On the third day, my hat washed up on the beach. I jammed it onto a coconut and impaled that on a stick, propped upright in the sand beside me. From the corner of my eye it could almost have been a man. Buried up to his neck in the sand.
Where the blazes was Sparrow?
The beach was two hundred and thirty paces from the rocky headland to the place where a hefty stream drizzled down to the sea and turned everything into impenetrable muck. From the edge of the forest until I got my feet wet was thirty paces at high tide, forty-five at low.
Trees, sand, water, rocks, birds, seaweed, mud up to the knees, sunburnt for the first time in years, idle unwatched hours of emptiness. This was some sort of Caribbean purgatory.
I hadn't climbed a tree since I was eight and my mother admonished me for dropping chestnuts on my sister and my father told me that eight was far too old for such childish pursuits as tree-climbing. I was up a tree when the ship appeared on the horizon.
Time started again.
A lone figure rowed in towards the beach from the Black Pearl. The crew watched his progress, dangling from the rigging and the ship's sides. I watched his progress from the beach. When he grew close enough, waves swelling and breaking under the small hull, sweeping it in to shore, I stepped forward to help him draw the coracle up the beach.
He looked at me across the little boat as the waves shoved at our bare toes. "Bloody hell," said Jack Sparrow, and I don't think I'd ever heard such honest, unaffected startlement in his voice. "You're a sight."
What was left of the Commodore? No wig, no shoes, no brocade. All lost to the sea. Dried mud on my trousers, bark stains on my shirt, sun in my eyes, dirty fingernails.
"Took your time," I said.
He grinned, gold-glinted. "Need a moment to gather your effects?"
"I'm honestly not that attached to the coconut."
He started to laugh.
A decent wash and a decent meal, and I'd save my third wish for a special occasion. The shirt would be fine after a wash, and in the meantime I had a spare one of Sparrow's. With his sense of fashion, I wasn't all that surprised that it was only a little short at the wrists.
As I inspected my chin for any patches I'd missed, a dull thud sounded at the door. "Come in?" I hazarded.
The door opened and Sparrow came in backwards, holding two steaming wooden bowls that drew my gaze as though magnetic forces were involved. He spun about, almost losing the lot, and kicked the door shut somewhere in the act of melodramatically regaining his balance.
"Well!" he said, eyeing me. "You've scrubbed up quite well. For a dead man."
My stomach twisted mid-gurgle. I'd hoped he might have at least waited until after I'd eaten. "Yes, well."
He grinned. "So how about I put down the stew and you put down the razor - no sudden moves, now - and you tell Uncle Jack all about it?"
I smiled ruefully as I dropped the blade into the bowl and joined him at the table.
The stew was, in all honesty, absolutely the best meal I'd ever eaten. Including the mysterious crunchy bits. Seeing my incapability, Jack talked. "The problem was, you see, that we were all the way down in Cartagena--"
"What were you doing there?" I honestly couldn't helped myself. I did at least swallow before I continued. "They don't trade with pirates there."
"Yes but I'm Captain Jack Sparrow."
I raised an eyebrow over my spoon.
"Shut up. Eat your stew. And we were trading in information, which even stupid snobbish Spaniards are happy to have dealings with. The point is - and who's telling this story anyway? You'll get your turn... where was I?"
"The point," I offered.
He frowned at me, then his face cleared. "Yes! The point. Which is that it wasn't until we were two days off Port Royal that we even got your message which kept me in a fine state of perplexity - you could have shown a little more precision in your wording, you know - until we all get home and find out that you were magnificently brilliant in Santa Catalina - congratulations on that, by the way, always knew you had it in you - but are, unfortunately, dead and lost to the sea."
Sometimes, talking with Jack Sparrow was like being washed up on a beach. As long as you kept your head above water you'd get to solid land eventually. Lost to the sea. I liked that. I hoped it was true.
My spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl. "I'm glad you came," I told him.
"Well." He shrugged. "Your note wasn't entirely incomprehensible."
I settled the spoon in the empty bowl. "I just couldn't--"
"I know," he interrupted, and when I looked up his eyes were as unfathomable as the sea we sailed. "I know. I just couldn't quite believe you'd do it."
For all I wondered what that said about the stupidity of my actions, I returned his smile.
