Author: Guede Mazaka
James finds him not in Tortuga, not in Port Royal, but in a quiet little Bahamian town whose houses are floating pastel confections that shimmer when the afternoon head rises from the ground. The Bahamas aren’t too far from Jamaica as the seagull flies, but they seem a world away: sleepy and peaceful, free of the languid prickling magic that seethes beneath every wave and leaf of that island.
Will’s done well for himself. His shop is well-built and of generous size, and the windowpanes sparkle in the light. He’s got gold gilding on the letters of his sign, and as James watches from a tavern across the room, a steady stream of traffic into the store. The local gossips say no worse of him than that he’s too shy and quiet a man for his means and looks, and should’ve long since taken to one of the coquettish girls demurely showing their ankles whenever he happens to step out. Within the shop he wears homespun and a leather apron; without it, he dons a slightly battered tricorne--and see, Commodore, I’ve even swept your subjects out from under you along with everything else--and a dull but elegantly-made long coat. In another ten years, in this mercurial corner of the world, he might even be gentry.
James lifts his mug to his mouth and lets the bitter ale soak into his tongue, rolling it about as he thinks. It doesn’t burn like rum, unfortunately, but then, that suits now. He’s sitting on land, in the gray shade, like the gray ash figure he is.
Will’s taking the air now, leaning against his door while idly chatting with a girl whose complexion reminds James of the roses back home—home, home, it’s always England, damn it, and nothing should replace it—and of fresh thick cream as it clots in the bowl. She’s a winsome one, with a slyness that belies her blush when a passing dog forces her to move closer to Will, but James finds himself yawning. Winsome and sly, it’s not much nowadays. He’s glad in a way to see that beneath the politesses of society, Will doesn’t seem moved either.
Will finishes with his talk and happens to glance up as he lays his hand on the doorknob. He squints across the street and James stiffens slightly, but then Turner twists away, vanishing into the yawning black mouth of his store.
James smiles with one side of his mouth and reaches into his moneybag for the price of the ale. He stops a second to look at the piece of eight in his hand: this little wedge of gold with its fragmentary embossed design. The way it’s been clipped, only one eye of the sovereign’s face is visible, and that could be the eye of anything. Even a skull.
He flips it onto the table as he gets up.
* * *
When James just happens to grace Turner’s threshold with his presence, the other man is nearly ready to close up. One last customer, a big, florid man with a cracked front teeth and a brown coat, is receiving his completed order. He smells of meat and blood, and the rust-brown grime beneath his nails stirs up James’ memories, making them crowd thick and fast with their sneering, brutal faces. “Thank you, thank you,” the man says in a fatuous tone. “Be glad not to have the wife stealing my own work knives for our kitchen now, that’s for certain.”
“It was my—” Will’s in the middle of the bow when he spies James over the man’s shoulder “—pleasure. My best to Mrs. Carver.”
“Well, I see you’re still a favorite of the ladies,” James says.
Mr. Carver starts. Will doesn’t, but he eases himself backwards, clear of his workbench in the same way a shark makes for open sea. His smile is tight and doesn’t reach his eyes. “He’s an old acquaintance. Norrington. I didn’t know you were in town.”
“I don’t remember sending you a message, so that’s no surprise.” The precise ramrod training of the Admiralty’s been bent and beaten almost completely out of James, so lounging comes naturally to him now. He props one arm up on a crossbar by the door and folds his fingers between each other before him. He’s dressed considerably more questionably than Mr. Will Turner and he can see it in the suspicion of Mr. Carver’s face—oh, the names, as if they were any use in describing people anymore—in the way that the other man puffs up even as he shivers in fear.
“Good evening, Mr. Carver,” Will says coolly, commandingly. He’s clever about it. Mr. Carver probably never will wonder what it was that pushed him past James and on out into the street.
James unhooks his sword from his belt and uses the hilt to catch the inner doorknob, which is a simple loop of rope. He yanks the door shut; dust falls from the ceiling beams and from a far corner comes a donkey’s irritated bray. “I would have thought you’d be above smithing by now.” Though James really thinks no such thing. “Has Elizabeth gotten so accustomed to dirt on her men now?”
“Miss Swann and I are no longer so familiar.” There’s the warning, the little bit of metal hammered over the edge of Will’s voice. He watches James steadily as he picks a rag from the bench and begins to run it over his hands. It seems insolent to James, a contemptuous gestures towards his comfort that holds no sincerity.
