It so happened that Gibbs had first watch, taking the helm as dawn sliced a bright line between sky and sea. The day promised fair winds and clear skies, an omen he took to be lucky. After the dreary days through which they’d just sailed, he fancied they were due a little luck. The captain, most of all.
What manner of business had gone on the night before was not his concern, though aboard ship little went unnoticed – or unheard. Elizabeth Swann – Turner, as he should properly call her – was certainly not the first wench Jack had taken to his cabin, but the whole crew knew this was no shore-leave tangle. The captain had been vexed by the girl these three years at least; to be bedding her while taking her home to her husband – a friend, no less – seemed dangerous waters even by Jack’s dubious standards.
No good would come of it, not for Jack Sparrow. The woman, bonny as she may be, had done him naught but harm. Gibbs doubted she’d mend her ways.
Talk of the Devil and he doth appear. Or she, as the case may be. For, as the first rays of sun broke the horizon, Elizabeth stepped onto the deck, the morning gold glinting on her unkempt hair. She was dressed, as was her wont, in men’s clothes – Jack’s, most likely – and stretched up her arms as if to greet the morning. Lithe as a cat and as self-satisfied this morning, no doubt.
With a brief wave to him, she meandered in the opposite direction toward the prow of the ship and stopped there, leaning on the rail and gazing out at the morning. Did she think of her poor, cuckolded husband, Gibbs wondered? Or the captain, dangling like a fish? Two good men in those slender hands of hers; it didn’t seem right, not by half.
Shortly after, perhaps half an hour, the captain himself emerged. He paused in the doorway, his eyes fixed on Elizabeth as if he might go to her. Then, apparently changing his mind, he headed instead to the quarterdeck.
“Mr. Gibbs!” he said, by way of greeting. “Fair weather, eh?”
“Aye, sir.” Though stormy waters ahead, no doubt.
Jack smiled a strange smile – more honest than usual, perhaps. He made no attempt to take the helm, which was itself curious, and instead moved to lean against the quarterdeck rail and gaze at the woman’s back. Gibbs repressed a sigh; the man was fair smitten, which boded ill for them all.
“Should make Port Royal in five days, sir,” he said, moving sideways into the subject. “If that still be our heading…?”
Jack gave a sharp nod. “It is.” Then he straightened, and turned with that self-same smile. “I’ll leave my dear Pearl in your hands, Gibbs. I have other…” He half-heartedly fluttered his fingers, “…other matters to which I must attend.”
He turned toward the stairs, but Gibbs could not let him go without speaking. “Have a care, Jack.”
The look in the captain’s eye as he glanced over his shoulder was like that of a man at the gallows; reconciled to a bitter end. It was softened only by his dry smile. “’Tis too late for that, mate.”
“It’s a wide ocean,” Gibbs suggested. “No need to return to the Caribbean right away – if ever.”
Jack laughed, low and bleak. “A caged bird won’t sing, Gibbs, and what’s the use of a silent one, eh?” His expression sobered. “I’ll be no man’s gaoler. Nor woman’s, neither.”
“Aye, sir.” It was the only answer Gibbs had expected, and yet as he watched the captain make his way along the deck he almost wished it had been otherwise.
Elizabeth greeted Jack with a smile so wide Gibbs could see it from the helm, a hand reaching for his face before dropping self-consciously to her side. But they stood close as lovers, Jack gesturing vaguely at the horizon as if explaining some intricacy of navigation; her laughter glittered bright as the sunlit waves, a tragic counterpoint to Jack Sparrow’s darker waters.
It fair broke his heart, and he was forced to turn his eye elsewhere.
As the days drew on and the air warmed, Gibbs saw less and less of his captain. A brief tour of the ship, morning and evening, was enough, it seemed, to assure Captain Sparrow that all was in good order. Beyond that, he could be occasionally found in close conversation with Elizabeth at the ship’s rail, or upon the quarterdeck steps. Sometimes he’d be alone, lost in deep thought at the prow. And occasionally Gibbs had stumbled upon a midnight tryst that would have been better conducted behind closed doors.
But, he supposed, even lovers needed a taste of fresh air and they’d certainly spent more time than was healthy in Jack’s cabin. More so, once the sea took to glowing azure and the sun regained its strength.
And on this morning… Gibbs sighed and lowered his eyeglass. Cape Tibukon passed to starboard, which put Port Royal no more than a day away. They’d make landfall the following morning.
Ragetti was watching with a fretful look in his lone eye. “We’ve made good time,” he said. “The captain’s not going to like it.”
“That he’s not,” Gibbs agreed. “But he must be told.”