Perhaps this is where I should pause for breath - while I'm relishing the feel of sleeping in a real bed, or at least a far closer approximation to one than had been available on my beach - and take the opportunity to relieve any confusion. Lift the veil on that missing month. It might seem like boasting - stroke of genius the first, letting the incognito Spaniards make off with the Reward, winning the eternal gratitude of Mrs George for fixing her insurance dilemma, and providing an iron-clad excuse for invasion; stroke of genius the second, an unorthodox scattered infiltration attack of Santa Catalina whose only flaw was a certain degree of chaos in its execution, which might allow a disappearance to be overlooked, or hidden as a death.
I hadn't entirely believed I'd do it, either. Not even turning over in my hands my orders to return to England. Not even after I'd sent the message to Sparrow, when one might reasonably have expected I could feel the whole thing taken out of my hands, rendered fait accompli.
I was not unaware of the repercussions of my demise. On those I loved, on those I led. But my removal would happen in any case, and they were already becoming accustomed to it. Beginning to whittle down their futures to those possibilities that did not include my presence.
Even so, I wasn't sure. Until we took ship for Santa Catalina, running hard south with the wind in our port quarter, crisp and clear and Caribbean. The sun on the sea and salt spray in our sails; there do not exist the words to capture properly that moment of realisation.
Elizabeth and Will would find another to be their wedding's fairy godmother. Swann would know that such things happened, would drink a quiet toast to me on lazy summer evenings. Gillette and Groves would move along, climb the ranks. They'd even understand, I thought, perhaps. If they knew, though I could not tell them.
And as for Commodore Norrington... he would fall without disgrace, and remain in the Caribbean.
The only place in the world he wanted to be.
I slept late the next morning, an unthinkable luxury, but Sparrow had sent men ashore to find fresh water, and by the time I arrived up on deck, they were just stowing the last barrels and preparing to make way.
"Slugabed," Sparrow chided me, and I blinked in the bright sunlight, thinking that I hadn't heard that phrase since it fell from my nursemaid's lips.
I joined him on the quarterdeck, watching his crew swarm the rigging. Actually, there weren't enough of them to be a swarm. He was travelling with close to his skeleton crew, I suspected.
"What do you say?" Sparrow asked, licking a finger (an act of questionable wisdom, given the state of his hands) and holding it up to the air. "If we quarter hard to starboard and the wind holds, five days back to Port Royal, at the absolute worst."
I didn't round on him immediately, as he no doubt wanted me to, but it was a near thing. "I'd say you were mad, except this is you we're talking about, and I hate to sound redundant." I turned to look at him then, leaning on the railing beside me with the sun behind him; I had to squint. "There's nothing for me there any more, Jack. It wasn't a decision to be made lightly."
He watched me as canvas unfurled overhead, billowed and popped. "Then we'll continue on as we were, shall we?"
"Please," I said. "Do."
His grin bloomed, sudden and brilliant, and he turned to face forward, arms sweeping up like a diva addressing her audience. "North, lads!"
The Pearl was a truly beautiful ship. Her design was out of date, true, but perfection like hers never truly goes out of style. She was as finely balanced as the most exquisite sword ever to leave Will Turner's hands, and as responsive as a well-trained horse. I stood on her forecastle as she leapt towards the north at Sparrow's bidding, and her timbers shivered beneath me in something like ecstasy. I was barefoot already, bare-headed too. Nothing between me and her and the elements, and the feeling I had had to work for on the deck of the Dauntless came free and unbidden here.
I began to see why Sparrow had done what he had to regain her.
I watched the crew sail her, and counted faces where I couldn't place names. I was right; she was sailing with minimum hands. Not that that necessarily meant anything, with Sparrow, but I wondered where they were headed, and to what purpose.
We, really, not they. I was, for want of a better phrase, in the same boat.
"You just going to stand there for the whole damn voyage?"
I turned around, though there could be little doubt who the owner of that voice was. Sharp as Spanish steel. Female.
Anamaria was wrestling to reef a sheet that might have been tricky for two men. "Shall I give you a hand?" I asked.
Apparently, that was the wrong thing to say. She glared. She lifted a threatening finger. She took a deep breath.
"Is she always like that?" I asked Sparrow.
