“Are we quite certain this is a good idea?” Featherstone asks him for what feels like the hundredth time.
“Hardly,” Jack replies without turning his head. He’s assessing the exterior of the building they’re standing in front of. The larger holes from Spanish cannon fire have been patched up, but scorch marks still stand out like huge black scars against the dull paint. “But in the absence of any better ideas, this would seem to be our most promising option.”
“Yeah, I get that. I mean are we certain it’s a good idea for -- well, for you to be here?” Jack levels a look at him that is not exactly a glare, but close enough. Featherstone shuffles defensively. “I only meant that it’s been a while since the last time you spoke to her, hasn’t it? And from what I’ve heard, you two didn’t exactly part on the warmest of terms.”
Jack snorts. That’s putting it mildly. Featherstone presses on. “Mightn’t she be more likely to say no to the request if it’s coming from you?”
“It isn’t coming from me, it’s coming from Max.” A breeze swirls past them and Jack feels it ruffle his hair, breathes it in deep; traces of salt and and pitch and excrement all mingling in his nostrils. For all the upheaval Nassau has been through in the past few months, some things remain the same. Jack can only hope Max’s influence here, even when she’s an ocean away, is as reliable as the smell of the place.
“I could go in there myself, you don’t have to --”
Jack puts an end to the discussion by striding forward through the doors. Behind him, he hears Featherstone swear and follow.
The sight Jack is greeted with is nearly identical to every morning he’s ever spent here, back when this was his business (in name, at least). It’s early enough that there are no guests yet, just a few of the girls idling about the floor, eating and washing and gossiping and braiding each other’s hair, preparing for the day ahead. The only conspicuous difference is the damage done to one of the staircases leading to the upper rooms -- the bottom half has been blown apart, splintered rails and balusters sagging downwards under their own weight. Jack spots a familiar yellow-green shape coiled around the broken bannister and feels the strangest flutter of relief over the snake’s survival.
And there’s Mapleton, of course, shrewd and ready as ever. She spotted them as soon as they walked in and everything from her pursed lips to the agitated clacking of her heels as she marches over suggests she is less than pleased to see them. Jack shares the sentiment.
“You,” Mapleton says, coming to a halt in front of them, “are possibly the very last person I expected to ever turn up here again.”
“Believe me,” Jack assures her, “given the choice, I wouldn’t be here either.”
“You’re an enemy of the state, you are.” Mapleton casts a wary glance past the two of them, checking for onlookers. She’s still in the habit of pencilling that ridiculous false mole on her cheek, Jack notes. Things really haven’t changed. “Whatever it is you’re here for, you must be either very confident or very stupid to believe I won’t send word of it to the Governor right away.”
“Well, the last time your Governor believed Nassau to be harboring rebels, he begged a foreign navy to burn it down,” Jack counters. “So perhaps I just trust your sense of self-preservation. Besides, we understand he’s not on the island at the moment.” Sailed off to who the fuck knows where, along with Flint -- and along with his cache of gems, as Jack had been quite unhappy to learn from their visit to the maroon camp the day prior. As if he didn’t have enough on his plate without certain people conspiring yet again to trade away the fortune he had sacrificed so much for.
Mapleton tilts her head, the wariness still clear on her face. Jack can practically see the clockwork happening, the cogs and gears clicking away inside her mind, trying to determine what next move she should make in order to turn this situation to her advantage.
Once upon a time, Jack enjoyed playing this game of wits, would have seized the opportunity to prove himself superior at it. Now Anne is confined to some room a thousand miles away while she awaits his return, wounded and bereft, and Jack has no time or patience for games.
“Max has put a plan into motion to remove Woodes Rogers from here definitively,” he tells her in a low voice, after a cursory look around to make sure none of the girls are loitering close enough to overhear. “For this plan to work it is essential that we discover where exactly he and Captain Flint have disappeared to, and that we follow them there as soon as possible. We were hoping you might be able to assist us in acquiring that information.”
Featherstone grimaces, apparently not convinced that blunt honesty was the right strategy. Mapleton remains unmoved, but her eyes are no longer as sharp as they were a moment ago. “Max is alive?”
“Very much so.” Jack retrieves the note Max penned from out of his coat pocket and passes it to her. “She’s occupied elsewhere at the moment, negotiating for the resources needed to make this plan viable.” Leaving me to do the dirty work, the unkind voice in his head adds, the same one that had urged him to stay silent those days ago on the ship, when Flint had been advocating for Max’s swift and permanent removal. Jack ignored it then. He ignores it now.