“Oh? Still a miss? My, my. I would’ve thought an energetic woman like her would have managed to accomplish that goal by now,” James drawls, pushing himself off the doorframe. He’s taken the sway of the sea into himself in place of pride and honor and duty, so even on land, he can feel the earth heave and slip beneath him. “Whatever happened? Should I issue a congratulations to her third fiancé?”
Will’s lip curls as he steps further back. He pivots on his heel, tossing the rag away, and pulls off his apron with his back half to James. Then he reaches for his coat, and plain though it might be, it still swings a vivid challenge before James as he pulls it on. The shoulders don’t fit quite correctly and the fabric strains unevenly over Will’s back. “What do you want, Norrington? Oh, and how should I address you now? I understand you’re still employed by the Crown, but Commodore isn’t quite it, is it?”
James swallows the sting, lets it nest deep in his chest and fester along with the other sores. Soon enough, he won’t need the rum to feel a burning beneath his skin and taste sweet rot in his mouth. “Captain. Seeing as I’ve kept my ship.”
“I’d heard that Beckett’s replacement is more persuadable.” Will mocks him, but it’s the wrong tone: it doesn’t imply enough, doesn’t dig beneath James’ skin to the seething heat, doesn’t slur between righteousness and rudeness enough. “Well, Captain, what can I do for you?”
Instead of answering, James slowly turns in place, looking more closely at this new shop. The wood is light-colored and only lightly stained by smoke, the bolts have no salt-rust on them and all the counters are well-dusted. Tools are arranged in an orderly fashion on the walls and tables, except for one stray hammer on the anvil, but even that has been laid down perpendicular to the edge. Along one wall, what are obviously orders have been organized from least to most complete, and in the back is a neat stall for the donkey. The living quarters are above, James supposes.
“You’ve done very well for yourself. A true pillar of local society, I understand.” James pauses to listen and hears Will’s next breath come a bit deeper, a touch more rough. He hefts his sword in his hand. “Forgive me if I’m a little incredulous. I never would have expected such a transformation, considering the experiences you’ve had. I doubt the rest of the town would, either.”
“What do you want?” Will says, just short of a snarl.
Knives, pots, harness buckles and horseshoes. A fine pair of wrought-iron candle-sticks. And that’s all from the master blacksmith, sometime pirate: domestic goods and frippery. Somehow James finds himself disappointed. Disappointed and angry, for he himself can’t hold a teacup in the right fashion anymore, his thumb and fingers always sliding off the handle to grip it like a crude pewter mug, and he sleeps better on a pile of ropes than on a mattress.
James finally faces Will again. He looks at the other man for a moment, taking in the set jaw and glittering eyes, and then he whips up his sword and slams it down on the bench. The wood rattles and he feels the metal give a little beneath his hands, cheap stamped-work that it is.
Will startles in place, eyebrows jumping and fingers flicking into half-curled fists.
“I want my sword back. You did know how to make them, if nothing else,” James answers. Grim pleasure curls in him when Will’s jaw clenches, and he barely feels any shame over it.
“Your sword’s with bloody Davy Jones,” Will snaps. For a moment, he loses the precise, consciously light enunciation of the town and his voice deepens with anger. He almost slurs. “You want that back, go see Ja--Captain Sparrow.”
James snorts over the remembered fury and humiliation that name always brings. “But I’ve learned that sometimes fairytales are best not indulged. I’ll settle for a replacement of equal quality.”
Will stills where he is. If James reached out to touch him, it’d be worth betting a soul over that Will’s skin would feel as cold as winter-night foam. But the emotion in Will’s eyes blazes, then smolders and finally tightens to a hard, bright light. “I don’t have the right steel here.”
He sounds reasonable. If anyone happened to be listening in, then they’d find no fault with what they heard. However, James happens to be watching, and he can see clearly enough what kind of color floods back into Will’s face when he lifts a bundle to the bench and puts it down beside the sword, unwrapping it just enough to let the ore dully catch the light.
After a moment, Will drops his eyes. He takes up the hunk and turns it over in his hands, fingers moving unconsciously to best shape and mold themselves to the irregularities. Once he stops the motion to try and dig at the metal with his thumbnail, only to muffle a curse when his nail chips blood instead. “It’s good.”
“Nice to know that pirate wasn’t lying,” James says, and Will throws his head back up to stare hard at him. James lets his weight hang on his further heel and cocks an eyebrow at him.