It was after dinner in his cabin. I lingered at the table over a very nice brandy - the bottle I'd given him, in fact - as Sparrow pored over his map table, working with more minute concentration than I would have believed he was capable of to effect an adjustment. He might have been a statue of himself; his hand was unthinkably steady. He referred to scrawled notes, measured, made a mark. Only when the pen was returned to the bottle did he speak. "Who?"
"Your second mate."
That brought him out of his trance; he laughed. I had to wait quite a while until he recovered himself sufficiently to answer. "More or less, that's Anamaria. But she is rather worse than usual recently."
"Who on earth did something to rattle her chains?" I was genuinely curious. I certainly wouldn't want to cross the lady.
"Your Lieutenant," Jack supplied readily. "He threatened her with matrimony."
I didn't choke on my brandy. "Good grief."
Jack hummed, consideringly. "Strange lad. I think he's feeling an impending sense of his own mortality, y'know?" He picked up his own brandy glass, watching me over the rim.
"You think I did the wrong thing," I said, sounding more belligerent than I'd really intended.
He shook his head slightly, sending hair ornaments swinging. "I don't give two figs for your right and wrong. And in the end, what does it matter what I think? It's you as has to live with it."
I wasn't surprised; since we first met, there has not been a moment when Jack made my life easier. I looked away from him, to the rear windows of his cabin, but it was dark outside, brightly lit within, and all I saw was myself reflected back. I looked back at him, but he'd turned back to his maps, holding his glass in his left hand as the fingers of his other hand twitched for a pen. "Is she going to accept him?" I asked, as though we hadn't strayed from the original topic.
"You'll have to ask her that," Sparrow replied.
"Not particularly tempting."
He laughed again, even as he set down the glass, hands and attention returning to the measuring, the notes, the ink well.
I eased out of my chair, slowly circling the dining table. "Why are we going north?" I asked.
"A piece of business for Anamaria," he answered, readily but unhelpfully.
"About which I can ask her, I imagine?"
I came up behind him, my attention following his to the pastiche of maps on the flat surface. He had been making amendments to the stretch of coastline where he'd taken me aboard. He worked now between that map and another, using his fingers as callipers to measure distances between a mid-ocean point and... "Havana?" I said. "Are you entirely mad?"
Jack yelped - actually yelped, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been standing at his shoulder when he made the noise - and slithered his maps together, smearing ink over his palm. "Look what you did!" he accused, holding up the indigo stain indignantly.
I leaned around him and tugged at the corner of a map. He slapped the back of my wrist, marking me like a bruise, and I picked up the brandy glass instead. "You don't have the men to even think about raiding Havana."
"Just as well I'm not thinking about it, then," he retorted, and then narrowed his eyes at me. "Is that my glass?"
I had, point of fact, left my own on the dining table. I raised an eyebrow mid-sip, but passed the glass over with barely a smirk.
"You're enjoying this, aren't you? he accused.
I honestly had to admit I was. The Commodore never got to do things like this. The Commodore never grinned, free and faintly smug, and watched Sparrow glower.
"Suppose you're going to be a pest until I get too annoyed and tip you overboard," he grumbled, seeking solace in his remaining brandy.
"Actually," I said, "I was thinking I might join your crew."
Jack choking was the crowning glory of a very pleasant evening.
When Sparrow came up on desk the next morning, I was waiting. He flailed a little, but didn't actually seem surprised. "So you're really going to do this?"
"It's the obvious option, isn't it?" I said.
"That's not necessarily a recommendation," he pointed out.
Especially not for him, I supposed. "I left Port Royal so I could sail the Caribbean. I'm damn well going to sail it."
The ghost of a smile visited his face. "Norrington--" he began.
But I interrupted him. "I know you know my Christian name." Elizabeth had used it at least once in his presence, and Jack Sparrow never missed a detail like that.
He tilted his head, allowing my point without precisely agreeing. "But some things," he said, as though it should be obvious, "are not there for the taking."
I wondered if he could be persuaded to put that in writing and perhaps sign it.
Then I realised the substance of what he'd said.
I don't know why it should surprise me that he wouldn't let us simply slip into this intimacy, that he should make me consciously invite it. That he should challenge me.
It didn't surprise me at all.
I faced him squarely, and said, "My parents called me James. I would be honoured if you would too."
The moment hung between us, and then split open on the glinting edge of his smile. "Honoured, eh?"
And it was that simple, to slip sideways into it. "Something like that," I allowed.
"Ever been called Jamie?" he asked, cheeky.
