage back to the Caribbean?" Gibbs said, looking a bit less patient than usual with Sparrow. "Aye, that's unlikely."
"I expect he thought I'd do a bit worse," Sparrow said. "There's disadvantages to being a handsome lad." For a moment, James wondered if he spoke from experience. "All right, move along, unless there's any of you that wants to take your chances?"
Not even Cotton moved toward the spring.
Gibbs cleared his throat. "I think we'd all be a bit easier in our minds if we tried it on something else first."
In the end, what they found was an alligator.
"It doesn't do much good to test it on something that only lives a few years," Sparrow pointed out. "Alligators live a good while, but a young one won't be fifty years old."
"You get to make the alligator drink," James said.
Sparrow accomplished this by hanging off an overhanging branch and pouring a splash of water into the dozing beast's mouth. He scrambled up as it raised its head, shook it in surprise, and then swallowed.
A moment later, there was nothing in the mud by the river but a depression where the beast had lain. Sparrow dropped down from the tree and nudged at the mud dejectedly with his toe. "You don't suppose it's just gotten very small ..."
"Give it up, Sparrow," James said. "You'll have to wait another ten years for that to do you any good."
"Twenty," Sparrow said. "Or maybe thirty to be on the safe side." He corked the bottle again and then tossed it to Cotton. "If I'm still around in thirty years, I'll come back."
Cotton looked thoughtfully at the flask and then shrugged and drank. Once again James couldn't see the change happening; one moment he was an old man, the next a young one, his face still weathered by the sun.
Gibbs stared at him. "John? Say something, mate."
Cotton opened his mouth, and then closed it again and shook his head. "Awk! Time and tide!" the parrot croaked.
"It doesn't heal wounds, Jack," James said quietly. "It just makes you younger. It won't keep you from dying."
Sparrow looked at him with weary eyes. "A man's got to try, doesn't he?"
"You could try just being careful."
Sparrow smiled crookedly. "Where's the fun in that? Anyway, I didn't know you cared."
"Don't push your luck, Sparrow."
"I thought it was 'Jack.'"
"Only if we have it straight that I'm not your cabin boy."
"You're a grown man, James," Sparrow said. "I expect you'll do as you like." He turned away and joined the circle of crewmen around Cotton. "Gentlemen," Sparrow said. "Fame and fortune awaits us. Just not here."
"Aye," Gibbs said in resignation. "Back to the ship, lads. Unless you want to hang around and wait for more alligators." It was already getting dark, but none of them really wanted to linger on low ground.
Sparrow didn't say another word to James as they began making their way back through the underbrush. James told himself sternly that being ignored by Sparrow ought to be a relief. He could feel the smooth shape of the bottle in his pocket. Perfectly useless to him, but he wondered again what Elizabeth would say to another fifty years, to be used in its proper time. Or a hundred, or more.
He didn't imagine he was the only one to have had that idea. "Let me guess," James said after a while of hacking through tangling vines. "We're heading for Shipwreck Cove."
Sparrow didn't turn around. "No, we're going to go look for shiny things," he said. "No idea when we'll be in that part of the world again."
He sounded entirely uninterested, and James would have believed him, were there not for one small detail; James knew, as surely as he'd known that the snake was a bluff, that Sparrow wouldn't have tossed away all the water he'd taken from the cave.
"I think I'll come along," James said.
"As you like," Sparrow said. "You can't have my peanut."
"I don't want your peanut," James said, as pointing out that there was no peanut seemed unlikely to get him very far.
"That's what they all say," Sparrow said, and hacked at the underbrush so fiercely that everyone edged back a little out of the way of his cutlass. Through the trees things were beginning to rustle and splash just out of sight.
"I hate this swamp," James said, but no one seemed to be listening.
Chapter 5: Tempest
Sometimes it takes a storm to clear the air.
They were still running down the coast of Florida when it began to rain, the wind blowing in fitful gusts and storm clouds scudding across the sky. James wasn't concerned until he saw Gibbs steal a look at the weather-glass and cross himself hurriedly. He made his way up to the quarterdeck stairs and hesitated there, torn between his ingrained knowledge that he was not an officer and ought not approach the captain and the lingering sense that he ought to be. In any event, the captain was Jack Sparrow, which made his hesitation seem absurd.
