Charles never reveals the provenance of the compass, which is how Jack knows Eleanor fucking Guthrie gave it to him. It looks like a perfectly ordinary compass, if a bit weather-worn. Charles treats it like it’s gold—won’t let Jack so much as touch it. Scowls if Jack looks at it for too long.
They follow the needle that doesn’t point north to an island that cannot be found, to a great stone chest piled high with treasure they don’t need to kill anyone for, and for a while they’re all incredibly fucking happy about it. Jack kisses Charles on the cheek, and Charles shoves him into a cascade of gold. Anne gets properly drunk and fucks Jack silly in a little blue culvert of the treasure cave, and they’re all giddy with riches and the promise of ease.
It’s not until the next morning, when Jack wakes up with a sour head and a mouth full of wool, that he thinks to question their good fortune.
“What’s the catch?” Jack asks Charles privately, hesitating by the cave entrance as they watch the crew load their haul onto the ship.
“No catch,” Charles says, and scowls when Jack catches his arm and peers directly into his face, eyes narrowed. After a minute Charles admits: “She gets twenty percent.”
“As opposed to the usual ten,” Jack says, unnecessarily. “That’s not terrible. Why isn’t that terrible? It’s not like Eleanor Guthrie to ask for less than she can get, no matter how fond she is of your cock.”
Charles shrugs, his expression shuttered, the way it always goes when Jack brings up Miss Guthrie and his cock in vague conjunction with each other. Even when it’s his regrettable duty as quartermaster to address the advantages and disadvantages the vagaries of the captain’s prick might bring down upon the crew.
“There’s a catch,” Jack decides, frowning up at Charles, tightening his grip on Charles’s forearm without really thinking about it.
“Fuck you, Jack,” Charles says, and finally shakes him off.
They take the money back to Nassau, and discover the catch.
Jack spends the last coin of the Cortés haul on a bottle of Madeira meant for Boston and a week occupying the best bed in Noonan’s tavern with the love of his life. At the time he considers it money well spent. But the wine begins to lose its taste, until he and Anne agree they might as well be drinking water. The food the tavern sells below—though succulent and appetizing at first—turns to ash in their mouths. And as for the bed and the beloved—well. Jack finds himself frustratingly unable to bring either Anne or himself to a satisfying conclusion, despite his best efforts. Anne expresses a similar sentiment, declaring herself caught between desire and nausea. They drag themselves out of the tavern at the end of the week, hungry, thirsting, unsatisfied, feeling a general irritation with each other and with the world in general, and return themselves to the Ranger—to find the rest of the crew in a similar state. They sail into open water in a terrible mood, sniping at each other over every little thing, and then the first clear, cloudless night of the month descends over them, and all fucking hell breaks loose.
They ascertain the rules of the curse by trial and error, over the course of the following several hours: they’re flesh in the shadows, and bone in the moonlight. But they’re dead the whole time, and can’t, therefore, be killed again. Roderick, half-hysterical at the sight of his own ribcage, accuses Anne of witchcraft, and this the terrible punishment they’ve all faced for allowing a woman to sail with them under the black, and as Jack sputters with outrage, furiously reminding them all that Anne has sailed with the crew a full year, and the curse descended on them last week , Roderick shoots Anne point-blank in the chest. Jack’s heart stops, but Anne blinks for a second, shrugs, and puts her own bullet between Roderick’s eyes. There’s a bit of a murderous free-for-all, all of them discovering more or less at once that being hurt doesn’t hurt , that a pistol shot feels like a little push and nothing else, that they can spit the balls up even when not standing directly in moonlight. Eventually Charles bellows at them all about the stupidity of wasting good shot, and they have a proper council.
With much labor on Jack’s part, and some restrained violence on Charles’s, the crew agrees on several things:
- Anne is (probably) not to blame
- They are all massively fucked by powers well beyond their control, which means Anne is certainly not to blame
- The only course of action really available to them is to find a witch (and Anne is not a fucking witch) and get some professional advice on how to wriggle off the ugly ramrod of their fate and return to life as usual.
Easier said than goddamn done.
Manny swears he met a witch in Caracas, and Hamund swears Manny’s full of shit, and Gomez knew a right queer curandera in Havana, and Douglas insists their only course is to sail at once for the Côte d’Ivoire and consult the witch who lived in his village fifty miles deep in the interior.
It takes them six fucking weeks to finally diagnose the problem, and in the meanwhile they all more or less grow used to being dead. It’s awful, of course—they’re constantly starving to death and unable to eat, dying of thirst and unable to slake it, and in the moonlight they molder. On the positive side, they don’t need to resupply—ever. They don’t need to sleep. And they’re literally invulnerable in a fight, which means they have prospects of amassing more wealth than Blackbeard ever ferreted away on Okracoke. If they weren’t so fucking miserable, it would be marvelous.
They finally find a competent witch camped out over a Jamaican swamp, following a tip from, of all people, the Walrus quartermaster, who says she’s the woman who tattooed the eye on the back of his head, and goes suspiciously quiet when Jack asks what else she did for him.
They send a small party to petition the witch for help—just the captain, quartermaster, and Hamund, as a representative of the crew. (Anne wanted to come, but most of the men figured one guaranteed witch was enough, without adding a suspected witch to the mix.) Jack, for one, has no doubt that the witch is the genuine article, as she greets them both calmly by name as they pass her threshold, before either he or Charles says a single word. Her mouth is full of rotting teeth, but her smile unsettles something in Jack’s chest, and his shoulders go stiff and tense without his say-so, like she’s toying with some invisible but essential mooring between his ribs, and is thinking of slipping it loose. The strain doesn’t leave him until Charles bumps his shoulder with his own, at which point the witch turns her attention to Charles and he can breathe again.
He opens his mouth to explain their predicament, but she cuts him off. “The gold was cursed,” she says to Charles in a slow, stirring drawl, looking up at him through half-lidded eyes. Jack tilts slightly into Charles’s side. “You have suspected it already. Cortés was an evil man, and evil lingers in his treasure.”
“How do we break it,” Charles asks, his voice unaccountably harsh. The witch smiles, showing all her blackened teeth, and turns back to Jack.
“Give me your hand,” she tells him, proffering hers, and just as Jack reaches out reluctantly for it, Charles grabs his arm and stills it.
“For what purpose,” he asks, suspicious as always.
“An augury,” the witch replies, still holding out her hand. “It needs small bones.”
Jack blinks. “I—you need my hand ?” he clarifies, voice going a little high. “As in severed from my wrist?”
The witch shrugs. “It won’t hurt,” she says, and while Jack is confident that it won’t , that’s hardly the point.
“Will I get it back ?” Jack asks, since that’s the salient part.
The witch gives them another yellow smile. “Consider it my price,” she says delicately.
Jack is about to say no bloody thank you , his hand clenching into an involuntary fist, when Charles speaks over his outraged snort, giving Jack a sharp look. “Does it have to be his?” Charles asks.
The witch considers this. “It would be simplest, with him,” she allows. “But you could make the sacrifice, if your heart demanded so.”
“Why not Hamund?” Jack challenges, because the bastard looks altogether too satisfied. “I’ve never liked him.”
She snorts. “I can do many things with the bones of Charles Vane,” she says with a knowing air, as though it’s a matter of quality, as though Jack were trying to con first-rate prices for third-rate linen out of her, “or the hand of Calico Jack Rackham. That man,” she says, with a contemptuous jerk of her head at Hamund, “will do me no good.”
And maybe it’s the way she says his name— Calico Jack Rackham , like it’s a foregone conclusion, like she’s seen something of his future and found him already a story, a name carved so deep into the world that no one would ever forget him—or the queasy knowledge that sacrificing a hand to a witch to save the crew from a curse would be an excellent addition to that story. Possibly it’s just the utter ridiculousness of Charles gruffly saying “Mine, then.” Charles makes his goddamn living with his hands. He uses pistols and sabers and the strength of his body as a weapon, and he’ll need that weapon for as long as this hard life will allow him. Jack’s strength has always been his wits. What does it matter if he can’t fix a line or reload a pistol? So long as the witch doesn’t want his fucking tongue, he’ll be fine.
“Do it,” Jack says abruptly. The witch hasn’t even glanced at Charles despite the competing offer. He wrenches his hand away from Charles, flexes it briefly, giving his fingers a last rippling flourish.
“Jack,” Charles says quietly. He’s giving Jack a look that either means you don’t have to do this, or, less charitably, are you sure you can do this ?
“Charles,” Jack replies, with false bravado, and hopes that’s enough of an answer. It must be, because Charles slowly nods at him, a muscle twitching in his jaw. “Do it,” he repeats to the witch, and gives her his hand. She squeezes it lightly, and gives him a pleased look. He’s first-rate goods, apparently.
Charles is the one who does it, after all that, picking up the witch’s axe and striking a clean, firm blow through Jack’s hand just above the wrist. It doesn’t hurt, of course, but it’s still damned odd to be without it. Odder still, he doesn’t lose sensation in the severed limb. He tries flexing the hand, just to see, and it agreeably flexes on the table. He can’t quite repress a shudder.
They follow the witch out of her hut into the moonlight, where Cortés’s sins strip them all of humanity and the familiar pink hand with its bloody stump cradled in the witch’s palms turns into a skeletal arrangement of bone and withered flesh. The witch separates each digit into its component parts, plucking knuckles and smaller bones away until she’s transformed Jack’s hand into a little yellow pile of bones laid out on a scrap of leather. He tries to clench his hand into a fist, out of morbid curiosity, and the heap shivers.
“Stop that,” the witch says quellingly, and Jack lets it go. She gathers up the heap, cups them in both hands, and murmurs something Jack can’t quite make out, her head tilted up to the moon and her eyes closed, before suddenly releasing the bones into the dirt.
“ There ,” she says with satisfaction, and makes Charles light a second torch and bring it over. She points out particular vagaries of the mess she’s made of Jack’s hand—how this bone rests on that one, how this points to that, how these two fell together—until Charles gets impatient and asks her what it means .
“It means, child of Albinus,” the witch says, and whatever that means is enough to make Charles flinch hard , “that the curse will end when you gather up all that treasure which was never yours, every last piece bought by your people in blood and misery, and you restore it to that island, never again to be disturbed.”
“Is that all?” Jack asks, a little light-headed, thinking of the impossible task it’s going to be to track down hundreds of coins the crew spent two bloody months ago.
But the witch gravely shakes her head. “Then you must repay the blood,” she says, and for the first time looks as if she pities them.
“Whose blood?” Hamund demands, and Jack starts—he’d nearly forgotten he was there. “Our blood?”
“Your blood is a taint,” the witch says dismissively. “The sacrifice must be clean. And it must be a sacrifice.” She tosses one of Jack’s bones into the air, lightly, and catches it. She looks straight at him, her eyes enormous and serious and dark. “Everything has a cost. Remember to pay it.”
Charles is looking at the naked bone of Jack’s wrist, where his arm ends. His eyes are hard as flint, and that makes something ache behind Jack’s ribs for a second. “Won’t be a fucking problem,” Charles says.
It’s a strange loss. He doesn’t suffer from the usual horrors that the other amputees on the crew are all too eager to account for him—the sudden throbs of pain, the fevers, the persistent fear of finding rot in the wound. Nothing about the sudden absence of his left hand hurts , because he hasn’t lost it at all. He’s left it. He can still feel his missing hand, even as they sail leagues and leagues away from the witch’s island.
He’s absolutely certain, for example, that the witch gathered up the bones and sewed them back into something like their proper shape, because if he thinks about flexing his hand he can touch things. Once the witch puts a jar in his hand, and he spends a fortnight distracted by the phantom sensation of gripping smooth glass, even in his dreams. He makes a continual effort to drop the damned thing, but the witch always puts it back.
Anne takes it extremely hard, which she shows by going even quieter than usual, sniping at Charles, and giving Jack betrayed glares whenever he tries to fill the silence.
“Shouldn’ta done it,” she says with disgust, when he finally gets her to talk. “Not for him.”
“I didn’t do it for Charles,” Jack insists, a little angry with her in spite of himself. “I did it for you, damn it. I did it for us all.”
But Anne just shakes her head, mutinous. “He ain’t worth it,” she tells him, and gentles her words by running her hand very carefully down his arm, to the dressing at the stump. (The disgusting part of it all is that the wound won’t really heal, on account of Jack not really being alive. It stopped bleeding after the first day, but the end of his arm is still raw flesh and bone. It doesn’t hurt, but Jack keeps a calico kerchief wrapped around it for the sake of aesthetics.) She leaves two fingers pressed to the little divot on the underside of his wrist, like she’s trying to find his pulse. Of course there’s nothing under her fingers.
