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No Drowning Mark

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"Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect gallows."
--Shakespeare, The Tempest, act I, scene i.

Captain James was a young man when he went to sea
(all you young ladies, come and kiss him goodbye)
He was barely a child, just twenty-and-three
(all you young ladies, come and kiss him goodbye)
All you young ladies, go and tell him for me
He can marry the mermaid that lives in the sea

--Trad. sea chanty

The wind lashed through the palm trees and sand grasses that lined the back streets of Port Royal, moaning just the way it did when blowing through a ship’s rigging. The air felt heavy, the way it sometimes did before a hurricane came. Tonight’s storm, James decided, was going to be another bad one.

The autumn storms had begun early this year, before summer had even gotten started. The first big blow had swept across Jamaica mere days after James had presented Davy Jones’ heart to Beckett, a piece of unfortunate timing that he tried very hard to believe had been a coincidence. Since then, there had been eight more, and nearly a dozen ships that James knew of had been sunk. The sugar factors in Port Royal and Nassau were complaining of record losses.

Ships that flew the flag of the east India Trading Company, James had noticed, seemed to have no difficulty weathering the storms. That, too, he put down to coincidence.

By the time James reached the lodging house he’d taken a room in, in the alley behind the joiner’s shop, the rain was already falling, coming down in hard, slashing sheets. His hair was soaked in seconds, the flour he’d used to powder it washing away in clumps. Once again, he considered the benefits of purchasing a new wig. Expensive, on the one hand, but on the other, far easier to maintain. Perhaps when he finally managed to put together a crew… but no, ship’s stores were more important, and more expensive yet, without the Navy’s financial backing to subsidize them.

Obtaining a pardon and letter of marque from Beckett had been difficult enough. Obtaining a ship had been comparatively easy, as Governor Swann was eager to have at least one captain friendly to his interests in Jamaican waters. Obtaining provisions and a crew were a different order of difficulty all together. Had he succeeded in catching Sparrow, the Interceptor’s final voyage would have been lauded in broadsides and newspaper reports from Port Royal to South Carolina, but as it was… everyone in the Caribbean had heard of ex-commodore James Norrington, who stood idly by while a notorious pirate escaped. Of James Norrington, who lost nearly his entire crew sailing a ship through a hurricane in a display of idiocy rarely equalled in the annals of the British Admiralty. James Norrington, who resigned his commission in disgrace and slunk away to the grog shops of Tortuga with his tail between his legs.

Everyone had heard of James, and damn few men in Port Royal were keen on the idea of sailing under him. They weren’t especially willing to sell naval stores to him on credit, either.

Sugar planters who hadn’t honoured their debts in three years could buy goods on credit, but not a cashiered naval officer. As of his departure from the navy, he wasn’t an officer and a gentleman anymore, and his word as a gentleman was therefore no longer good. At least, not good enough for a chandler to sell him rope and sailcloth on the strength of it.

James’ boots left wet puddles on the stairs as he climbed the rickety steps to the lodging house’s second floor. With everything as damp as it was, he’d be lucky if he could get a candle lit, and it was growing dark quickly as the storm worsened. His room would be a dark as the bottom of a hold.

It was, indeed, dark, but it wasn’t empty. James could feel it as soon as he opened the door, and his hand automatically went to the hilt of his sword. Beckett had tried twice to end their little arrangement, once by means of two men in a dark alley, and once by way of a whore with a knife hidden in her skirts. Had he been a man inclined to accept the sort of advances she offered, he would have been dead before collecting so much as a kiss. Every once in a great while, virtue really was its own reward.

James eased his sword in its sheath, preparing to draw it, and stepped warily into the room, squinting in the gloom to try and catch sight of whomever was lying in wait for him.

“James Norrington,” a damnably familiar voice announced cheerfully. “We’d given you up for dead after that run in with Jones’s crew. Fancy my surprise when I returned to Port Royal to find you no longer a wanted man. Returned to the bosom of his majesty’s favour, as it were. Thrilled to hear about it, mate.” Sparrow grinned, exposing teeth that looked somehow pointier than James remembered, and levelled a pistol at his head.