Mapleton looks over the paper in her hand, squints at Jack, then looks at the note again. Jack remembers the last time he stood in this room armed with a piece of paper, trying to convince her to take him at his word. He half expects her to pronounce it a fraud, but she must recognize Max’s hand, because she folds it carefully and tucks it away in her own pocket. When she meets Jack’s eyes again he can read her decision plain as day. She may not have any love for him, but she likes Rogers even less.
“Why don’t we take this conversation upstairs,” Mapleton says.
Jack isn’t able to resist shooting a faintly smug look at Featherstone before following their host across the room. As they begin to make their way up the staircase, a pair of girls descend from the second floor, whispering between themselves. Jack doesn’t recognize either of them -- not surprising, given the turnover rate in this business. With only one set of stairs available, he pauses on the lower landing to let them by.
He nearly doesn’t see it. The girl closer to him reaches out to grasp the railing and something in that fraction of a moment -- a glint of light, a metallic sound, something -- draws Jack’s eyes to her outstretched hand. Before he has time to think about what he’s doing he seizes her by the forearm.
“Ow!” The girl looks up at him in shock. “What the hell?”
“That belongs to Max.” Jack’s voice sounds hollow to his own ears. He nods at the girl’s hand, which is adorned with an intricate gold bracelet, complete with a chain that extends to a matching ring on her middle finger. The design is unmistakable. Jack doesn’t consider himself a connoisseur of jewelry, but he knows this particular piece. It was one of Max’s favorites.
The girl’s friend attempts to cut in. “Merchandise is for paying customers, darling. If you’re not putting down money, you don’t get to touch.” She reaches to push him away.
Jack pulls his knife from his belt with his free hand and points it at her. “Don’t flatter yourselves.” He raises the thief’s arm until the offending accessory is level with her face. “Where did you get this?”
Dazed brown eyes blink back at him. “What? I don’t…”
“This!” Jack snaps, giving her arm a shake. “Right here, this belongs to Max! Why are you wearing it?”
The girl trembles in a way that is no doubt meant to convey how meek and unassuming she is. Her round, cherubic face is the portrait of innocence. Jack knows better than to fall for that. He tightens his grip. “Take it off.”
“Take. It. Off.” When all she does is gape at him, Jack elaborates. “Right, clearly you’re new here, so I’ll make this plain for you. You are going to return that bracelet, now, and you are also going to pass the word along to your colleagues here that any other items that may have found their way out of Max’s rooms are going to find their way back into her rooms by the end of tonight, as she will be returning for them. Do we have an understanding?”
The girl’s face is pale. She turns her head to address Mapleton. “Is he serious?”
“Afraid so,” Mapleton confirms. When nobody moves, she sighs. “For heaven’s sake, Georgia, I’m not keen on mopping anyone’s blood up this morning.”
Georgia bites her lip and reaches up to fumble with the clasp. Jack supposes it would probably be easier for her if he released her arm, but he doesn’t, not until the metal comes loose and he can slide it off her wrist. She and her companion hurry the rest of the way down the stairs, leaving Jack staring accusingly at Mapleton.
“If you’re thinking of conducting a search of my person next,” Mapleton remarks, holding out her own hands as if to demonstrate her innocence, “rest assured, the madame’s taste in jewels was always a bit too extravagant for me.”
“You thought the woman murdered by Spanish raiders,” Jack says slowly. “And your response was to allow your girls to loot her personal belongings.”
“Well, was I supposed to erect a shrine instead? I did manage to stop them taking her dresses.” From Mapleton’s tone, it’s clear she considers that action to be the height of magnanimity. “Told them if they thought they’d ever have an occasion to wear those in their line of work they were kidding themselves.”
Jack remembers visiting the marketplace with Max, not long after they had secured the Urca gold, and watching her run her fingers gently over silks that neither of them had ever been able to afford until then. He remembers the bright gleam in her eyes, the care with which she handled the fabrics, the way she stood taller and prouder when finally clothed in the fruits of her labor, looking every inch the queen she had built herself up to be.
He realizes that his hands are trembling. He realizes he is angry for Max, rather than at her, for the first time in a long time.
