What a Man Can Have
There was rum. And then, o’ course, there was good rum.
This was good rum. Actually, it was very good rum, but the line between good rum and very good rum was a rather fine one and half-way down to the bottom of your second bottle it didn’t really seem to matter all that much anymore.
There were ships. And then, o’ course, there were good ships.
And, by that, he didn’t mean that she took to the winds like a sailor’s fondest dream or that she didn’t leak as bad as some might and did—even after it had been raining off and on for a good three day now and the seas and the canvas and even their hearts were heavy with it—but that she was a ship that felt good. That she somehow made ever jack tar aboard feel good to be sailing aboard her.
Even if it seemed like everything else had gone to hell of late.
The Black Pearl was a good ship. More than that, she was an odd ship, and by that he didn’t mean her mournful coloring or the way she had been built, like no ship he had ever before seen or ever thought to see again. No, it was just that on some days she seemed almost to have a mind of her own, and no sailor could gainsay her then, not even her young captain. She would go where she wanted to go and die dead in the water otherwise. And when she did move, she moved. To tell God’s own truth on it, she was almost too fast. No ship with her tonnage should be able to make the time she did, or slip between shoals that would have and should have torn her to pieces.
As if everywhere she was, she also was not.
It was definitely puzzling, and he had occasion to puzzle upon it more than once since he had come aboard nigh on six month ago now. As he also had occasion to puzzle upon the man who had first brought her to his attention, who claimed to own her, or to be owned by her. As if there wasn’t all that much the difference between the two. But then, he knew full well how that felt.
For the sea had laid claim to them all, every last man from captain to the lowliest mate. The sea had long taken them to her tender bosom, encouraging their affections towards her, even as she made them fear her, until not a one of them who as called themselves sailors could anymore recall a life without her tender mercies. Without the oft deadly pangs of her rages.
Without the thought of the bed she made for them, that she kept for them. A lovely warm bed of blue water and golden sun and sand and fabulous jewel bright fish, a bed that made you glad to be alive and free and flying before the wind. Except that there was also the other. A cold bed, darker than the blackest night and draped with seaweed and the gnawed bones of the thousands of men who had known her bewitching embrace before your own. For she was both great whore and great lady and let no man ere forget that.
He knew her ways. He knew them full well, with all the weight of his near twenty years now upon the waves. And he both loved and feared her, but most of all he respected her moods and, as such, always held some part of himself aloof and rarely did anything without speculating a thousand times upon it if he could.
As he would swear that he had speculated a thousand times upon this moment, this day, what he intended at the last to make of it. As he did indeed intend to make the most of it. To risk what he had so rarely risked before, if ever.
And that was not just the rum talking. Not even the very good rum that had been doled out this gloomy morn, to lighten the mood of the crew as they toiled beneath grey skies and through the constant damp and fog of the falling rain. As they meditated upon the sad state of their empty pockets, having taken only the one small ship of late and she with but a cargo of victuals and only a single silver candlestick to her name. Though, she had been well pleased upon the sight of their guns to hand over to them some very good rum, it must be remarked upon.
And the men did remark, whether they drank or no. They remarked upon the wisdom of sailing beneath such a young captain, fine figure that he cut or no. Upon their own disquiet of sailing aboard a ship that would go wither she would and how she would and never you mind about the whispering sound her sails made sometimes or her timbers and how the figures carved upon her seemed almost to watch you with their painted wooden eyes.
Black eyes, like unto their own captain’s very own.
Eyes that he raised his bottle to, and quickly poured down another good inch of very good rum. Knowing himself to be only slightly drunk all the same, even though he had been drinking for hours now. Sitting out here in the weather, with the rain and the spray in his face, and his arms clasped loosely about his knees and his hat pulled low to guard the intensity of his own desires from any who might chance to see it in an unguarded moment, rare as he knew those to be.
But, even as he lowered his bottle, he found the quartermaster standing over him, peering down at him with a frown on his face and his hair clinging wetly to face and neck, even though a faded blue cloth tied back the worst of it. There was a bottle clasped in his own hand as well, though it looked to hardly have been touched. But then the man had never been much for drinking as far as he could tell, which purely wasn’t right for any who imagined themselves to have the sea in their blood, let alone claimed company beneath the hoist of the black flag.