"Ever been called John?" I returned.
He winced. "It might be from the French," he protested.
"If you're a Frenchman, then I'm Welsh."
An insincere eyebrow lifted. "Got something against the Welsh?"
"Not half as much as I have against the French, and I still wouldn't wish you on them."
He tilted his head, still grinning, and had to squint a little into the sun. "How about Jim, then?"
"How about Mister Sparrow?"
Jack laughed and held out a hand that I shook without hesitation - his palm was as cool as the wind, roughened by calluses like barnacles. "Welcome to the crew, James."
Can you understand the timbre of the joy it was to be nothing more or less than a sailor? Not pure, not unmitigated, not without the sharp splinter of annoyance for the orders to be followed, not without a chafing against the helplessness of being merely another hand, certainly not without the ache and agony of a body unused to this sort of concentrated effort.
But with - with - the wave-top to wave-top singing of the hull, the deck, the timbers, she doing hers as you did yours, she needing you as you needed her, your devotion matched. The perfect poised moments - hanging one knee and one hand from her rigging, balanced between the spray and the snap of the canvas. Between sea and sky.
This I had given my life for. I considered the trade well made.
There was no good reason for Anamaria and myself to be sitting athwart the topgallant yard, except that we'd just finished reefing the sail for the evening and there was no good reason for us not to linger. The view was simply spectacular, the sun dying in golden splendour somewhere to the west on land, leaving us alone on the gently heaving sea. The Pearl tilted lovingly beneath us as I curled a hand around the reef-lines.
"Yer alright," Anamaria said, from somewhere out of sight on the other side of the mast. "For... you know."
I smiled into the breeze. No one mentioned what I had been. Jack had "introduced" me to the crew as merely James, and no one had stepped forward to gainsay him. Would have I received such a welcome on any other free vessel in the Caribbean?
"I should have thought you'd have a higher opinion of us," I said, feeling brave with the thickness of a mast between myself and the lady. "All things considered."
She sniffed, and I grinned and kicked my heels.
And then almost toppled off as she swung around the mast on a leechline, suddenly stern in my face. "It's all your fault!"
So much for my immunity. "I couldn't possibly have known he was going to prop--"
"Not that," she snapped, jaw clenched and frightening. "You brought him on board in the first place."
I'd what? I couldn't help it; I started to laugh. Thank Heavens she needed both hands and feet to keep her hold on her position. The only thing she could throw my way was a glare. "And if you'd snapped him up any quicker he would have been gone before I turned around. You can't blame me for that one."
Her glare subsided into a glower, gaining a hint of petulance. She looked down at her feet, braced against the stays on the mast, and we stayed like that for a moment. It seemed I'd got away with it.
It was pushing my luck, but I was curious. For myself, for Groves, for a desire to see him happy in this world I'd left him in. "Are you going to accept him?" I asked.
She squinted into the setting sun, the wind whipping loose strands of her hair about her face. When she spoke, her voice was almost carried away entirely by that wind. "He said we would sail a merchant ship. We could sail it together..."
Silence dragged past on the Caribbean wind, and I was helpless to fill it, caught up in the quiet, lost tone of her voice, the thread that drew it all straight back to Groves, the unthinkable, outrageous man. Anamaria blinked and look at me as if surprised to find me there, and I found something to say. "Does this have anything to do with why we're going north?"
She might have answered me, but before it could happen, a shout came from the deck. "Oi, you aloft. Lay alow!"
When I looked back, she was halfway down the mast. I followed.
It was Gibbs at the foot of the mast, looking uncertain as I slithered the last distance to the deck. He cleared his throat. "I - ah - didn't realise it was you..."
He did, at least, manage to swallow the 'sir' that had been threatening at the end of that sentence. I smiled ruefully. "Gibbs--" but at the twitch of his shoulders, I changed my mind about what I was going to say. "I don't know about you, but I need a drink. Join me?"
Thankfully, eventually, he did. If we were going to be sharing a space as small as a ship (even the Pearl) for any length of time, there were obviously issues we were going to have to deal with.
The grog we procured was eye-wateringly raw rum. Which worked to our advantage, since Gibbs actually relaxed watching me choke on my first mouthful.
"That's horrific," I coughed.
He smiled, somewhere amidst nostalgic and beatific, and took another swig. "Aye. Rough and ready."
