The mournful clink of rigging was the only sound that penetrated the deadening fog. It hung thick and unmoving on the flat ocean, its cold touch seeping into Elizabeth’s bones and chilling her inside out. Water dripped onto the deck in a random staccato, running down lines and rails, plastering her hair to her face in cold, lank tendrils. Two days they’d been looking, and no sign. No sign of the Pearl or her captain.
After the terror of the maelstrom Elizabeth had assumed it would be over, she’d imagined they would emerge triumphant from the mists of world’s end to the sunlight of the south seas. Her mind’s eye had painted Jack awaiting them aboard his ship, restored at last to life and to his treasured Pearl. But it was not to be.
Badly damaged during the return voyage, the Defiant was listing badly. There was no wind and her angle made the sweeps unusable; they were sinking, and Captain Jack Sparrow was nowhere to be found.
Probably enjoying the comforts of Tortuga by now, Will had said bitterly at the dog end of the night. Elizabeth had protested, but only half-heartedly. There was that in Will’s eyes which kept her quiet on the subject of Jack Sparrow, and truth be told she didn’t know that he was wrong. Certainly Jack had cause to doubt them – her, especially. And Barbossa too, of course. Perhaps he suspected them of plotting to take the Pearl from him once he’d piloted her from those purgatory shores?
She sighed, and remembered again the look in his eye when he’d warned her to keep her distance. Distrust, suspicion – they were her lot now, the bargain she’d made when she’d traded his life for her own. The price she’d paid for turning pirate. She’d seen the same wariness in Will’s eyes too, a distance that could not be breached. What did he see, she wondered, when he looked at her now? Did he still see Miss Swann, the Governor’s daughter? In hindsight, she wasn’t sure she had ever been ‘Miss Swann’ at all, which rather left the question of who – and what – she really was…
Peas in a pod, darlin’. Even then he had seen the truth of her better than any man she had ever known – Will included…
“How cheer ye, Miss Swann?” Gibbs voice was hushed in the fog as he made his way carefully toward her up the canted deck.
“Cold, Mr. Gibbs. And you?”
“Aye, cold,” he agreed reaching the rail and holding on to keep himself steady. “Mr. Turner was hoping you’d take some time below, Miss. To warm a little.”
She gave a sad smile. “What warmth is there to be had, above or below?”
“At least get out of this damnable fog.”
“I don’t mind the fog. I like the mystery.”
He gave a low laugh. “You always did. Reminds me… I remember another fog, Miss Swann.”
“The day we rescued Will.”
“Aye. Seems but a blink of an eye.”
“Really? It feels like a lifetime ago to me.”
He cast her a quick, not-to-be-seen look. “Well, you were but a girl then.”
“A foolish girl.”
“But always a friend to pirates, eh?” he smiled. “I remember that about ye, Miss Swann. You always liked a good tale o’ pirates.”
She turned her gaze out to the eddying fog, blinking as if it would help her decipher its mysteries. “Do you believe he has abandoned us here?”
“Captain Sparrow? No, Miss.”
“Then…? Do you think he is dead?”
“I think he’s fogbound, like us. And even if he chanced upon a breeze, not even Captain Sparrow could sail the Pearl single handed.”
Elizabeth smiled a little. “All evidence to the contrary.”
Silence fell, stretching like the shrouded ocean before her. “Come below, Miss,” Gibbs tried again. “Mr. Turner says—”
“Hoa!” A startled cry from the crows nest. “A sail!”
Gibbs spun around. “Where?”
“Athwart the hause, sir! Hard upon us!”
“Damn and blind,” Gibbs muttered, scrambling away over the tilting deck. “All hands! Helm, hard-a lee, let go the starboard anchor, bring her about!”
“What’s going on?” Elizabeth shouted after him. “Mr. Gibbs! What’s—?”
“Elizabeth!” Will was on deck and pointing straight ahead.
She turned, and her heart all but stopped. A ship loomed out of the fog, mere yards away and right in their drifting path. “We’re going to collide!”
Elizabeth bolted forward, Will half a step behind. What good it would do she didn’t know, but she had to see... Behind her there was shouting and the giant splash of the anchor as they tried to veer the wallowing cutter.
Closer and closer the misty ship grew, drifting in and out of the fog. Elizabeth strained to see, leaning out over the rail as far as she dared, searching for something she recognised, something that would tell her—
“It’s the Pearl.” Will’s voice was as dead as the fog.
She looked up at him. “You almost sound disappointed.”
“Why should I be?” His mouth curled into half a smile. “Without her, I stand no chance of freeing my father.”
For a moment she held his gaze, but her own confused heart made it impossible to read his and so she turned away. Just then the anchor cable must have tightened because she felt a jerk on the ship, the bow starting to drift to starboard. Too late though, the collision was inevitable.