“Good day to ye,” he said, staring back up at him.
“And a fine one it be,” the other replied and smiled just a little, as if the miseries of the unrelenting rain and his own damp person were truly of no mind to him. He came to lean against the mizzenmast and glanced appraisingly out across the mist-shrouded deck, before his own clear brown eyes rose to the figure standing at the wheel. “Captain still at it, I see.”
“Aye,” he answered. “He swears there be a treasure ship out there. That he can but smell the gold of her, being we are so close upon her heels.”
The other man shrugged. “Well, if any man may…then Jack might.”
He lifted his bottle again, but only took a smallish sip this time. “Known him ere long, have ye?
“Long enough, and better than most. He be a good man, honest to a fault with them as play him fair.
“Honesty’s not much to a pirate, though, is it?”
“Well, there’s pirates and then there’s pirates,” came the cryptic reply, before the other man took a drink of his own rum, just a sip that would in truth be barely enough to get a bird drunk. Though, their own sparrow could more than hold his own when it came to that.
“Oh, aye,” he said, though he did not truly see as what the other may have meant, not that he would ever tell him so.
But then their quartermaster was an odd one in and of himself. Some even said as he could read and even write a fair hand, and he was handsome and charming enough for any ten sailors if he wished to be. Small wonder, he was a favored son of the bawdy houses—second only to the Captain, it must be admitted to—though a few aboard claimed as he had a wife back in England. A long-suffering wife, no doubt. Being that he hadn’t been back across the water in near on six years now and didn’t look to be hankering to go home anytime soon.
“Just as there’s ships and there’s ships,” the other man went on, still looking up at the quarterdeck. “And then there’s the Pearl.”
It was almost as if the quartermaster had been spying upon his own thoughts, and he reached up to pull his hat a shade lower. Before clasping his own knees tight again. The man had clear eyes, indeed.
“And as for Jack…” And the quartermaster’s voice faded off, as if he had no intention of saying anymore and, indeed, already regretted having said as much as he had. Which was little enough as any of the crew already didn’t know about their captain. Being that Jack was freer than most with both his thoughts and his feelings, which only suited a man who had offered all aboard not just equal vote but equal share.
O’ course, an equal share of nothing much was nothing much, more’s the pity.
“As for Jack?” he asked, repeating the other man’s words, only to regret his own eagerness. Never show another your weaknesses, even to those who may name themselves friends. For men’s affections were as fickle as those of the sea, if not more so, and who knows where you may stand with them from one day to the next. Best not to hand a man the very blade which may eventually find purchase within your own back when next they become your enemy.
“Just that,” the other man answered, his voice soft now, so soft that he almost couldn’t hear it over the sound of the rain. “If ye would ask me if I truly knew him, I would have to answer ye that I do not. An that I think that no man may.”
He frowned at that, wondering if the quartermaster was trying to warn him off without coming directly out and saying so. Not that it was any of the man’s business. No, this was between him and the captain. Men who, when all else had been said and done and their relevant position aboard ship laid aside, were no more than any other two unfortunate tars who had been o’er long at sea and hadn’t seen nor touched nary a maid between them in a good three month.
Aye, no bauds here…nor any relief for loneliness other than your good right hand, or the helping hand of another of your ilk.
One more long thoughtful look bent close upon the man at the wheel, then the quartermaster glanced back down at him and presented him with a small smile that somehow managed to be neither pleasant nor pleasing, more a show of teeth than anything else. Before, to his relief, Bootstrap Bill Turner took it into his head to simply wander off once more, still clutching his almost-full bottle.
He watched him disappear below decks, probably gone to count how many men there were drunk and of little enough use at the moment, if ever they were, and then hauled himself to his feet. He smoothed and straightened his clothing, then tilted his hat to a rakish angle, despite the chilled rain that began to run down the back of his neck as a result of his preenings, and then made his way up the stairs to the quarterdeck.