James stood very still. He could feel a glob of flour paste sliding down the side of his neck, could feel water soaking through his coat and linen to his skin, could hear the rain beating on the sill of the open window. The room smelled like salt and mildew. “Going to kill me, Sparrow?”

Sparrow was thinner than he remembered, the dark tan faded to a pallor that, combined with the black circles around his eyes, made him look positively ghostly. Ghostly, like tanned, was a good look on him. His hair was still a rat’s nest of braids and dreadlocks, but the beads and medallion decorating it had been joined by seashells and fishes’ bones. “That’s Captain Sparrow to you, Commodore. Your captain, last I looked.”

“The Black Pearl sank months ago,” James protested. Was supposed, in fact, to have taken Sparrow down with it, a prospect that had afforded him surprisingly little satisfaction, considering. “It was the talk of the docks for weeks.”

“Aye, so she did.” Sparrow flashed him another grin. “Davy Jones is a hard man in a bargain. But it takes more than Jones’s giant beastie to kill Captain Jack Sparrow.” Lightening flashed, lighting up the room for one brief, blue-white moment, and Sparrow blinked.

Beneath his darkened lids, a second set of eyelids moved, clear and glistening like the eyelids of some nameless sea creature. Despite the pistol still pointed at his head, it was all James could do not to jump back.

“His Lordship Sir Beckett,” Sparrow went on, “has something that don’t belong to him. Will Turner wants Jones’s heart to free his father, an’ I find myself in the position of owing the Turners a debt, so I decided to fetch it for him. An’ seein’ as it’s you who gave said heart to Beckett in the first place, you, your comodoreness, are goin’ to help me.”

“And if I choose not to?” James asked. He forced his attention away from Sparrow’s eyes and back to the gun. The barrel looked enormous, and the thought that, logically, the powder could not conceivably have remained dry in this weather was surprisingly little comfort. The laws of logic had never seemed to apply to Sparrow.

“Oh, I don’t think you will, mate,” Sparrow said softly. He took a step closer, water dripping off his coat onto the floorboards as he moved. It took most of James’ self control to avoid taking a corresponding step back. “An honourable man like you, leave a powerful supernatural object like that in the hands of a man like Beckett? You don’t have it in you, Commodore.” He seemed to derive some kind of pleasure from saying the title, and in another man, James would have taken it as gloating. Sparrow, however, was rarely that subtle when he decided to gloat.

“You know perfectly well that I’m no longer an officer in his majesty’s navy, Sparrow.” James said icily. He closed his fingers tighter around his sword hilt. Give it a few moments more and Sparrow’s hand would surely begin to waver. No one could hold a weapon steady forever, and Sparrow wasn’t all that steady at the best of times.

“Ah, but you’ll always be a commodore to me,” Sparrow informed him grandly. With his free hand, he removed his battered hat and flourished it the way a man might if he were making a sweeping bow. The pistol remained trained on James.

“An honour I’d prefer to decline, frankly.”

“As you wish.” Sparrow shrugged, returning the hat to his head. “If you’d be so kind as to remove your swordbelt an’ drop it on the floor? Or feel free to hang it up somewhere if you’d like. I’m not picky.”

“Clearly,” James muttered. Even conscious of Sparrow’s gun, he reluctantly let go of his sword hilt and began unfastening his swordbelt. Sparrow watched his every move through half-lidded eyes, and nodded to himself in satisfaction when sword and belt fell to the floor with a thud that was nearly muffled by the sounds of the storm.

“That’s more like it.” Sparrow twirled the pistol about in his hand gracefully, took it off cock, and shoved it through his water-spotted sash. “Much more convivial. Cosy, even. Now, off with the wet clothes or you’ll expire of pneumonia or somesuch before I can properly make use of you.”