Will grabbed her arm. “Away from the rail,” he insisted, hauling her backward as the vast weight of the Pearl crunched into the listing cutter. Had either ship possessed any speed it might have been disastrous, but as it were they seemed to dance in a slow, affectionate circle.
Carefully Elizabeth returned to the rail. They were low in the water, somewhat beneath the Pearl, and she couldn’t see the deck. “Captain Sparrow!” she shouted. But there was no answer. “Jack!”
“No sight of him, Miss.” Gibbs scrambled forward, a pistol wedged into his belt, Marty, Pintel, Ragetti and the others behind him. “We’ll have to board her.”
“That we will,” came Barbossa’s booming voice.
His avaricious smile sent a shiver down Elizabeth’s spine; undead or alive, she couldn’t abide the man. “This is Jack’s ship,” she reminded him, placing herself between the pirates and the rail. “She’s not your prize.”
Barbossa’s grin only widened. “I was thinking, more like salvage.”
“You can’t!” she protested. “You can’t just take his ship and—”
“And will it be you who’s going to be stopping me, Miss Swann?” He flashed her a charmless smile. “I think I might enjoy that.”
“You loathsome, cursed, treacherous—” She stopped at that word, felt it sour in her mouth.
“Elizabeth,” Will was tugging at her sleeve. “This isn’t your fight. Please…”
She turned on him in disbelief. “Are you just going to let them—?”
“De girl’s right. De Pearl is not yours for de taking, Barbossa.” Tia Dalma pushed herself between the men to stand at Elizabeth’s side. “Would you challenge destiny herself?”
Barbossa eyed her with squinting scepticism. “What power does destiny hold over a dead man?”
The witch lifted her chin and took a step closer. “Den…would you challenge Tia Dalma, hmm?” She ran a slicing finger across his chest. “Would you cross de weird woman of de swamp, Captain Barbossa, for de sake of de boat?” He didn’t answer, but she appeared satisfied and turned away. Her face sobered as she met Elizabeth’s eye. “He need you.”
Tia Dalma nodded to the Pearl. “Go.”
Without further thought she was gone, vaulting the rail and the narrow space between to land on the deck of the Black Pearl. She heard boots hitting the deck to either side, saw Will, Gibbs and the others. Barbossa too, barely tamed by Tia Dalma’s threat; Elizabeth trusted him no further than she could see in the cursed fog. “Spread out,” she shouted, glancing quickly around and heading aft toward the quarterdeck.
Her heart was thundering just being back there again – the memory of her last moments aboard the Pearl fresh and painful. She slowed as she past the mast, her eye catching the shackles that hung there, dripping in the fog. Jack’s ghost was sketched there too, triumphant in his defeat. Pirate…
She hated that she’d done it; that she was capable of such a thing. She hated that he’d known it about her all along. Baited it out of her, in the end. Tearing her gaze away, Elizabeth took the steps to the quarterdeck two at a time, but there was no sign of him. His name was on her lips when she heart a shout.
“Over here!” It might have been Gibbs, it didn’t matter. Elizabeth all but flew the length of the ship toward the gaggle of men near the foremast, pushing through them and then stopping dead.
Jack Sparrow lay sprawled, face down on the deck.
She dropped to her knees at his side. “Help me turn him over!”
Other hands were there, Will’s among them, as they rolled him heavily onto his back. His head lolled, face ashen beneath the tan and dirt.
“Is he dead?” Gibbs growled.
Her throat thick, eyes stinging, Elizabeth lowered her cheek to his mouth. She could feel herself shaking, feel Will’s eyes on her, as she held there and prayed to feel his breath upon her face.
Eyes hot as embers, warm breath grazing her cheek, his lips a moment away from hers…
She closed her eyes, felt a tear leak out and roll to the corner of her mouth. It tasted of salt and the sea. Let him live, she pleaded silently. I will never turn pirate again. I will do my duty, I will do what’s right! Only please, please let him live…
Something stirred against her face. She stilled. After an eternity it came again, the faintest of breaths, but a breath nonetheless. “He’s alive.” Her voice trembled shamefully, but no matter. “He’s alive!”
“Take him below,” Tia Dalma ordered, her dark eyes fixed on Elizabeth. “Come, girl. Dis is why I bring you here.”
The last time she had stepped foot in the cabin she had been a prisoner of Barbossa and his cursed crew; a girl on the cusp of an adventure that would change her life.
But this was no longer Barbossa’s ship, it was Jack’s and the cabin was crammed with evidence of his presence. Charts, trinkets, rum – of course – curiosities from places about which Elizabeth had never even dreamed. She wondered where it all came from, but then everything about this ship defied reason. Including its captain, now set carefully upon the narrow bed in the corner. Between them Will and Gibbs had hauled him down the ladder and, with as much care as possible, deposited him on the bed. His hat sat on the table, his coat flung over a chair, and he lay on his back as insensible to the world as when they’d first come aboard.