Sparrow resolved his dilemma by catching his eye, which James took as permission to come to the wheel. "Lovely weather we're having," Sparrow said. "Mr. Gibbs, stop looking at the barometer like that. It scares it."
"Sorry, Captain," Gibbs said, and looked out worriedly at the horizon instead.
"If there's a storm coming up the coast, we ought to be sailing north," James pointed out.
"If there's a storm coming up the coast, we'll end up sailing north whether we want to or not," Gibbs muttered.
"A fine idea, gentlemen, were there any welcoming port in easy reach," Sparrow said. "If we keep on southward, we can make St. Augustine by nightfall."
"We could drop anchor and ride it out," James suggested.
"I think the men have had about enough of the local scenery," Gibbs said. "I'm not sure spending another few days on a beach will improve their temper any. Whereas St. Augustine has certain attractions." His hands sketched the shape of what might have been either a woman or a bottle of rum.
"A sheltered inlet, for one," Sparrow said. "It's the hurricane season."
"I'm aware of that," James said. A gust of wind sent rain spattering into their faces.
"I expect you are," Sparrow said. "But this will be entirely different."
"Oh, good," James said.
The wind was backing steadily around through the day, and James had to admit that the Pearl handled better sailing close to the wind than she looked like she would. Better than the Dauntless, anyway, although he thought his Interceptor would have been better still. It was a shame they'd never gotten the chance to see which was fastest.
The rain came on in earnest, then, and there was little chance for such thoughts as they struggled to make St. Augustine. James hoped that Sparrow's sense of navigation was as good as the man claimed it to be, because the best he could say was that they were probably still headed south, and Sparrow's compass had an alarming tendency to spin and re-orient itself just when he thought he had their bearings.
"What's the matter with this damned thing?" he shouted to Sparrow over the rising noise of the wind.
Sparrow leaned in and tapped the compass, which spun under his fingers and then steadied. "South, not west!"
"I'm trying to find north!"
"Yes, but what you want to find is land," Sparrow said. "I expect we can find the beach for ourselves, if only by running into it."
"Damn!" He dashed water out of his face, peering over the compass to see the ship slowly backing onto a course that would take them out into the Atlantic in the general direction of Gibraltar.
"You take the wheel," Sparrow said. "I'll navigate."
It felt odd wrapping his hands around the Pearl's wheel, and for a moment he thought he could feel her tense under him, unsure of his intentions. Then he dismissed that as absurd superstition, and concentrated on wrestling with the wheel as the wind gusted unpredictably. Sparrow kept appearing at his shoulder to insist they should be on a different course, and James could think of nothing better to do than believe him. All the same, it took him by surprise when he actually saw a light on the horizon, steadier and longer than the forks of lightning that had been splitting the sky.
He squinted through the rain. "Is that the watchtower?" There was no reply, and he turned, expecting Sparrow to be hovering. Instead, the man was standing stock-still at the rail, staring not toward land but out to sea. Lightning flashed, and James could just make out the shape of a fishing boat foundering in waves that dwarfed it.
The sight was enough to put any man's heart in his mouth if he had the imagination to put himself in that crew's place, but at a second crash of lightning James thought he could see what it was that held Sparrow fascinated like a bird by a snake, the familiar prow of the Flying Dutchman rising from the waters, its snarling teeth dripping sea water like rain. Then the sky darkened again and he couldn't be sure of what he'd seen, only that Sparrow was retreating from the rail and drawing his sword as if facing some invisible opponent.
This was precisely the wrong time for that sort of thing, James thought. The storm was opponent enough. Sparrow nearly backed into him, and James caught at him, pulling him against him and the wheel and coming as near as he dared to shaking him. "I saw it too," he said. "We have to make port, Jack."
"Saw what?" Jack said, turning on him with his eyes as dark as if he'd taken opium. "I like port. Especially in a storm."
"That makes two of us," James muttered. He contemplated ways of snapping Sparrow out of whatever personal horror he was currently revisiting, and then revised his options to eliminate the ones that were directly mutinous. "Your orders, Captain?" he finally asked, in his crispest and most expectant tones.
Sparrow stared at him, and he could see the man mastering himself. "Land," he said finally. "Now."
"I'll try!" James said. With some considerable effort, they found the north channel into the inlet rather than battering themselves to bits on the beach currently being pounded by a furious sea. The wind abated somewhat once they rounded the tip of Anastasia Island, and James could see the weaker lights of the fort and the town beyond it as well as the island watchtower's steady lamp.