Jack Sparrow didn’t spare him nary a glance as he approached. Though he did take care to snap the compass in his left hand tight shut and stow it away, before putting both hands back to the wheel.
“Rum, Captain?” he offered.
That gained him a look, though it was more for the bottle than for himself. Though, the other man still didn’t answer.
“Tis a very good rum,” he added coaxingly.
“Is it?” Jack answered then, as if he had never before heard of such a thing. Or of any rum that wasn’t good. “Good as gold, would you say, mate? Or would you say that naught is as good as gold and that I’ve not been keeping my promise to thee?”
“Men talk,” the other man said. “An men with little else to do talk more than most. I know I’ve not yet lead ye all to riches, let alone to the treasure that were promised, but I mislike the thought that I am made out a poorer captain for it. Let alone a poorer man, few though my years may be.”
And then he looked at him, those dark eyes of his more lovely in that moment for the dour aspect of the day, for the damp of his hair and face and the faded glory of all those colored beads and baubles. Until, of course, he smiled and the world was made a brighter place. As if there was no help for it, no help at all.
“But, ‘o course,” Jack said. “I know full well that ye’ve not said a word agin me in all this time and I am fair grateful for that. An old hand such as yourself is well looked to, an I am glad that ye are aboard me ship. An that ye’ve chosen to place your trust in me. A trust that I shall not betray. You shall have the treasure you seek, Hector. More treasure than a man may spend in one lifetime. Nay, ten lifetimes. If not aboard the next ship that we take, then…well, I have heard tell of stories where next we may look. An if there be any truth to them at all, we will be rich men indeed by the end of it and with nary a shot having been fired. Let alone any blood spilled.”
He frowned at Jack, knowing his penchant for avoiding bloodshed if it could at all be helped, knowing also that there was more to these “stories” than the other man was telling. But equally sure that he would be told in time, since the Captain rarely kept anything back from his crew. It was something he was o’er proud of—that he had their trust and their loyalty, as much as his place in their affections—since that could not be said of most of the brethren who sailed upon these waters, nor really of any ship of His Majesty either. Jack had never had a man flogged in his life, nor did it seem he had any desire to.
He didn’t understand it himself, nor had he any intention of ever trying. What good was threat without the means and will to back it up with. Besides, blood was cheap, as cheap as most men’s lives. Not to mention that a crew who feared you were so much the easier to control—being that loyalty was as quickly bought with the lash or a with a well placed blow or two as through kindness, if not more so—and that was good enough for him. That had always been good enough for him. He did not seek nor desire their affections nor their regard.
Just the affections and regard of one man in particular he had found to his own shame and no small surprise.
A man who was now looking at him again, before finally putting out a hand for the bottle he’d brought with him. A bottle he handed over freely enough.
Jack took a long deep drink—never a one to stint, either himself or anyone else—and then swiped his mouth on his sleeve and handed it back with a small pleased nod of his head.
“Aye,” he commented. “You’ve the right of it. Tis a very good rum.”
“Good as gold,” he replied. “Yet I’ve a mind I would know what would make it taste even the better.”
Jack shot him a speculative glance. “Aye?”
Then, with the Captain still staring at him, he stepped forward and clasped him to himself and brought his mouth quick and hard to Jack’s, cold lips to cold lips, wet with rain and still ever so slightly flavored by that very good rum. Letting the wheel spin free beyond and the Pearl take them whither she would, even as he pressed his tongue deep inside the younger man’s mouth, finding such heat within that he felt himself almost burnt by it.
Ah, so this is love…
And he felt himself near undone by the fire itself and by the ever so solid feel of the other man’s flesh against his own body as he pulled them even tighter together. As he cupped a hand around the back of Jack’s neck and held him close and tasted heaven for the first time in his life. A heaven of sweet tongue and cool damp skin and the tender haven of the other man’s mouth beneath his. Shocked at first and then warming to welcome.
A welcome and a heaven which only last but another moment or two, before he found himself thrown down from it, pushed away with a strength that would have been surprising in a man twice again Jack’s size.
He stumbled and almost fell, and his bottle of rum did go crashing to the deck, spilling out its own golden warmth onto the wet timbers. As if the Pearl would claim her share as well, same as all the rest.