“He’d have done the same,” Jack tells her, and Anne gives him an ugly, frustrated look.
“He can’t have you,” she says, as though that makes any sense.
As the quartermaster, and the man possessed of the ship’s ledgers—their last boatswain had died just before Charles picked up the compass, and it’s not as though they can take anyone new on now —Jack is charged with interviewing every last man on the crew about where, for the love of Christ, they spent their coin, and duly writing down the names of every last tavern and whorehouse in the West Indies.
It’s a bitch and a half writing anything down in the first place, since the witch had taken his right hand and left him with the useless left. All his writing comes out childish and ghastly, and it puts a terrible strain on his fingers, unused to the work. He has to hunch over the paper, using his right forearm for leverage, scribbling awkwardly with his spine aching with the effort—and to add to it all, he keeps dropping the pen, his hand in the witch’s hut clenching uselessly at nothing. But it’s Jack or no one, since neither Anne nor Charles can write much more than their names, and he’s not about to trust the duty to anyone else on the crew. And then there’s the task itself, which is insufferable.
“This is a fucking nightmare,” he complains to Charles, waving his ever-more-hopeless list under his nose. “How the fuck are we meant to recover coin which these proprietors have, in all likelihood, already spent months ago? It could be anywhere .”
“ We’re a fucking nightmare,” Charles corrects him, snatching the paper out of his hand and blowing on the fresh ink. “This is our salvation, Jack. Who cares how long it takes? Not like we’re getting any older.”
That, Jack realizes dismally, is entirely true.
Their first stop is Nassau. The second Port Royal. The third Havana. In short order, they’re the unholy terror of the Spanish main.
Charles Vane and his ghostly ship, crewed by the damned.
“Apparently,” Jack says acerbically to Charles, returning from an unpleasant trip to a Port Royal tavern where he recovered three miserable pieces of cursed gold from the madam, with a lead on fifteen more at a plantation in Savannah, “you’re a man so evil that Hell itself spat you back out.”
Charles shrugs, looking impatient. Jack pours the gold into his hand, and Charles adds it to the pot. It’s just a plain wooden box, but it itches at the corner of Jack’s awareness, and it’s hard not to look directly at it. It’s not just Jack, either--they’re all drawn to the gold, like it’s calling to them. Like it wants to be found, to be spent , to put some other poor bastards in its thrall.
Of course the sense of it only crops up when they’re in the same room as one of the pieces of eight, so it’s extremely useless in the grand scheme of their quest. It’s just one more thing to remind Jack that he’s something other than a man, these days.
“They say anything about you?” Charles asks, his back turned.
“ No ,” Jack says, unable to hide his irritation. Gossip had Anne as a demon bitch from the ninth circle, sent to devour men’s souls, but not so much as a mention of red-handed Jack Rackham in the tale.
Charles grins. His back is still turned, but Jack can tell. “You’ll get there,” he says, in the kind of condescending tone that might make Jack fantasize about gutting him, if he didn’t know Charles wouldn’t feel a thing.
“Got you something,” Charles says, interrupting the dark trend of Jack’s thoughts, and tosses a little brown sack at him. Jack catches it, and finds a hook and cuff inside. The hook is made of practical iron—not the gold or silver Jack has quietly fantasized about purchasing the next time they stay in one place for long enough to commission a blacksmith—but it’s plenty sharp.
“Is this out of the common fund?” Jack asks, a little too flustered to say thank you. He fits the cuff on his arm—he’ll need Anne’s help to get properly fastened into it, but he thinks it’ll suit. “How much? I’ll deduct it tonight.”
Charles gives him an irritated blink, and leaves the cabin.
Later, holding the account book open with the one elbow and the sharp point of his hook, Jack discovers that Charles paid for it out of his own share.
“See?” Anne says when he tells her that night, jabbing an elbow into his ribs. “ He thinks he owes you something.”
“ Darling ,” Jack says in warning.
They all experiment with feeling, of course. You miss it, in a simple human way. The closest it’s possible to get to feeling something is strongly and bluntly activating an emotion. Jack never thought he’d find the brain a poor substitute for the body, but attempting to engage his own feelings violently enough to spark something like sensation is an exercise in exhaustion.
He and Anne haven’t so much as kissed in ages—it’s too depressing. Instead he’ll follow Anne to the quarterdeck and sit up with her in the moonlight and talk about being alive. He doesn’t say it, but he finds something odd and comforting about tangling his bones up with hers—like they’ve opened a door into the future and discovered what becomes of them, when they’ve shuffled off the mortal coil. He can certainly imagine worse fates than being buried with Anne Bonny.
“The first thing I’ll do,” Jack says, settling his arm over her shoulders, “after rushing out of that cave to the goddamn beach to feel the sand warm and golden under my feet, to feel the wind on my face and the spray on my skin—is drink a long draft of clean water, fresh from a spring. You remember how good it can be,” he says, and Anne nods, a short movement against his shoulder. She traces the edge of the hook with the tips of her fingers. “The cold rush of it down your throat, cooling the heat of your insides like you’re drinking down life itself.”
“And then,” Anne prompts him, a cloud rolling over the moon so she looks just like a human girl in his arms, instead of the nightmare they both are.
“And then ,” Jack says, and tells her about the wine they’ll drink, worth a king’s ransom, the chilled silver goblets in their hands, the silk bolts he’ll lie her down on, the rapturous warmth of her body, the wanton joy of kissing her. He goes on in this vein for a while, comfortably pornographic, Anne grunting in reply.
Every once in a while he’ll ask what it is she misses, and she’ll say something like “Chicken.” And he’ll crane his head and look at her, bare skull and rotting hair and wistful fucking eyes, and she’ll clarify “Hot off the bone,” and Jack’s chest will seize up with sheer feeling .
Jack purchases great vats of dye the next time they put in at Tortuga— they might not need to resupply, but the ship always has need of tending—and sets the crew to work dyeing the sails.
“What’s the point of this,” Charles asks, frowning at the inky carnage Jack’s made of the beach.
“We’re a living legend,” Jack explains. “We may as well look the part.” He’s prepared with other arguments—yes, it will lose them the advantage of surprise, but they no longer need the advantage of surprise, they no longer need anything but the gold and the blood to be repaid. If they’re going to live inside a fucking ghost story, he wants the stories to get it right .
But Charles doesn’t argue. Just claps a hand on Jack’s shoulder and squeezes briefly, before heading back up the beach.
He gets used to the hook. Anne gets used to the empty space at the end of his right arm.
Charles’s shoulders still go stiff as a board when Jack taps his arm lightly with the point of his hook. He snaps the compass closed, having been carefully perusing it despite Roderick already having their heading.
“We heading back to the Isla de Muerta?” Jack asks, nodding at the little black box in Charles’s hands.
“No,” Charles says.
“‘It leads to an island that cannot be found, except by those who already know where it is,” Jack says, quoting Charles himself, at the beginning of this dark road. “It doesn’t point north. Does it lead anywhere else?”
“It doesn’t point north,” Charles agrees, and won’t say anything else about it.
He dreams of the witch every now and again. On occasion she sings, although never in a language he understands. Once she opens her mouth and spits out a crab, and the crab scuttles onto Jack’s thigh, looks up at him with beady dark eyes, and tells him in a slurring port-town accent that he is a piss-poor excuse for a Captain Jack anything, and wouldn’t merit so much as a paragraph in Rogers’ book, let alone death at Barnet’s hands, or his own quay in the Bahamas.
“Tell me,” Jack orders the crab, hungry for his own story.
“If you’d fought like a man,” the crab tells him with obvious relish, “you needn’t be hanged like a dog.” The voice this time is unmistakably Anne’s, and Jack flinches away from it.
The witch laughs at him, and then splits the crab open as if it were already cooked. She offers him the first taste of the meat, and Jack pushes her away, repulsed.
They don’t win every fight, obviously. They can’t risk the ship, because none of them particularly wants to contemplate drifting like so much flotsam over the Caribbean and praying to be washed up onto some godforsaken beach—not to mention the fact that if they lose so much as one recovered coin over the side, they lose all hope of ever breaking the curse.
Charles still takes it badly, when the Walrus steals a prize out from under them and skates neatly away into the wind. “I’m gonna kill that man,” he says grimly, watching Flint sail away with their money.
“I don’t doubt it,” Jack agrees, resting his elbows on the rail. “You’re a supernatural fiend with a black-hearted crew that can’t die. His sole advantage is Hal Gates.”
Charles grunts. Flint is a better tactician, and they both know it.
“At the very least we’ll outlive him,” Jack says optimistically.
Part of the problem is that Flint doesn’t believe in the curse. Neither do Hornigold or Richard Guthrie, as far as Jack knows.
That’s the bizarre part of it all—no one ever believes they’re cursed in daylight, when they’re careening the Ranger or buying up ink at the market. Nor even by candlelight, when they’re bartering with the trade bosses and staring sullenly at the girls they can’t have leading other men up the brothel stairs.
No, people only ever believe in the curse in moonlight. And most decide, when a cloud drifts over the moon, that they’re the worse for drink, rather than take the Ranger crew at their word.
The legend, Jack is well fucking aware, works best when they’re out to sea, and men gather around their ales and tell stories about how a man from the Ranger crew ought to have died in a bar fight only he didn’t even bleed, how a man from the Ranger crew paid a whore to fuck another man in front of him and didn’t even bring himself off, just stared longingly at them, how no one’s seen a man from the Ranger crew eat in two years.
“If you had to choose between killing Flint and being remembered forever, which one would you pick?” Jack asks, not really thinking about it.
Charles raises his eyebrows.
“Just an idle question,” Jack says.
“Flint,” Charles says, sounding unimpressed.
“So it really wouldn’t bother you?” Jack asks, honestly curious this time. “Being forgotten so completely no one remembers your name?”
“What would I care?” Charles asks, squinting at him. “I’d be dead.”
“You don’t want to--make a mark on the world?” Jack suggests. “Carve something into history to let them know that Charles Vane lived, and breathed, and fought like hell?”
“I’d settle for living and breathing again,” Charles says with grim humor.
Jack can’t argue with that.
When they’re down to five coins, he and Anne have something of a heart-to-heart. They’re sitting up together in the moonlight again, looking up at the starry sky and inky sea, alone on the quarterdeck. Jack remembers there’s a tear in his shirt he needs to mend, as soon as he can grab a needle and thread from his locker, and strips it off, so he won’t forget it when he returns to his hammock.
Anne’s attention snags strangely on his ribs. “What,” he says, and when she hesitates, he says it again, louder: “ What .”
“I can see your heart,” she says, tapping on his lowest rib with a dry click of bone on bone.
Jack blinks, stares down at himself. When this all started, his chest was mostly covered with dessicated flesh. Now, sure enough, he can see a dry, shriveled thing behind his ribs. “Jesus,” he says. “We’re still decomposing.” Far, far more slowly than they ought to, of course, but still…how vile.
Anne is smiling, inexplicably, her hand still spread out on his ribcage. “Surprised to find proof I have one?” he asks.
She rolls her eyes. “Want to touch it,” she says after a second, matter of fact.
Jack’s breath catches a little. “You can,” he says, and Anne smiles again, reaches gently up through his ribs, and touches her fingers lightly to his heart. He doesn’t feel a thing.
“You can touch mine too, if you want,” Anne says off-handedly, and in short order she’s torn off her shirt and Jack’s reaching into the hollow in her chest, touching the blackened core of her. They smile stupidly at each other, hands buried deep in each other’s bodies, the way they had when they were kids and just discovering how much better sex could be with someone you loved. It feels savagely satisfying, in some unspeakable, bone-deep way, to be as deep in Anne as she is in him.
“You ever think,” Anne whispers, closer than anyone has ever been, “it’s better this way?”
Jack bites back his first response, because it is awful, but he’s also elated by it, knowing her and being known by her like no one human should ever be known. “I’m always glad,” he says, hushed as she is, “to be with you.”
She traces a mindless pattern on his heart with her fingertips. “Can’t we just,” she says, biting her lip. “Be like this? Not go back to like we were.”
“What do you mean,” he says.
“I mean,” Anne says softly. “When it’s over. I think—I don’t want to be your wife.”
Jack blinks at her, unable to speak. She’s the love of his life. He knows she loves him back, because he can feel the sharp bone of her fucking thumb swiping at his heart. She’s in him; he’s in her.