“Told?” Ragetti’s scrawny face twisted in panic. Suddenly – on demand, Gibbs suspected – his wooden eye popped out and rolled across the deck. Ragetti went scurrying after it, as far from Gibbs as the man could get.
He huffed irritably. Most likely, as First Mate, the task fell to him. Although where in the Code it spoke of such business he couldn’t rightly say; a lesser man would have been talking mutiny by now, to have a captain so distracted by a woman that he barely took time to see to his ship. But Gibbs was loyal; more to the point, his purse was full. And when this distracting wench was put ashore, he hoped the good captain would vent his frustrations through a bout of honest piracy in these rich Caribbean waters.
The sable cloud, he thought as he made his way across the deck, turns forth her silver lining on the night. His steps faltered, even so, as he approached the closed door to Jack’s cabin. Hoping he wasn’t choosing an inopportune moment – although he suspected it would be difficult to avoid one – he rapped hard upon the door and did his best not to listen to what went on behind it.
As it happened, the captain appeared almost at once and in a state of relatively decent dress. “Is there trouble, Mr. Gibbs?” There was both laughter and irritation in his eyes, and he glanced quickly over his shoulder to where Elizabeth sat with her feet upon the chart table and a bottle of rum in her hand. She raised it to Gibbs in salute and he nodded a perfunctory return.
“No trouble, Captain,” he said with a false lightness. “But I thought you’d want to know” – his eyes strayed to Elizabeth again – “that we’re just passing Cape Tibukon. We’ll reach Port Royal by tomorrow morning.”
Jack’s face was studiously blank as he lifted his chin. “Ah.”
“Would be a good opportunity to trade for provisions, because—”
The cabin door closed in his face, and Gibbs was not sorry. He had no wish to bear witness to what might be going on behind it and with a hurried step fair fled across the deck.
A black day was coming, and he must prepare for it as best he could.
Jack didn’t turn around right away, kept his eye on the worn grain of the door until he felt himself in control of the tempest. Taking a deep breath, that may have been a sigh, he turned around and found her watching him – as she always did, it seemed – her eyes more piercing than any blade.
“A day,” he said, giving it no inflection. A bald statement of fact.
Elizabeth nodded and tried a smile that looked awkward on her face. “A whole twenty four hours.”
He ignored her deflection; no point in putting off the evil moment. “And you’re determined to leave?”
“To return home,” she corrected with a fragile resolve that might have melted his heart had her words not broken it.
“So you call it.” He stalked back to the table and snatched up his own bottle. Their idle conversation had lost its appeal in the face of pending doom. He swallowed a good deal, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and paced to the window.
After a moment, she said, “You always knew…”
“I knew nothing.” And that was the harsh truth of it; until he’d taken her to his bed he’d no idea how she could break him, claim him for her own. It had never happened before, this calf-love need of her. Jack Sparrow took women, they didn’t take him. Until now.
He heard her soft footfall on the floor and dreaded – yearned – for her hands upon him, for the soft comfort of her arms about him. “Don’t let it be like this,” she breathed in a melancholy whisper. “We have a day and a night, Jack. Our last…”
Eyes closed against the pain, he could barely draw breath around it. “Elizabeth…” He wanted to beg her to stay, but his pride would not permit it. The plea died in his throat as she turned him toward her.
“Jack…” Warm lips on his. Her own plea, as voiceless as his own, for understanding. For forgiveness.
His lips moved against hers, giving her what she needed though she could not return his gift. In the morning, duty and honour would take her from him, and with her his soul.
He didn’t know how he would bear it.
They’d lain together in the humid heat of the Caribbean afternoon, sweat-damp and desperate. She’d tasted the salt of her tears as she clung to him, trying to love enough for a lifetime and knowing it was futile.
He’d said little that could not be spoken with gesture and touch. But his eyes had been sorrowful when he’d kissed her, when he’d caressed her face as though memorizing it, and it broke her heart to be the cause of so much sadness.
As night fell, they drifted into an aching silence. There were no adequate words to be said, so they said none at all. Jack sat by the window for a while, half dressed and the bottle half empty. She watched him by the light of the sunset and longed to offer comfort, but had none to give. In the morning she would leave. They would never meet again.
Her tears were silent, and if he noticed he didn’t turn. His gaze was fixed on the receding horizon; the past, she supposed. And all lost things…
Perhaps the punishment for so much illicit joy, she mused, was the overwhelming pain of separation. Her desire to stay, forever free on the ocean and at his side, was so powerful she could hardly breathe. But desire meant nothing next to duty, she knew that. Duty, loyalty. And honour.
