To even the odds, they met in French ports, where James was in just as much danger as Jack. Also, James said, if he was going to commit treason, he preferred not to do it on English-held soil.
That was the difference between them, Jack decided. To him, soil was soil. To James, soil had words attached to it, like 'duty', 'empire', 'loyalty' and 'rule of law'. Those weren't words in Jack's vocabulary, except maybe 'loyalty', which had an entirely different meaning for him.
"Il est terriblement malade. Ah oui, ce sera certainement fatal! Mais, s'il vous plaît, pas de docteurs! Je peux me débrouiller tout seul. Merci, mon chou."
He shut the door with a deferential smile and turned back to the bed, where James did indeed look feverish, at first glance. Sheets cast off in a burning fit, hair glued with sweat to skin flushed with a hectic colour, eyes bright as polished glass… yes, he was deep in the throes of a dire distemper. Jack straddled him, and let hot hands peel off the clothes he'd thrown on in a hurry. Where had they been? Oh, yes, there…
Afterward. "I would very much recommend you avoid all the Lesser Antilles next month. I'm simply saying."
James had a gift for ruining the mood. Jack tugged at a little swirl of chest hair. "Do you, now?"
An impatient sigh. "Just—do as I say. It's not hard."
"I thought the word you used was 'recommend.' Or does that mean something different in the Navy?"
"Can you please just—I'm compromising myself as it is—"
"There, there. I'll take it under advisement. Satisfied?"
"I suppose I'll have to be."
Two months later, in an upstairs room sweltering under the brunt of the late afternoon sun.
"Cutlass… another cutlass… musket ball… bit of a mast when the guns brought it down… pistol shot… more wood splinters… that was just the galley stove… that was when I bashed my head on the companionway…"
Jack stroked a pink line that just missed a nipple. "And all of it spared your pretty face, thank God."
"Not quite." James pointed to a half-moon on his cheekbone beneath his eye. "A brass button shot through the air when a gun exploded. The surgeon had to yank it out with pliers. Would have been my eye with another inch." A stretch and a yawn. "Your turn."
"Let's see, then… bayonet… same bayonet, coming out the other side… moray eel, long story… knitting needle, again long story, though I'll say it was intended to be lower… torture, ta very much to the Spanish… the same, cheers to the Right Honourable East India bastards… proof that you should never attempt to slide down a backstay while drunk…"
"It's a whole story, isn't it? A man's skin." James's fingers wandered in the path of the mysterious knitting needle. "And we've barely a word in common. Except for stupid shipboard accidents."
"Not so surprising. You can't share pain in the end, seems to me."
When Jack tiptoed downstairs for another bottle, they asked dangerous questions about his tall, silent companion.
"Anglais? Vous ne pouvez pas être sérieux! S'il ne parle pas c'est seulement parce qu'il a honte de sa voix. Eunuque, vous comprenez."
Time to move on, he thought.
They did it again, noisily against the door, making a barricade of their bodies. James with his cheek and palms on wood, Jack doing his best to make hinges squeak and door slam against frame. Jack's mouth pressed against a faded purple welt on a shoulder blade.
Stretched out on the bed, James refused the rum. "I overheard. You only resort to the eunuch routine when things are bleak. I assume that means Port-de-Paix is getting hot? "
"Aye. Saint Lucia next time, I'm thinkin'."
"That might be even hotter."
"I know a few out-of-the-way spots."
A sigh. "I'm sure you know a lot of things I'm better off not knowing."
Things did indeed get hot, but not in Port-de-Paix. At home, people asked where James went, and was it always for the reasons he said. Jack didn't see him for six months.
Then, finally, Saint-Marc. "You had better…" James thrust an unceremonious hand between Jack's legs "…make this worth it."
"Fear not on that account." Jack's voice was muffled by his shirt. As he tugged it over his head, James's mouth latched onto a nipple as though by magnetism.
"You scared me last month." He tugged Jack over to the bed. "With the Skylark. Trying to stay and fight." He pushed their mouths together, then pulled them apart with a wet pop. "Bloody fool."
Afterward, Jack had his own ideas about who was the fool. "Dunno why you don't jus' tell the Navy to bugger off."
"Because unlike you, I live to serve my king and country," James said, pulling impatiently on a braid. He'd recited that line to Jack many times.
"D'you really think king and country couldn't get by without you?"
"Look, you are never going to understand, just like I am never going to understand why you prefer the life of a homeless fugitive, so let's just—enough."
They'd come together by accident. Naturally, it had been the fault of the Spanish.