“It’ll be expensive.” Will goes back to fingering the metal, stroking it almost like he would a lover. He’s thoughtful, calculating. He’s still a poor liar and a poorer schemer.
His eyes flick up when James trickles out some coins onto the bench, but the rest of his head stays angled towards the ore. “Melt these down for the hilt and scabbard-work.”
Now Will looks fully up, and it’s an interesting expression he has, neither the defiance of immature nor the sour resignation of the elderly. His eyes narrow as he studies James, who lets him look as much as he likes. He can’t be any harsher a judge than the mirror.
“Then I’ll need my regular customers to pay for the coal. Come after-hours so you don’t frighten them off,” Will finally says. “How long can you wait?”
“As long as it takes. Patience is a virtue, after all.” James picks up his sword, then turns on his heel and walks out without further speech.
He doesn’t feel better, but he feels bitter, clawing and screaming in the dark, and that’s just as well right now, for at least he won’t have to waste money drinking tonight to get to the same point. He’ll go back down to the docks and stalk what rowdy elements there are in this town for more information on the direction of his next sweep. He hopes some of them will put up a little of a fight; his current sword might be battered and disgusting, but it isn’t rusty yet and he needs to keep it that way till he has a replacement.
* * *
The nights here are sleepy and dark, curling down like the five slumbering watch-dogs James spots on his way to the smithy. The only light he sees seeps from the cracks around the smithy’s doors and windows, but that light is orange and baleful and fits better to James’ mood. Thick black clouds sluggishly rise from the chimney, blacker by far than the star-spangled sky.
He goes round to the backdoor, and when he opens it a hazy billow of smoke burns and fumes its way into his nose and down his throat. He coughs a little, but refrains from flapping a piece of his shirt-sleeve over his nose. And in the few moments he needs to step fully inside, he’s grown used to it.
Will’s nothing but a black shape before the vicious red glare of the fire. His silhouette is sharper than James expects, and after a moment James understands that is because Will has stripped to the waist, and now lacks the softening movement of clothing around the edges. His elbows currently thrust outwards, but as James watches, Will yanks them in towards himself, raking something through the coals so a fiery spout of sparks rises. Then he turns, guarding himself with a white-hot length of metal.
His shadowy shape flickers before the fire a moment as he starts, not having heard James. Then he completes his turn; the metal leaks plentifully of more sparks when it bangs down against the anvil. With his right hand, he seizes a nearby hammer and raises it above his head.
He has whip-scars on his back. James looks at them rather clinically, for a moment returned to his proper deck and staring wide-eyed at the flayed back slumped against the gratings. Except, of course, he no longer has to try to hold down his lurching stomach and beat off the impending nausea, because he’s not nauseous. “Where did those come from?”
It’s possible Will hasn’t heard him, given how furiously the other man is beating at the steel. Possible. Listen to me! These things are real! You must believe me, James. Many things are possible in the world. Got them from an angry squid, your grace. It just…whipped its slimy tentacles across me…right…there…though harder than me just now. And do you like that touch, love?
James walks around the anvil, careful of the skittering waves of sparks, and repeats himself in a louder voice. Will isn’t hitting the rod quite so hard now; rather, he’s tapping it forcefully along the edges, shaping the metal as it dulls to red. He spares a moment to glance up at James with level eyes, speak with a level tone. “My father.”
“I thought he was dead,” James says, surprised. Then he understands, and snorts as he leans against a counter. “Oh. Yet another detail Elizabeth failed to mention to me.”
It wasn’t a bad whipping. The scars are clean and hardly overlap each other so James can tell exactly how many strokes and how many strands in that cat o’ nine-tails. They’re framed by other marks, one whose trail James has followed round Will’s side to his front: a long, thin cut that’s intriguingly straight for all its curving about Will. It’s as if a blade whipped round him, or maybe he whipped across it.
“So what happened to him?” James asks.
“He’s dead. Again.” A glance again from between hunched shoulders, as if Will thinks James might strike even at that.
Well, possibly, if the situation were more dire. Something James has discovered about himself is that there is very little that he won’t try in order to survive, and never mind whether it’ll disturb his sleep later. He doesn’t think of sleep when he makes a decision concerning his life; he wonders that there was ever a time when he believed men naturally took such into consideration. But right now, he’s not at the point of a sword, or in the eye of a hurricane, or starving on one side of the glass when the food is on the other.
“Jack has a few himself.” James turns to look at the other projects Will has lined up. He fingers some of the kitchen knives, cuts himself on one. The blood when he sucks it off his thumb tastes terribly salty, like a tide-pool.