“Do you mean,” he starts, voice shaking a little in spite of himself, “you don’t want to fuck anymore, or you want to—“ he can’t quite say leave , but she understands him anyway.
“Means we can do whatever we want,” Anne says fiercely, “with whoever we want, Jack. And we’ll still be us. Partners.”
It shouldn’t make any sense at all, but it does. It absolutely does. He blinks hard, pretending there aren’t tears in his eyes, and starts to pull his hand out of Anne’s chest. “Come on,” he says, swallowing hard and nudging her arm with his hook so she’ll do the same. “Before those clouds roll in and we have to hack ourselves loose.”
They work themselves free, and he slings his arm over her shoulders, still feeling raw. She rests her head on his shoulder, which helps.
“What’s the first thing you’ll do,” she says after a while, “when we break the curse.”
Jack considers. “Fuck myself on a wooden cock, I suppose,” he says, voice far hoarser than he’d like.
Eleanor Guthrie believes in the curse, although of course that’s hardly fair to say, since she doesn’t need to take it on faith. Practically the first thing Charles did after discovering the nature of their ailment was run back to her tiny bosom, although the whole crew is aware that he can’t be doing anything interesting in the proximity of said bosom.
She takes the addition of a supernatural crew to her father’s empire with a degree of equanimity that makes Anne’s eyes go black and suspicious and Charles’s mouth go hard and flat and leaves Jack with very little doubt in his mind that she knew, somehow, exactly what would happen. Charles won’t speak on it, but when the Ranger doesn’t seek its missing treasure, it goes where Eleanor Guthrie says it should go.
“Is she pulling your lead strings,” Jack asks him flat out once, alone in the captain’s cabin going over the ledger again and again. “Because she’s the only one benefitting from this, as far as I can see.”
“Think of it as an investment in the future,” Charles says, but those aren’t his words. He gives Jack a dark look. “And suggest someone’s pulling my lead strings again, and I’ll cut off your other hand.”
Jack lets it go for the moment, fully intending to raise the subject again when Charles has cooled off.
But when he goes to find Charles a few hours later, in the early evening when there are fewer people on deck than usual, he finds him looking out at the horizon, the broken compass in his hands.
“Why do you keep that, anyway?” he asks, coming to sit next to Charles. “We know the Isla de Muerta’s heading.”
Charles grunts, and clicks the compass open—not holding it out, but not trying to hide it either. Jack scoots closer and braces himself on Charles’s shoulder so he can lean close and look at it without the counterbalance of his right hand. The needle is spinning, a restless blurring circle.
Jack takes a steadying breath. “Okay,” he says, determined to stay calm. “What does that mean?”
“Doesn’t point towards the island,” Charles says. He closes his eyes for a second, and when he opens them, the needle steadies, lands on a fixed point, somewhere to the south. Towards Nassau.
“At the moment, apparently not,” Jack says, and rubs his hand over his face. “It is magic, though, isn’t it?”
Charles huffs out a harsh laugh. “It’s magic, all right.”
“So what does it do,” Jack asks, with what he personally feels is admirable patience.
Charles tilts his head, looking at Jack directly for the first time. Jack is still leaning on his shoulder.
“You try it,” Charles says unexpectedly, snapping the compass closed.
Jack blinks at him. “What?”
“Take it,” Charles says, and shoves it into Jack’s hand, shoving Jack away from him at the same moment.
Jack’s back hits the bulwark, the compass automatically cradled to his chest.
Charles looms over him, his mouth curling with something not quite like disgust. “Open it.”
Jack cracks the compass open. It jerks wildly for a few seconds--not spinning, like it did for Charles, but like it can’t decide between two points. Charles exhales hard through his nose, a little pulse of impatience, and the needle settles. West.
“Well, that’s thoroughly useless,” Jack says, swinging the compass through the air to test it. The needle points unerringly towards the sunset. “Are you going to tell me what’s west of here? Another island? Another curse?”
Charles peers down at the little black box in Jack’s hand. Charles doesn’t have any letters, although of course he can read a compass. The sun is setting behind his shoulders, the pink sky and the orange light highlighting the planes of his face.
Abruptly Charles gets up, and comes around to Jack’s other shoulder, as if the vantage point will make it read differently--and then, to Jack’s shock, it does.
“It moved!” he says, shaking it a little. The needle is spun a full ninety degrees, to the south. “What does that mean?”
Charles’s face is smooth as a stone, but his neck is suspiciously red. “Nothing,” he says, but he says it almost kindly. “It’s useless.” Jack squints at him, unsure what to do with this odd, soft Charles. While he’s debating, Charles plucks the compass out of his hand and walks away.
“You’re not going to explain?” Jack calls after him, outraged.
Charles doesn’t bother answering him.
They lose a mast and three men in a sudden tempest, and Charles orders them to stop at the nearest spit of land, ostensibly to repair the mast, in actuality to give them a chance to process the bleak horror of what it must be like for the missing men, perfectly aware and awake and alone in the open sea.
They build a fire, which ordinarily would be a waste of wood, given that they’re incapable of taking comfort from the heat, but the ritual of it is comforting in and of itself. The crew sits around the bonfire and pours drink that tastes of nothing down their empty gullets, and stares into the flames, each touching a private hand to whatever tattered relationship they have with the Almighty, since there but for the grace of God go they.
“They might wash up in a familiar port,” Jack says--to Anne, but really to all of them. “They might be picked up by a friendly ship, and find their way back to us in a few months.”
They might also be eaten by sharks, as Jack heard Freddy speculating earlier. They’re undying, not supernaturally strong. If they lost a fight with something hungry in the depths, they’d end up in god knew how many disparate pieces, waiting in the belly of a fucking fish for Jack to stop failing them all and end the fucking curse, so they could at least die and be done with it.
He balls his missing hand into a fist, and hears something like the witch’s laughter on the wind. He shudders.
Some of them game after a while--the last real vice left to them--and Anne curls up in the sand by herself, and snaps at him when he tries to talk to her.
He sees Charles slip off into the trees. And Jack isn’t better than the men; he’s scared and unhappy and he wants what all them want and can’t have: to fuck, to fight, to drink himself blind until he forgets his own horror.
Charles doesn’t seem surprised to find Jack at his shoulder. Just keeps walking, answering Jack’s questions with hums and grunts until the treeline breaks and they find themselves in a beautiful little grotto--a trickle of waterfall and a freshwater pool, perfectly reflecting the stars up above. There’s no moon, so they don’t even spoil it with their ugliness. A few confused fireflies blink in the dark around them.
“Jesus, Chaz,” Jack says, and Charles matter of factly strips off his boots, then the rest of his clothes, leaving them there in a heap.
Jack understands the impulse. The water won’t feel like anything, but beauty still moves them, operating in its strange internal way--and the scene is absolutely fucking beautiful. He forgets to move for a long minute, watching Charles slip into the water, washed silver with starlight, like something out of a fairytale, until Charles submerges himself in the water, and Jack can breathe again, like the ending of a spell.
The water breaks open, and Charles’s wet face appears, unimpressed. “You coming or not?” he asks, and Jack remembers himself, fumbling at his clothes until he’s naked and almost human. He joins Charles in the water.
It doesn’t feel like anything, but the stars and the trees and the fireflies are unchanged, as is the musical splashing of the waterfall behind them. He drifts on his back for a while, aware of Charles doing the same. The scene is peaceful enough that he almost forgets about poor lost Blake and Tommy and Hamund, who he would have cheerfully shot to death any day he could have gotten away with it. But none of them deserved this.
“You know this place,” Jack says after a while.
Charles hums. “Came here with Teach,” he says. He rarely talks about Teach, for all that everyone knows the story: the captain he betrayed for Eleanor Guthrie’s good favor. A half-smile appears on his face. “He brought one of his wives along. Fucked her under the waterfall.”
Jack twists to look at the waterfall, and the scooped out hollow behind it. It would be a tight squeeze for two adults. “Looks uncomfortable,” he decides.
“It was,” Charles says, and Jack has to replay the sentence in his mind again before he snorts.
“You fucked Blackbeard’s wife?”
“More than one of Blackbeard’s wives,” Charles says comfortably.
“He didn’t kill you for it?”
A small splashing sound, Charles idly kicking the water. “He liked me,” Charles says.
“He must have fucking loved you,” Jack says, marveling. There’s an awkward pause, as Jack reflects that Charles wasn’t nearly so loyal, when choosing between Teach and a woman. He clears his throat. “Which wife did you fuck in this particular grotto?”
“Lizzy,” Charles says after a moment.
“Was she worth it?”
They don’t do this--didn’t do this even when they actually fucked people. Jack hadn’t been interested in anyone but Anne for years, and Charles was too busy getting into scrapes to bother discussing them.
But they’re both tired, and Jack heavily suspects even Charles must be a little afraid, because Charles answers with more adjectives than he usually strings together without an immediate reason. “She was nineteen. Red hair down to her waist. Blushed pink to the waist, too.”
“How old were you?”
A smile in the dark. “Nineteen.”
Jack’s mouth goes dry. He can imagine Charles at nineteen perfectly--too perfectly. He turns to look at the waterfall, and imagines Charles in a younger body, still powerful but soft in places, where time and torment have since scarred him, crowding an anonymous girl with pink limbs and red hair into the wet rock.
“I like red hair,” Jack says, inane. When Anne’s hair is wet, it drips down her skin like blood.
“I know you do,” Charles says, rough and knowing. He swims closer. The implication is unmistakable.
It’s not like Jack hasn’t considered it. Plenty of men on the crew were fucking each other, before the curse came down upon them. Plenty more talk each other into a sweet frustration without promise of relief, now that imagination is all they have left. And Charles is--Captain Charles Vane, the man Jack has wanted to be since before he ever met Charles, the exact hard and beautiful and ruthless bastard he’d dreamed of becoming since he first learned how weak he was when the world felt like hurting him. Jack would have bent over for Charles Vane years ago, if it weren’t for--Anne, and Charles’s obvious preference for women, and Jack’s pride. And today was fucking awful, and neither of them can fight or drink or fuck themselves blind the way they want to.
Jack has been approached by not a few of the men since the curse made it clear none of them would get any use out of another living body, on the power of his quick wit and his tendency towards evocative description. He has no illusions that his appearance kindles anything particularly inspirational in anyone’s lustful imagination. He’s always said no, not having descended low enough to peddle smut to his own crew. But Charles has never asked before. He swallows, and then swallows again.
“I suppose you’ll come back here when the curse is broken,” he says, although that would be stupid and pointless. He’s automatically retreating as Charles gets closer. “You’ll bring your own woman. Fuck her in the pool, instead of on the rocks. That’s better, I’ve found. When things are--smooth, and wet.”
As pornography goes, Jack’s heard better. But Charles doesn’t seem to mind. Jack finds himself crowded against the bank, the rush of the little waterfall close by, so that when Charles rasps “Slippery,” he has to do so directly into Jack’s ear to be heard.
“Well,” Jack says, observing distantly the wet curve of Charles’s neck, the strong line of his shoulders, his heavy-lidded eyes focused on Jack and no one else. Want lances resentfully through him. “I suppose you’ll have to get a tight hold on her. Put your hands on her waist--I bet you could span her waist with your hands. Dig your thumbs into her ribs and, you know, hang on.”
Charles doesn’t reply, but he stays close. If Jack could feel anything at all, he might feel the cool of the water lapping at his chest, or the warmth of Charles’s breath on his neck.
“You’ll be ready for her, obviously. It wouldn’t take much effort at all to pry her legs open with your knee, lift her up and have your wicked way with her.”
Charles shakes his head, and if they were alive, Jack would have felt Charles’s hair drift against his arm, cool in the hot night. “She’ll want it,” Charles says, quietly sure.
“Yeah,” Jack agrees helplessly, an almost-real ache settling into his chest. “God, she’ll be desperate for you. She’ll wrap her legs around your thigh and rock herself against you until she falls all to pieces.”
Charles exhales sharply, which does nothing at all for the goddamn ache. Abruptly Jack finds the exercise unbearable, and what’s more, distasteful.
“Then you’ll have her,” he says quickly, looking away, “And you’ll have her again as many times as you like, and she’ll cry out your name until she startles the sleeping birds out of their trees. Etcetera.” He hoists himself up onto the bank behind him--an awkward thing to do with one hand, involving a great deal of splashing and flailing limbs--and leaves Charles standing alone in the starlit pool, individual beads of water gleaming on his naked chest. His expression in shadow.