There was still enough wind to drive them hard into the harbor, and it took some neat maneuvering to wind up alongside one of the piers rather than barreling into one of them. Gibbs had to make a jump for the dock to begin tying up, and they came to rest with rather more battering against the dockside than James would have liked.
"You lot can go ashore if you like," Sparrow. "I'm enjoying the weather, myself." He looked calmer. "Very bracing."
"May as well take a few of the lads ashore and see what news there is about this storm," Gibbs said. "Also, we might actually get dry that way."
"Being dry is overrated," Sparrow said. "As long as we're not getting barnacles." He investigated his hands skeptically. Gibbs looked longingly at the lights of what was probably a dockside tavern, and then back at Jack with what looked like weary skepticism of his ability to distinguish driftwood from ravening sea monsters bent on their destruction.
"I'll stay aboard for now," James said. "I'm too tired to care if I'm wet."
"Aye, then," Gibbs said in visible relief. He decamped for shore with Cotton, Marty, and the bedraggled parrot, possibly on the grounds that they were the ones most likely to come back. Ragetti and Pintel grumbled about being left to drown, and went below almost immediately to sulk in the galley. James lingered on deck until he realized that Sparrow had gone below as well, leaving him standing foolishly on deck in the howling storm.
He considered joining Sparrow in the great cabin, but wasn't sure what to say to explain his presence -- I'm here to protect you from invisible barnacles was probably not going to go over well -- and so settled for slinging his hammock as far astern as possible in case of any obvious signs of mayhem above; it meant being as far as possible from the galley stove, but James hoped that even Pintel and Ragetti had more sense than to light the stove in this weather. He considered going forward to check on this -- he did not want to be responsible for setting fire to St. Augustine among all his other sins -- but the day's labors were finally taking their toll, and his whole body felt leaden. He lay back sodden and exhausted in his hammock and closed his eyes; despite the pitching of the ship and the rising whine of the wind, he found it easy enough to sleep. The only noise that woke him once was what might have been someone singing, but he never could make out the words, and perhaps after all it was only the wind.
In the morning, it was the quiet that woke him. When he came up on deck, the wind had died down to a light breeze, and there were patches of blue between the clouds that still filled the sky. Gibbs and Sparrow were investigating the damage to the ship, which seemed in better shape than James had expected -- they'd lost the forward hatch cover, part of the starboard rail had been splintered by some kind of flying debris, and the rigging was tangled and torn, but the masts and hull seemed intact. Ashore, he could see people out mending roofs and dragging fallen branches out of the streets.
They spent the day sorting out what part of the damage they could and the afternoon ashore in a dockside tavern that looked only a bit the worse for wear, though the benches and floor were sodden and it had begun to rain again steadily. James made no real attempt to match Gibbs in his progress toward drunkenness, nor to keep up with Sparrow's elliptical progress around the room; Sparrow seemed to be taking a momentary interest in various women, bottles, arguments, card games, and shady characters, but none of them seemed to hold his interest for long.
James found his own conversational options limited by the fact that his Spanish was limited to things like "prepare to be boarded," which only seemed useful in certain specific contexts that were unlikely to present themselves. He considered playing cards in an attempt to supplement his current lack of funds, but decided that playing games whose rules he barely understood with men whose conversation he also barely understood was probably a bad idea.
"I'm going back to the ship," Sparrow finally said, sounding only the somewhat the worse for drink. "While it's still there." He bowed in his peculiar fashion to James and Gibbs, and retreated, taking a bottle and someone else's oilskin overcoat with him. James lingered until Gibbs reached the point of telling stories about various women he might or might not have swived in various other ports, which James found less entertaining than depressing.
He considered retreating to the ship, but something nagged at him. He took a drink to steel his courage for a particular line of questioning, or more probably against his growing sense of his own absurdity. "You were starting to tell me a story about sea turtles," he said.
"Ah, right," Gibbs said, brightening. "Now, your basic sea turtle --"
"Not actually about sea turtles," James said wearily.
"No?" Gibbs looked puzzled, and then enlightenment dawned. "Oh. Those sea turtles. Well, you see, Captain Jack --" He hesitated. "No, that's not the way to tell it. I don't suppose you ever met a man called Bootstrap Bill Turner."