They apprise Mapleton fully of the situation, and she’s less than optimistic about their prospects, but nevertheless she agrees to keep alert for any news of where Rogers had departed to. She then leaves to get on with running her business. Featherstone leaves to check in with what remains of their crew. Jack, who is far too conspicuous to be roaming around town in broad daylight, begrudgingly stays put.
They’re hiding out in Max’s room for the moment, and he exhibits tremendous self-restraint for the space of a few minutes before he begins poking around in the old blue desk still left over from when this space doubled as an office. He justifies it to himself by reasoning that ever since Max gained a proper office across the street, all her important paperwork was likely to be there, and thus anything he might come across here would be inconsequential. Probably.
He finds scraps of notes, outdated itineraries, some discarded sketches of their banner -- those he lingers over, feeling bitterly nostalgic for not even six months past when the heaviest thing weighing on his mind was design choices. He finds a pencil and spends maybe half an hour or so composing a letter to Anne on the back of an old shopping list. When he’s done he stares at it intensely, willing his thoughts to fly off the page and north across the ocean to reach her. He did this the last time she was gone, too, though last time had been his own fault. He had sat in this same room and hoped desperately that somehow Anne could feel his solitude, his regret, his apologies for failing to realize what she needed. Even if she never forgave him, Jack had thought at the time, it would have been enough just for her to know how utterly sorry he was.
First time you and I been separated by that much water since we was fucking kids, Anne had said to him on the deck after she returned. Philadelphia is leagues farther than Port Royal, but Jack feels her absence as keenly now as he did then. When you miss someone as if they were your other half, as if your soul needs them the way your body needs food or air, it hardly matters whether the distance between you is a mile or a thousand of them.
Jack stares at the letter a moment longer before taking it outside onto the balcony, where he methodically shreds it into tiny pieces that he surrenders to a gust of wind.
There’s a creaking and shuffling noise behind him, and he turns in time to see a whirl of skirts and blonde hair as Georgia drops a cloth-wrapped parcel on the bed and flees the room. Jack knows before looking inside that it’s Max’s stolen jewelry. Truthfully he hadn’t expected the girls to hand it over so promptly -- he supposes his little display on the staircase must have had an effect.
He sets to work untangling the strands of various necklaces and sorting the pieces according to type, because it’s not as if he has anything better to do… and once they’ve been accounted for, he may as well put them away properly. The large jewelry box on the bureau has a velvet-lined compartment with notches that he lays the necklaces into, one by one, callused fingertips smoothing the fine chains into place. The rings and bracelets he tucks away in the small drawers that comprise the bottom half of the box; the earrings he hangs on the tiny hooks inside the door. He vaguely recalls that Max had a separate box for her hairpieces but he doesn’t know where it might be. Perhaps one of the girls is holding out, or perhaps it had been pawned off already.
He opens a few drawers at random, searching for a substitute container. He’s rummaging around in the bottom cabinet next to the bed when his fingers brush against soft leather.
As a boy, Jack used to sit in the back of his father’s shop surrounded by bolts of fabric, challenging himself to identify them by touch alone and always experiencing a rush of proud satisfaction when he succeeded. Somehow in this moment his mind still spares a corner of itself for that pride, even as the rest of it fills with something between awe and dread, his hands grasping too tightly around the object he recognizes even before he sets his eyes on it.
Featherstone comes back to find him sitting on the bed a while later. Jack knows logically that a good amount of time must have passed, time enough for Featherstone to travel to where they’d docked their ship and then return, but he has no sense of how long it’s actually been. He can’t say for sure how long he’s been sitting here, staring at Anne’s old brown hat, brushing his thumb monotonously back and forth across the brim.
“The men have been informed of the… plan, such as it is.” Featherstone’s tone is that of a man who fully knows that things are not alright, but is valiantly going to carry on pretending as if they are. He’d make a marvelous politician. “I stopped by the kitchen on my way in, talked Alice into sparing us some bread and fruit -- course, it was yesterday’s bread, and the pears are a bit bruised, but certainly an improvement over hardtack --”
“Was she really not sorry?” The words scrape his throat on the way out.
Featherstone frowns. “Beg pardon?”
“Max.” Jack knows what she said to Anne down in the hold of the Lion, that she couldn’t regret choosing what she saw as the least awful outcome, and he might almost believe that she believes that. Except that Jack had tried that same line of reasoning himself, not so long ago, and all it took was the sight of Anne’s back as she walked away from him to show him how foolish he’d been to ever think it in the first place.