Elizabeth sat on a stool near the bed and watched Tia Dalma busy herself at the table with herbs and potions and bits of dried this and that. Candles burned all around, at the head and foot of the bed, casting Jack’s features in a flickering, bronze light. But it brought no life to his face, only accentuated his pallor and the rattle of the shallow breath in his lungs.
The sound chilled Elizabeth and to cover the noise she said, “What happened to him?”
Tia Dalma glanced up beneath the heavy weight of her hair. “Drowned, I should ’tink.”
“Drowned? On the way back from World’s End? How did—?”
“Tsk,” Tia Dalma scolded softly. “On de way back? No, child. Drowned is how he get dere in de first place.”
Odd, how those words struck her heart as if it were a funeral bell. They had travelled to the end of the Earth to bring him back; of course he must have died. But until that moment, Elizabeth had never permitted herself to think of the how – of how he had come to be there. No mystical transportation, no painless transition. Just death, an ordinary sailor’s death beneath the cold, merciless waters. Drowned.
Jack Sparrow had drowned.
She felt a heat in the back of her throat and pressed her lips tight to keep it from escaping. Nothing to be done about the tears in her eyes, though.
His rattling breathing filled the room; it sounded like accusation. You did this, it said. You did this to me.
“I thought,” she said, in a voice that shook with the effort of hiding her feelings. “I thought we had already brought him back. In that place, on the beach…”
Tia Dalma cackled quietly. “Dat place? Dat is a place of de dead, Elizabet’ Swann.”
“A place of the dead…” she whispered. Her eyes drifted over to Jack again, so unnaturally still. His hands rested on his chest, his head turned to one side, hair spread in all directions. So still, so ordered; so unlike himself in life.
“And now he come back to himself,” said Tia Dalma. “De hardest leg of de voyage, hmm?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth agreed, reaching out her hand to cover his. He was cold, like ice, and she recoiled. Instinctively she touched his forehead, as her nurse had done when she suffered a childhood sickness, and she found his skin burning. She lay her fingers to his cheek, his forehead again. “He’s fevered,” she said, turning in alarm to Tia Dalma. “It’s raging.”
The witch nodded. “Infection in de lungs. From de water.”
He moved suddenly from beneath her hand, head turning and one arm trashing wide. “No lastimarm,” he muttered. “No lo hice! ”
“Shhh…” She reached out to sooth him, but he flinched from her touch as if it burned.
She pulled her hand back. “What’s he saying?”
“Fever dream,” Tia said, moving away from the table at last, carrying something pungent in a small bowl. She crouched at Elizabeth’s side and handed her the medicine. “When he wake, make him drink.”
“Are you leaving? I know nothing about nursing, I’ve never tended a sick room, I don’t know what to—”
“Hush, girl.” In the flickering light, Tia Dalma’s eyes were little more than reflections of the candles’ flames. She reached into her voluminous skirts and pulled something free, turned it over in her hand and then offered it to Elizabeth. It was Jack’s compass. “He set him course by you, Elizabet’ Swann. Guide him home now. Guide him home.”
The cloth floated in the shallow bowl and Elizabeth watched it for a while, mesmerised by fatigue and anxiety. Slowly, water soaked the fabric, dragging it under.
Behind her she could hear Jack’s laboured breathing – shallow, worrying breaths – but her tired eyes couldn’t seem to move from the cloth in the water.
An image coalesced, unwanted, in her mind; Jack, sinking beneath the waves, struggling for the surface, gasping for a breath, choking. Desperate, afraid, and alone.
Above all, alone.
Her vision blurred and she swiped the back of her hand across her eyes. For better or worse, the deed was done. Jack lived yet, and with God’s help would be restored to health. All that had been lost was his faith in her, and given his own poor record in that regard it was hardly a loss to be regretted.
At least, that’s what she told herself.
He coughed suddenly, a hacking retch. Elizabeth was at his bedside in an instant, rubbing his back as if it might help, murmuring wordless comfort as he rolled onto his back and drifted into sleep. Or unconsciousness.
With a sigh she rested her head on the side of the bed; a brief moment of respite. How long had she been down here? It felt like hours. Tia Dalma had left long ago, and no one else had been in since. Not even Will.
Wearily she stood and returned to the table, wrung out the cloth in the bowl and returned to her chair next to Jack. His fever burned like the Devil and showed no sign of breaking. Carefully, as she had done over and over, she pressed the damp cloth to his forehead and face, his throat. She dribbled a little moisture onto his parched lips, then carried on to cool his arms and hands.
He murmured at her touch, mostly words she didn’t understand in languages that were foreign to her ear. She’d been tutored in French and so caught the occasional name, or what might have been a curse, but most of the words he spoke were too exotic to be understood. No doubt his ravings made little sense in any language, and she let them drift past her ears unheeded.