And yet it was Jack who’d brought her to life – there was a bond between them she’d felt with no one else. He understood her, valued her for all that she was, and expected nothing but honesty in return. With Jack, she could be true to herself. And next to that, the ties of duty and honour seemed no more than chains that bound her to a life of tedious conformity. Chains she longed to break…
When the sun had set, and the cabin was lit only by moonlight, he moved from the window. At first she feared he’d leave, go in search of more rum and other company to drown his sorrows, but though he paused by the door, in the end he returned to sit on the bed. He said nothing, just rubbed a weary looking hand across his face and sighed.
Tentatively she touched him, a gentle caress against his back. For a moment he remained resolutely taught, but then he turned with a helpless murmur and pulled her fiercely into his arms. For a long time they sat like that, holding and being held, until, exhausted beyond endurance, Elizabeth coaxed him down to the bed with her. Still wrapped together, they lay in the dark and waited for the dawn.
It was at once a long time coming and arrived too soon.
When the first peep of golden light turned the grey morning bright, she knew she could tarry no longer. Jack’s arms held her loosely, her head cushioned against his shoulder, and he seemed to be sleeping. It would be easier if he were.
Sick with the anguish of it, she pressed a kiss to his lips and sat up. Through the cabin windows she could see land alarmingly close, so close she could make out farmsteads and the curve of the bay just prior to Port Royal. Her heart sank to the pit of her stomach; they could be no more than an hour away.
Tears lumped in her throat, but she refused to give them quarter. She would not cry in front of him, nor the rest of the crew.
Quietly she crept from his warm bed and across the floor toward the trunk of clothes Jack kept in the corner. She’d stowed in there the necessities she’d need to go ashore: her white shift, her corset (re-laced), and the crimson dress – a fitting colour as it happened – dried from its dip in the sea. Her reason for wanting to keep it were as sinful as the memories it evoked; that did not stop her from wanting to hold onto either.
She slipped the muslin over her head, sighing at the feel of skirts about her ankles. The corset came next, and it was not so hard to pull the laces in front, then twist it around to cinch tight about her waist. But after a week free of such tortuous devices, her body objected to the confinement. The bloody thing hurt; she hated it, loathed it with her very soul.
And then came the dress. Its hooks and eyes were impossible and there was no way to twist it around so she could see what she was doing. She cursed beneath her breath; what was the purpose of clothing that required a woman to employ a maid simply to dress? Bleakly she thought that, perhaps, that was the purpose. If a woman couldn’t even dress herself – and dress herself in clothes that did not press the very life from her body – then how could she ever hope to carve out a place in the world? She would be no more than a child, bent to a man’s will.
Angered by the thought, she twisted around, struggling to hook her dress. And found Jack sitting on the edge of the bed, watching.
His face was bleak, a deal of his own anger concealed in those dark-lashed eyes. “Don’t ask me to bind you into that bloody thing,” he said. “I’ve cut you free twice now, if you choose it a third time then you must imprison yourself.”
She would have bridled at his bitterness, had she not felt the cause so deep in her own heart. Instead, all she could muster was a sigh. “I would not ask you to.”
He looked away, out of the window. “Almost on the doorstep, love. I imagine young Will must be…” He couldn’t finish the sentence. His head dropped and after a moment, in a fervent voice, he said, “I can’t stand seeing you like this, Lizzie. So…trussed up. How can you bear it?”
His eyes met hers then, a blaze of anger, and she went to him. “I don’t know how I’ll bear it. But I must… He’s my husband.”
Seizing her hand he pressed it against his chest. “And what am I?”
“Don’t ask me that.”
Across the water the fortress bell tolled seven; her old life calling to her.
She closed her eyes against the plea in his. “You’re my soul, Jack.”
“Then stay.” He seized her by the shoulders, as raw as she’d ever seen him. “Stay with me, Lizzie.”
“But I mustn’t.”
“Mustn’t?” He pulled back, disbelieving. “Is that all?” Abruptly he let go, so sudden she almost lost her balance, his lips curving into a contemptuous smile. “Then, by all means, you should go. Certainly mustn’t be late, eh? No doubt you have shirts to darn, or some such pressing need.”
“Why not?” He lounged back on the bed, brittle as glass. “I can do what I wish. Even if I shouldn’t, eh?”
She lifted her chin, wishing her dress was hooked behind her, but no matter. “Is this how you would have us part, Captain Sparrow?”
“’Tis as good a way as any, Mrs. Turner.”
She nodded, bitterly. “Very well. Goodbye, Jack.”