If Max doesn’t regret what she did, then she never truly loved Anne to begin with. And that is a prospect Jack simply cannot allow himself to accept.
“I…” Featherstone sighs wearily, though his face is sympathetic. “I don’t think I’m the person you should be having this conversation with, Jack.”
“That may be true, but I don’t see anyone else around who can be of any help, so.” Jack doesn’t bother trying to keep the waver out of his voice. “Please, Augustus. Indulge me.”
“It’s not as if she ever made me privy to her feelings on the matter,” Featherstone mumbles, but he sits down next to Jack regardless. After a moment he says, “She just wanted… an end to it. All the chaos, the bloodshed. If she had seen another way to accomplish that I think she’d have taken it. In her mind, she was doing the right thing.” He shoots Jack a sideways glance. “She never wanted to hurt anyone.”
When Jack says nothing, Featherstone clears his throat and falteringly pats him on the knee. “You should have something to eat.”
“I’d rather have something to drink.”
Featherstone very intentionally does not roll his eyes. “If you take three bites of this pear while I watch, I will go back downstairs and get you some rum.”
“Don’t make me say four.”
The pear is more bruises than skin, but Jack does as he’s told, though he squints treacherously at his quartermaster the whole time. True to his word, Featherstone leaves the room and comes back with a bottle that they don’t even finish off before Mapleton appears to bring them the first good news of the day: she knows where Rogers’ ship is headed.
When they depart Nassau the next day, Jack takes the hat with him. He knows there’s a fair chance he won’t make it back to Philadelphia to actually deliver it to Anne, and if he was a better man he’d leave it behind, let Max give it back it to her when the two of them eventually returned here.
But on the other hand, he knows there’s a fair chance he won’t make it back to Philadelphia. If holding onto this small piece of Anne is his last act of selfishness on this earth then so be it.
Somehow, incredibly, he does make it back, and Anne materializes before him on the city street like his approaching steps had summoned her, and the sight of her walking unassisted strikes Jack with all the force of a broadside. She throws her blanket-wrapped arms around him and Jack mimics her action automatically, feels her body warm and whole against his own -- she’s alright, his senses affirm for his reeling mind, she’s alright.
If they had defeated Rogers, only to return and find Anne bedridden or worse, the victory would have been an empty one. That fear had buried its claws so deeply in Jack that it takes him a moment now to dislodge them. Anne nestles into his shoulder, her hair brushing against his cheek, and suddenly Jack can breathe properly for the first time in weeks. He shuts his eyes against the rest of the world and melts into her, very nearly weeps when she braces herself more firmly against him in response. Here they are, together, in balance as they’ve been from the beginning. Complete again.
When he opens his eyes Max is watching them from across the street. Her posture is carefully neutral, but her eyes are… solemn. Stoic. Filled with a kind of barren peace. She always could convey so much with just a look.
Something twinges uncomfortably behind Jack’s breastbone. Oh. Perhaps not so in balance after all.
Between recounting for the two of them the events surrounding Skeleton Island, meeting with Madame Guthrie to put the official seal on their joint venture, and securing lodgings for the men in the interim as the details of their return voyage are coordinated -- and alright, he may have stayed for a quick celebratory drink with them as well -- it’s past nightfall by the time Jack arrives back at the rooms where Anne and Max have been staying, courtesy of the Guthries. He walks through the front gate at the same time Max emerges from the house. She’s carrying a pair of unlit candles, and she halts when she notices him.
Jack crosses the small yard but stops before he reaches her. The porch Max is standing on inverts the height difference between the two of them, so that he has to tip his head back slightly to look up at her. It feels at once unfamiliar and yet natural.
Now that all the relevant business affairs have been discussed and finalized, he finds himself at a loss as to what to say to her. He holds out the bottle of wine he had nicked from the bar instead.
Max stares at him, then at the wine, then back at him. “Am I supposed to just drink from the bottle like some sort of uncivilized pirate?”
Jack shrugs in the universal gesture of more for me then, and takes a swig himself. He licks a stray drop of alcohol from his lip and finally settles on what question to ask first. “Earlier. When we met with Madame Guthrie. You said she had asked for a Governor you would call husband?” The word sounds altogether wrong, being said in this context.
Max shifts in a subtle way that only someone who knew her would be able to identify as awkwardness. “She said that in order to successfully manage Nassau, there would need to be a man occupying the Governor’s chair.” She presses her lips together, then acknowledges wryly, “She was right. The world is not ready to accept a woman in a position of such singular authority, not so openly. She also said that in order to successfully manage the Governor, I would need to marry him.”