He looked so satisfied that I couldn't help but laugh, and he laughed with me. When I held out my mug, he knocked his against it, and I braced myself for a second swig.
Gibbs considered the contents of his own mug as I recovered. With something approaching an apologetic wince, he said, "It's just a mite strange, I'm sure you'll agree, havin' you aboard."
"It's a little strange to be here," I admitted. "But anything's possible on the sea. Isn't that why we took to it?"
He ducked his head, and now we came to it.
"You're a good man, Gibbs." He looked up at me, hope peeking out. I smiled, a sardonic edge that we both knew he deserved. "More or less," and he grinned. "I'm not going to denounce you from the crow's nest, so you can stop tiptoeing around me."
He poured for himself again, and offered the jug unnecessarily to me. "I--" he hazarded, and I waited as he worked around to a full admission. "I always wanted to stay on the right side of the law." He looked embarrassed - as well he might, a man who'd been pirate for this many years.
"But the Navy isn't precisely the perfect place for a true man of the sea," I provided, and smiled at his expression. "Not among the sailors. I'll acknowledge that as readily as any, and more so than most."
"That why you left?" he asked his rum, darting a glance up as I grimaced (yes, so much for my immunity). "Begging your pardon, sir, but you're a good man yourself, and it's... well, it's strange, that's all."
In this light, the rum glinted like hidden treasure at the bottom of the mug. The inverse of the endless Caribbean sunlight on deck was the gloaming absence below. "Maybe," I said, and took a breath. "Maybe we all come to a point where the sea won't be compromised."
When I looked up, he was nodding. I felt as though I passed a hurdle, and lifted my mug.
The rum still burnt like the fires of hell, and Gibbs still laughed.
"So," Jack Sparrow said, leaning on the end of my hammock and considering me with more amusement than the cat ever did the canary. "Not a bad week's work, young James. You've successfully mended your bridges with every pertinent member of my crew. Except me."
I'd almost been asleep when he materialised. I was not fresh at all off a night aloft and almost comfortable in the close darkness of the crew quarters. In no way did I have my wits about me sufficient to deal with Sparrow, and yet there he was. Anyone would think this was his ship, the way he kept showing up.
I blinked and scrubbed a hand over my face, pressing my shoulder into the canvas of the hammock to counteract the slight rock Jack's grip had set off. "I wasn't aware our bridges were in a state of disrepair." He'd been my first thought of accomplice in my own disappearance. He'd picked me up off that lost beach. We were doing well, weren't we?
"I could make something up, if you like," he offered, swinging forward against the axis of his grip on the hammock and tilting his head confidingly. "Misunderstandings, arguments. Incidents." His other hand caught the edge of the hammock as it swung against him, holding me steady. "Shouldn't be too tricky, pair of fellows like us."
And I remembered, as I'm sure he had intended, the last incident. My breath caught against something in the back of my throat and my vision blacked with memory and vertigo. I blinked it away, off balance in the hammock, but when I could see him as more than a shadow among shadows, he still stood as he had.
"Jack..." I said, but I had nothing to follow it, and his name sat between us, like a tangible thing in the dark.
He smirked, eyes and teeth matching glints in the gloom. "Get some sleep, James. Still a ways to go before we're there."
"Where?" I called after him, but he'd already disappeared.
We weren't heading true north. That was simplicity itself to determine, from the sun and the stars and the wind. More nor-nor-east, easing further to the east as we went. I didn't peek again at Sparrow's maps, doing the best I could with what I had in my head, calculating distances and directions with mental callipers.
"You think too much for a sailor," Anamaria declared, accompanying the curt sentence with a not unfriendly elbow in the ribs as she climbed past me in the rigging.
She was right, but it didn't stop me. Port Royal, I was almost certain, had passed away far to the east and south. It occurred to me that we might be heading for Tortuga, which would be an interesting experience without a doubt. There was not much else beyond in that direction, but the absence of any reasonable target could never be considered a deciding factor when dealing with Sparrow.
I ran all my calculations again when the cry of "Land ho!" came from the lookout. It took another hour or two before the coastline was visible from the deck as more than a low line of grit along the horizon. By the time we were close enought to pick out the darker, greasier smudge of a city, I knew where we were.
Sparrow stepped up beside me, where I was leaning against the forward rail. "Santiago," I stated. Wealthy enough to draw all sorts, not yet established enough to have begun being choosy about who it welcomed within its walls.