The shock of the moment flashed as fierce in her heart as it flared in Jack’s eyes. His chest heaved, as if he were catching his breath, but his voice was cool when he said, “Goodbye then, Elizabeth.”
Jaw clenched, she turned away. Fine. Heartbroken and angry she strode to the door, the sleeves of her ridiculous dress slipping from her shoulders like a harlot’s, her chest tight with pain. She seized the door handle, wrenched it open, and stopped. Her head sank, eyes pooling with tears. Worse than she could possibly have imagined, this moment of parting. Remorse and grief tightened her throat so she could barely breathe. “Jack…”
And he was there, behind her, his fingers light on her bare shoulders. He said nothing but she could hear his breathing, as ragged and unravelled as she felt. Then, slowly and deliberately, he began to hook her dress together, tightening it about her, restoring her to respectability. A press of his lips to the back of her neck, apology and forgiveness, and he was gone.
Elizabeth didn’t look back when she walked away; she could hardly see for the tears.
The captain kept to his cabin all that day, emerging at dusk, ape-drunk and in search of more rum. Gibbs helped him to it, and left him be. They’d not be leaving port till the tide turned the next morning, and it were best the captain were not tempted to any…indiscretions. Will Turner was a good man, but he’d not take kindly to anyone meddling with his wife, and it was mighty difficult to break a man free of the Port Royal gaol.
Close to midnight Jack appeared on deck with some wild intention of taking the Pearl out of port right then. His ramblings were incoherent – his limbs scarcely less so, and good job too for they foiled his attempt to man the topsail yard when he was a scarce foot from the deck.
After he fell he lay sprawled upon his back for some time, contemplating the sky, and Gibbs chivvied the curious crew back to their rum and whores. Then he sat on the deck beside Jack and lit his pipe; a rare treat. He would have been happy to be silent, but the captain had a need to talk – if not much of an ability.
“…nearly drowned,” he slurred, waving his hands toward the sky. “Right here, in this bloody port.”
“Did you now?”
“No, no, no… Not me, mate. I can swim like fish. More like a dolphin, as it were, although I don’t possess a tail.”
“That you don’t.”
“I once met a woman who said she did, although when it came right down to it ‘twas less of a tail and more of a—”
“Singapore?” Gibbs guessed, sucking on his pipe.
“I believe you’re right, Mr…?” Jack squinted up at him. “What’s your name?”
“Ah yes. A very good name. Sounds like gibbet, and I suspect I’ll be endin’ me days in one o’those soon enough. Or, rather, as it happens, not soon enough.”
Gibbs frowned down at him; a fine man reduced to such a pitiful state for the love of a treacherous woman. “There’ll be no talk o’that, Jack.”
“Of gibbets? ‘Tis a fitting end for a pirate, wouldn’t you say? Hung out for all to see? Quite a spectacle.” He rolled onto his side, propped up awkwardly on one elbow. “It makes the women cry, you know. Quite over come by such a dreadful fate for a handsome rogue. Make’s ’em wish…” He laughed, without humour. “They nearly hung me here, you know? Right up there, upon the fort. Nice place for weddings too, I hear. ’Specially for brides not so fond of their husbands, eh?”
“Aye.” He made no attempt at answering; the captain wasn’t listening anyway.
“Will saved my life,” he carried on. “She helped too, I suppose, but that was before she killed me, you see? And before…before she…” His fingers toyed with the lock of hair he’d braided with his own on a similar night in this port, two years earlier. “Would have saved us all a world of trouble if they’d let the rope bite.”
“And would you not have missed the Pearl, Captain? While dangling from yon rope?”
“The Pearl…” He touched a fingertip to the tar-black deck. “She’s just a ship, mate.”
Gibbs sucked on his pipe. “She’s our freedom too, Jack. Don’t you forget that.”
“Freedom?” He laughed hollowly and rolled onto his back. “The horizon, Mr. Gibbs, isn’t half so inviting when all that you want lies behind you.”
Slowly Gibbs blew out a stream of smoke. “Then you must learn to want that horizon again, Jack. Be done with her now.” He waved his pipe toward the captain’s braided hair, sprawled around him on the deck. “Be done with mementos and regrets, lest they drag you back to the Locker. She’s another man’s wife, she’s not for you. That’s how it is.”
Jack was silent.
“You’re Captain Jack Sparrow. You a have a ship, and you have a crew.”
After a silence he said, “And the rum is not gone.”
“Aye, that it isn’t.”
He laughed a soft, sad laugh and saluted the sky with his bottle. “Drink up me hearties, Yo ho!”
Gibbs smiled, knocked his flask against Jack’s bottle, and settled his back to the mast. He’d keep an eye on his old friend this night, though it weren’t in the Code.