What Jack wouldn’t have given to be in the room when that assertion was made. “And you refused.”
A pause. The corner of Max’s mouth is tight. “I saw what it did to Eleanor, to force herself to play a role that reduced her into something she was not. I have no desire to make the same mistake.”
Jack nods. “So you proposed Featherstone as an alternative.”
“Do you disapprove?”
“Not in the least.” It had taken him by surprise at first, when he heard the news from Idelle, but as soon as he had thought about it the logic was self-evident. “It’s a perfectly sound choice. He has some experience with administrative duties on both sides of the law. He’s legitimate enough on paper, but not someone who the residents of Nassau would chafe against. And of course he’s beholden to you even without a bond of matrimony. I imagine you argued all of this to Madame Guthrie when you put him forth for consideration, and she must have seen the wisdom in it.”
Another pause. “Just out of curiosity, though,” Jack continues, holding Max’s gaze deliberately. “If she had insisted on her first choice. What would you have done?”
The shadows cast by the street lamps loom over them. A cold gust of night air blows by.
“I found something of Anne’s,” Jack says, when it becomes clear that Max’s silence is all the answer he’s getting. “In your room. On Nassau.”
A series of emotions flicker across Max’s face in rapid succession before she lands just short of reproachful. “You were in my room?”
“Needed a place in town to lay low,” Jack explains, by way of a half-apology. Max hums noncommittally but says nothing further.
“I took it,” Jack admits. “The hat. Anne had lost her new one when we tried to... she had lost her new one. I thought, if all went well, I’d be able to surprise her with the old one upon my return.”
The second half of that thought -- if all hadn’t gone well -- remains unspoken. Jack knows that Max hears it anyway.
“I found myself wondering why you kept it all that time,” he says. “After all, a woman who had decided that her own security, her chance at a stable future, was more important than personal attachments… a woman who had chosen to betray the one she loved in order to preserve that future… well. It just doesn’t seem like the sort of thing a woman who was confident in that choice would hold onto.” He lets the implication hang in the air. Gives Max the chance to deny it if she wishes.
Max gazes at him steadily for a long moment, then steps forward and takes the bottle from him. Her throat bobs as she takes a long swallow, and after she hands the bottle back and wipes her mouth with the utmost delicacy, she smiles. It is not a happy smile.
“Come,” she says, turning away. “We should see to Anne.”
“Right,” Jack replies softly, and follows her.
Anne is sitting up against the headboard when they enter her room. “Took you both long enough,” she says in greeting. “Was starting to think you might’ve eloped and left me here.”
On cue, Jack and Max exchange a glance that is equal parts incredulous, bemused, and faintly disgusted. Anne’s laughter comes out in a snort. It’s the most beautiful sound Jack has ever heard.
Max moves to place the fresh candles on the bedside table and light them. “If that was what had happened,” she remarks, “it would only be so I could poison him immediately after and inherit all his money.”
“What money?” Jack retorts. “It’s all buried God-only-knows-where on that fucking miserable jungle of an island. Good luck finding it.”
The room brightens with the added light and Jack can see Anne’s face clearly as she smirks at him. “Guess we’ll just have to go steal some more, then.”
“First things first.” Jack sits next to her on the bed and carefully takes one of her hands in his own. “You are not stealing anything until you’re properly mended.”
Anne sighs as he begins to unwind the bandages. “Fuckin’ hate this,” she mutters. “Losing my mind in this room, staring at that stupid bird all day.” She scowls darkly at the embroidery hanging on the wall opposite her bed as if it’s done something to insult her.
“I’d be happy to take your place,” Jack offers. “Do you know how much reading I could have gotten done in this time if I’d been the one confined to bed?”
“Enough to wipe your ass on, I’m sure.”
Jack narrows his eyes good-naturedly at her. From across the room, he hears Max make a stifled sound that might have been a chuckle.
Anne’s hands are greatly improved since the last time Jack saw them; the bandages come off with no resistance and only show faint spots of blood. The jagged black lines of the stitches are discomforting to look at, but infinitely preferable to the mangled mess her palms had been. “What does the doctor say?”
“Same as always,” Anne says petulantly. “Don’t strain myself, keep them clean. And wait. Fuckin' useless. Can’t tell me when I’ll be able to actually use them again, of course.”