"Turner's father," James said. "I suppose I may have, aboard the Flying Dutchman. I tried not to ask their names." It had been hard enough being aware that the shambling monstrosities around him were men without knowing their names.
"Well, I expect you'd have known him unless he was powerful changed," Gibbs said. "It's true enough that Will's his spitting image, for all that Bootstrap was fair, not dark." He shrugged. "Now, it's true enough what they say about pirates being the worst sort of sodomites when there's nothing better to hand, but I stick to women when I've the opportunity. Captain Jack, though, he's not quite so particular."
"For some reason, 'particular' is not a word I would have been tempted to apply to Sparrow," James said.
"It's not that he's got no taste," Gibbs said, and then looked as though he were reconsidering that. "Well, it's more that he has bad taste. Any road, whatever it is Captain Jack may have done, I've never seen him trouble himself about it later. He's got no more natural shame than a cat. But there's some men who are never more satisfied than when they're repenting their sins."
"Him and Jack were right inseparable, but there was always something sour in it. Me, I figure it had something to do with Jack not taking much to being blamed for all those sins every time Bootstrap's mood turned that way." He drained his tankard. "Best for a man to be honest about his own vices, is what I say. We're none of us saints."
"That's your story about sea turtles?"
"It is, more or less," Gibbs said. "Bootstrap watched Hector Barbossa leave Captain Jack to die, and I don't hear he shed many tears about it. Only reason it didn't work is that Jack being Jack, he stumbled on a bunch of bootleggers come to check their cache of rum, and I imagine Jack can be right persuasive when the alternative is lassoing sea turtles."
James considered his own tankard, which stubbornly persisted in being empty. "Is there a point to this story?"
"Were you listening to it?"
"Yes, but I don't appreciate the implication --"
"I know you don't," Gibbs said. "You were a proud lad and you're a proud man, but that don't make you any less of a sodomite than Jack there, for all that he paints like a Calcutta whore. And I say that as his friend, and one of the few who's never done him more wrong than he expected."
"I ..." James began, and could think of little else to say.
Gibbs looked tired. "It's none of my lookout, I know. But you could stop making eyes at him and then looking at him like he's something that crawled out of the gutter at your feet the moment you've got his attention. It doesn't exactly do you any good to set that much store on yourself."
"I think I've had enough," James said, and rose.
Gibbs shrugged. "Your funeral," he said.
James stalked out, although it was hard to really achieve stalking in the muddy street outside. More squelching. He looked down at the mud on his boots, his hair somehow astray from its queue again and hanging wet in his eyes, and wondered how anyone could think he set much store on himself at all.
He clambered back aboard the Pearl, sodden and wishing more than anything for any cabin he had ever possessed instead of the dank, echoing hold. There was a light showing in the window of the great cabin, and James hesitated, finally knocking tentatively.
"Come in," Sparrow called. He was standing when James opened the door, and James couldn't tell what his previous occupation had been, except possibly pacing. He swayed a bit, as if the ship were rocking in the high waves there weren't.
"It's just me," James said. "I came to tell you that ... er ... to report aboard, that is."
"I don't much stand on that kind of ceremony," Sparrow said. "Not that it's not a nice change from having to go round up the men from whatever catholes they're lying drunk in when I want to be setting sail." He looked James up and down, taking in the state of his clothes and boots. "Shut the door. You're bringing enough of the outdoors in with you as it is."
"Sorry," James said. Sparrow tossed him what he charitably chose to believe had begun life as a towel, and he scrubbed at his hair and then draped it around his shoulders, ignoring its unidentifiable stains.
"Have a drink," Sparrow said. He tossed James a bottle, and James uncorked it, looked around for a glass, and decided that was too much to ask for. He went ahead and drank just as Sparrow produced a pair of silver goblets that James hoped had not begun life as a set of church plate. "You can have a glass, even."
"Very civilized of you," James said.
"I can use a fork, too. Amazing what you can teach my sort, isn't it?" Before James could respond, Sparrow took the bottle from his hand and poured himself a liberal ration of rum. "Your health, Mr. Norrington."
James took a deep breath. "Let me start again," he said. "Yes, I would like a drink."
"Capital," Sparrow said, and poured him one. James drank gratefully.
"You look better," he ventured after they'd both worked their way through quite a few more drinks without exchanging more than brief discontented remarks about the weather.