“I’ll keep them, thank you.” He felt naked enough standing unarmed in front of this new version of Sparrow, who seemed virtually identical to the old Sparrow until he blinked those inner eyelids again. James had fought the walking dead and fenced with men who had conch shells for faces, and had always prided himself on the fact that he had shown no fear while doing so. Sparrow’s eyes should have been easily dismissed beside those horrors, but there was something especially unnerving about seeing even so mild an indication of inhumanity upon the face of a man he knew. Even more unnervingly, it did nothing to make Sparrow less attractive.

“Pity. I have to say, that new greatcoat doesn’t become you at all. It should be a uniform or nothing.” Sparrow flicked a hand distastefully at the brown wool, making a face. His hand was wrapped in bloody, half-unravelled bandages. Both of them were, James saw now. Still covering up the black spot, or hiding something else?

“And you just happen to have ‘nothing’ available?” James asked sarcastically, remembering a lewd comment made to Elizabeth Swann the last time he and Sparrow had met. (a dress or nothing, and I just happen to have nothing at all in my cabin…)

“How did you guess?”

“Because it’s precisely the sort of tiresome joke you insist on making. Go away, Captain Sparrow,” James said, anger finally beginning to overcome the strange fascination Sparrow always seemed able to exercise over him. “I’ve already paid the consequences of your meddling once, and I have no desire to aid you in committing further acts of piracy.”

“You’re being unnecessarily harsh.” Sparrow pressed one hand to his chest, miming pain. “Beckett’s a pirate on a scale I could never even try for. One ocean is enough for me, but it’s a drop in the bloody bucket as far as he’s concerned, mate. And anyway, gettin’ that heart isn’t so much stealing as it is retrieving.” He took another step forward. “Fetching.” And another. “Liberating.” Sparrow leaned forward, invading James’ personal space until James could smell the scent of saltwater and seaweed clinging to the other man, and fingered the collar of James’s coat. “Borrowing with every intention of returnin’ it to the man—well, tentacled, slimy thing—what rightfully owns it. So you could even call it a charitable act.” Sparrow looked up at him from under ridiculously thick black lashes, smiling broadly as if impressed at his own logic.

“Awed as I am by your powers of persuasion,” James leaned forward, until his face was mere inches from Sparrow’s, making sure that the other man’s eyes were focussed solely on his own, “I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request.” He reached down and plucked the gun from Sparrow’s waistband, bringing it up to press the barrel against the side of the shorter man’s head. Let the man try to swagger about now. “The great Captain Jack Sparrow, undrownable and unhangable. If I pull the trigger, will it do me any good?”

“I have been wondering about that lately, I’ll admit.” Sparrow shrugged ever-so-slightly, trying to watch the gun out of the corner of his eye. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“Ah. I’ve always found mysteries annoying, Mister Sparrow-”

“Captain Sparrow,” the other man interjected.

“Annoying,” James repeated, resisting Sparrow’s attempt to commandeer the conversation, “and occasionally dangerous. Beckett wants the heart to give the East India Company control over the globe. What do you plan to do with it?”

“That’s for me to know, and you to find out when I’m good and ready.” Lightening flashed outside the window again, painting the room in stark blues and whites and flashing dramatically off Sparrow’s excessive collection of jewellery.

James raised an eyebrow. “You have no idea, do you?”

“That depends upon your definition of idea,” Sparrow evaded, still watching the gun, his eyes comically wide.

James could feel a trickle of water running out of his hair and down inside his collar. It tickled, but he couldn’t spare the attention to wide it away. “I shudder to think what sort of a use you would find for that sort of power.”

“A better one than Beckett. He’s got no notion what he’s doing with the weather; storm today, dead calm tomorrow, earthquakes next Tuesday… He doesn’t even know how to use the power he’s got. We’d be doing him a favour, really.” Sparrow winked meaningfully. It was an unusually extended process involving both sets of eyelids.

