DISCLAIMER: POTC and all canon characters are owned by the Walt Disney Corporation, which is much like the East India Trading Company only without the opium. Luckily, hanging is no longer a socially acceptable means of conflict resolution and I do not have enough money to be worth suing, so I can get away with abducting their characters and doing strange, wonderful, and occasionally obscene things with them for my own personal amusement.
This story would not exist if not for the help and encouragement of fellow Norrington fangirl MorganBonny, who over the course of many conversations and emails helped me turn this plot bunny from a hideous little mutant abomination of a creature to something actually worth posting. Thanks also to Nytd for doing a marvelous job beta-ing.
"But then what kind of scale
Compares the weight of two beauties
The gravity of duty
Or the ground speed of joy?" –Ani DiFranco, School Night
Lieutenant James Norrington sat behind his desk and looked thoughtfully at the young cabin boy standing before him, a skinny little thing with bright orangey-gold hair and freckles. The child had joined them two ports back and fallen into the routine on the ship without too much trouble. He was no sailor yet, but a hard worker who'd accepted the tedious, dirty tasks assigned to him with a practical resignation, and with some seasoning, he'd make a decent seaman.
The only problem with all of this was that "he" was a girl. It had taken James a while to realize it, for, being about ten years old, "Jack" Marble had not yet developed the more obvious physical clues that would have given her away had she been older. It had been scarcely a suspicion at first, but the more he'd watched her, the more certain he'd become. He took a deep breath, then let it out, then made himself start talking as he could see her getting nervous on account of the long silence. He really hated having to do this, but he knew things would go smoother if he addressed this privately; the captain shared the superstition with the crew that females brought bad luck to ships, and there was no need to subject the girl to the angry tirades and nastiness that would follow when they found out.
"I need to talk to you about something," he said awkwardly. "You're a good worker and you've been nothing but a help for the time you've been on board with us, but sooner or later someone other than me is going to figure out that you're not really a boy. You've been clever about hiding it, mind you," he added when "Jack's face filled with a mixture of horror and despair, "and no worse a shipmate for it, but we simply can't be having a little girl on board."
"How did you know?" she whispered, eyes downcast.
"A lot of little things - the slight distance you keep from the other lads, the way you already knew how to sew and take care of your uniform despite not having any experience on board ships before, the way you're so careful never to attract any attention, a few tiny little mannerisms like the way you smooth your hair back... Look, Jack… what's your real name?"
"Susanna," the girl said softly.
"Susanna," James said, keeping his voice soft and reassuring. "Your parents must be worried sick about you. Tell me who they are. I'll arrange passage back home for you. Where are they?" Susanna looked up at him defiantly.
"Their current address is at St. Paul's cemetery, third row from the gate, fourth and fifth graves on the left. Patrick and Cecelia Marble. Would you like to send them a message to let them know I'm all right?"
Damn, James thought, feeling a pang of sympathy for her.
"You must have family somewhere, if not in the colonies, in England, Ireland, Wales…?" The girl's jaw set stubbornly.
"None that I'd care to live with," she said.
"You say that as if you have an alternative. You don't," James told her, more firmly this time. "It will no doubt be difficult, living with more distant relatives, maybe ones you're not fond of, instead of your parents, but it's simply not safe for a little girl your age to be alone in the world. I am not leaving you on the streets, and I'm not sending you to a workhouse."
"I'd rather you did," Susanna said, lip trembling. James shook his head resolutely.
"You don't know the kinds of things that can happen to children in those places. You belong with your family. Tell me who you were supposed to go to when your parents died."
"Uncle Jim and Aunt Frances," she said, the words pronounced with a mixture of loathing and nervousness.
"Do you have anyone else who might take you in besides your aunt and uncle?" James asked sensibly.
"If I did, I wouldn't have jumped on a ship," Susanna snapped, her head coming up and her blue eyes sparking hostility at him. "I'm not stupid."