The cloth was drying out, so she moistened it in the bowl and returned to the bed again. His right arm lay closest to her, his shirt pushed up to the elbow as she pressed the cloth against his hot, dry skin. She left it there for a moment, suddenly taken with the sight of the rags and leather strips he wore about his wrists. Her nose wrinkled in distaste, but nevertheless she started to pick at the knots, working the dirty rags free. She let them fall at her feet one at a time until his arm was bare. The scars she remembered from a lifetime ago; a girl marooned with a legend she both feared and admired. She’d wondered then what stories they told, and she wondered still. Jack had never said.
One at least she understood now. She reached out with her finger and traced the P branded into his skin; Beckett had been responsible, personally by his account. He’d certainly brandished the iron with pride during their fleeting conversation, and she shuddered now at the cold pleasure he’d taken at the memory of leaving his mark on Jack Sparrow.
How many men, she wondered, had it taken to hold Jack down while Beckett pressed the burning iron into his flesh? Had he screamed, or held stubbornly quiet? Had he joked, perhaps, to hide the pain? The idea – the image conjured in her overactive mind – made her flinch, and she lifted the damp cloth and pressed it over the scar as if to cool the burn.
To brand a man so, as if he were no more than an animal… A flash of rage set her heart racing, but it stuttered to a quick halt when she remembered the slaves on her father’s plantation. Branded too, like livestock. Was that not worse? Yet she had lived off their work half her life and never noticed.
She felt a sudden sweep of shame, as if the world had shifted and she was seeing it through new eyes. A pirate’s eyes.
But what a ship is - what the Black Pearl really is - is freedom.
Jack’s words, spoken to a girl too naive to understand their meaning. Not then. But now…? She lifted the cloth and touched his branded flesh again. No doubt Beckett saw it as a mark of shame, but he was wrong. It stood for freedom, for defiance against a society who would grind a man like Jack Sparrow to dust beneath the wheels of convention; a society who could trade men, women and children like cattle; a society that would keep her corseted and meek, bound to a man for her livelihood, be it her father, Norrington – or Will.
Like Saul, she felt undone, disorientated, exhilarated. Her road to Damascus might be a pirate ship, but still…everything she had known, everything she had wanted for herself, had been overturned by this man. Jack Sparrow had been right about her all along; freedom was what she craved, more than anything. More than life, for what was life without freedom?
And not just for her, for all men and women. No more would she be bound by the rules that had shaped her, no more would she force herself into the corset of the world’s expectations. She was free here, and here she would remain until she could bring freedom to others. To women like herself, perhaps. To the slaves on her father’s estates, on all the estates in the Caribbean if she could; she would take her message to London, to—
Iron fingers seized her wrist, yanking her hand away. “I said, close enough.”
Jack’s eyes were fever-bright and barely focused before they rolled back in his head and he sank into the pillows again. But his fingers still gripped her wrist, holding her close even as he pushed her away; a contradiction typical of Captain Jack Sparrow. Ignoring the thumping in her chest – no more than adrenaline, and nothing to do with the heat burning her arm – she leaned closer to peer into his face. “Jack? Can you hear me?”
His eyelids flickered but didn’t open, lips moving in a silent whisper. She could see his pulse flutter at the base of his throat, racing unhealthily fast. Elizabeth quelled her unease, carefully prized his fingers from her wrist and reached for the cloth, dabbing at his forehead again. “You have to wake up, Jack. We need you. We think Norrington took the heart – he’ll have traded it to Beckett for a commission by now, which means Davy Jones—”
Jack’s eyes flew open. He was staring at Elizabeth, but she wasn’t sure he could see her at all. “Frio,” he whispered, clearly terrified. “So bloody cold.”
“Shhh.” Hesitantly, she touched his arm. “All’s well, Jack. You’re safe. You’re aboard the Pearl.”
“She’s gone.” He breathed shakily. “Gone into the dark, can’t you see? It’s all bloody dark now.”
“She’s not gone,” Elizabeth insisted, moving nearer, her hand closing over his. “You brought her home, Jack. You saved her. Now you have to come back too. Do you hear? Come back to us.” To me.
“Eu perdi-a.” He was distressed, head shaking in denial. “My fault, my own bloody fault. Deus do Oh, eu perdi-a! ”
“I don’t understand...” She touched his face and he recoiled, sinking into the pillow and staring at her in confusion. “Jack, it’s me. It’s Elizabeth.”
He breathed in and out, in and out, staring at her intently without a glimmer of recognition. “Are you dead?”
“No,” she smiled, stroking her fingers over his brow. “No, I’m not dead.”
“The crushing depths’ll do that to a woman.” His eyes were too bright and unblinking, his skin burning under her fingertips. “Bonnie lass under the waves. Not good. Not good at all.”
“Bad dreams,” she whispered. “It’s over now, you’re back. You’re home, Jack.”