“And I suppose you would know how?” James challenged. They were close enough that he could feel the other man’s body heat—that was that much humanity still left in him, anyway—and staring into those subtly inhuman eyes, he was suddenly reminded of the stories former Able Seaman Gibbs used to tell about mermaids. (Lovely things, they look like, but they’ve got no souls, y’see… And when a man goes to kiss one, she’ll rip his throat right out with her sharp, webbed claws.) He pressed the gun harder into Sparrow’s temple.

“I’m Captain Jack Sparrow. I know all sorts of things.” The man’s voice lingered over the words like a dockyard whore looking for a customer (got an empty berth, sailor?) and James found himself leaning slightly closer, eyes drawn unwillingly to Sparrow’s lips. And then Sparrow’s bandage-swathed hand was grabbing his right wrist. It was an oddly gentle grip, almost caressing.

“You want to ease off with the gun there, Commodore? I’ve already come back from the dead once, an’ I didn’t exactly develop a taste for it.”

If he’d truly intended to shoot Sparrow, James supposed, he’d have done it already. He’d never quite been able to bring himself to kill the man. Even when he’d had him on the gallows or held at sword’s point, awaiting the fate he so richly deserved, James had hesitated. The world would be less interesting without Sparrow in it. Better off, no doubt, but less interesting. “Very well. I’m not going to shoot you.” He pulled the gun away from Sparrow’s head, but didn’t relinquish it.

“I knew you couldn’t.” Sparrow fluttered his eyelashes. “Can’t resist me, can you?”

“I liked you better when I was drunk,” James snapped, without thinking. Then he realised that Sparrow was still holding him by the wrist, and tried to tug his hand away.

“I liked you better without all that muck in your hair,” Sparrow returned, “but both of those are easy enough to remedy.”

And, yes, Sparrow truly was making advances. It was in more than just his voice. It was the way he stood, hips cocked, swaying slightly toward James. The way he looked up at him with eyes half-lidded. The way he reached up with the hand not gripping James’ wrist to finger a strand of his paste-coated hair.

Then he let go—of wrist and hair both—and spun away, the skirts of his coat flaring out, to take hold of the half-full water pitcher. “A splash or two ought to-“

“Why are you really here?” James interrupted, not trusting what his instincts told him. It had been so long since someone had touched him for anything beyond the most casual of physical contacts, long enough that even the prostitute Beckett had hired had been tempting for a moment, before decorum and common sense had intervened. Just the prospect of an encounter was enough to make his body respond. Thank God for long coats.

“To seduce you into aidin’ me in my nefarious schemes, of course,” Sparrow grinned, and proffered the water pitcher in one hand, and a rum flask plucked from his coat pocket in the other. “I should think that was obvious.”

“And if I allow myself to be so seduced?” James asked, making no move to accept either object. “I’m still not convinced the heart would be any safer with you than with Beckett.”

“You’re certain I can’t… persuade you?” Sparrow waggled his eyebrows in a manner that was inexpressibly lewd.

“You would have to be very convincing indeed,” James managed, through a mouth suddenly gone dry.

“You have no idea, mate.”

Sparrow had gill slits on his neck, James discovered several moments later, hidden from view by his beard and hair, and the bandages on his hands covered half-healed cuts where something—webbing?--had been sliced away between his fingers. The rest of him was very human indeed, and as warm-blooded as one could hope for. He did not make any attempt to rip James’ throat out at all, even when his lips were directly over James’ pulse.

Gibbs' stories, James had found, were generally incorrect.

“Don’t worry,” Sparrow said eventually, when the two of them were lying on James’s narrow bed, the water from what clothing they were still wearing gradually soaking the mattress. “I won’t hold stealin’ the heart from me against you. I told you all along, mate, I’m rooting for you.”

“That,” James observed, watching Sparrow’s freshly scarred left hand describe an invisible arc through the air, “is not particularly comforting.”

Outside, the rain continued to drum against the walls, and the wind was rising.

Now I find you as you drown,
Hear you calling out to me.
Take my hand,
I will lead you down;
Come with me, sailor,
Dream with me…

--Connemara, "The Mermaid's Song"