Everyone knew they were more like guidelines anyway.
Will had been waiting on the docks as the longboat drew close, his smart clothes standing out from the usual dockside rabble. He’d helped her climb the rough ladder and then pulled her into a tight embrace, murmuring, “Thank God you’re safe.”
“I’m fine,” she’d assured him, a blank veneer over the truth. “Or I soon will be.”
He’d looked at her then, pulling back with concern in his tender eyes. “Were you harmed?”
“No.” And she’d tried to smile, to reassure him, but it had felt weak. She knew her sadness must show.
Reading her well, Will’s attention had cut to the Pearl “I see you ran into our old friend.”
“What trouble is there that doesn’t involve Jack Sparrow?” she’d replied, as light as possible. But her lips still tasted his kiss and her cracked heart beat a broken rhythm.
“Is he not coming ashore?” Will had asked, and she’d tried to ignore the incipient relief in her husband’s voice.
“I imagine he’ll sail with the next tide, these waters aren’t safe for pirates.”
“That’s true,” Will had said. “Especially now. I’ve half the fleet out looking for you.”
“You…? You sent the fleet?”
He’d looked at her strangely then, half chagrin and half irritation. “I could hardly commandeer a ship and raise a crew in Tortuga this time, Elizabeth.”
Her smile had been insipid. “No. Of course not.”
“And the fleet could find you much faster than I could.”
She’d simply nodded at that, her eye drifting helplessly toward the Pearl. A ship of the night, she had looked too ordinary under the glare of the morning sunshine. Uneasy in these waters, like her captain – and herself.
Abruptly she’d turned away, all too aware that an hour ago she’d been in Jack’s bed, and now she was in her husband’s arms. She’d hardly known which betrayal was the greater.
“You must be tired,” Will had said then, slipping an arm about her waist and drawing her away from the dock. Away from Jack. “And no doubt in need of a bath.”
“In very great need,” she said faintly. But although she might scrub the scent of Jack from her skin, she knew she’d never scrub his love from her heart, nor their sin from her soul.
The bath had been poured searing hot, as she liked it, and she’d put all her maids out of the room while she bathed. Once alone she’d simply drifted about the room, running fingers over the familiar surfaces. The iron framed mirror, the copper tub, the shutters shielding floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked lush grounds.
On a whim, she’d pushed the shutters open and admitted the Caribbean breeze and the scent of frangipani. Heady, perfumed, decadent as adultery; she’d left the window open while she bathed.
Slipping slowly into the water she’d told herself it was no betrayal. Though she might wash his kisses from her body, her heart was less easily scoured. And that was an ambiguous blessing. Letting the heat take her, she slid beneath the surface.
Soft, sweet water, not the harsh salt-scrub of the ocean, her hair had floated like a mermaid’s about her shoulders until she broke the surface and it had streamed down her head and over her eyes. Like tears.
She’d stayed in the water until it was cold, and then lingered longer. A dressing gown had lain ready for her, and from there she was to return to her room where her maid would help her to dress; would cinch tight the corset, hook her dress…
Don’t ask me to bind you into that bloody thing. I’ve cut you free twice now, if you choose it a third time then you must imprison yourself.
She’d wondered if that was exactly what she was doing and hugged her knees to her chest, as if it might keep her heart from breaking. Less than three hours since she’d left the Pearl and her longing for Jack was fierce, harsh as the Caribbean sun. She’d hardly known how she would climb out of the bath, let alone live the rest of her life.
But climb out she had, pulled the soft gown over her naked body, and walked dripping into her bedroom. The maids had fussed around her, drying limbs and hair in decorous silence. Dutifully they’d dressed her, in what she’d cared not, and made her decent for luncheon.
She may have offered a smile when they’d finished, but the world had seemed to drift past as insubstantially as Martha’s ship and Elizabeth hardly knew what she did.
Will had come home for the meal, postponing the day’s pressing business, and they’d eaten close together and quietly. She’d spoken little about her adventure, begging fatigue as the reason, and though he’d cast her a number of serious, questioning looks, he’d asked no questions. Jack’s name had never passed his lips, nor hers.
When they’d finished eating he’d pressed her to rest and she’d agreed. In no fit state to talk, it had offered her the solitude she’d craved – and it had allowed him to return to his business, unhindered by guilt. She had not been blind to that fact, though she kept the thought to herself.
And rest she had; she’d had little sleep the night before – or was it a lifetime ago? – lying awake and anguished in Jack’s arms. And so, almost devoid of spirit, she’d sunk toward a numb oblivion as sterile and hopeless as Davy Jones locker.