“Not home. Not…” He started, eyes darting to something over her shoulder. “No,” he whispered in panic, trying to sit up. “Está aqui…”
She spun around, startled, but there was no one there. “Jack, please, you’re dreaming. The fever...”
“Ir ao inferno! ” he hissed, scrambling backward on the bed, reaching for a sword that wasn’t at his waist. “Eu não irei para trás! ”
“Jack, listen to me. There’s no one there. You’re safe. You’re aboard the Pearl and—”
He shook his head, as if to dislodge something. “Voices. All talking at once, can’t hear a bloody thing. Quiet in the deep. And cold. Cold as death. So cold…” He was shivering now, his back to the wall and eyes fixed on something Elizabeth couldn’t see. “I won’t go,” he said. “I won’t go back there.”
“You don’t have to,” she assured him, edging closer, onto the bed. “Listen to me, Jack. You don’t have to go back there. You’re free. He can’t take you back.”
“He can. He…” He coughed suddenly, eyes wide in panic. “Can’t breathe…”
“Listen to me!” She seized his hand. “This isn’t real. Tia Dalma said this was the hardest leg of the voyage, but you’re almost home. Don’t you see?”
Jack suddenly went rigid, eyes wide as saucers. “Dark. Can’t see…”
“Then listen. Listen to me, follow my voice, Jack.”
“You’re not alone.” She touched his face; slick with sweat, but cooler now. The fever was breaking. “Jack, I’m here.”
“Left me all alone in the dark …”
“I didn’t, I—” The denial was empty, worthless; Jack spoke the truth. But his was not the only truth. “I came back for you, Jack. We all did.” She moved closer, so close she could feel his ragged breaths hot upon her lips. So very, very close... Her heart began to pound – in hope, and something more, something forbidden and unnameable. Something irresistible. “We need you, Jack. The Pearl needs you. I…” Each word floated on the cusp of a kiss. “I need you.”
For an eternity they lingered there, their breath entwining like their lives. So close, so far away; wanting and fearing, hiding everything and nothing. “Come home,” she murmured, her lips at last brushing his in a melancholy echo of the kiss that had condemned him. “Come home, Jack.”
Silence for an age, and then, “Elizabeth…?” His eyes opened with a butterfly kiss of lashes against her cheek.
Pulling back she saw recognition in his eyes and almost cried in relief. “Yes. Yes, I’m here.”
He stared. “Where…is here?”
“Aboard the Pearl.”
His eyes darted sideways, then back to her. “And in my bed, it would seem.”
She sat up, fast. “You were dying.”
“Ah. Then this must be heaven.” Had his grin been less exhausted, she might have chosen to be more offended.
“Hardly.” She returned primly to her chair next to his bed. “I saved your life.”
He struggled to sit up, but seemed incapable and collapsed with a groan onto his back. “You killed me, love. Fed me black heart to the beastie, if I recall.”
“Well,” she agreed, smoothing a crease out of her breeches. “Then I saved you.”
His chuckle was weak, but warm and very welcome. “Then all’s square.”
“All’s square.” Except it seemed as though the very kiss with which she’d condemned him had also brought him home, and that made for an awkward square where Will was concerned. She rubbed a tired hand over her eyes and rose to her feet. At the table, Tia Dalma’s medicine sat unused. Elizabeth reached for the bowl and sniffed at its pungent content, nose wrinkling. “You need to drink this,” she said, turning back around. “Tia Dalma believes it will…”
His eyes were shut and he was asleep. Really asleep, his breathing deeper and less laboured than it had been since they’d found him. Elizabeth felt the fight drain from her like a spring tide. She barely had the energy to drag a blanket over Jack before she curled up on the floor next to his bed and fell into a deep, solid sleep haunted only by the memory of forbidden kisses.
Consciousness returned with a sensation of dank chill that was not pleasant. Peeling open an eye, Jack found himself in his cabin, his memory groggy and head pounding. He smacked his lips experimentally, but could taste no rum. Something else then. An involuntary shiver cramped his muscles, and he realised he was soaked to the skin. A memory stirred, dark and to be forgot, of icy waters and lonely death. But no, this wasn’t that.
Rolling onto his back he found himself tangled in blankets, his shirt clinging damply to his cold skin. Mouth dry, body aching. A fever broken, no doubt. With one arm he pushed himself upright and held there while the world steadied – as steady as was possible upon a ship at sea. And she was at sea, he could feel the roll of her beneath him. The thought might have warranted a satisfied smile had he not wondered who stood at the helm. Hazy memories – or nightmares? – suggested Barbossa, but given that he’d shot the man dead, the notion was improbable. Then again… He turned his hand over, relived to see it clear of the cursed black spot that had chased him to Hell; his own resurrection was equally improbable, if not more so.