“Does Jack.” Will puts an emphasis on the name by turning and thrusting the rod back into the coals just as he says it, so it’s accompanied with a rattle and a roar and plenty of smoke. “Are you always so familiar with everyone now?”
“I was under the impression that Jack Sparrow was a special case. Why, aren’t you friends?” The shadows slash Will’s face into distinct planes, making it easy for James to see when he’s cut the composure from the other man. And yes, he’s enjoying this. He’s hurt, he’s learned to swallow down the hurt, he’s come to understand that the world has only so much happiness to go around and that any bright moment for one must darken the life of another.
The rod comes out again in a fury of whirling motes, some of which land on Will. A distinct odor of singed flesh and hair blows towards James, pushed by the wind of the other man’s sharp spin. “We’re acquaintances.”
“Still? Jack’s a pirate, of course, but Elizabeth has notions of fairness and equality—well, had. Has she changed so much?” James says. He waits till Will misses the rod and hits the anvil, setting a thundering ring vibrating around the place, before he leaves.
He feels better. He does.
* * *
Privateering is easier work than commanding a Navy ship—such easy work that James has to hold himself back from spitting on it. Harrying foreign merchants, sailing circles around their lumbering big ships with only the occasional fight with an escort frigate to look forward to…it makes him grimace and flick his fingers to scratch an invisible itch, pace his damned honor-bought planks at night and snarl whenever he catches the right shade of blue. Even if it is that of the dress of a cringing lady, and not of an officer of, say, the East India company, or the West India, or the Admiralty.
His reaction to a certain shade of scarlet is generally best drowned as soon as possible afterward in a few bottles of the rawest, crudest rum available. Which when he sees a boy’s kite flapping past him is exactly the course of action he follows, and never mind that this is such an upstanding town and it’s barely past noon. None of the tavern-owners in town are of a mind to refuse his wishes, and the soldiers--the uniform means nothing if the principles behind it aren’t right and good and don’t protect what should be protected instead of what some dusty lawbook says should be, James! oh, why can’t you see it as I do?--lack experience. He can handle the most daring even if he’s seeing four of everything, and after that they keep their distance.
Will’s in there, James can hear the bastard, but the man lets several hours pass before he comes out, clutching his parson-brown coat around him against the chilly evening breeze. He squeezes his feet onto the step so he can shut the door. “Drunk, are you?” he mutters.
“Resting my damn feet.” James has sobered enough to stand again, even if he does require the assistance of the doorframe. “Anyway, I thought you’d be used to such matters.”
“I’ve seen them a great deal, but that doesn’t mean I have a great desire to interfere with them.” Neat as the rest of him looks, Will’s hands are a fearful mess of fresh and old burns, sooty calluses and thin strips of pale, pale skin when his cuffs pull back from his hands.
He starts to walk past James, but stops when James catches his arm and leans in close enough to smell the cinders in his freshly-brushed hair. Oh, he tries, but he can’t rid himself of the signs. He’ll never be better than what he is, just as it is with the rest of the world. “Really? I thought it was a specialty of yours. It does seem as if you’re always throwing yourself into the thick of what doesn’t actually concern you.”
Will pauses, yes, and then he shakes himself free, striding easily and loosely down the road. “I hope you can make it to your ship before you collapse. I have an errand to run, and I won’t be around to haul you to it.”
James’ head aches abominably, and it only worsens as he squints at Will’s back, trying to clear his vision. The barb in his gut twists round, tearing a wide hole in him, and it makes him dizzy, dizzy, dizzy—he abruptly lurches, grabbing for the door barely in time, and vomits to the side. He’s managed it in Will’s direction, at the least, though that’s poor comfort.
* * *
The next time, he’s sober again. He comes in the front door just as a pure brilliant flash travels through the air, and he is momentarily taken far away from himself.
But then Will puts down the blade and aims a gaze at him that may be just as sharp, but has none of that otherworldliness. It’s a poor lie; James knows the man has been touched by too much that lurks at the edges of civilization and makes a mockery of humanity to not show it. It makes James grit his teeth, that mocking absence, as if he’s not good enough still for it. As if he doesn’t deserve it now.
Ah, poor commodore. You didn’t believe in the right thing in the beginning, and now you don’t believe at all. A man’s got to have something to hold to, something to see him over the horizon, you know. Else he’s adrift, a maroon with no compass to guide him.
“I see you’ve been busy,” James says, keeping his tone neutral for the time being.