“Goodnight, Charles,” Jack says, fumbling with his clothes--he decides to carry his shirt and trousers back to the beach, rather than struggle into them now. Besides, he can’t do up the ties without Anne’s help. If Charles says anything in reply, Jack doesn’t hear it.
The night he turns Charles away, he dreams that the witch is rowing him in a dark little boat on a sea so thick with mist he can barely see ten feet of ocean on either side. He has both his hands again, but in his right hand he is holding aloft a heavy yellow lantern. Try as he might, he cannot lower his arm.
“What vexes a man?” the witch asks him, as though they are continuing a conversation.
“A woman,” he says shortly. He knows her tricks by now.
She gives him a yellow grin. “Not the sea?”
“I myself am vexed by a witch,” Jack tells her. “Where are we?”
“We come for the governor’s wife,” the witch says, serious again, and before Jack can ask what she means, a grey, nearly insubstantial figure claws her way up over the side, nearly overturning the boat. She resolves into an empty-eyed woman, wet as a rag and dead as Jack, if the bullet hole in her forehead is any sign. “She is lost in time,” the witch says, tenderly, “and she will not submit until the end, but she will be mine.”
The witch gathers the woman up into her lap as if she were a child, petting her sodden hair, apparently pleased with herself. The woman looks at Jack, hollow as anything, and says bitterly “All that is left of us are the monsters in stories they tell their children.” She does not open her mouth to say it.
“He doesn’t care,” the witch says to the dead woman. “He wants to be in every story.” She smiles slyly, looking sideways at Jack. “No matter what cost.”
Jack wakes up with Anne at his side, shuddering a little. He can’t help but look lingeringly at the blackest shadows in his cabin, despite the irrefutable fact that the only monsters in the room are Anne and himself. It takes him a long while to drift back into sleep.
When they reach the last of their leads, they’re still one coin short.
“That means it’s in Nassau,” Jack says flatly. Back in the early days, one of the men had lost three coins in a game down at Noonan’s tavern, and by the time they’d circled back to find him, the man was dead. They’d recovered fifteen more coins in the possession of the man who killed him, and they’d uneasily assumed the missing coins were part of their company. At the time, it had seemed to add up.
But numbers don’t lie, and they are one coin short.
Charles punches a bulwark, hard enough that it should have broken his hand. Anne goes grim and silent. Jack keeps going over and over the ledgers—but there’s nothing. He hasn’t the faintest idea where the last piece ended up, but he’s certain it was lost on Nassau. They’re anchored in their own familiar bay, and it’s hard to stifle the urge to toss the whole beach, tent by tent.
“We haven’t exactly made our search a fucking secret,” Jack says grimly. “That means whoever has it doesn’t want us to fucking find it.” They didn’t always threaten the men they robbed--they were filthy rich now. Often it was easier to offer a man three or four times the cost of a coin.
“Go over the account again,” Charles says harshly, chest visibly heaving.
“There’s nothing here, Chaz,” Jack tells him, for the twentieth time. “I’ve looked, and I’ve looked, and there’s nothing.”
“Look harder,” Charles bites out. “Interview the goddamn men again.”
“I’ve interviewed them a thousand times,” Jack says, and Charles shoves him against the bulwark in one smoothly violent step. Jack flails a little in his grip, and shoots a quelling look at Anne, who has gone for her pistol.
“He’s not lying,” Anne says furiously, and Charles loosens his white-knuckled grip on Jack’s throat for long enough to cast a disdainful glance at her pistol. Anne cocks it, a snarl twisting her mouth. Charles might not be able to feel pain, but Anne’s clever enough to get around the problem. He and Anne have discussed the possibility of blowing an undead man’s arm off and dropping the offending limb over the side tied to a cannonball more than once. Almost as effective a mutilation as sacrificing oneself to a witch.
Jack makes a calming gesture with both hands, which means that he winds up patting Charles gently on the chest and bumping his hook against Charles’s shoulder in the same movement. “We’ll find it,” he rasps. “Whoever’s hiding it from us, we’ll find them.” It doesn’t hurt, but he still can’t get in much air. Not that it matters, except to his dulcet tones. “It just might— take longer than we hoped.” Charles stares at him for a long moment, and his breath is rattling oddly in his throat. His eyes are pink. Jack remembers suddenly that Charles was once a slave, and that he has never feared anything more than the loss of his freedom, so hard-gained. This unending future trapped in their bones--at someone else’s mercy, for all they don’t know who it is--it must terrify Charles, even more than it terrifies Jack. “We’ll cut ourselves loose, Chaz,” Jack says senselessly. “I swear it.” The stupid broken compass is swinging from Charles’s neck, and Jack’s thumb brushes the corner of the box.
Abruptly Charles lets him go, although he doesn’t step away. He fumbles the compass open. Jack sees the needle pointing steadily north, as if it were perfectly ordinary. But the only thing directly north of them is Nassau, exactly as Jack said. Charles squeezes his eyes tightly shut, opens them to glare unexpectedly at Jack, and then stalks away.
“Well,” Jack says to Anne, rubbing his throat more out of habit than anything else. “That went well.”
“Fuck you, Jack,” Anne says, and walks away herself.
It is a longstanding rule of Jack’s to maintain a weather eye on the state of Charles’s heart and Charles’s cock at all times, to ascertain whether the ship is steering itself towards Nassau or Okracoke. It’s practically been part of his duties as quartermaster.
But Charles is close-lipped about most things, and there are certain subjects he simply doesn’t speak about, even to Jack. If he is terrified, Jack probably wouldn’t know.
As it turns out, Charles is the one who solves their problems, barely two hours later. It’s a very roundabout solution, and the sort that breeds six other problems, naturally, but that’s Charles’s way. Lacking the ability to get drunk, and the vitality to either suffer in a fight or lose himself in a woman’s body, Charles storms up to Noonan’s brothel, undoubtedly hoping to lose himself in an argument with Eleanor Guthrie.
Jack follows him, hoping to stop Charles from rendering their future on the island pointless even if they can find the damn coin. Anne follows Jack, although he isn’t at all sure what she’s hoping for.
They’re only ten minutes or so behind Charles, but by the time he passes through the brothel doors, their captain is nowhere to be found. Anne sinks into a chair near the stairs, and pulls out a knife.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asks her irritably, scanning the floor in vain for Charles.
Anne plucks an apple off a table, flicking a penny into its place. She starts skinning it, giving Jack a flat, mulish look. Waste of a decent apple.
He throws up his hands, leaves her to it. He trusts her to guard his back, however she chooses to go about it. He catches one of Noonan’s girls on the stairs, gives her his best smile and a coin, and asks her where he might find Captain Vane.
“In there,” the girl says, her voice rich and Creole and full of disdain. She jerks her head at a door.
Jack gives her an insincere smile, asks how much for the room alongside. She overcharges him, but it’s not as if he cares. He follows her into the room, interrupts her bored speech about saving the pleasures of her cunt for a wealthy patron, but hand and mouth very much still on the menu, and waves her quiet. He presses his ear to the wall.
“Wish I could trust you,” Charles is saying on the other side of the wall, muffled.
He can hear Miss Guthrie replying, but it’s too faint to make out.
The whore sighs from where she’s sitting on the bed. “Is this all you intend to do?” she asks.
“Pretty much,” Jack tells her.
“Two more cautorillos and I’ll show you a carved-out knot in the grain,” she offers. Jack cranes his neck around to look at her. She is beautiful, if you like that sort of thing. Jack personally prefers them bony and angry, but he can admit that the beads woven into her rippling black hair and the chain of her necklace descending into an abundance of décolletage paints an extremely agreeable picture. She’s smirking, faintly.
“That’s highway robbery,” Jack says, in defense of the principle of the thing.
“Pleasure doing business,” she says, and holds out her hand.
Jack drops the coins into her palm, and she rises from the bed, pulls aside a truly terrible painting of some tits and fruit on the wall to reveal a little carved-out knot. Jack presses up close to it, the whore staying close beside him, likely hoping to overhear a useful piece of information herself. He’s just in time to witness Charles grabbing Eleanor Guthrie by the neck and dragging her into a kiss. Jack’s stomach lurches unpleasantly.
An instant later Guthrie shoves him away. “I told you not to do that,” she hisses, and scrubs at her mouth. “You taste like fucking death.”
“You deserve it,” Charles says roughly. “You did this to me.”
“I have told you a hundred times,” Guthrie says with frustration, “I didn’t know the curse was real. How could I have known? How could anyone ?”
“But it’s worked out for you, hasn’t it, Eleanor,” Charles says, a snarl twitching at the corner of his mouth. “We’re your best hunters. You’ve grown very fucking rich at our expense.”
Jack feels his heart racing a little, although it’s only what he’s been telling Charles for years. He feels unaccountably fevered, urgent.
“What do you want me to say,” Guthrie snaps, and turns away from Charles, pacing towards the window. “ Don’t accompany the Walrus to the Urca de Lima, because it won’t secure the future of this place--your future, too, once you break the curse? If you want someone to spare your feelings, go downstairs and hire a girl.”
“Tell me I’m wrong,” Charles says, looking at her the way other men might look at a loaded pistol. His breathing has gone choked and wrong again, and Jack feels a sympathetic pang.“Tell me you’d rather have a living partner than a chained monster.”
“I don’t have your goddamn coin, Charles,” she grinds out. “You want me to prove it? Shall I empty my pockets, or would you like me to just strip down?”
“I want you to swear I’m not your fucking bargaining chip,” Charles says roughly. “I’m not stupid. I know you’re caught between England and Spain, or you will be in very short order.”
Guthrie wrenches off her jacket.
“That’s enough,” the whore whispers, and Jack’s attention snaps back to her, his heart still pounding like a drum. She looks serious, and he realizes with an unpleasant start that she hasn’t just been trying to eavesdrop, she’s been watching through a second knot, higher up on the wall than his.
Jack shakes his head scornfully, and turns back to the wall. Guthrie is shaking out the contents of her purse. Charles is red and stiff-jawed.
“When will you accept that I’m doing what’s best for us?” she demands, ripping the necklace from her throat, then tearing the pins from her hair.
“That’s enough ,” the whore repeats, in a more severe whisper.
“It’s not enough,” Charles says harshly, but he’s still speaking to Guthrie. He grabs her arm, stopping her from taking off her shirt. “It’s not enough, Eleanor.”
“Let go of me,” she says, and tries to shake him loose, but she can’t quite manage it.
“We can feel it,” Charles says, and in a perfect echo of Charles’s words, suddenly Jack can feel it. He realizes with a shock that he’s been feeling it, all the while he’s been in this room. “The gold calls to us. It wants to be found.”
Jack turns his head slowly away from the knot, and the whore is standing directly in front of him, her chest level with his eyes. A simple brass chain descends into her stays.
He reaches out and touches it, and there’s a familiar singing down the chain, and she flinches backwards. That’s enough.
“CHAZ,” Jack shouts at the top of his lungs, and lunges for the whore’s neck.
She defends herself with a scream and a candlestick, but by the time he’s chased her onto the open balcony, Charles and Guthrie have burst out of the adjoining room, and they can both see the missing piece of gold, gently swinging from the whore’s neck. She shoves it back into her stays immediately, but it’s too late.
“Charles,” Guthrie says sharply, grabbing his arm, but it’s too late for that, too. Charles casts her one betrayed look, his face as raw as Jack has ever seen it, and then elbows her into the wall.
Jack guts the first of Guthrie’s men who comes after him, and Anne comes up from the floor, rapier drawn and a savage expression on her face.
“Don’t you fucking do this,” Guthrie shouts, battering at Charles’s back with her fists as he efficiently knocks the candlestick out of the whore’s hand and goes for her throat. The whore fights him, biting his hand and making a general hellion of herself. “I can ruin you, Charles--I can blow the Ranger out of the water, I’ll tie you to a cannon and let you rot five fathoms deep, I’ll--”
Charles swings the whore over his shoulder, and Anne kicks Eleanor Guthrie to the ground.
They have to fight their way out, of course--Guthrie’s man Scott at the head--but none of the bullets that come their way have any effect.
They gather the rest of the crew on the way, pursued by all of the Guthrie empire’s influence--so a fucking mob, more or less. He can see Flint’s crew, Hornigold’s men, and countless others from the street--none of them noticing, somehow, that their blows are landing but none of the Ranger men are dying.