But when he gained his feet again and glanced at the other man, at his captain, he did not see anger there in that ever so lovely face, nor even disgust, but a pure sadness that could not be denied. Anymore than the pity that filled the depths of Jack’s black black eyes, filled them almost to the brim.
“Nay,” Jack said softly. “Please, do not…I do not wish to…ah, why must this always happen to me?”
He drew himself up and felt a desperate cold begin to fill him as he stared back at Jack. He was deserving of no man’s pity, let alone that of a whelp less than half his age. A man who still thought the world would be as he would have it, and that men whom he trusted to bare his heart to could be trusted to proffer theirs in return.
“My pardon,” he replied. “My mistake. Captain.”
He started to turn away—feeling the rain and the damp as almost warm now in bleak comparison to the chill that had found its way inside him—only to have Jack reach out and stop him. Long fingers on his shoulder, drawing him gently back around, and there was a sudden deep thrust of pain in his lungs, in his stomach, stopping just short of his own blackest heart. For here was the knife in his back already, a knife he had just freely handed to the other man. Despite his own best intentions on the matter. Despite all his fears.
But then how could he have known that he had but dwelt in hell until now. Until he had seen the glories that God had hidden away from the touch of lesser mortals. The singular touch that would not and could not be allowed him, poor sailor and hard man that he was. But never so cruel as this. No, never half so cruel…
“Hector, please believe that I do not mean to hurt thee,” Jack said and at the quiet warmth, the honest concern in that voice, the blade so near his heart twisted just like that, found home, and the darkness held within spilled out through his veins, cloying and thick and deadly.
“Barbossa,” he corrected, shrugging the other man’s hand off and then turning to confront him. Cold and sharp and able, in that moment, to look him in the eye and find him wanting. “I’ve never liked the other. Nor any man who might presume as to make common use of it.”
Jack made as to step towards him, but he raised a hand to forestall him. Glancing down at the deck at his feet, at the empty bottle of rum that laid between them, before raising his head again and let the cool rain wash across his face as he stared down at the younger man.
“The last of me rum is gone, Captain,” he said then. “But then, as you said, rum is not gold. An I would have gold if naught else. I would have the treasure ye promised me or would that I may be free to find another captain who may more readily gain it for me. Savvy?”
Jack nodded and there was nothing of warmth nor welcome about him anymore, if ever there had been. Though pity still clearly lingered in his eyes, pity and some shade of feeling that he didn’t readily understand and that he had little of intention now of ever trying to understand. He had been wrong, so very wrong, and as such wasn’t about to chance being made a fool for a second time. Certainly, not where one Jack Sparrow was concerned.
“Savvy,” Jack replied, calm and quiet enough, more calm and quiet than he was normally wont to be. “An ye shall have your gold, all the gold a man may ever wish for. An as for the other…”
He shook his head, then stooped to pick up the bottle, flinging it wide into the sea. “As I said, Captain. Twas a mistake. Naught but a mistake, and such as any man may make, and I would that ye would forget it. In truth, I would see it as a personal favor if ye would see fit to never bring it to mention again.”
Jack nodded, then put a hand back to the wheel. And immediately smiled, ever so slightly and seeming not able to help himself, as if the mere touch of the Pearl were a comfort and a salve in and of itself. Or as if she were his lover indeed and Jack Sparrow himself so much a part of her that the mere contemplation that they could ever be separated was as impossible as her being without keel and hull, let alone those night dark sails that suited her so very well.
“Done an done,” he said, already turning to fix his eyes back upon their course, upon the dull grey seas that lay ahead of them. “Me word upon it.”
“Your word, Jack,” he replied, even as he turned away and started down off the quarterdeck. “Well, that be good enough for me.”
“Though your life would be better still,” he added beneath his breath, as he reached the deck below and then paused there to glance up at the shrouds, at those self-same black sails as they swam in mist and rain and shifted beneath the wind’s caress and whispered ever so softly to themselves. Or, perhaps, to the man standing at the wheel who imagined that he was the only one who could ever presume to understand them.
“Aye, your life or your ship…”
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