Will shrugs just as noncommittally as he wraps up the blade in leather. A plain scabbard lies on the bench before him, and after he’s done with the sword, he starts on that. “There’s the ornamentation left, and that’s it. It won’t be terribly fancy—the goldsmith in Port Royal didn’t teach me enough, and anyway I’ve not the right tools.”
The air’s almost peaceful, as if they were any other customer and craftsman. Peace isn’t something that sits well with James now, used as he is to storm winds. “Did you take this up again before or after your father died?”
“I’m merely curious.” James pretends to study his nails, or what’s left of them. He used to have fine manicured ovals, only a little stained by tar, but now they’re jagged and grimy, with the barest sliver visible above the quick. Two of them have bloody crusts along the edge where he’s caught them on wood or hemp. “How the man must have felt, finding out that his son had followed in his footsteps. Is that why you returned to this? If so, then I suppose I have to accord you more filial feeling than I’d thought you capable of at first—”
A horrendous screeching fills the air, making even James cringe from it, though fine music is hardly what he’s used to hearing now. Then Will tosses the file aside, and puts away wrapped sword and scabbard with short, angry motions. “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you leave me alone?”
“I’m only asking a question, William. I’m making a study of people, since I’ve previously been found so sorely lacking in it. Do you feel any loyalty at all to what raised and sheltered you? To the kind of life that sustained you during your early years?” Laughter in James’ head, jeering at him with its freeness. How could I go back? I’d suffocate in that nonsense, James!
“My early—” And then Will stops, heat cutting out of his voice and face, and he stares oddly at James. He stares for a long time, long enough to make James shift his weight, before he finally turns away. “You met me when I was already a bit old to be apprenticed, and then you saw me a handful of times after that. I’m not sure you know who you’re speaking of. To. Never mind—I’ll be done in three days. Come back then, and if you come back before that, I’ll throw it in the sea.”
James raises his eyebrow. “After all your hard work?”
“I’ve seen that taken by the waves before,” Will says shortly. He still keeps his back to James. “I already know how much it’ll hurt.”
His hands move slowly, carefully, surely among his tools. He’s shut down, and perhaps that’s a victory in and of itself to force him to such a point, but it means James will get no more from him now. “By your leave, sir,” James sarcastically replies. Sarcasm’s become a reflex, even when it does no good.
* * *
The face of the sailor in the doorway is still wet from the spit he’s hastily used to scrub his cheeks, and doubtless he doesn’t tuck his shirt into his trousers when he’s not in James’ sight. “There’s a man on the pier asking for you,” he says. “He’s got a package under his arm. Said you ordered it.”
“All right,” James answers, where once he might have said ‘thank you.’ He snaps up his maps into rolls and locks them and his navigational aids away, and then he locks the door after him.
It’s Will, and Will’s gotten a new coat, a slim one of good slick leather—sealskin, maybe. Beneath it he wears a crumpled white linen shirt whose collar and cuffs extend too much beyond the coat for the tastes of proper company, and for the first time since James has anchored in this port, Will’s hair is out of that tight-pulled tail: the top portion is held back by a tie, yes, but otherwise it hangs in a rude tangle around his face.
“It’s done,” he calls up. He stands well away from the gangplank, and when James is halfway down that, he turns to walk slowly, pointedly back towards the docks.
Evening’s well-advanced, so they pick their way between the bales and crates with moonlight as a guide. The shadows curl and yawn around Will, slicking over his back so somehow it’s black but it gleams, too, like a pair of wicked eyes.
Once they’re well away from the ship and in an isolated clearing, he takes the long bundle out from under his arm. He’s not hurried in unwrapping it, and for once James finds no fault with that because the sword within all the coverings is worth it. Cold and beautiful and spare, the loveliest thing he’s seen in a long time. And when he takes it from Will—their hands accidentally brush, and the heat of Will’s fingers is such a shock against the ice of the steel—and he draws it from the scabbard and it sings to him…God, then he could weep. He could cry, rain salt-water all over his filthy beaten thieves’ hands, because he’s holding such beauty and he may appreciate it, but he’s no longer fit for it. He’s stolen this chance to touch the goodness of the world again and he does not regret it, but he feels the dirt weighting his skin as if it’s lead.
A sharp click violently snaps James out of his reverie, and he looks up, frowning, to see that Will’s paced back and now stands with another sword unsheathed. It’s another wonder, but broader in the blade, slightly curved towards the end: not a gentleman’s sword, not a common ruffian’s saber, either.