That is until the clouds drift away from the moon, and the shouts behind them turn to cries of horror. This will make a good ghost story, Jack thinks in a daze, yanking Hal Gates’s saber out of his gut and hurling it back at him. Gates falls back, white and shaken, and Flint himself stops in his tracks, staring at Jack the way anyone stares at a monster. See them forget red-handed Jack Rackham after this.
They make it to the rowboats, only a few very blind or stupid men following after them.
The whore on Charles’s shoulder screams, and jumps overboard as soon as Charles dumps her in the boat. Anne hauls her out, and throws her back in the boat as they shove off. Charles looks grimly pleased, an expression Jack is irritated he has learned to recognize on the rotten ruin of his face in the moonlight, and the girl shivers in the corner of the rowboat, looking utterly terrified.
They get back to the ship, and ready to make way--they’re damn lucky the wind is with them. He doesn’t put it past Eleanor Guthrie to make good on her threats and blast them with Hornigold’s cannon.
Jack looks at the girl, and wishes intensely that he’d managed to rip the coin off her neck.
“What are you going to do with me,” she asks in a shaking voice, catching him staring at her. She’s a pitiful sight, in her stays and drawers, feet and shoulders bare. She’s plastered herself to the rail, lone living woman surrounded by the coarse laughter of Charles Vane’s demon crew as they hoist the fucking sails under the moonlight.
Kill her, probably. They have no other use for her, and Charles wasn’t inclined to charity even when he was alive.
But the girl’s question has caught the crew’s attention, the gold still singing to them, and they circle her hungrily. He catches Anne looking pointedly away, her jaw tightening.
“Show them,” Charles says from the rail of the main deck, and Jack walks up to the girl and lifts the necklace out of her corset, showing the familiar golden grin to the crew. They cheer, as well they might.
Jack can feel the girl shivering. She squares her jaw, and doesn’t look at him. Instead, she stares directly up at Charles, just as a cloud rolls over the moon. The girl flinches back from them again, a pack of wolves suddenly dressed in sheep’s clothing. The light reveals the bitter twist of Charles’s mouth, and Jack realizes with a sinking feeling that this is personal for him.
“ Max ,” Charles announces, making everything come clear, “Is Eleanor Guthrie’s whore. Kept for her private use.” Unspoken is the accusation only a few of them--Jack, Anne, possibly also Max--can hear: Eleanor Guthrie loves this girl.
Unexpectedly, the girl speaks up. “And Max,” she says, loud and firm, “has conditions.”
“Not in a position to argue, are you,” Roderick says contemptuously, from a loose circle of crew gathering around the two of them.
In one swift movement, Max rips the necklace off her throat, lunges past Jack, and holds it over the rail, coin dangling precariously on its fine string. Every last one of them stills. “Am I not,” she says, looking defiantly at Charles, whose face darkens.
Jack steps forward, hastily—Charles is terrible at acting in his own best interests. “Of course you are, Miss—Max, is it?” he says, and her lip curls a little in disgust. “What is it you want, exactly? I’m the quartermaster,” he adds, when she hesitates.
“None of these men touch me,” Max spits, and Anne makes a soft sound that Jack wishes he hadn’t heard.
“Done,” he says, as if it’s something worth bargaining over. “Anything else?”
“You leave this place, and never come back,” she says, and there’s a laughing murmur at that. Jack doesn’t look away from her, and her gaze never wavers from Charles. He winces slightly when she finishes: “You leave Eleanor Guthrie the fuck alone. You don’t darken her doorway again.”
“I think we can manage that,” Jack says soothingly. “Do we have an accord?”
“One more thing,” Max says, her eyes hard. “You also let me go.”
“No,” Charles says, rough and low.
“What do you mean no?” Max asks, her voice rising. “I am worthless to you, and I hold what you really need!” She loosens her grip on the chain, and it plummets a few inches towards the water before she tightens her fist and it abruptly stops, swinging back and forth in her grasp. Every man on the crew takes a step forward at the same instant, hearts in their throats.
He comes down the stairs slowly, with deliberate steps. The crew parts for him like water. Max’s eyes widen with incredulity and fear, and Jack is already grimly preparing to dive into the night-black sea and hope that he can recover the coin before the waves take it god knows where.
“Your mistress fucked us,” Charles says, voice soft. “Every last man on this crew. She kept us in a living hell for her fucking pleasure. This is what happens now. You keep that trinket. You come with us. And when the curse is broken, we drop you back at whatever port you like.” His voice drops even lower, but every man on deck can still hear him. “And if your mistress is still fucking us, Max, we’ll bring her back your head.”
“I don’t know what witchcraft this is,” Max says. “What hellish thing is at work here. I didn’t think it was real. All I have is this,” and she lets the coin drop another inch closer to the water. “I don’t know how to break your curse.”
Charles smiles, nastily. “If that’s the last coin in our hoard,” he tells her, “that’s all we need. But you’ll be our witness.”
“What else could it be?” she shouts. “Why else have you brought me here?”
“Could be a forgery,” Douglas says from the back of the crowd.
“Could be the Guthrie bitch will send someone to the island to steal the rest of it,” Roderick suggests, and there’s a brief clamor at that--never mind that anyone who knew what the curse did would have to be a fool to try it, and that no one but the Ranger crew knew the island’s heading. But the men were petrified of anything that might stop them, now so close to their goal. They’d rip Max apart in a heartbeat if they thought it would help, would send themselves into hysterics with rumor and speculation.
She hesitates. “Swear,” she says. “Swear you will let me go if the coin is real.”
“I swear,” Charles says softly, and holds out his hand.
After another very long moment, Max takes it.
“That was a lie,” Anne says to Jack, when they next get a moment alone, down in the storeroom. They’ll need to pick up some stores somewhere, he realizes, since Max will need food now, and they’ll need them when they leave the Isla de Muerta. The only thing left down here after two years of death is a few bags of ruined flour and a very stubborn and skinny rat. “Charles don’t need a fucking witness. And the coin’s real, we can all feel it.”
Jack sighs. “Then he wants her for something else,” he says.
“Revenge?” he suggests.
“Killing her would be a nice revenge,” Anne says flatly. “Dropping her head in Eleanor Guthrie’s lap, like he said.”
“The sacrifice,” Charles says, and they both look up to find him in the doorway, a cool expression on his face. “We need the gold, and we need blood. Not ours; living blood.”
Jack looks up at him. “She said it had to be a sacrifice ,” he reminds Charles. “Something we’d consider a cost.” His sense of his missing hand sharpens, for a moment, and he thinks he can feel the witch stroking one of her fingers down the palm. It tickles, and he shudders unhappily.
“It counts,” Charles says, and there’s a finality to it, like that’s all he intends to say.
Anne makes a doubtful sound. “Can’t tell me you care about the whore,” she says, dismissive--but there’s an unhappy twist to her expression that Jack doesn’t like.
Charles turns his sharklike attention to her, and they glare at each other for a long moment, Jack’s personal Scylla and Charybdis. He hates it, even more than the phantom sensation of the witch’s fingers. He drags their attention off each other, and back onto him, putting his hand on Anne’s arm, and nudging his hook into Charles’s shoulder.
“It counts,” he says reasonably, racing for a creative yet true explanation, “because she isn’t just any whore. She’s Eleanor Guthrie’s whore. Eleanor Guthrie loves her--even a stone cold bitch having her sentimental side--and if Charles kills her whore, he’ll never be able to see her again, and we’ll never do business in Nassau while she lives. So it’s a sacrifice for all of us. Charles on account of his wayward affections, and us on account of our economic interest.”
Charles shoves Jack off him, and stomps back up the stairs. Jack exhales.
“Well,” Anne says in the silence, “I believe you.”
They circle around to the other side of Nassau and send Reilly and Douglas up the interior to purchase enough supplies to keep one woman alive until they reach the Isla de Muerta. They keep themselves ready for the next wind, but don’t bother disguising themselves more than that. Max stands at the railing, the wind playing with her hair. Probably waiting to see if she’ll be rescued after all. But rescue doesn’t come. No living crew would have needed such a small supply--and no other ship in the harbor would be caught without hardtack and water and a few farm animals in its belly.
He watches Anne step up to Max, an odd expression on her face, but they’re too far away for him to overhear what she says to her, or what Max says in reply. The wind lifts the ends of Anne’s hair, too, and mingles the red and black tendrils indiscriminately for a brief moment, until Anne yanks her hair back and piles it up under her hat. There’s a startled expression on Max’s face, and she says something else he cannot hear, but Anne flushes an angry pink.
Anne and Max stay talking at the rail for a long time, but Anne leaves her when Douglas and Reilly return, taking her usual place in the rigging. Max looks up at her for a brief while before returning her attention to the coast of Nassau, the white beach and green shore, the pretty and hungry island all of them, at one point or another, have called home.
A deck above Max, Charles is also standing at the rail. Jack takes his usual place at Charles’s side.
“This is it,” Jack says, hoping to smooth over his earlier displeasure at Jack’s bluntness. “When we come back, we’ll be living men.”
Charles breathes out slowly. “You think we’ll come back?”
Jack glances down at Max below them, unmoving as a wooden figurehead. He thinks they will. Guthrie edicts only count so long as the Guthrie star is ascendant, and the tide turns quickly against all men, and all girls, no matter how cunning or how bloodthirsty. He claps Charles on the shoulder. But that won’t comfort Charles, the stupid man, because he loves her. “We will,” he says, with false cheer. “I’m sure of it.”
Jack leaves him to it, and goes about his duties, distantly aware that both Charles and Max stare at the fading glimpse of Eleanor Guthrie’s Nassau for as long as the implacable horizon will allow them.
“What did you talk about earlier, with the whore?” he asks Anne later that night, in the quiet murmur of the sleeping watch belowdecks. He’s temporarily given up use of the quartermaster’s cabin for Max’s use--which is an absurd nicety, given that she’s one of Noonan’s whores, and probably serviced half the men on the ship for a handful of copper just a few years ago, but frankly it’s better for the men not to be slavering over her while they try to sleep, especially with the curse leaving them unable to do anything about it. So he and Anne are relegated to ordinary hammocks. Anne never sleeps easy, but he believes she sleeps easier in a room where it’s just the two of them and the knife under her pillow.
“Nothing,” she says, and turns over in her hammock.
Jack stares at her back incredulously for a few minutes, and then sits up and puts his boots back on. She doesn’t stir, and he leaves her there, goes up on deck.
There’s a full fucking moon. He stares at it with impotent and surprising fury for a few minutes, then goes back below to sleep.
It isn’t a straight shot to the Isla de Muerta, despite their general impatience.
For one thing, they do need to resupply the ship entirely at Tortuga, or else face the real possibility of death by starvation after breaking the curse, and for another, they’re dragged off course by summer storm after summer storm.
Max proves to be a maddening temptation for the crew, everything they want and can’t have just yet, but will be all theirs in a matter of days--or weeks, as the weather continues to refuse them. Max dons Anne’s spare clothes, ostensibly as a sop to Jack’s complaints about morale, but really, he suspects, because she was shivering in the late afternoon in her stays and drawers, but it only renders the difference between Anne and Max painfully obvious. Where Anne is hard lines of muscle and whipcord strength, Max is soft, the feminine curves of her body only highlighted by the lack of skirts--and of course Anne only has one pair of boots, so Max wanders the ship on slender brown feet, ankles and calves bare. Every man on the crew dreams resentfully of fucking her, but more than that, she’s human and alive . She eats an apple on deck once, and just the sight and sound of it--the tart green skin, the crisp sound of her teeth in the meat, the juice wetting her clever fingers--hurts the heart of every man on deck, want and anger two sweet lances in the chest.
Anne spends a great deal of time with her, which helps keep the men at bay. Max is a temptation; Anne made it clear a long time ago that she was a threat.
Anne gets shorter and shorter tempered with him, which doesn’t do wonders for his own disposition, since he’s not doing anything, as far as he can tell. If he ignores Max, she accuses him of not looking after their investment, which will make it his fucking fault when the men go too far and she winds up dead before they reach the Isla de Muerta. If he pays Max the slightest piece of attention, she accuses him of lusting after her and trusting a thief and a liar with things she has no business knowing.
“What do you want from me?” Jack demands after one particularly frustrating argument.
“Fuck you, Jack,” Anne sneers, and gives him the cold shoulder for the rest of the day.
Charles is ignoring Jack too, which doesn’t help his humor.