She awoke with a start, the golden light of sunset creeping through the open window and a mischievous sea breeze toying with her hair.
For an instant she imagined the roll of the Pearl beneath her, Jack’s strength beside her, bold independence in his eyes. And then memory returned with a pang so painful she sat bolt upright, her soft gasp whispering through the silent room and out through the open windows. Beyond, the azure sky was tinted golden-brown with the dying of the day, trees rustling and fragrant in the evening’s cool, and the curtains swelling like sails in the breeze. But inside all was still, all was quiet. She took a deep breath, but her chest pressed hard against the stays that bound her. She couldn’t breathe!
A wave of irrational panic sent her scrabbling for hooks and eyes – mercifully at the front of her dress – and with shaking hands she tore them open, heedless of the damage to fine silk and lace. Still gasping for air, she tugged at the knot behind back her until the laces of her corset loosened enough to free her and she sank back onto the bed, breathing hard.
The curtains billowed into the room, the sea-breeze washing over her exposed skin, and suddenly it was impossible to remain confined – neither within her dress, nor within her room. She had to feel the wind in her hair.
Hardly knowing what she did, she jumped from the bed and heaved a trunk from beneath it, hauling out the clothes in which she’d returned two years ago. Hurrying, lest the maid returned, she pulled on the familiar breeches, shirt and waistcoat. The leather boots were stiff from lack of use, but still more comfortable than the slippers she threw off. Her hair she pulled down, leaving it caught only at the nape of her neck and mostly hidden beneath her hat. Then she was over the balcony – the fall soft upon the grass below – and she was running.
She ran all the way, through the outskirts of town and up toward the cliffs. Her lungs burned, her legs cramped with the strain, but she laughed too. Laughed with delight at this last grasp at freedom.
By the time she reached her customary place upon the cliff edge the sun had almost set. Its dying embers ignited the horizon, spread out across sky and sea, casting everything in flaming hues. Even the Pearl.
Chest heaving, she flung herself onto the grass and set her eyes on Jack’s ship. She watched it as the fiery sky faded to deep blues, purples and, finally, to black. Lamps sprung to life along the deck and she wondered by whose hand they were lit; she wondered if Jack stood there, staring back toward her.
The moon rose fast, close to full, touching the harbour with its mellow light. Ships rocked and jingled their rigging, and even from the cliff tops Elizabeth could hear the ceaseless hum of a busy port at night. The taverns spilled their clientele onto the street, the brothels pulled them in. Fights, laughter, singing, cursing – life in all its glory swarmed the streets of Port Royal. Soldiers too, no doubt, attempting to bring order where order did not wish to reside.
She breathed deep, relishing the sensation after a day in corsets, and thrilled at the pungent dockside aromas. To her, they smelled of nothing so much as freedom.
Freedom, Jack Sparrow, and the Black Pearl.
Tomorrow would not be the first time Elizabeth had watched the Pearl sail from Port Royal, though she suspected it would be the last. Jack had made it clear – painfully clear – that he would never return. And the odds of her leaving were slim, lest Will took a post back in London… That thought alone filled her with dread; to be bound to the stinking Thames, sluggishly following its dull course through the confines of the city, never able to breathe the sea air nor turn her face to its wild breeze…
She shivered, drawing her knees up to her chest. Such a future was not to be contemplated. And yet, if Will wished it – if his career demanded it – how could she refuse? He was her husband, and she had vowed to obey him.
You made other vows too, love, a sly voice reminded her, and showed precious little regard for them, eh?
Strangely, the thought didn’t make her feel as guilty as it should, rather it made her feel rebellious. Defiant. It made her wonder why she should live her life on anyone’s terms but her own.
It made her feel dangerous, powerful.
The dawn was too bright, lancing into the cabin with malicious intent. Jack rolled over, seeking darkness in the blankets, but that was no good because they smelled of her – and that pain was worse.
He sat up, woozy. It had been many a year since he’d felt the effects of drink, but perhaps it had also been many a year since he’d drunk quite so much. Or perhaps it was the fate of the day that made him so heartsick.
On the table sat the dregs of a bottle, and he swallowed the hair of the dog with a wince. A marginal improvement, though what he really needed was air and the roll of the sea beneath a ship at full sail. No cure better than that for any manner of ailment.
Standing, making sure he was relatively stable, he moved to the door. He hesitated on the threshold; ’twas not only the sunlight to face, but the crew too. He’d not have them know how thoroughly he’d been undone by a woman; how could a crew fear a captain who was so apron-tied?