"As long as you are on this ship, miss, you will not speak to a superior officer in that tone," he told her, letting the steel of authority come back into his voice. "You'd never have dared give me that kind of cheek five minutes ago, and boy or girl, I will not tolerate it. Now, we can do this the hard way or the easy way. If you cooperate, I'll find you passage back to your aunt and uncle and no one on the ship will have to know anything more than that you were called back home. There will be no trouble. But if you won't tell me who they are, then I'll have to make inquiries. The captain will need to be told, and your uncle will no doubt be annoyed at being summoned to come and pick you up."
Susanna nodded, then suddenly spun around. He heard her taking several deep breaths, shoulders trembling, and he realized that she was trying not to cry. What the devil was one supposed to do with a crying ten-year-old orphan girl? He was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. This was not what he was trained for. But she did manage to control her emotions, to his great relief, and when she turned back to him, her eyes were red and swollen, but her face was tearless.
"Do we have to go right now, Lieutenant?" she asked in a miserable voice.
"You mean they're here, in Kingston?" She nodded and James felt a surge of relief. Thank God, this would be out of his hands.
"I think that would be best, to get you back there and… and settled in and such. I'll accompany you there and make sure your uncle knows that you behaved entirely appropriately during your time as part of the crew." He knew he sounded stiff, formal, and slightly ridiculous, but he really wasn't sure what else he could say to comfort the girl.
"I'll get my things, sir," Susanna said and left. James stared at the wall of his cabin for a while, feeling alternately frustrated and guilty.
Children were not always well-treated. It was a plain fact of life. But surely Susanna would be better off among her own relations than she would be anywhere else he might leave her. With the exception of her outburst a few minutes before, she seemed a soft-spoken, obedient child, and he imagined she should fit into a strange household without much trouble to her guardians. What good would it do him to know precisely what she had run away from? It would only be one more thing for him to feel guilty about. He couldn't help wondering, all the same.
Her uncle's house was in the rundown tenement district in the south end of the city, and the closer they got to it, the tighter Susanna's hand gripped his. Two of his fingers were starting to go numb by the time they reached the address she'd given him. His knock on the door was answered by a shout.
"What're you knockin' for, you stupid bastard! Just come in!"
James blinked in surprise and with an uncertain glance at Susanna, he entered the house. It was likely no worse than many in this part of town, he told himself firmly as he stepped over the amber-tinted shards of a bottle. The smell of sweat, ale, and stale food permeated the air, and the distant sound of laughter and conversation was coming from the main room, and as James stepped into the doorway he saw a group of men sitting around a table, playing dice.
"Hey, George, what took you so—" the man at the far end of the room began, andthen stopped. "Huh. Thought you was someone else."
"So I gathered," James said with a polite smile. "Lieutenant James Norrington. Are you Susanna's uncle?" The man's eyes fell to the child at his side.
"Yeah, that's my sister's brat you got there. I'm Jim Barker. What did she do?"
"She was employed as a cabin boy on the HMS Dauntless until I figured out that she wasn't a boy. When I questioned her about who I should return her to, she said that you had become her guardian since her parents' death. I apologize for not realizing and getting her back to you sooner." James realized that he was doing as he usually did when he was uncomfortable—resorting to extreme formality—and that it was not the best course to be taking in this situation, with these people.
"'S fine," Susanna's uncle said, taking a swig from a bottle that sat beside him on the table. "'Long as she wasn't any trouble." James was suddenly pushed aside by several figures running into the room at the same time.
"Dad, he stole sixpence off me! Make him give it back!"
"I didn't take nothing, that's a lie!"
The first speaker was a girl who couldn't be much older than fourteen or so, though her low-cut bodice tastelessly showed off her ample womanly attributes, closely followed by a boy who looked to be a year or two younger than Susanna and desperately overdue for a wash. Jim Barker scowled at the two of them.
"What're you botherin' me for? Bugger off, I got company. Where's yer ma? Find her."
"Asleep," the girl said, squeezing between the chairs and the wall to get over to her father's end of the table. James cringed in disgust as one of the men made a grab at her bottom as she tried to get past his chair, and she responded with an explicitly obscene curse that no girl her age should know.
"Watch yer mouth, you little hussy," her father said, apparently unconcerned by the entire affair.