"Better than raving mad, you mean?" Sparrow said. "Only mad north by northwest, I do swear. The rest of the time I know a large horrible tentacled thing from a ... "
"Another large horrible tentacled thing," James supplied helpfully.
"I was going to say a monkey," Sparrow said. "Treacherous things, monkeys. I'm glad Hector's taken it away with him. I got tired of shooting it. You ought not have to shoot things more than once." He looked darkly at his rum, as if expecting something to rise up out of its depths. "But some don't know when to lie down."
"It's possible that you should lie down," James said. "How much have you had to drink already?"
"That's the pot calling the kettle ... just what are you calling the kettle?"
"Foxed," James said, and attempted to take Sparrow's goblet away from him. Sparrow hung on tenaciously, but allowed James to steer him over to his bed. "I'd sleep it off, if I were you."
"And what about you?"
James contemplated the windows, where the rain was still pouring down unchecked. "I'll just go ... " He made a half-hearted gesture in the direction of the vast, wet world.
"You can stay if you take your boots off," Sparrow said, draining his goblet and putting it down reluctantly by the bed. James hesitated, but the rain was certainly off-putting, almost as much so as the silence below. He kicked off his boots and stretched out experimentally on the opposite side of the bed from Sparrow.
"I should go below," he said after a while. "It's just that the rain ..."
"And God forbid the pride of the king's Navy get wet," Sparrow said, sounding more amused than scornful. "Fine sailor you are."
"I might melt," James said.
Sparrow chuckled. "You might," he said. "You are a fine sailor, you know."
"That sounded suspiciously like a compliment," James said.
James closed his eyes. The bed wasn't all that big, and he could feel Sparrow's knee against his thigh and the heat of Sparrow's breath on the back of his neck. He craved the feel of a warm, hard body against his, and the only thing that kept him from giving in to that craving this minute was ... well, what was it, anyway?
Pride, he supposed. He was still the master of his own body, though certain parts of it protested that they were being bullied into submission to no actual purpose. He wasn't the kind of man who couldn't master his vices, as laughable as Gibbs with his rum --
Not pride, then, but fear, the old demon of what would they all say if they knew. It's not me but Sparrow, he wanted to say. He had the sudden vivid picture of Sparrow upon the block for all his crimes, and there was some part of him that still wanted him there.
He turned over abruptly, and when Sparrow opened his eyes curiously, James leaned down and kissed him, brief and hard. He breathed his frustration against Sparrow's lips.
He could feel more than see Sparrow smile. "So," Sparrow said, and then kissed him back, more thoroughly. Sparrow was working his hands under James's shirt, and he could feel those clever fingers tracing patterns up his bare skin.
"God," James said.
"Frustrated?" Sparrow smiled at him crookedly. "Don't tell me you've been pining after me, James."
"Not hardly," James heard himself say, and curved his hand around the hard shape of Sparrow's thigh in an attempt to soften the words.
"Then what," Sparrow said, shifting so that James's hand was in a far more personal location, "are you doing with your hand on my prick?"
"Don't you know?" James said. "I don't expect you need lessons in vice."
"Not hardly," Sparrow said. James needed more than the feel of Sparrow's warm hands on his chest, and he rolled over half-onto the man, pressing himself down against his thigh, as if they were midshipmen playing at what they hadn't dared try yet. He worked Sparrow's breeches open and wrapped his hand around the man's prick, feeling the familiar shameful surge of lust at the warmth of it in his hand. "Nor do you, I shouldn't think."
"Not so much so, no," James said. "I want ..."
"What is it you want, James?"
It was, James realized, not a question he was used to giving that much thought to in the sort of hurried encounters he was used to. "Fewer clothes," he concluded, and shifted off long enough to struggle with his wet breeches. Sparrow stripped off his own clothes and rolled over, showing a back seamed with old scars that stood out white in the lamplight.
James traced the long line of one of the scars with his fingers. "That can't have been pleasant."
"It was more than one occasion," Sparrow said. "The most recent involved your friend Beckett." His voice was light, but somehow the casual tone didn't quite come off.
"I can believe that," James said. Beckett had been, in James's opinion, a believer in the salutatory effects of pain to a regrettable extent. Not that James hadn't ordered his share of floggings, but there was something ugly about the spread of the scars across Sparrow's back; James thought they spoke of fury more than discipline.