The only person who can stand the sight of him, it seems, is Max herself, which is inconvenient for all kinds of reasons. Jack ignores them, since it doesn’t seem to matter anyway, and points out the chessboard they took from a prize a while back which no one else wanted, stored in the drawer of his cabin desk, when Max complains of boredom. Every so often he finds himself sitting opposite her at his old desk, candlelight flickering wildly with the rocking of the waves, trying to memorize the position of their pieces, as they slide over the board when the Ranger hits a swell, and Max isn’t above cheating to win.
“Checkmate,” she says, for the third time that night, which is impossible, since he’s a cunning and ruthless quartermaster who’s survived for many long years on the strength of his wits alone, and she’s a whore whose mouth he could have purchased for one cautorillo two weeks ago. She doesn’t go so far as to grin at him, but the quietly smug smile on her face is almost just as vexing.
It is inconvenient, he reflects, to find Max likable, as well as brave and clever.
“Why risk your neck for Eleanor Guthrie, anyway?” he asks, without quite realizing he meant to. “You’re a smart girl. You must have known it wasn’t a small request.”
Max looks at him for a long moment. There’s no paint aboard for her to line her eyes or color her mouth with, so she looks far more naked than the first time he saw her--when she was actually mostly naked. She looks like an ordinary woman. “I would die for her,” Max says simply.
Jack starts dropping chess pieces back into their little wooden box with more force than is strictly necessary. “You and half of Nassau,” he says.
“The other half would kill her in a heartbeat,” Max agrees, a soft expression on her face. “If they could manage it.”
“Why, do you think?” Jack asks, rattling the box a little. “Does she have a magic cunt? I might have dismissed the idea a few years ago, but now I’m ready to believe anything.”
“She’s smarter than the rest of you,” Max says, unmoved. “She’ll have what she wants, when all this is done.”
Jack makes a face. “See, she isn’t,” he says. “She’s not smarter than me, or Hal Gates and his bloodthirsty captain, or Ben goddamn Hornigold.”
“Those men have allied with her. They see the benefit of being her ally, and not her foe,” Max says. “Why not you?”
Jack gives her an incredulous look. The gold is still around her neck, gleaming in the candlelight. She flushes. “She would have given it back to you, if only you took the Urca first.”
“We’ve been looking for that gold for two years,” Jack tells her. “How long do you think she’s been hiding that piece, hm? How long since she realized she’d rather have a dog on a leash than a partner in her war?”
“And she should be loyal to your captain?” Max asks sharply. “An unthinking brute?”
Jack leans forward on his elbows. “Careful.”
“He is a dog a wise man would drown rather than chain,” she tells him, with a deliberately careless shrug of her shoulders. It’s a touch too far. Jack raises his eyebrows.
“What exactly do you think you’ll gain by provoking me?” he asks, honestly curious.
“Nothing much,” she says, but a self-satisfied smile tugs at the edges of her mouth. “Or perhaps a glimpse into the inner workings of your heart.”
Jack thinks of Anne’s hand in his chest, and scoffs. “Nothing in there but dust and ash,” he says, telling the perfect truth.
And then the door to the cabin opens, and it’s Anne, whose face falls into a familiar stony emptiness when she sees Jack alone with Max. “Begging your fucking pardon,” she says to Jack--an accusation--and then wheels around and shuts the door behind her.
“Sorry,” Jack says, and goes to get up. Max stops him with a hand on his shoulder, already on her feet.
“I will talk to her,” she says, and there’s something superior about her smile that Jack dislikes.
“You don’t know her,” Jack says, but she’s already at the door.
“I know her better than you,” Max says as she leaves, which is outrageous. Max has known Anne for two weeks, and Jack has held Anne’s heart in his hand.
Jack leaves the cabin after getting his frustration under control, and finds Max and Anne talking quietly at the rail. Max has one hand touched lightly to Anne’s arm, and Anne is violently pink, an expression on her face that Jack has never seen before.
I don’t want to be your wife, she’d said, and he’d agreed.
He drags Anne into the storeroom the next chance he gets. “This is stupid,” he says.
She shoves him off. “Don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says, even though she absolutely fucking does.
“Yes you fucking do,” he says, and rubs his hand over his face. “Anne. My darling. My dearest. I don’t care who you want to fuck. Fuck every whore in the Caribbean. Fumble around between Eleanor Guthrie’s knees if you want to. But Jesus Christ. Can’t you see she’s manipulating you?”
“You think I don’t know that?” Anne says, plainly furious. “I ain’t stupid, despite what you think.”
“Then stop behaving as if you are,” he says, and that is stupid.
She punches him in the face. A sop to her feeling more than anything else. He’s still thrown back onto a barrel of dried fish. “We’re going to kill her,” Jack hisses, looking up at her. Her eyes are blown wide, and she’s breathing heavily, her chest heaving. She’s feeling something, or near to it as she can. “That is the entire goddamned plan. We’re going to kill this girl, and that’s how we save our fucking skins.”
“Fuck you, Jack,” she spits, and he says it along with her as she storms out.
“Yeah, I know, ‘Fuck you, Jack.’ Doesn’t make me less right!” he shouts after her. She ignores him.
He catches Roderick peeking in at the window of Max’s cabin a week later, sporting an obvious cockstand. Jack chases him off, then glances in the window himself, meaning to bang on it and tell Max to draw the fucking curtains if she wants to sponge herself clean, or tickle her fancy, or whatever it is. But Max is completely clothed. She’s sitting on the bed, and she’s holding Anne’s hands in hers. A pit opens up in Jack’s stomach.
He sits down outside the cabin door, standing watch so no one else will fucking bother them.
Incidentally, he can also hear them speaking through the thin wood of the door.
“Makes sense that you’re angry,” Anne is saying, as gently as she ever says anything. “Fuck knows I’d be.”
Max’s answer is too soft for Jack to catch.
“Where’d you get that?” Anne asks, her voice sharpening.
“I stole it,” he hears Max say, perfectly level. “Take it back to him, if you would like. Or he can take it off my corpse. It hardly matters to me.”
Jack gets to his feet, and peers surreptitiously back into the window. It’s hard to see exactly what Max has in her hands, but then Anne shifts away from her, and he can see that it’s Charles’s compass.
“It’s worthless,” Anne says. “Points to an island we already know the heading of.”
Max is shaking her head. “That is not what it does,” she says, and cracks it open. “Look. Does this point to your island?”
Anne bends over it, and Jack holds his breath. “The fuck,” she says flatly.
“You see,” Max says, and Jack doesn’t know why her voice shakes when she says it, but he can take a fucking guess. “She was right, and all the old stories are coming true. The needle points to your heart’s desire.”
It isn’t surprising, somehow. There was a time when what Charles wanted most was a big fucking haul, easy as that--or maybe just to win Eleanor Guthrie’s approval, which was the same thing. And ever since they’ve been cursed, Charles has wanted what they’ve all wanted. To be free of it. How steadfast he’s been for all these months. His heart pointing resolutely back to their bodies, back to life. Jack remembers the needle spinning, a perfect blur, and his chest aches, sudden and sharp.
“You try it,” Max says, and shoves it into Anne’s hands.
Anne doesn’t open it, but just stares at Max, her face red. She looks cut wide open.
“You are going to kill me,” Max says, her voice harder now. “I am not a fool, and I know I will not leave your island alive--or if I do, I will wish I were dead. You may as well be honest with me.”
Anne moves, snake-fast, the way only she can, and slams Max into the headboard, one hand clenched around her throat. Max’s hands fly up to Anne’s wrist, but she doesn’t struggle. Just holds them there, and gasps. She says something else Jack can’t hear, and then reaches up to touch Anne’s jaw with the very tips of her fingers. Anne flinches away like she’s been burned, flinging herself off the bed. Jack steps hastily away from the window, but can’t bring himself to step more than a foot away from the door.
There’s a long silence, and then he hears Max’s voice, close enough that she must be standing with Anne, just on the other side of the door. “No matter how you turn it,” she says, “it will always point to the same place.”
Another very long silence. Jack swallows hard. He knows where the needle pointed. He remembers holding the fucking thing in his hands, and the needle following Charles.
“If it helps,” Anne says in the tight-jawed way that means she’s forcing out something vulnerable from between her teeth, “I thought we’d kill you that first night, on the beach.”
Jack draws in a sharp inhale, and then the door slams open, and Anne storms out, snapping the compass closed. She gives Jack a look full of naked hurt, but she doesn’t stop.
He doesn’t go after her.
Anne climbs into his hammock that night, ungainly though it is. She rests the familiar weight of her head on his chest, and mindlessly he reaches up to smooth a hand over her hair.
“Does it have to be her,” she whispers.
Jack breathes out, keeping up the slow, repetitive strokes. “Probably not,” he answers her, quiet enough that only she can hear. “We could go back to Tortuga, find someone else. Someone none of us know.” Charles wouldn’t let them purchase a slave, which is the only reason a slave might work. A baby would work. If Jack could bring himself to kill a baby.
“Charles won’t allow it,” Anne says, after several heartbeats go by. Max wasn’t just his sacrifice, she was his revenge against Eleanor Guthrie. The men wouldn’t allow it either. Eleanor had to pay, so Max had to pay. Jack knows it, Anne knows it, and of course Max knows it, which is why she’d grabbed onto Anne so tightly. She isn’t a fool.
“Probably not,” he says gently.
Anne doesn’t reply, but she doesn’t get up, either. After a while she fumbles into her shirt, and pulls out the compass, placing it flat on Jack’s chest. He thinks briefly about opening it, but there’s no point. He knows where it would lead him. The two of them lie there breathing together long into the night.
He goes to find Charles early the next morning. They’re only two days out from the Isla de Muerta, so it’ll have to be quick.
Charles opens his cabin door after a long enough pause that Jack would assume he had company, if that weren’t an absurd assumption. He’s reminded with an odd lurch of the way it used to be, when he had to peel two or three sweaty, naked women off his captain before Charles would have a conversation with him. The Charles in front of him is hardly post-coital, but his shirt is open to the waist, and he’s barefoot. Any other man might appear vulnerable; Charles is just underdressed. “What?” he asks, flat.
Jack pushes past him into the room. “Were you sleeping?” he asks. “It’s dawn. The gulls have been up for hours.”
Charles slowly closes the door behind him. “Something on your mind?”
“Yes,” Jack says, and runs a restless hand through his hair. He fumbles in his shirt, and produces the compass. He tosses it to Charles, who catches it and gives him an incredulous stare. “Here’s the thing,” Jack says, tossing himself down on the window seat bench with a forced casual air, “You’re not in love with Eleanor Guthrie.”
Charles goes still as a stone.
“I know you were,” Jack says, gentle as he can be while doing something this abysmally stupid. “But you’re not anymore.”
“You’re on thin fucking ice, Jack,” Charles says in a low rumble, looking as dangerous as Jack has ever seen him.
Jack works a finger into his neckerchief, giving himself more room to breathe, although he doesn’t need it. “You don’t want her more than anything in the world,” he says, digging himself deeper. He nods at the compass. “Check if you don’t believe me.”
Charles is staring at him the way a panther might stare at a mouse.
“Now I don’t bring this up callously,” Jack says, making what is in all likelihood a futile soothing gesture in the air with his hands. “But the thing is, Chaz, if your heart no longer belongs to Eleanor Guthrie, then Max can’t be our sacrifice.”
Charles huffs out something that might pass for a laugh, if you weren’t very discriminating. “We’re two days sail from the island.”
“Yes,” Jack agrees, “But only a week away from Tortuga. Surely the crew would--”
“The crew would take your head off your shoulders for even suggesting it,” Charles tells him, which is no less than the brutal truth. “And send what’s left of you down to join your brothers below.”
Jack draws in a shaky breath. “But if it doesn’t work . If Max’s blood does nothing--”
“She’ll work,” Charles says with real contempt. “You think I don’t know when you’re trying to con me, Jack?” He takes two strides forward, and gets one massive hand on Jack’s jaw, forcing his chin up, so he has to look Charles directly in the eye. His other hand goes to Jack’s throat, although he doesn’t squeeze--just keeps Jack still. “She’ll work,” Charles rasps, “because either you or Anne or both of you want her, and it’s made you fucking weak.”
Jack tries to shake his head, but he can’t move, caught irrevocably in Charles’s grip.
“The fuck did you think would happen?” Charles demands. “Is it too much to ask for some goddamn loyalty from you?”
This catches Jack in the chest, shocking him into a laugh. “My loyalty?” he asks, incredulous. He’s left his hands at his sides, but now he raises up his right arm, digs the hook into Charles’s ribs. “I give you my whole life, and I’m asking you for one thing.”