"Fucker grabbed me!" the girl retorted, and the man who had done so grinned at her.
"Yeah, like that's somethin' new," Jim told her unsympathetically. "You twitchin' it around up and down the streets an' then whining someone's grabbed it. Get outta here, this is men's business." He gestured to the dice and alcohol, and the girl rolled her eyes.
"But Andrew took my sixpence!"
"She never had no sixpence, it was mine," the grimy boy argued.
James had had enough.
"Susanna's left something on the ship; we're going back to get it. Good afternoon," he said, and pulled the girl out of the room with him. They left the house in silence, and James waited until they were several houses away before speaking.
"Is it like that often there?"
"Yes," Susanna said, looking uncertain. "I didn't leave anything on the ship, sir."
"Yes, I know, but we're going back to the docks. I need to think." He had no idea what he was doing, but he couldn't shake the certainty that there had to be a better choice for the kid than living in that hellhole. She'd be a goldfish among sharks, he thought with a glance at her bright yellow-orange hair. And I don't want to think about what some of those men might try in a few years if they get her alone.
"I could stay on the ship," Susanna suggested hesitantly, with hope rising in her eyes. "I promise I'd be careful not to let anyone find out."
"I still can't allow that. Let me think for a moment, all right?" he said shortly. He paced up and down the pier when they reached it, staring at the ocean, trying to come up with some sort of solution, racking his brain for any families he knew that might be able to take her in and coming up empty. Susanna, growing tired of keeping up with his long strides, sat on one of the piles and waited.
"James, is that you?" James snapped out of his reverie to see a familiar face approaching him.
"Stephen? Good God, what are you doing in the West Indies?" he asked his cousin, allowing himself to be hugged and responding with a more restrained clap on the man's shoulder.
"Keeping a trade agreement made by the previous owner of my ship," Stephen said, unable to suppress the pride in those last two words.
James's eyes widened. "Your ship?"
Stephen grinned with infectious excitement. "You can come look if you'd like," he said, trying to sound casual about it and failing.
"If I like? I demand that you show me," James retorted, smiling back, then paused. "Damn. Do you mind if a child comes along? She'll behave herself; I seem to be in charge of her until I find somewhere that will take her."
"Not yours, I assume," Stephen teased.
"Most certainly not mine," he replied, refusing to rise to the bait. "It's a bit of a long story."
Stephen shrugged. "Want something to eat while you tell it?"
An hour and a half later, James was aboard his cousin's schooner, The Impertinent Porpoise, explaining the whole situation to Stephen while his orphaned goldfish happily explored the rigging.
"Bloody right you couldn't leave her there!" was his cousin's response when he finished. James sighed.
"But I can't bring her back onto the Dauntless and I don't exactly know any families here who might take her in."
"Oh, that's easy," Stephen said. "I'm short on crew; a cabin boy wouldn't be an entirely unwelcome addition." James blinked in surprise.
"But… she's a girl, and your crew… they wouldn't object?" Stephen snorted.
""Trying to run this ship with a skeleton crew of six men is exhausting enough that they'll be glad for any help they can get." He ran a hand through his hair, the other hand fondly patting the ship. "I spent every last penny I owned on this girl and ran up a debt besides. She's worth it, sure enough, but it's been hard going these last few months."
"I can lend you—" James began, but his cousin shook his head quickly.
"I know you can, and thank you, but I'd rather do this myself. I've been looking at some promising trade possibilities in the Orient." James nodded, then paused and glanced up at the sky.
"I should be getting back to the ship soon," he said regretfully. "I'll go talk to her and tell her she has the choice to stay with you. Thank you again, Stephen."
"Relax, would you?" Stephen told his younger cousin, shaking his head. "It's no trouble. The Navy's made you obsessive, you know. It's not good for you."
"The Navy is everything for me," James replied simply. "I'm doing work that's important to me, and I'm doing it well. Just standing around and watching the world spiraling into chaos would drive me mad." Stephen rolled his eyes.
"And running around, watching the world spiral into chaos, suits you better?"
"Well, if you put it that way…" James had to smile at that. "Yes, I suppose it does."