But all that would end today, with the sailing of the ship. Gibbs had been right in his advice; no ship sailed backward, and a man must keep his eyes on the horizon. He had a mind for the East Indies, it had been too long since he’d sailed those waters, and the Caribbean had lost its charm for good and proper.
All that remained was to cut the ties and he would be free again.
Settling his hat low over his eyes, he opened the door and stepped out onto the deck. Gibbs was nearby, seeing to the preparations to depart, and nodded to Jack without comment. A few of the crew cast curious looks in their direction, but he took no notice and strode toward the helm with a steady gait; ‘twas hardly the time for his customary affectations.
“Are we ready to make sail, Mr. Gibbs?”
“Aye, Captain,” came the smart reply. “Will you take her out?”
Jack squinted at the morning horizon. “I have another matter at hand,” he said. “I’ll take her later, once we’re out of port.”
Gibbs cast him a wary look, though kept his concerns to himself. “And what’s our heading, sir?”
“South east a while, Gibbs. We’ll catch the mocha fleet, I fancy. Perhaps pass a spell in Madagascar, eh?”
There was a swell of approval from the crew, which eased the tight knot in his chest though it could not ease the pain of this final parting. But there was naught to be done about that; some treasures could not be stolen, however much a man might try. “Weigh anchor, Mr. Gibbs,” he said, clapping the man on the shoulder. “And my thanks to you.”
Gibbs’ curt nod spoke enough. “’Tis good to see you yerself again, Captain.”
Himself? Hardly, though a passing imitation he supposed, and for that he was grateful.
With no more words, he headed through the busy crew to stand upon the forecastle. He felt the slow build of movement as the anchors were raised and the tide pulled the Pearl into the sea’s embrace; a lover’s enduring touch, constant as the turn of the year. The sails rolled out above, the snap of canvass as they filled a bitter music to his ear now.
But it would be sweet again. She would be forgot and he would be Captain Jack Sparrow once more, free and unshackled. To that end…
He stepped nearer the prow, to the rail, and gazed down at the bow wave rippling ahead of them, gleaming in the morning light. Now was the time to do it, though when it came to the moment he was loath to move. But, in his heart, he knew it was the only way to be free of her.
The knife in his hand flashed silver; everything this day, it seemed, was too bright. The low clouds of a brooding storm would have suited him better. He lifted a hand to his hair, finding the smooth braid that had hung there these two years. One swift slash and it was in his hands, golden in the sunlight – as she would have been, standing there.
A painful sigh slumped his shoulders, clutching at his chest as he threaded her braid, for a final time, through his fingers. Never again would he touch her, any part of her. The dark gold of her hair would fade and twist in his memory, touched by bitterness and longing, transformed by memory and time into a mere sketch of itself. This was the last time he would see the truth of her.
His fingers twisted the braid free, unravelling it to flutter upon the breeze.
Throat tight, his heart a mere lump in his chest, he loosened his fingers and let the wind snatch her from his hand, casting his memories into the ocean.
He blinked, finding it difficult to see; ’twas the glare, no doubt, blurring his vision. But if he’d hoped for a sudden release, he was disappointed. All he felt was her loss, as unbearable as the moment she’d stepped from his cabin.
But he was not yet done. The next item weighed heavy in his hand, like fate. It had been his fate all too often, and he would be rid of it now – would be rid of this tie to her, this reminder of his true north. He’d navigate by purely celestial means in future.
The compass was closed and he would not open it, the cord twisted once about his fingers as he held it out over the bow. He hoped the Pearl would crush it in her wake, that it would be smashed against her hull before it sank to the bottom of the harbour.
His intention must have been seen by the crew, for he heard a muttering behind him. No doubt they thought him mad, but when had they not? And perhaps he should give the bloody thing to Gibbs, use him to set their course for riches and glory, but he had no stomach for it. The compass would always point to her, a remembrance that could only bring him pain. It was best off in the sea and—
“A captain without his compass is hardly a captain at all.”
He froze at the sound of that voice behind him, his rigid fingers leaving the compass dangling precariously over the water. His ears, his wretched heart, perhaps, had deceived him. He dared not turn around.
Close now, impossibly close.
A hand came to rest on his arm. “Jack, please…”
There was no breath in his lungs, his heart did not beat. The Pearl had stopped sailing, the world no longer spun. Slowly, as if in some desperate dream, he turned his head… All he could do was stare.
Tentatively Elizabeth smiled at him, and there were tears in that smile, pain in her eyes. “I could not be without you,” she said brokenly. “I could not—”
The compass clattered to the deck as he pulled her hard against him, held her tight, buried his face in her hair. He was dreaming. Only she was warm and soft in his arms. Impossible, and yet real. Like a man reprieved, he couldn’t speak for the shock of relief. All he could do was hold her and let his heart beat out his euphoria in a staccato, uneven rhythm.