Another shiver overtook him, impressing him with the urgent need for something dry upon his back. He noticed a trunk on the far side of the cabin which had once contained some fine linins, pilfered from a young woman of his close acquaintance. The husband, grown fat in his dotage, had had no further use for the clothes, and so Jack had done him the favour of removing a painful reminder of his gluttonous youth. Only, to Jack’s certain recollection, the trunk had been lost before Barbossa had staged his foul mutiny. How it could be back in his cabin, ten years and a wrecking since, he couldn’t fathom. But he was too cold and bone weary to care. He swung his legs off the bed and ignored the unmanly swoon that blurred the edges of his vision. He was Captain Jack Sparrow, after all. The man who had been to World’s End and back would, he was sure, make it in safety to the other side of his own cabin.
He stood. The world flopped upside down, his legs folded as if made of Indian rubber, and he found himself back on the bed and staring at the ceiling. “Bugger.”
“What on Earth…?” The shrill voice of a Harpie tore at his ear, leaping up from somewhere near his feet. “What do you think you’re doing?”
He closed his eyes and waited for the world to stop its infernal spinning. “Needed a shirt, it’s bloody freezing.”
“Oh.” After a moment, in a quieter voice, she said, “You’re soaked through.”
Jack pried open an eye to find Elizabeth Swann watching him, one hand on her hip and her eyes full of a concern he didn’t want to see. Let her be a Harpie, ’twas easier on his heart. “A lady would leave a gentleman alone to dress.”
She snorted. “If we were either of those things, we would hardly be in this situation in the first place.”
That was true enough, at least on his part. He eyed her curiously, taking in her wan face, windswept hair and boyish dress. No, no lady at all. Much more than that. His weary heart raced a little faster, and he cursed it silently. Affixing a smile designed to infuriate, he said, “Then be a poppet and fetch me a dry shirt. From the trunk over there. Nothing too fancy, mind. No lace. The gentleman who donated said linins was a trifle ostentatious in his dress.”
Elizabeth’s lips curled into a dry smile he refused to find captivating. “Ostentatious? I hardly think you are in a position to comment, Captain Sparrow.”
He closed his eyes with a smile. “Pirate,” he said, by way of explanation.
There was some rustling and a few quiet complaints – a soft curse, or two. He lifted his head, but it felt like raising a ten pound ball and he got no more than a glimpse of her rummaging in the trunk before he collapsed back onto the bed. Weak as a newborn.
It occurred to him, then, to wonder what she was doing, tending him alone. Where was the boy, with his jealous eyes and bristling anger? Jack was somewhat afraid that, in his current state of incapacitation, the whelp might best him, should he come barrelling into the cabin and demand to fight for the fair lady’s honour. Not that Jack had the slightest intention of fighting over the treacherous wench. Love for a woman got you no further than the ocean deep, with your still-thumping heart locked in a box; Jack Sparrow had as much use for love as he did for a ploughshare.
Or so he told himself.
“Here,” Elizabeth said, appearing above him with an imperious look and dropping a shirt next to him on the bed.
He searched for a witty retort, but none would rise through the sludge in his mind and he was forced to say, “Thank you.”
Taken unawares, Elizabeth appeared nonplussed. Then her expression softened and she came to sit wearily on the edge of his bed. “You look pale,” she said, her hand touching his brow as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But he watched it like it was Eden’s serpent and she must have caught his expression because she swiftly withdrew and said, “The fever’s broken.”
“And drenched me in the process,” he agreed.
“You should change.” Suddenly she looked awkward. “I’ll just—” She turned her back. “Go ahead.”
He laughed, couldn’t help it, though his throat was raw – scorched by the briny no doubt. “Afraid of what you’ll see, darling?”
“Fear is hardly the emotion—”
“Something else then? Something more exciting, eh? Something—”
“Captain Sparrow!” She spun around, eyes ablaze and glorious. “I can assure you that the sight of you without your shirt is hardly enough to excite me!”
He grinned. “Sorry love, don’t have the energy for anything more.”
“You…” Her spluttering outrage was priceless. “You…”
“Come now,” he said, “all in jest, eh?” He pushed himself up, sitting woozily as he plucked at the bottom of his shirt. The blood seemed to be thumping loud in his ears, rushing like water through a sluice gate, and his vision was tunnelling. “Lost me sea legs,” he said, canting sideways. “Can’t seem to—”
A strong hand held him upright. “Careful.” Her voice was disturbingly close to his ear. “Here, let me help.”
Blinking, fighting off the grey, he felt a swell of nausea, a soft touch on his skin, and the damp shirt being tugged up and over his head. Consciousness was a mere spin of light far, far away, little more than strong hands on his shoulders and warm dry linen on his back. “Lie down now,” she said from the top of the well.
His head hit the pillow and his legs were lifted onto the bed, life flooding back into his mind again. He breathed deep, over and over, as the hot-cold flush faded and his stomach settled. He became aware of a hand on his arm, its heat warming him through his shirt sleeve. “You must drink something,” Elizabeth said in a gentle voice, one he’d never heard from her – at least, not aimed in his direction. She squeezed his arm. “Can you raise your head?”