"Not Havana," Sparrow pointed out, with admirably little smugness.
"Not your final destination," I countered.
"Cheerful spot to stop over, though," he continued, not missing a beat. "Nice fruit, good grog, lovely girls. Ever been there? Fabulous town. I could even consider leaving Tortuga for her, but you know how I hate to appear fickle."
Well, at least I was relatively unlikely to be recognised here. "Why is it," I wondered aloud, "that whenever you're involved I end up surrounded by Spaniards?"
"Because bouquets of flowers are very boring." Jack clapped me on the shoulder. "Look lively. We can spend tonight on solid ground if we try."
We beat the night to Santiago. The Pearl was berthed and made fast, and the appropriate officials bribed, by the time the sun slunk below the spur of the island that sheltered the town.
Jack gave the watch to two of the crew who'd let a minor disagreement get out of hand the night before. (The injuries weren't even sufficient to impede their ability to discharge their duties.) It was, I couldn't help thinking, almost precisely what I would have done. Excepting only the part where he shook a stern finger in their faces, telling them that if they continued behaving like scallywags he'd hang them out to dry on the yardarms.
Then the rest of us hit the town.
Though he couldn't have been said to be precisely leading the party, Sparrow seemed to know exactly where he wanted to go, and our rowdy group (entirely inconspicuous on the early evening streets of Santiago) drifted up one street and down another until we reached what I could only assume was the right place. The sign didn't have a written name, but suggested strongly through pictures that the place was called the Bell and Anchor. There was little to distinguish it from a dozen other places we'd passed, but Sparrow made a bee-line for the door.
I don't think there's such a thing as unjustified suspicion when it comes to that man.
The crew tumbled into the tavern like a spilt drink, trickling into all the gaps and soaking into the atmosphere. In minutes it was as though we'd been there for hours.
It would have been easy to lose Sparrow in the chaos if I hadn't been watching for him. He slipped through the crowd like a rat through rushes, graceful and greased, and washed up at a corner table occupied by a hard-eyed Spaniard who didn't seem at all surprised to see him.
There's a grim satisfaction in having assumptions confirmed.
I lost him in the swell of the first round arriving with a consonant-free roar of approval and unwinding that I joined in, raising my tankard to the group. When I looked back to the corner table, Anamaria had joined them, and I was entirely unsurprised.
There was little to be gained from continued watching; I was too far away to hear anything, and there was little remarkable to see. I turned back to the main body of the crew, who'd ambushed a passing serving maid and were engaged en masse in cajoling her into singing. When they finally prevailed, she proved to have a very clear voice (and a deft manner in turning down the multitude of other "offers" that were thrust upon her). Another serving girl (not a sister, I thought, and my eyes slid to the corner again) had a talent for dancing, and a much more mercantile attitude to other matters.
By the time I was languishing in the bottom third of my second tankard, the party was beginning to fragment and spread, getting rowdier in all directions. I saw Anamaria first, suddenly appearing in a knot of the crowd to be tucked under a burly arm and claim a tankard as her own, draining it in one long pull. I didn't look back to the corner, but finished my own beer as I waited, until Sparrow dropped into the seat beside me.
I didn't give him time to settle. "Profitable meeting?" I asked, keeping him in the corner of my eye.
From that angle I couldn't quite tell if he was smiling, but I thought so. "Yes, it was," he said.
I pushed my empty tankard across the table. "Where to now, then?"
He shifted in his chair, but I still wasn't looking. "Now," he said, "I thought would be the perfect time for that quiet drink you owe me."
When I did look, he was twisted in his chair to face me, grinning, elbow slung across the back of the chair and hand dangling. "That wasn't what I meant."
"I know." His fingers danced over my elbow, up my arm, twisting into a knuckled grip in the fabric at my shoulder. "Come on."
The men he'd left on watch were playing at dice on the quarterdeck, and looked rather surprised at Jack's response to their challenge. Even more surprised, though briefly so, when his next words as he strode aboard were, "What the bloody hell are you doing here? Go on, get off my ship. Enjoy yourselves."
They followed those orders with alacrity, hieing off down the wharf before he could change his mind again, no doubt. I crossed to the starboard rail, looking out over the harbour, letting the Pearl rise and fall below me as though she were breathing along with me. When he stepped up beside me, Jack was brandishing a bottle. "Did you have that in your pocket?" I asked.