"You've none of your own," Sparrow said, running his hand up the curve of James's back more assessingly than erotically. "Followed the rules, I suppose."
"At least since I was young enough to be turned over someone's knee."
"Well, if that's to your taste," Sparrow said, his hand drifting lower. James couldn't hold back a strangled noise. "Oh, do you like that?"
"Oh, fuck," James said.
"That's the idea," Sparrow said, moving his fingers. James could feel Sparrow's breathing coming fast against James's side, but there was something in his voice that sounded harder than genuine passion. "Or maybe this." He pushed James back and wrapped his hand around James's prick, which made it very difficult for James to maintain his stream of thought.
"That," James said, and Sparrow stroked him. "Yes, Sparrow, do that."
He could feel Sparrow lying tense against his side, the man's prick still only half-hard despite James's efforts so far. He was starting to want his own release badly, but it was eluding him, and it didn't help that Sparrow seemed to shift position edgily every time he got his own hands on more of Sparrow's skin than the flat of his shoulder.
"Not so much your type, am I," Sparrow said abruptly. He stopped in his stroking, for which James could cheerfully have killed him.
"What makes you think --" James wasn't sure he had words for I want you desperately, but you could show a little enthusiasm. Or for I'm beginning to be horribly afraid that we've both had too much to drink.
"Well, this doesn't seem to be working for you. And you've certainly been telling me you've no interest in my sort. It doesn't always work to close your eyes and pretend."
"You weren't supposed to believe me."
After a moment Sparrow let out a frustrated breath. "You know, you're a real piece of work, James."
"So are you, Sparrow," James pointed out.
Sparrow rested his head on his arms wearily. "Get some sleep."
"Just like that?"
"I've got a bit more self-respect myself than you seem to think," Sparrow said without looking up. "You won't even say my name."
James felt he ought to say something to break the silence that followed, but he wasn't sure what, and the rum was beginning to make his head spin; he couldn't quite keep his eyes from closing.
He dreamed he had Jack at the grating, his wrists bound, the weight of a cat o' nine tails in his hand; he raised it to strike and lowered it again, uncertain of why he was doing this. It could be a mistake, it could very well be a mistake, but what good would it do to speak? He raised the cat, not knowing what to do but bring it down--
He woke as Sparrow made a strangled noise and fought the covers, muttering something unintelligible in his sleep. James put his hand on the man's shoulder, but it didn't wake him. "Jack," he said quietly.
"You're dead," Sparrow said, and then drew in a ragged breath and woke. He stopped thrashing, although James was close enough to feel him shaking. "Oh. You." He rolled over abruptly, his face hidden between the pillow and his own dark hair.
"Breathe," James said, resting his hand between the man's shoulder blades and then making tentative circles, trying to knead the tension from his muscles.
Sparrow did so, his breathing still ragged but slowing. "Is it out there? It's supposed to be dead, but I don't trust it."
"I saw the Dutchman," James said. "During the storm."
Sparrow shook his head without raising it. "The kraken. I saw it dead, but everything comes back in the end."
"Not everything," James said.
"More than you'd think," Sparrow said. "I don't think people dying and coming back all the time is a tidy way of arranging things. All that wear and tear and tentacles and crabs with their little legs. Much better just never to go."
"Breathe, Jack." James kept his hand moving on Sparrow's back, trying to work away the horror. There had been a time when he'd had a friend to do the same for him, when he was a young midshipman sickened by death and the smell of blood.
"What's this?" Sparrow asked in after a while in a rather different tone. "Making up to me, are you?"
Jack laughed a little under his breath. "Well, then, carry on."
It was quiet for a long while as James rubbed Sparrow's shoulders, digging his fingers in hard where the old scars seamed the skin. "The left shoulder's worse than the right," he said. "I suppose he was right-handed."
"Beckett was," Sparrow said. "You've just his turn of phrase sometimes, did you know?"
"Not on purpose, I assure you," James said.
"Never mind," Sparrow said, sounding half asleep already. "We've all got our ghosts."
Sparrow had more than his share, James suspected, but he said nothing, only watched as Sparrow slipped back into sleep. He found it impossible to sleep again himself, and dressed quietly, putting out the lamp that had been left burning. His damp clothes were bad enough, but he couldn't face the prospect of his sodden boots, and went up on deck barefoot instead. An inky blue was just beginning to stain the sky in the east.
