"I'm here to see Cutler Beckett."
Theodore Groves, late of His Majesty's Navy, currently in the pay of the East India Trade Company, opened his mouth to tell the ragged, bearded man that whatever his business was it could wait indefinitely, but before he could form the words, recognition caught up with him.
"My God, James, what happened?"
The Commodore -- former Commodore, Theo still had to remind himself -- gave him a tight-lipped smile. "Nothing that a hot bath and a change of clothes won't fix."
"You shouldn't be here. There's a warrant for your arrest."
Another tight smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Thank you for your concern, Lieutenant."
"Captain, actually," Theo admitted. Even as the words left his lips, he wished he could call them back.
"Well, Captain, there's no need to trouble yourself. I have a letter of marque, signed by Lord Beckett himself.
"How -- " he asked, but James was already pushing past him. He could only follow in his former commanding officer's wake as the man strode down the hallway as if he were still in command. The two EITC Marines stepped forward to block his way -- but then stopped, open-mouthed.
"Commodore -- " one of them said.
Theo was about to order the men to stand down, but they stepped back of their own accord. James walked into the room. Once again, Theo followed -- he felt light and unreal, as if his mind were only loosely moored to his body. It felt like a dream, watching James and Lord Beckett negotiating for -- something -- the former had brought in a plain sack.
And then they were back outside the office, James with a piece of paper and Theo with an order to find him some clean clothes.
"I'm afraid your house was sold," he said. "I protested, but -- "
"I was a wanted fugitive."
Theo nodded. "You can come back to my rooms. I've got some clothes you could borrow, and a bath."
"We both know that's a bad idea," James said.
"Have you got anywhere else to go?"
"No." He fell into step beside Theo, and the two of them went back to the rooming house, ignoring many curious stares.
But the landlady intercepted them.
"Captain Groves." She looked awkwardly at him. "Your -- guest -- "
"You remember Commodore Norrington, of course," Theo said, and handed her a few coins. "Would you have someone draw him a bath?"
Her eyes widened, she looked down at the coins, then bobbed a curtsey. "Of course, Captain."
He led the way. Pushed the door open, led James through.
As soon as the door was closed, he turned to James. Raised a hand -- he realized he was shaking -- toward the other man's face.
"Don't touch me, Theo. I'm filthy."
"I don't care. James -- I thought you were dead."
"It might have been better for all concerned if you'd been correct." The air of confident command he'd shown to Beckett evaporated, and he sagged like an empty sail.
Theo was still searching for words when the quiet knock at the door interrupted, announcing the arrival of the bath. For the next few minutes there was the bustle of buckets and the slosh of water.
"I'll leave you alone, shall I?"
Theo pulled out a shirt and pair of breeches, and then walked out into the hall. But his mind was still in the room, imagining that familiar body stripped of the filthy rags that had once been a uniform, sliding into the warm bath ...
His own breeches were becoming uncomfortably tight.
He crossed his hands to conceal his embarrassing condition, and thought of Latin and mathematics until his mind was sufficiently distracted. When he'd mastered himself, he went downstairs just long enough to order a meal for the both of them, then returned to his post.
Finally, the door opened quietly. He turned to face James Norrington.
Bathed, shaved, his damp hair pulled back into a familiar queue, dressed in clean clothes -- he should have looked more like himself. But instead, it only emphasized the subtle differences -- the new lines around his eyes and mouth, how his cheekbones stood out.
"You must be hungry." How long has it been since you've eaten? "I've taken the liberty of ordering a meal. What the hell happened to you? "It should be ready before long." You should have come to me.
James nodded, and silence stretched once more. Theo imagined that this was how it would be -- they would be interrupted by dinner and then there would be the business of finding James somewhere to stay and clothes to wear --
Suddenly, he couldn't bear it. "Damn you, James! You disappeared for months and let us all think you were dead!"
"I should have been dead, Theo. A captain's supposed to go down with his ship." His voice shook. "You should have let me drown, Theo."
"How could I have done that? We promised to watch each others' backs."
"Promises," James said, "are meant to be broken."
"Like hell they are!"
James sagged against the wall, face creased as if in pain. "I promised to keep my men safe. To uphold the law. Tell me, what promise do I have left to keep?"
"What about the promises we made to each other?"
He shook his head slowly. "My word is worth less than the breath it takes to speak the words."
"I don't believe that, James. Your honor -- "
"Went down with the Dauntless, I'm afraid."
"Honor can't be lost that easily."
"Maybe not," James said. "Maybe I lost it somewhere else. Traded it for a bottle of rum on Tortuga -- or a letter of marque on Isla Cruces." He gave Theo a bitter smile. "Though I doubt I'll suffer from the lack, in Cutler Beckett's service."
Theo Groves wished he could argue that last point, but he knew that he'd already been sullied by that same service. He wished he could tell James to walk away while he could, but he knew it was already too late.
Besides, he was too selfish to let James go a second time. If he was going to the devil, he'd rather have company.