“You haven’t given me your life,” Charles says, suddenly frustrated, as if this is an old argument instead of a new one.
“ Jesus , Chaz,” Jack says, feeling like the words are being wrenched out of him, “What more do you want?”
Charles glares at him. “ More ,” he snaps, and it’s so stupid and selfish that Jack can’t quite believe he managed to say it, but it sends a shudder through him anyway. Charles looks briefly cut wide open. He opens his mouth to say something else, but Jack doesn’t let him finish. He fists his hand into Charles’s hair, and yanks Charles down to him. For once in his life Charles goes where he’s bid, burying his head in Jack’s neck.
“Give me a goddamned chance,” Jack says directly into Charles’s ear, the familiar crash of desire and nausea swelling in his gut. Charles makes a very soft, angry sound against him, and Jack wants, very badly, to really feel him, the pulse of Charles’s breath on his neck and the hard, implacable press of Charles’s body against him, one hand still pressed to the side of Jack’s face. They stay for a long minute like that, and then Charles inhales and takes a step back, but keeps his hands where they are, so they’re briefly still connected. Jack swallows hard against the lump in his throat.
“It has to be a sacrifice, Jack,” Charles says, and he sounds very tired.
Jack looks at him for one longing moment, the man Jack has always wanted--to be, to have, to be with. It occurs to him that he loves Charles Vane, and he might never have realized it if death hadn’t made him a fucking connoisseur of want, an expert in every kind of hunger. Charles is here, real and touching him even if he can’t feel it, and he wants Jack’s life more than he wants Eleanor Guthrie’s heart. Look, he thinks, almost dizzy with it, look what we’ve bought with blood and misery. “Yeah,” he tells Charles. “Yeah, I know.”
Anne can tell, just by looking at his face, what the answer was.
She draws a painful breath in, then turns away from him.
“Darling,” he says to her back. She pauses, but doesn’t turn around.
“I’m very sorry,” he says.
The night before they land, Jack dreams of the witch for the first time in months.
Again he has two hands. In his left hand, there is a beating human heart. In his right, a little silver knife.
“What the fuck is this?” he demands, looking up at the witch. His hand is slick with blood, and it’s still beating against his palm with a sickening little thump.
“A sacrifice,” she says, smiling her yellow smile. “Yours, if you choose.”
“The hand wasn’t a down-payment,” Jack says, annoyed.
“It is your choice,” the witch says, shrugging. She gets up to go stand at the rail, and Jack sees that they are standing on the deck of a ship, but not the Ranger. It looks like a wreck given life, strung with seaweed and barnacles, the sails themselves moth-eaten and worn to ghostly shreds. “I can wait for the next one.”
“The next what?” Jack calls after her.
She looks carefully over the side, and suddenly Jack finds himself standing at her shoulder, without consciously deciding to move. There’s something stirring in the water. “Another dead girl?” he asks, setting his jaw.
She shakes her head impatiently. “What would I do with a dead girl?”
“What did you do with the last one ,” Jack asks, which he thinks is only fair.
A head breaks through the surface of the water. It’s a man, ordinary as anything, bracing himself against the hull, gasping for breath.
“Many things, when it is willingly given,” the witch says. “That is the truth about magic, Jack.” The man is hauling himself up the side now, having found a convenient rope. “You must tear out your own heart, and not expect to get it back.”
The thing in his hand shivers, like it skipped a beat. “Who does this belong to?”
“Look,” the witch says, as the man finally topples over the railing, wet to the skin, panting hard.
“Who are you?” Jack asks the man.
“John Rackham,” the man says, scrubbing a hand over his mouth.
Jack’s hand tightens on the silver knife. “No,” he says. “No, I’m afraid you’re not.”
“Oh,” the man says vaguely. He doesn’t look a thing like Jack--he’s sun-browned, with dark, curling hair and a too-wide mouth. “Then I’m Mr. Flint.”
“I know James Flint,” Jack tells the witch accusingly. “Who is he?”
“Jack Sparrow,” the man tries, but frowns as he says it.
“Same story, different versions,” the witch says, patting the man’s arm. As she does it, the man flinches, and Jack realizes he is missing a leg. He can’t understand how he missed it before. “He’s my creature. Or he could be.”
The man is still frowning. “I’m the water,” he says, like he’s only now remembered it. “I’m just the water.”
“Make up your mind, Jack,” the witch says, and the expression on her face is almost tender. “There is work for one of you, if you be willing.”
“Is this mine?” Jack asks for the third time, hefting the bloody thing in his hand, but he knows the answer.
“There are only ever three things to do with a heart, Calico Jack Rackham,” the witch says softly. “Keep it. Break it. Or give it away.”
When he wakes, his heart is pounding hard in his chest, and Anne is gone, her hammock hanging empty. He gets up, too nauseous to consider falling back asleep.
On the main deck, he sees that there’s a light on in his cabin. Max burning the midnight oil. But the curtains are drawn. The lights are doused in the captain’s cabin, but as Jack turns back, he sees Charles standing at the rail, a skeleton in the moonlight. From behind, he is mostly recognizable by his clothes.
It’s the most natural thing in the world to place himself at Charles’s side, one dead man standing beside another. Charles acknowledges him with a brief sideways look, and then returns his attention to the sea, black and apparently endless before them.
The yellow glow of the ship’s lanterns is a different species from the cold, implacable light of the moon above them. They could be the only men in the world, on a night like this. Jack feels a wild pang of longing, and takes a second to remember the smallest, most ordinary pleasures he’s given up in death: the taste of crisp, green apples. The smooth rasp of a razor on his cheek. A leisurely, indoor shit, with excellent reading material.
“Couldn’t sleep?” Charles asks, interrupting the litany.
“Bad dreams,” Jack admits, before he can think up a better excuse.
Charles just nods.
Charles sighs. “It’ll be over tomorrow,” he says.
“So it will,” Jack agrees, feeling his heart sink like a leaden weight in his chest. “Will you--let me do it?”
“You sure?” Charles asks, voice carefully neutral.
“I’m sure,” Jack says, although he’s anything but. “It’s the quartermaster’s right, isn’t it? After all, one could argue this entire venture was about….the welfare of the men.”
There’s a long pause, and then Charles asks the question the crew has been asking themselves for years--the question they’re all doubtlessly rehashing belowdecks even now. “What’s the first thing you’ll do?” he asks, almost too quiet to hear over the roll of the waves against the hull. “When it’s over.”
Jack has considered a great many answers over the years. Swallow a cool, clear draught of water. Take off his shoes, and bury his feet in the hot sand. Kiss Anne within an inch of her life. “I think,” he says, and despite himself, his voice cracks a little in the middle of it, “that I’ll suck your cock.”
Dead silence. Jack hadn’t spoken particularly quietly. There were still men on deck, as there always were, for the night watch.
“I’ll get down on my knees,” Jack clarifies, leaning casually over the rail, not looking at Charles, “use my hands to tempt you into an interesting state--not that I imagine it’ll take long, it’s been years--”
“ Jack .”
“--and I’ll work as much of you down my throat as I can manage. It may take me a while and a significant effort, but I hope you understand--it’s been years for me, too. Still. It won’t be the first time. Feel free to be rough with me.”
“Shut up,” Charles says roughly.
Jack makes himself smile. “You did ask.”
Charles lets out a sharp, frustrated breath. There’s a soft clicking sound, and Jack looks down and sees that Charles has nudged Jack’s hand with his own, just the little bones of their smallest fingers touching. “Tomorrow,” Charles says, like it’s a promise.
Jack’s heart aches and aches. “Goodnight, Charles.”
“Fuck you, Jack,” Charles says on a rasp, and lets him go.
They get to the island at midday. The mood among the crew is ecstatic, nearly fevered. Anne is white as a ghost, and casts one agonized look at Jack before returning her gaze to Max. She stays at Max’s side, speaking softly to her. Max herself is pale and stately, the gold piece Eleanor Guthrie stole from them gleaming around her throat. Jack would have no idea they stole her out of Noonan’s tavern, the way she holds herself. She walks to her death like a queen going to her coronation.
Jack fully intends to use his usual blade for this, but as he passes through the cavern, he sees a familiar silver knife glinting up at him from a pile of perfectly ordinary coins. He picks it up, and it is perfectly balanced and wickedly sharp. More than that, it fits in his hand, like he’s held it before. It will do the work he requires of it.
No one needs to hold Max in front of the cursed chest, although plenty of men are willing. A beam of daylight shines down from a crack in the cavern ceiling and illuminates both her and the chest. The scene couldn’t appear more magical if it were deliberately staged. Jack climbs up to stand beside her, and the men chanting and cheering for her death cheer louder.
“It seems to me,” Jack calls out to them, aware of Anne standing ten feet or so below them, as wretched as he’s ever seen her, and Charles standing at her side. Probably to stop her if she tries anything stupid. “It seems to me this auspicious moment requires a speech. Gentlemen--the time has come!”
The cheering drowns out the sound Anne makes. He can only tell she’s made it at all from the way the line of her shoulders tightens even further. He forces himself to look away from her.
“We’ve been right and truly fucked, haven’t we?” Jack yells to the men. Affirmative screams make their way back to him. “We’ve suffered! We’ve been tested, time and time again, and our mettle is without question!” He raises up his hook, and closes his eyes briefly in the resulting sound. “And today our suffering ends.” He reaches for the gold piece around Max’s neck, and yanks it off. She flinches, bracing herself.
But Jack just holds the coin high in the air, where they can call plainly see it; the thing that killed them. “You know what the witch told me?” He doesn’t have to search for the words: they’re burned into his memory. “‘The curse will end when you gather up all that treasure which was never yours, every last piece bought by your people in blood and misery, and you restore it to this island, never again to be disturbed.’ And then! She said! We must repay the blood! Have we done that, gents?”
Jack is dimly aware of Max’s pulse, visibly fluttering in her throat. He drops the coin into the chest, and the cheering reaches a crescendo. “If this doesn’t work,” he mutters to Max, soft enough that no one else can hear over the roar around them, “Then I’m frightfully sorry.” Her eyes widen, and he grabs her hand.
“You know what else the witch told me?” Jack shouts, raising Max’s hand aloft. “A sacrifice must be willing!”
He’s standing close enough to Max that he can hear the catch in her breath. Her hand flexes in his--she’s clever, and he’s counting on it. He thinks of Anne longing after chicken hot off the bone, of Charles choking on his own breath at the idea of an unending future in thrall to Eleanor Guthrie, of how much he fucking loves them, of how badly he wants to never give them up.
“Well, mark my goddamn words,” he says, hefting the knife. His voice shakes a little, in spite of himself. You wanted me, he thinks, balling his missing hand into a fist. Come get me. “I--am--willing!”
He folds the knife into Max’s hand, exhales shakily--he thinks he can already hear Anne shouting, or maybe that’s wishful thinking--and steps forward to meet the point of the little silver knife as Max stabs it deep into his chest.
For a moment he doesn’t feel different. And then Max gasps, and he stumbles backward, and the first drop of his blood splashes into the open chest behind him.
Pain rushes back into his body in a vicious, beautiful swell. It’s not just the knife, it’s his missing hand, his bruised ribs, his bitten tongue, his whole fucking body. He collapses onto the cursed gold, and watches the world start to spark black at the corners. Of course pain would be the first thing. He doesn’t know why it never occurred to him.
There’s a faltering touch to his jaw, and then Max is with him, although she’s gone blurry at the edges. She’s saying something, but he can’t quite understand it.
He’s cold, he thinks regretfully. Of all things, cold.
He thinks perhaps--
“So,” the witch says some indefinable time later, with an air of deep satisfaction about her, “you are mine after all.”
There is a little wooden box in her hands.
“I suppose I am,” Jack cedes.
“You will be hungry wherever you go, whatever you should find,” the witch tells him, softly, ritually. She opens the box to show him a red human heart, pierced cleanly through by a little silver knife. “You will never be at ease by land or by sea. Fortune and misfortune will haunt your footsteps. Never again will you know a stretch of ordinary days.” She smiles, well pleased. “And you will do my bidding, whenever I have need of you.”
“That is my heart,” Jack says, nodding at the wooden box. She nods, and solemnly clicks it shut. He glances down at his own chest, and sees that there is a soft yellow glow pulsing under his skin.
“That is my chain,” the witch tells him. “When I call you, that is the line I will tug.”
Jack touches both hands to the foreign glow--or he means to. For the first time, his missing hand has not reappeared in the dream. “They’ll tell stories about this,” he breathes.