“Aping the pirate,” James finally says. His upper lip rises in a sneer, and he forgets again how to marvel. The moon passes behind clouds and the gleam goes so he’s holding a sharp piece of steel in his hand, a murdering weapon, and the smoldering acrid fire chewing away at his gut leaps to banish the chill.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve made one of those. I want to make sure it fulfills all expectations.” Will slides back into a half-crouch, all coiled tension and languid, waiting danger. His teeth flash as well, but in no smile. “I want to make sure it’s blooded properly.”
James snorts, carelessly takes a step back as he draws himself up—and then lunges forward, low and sideways at Will’s knee. The limb is already gone and his body’s slurring his momentum into a backhand slash when there’s a ringing peal and the sword in his hand shudders at the force of the clash. They push and grunt, testing each other, but it’s a show on James’ part because he’s done with tests, with such childish ideas when there’s so many real battles.
He leaps back, then comes forward again, but at the last moment he swings so their swords pass harmlessly by each other, inches apart, and his right foot is swirling up the dirt. He gives that a good kick as he completes the feint, then stabs straight forward.
Will’s not there. He’s plunged straight through the dirt and come out on the other side to almost take James in the back--learn something new every day, aye, commodore?--having closed his eyes to the clods. But when James hastily turns and parries, Will’s eyes are wide open on the other side of their blades. Open and angry and furious.
I don’t want to fight you, James! You’re a good man! You must remember—you’re better than you think. You are not lost—I won’t fight you! I won’t!
James sways back from that exchange. The expected thing is to swerve for another side-blow, and Will’s moving that way, but instead James braces his heels in the ground and heaves up the sword for a straight downward cut. It’s barbarian, inelegant, and it comes damned close to sinking into Will’s arm. The leather helps Will slip past the blade, its slickness turning the edge just enough.
Aye, you’ve come close to catching me many times, but you’ve never—quite—done it. And why do you think that is?
“I let you go, damn you,” James grits out beneath his breath. “It—didn’t happen—that way—”
“What?” Will’s slightly breathless, but far from winded. Well, he might be younger but James is just as, if not more, used to pushing through the sick muscle-burn of exhaustion. “What did you say?”
They skid through the dirt again; the soil’s loose here, full of sand and pebbles that shift at the slightest touch. The footing makes James’ next swing clumsy, but he cuts back whip-fast and that one, that one he can be proud of. The tip of his blade nicks the top of Will’s left boot; Will curses as he evades James, then tries to slash James from shoulder to opposite hip, only to be blocked so that birds startle in the air a few yards away, spooked by the loud clanging.
I was afraid! I thought we’d die, and I did—I did what was necessary. But it wasn’t all a lie. I do care for you, James. I was sorry at what happened to you, but I didn’t know, or I would have helped you. Please, James…you have to help me.
“Why did I ever listen to you? What did it ever to do for me? You want to be paid—oh, God, I’ll pay you—” Red fury hazes over James’ vision, and he drives forward—
“Who are you fighting? Who, damn it? Jack? Or Elizabeth? Who?”
James’ sword jerks upward and sideways. He feels something whistle past his side, inches near, and his coat yanks hard at his arm as it rips under Will’s assault. Then he throws himself back, stumbling, gasping for breath, arms flailing for a grip.
His legs can’t keep it up forever, and he slows, then stops. He stares at the dripping point of his sword for several moments before he understands he isn’t imagining the red wetness on the tip. Then he slowly looks towards the other source of harsh breathing near him, fire in his gut gone out and cold uncomforting ashes left behind.
Will stares at him as if by gaze alone the man can do violence to James. His left sleeve is ripped open to the elbow, and the linen that spills out of it is quickly matting with blood.
“Who is it?” Will asks again, voice hard and chilling. He flings out his arm with enraged disdain so the blood splatters on the ground, then turns and shoves his sword back into his scabbard. And he stays in profile to James as he stalks away. “Because it’s not me. I wish you well with my sword, Norrington. It’s worth it, anyway.”
* * *
James comes back to his ship and puts out to sea as soon as practically possible. His men always did step lightly around him, but now they positively shrink away. He notices only on the most shallow of levels, taken up as his attention is with self-revulsion and –contempt.