"I certainly didn't have it under my hat," he retorted, failing to get a grip on the cork. Eventually he pulled it out with his teeth, spitting it grandiosely over the side to join the rest of the detritus on the water.
I followed him up onto the forecastle, where a lantern at least provided better light. Jack leaned over the forward railing, patting a familiar hand against the carved locks of the figurehead. Ritual of some sort apparently completed, he turned his back upon her, lounging back against the railing. I sat on the edge of the forward hatch.
"Want a drink?" he offered.
"Not particularly," I said, but took the bottle anyway. It was, as feared, the same breed of ferocious rum I'd sampled with Gibbs. Perhaps not quite as ferocious. Perhaps I was getting used to it. "What I'd like is answers."
Jack tilted his head, giving the concept its due consideration. I didn't hold out much hope. Sure enough, he answered, "Too easy," and smiled in a manner entirely not conducive to reassurance. "Let's do it this way instead: one question, one answer. What say you?"
I was sceptical, to say the least. "And would that answer be the truth?"
"Of course!" he cried, convincingly affronted.
I sipped again at the rum, weighing words and phrases in my head. I knew him. My question would need to be answerable with nothing but the truth I wanted. "What will be the end point of the Black Pearl's next voyage?"
"Havana." The answer was startling in its promptness, its stark simplicity, the ease with which Jack gave it up.
I blinked. "Are you entirely mad?"
He grinned and swung forward, holding himself upright with one hand on the railing. "One question, remember. My turn." He plucked the bottle from my hand, sweeping his head back and losing his hat in taking a long swallow of the filthy stuff. He bared his teeth against it, and nudged his hat further into the prow with his toe. "Why did you kiss me?"
The question was like a jab to the stomach, all my breath rushing out. I saw Jack there, I saw him before me, I saw him again kneeling on the carpet before me, before the fire. Firelight, lamplight, his face, his eyes, the way he'd tasted and felt and sounded... My lungs burned; I drew breath into my body again. He was looking at me; he hadn't been that close before, he'd stepped forward from the railing. "You were... there," I said. So incredibly, indescribably there in a moment where anything else was impossible - how could I say that?
The curve of his mouth was amusement not quite equal to a smile. "I was there? You mean to tell me that anyone--"
"One question," I reminded him, clinging to the rules Jack had made. I held out my hand for the bottle.
He relinquished it with good grace and a long, heavy look from beneath half-lowered lashes. "In that case, it's your turn," he reminded me.
My turn. I could ask him anything. I could ask him why Havana, how Havana, and he'd answer, he'd tell me everything. "Why did you kiss me back?"
His eyes glinted like the sea under moonlight. He was closer but still distant until he spoke, so quietly but I had no trouble hearing him. And he said, "Some things aren't there for the taking. But if they're given, how can a man deny them?" I didn't remember closing my eyes, but they were closed when he whispered in my ear, breath against the lobe and whiskers against my cheek, "James."
I turned, I reached, and he was there, right there, sliding into my arms, breath pushing against mine. I couldn't taste the rum on his tongue for the rum on my own (the bottle knocking against wood as I set it aside in favour of non-liquid intoxication) but he was still the flavour of the sea, of wild boundless freedom. He washed over me, lapped against my shores, and I drew him closer and closer still, taking him with me when he tilted me backwards with a hand tangled in my hair and a branding grip just above my elbow. We sprawled over the hatch cover, him kissing me kissing him because he was there, more there than anyone else had been, could be, and I told him, muttered against his jaw, "Not anyone. Not anyone else."
We rolled like the sea, like the ship beneath us, and eventually came the ebb as we eased apart, gasping. He began to shift back and, "Jack," I muttered, trying to keep my grip.
"I don't," he started, and I exulted to realise he was breathless. "I don't want to push..."
He half sat up, but I got my fingers around his shoulder and pulled him back down, pressed his shoulder blade into the wood with the heel of my hand, held him there. "When don't you want to push?" I growled in his ear, and moved my other hand down, palm pressed where I knew he was hard. Knew because I was, hard and wanting.
His head knocked back against the hatch with a hollow thud. "James," he gasped, laid out below me like some lost treasure of the Caribbean.
If such things are given, how can a man deny them indeed?