The witch smiles at him again. “Yes, witty Jack,” she says fondly. “They will.”
He wakes to sensation. He’s in a bed, and the mattress is softly rocking beneath him--aboard a ship, his mind informs him distantly, although the feeling itself is what claims most of his attention. The bedding is damp with sweat, and it smells sour, like fever. His chest and the stump of his right hand hurt like a bitch, throbbing sickly with every pulse of the mattress below him. His left leg is asleep. The air is sweet and surprisingly cool on his face--which is damp, as he’s also covered in sweat. The sound of men singing down a rope echoes through the walls, muffled by wood, and the sweet crash of water. He can smell the brine of the fucking ocean, and it’s enough to bring him briefly to tears--another shocking sensation, a hot trickle at the corners of his closed eyes.
He becomes aware of a warm, heavy weight at his shoulder, accompanied by the smell of unwashed hair, and then he opens his eyes, and the sensations all resolve into Anne, curled up in bed beside him.
“Darling,” he says hoarsely, and she sobs once, then reaches for him. Anne presses a hard, messy kiss to the corner of his mouth, to his nose, to the thin skin under his eye, and it is extraordinarily painful and Jack doesn’t think he’s ever felt anything better in his life. He does his best to hang onto her, kissing back whatever he can reach. Her eyebrow, her hair, her ear.
“I thought I was never gonna see you again,” Anne mutters after a while, and that sets them both off again.
When Anne has mastered herself well enough to get the tears under control, she tries to get up and find Jenkins, who wasn’t even a great doctor before he was two years out of practice.
“Absolutely not,” Jack says, and prevents her from going by gripping her sleeve hard. She could peel off his clenched fist on a good day with no effort, but today it holds her like an iron chain. “Tell me what happened.”
She relents, like he knew she would, and curls carefully back around him. “You died,” she says in her tight whisper, and Jack remembers the witch smiling at him, and shivers. “Or nearly did. We all thought she’d stabbed your heart.” She had. Jack is sure of it. “It worked right away, and we all knew it. Turned into a fucking riot. Charles nearly beat Roderick to death for getting in his way. He carried you back--almost gutted Jenkins trying to get him to stitch you up, instead of just gaping like an idiot at the daylight.” Jack can sympathize. He’s still extremely preoccupied with the tickle of Anne’s hair on his collarbone, and the creak of the deck as men walk past, and the scratchy weight of his clothes and bandages against his body.
“I’m surprised he could hold a needle, much work with one,” Jack says, just to be generous. “Must have been a sight.”
She colors. “I wasn’t there. I had to stop them from--getting at Max.”
“‘Course you did,” Jack says, trying to reassure her. “She’s all right?”
She nods, stiffly. “Locked in Charles’s cabin til we make landfall.”
“And you?” he presses her. “Are you all right?”
She bares her teeth. “Like I’d ever let them touch me,” she says contemptuously.
“That’s my girl,” Jack says, tired and glad. It’s suddenly a tremendous effort to keep his eyes open.
“All right,” Anne says. “That’s enough. I’m getting Jenkins now.”
“Don’t go,” Jack commands, even as his eyes slip closed again. She doesn’t budge.
“Jack?” she asks softly, when he’s right on the edge of sleep. “Why’d you do it?”
So many answers he could give, and only one that matters. “Well,” he tells her. “I could.”
He wakes again to Jenkins fumbling at the bandages on his chest, a few times to Max, who appears thoroughly bored by the role of nursemaid, and many more times to Anne. She changes his bandages, feeds him a thin, disgusting soup, which tells him that their cook is just as out of practice as Jenkins, and informs him that they’re heading to Port Royal to resupply and find him a real doctor.
“I don’t think it matters,” Jack says, touching his hand to his chest, remembering the strange yellow glow. He has no real fear of succumbing to his wounds. He wonders when the first summons from the witch will come.
“Then we’re doing it for my peace of mind,” Anne says, unimpressed. “And the captain’s.”
Jack hasn’t seen Charles at all during his convalescence, although Anne informs him Charles was often there when he was unconscious.
The first time he sees Charles, in fact, is after they’ve laid anchor at Port Royal. Jack told Anne he was perfectly capable of journeying to town and the real doctor, but she flat out refused to let him out of the bed, which means that Charles bangs open the door that afternoon, a man trailing behind him carrying the tools of his trade, Jack is at least somewhat prepared.
Charles doesn’t look discernibly different from when he was dead. Nor does Anne, so Jack isn’t sure why he was expecting something to have changed. Charles stares pointedly over Jack’s shoulder while the doctor checks the bandages on his chest and the stump of his right wrist.
“I don’t understand how you are alive today,” the doctor says frankly. “Wound fever from the hand alone should have killed you. But the chest wound--! Nothing less than an act of God.”
“Nothing less,” Jack says, looking up at Charles, whose jaw tightens.
“You’ll have a fairly nasty scar,” the doctor continues, and Jack doesn’t doubt it. It looks more or less like someone tried to claw his heart out of his chest as is. “But if you haven’t succumbed yet, I doubt you will now.”
When the doctor leaves, Charles tries to leave too. Jack gets out of bed, having been given permission to do so for quick jaunts. He hobbles to the door and realizes he’s not going to be able to gain much ground past the door at his current pace. He grabs the frame for support as Charles attempts to climb up to the forecastle, and then calls out: “I’m prepared to chase you, Chaz, but I’m not sure you’re prepared for how ridiculous it’s going to look.”
Charles pauses, and Douglas and Freddy glare at him from their posts. It turns out sacrificing oneself for one’s crew comes with a surprising boost in popularity. They haven’t even elected a new quartermaster while he’s been too much an invalid to defend his position. Charles comes back.
“Sit down before you fall down,” he says in disgust, and helps Jack back into the cabin, although he at least lets him sit at the open window seat instead of the bed.
“Well?” he asks, while Jack is situated and catching his breath again.
“You haven’t come to see me,” Jack says, which seemed like a much more compelling argument before he spoke it out loud.
Charles crosses his arms over his chest.
“I’m your quartermaster,” Jack tries. “You have to talk to me. It’s in the accords.” He attempts a smile.
“We’re talking now.” Charles’s face is carefully blank. Jack recognizes the expression.
“You’re angry with me. I’m not sure I fully recognize why, since the curse was broken, just as you wanted. I do see that I didn’t follow your instructions to the letter, but given what I personally sacrificed for the result, I don’t think complaint is really in order.”
“You tried to kill yourself,” Charles says.
Charles makes an odd, aborted hand gesture. “Don’t,” he says, blunt.
“I--will certainly try not to do it again,” Jack says, moved in spite of himself.
Charles glares at him. “Fine,” he says, then turns to leave.
Jack stares incredulously after him for an instant, and then pulls himself together. “Chaz!”
“What?” Charles demands, looking perfectly frustrated with him.
“Is that really all you have to say to me?” Jack asks, feeling fairly frustrated himself. He gestures eloquently at the bandages on his chest. “Jesus Christ, life’s too fucking short. If it was all just some kind of pent-up fantasy you were holding when being knee deep in cunt wasn’t an option, and you’re not interested any longer now that it is, just say so.”
Charles crosses to the window seat in two sharp strides, falls efficiently to his knees, grabs Jack’s face in one hand like a brute and drags him into a thoroughly awkward kiss. Jack’s neck is bent at an odd angle, and his stitches are protesting, and Charles’s beard is scratching his chin, and Jack lets out an utterly humiliating noise of sheer relief and yanks Charles in closer. He loses a few dizzying minutes that way, every sense in his newly regenerated body igniting and telling him only the happy, senseless information that Charles is here, Charles is with him.
Eventually Charles extricates himself. “No exertion for a month,” he says, between pressing a series of kisses to Jack’s jaw, which is interesting enough that Jack forgives himself for not immediately recognizing the words his doctor spoke not half an hour earlier.
“No,” he protests as soon as it becomes clear that Charles intends to leave, again.
“Yes,” Charles counters, and follows up this volley with a kiss so deep and distracting that Jack forgets the argument altogether, until Charles stands up and goes for the door.
“Fuck you, Charles,” Jack says, when he has enough air.
There’s a glint in Charles’s eye when he turns back to shut the door behind him. “Get some rest, Jack.”
A month later, Jack is back on his feet. He doubts anyone who isn’t the property of a witch--or a goddess--or whatever she is--would be out of bed, but already the stump of his wrist is healed and the chest wound is reduced to an angry and occasionally painful scar.
Max is technically still their captive, but since they have taken possession of Ben Hornigold’s fort and Ben Hornigold’s cannon on the strength of Max’s secret knowledge of the fort and its tunnels, he suspects she isn’t finding it quite as arduous a captivity as before. He isn’t convinced she won’t betray them to Eleanor Guthrie at some point in the future, but that’s the problem with Eleanor Guthrie. You can never be sure when anyone will give her their heart. Anne doesn’t seem perfectly happy, but she does seem happily miserable, which may be the best they can hope for at this point.
Jack spends a week arguing viciously with Charles over Flint and the Urca de Lima in their offices by day and happily continues the argument while sprawled underneath him by night. During the second week, he wakes up from a dead sleep to the distinct sensation of something tugging at him from somewhere under his left ribs.
Charles wakes up when Jack is most of the way dressed. He still can’t do up his laces without help, so he’s caught with shirt and trousers on, but open and unlaced, trying to brace one of his boots against the floor with his hook while pulling it on with his hand. “The fuck are you doing?” Charles asks, frowning at him. “It’s the middle of the night.”
Jack shrugs helplessly. He’s tried explaining his bargain with the witch to both Anne and Charles, but he’s not sure how far either of them believes him. It’s absurd, but he’s noticed with the rest of the crew, too. Now that they are no longer cursed themselves, it’s harder and harder for them to believe in the curse, or in magic at all. Jack isn’t quite afforded that luxury. “I’m going,” he says, and points out the window, in the vague direction of the interior. “That way.”
Charles hoists himself up to his elbows, and he’s infuriatingly beautiful in the moonlight streaming in from the window. Showing him for what he really is, and nothing more. “You coming back?” he asks.
Jack feels a stupid rush of tenderness for him. It can’t be healthy for a man to have this many weaknesses, but he’s determined to do it anyway. “Yeah,” he promises, although he probably shouldn’t. “I’m coming back.”
Charles looks at him for a long moment, and Jack feels a sharp ache in his missing hand, like the witch is gripping it, trying to drag him away from the people he loves. He imagines trying to flex his fingers a few times--the universal sign for ‘in a moment.’ The tug under his ribs comes again, harder. He winces.
Charles frowns at him.
“Look, I really need to leave,” Jack says, throwing dignity to the wind. “Help me with the fucking laces?”
Charles gets up, comfortably naked, and pushes Jack against the wall, close enough to kiss him but not doing it. Then he starts lacing up Jack’s trousers, and Jack groans a little with the injustice of it all. “That how this works? You leave in the middle of the night, no word?”
Jack drops his head against Charles’s shoulder, which makes it difficult but not impossible for Charles to lace up his shirt. “That appears to be how it works.”
Charles hums a little, thoughtfully. “It say anywhere that you have to go alone?”
“No,” Jack says, touched but wary. He dreads having to bring up all the reasons Charles can’t go with him--the fucking fort, fucking Eleanor Guthrie, Flint and the Urca de Lima and the English Navy and the Spanish Navy and the whole rest of the world--and hopes Charles won’t make him leave angry.
Charles simply nods, and finishes with Jack’s shirt. “So go wake up Anne,” he says, matter of fact.
Jack’s breath catches in his throat. “I love you,” he says, entirely without meaning to. His voice comes out embarrassingly hoarse. “Were you aware?”
“Fuck you,” Charles says companionably, and shoves him out the door.
Anne sleeps with one eye open, and apparently has been ready for something like this to happen ever since Jack got back on his feet.
It’s nearing dawn by the time they’re on the road, the contents of their lockers hastily shaken into packs. Anne looks sleep-mussed, but he knows how quickly she can draw her rapier if need be.
“Sorry to drag you away from Max so soon,” Jack offers.
“Might be the right thing. Give her time to decide what to do about the Cunt.” She yawns. “Where we going, exactly?”
Jack feels almost unbearably light. “That way,” he says, and she nods, bumping his shoulder with hers.
“Right,” Anne says, and rubs her eyes. “Well, let’s go.”
Jack smiles at her, and steps into the pull of the witch’s golden thread. He and Anne walk together towards the horizon.