He sat on a crate and watched the horizon for a long while. It was hours before Sparrow came up on deck, shirtless and with his own feet bare. He perched cross-legged nearby, but didn't break the somewhat quiet.
"Good morning," James said finally.
"So it is," Sparrow said. "It looks like the weather's finally turned."
"I think we fail at vice," James said.
Sparrow snorted. "So we do. Not that embarking on vice after that much rum might not have been a bit overly optimistic."
James wanted to say we could try the vice first next time and drink afterwards, but he wasn't sure how well that would go over. Instead he said "It's still strange. Sitting here barefoot on a pirate ship." The deck was damp against his feet, and the light breeze ruffled his hair. It was a beautiful morning.
"Not as bad as all that, though, is it?"
"Not so bad," James said.
"You're a fine seaman," Sparrow said. "That was well done, in the storm. A tricky piece of sailing even before our fishy friend turned up to be distracting. You'd think he could ferry the dead in something a little less alarming. I should think a ferry would be traditional."
"Thank you," James said before Jack's usual conversational drift could carry them away from the subject entirely. "You're not so bad a captain yourself."
"I'm touched," Sparrow said, dryly, but he didn't look displeased. "If we can just get a few days fair weather, we can go and do a bit of proper pirating."
James let that hang between them for a while until he couldn't stand it anymore. "How can you live like this?" he asked, more an honest question than an accusation. "Shooting innocent men who've never done you any wrong and stealing what's not yours?"
"I try not to shoot when I don't have to," Sparrow said. "I'd rather them come along side nice and cooperative rather than blowing great holes in the cargo hold and making a mess."
"But you do steal."
"Pirate," Sparrow said. "Mostly pretty trinkets that won't make anyone starve to lose, though. It's no pleasure sailing around with a load of rice or turpentine, after all. Though I don't imagine you'd be all that sorry to take a bit of money out of the pockets of the Company."
"Well, maybe not," James said. He'd come to strongly suspect that the British East India Company was not advancing anyone's ends except those of its stockholders. "Still, the idea of turning pirate for good ..."
"There's advantages to a pirate's life," Sparrow said. "I won't say no one cares what you do, but no one's exactly got the moral high ground, if you take my meaning." He shrugged. "Besides, I'd got the brand, what else was there to do? Load cargo and never take to the sea for fear of his Majesty's finest?"
"No," James said. "I can't see you doing that." He looked at Sparrow, who was looking out to sea to where the first fingers of golden light were streaking across the sky. No more shame than a cat, Gibbs had said, and indeed there was nothing more showing on his face than contentment in the weather and possibly even in the company.
James suspected that without his own capacity for shame, he'd be a man like Beckett, taking everything he wanted and brushing aside anyone who got in his way. But Jack was nothing like Beckett. James wasn't sure why not, but it was possible that the subject demanded further thought.
Further thought probably required remaining aboard. More to the point, remaining aboard meant the possibility of money that might buy him a ship he could use for more legitimate purposes. It was wrong, of course. But he'd discovered that there was a part of himself that didn't care, and for the near future he felt he would have to give that part its head.
"I think the fair weather ought to last," he said, glancing at the barometer and considering the sky.
"I think you're right," Sparrow said. "You take the watch, then, and I'll go try to round up this bunch of miscreants I call a crew."
James looked up at Sparrow and then, slowly, at the quarterdeck. It had been good to feel the ship responding under his hands, even struggling against the wind. He wanted that again, and when he looked back at Sparrow he half-expected Sparrow to laugh at the open longing that he knew must show on his face.
Instead Sparrow only shrugged. "It can't hurt to have another hand at the wheel, especially one who can actually navigate beyond keeping a straight heading and hoping the winds don't change." He looked at James with a sideways smile. "I expect you've been in a battle or two."
"One or two."
"We'll get on fine," Sparrow said. He went on more slowly, "And if we do start growing barnacles -- or anything else alarming--"
"Unlikely," James said. "We're not dead." He felt very certain of that with a fair breeze rising up and the sun sparkling off the water.
"You're probably right," Sparrow said.
Out across the harbor there was an odd ripple under the water, as if something large was moving just under the waves. If he squinted, he thought he might be able to make out the shadow of masts and sails.
"I'm sure of it," he said, and turned away from the rail, drawing Sparrow away from the harbor and its ghosts toward shore.