"Quit dragging your heels! They're going to discover we're gone any moment and we must be out of reach when they do!"
"Forgive me for askin' at a delicate time, but I was your prisoner when they captured us, so pray tell why are you includin' me in your escape?"
"Because it is my right to hang you and not theirs!" Norrington hissed. Yet Jack heard the lack of conviction, and from that moment on, he was no longer fooled.
At the end of the tunnel was an inky, underground sea. Norrington stepped to its edge. "I happen to know that if we swim under that ledge, we'll come up in a hollow that will let us out into a cave that opens near the mouth of the harbour. After that, well—you're the expert on escaping from hostile ports."
"Clever Commodore. I'm to take it you've been stuck here before?"
"I might have. Now get rid of anything heavy, it will be a long way on one breath." Norrington set his hat aside as neatly as a teaspoon.
Jack doffed his own. He looked over periodically; each time, there was another layer gone, which meant that each time, he had to look a little longer. Eventually, he was looking at something quite unrecognizable, and his mouth went dry. Uptight Navy prigs in silly braid-trimmed coats didn't light his fire, but willowy, dark-haired young men in their smallclothes certainly did. He could tell it was still Norrington if he looked closely, but it was like meeting the man's twin from another lifetime.
Later, in the hold of a merchantman bound for a neutral port, Jack found every opportunity to cuddle up to his new discovery. The fact that Norrington let him, and the memory of that distinct lack of conviction in his voice, led Jack to venture on the second or third day, "You're not goin' to hang me when we're back in English waters, are you."
Norrington didn't reply, having understood that it was not a question. He simply thinned his lips and looked away. After a while, he whispered, "God help me."
"It'll be easy," Jack murmured days later, brushing his lips over the tender skin of Norrington's throat. "Just tell 'em they executed me. No one'll be lookin' for me, an' no one'll be lookin' at you. Problem solved."
Norrington's dark lashes stirred. "You have no idea," he said, his words checked by pleasure, or maybe sadness.
"C'est un crétin! Un dément! Ne faites pas attention à lui, il raconte n'importe quoi."
Jack hustled James upstairs. "What did we say about keepin' your mouth shut?" They were nose to nose in the corridor, Jack's loud whisper echoing up and down. "It's you who's insisting on this charade, but I trust you with one simple act o' subterfuge—"
James kept him from finishing.
Even the door didn't make them feel safe; the walls seemed thinner than usual. They did it quickly, with their hands clapped over each other's mouths.
"We'd not have to bother," Jack said afterward, staring at the ceiling with fingers laced behind his head, "if you'd just give your boys the two-fingered salute and come with me to the Pacific."
James gave an exaggerated sigh. "This arrangement would work perfectly well if you did not consistently ignore my advice on how not to get yourself hanged!"
"I'll not be told what to do or where to go."
"Then you're a damn fool. I can only keep you from getting caught, Jack. After that…"
"Ah, so the truth outs." Jack levered up on his elbow. "You'll juggle me and the Navy like two mistresses, but if your hand is forced, you'll go right back to your precious duty and let me dangle."
James sat up, toppling Jack. "If you insist on strutting brazenly into the Navy's path, then it is jolly well your responsibility to escape if you're caught! I'm risking enough already. And unlike you, if I were found out, I would not escape."
"You managed it the once, didn't you? You're a clever sort, I'm sure you'd—"
"I mean that I would not try to escape. I would not want to escape."
"And why the bloody hell not?"
"Because," James said, turning to face him, "as both a traitor and a sworn servant of the Crown, it would be my duty to accept the full prosecution of the law."
Jack looked deeply into his eyes for a moment. Then he said, "That is the bloody stupidest thing I've ever heard."
At far as Jack had been concerned, it was inevitable. These things happened, a hazard of the trade, like storms, or syphilis. James's reaction was a little less philosophical.
"I cannot get you out of this!" he hissed through the bars. "You've done it this time, Jack, you've forced us into a corner, there's no way out—"
"James, James," Jack cooed. "These things have a way of working themselves out, just you see."
"I don't see any Will Turners around this time."
"But I've got you, don't I? If you spring me, we can get off this island before they notice I'm gone."
"If I spring you and they discover it, I'll hang on the gibbet they built for you."
"I promise you," Jack smiled, "I will keep us both alive for far longer than either of us deserve."
"Jack." James rubbed his forehead. "I cannot go with you."
"Oh, for the bloody love of—if you say the word 'duty,' I swear on me mother's grave—"
"I know it means nothing to you," James snarled, eyes strange and cold, "but for some of us, life isn't worth living without it." He pulled away and disappeared up the stairs.