“From what he says, it is a miracle that you have avoided infection,” Max interjects. “He tells me he has rarely seen a patient recover so smoothly from such serious injuries. It is taking time, as these things do, but we have every reason to be optimistic.”
“Course he tells you that, he’s sweet on you. He’d tell you whatever you want to hear.”
It hasn’t escaped Jack’s notice that Anne is apparently on speaking terms with Max again, but he doesn’t call attention to it. He turns his head to look for the clean bandages, and just like that Max is standing next to him, holding out a damp sponge and a dry cloth for him to take.
She watches him dab at Anne’s wounds, and her eyes have taken on that solemn look again. She lays a fresh roll of bandages next to him and murmurs something about fetching more water, and then she’s gone.
Jack still doesn’t comment, just carries on pressing the sponge gently against Anne’s palms, rotating it whenever one side starts to absorb too much blood.
Eventually Anne breaks the silence, though not in the way Jack was anticipating. “He can’t say for sure if I’ll be able to use them again. The doctor. Least, not the way I could before.” Her eyes are downcast and her voice is dull. “Max keeps on hoping, but she ain’t stupid. She just don’t want me to see her worried.”
Jack knows without Anne having to say it out loud -- if her hands never recover fully, then she can’t fight. Can’t sail. Can’t do the one thing that ever made her feel like she had a place in the world. His heart clenches with the knowledge that he is absolutely powerless to do anything about that.
“Well,” he says, trying to sound calmer than he feels, “if it comes to that, we’ll figure it out, won’t we? We always do. Perhaps we could strap swords to your arms.”
“Yeah, right,” Anne scoffs.
“Oh, come on.” Jack tosses the sponge into the basin and pats Anne’s hands dry with the cloth before he starts re-bandaging them. “You can’t deny the flair it would add to your image.” He pitches his voice lower and adopts an overblown West Country accent. “That Anne Bonny, I heard she’s ten foot tall, got hands made out of knives and hair spun from the flames of Hell.”
Anne rolls her eyes at him, but the gloom has retreated from her face, so Jack considers it a win. “Oh, and speaking of your image.” He finishes tying off the first bandage and reaches inside his coat. Even though he had sewed a larger-than-average pocket into the lining for this exact purpose, the hat is still crumpled flat from being held against his body for most of the day. He straightens it out as best he can and makes sure to turn the brim up on the side, just how Anne always wore it, before placing it in her lap. She blinks at it.
“Max kept it,” Jack says quietly.
“I figured.” Anne brushes her unbandaged knuckles across the leather, just once. Her brows knit together.
Jack gives her a moment before asking, “What happened while I was gone? You seem…” He trails off, not sure what word he’s looking for. ‘Better’ feels too simplistic. “She seems to have had second thoughts.”
“We talked.” Anne doesn’t offer anything further than that, until: “She said she was sorry. For not realizing how important I was to her until it was too late.”
“And… how do we feel about this?” Jack would think it was a good sign, except that Anne is still frowning.
“Could ask you the same thing.”
Now Jack is even more confused. “What does that mean?”
“You decided to trust her again,” Anne points out. “Wouldn’t have come here in the first place if you hadn’t. So what made you do it?”
Jack considers this. “I don’t know if I’d call it ‘trust’ so much as acceptance that my life has consistently been a hell of a lot easier when I’m working with her rather than against her. Besides, it’s not really my place to stay angry at her, is it? It’s not as if she and I were --” He lets his eyebrows finish that sentence.
“Jack.” He recognizes Anne’s don’t give me that shit tone. Any offense done to one of them is an offense done to both of them.
“Alright, fine.” He takes Anne’s other hand and sets about wrapping it while he gathers his thoughts.
Why had he put his trust in Max again, despite everything? He thinks back to that moment -- Max, incandescent with a fury he’d never have believed her capable of, asking his help in destroying the man responsible for Anne’s near-demise. Then he thinks back further, all those months ago, when Max had stood before him with unshed tears in her eyes and asked his help in securing a future where Anne could be happy without her. Of course she will choose you.
“She loves you.” He half expects he’ll have to expound on that, to convince Anne of the truth of it, but the look on her face suggests that she knew it already and was just waiting to hear him say it. “Whatever else she’s done, that much is true. And it doesn’t excuse anything, and God knows it does not mean you have to forgive her, but…” He swallows around the sudden lump in his throat. “Speaking as someone who shares that sentiment, it’s enough to warrant her a second chance, as far as I’m concerned.”