“More than that, love.”
Elizabeth just smiled. “I doubt it.” Her hand snaked behind his neck, and he would have shaken free had he been able; her gentle touch was as seductive and dangerous as Aztec treasure. “Tia Dalma said you should drink this.”
His eyes went wide. “Tia Dalma?” Elizabeth was holding a bowl, the content of which stank worse than the breath of the Kraken. “Is it poison?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. She saved your life.”
“I thought you saved my life?”
“Just drink it.”
His nose flared in revulsion as she lifted the concoction to his lips, but he choked down a swallow or two before he pushed it away and sank back onto the bed. It burned his throat, but he could feel the heat seeping into his mind, his limbs, and bringing strength with it. He coughed, dry throated. “Got a drop of rum to wash it down?”
“No rum,” she said firmly, rising from the bed and returning the accursed medicine to the table.
He sighed and felt his eyelids grow heavy, but he didn’t want to sleep. Not yet. Turning his head, he watched her. She was tired, in spirit as well as body. He supposed she’d endured some troubles to bring him back, not that she didn’t deserve them for her treason. And yet… “Why don’t you avail yourself of a chair and talk to me a while?”
She glanced over at him. “About what?”
“Ship’s business?” There was scepticism in her voice, but she moved to sit by him nonetheless. “And what would that be?”
Jack glanced at the ceiling, in the general direction of the helm. “Who has the wheel?”
Her lips flattened. “Barbossa.”
“Cursed son of a whore!” He tried to push himself up, failed and collapsed in ignominy. “I’ll tear his—”
“Not now,” she said wearily. “Hasn’t there been enough—? Why must we always be at each other’s throats? There are enough others who would see us hang, without fighting amongst ourselves.”
Her turn of phrase was curious. “Us, love?”
With a sigh, she met his gaze. “You, better than anyone, know me for what I am, Jack. You always have.”
“Didn’t think you’d ever see it for yourself, though.”
She smiled, a bitter little smile for such a young face. “Hard not to when you— Hard not to once you’ve traded a friend’s life for your own.”
“Not just your life though, was it? The rest of the crew too.” He pushed himself up on his elbow and found he could remain there. “You did better by them than their captain, eh?”
“You were right,” he said, talking over her. He wondered if Tia Dalma’s potion was affecting his mind, because he found words coming to his lips that he didn’t rightly know he wanted spoken. Nevertheless, speak them he did. “I did want it. The rewards of admiration. I wanted to taste it, and for a moment there—” He broke off, but his eyes were held by hers, by the genuine conflict and sorrow he saw there. A strange, unfamiliar sensation washed over him; not desire, something more. Something infinitely deeper. It rooted him to the spot.
After a moment Elizabeth lowered her head. “I’m ashamed. If I exploited—? If you felt any kind of softer feeling for me…?”
The moment hung there in silence, drenched in possibility; a die eternally spinning on its corner, waiting to fall. And suddenly all Jack could see was Davy Jones’ heart beating in his hand; all he could feel was the shackles’ bite and the acid pain of betrayal.
This woman – this chit of a girl – would be his undoing.
And so he broke the moment with a deliberate swing of the hatchet. “Nothing soft about it, love.” Her face flushed, her jaw hardened, and he pressed the advantage. “Talking about the cold iron of the shackles and the pointy teeth of the beastie, of course.”
Elizabeth frowned. “I meant— Tia Dalma said you felt—”
“Then Tia Dalma forgot one important fact, darling.” He flashed her a dazzling, dangerous smile. “I’m Captain Jack Sparrow.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And as such, I suppose, you feel nothing for anyone?”
“Nothing by way of a shackling feeling, savvy? Freedom is my first and only love.”
She held his gaze, understood his meaning, but didn’t flinch as she rose to her feet; there was no guilt in her eyes, only ice. “Then I pity you, Jack.” She turned to leave. “You’re doomed to a life alone.”
“A pirate’s life,” he called after her. “Yo-ho and all that, remember?”
Reaching the door she held there with her back to him. “A pirate’s life? Is that how you fool yourself, Jack? With the rum and the swagger? Is that how you hide from the fact that your precious freedom – what you mistake for freedom – is nothing more than an empty heart? This,” she waved her hand to encompass the Pearl, “all this is only freedom if you care for no one, and regret nothing you leave behind.”
“And what would you know about such things, love?”
She turned her head, her slender neck elegant as a queen, her beautiful face painted in sadness. “A great deal, I assure you.”
Unsure what to make of her words, Jack held his silence. There was a strange pressure in his chest, a sweet pain, intensified by the fire in her fierce eyes. He dared not give it a name.
“The others will want to speak with you when you are well,” she said. “There’s much unfinished business, Captain Sparrow. For us all.”
“You—” His voice came out rougher than expected. “You should get some rest, Elizabeth. You look tired.”