"James! James!" Jack slid down the wall. "Oh, bugger."
He had spent some long nights in prison before, but this took the prize. The rats and the mouldy straw weren't a problem. The threat of death on the morrow wasn't a problem. Having his darkest suspicions about James confirmed was the problem.
As the horizon was turning grey, the door at the top of the stairs creaked open. Jack didn't get up. Then he heard metal squealing against metal as James unlocked the door.
"What changed your mind?" A bit of frost edged Jack's voice as he strolled out.
James laughed—an ugly, miserable sound. "Changed? Nothing changed. I never had a choice. I was going to do this whether I wanted to or not."
"One always has a choice."
"No." James fixed him with an importuning look, as though it were vitally important Jack understand. "No, one does not."
"A man is free to do what he thinks—"
"Don't misunderstand me." James closed his eyes. "I'm not proud of myself. If I were a good and fair man, I would let you hang, because no law is just unless all men are treated equally under it and letting you go is an insult to every other man I've ever hanged, is it not? But I am weak, and I am helpless, and so for God's sake just get out of here before we're both caught and all of this is for nothing."
"Come, then." He seized James's wrist and tugged him toward the stairs. "It'll be like it shoulda been from the start, no wasting time stealing away or sneaking around or—"
James laid a finger on Jack's lips.
"—or acting French," Jack concluded, when James took the finger back.
"You are who you are, and I am who I am," James said sadly.
And so they did as their natures commanded: Jack went, and James stayed.
As soon as he could, Jack got word to Will. When word got back to him, he dropped everything and made for Port Royal with the devil on his heels.
"They're expecting you, Jack. He's under heavy guard around the clock. And even if he weren't, we'd still have to get through the fort's defences. There's no way in, short of tunnelling underground."
Jack looked into that. It was no good; solid rock.
"I'm sorry," Will said, sincerely.
If it had been Elizabeth in there, they'd be storming the fort already. But Jack wasn't Will; he wasn't stupid. At times, he wished he were.
Fortunately, with gentleman naval officers, things of a legal and penal nature took ages. Pirates' necks were interchangeable, but you couldn't risk hanging the wrong gentleman. Jack paced around, feeling useless and frustrated, waiting for an opportune moment that never came. He wanted to burn, stab, make things explode. But the only reply he ever got to his messages simply said, "Leave it be."
"Duty. Bloody buggering duty. Of all the barmy, stupid, nitwitted nonsense." Jack sat in the dirt and cursed at his boots. He had to stay angry, because he didn't like the other things he was threatening to feel.
If only their positions had been reversed, it would've been so much easier.
"Next time you send him a message, why don't you try not calling him an idiot for not wanting what you want?" Will's earnest face was devoid of humour. Sometimes it was hard to tell with him, though.
"An' what good would that do, pray?"
"Oh, I don't know—comfort him, perhaps?"
Jack wasn't used to feeling guilty, so he'd never realized how much it could hurt when you really meant it.
He sat down at Will's table to write. Something comforting. Comforting…
"Just be honest," Will snapped.
So Jack wrote: "I'm only being a pain in the arse because I love you."
He stared at that word after he wrote it. Imagined scratching it out and writing something else, then scratching that out, and so on, until the page was filled with a comical array of euphemisms. But there was no time for that.
Up to the last, he persisted in the belief that a moment would present itself. One even James couldn't resist. A noisy diversion as they marched him toward the gallows, a lapse in their attention. A tidal wave. The second coming. Anything. Jack followed the procession from a safe, hidden distance, knowing the route by heart; he'd walked it himself. James had shown the same equanimity that day as he was showing now—with a foot in the next world already.
Time was running down, and still no moment. Steps up to the platform, and still nothing. Finally, Jack gave up. In place of hope, he simply wished that somehow James knew he was there. James had to know, because he knew Jack.
They were both utterly predictable, weren't they? To one another, at least. You didn't have to understand to predict. Jack stared and stared at the gallows, and tried to see the invisible thing James was dying for. But he couldn't, because he'd never had a use for anything he couldn't see or smell or touch. That was the difference. But if James could accept him without trying to change him, Jack could return the kindness.
He watched it happen. As he fled from that place, stumbling blindly toward the sea, he already wished he hadn't. He wanted that memory gone, wanted it cut right out of his head. He wanted to give it away, make it someone else's burden. But he had it now and he'd have it forever.
It was only right, that he keep this awful thing. For James's sake, though James would never know. For him, Jack hadn't looked away. He clutched the memory close, and thought he might finally understand what duty was.