He knots the second bandage, and Anne lays her fingers against his hand before he can draw it away.
“It can’t ever be what it was before,” she says, then quirks her mouth to the side. “Maybe it shouldn’t be. Look at you and me, right? All the shit we been through?” Her eyes drift off, staring at something invisible, but her voice is solid and present when she says, “Maybe some things break so you can figure out how to fit them back together the right way.”
Jack has to remind himself he can’t squeeze her hand supportively. He contents himself with leaning in and planting a kiss on her forehead before he picks the hat up and hangs it on the bedpost.
Max returns a few moments later -- certainly took an awful long time just to pump some water, Jack doesn’t say. They’re all perfectly aware of it. She sets the jug next to the bed and collects the bloodied bandages, depositing them in the bin under the table.
“We should get some rest,” she says, mostly to Jack. “We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
“Long and tedious,” Jack groans. This business of shaping Nassau’s future was thrilling when it was nothing more than a concept, just words to be spoken into the air. Now comes the actual execution of it -- more meetings to conduct, bodies to recruit, supplies to gather -- all of which will be helped tremendously by Madame Guthrie’s wealth and connections, but still. The reality is never as glamorous as the idea.
Anne yawns and blows out the candle next to the bed, then shuffles herself under the covers. It’s a little clumsy without the use of her fingers but she manages well enough. “Come to bed, then.”
Even now, just for a fleeting second, Jack isn’t sure which of them she’s addressing, but Max pointedly turns away to start stoking the fire so he supposes it must have been directed at him. He extinguishes the other candles before pulling off his boots, hanging his coat and belt on the opposite bedpost, and crawling in next to Anne. She curves toward him immediately, resting her head on his chest in their familiar position.
The fire is burning steadily, but Max pokes aimlessly at the wood for a bit longer before she straightens up and clears her throat. “Good night,” she says, tossing it over her shoulder as she makes a hasty path towards the door.
Jack glances down at Anne. Anne glances up at Jack. They come to an agreement.
“Max,” Anne calls out, propping herself up on an elbow.
Max freezes with her hand on the doorknob and slowly turns her head.
Anne’s voice is as soft as the velvet darkness outside. “Stay.”
None of them move, and then Max’s eyes dart over to Jack, as if asking permission. Jack makes a face that he hopes conveys the ridiculousness of the idea that he would have a problem with this.
Tentatively Max draws closer, and the faint hesitation in her movements reminds Jack of the very first night they all shared a bed. Except now the sight of Max undressing is a calming one, and as she undoes her hair and lets it tumble free he feels an aching fondness blooming deep in his chest, a dormant seed finally breaching the surface.
Evidently satisfied, Anne nestles back down against Jack once more. Max lays her dress meticulously over one of the chairs, careful as ever not to wrinkle the fabric. She leaves her shift on and comes around to the other side of the bed. There’s a brief rush of cool air as she lifts the blankets and slides in next to Anne, and then the three of them are bundled in a cocoon of warmth.
Anne wiggles just enough for the covers to slip down over her shoulder, then raises her hand. It hovers in the space just above them. Jack is puzzled at first, until he sees Max’s eyes go wide, and then he understands.
The mattress rustles as Max turns onto her side in order to lay her palm against the back of Anne’s hand, and then Anne brings that hand back down between herself and Jack, pulling Max’s arm along with her so that it drapes across her body in an embrace. Max does not quite allow herself to press up against the length of Anne’s back, still leaving a small distance between them, but her eyes fall shut and she relaxes for the first time since she stepped into the room.
Jack reaches out to tug the blankets fully back up over the two of them, seeing as their hands are now occupied. He pauses for just a moment before settling his fingertips very lightly on Max’s forearm, just below her wrist. The contact sends an involuntary shiver down his spine.
From behind Anne’s shoulder he can see Max’s eyes snap open again to fix on his. Truthfully, Jack feels nearly as surprised as she looks, but he doesn’t withdraw. The shock in Max’s eyes fades, replaced by something very close to wonder.
She shifts just enough to hook her little finger around his thumb, urging him further until his hand is resting atop hers, which is resting atop Anne’s. It’s the last time any of them move before they fall asleep. Against his side, he feels rather than hears Anne’s contented sigh, and it feels like coming home.