The faintest hint of a smile touched her lips. “Concern, Captain Sparrow? How very unlike a pirate.” And then she opened the door and was gone.
Jack collapsed back onto his bed as if the wind had left his sails. In his chest his heart beat, thump-thump, like Davy Jones’ – vexed. Vexed by a woman whose heart beat for another man. A woman whose kiss had sent him to hell—
“We need you, Jack. The Pearl needs you. I…” Each word floated on the cusp of a kiss. “I need you.”
For an eternity they lingered there, their breath entwining like their lives. So close, so far away; wanting and fearing, hiding everything and nothing. “Come home,” she murmured, her lips at last brushing his in a melancholy echo of the kiss that had condemned him. “Come home, Jack.”
—sent him to hell and brought him back again, it seemed.
What was a man supposed to make of that? “Contradictory bloody woman,” he muttered to the ceiling. “Bloody pirate!”
With a sigh he rolled his legs over the side of the bed and tried to sit up again. Tia Dalma’s revolting concoction seemed to have worked its black magic because he found himself able to rise without the world spinning. There was a sharpness to his mind too, one that had been lacking. From the deck he could hear life: voices calling, feet clumping, the creak of the Pearl fully rigged and running before the wind. The pulse of his ship.
His ship, his freedom. That much remained true, despite the strumpet’s witterings.
He found his boots, his coat and hat, and dressed himself for the role. “I’m Captain Jack Sparrow,” he told the empty room, daring it to question him. “I’m Captain Jack Sparrow and I’m bloody well back.” All he needed now – all he really needed now – was the helm and the horizon.
Ignoring the weakness in his limbs, he left the cabin and climbed up onto the sunlit deck. An odd kind of silence fell as he emerged, the crew stopping work to watch as he strolled past. A nod here, a half-hearted salute there, the occasional toothless smile. Admiration, he noted, irritated by the flash of warmth it created in his belly. Even Elizabeth, perched on the quarterdeck rail, watched him with a ghost of a smile as he walked the length of his ship – his Pearl – toward the helm.
Barbossa was there, flicking narrow-eyed glances at the crew. Smart man that he was, he made no obvious play for power. Not yet. But that was a trouble for another day and Jack ignored him for now. Slowly – so as to catch his breath and not let the men see – he approached the ship’s wheel. Gibbs had it, a steady hand in all weather, and greeted Jack with a nod. “She’s all yours, Captain.”
Jack caught the wheel before it could spin, its weight perfect in his hand. He nodded his thanks to Gibbs and turned to look out over the deck. All eyes were on him; he hoped they weren’t anticipating a speech. After the expectant silence had stretched thin, Jack waved his hand in the air and said, “Rum for everyone!”
A cheer went up and through it he heard the bell-like chime of Elizabeth’s laughter. That the wench was entwined in his life appeared inescapable, but for now he refused to think about her. Or about how close bloody Turner stood to her, his hand resting on the girl’s— “What’s our heading Mr. Gibbs?”
“Northward, sir. Thought to make port at Bahia, then up to Cayenne.”
“Bahia?” He raised an eyebrow. “Long way south.”
Gibbs clapped him on the arm. “World’s End, Captain. Did ye think it would be in the Caribbean?”
He considered it a moment. “Can’t say as I did. In that case, Mr. Gibbs, double the rum and set the fore-topmast studding sail on the larboard side. We’ll coax a little more speed from her, eh?” His gaze darted to Elizabeth and Will, then back out to the horizon. “Happens that we’ve got some unfinished business in the north.”
“Aye, sir,” Gibbs nodded, his voice ringing out the orders as Will Turner strolled over to the helm. Jack pretended not to notice Elizabeth trailing in his wake, even if her gaze did burn like a branding iron.
“Your dear-departed father, for a start,” Jack said, his eye firm on the horizon.
“And Jones,” the boy added in that new, terrifyingly cold voice of his.
“Him too, it would seem. Not forgetting Cutler Beckett.” He allowed his lips to curl into an unpleasant smile. “He and I have business going back a long way.”
“I too have business with Lord Beckett,” said Elizabeth.
Jack threw her a sidelong dance. “You do?”
“He holds my father prisoner. Did you forget?”
He had, as it happened. “Course not, love. First stop then, Port Royal, to free the dear ol’ governor and hope he don’t hang me for me troubles.”
“First stop?” She cast him an arch look. “Careful Jack, or it might appear as though you’re putting another’s needs before your own.”
Despite Will’s dour glare, Elizabeth’s backhanded approval made Jack smile. “All evidence to the contrary, eh?”
She laughed, a sound as free as the wind blowing through her hair, and for the moment that was enough.
They understood each other, and that was enough.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it! I'm always looking to improve my writing, so any comments are welcome. This was my first attempt at writing Jack, so I'd be especially grateful for any tips on that. :-)