She clutched him tight about his neck, her slender frame shaking. “I’ve broken his heart,” she whispered, hot against his neck. “He’ll never forgive me. My father will never… But I couldn’t, I just couldn’t live there, Jack.”
“I know,” he breathed, uncertain fingers stroking her back in an effort to comfort. Guilt prowled the edges of his heart, but not enough to overwhelm his selfish delight. “Your place is here, with me. Always was.”
She nodded, holding tight. “Would that I known it two years ago…”
His hands found her face then, pulling her far enough away that he could press a fervent kiss to her lips. She returned it with equal ferocity, pressing him hard against the rail. He thought he might die from the feel of her, from the burst of elation in his heart. “’Tis all the same at sea, love,” he murmured, the salt of her tears sharp on his lips. “The past is just a wave upon the beach, there’s no reclaiming it. No regretting it.”
Tears streaked her pale cheeks, mingling with a fierce joy; the bittersweet taste that had always defined them. “I have nothing but the clothes I’m wearing,” she said, her forehead coming to rest against his, her ragged breaths a blessing against his face. “Nothing to pay my way.”
He smiled at that, lips never straying far from hers, and was tempted to tease that she might earn her keep in his cabin. But now was not the time. Instead, he turned serious. “If you’re to join the crew, love, then you must work your passage same as the next man. Equal share of the booty, equal share of the labour. Savvy?”
She pulled back to look at him, surprise – even excitement – in her eyes. And he supposed it was the first time she had earned a penny of her own, the first time she had known real freedom. “It sounds very fair.”
“’Tis the pirate way, contrary to popular misconception.” He smiled then, his gaze drawn to her lips as a beat of desire surfaced through the tumult of deeper feeling. His hand slid over her hip, over the man’s waistcoat she wore. “I’m glad to see you properly attired for it.”
“Believe me,” she said, her own smile warm despite the shadow of guilt in her eyes, “it is difficult to steal aboard ship while laced into a corset and with skirts tangling about your ankles.” Her expression flirted with ruefulness. “Trust me, I know.”
He drew closer, lips brushing her ear as he said, “I would rather see you more improperly attired, as it happens. Or not attired at all.”
The little shiver he felt run through her body was like a wash of flame across his skin. “Perhaps there are some further details of our accord we need to discuss?” she suggested, moving so that her body teased his. “Inside your cabin?”
“Many,” he agreed, a little huskily. “Hours worth, I’m sure.”
She nodded seriously. “Then we had best get started…”
“Oh yes, I think that—”
“After my day’s work is done, of course.”
He froze. She smiled and stepped back, leaving him most…exposed. “Pirate,” he hissed beneath his breath, though he couldn’t defeat his own smile.
“It appears that I am, Captain Sparrow.” She turned then, lithe and pert, to where Gibbs stood not ten feet away, regarding them both with irritable disbelief.
“Mr Gibbs,” she said, “I am at your disposal. Where would you have me?”
Jack was aware of a small, distressed sound emanating from his throat. Gibbs’ irritation, however, softened into a smile. “So you’ll be joining the ship’s company, will you Miss?”
“I will,” she said. “An equal share of the booty, for an equal share of the labour.”
“Very well…” He cast around, and spied Ragetti with a bucket and mop. “You can start with swabbing the decks, Swann, and if you miss any there’ll be hell to pay.”
Elizabeth grinned. “Yes, sir.” With a quick glance over her shoulder, she said softly, “It’s a new day, Jack.”
And it was, for both of them. He strolled toward her, leaning close as he passed. “Then get to work,” and in a whisper, for her ears only, “my Lizzie.”
She all but glowed, her eyes sparkling, beautiful as the ocean, full of heat and promise. Full of life.
He watched as she walked away, took the mop from Ragetti’s hands and began to work – to earn her keep. And then his boot bumped against something and he glanced down; the compass lay at his feet. Thoughtfully he bent to pick it up, considering it for a moment before flipping it open. The needle spun slowly, hesitated over Lizzie – his, now and forever – and then darted toward the horizon.
A smile crept like dawn across Jack’s face. What he wanted, what he really wanted, was the future. His life, with Elizabeth bold at his side, sailing the world together.
He snapped shut the compass and Gibbs cast him a curious look. “What’s our heading then, Captain?”
Jack grinned. “The horizon, mate. Always the horizon.”
Thanks so much for reading, and for making it all the way to the end. Really hoped you enjoyed the ride! *g*