After he cleaned the blood from it, he locked his new sword away and again uses only his old one. And he stays as far from the Bahamas and Jamaica as humanly possible, though with the way the world is contracting, that isn’t as far as he would have wished. Merchantmen he captures tell him of a drunken pirate setting fire to Portuguese São Sebastião, of a golden woman charming her way into stealing a fortune from Saint Domingue. Of a church in sleepy Rum Cay of the Bahamas suddenly receiving a fortune in strange gold artifacts.
Later, when James is forced to put in at that location once again for repairs and delivery of reports to the governor, he finds that the town blacksmith had happened to pull up stakes and move away at roughly the same time. He buys himself a lot of rum in the local taverns, but after the first mouthful of every mug, has to spit it out before he vomits, and in the end he comes back to his ship to lock himself in his cabin and unlock his locker.
The sword’s still beautiful, and his hands that cradle it are still ruined. It’s not his fault that they’ve been reduced to that condition, but he can admit to himself, here with only his reflection in the sword blade as company, that he has played the largest part in keeping them that way.
A fat Spanish grandee babbles on about a witch-women living deep in the jungle, and the man who keeps her company. A swordsman, a seaman, who fights like the devil and stays out to watch when storms thrash the ocean. His hair is dark, not gold, and he doesn’t sway when he walks.
That’s James’ heading. A fairytale. But he follows it anyway.
* * *
The woman is…not revolting. Even physically attractive, in a unique way. But James finds her distasteful anyway; oh, he’s willing to believe she has powers beyond rational explanation, but he’s not willing to swallow her dramatics and blatant attempts at manipulation. He listens till he’s bored, which isn’t long, and then he shoves past her and through the half-curtained doorway in the back of the front room.
Will’s sitting on the edge of a low mattress, which has obviously seen some use--ah, are we calling it that now? says one of the voices in James’ head, and he tells it to shut up for once—and is pulling on his boots. He’s already got the rest of his clothes on, and his coat-sleeve’s been mended. He stops and looks up at James, bitter and resigned. “Damn. I’ve gotten slow hiding here.”
“Ye cannot hide from your destiny,” this Tia Dalma says, swanning around behind James. “Ye know dis.”
“I didn’t want to know it, which is why I came here,” Will snaps. “I thought you said you could keep him from me.”
Tia Dalma’s smirking: James can hear it in her voice. She sounds like she’s waggling her tongue lewdly over every word. “I said I could offer ye shelter from de storm, till ye were ready. And ye are.”
Will’s lost his manners concerning ladies. He snarls an insult James has seen men kill over, but Tia Dalma floats away on her laughter. Then he sighs, and looks at James again. “Well, what? Did you figure it out?”
“All three of you.” James lies with a smile on his face. Will’s sword hangs heavily at his hip; he’s taken it out for this.
The doorway is narrow and the rooms are both small, too crowded to move easily about. It’s suicide to draw in here.
He rips out his sword; Will’s already been marking James’ hands and so Will’s already rolled off the bed, coming up with his blade and his is already out of the scabbard. James knocks over a shelf of pickled things in jars, coming nowhere near Will, just before a burning pain slashes over his chest. He reels before it and falls against a cabinet.
He drops the sword in grabbing for handholds. Vinegar splashes over his right hand and arm, stinging into the cut on his chest, and he flings up his head with a hiss between his teeth just as Will drives forward with a horizontal blade. James’ breath stops in his throat.
Dying’s not so different from living, really. You face it the right way, you’re fine.
I’ve seen many things worse than death. You, or Beckett, or anyone else can’t use that to scare me now.
The wood of the cabinet splintering sounds as loud as a cannon-shot in James’ ear. The world freezes, then begins again and he breathes, sword-blade just tickling his throat when he’s deepest into the breath. He stares at Will, who’s blowing anger through his nose like a bull and shaking, he’s so caught up. “You’re lying to me again,” Will hisses. “Everyone lies to me and I hate it and I’m tired of it. Don’t tell me a damn story. Who are you fighting?”
“Myself,” James finally says, and suddenly he sags, he’s become so light. He’s lightheaded, looking dazedly on as Will absorbs this, comes to understand it and calms a little. The other man takes away the blade just as James can no longer hold his chin up and lets it drop forward.
“God.” Will’s voice stutters on the edge between laughter and hysteria. “God Almighty. Well—well, damn it, I hope you don’t expect me to put you out of your misery. I won’t be used like that again. I promised after my father, after…after I left that.”
Them, he’s really saying. Jack and Elizabeth, Elizabeth and Jack. But they aren’t speaking to James now, and he’s hearing only Will, and then himself once he’s opened his mouth. “No.”
They’re still kneeling close together, and so it’s easy for James to drop his arm on Will’s shoulder, pull him in and cover his mouth with his own. He’s hungry now, hungry and thirsty and the sweat on Will’s lips tastes good, sweet not salty, and suddenly he needs every drop. And Will’s pushing back, wrapping his fingers around James’ chin and throat and never mind that the slash on James’ chest is killing him, if it were serious he wouldn’t feel his bloodsoaked shirt turning clammy as the blood dries up and no fresh torrent wets it again.
There are swords on the floor. Swords and glass shards and slippery squishy things and God knows what they are, what kind of stinking fluid is soaking into James’ trousers, and making Will’s knees slide as he tries to shove in closer, as his hands wad up James’ shirt over the cut—God, he’s come through it better than James, if he can still think of that—and his mouth devours James’ whole. And James doesn’t care, doesn’t care about anything except getting Will’s coat off and maybe he’ll need the sword back for that, it’s so tightly-fitted, but no, it finally comes sliding off. Will flinches when James touches the ridges on his back, but James bites Will’s jaw and digs his fingers into the muscle, uncaring whether it’s smooth or scarred, and Will gasps and twists against James.
James’ shirt ripped up and tied off around that damned cut, and then they’re fumbling backward. There’s a thud as Will hits the bed, and that’s useful and damn it, Tia Dalma, but Will’s tongue moves too feverishly over James’ skin. Will’s hands already have their trousers undone and have fitted themselves to James’ hard prick like a second skin, a beautiful clenching rough second skin that makes James groan and sigh. And James wishes—wishes—but wishing has no substance and what does is the insistence of his hips as they pump his cock through the circle of Will’s fingers, the heat of Will’s prick as James presses it between their bellies with his own hand. It’s a waste of time looking for the silver perfect beautiful thing in this earthy, twisting, tangle of flesh and spit and fire, and perhaps that is for good, after all.
One last thrust and James is spilling himself over Will, his come easing the work of his own hand on Will’s prick. Will snarls, pushing up his hips harder, and his fingers come up to knot in James’ hair, smearing it filthy and sticky but James tilts into it, eagerly rising to press his mouth against Will’s as Will finally jerks, cries out and spends himself.
They’re breathing, still holding their positions as if they were still fighting. James is worn out and he’s not, his body so accustomed to suppressing exhaustion, that it’s the effort of turning to lie against Will’s shoulder that finally finishes him. He lets himself go slack, feels Will do the same beneath him.
“Your chest,” Will rasps after a moment. His hand lifts to press uncertainly over it, which hurts but which is something James can live with, for the time being, and much more willingly than many of the hurts he’s received in the recent past. “I’ll get—”
“I got something for dat, never ye worry,” Tia Dalma smirks, sweeping in. She has a rag in one hand and a small box in the other, and as Will and James watch—too shocked, really, to be embarrassed—she daintily mops up the dirty-white streaks and splatters they’ve left everywhere. She even swipes some from Will’s stomach, laughing as he yelps. “See, Will Turner, dis’ll be what I take as payment, so ye can stop worrying your head over dat. And thank ye muchly. I’ll be back to fix him chest in a moment.”
She leaves in a saucy swirl of skirts. After a moment, Will lets his head fall against the bed’s footboard. “You get used to her,” he mutters.
“I’d rather not,” James says. He takes a deep breath, which stings him enough so that he’s actually hoping Tia Dalma comes back in a timely fashion, and then turns to the other man. “Join my crew. Any rank you want. I’ll get you a pardon, a letter of marque—and they’ll be good, you have my word. If…if you can trust in that.”
“More than you can, apparently.” Will isn’t enthusiastic, that’s clear enough to the ear, but he isn’t refusing either. “Why you? Why you when it wasn’t Jack or Elizabeth?”
James has to take a deeper breath, and after he does he’s still shaking a bit. “Because they don’t need you, and I do. I need—I need something to tell me who I am, who I’ve been, when I can’t remember it myself. Someone who can stand still.”
“I could take that as an insult,” Will says, mouth twisted. But then he kisses James, just as the bitter smolders were starting to take root in James’ chest again, and James realizes it was in wryness. “I’m not sure of everything, you know. I come to life on land, I dream of the sea—I don’t know.”
“I’ll know that for you.” James kisses him back, and then again, and then they’re tangling up again when Tia Dalma comes in, scolding them apart.
She won’t be there forever though, promises the look in Will’s eyes, and James fervently believes in that.