AN: Yeah, it took me forever to post this. Would have taken even longer if it hadn't been written months ago. Stress has shoved DR to a far corner of my mind, but I haven't forgotten, just . Hopefully things will get better and I'll be able to write again soon. In the meantime, I still have a few chapters after this that are written and just need to be bludgeoned into shape before I can post them.\
Those of you who wanted more James and Zanna, rejoice! There will be considerable amounts of them from here on.
Thanks to MorganBonny, for managing to beta this chapter even though she herself has spent these past weeks in hellish waters, with no storm anchor and on painfully short rum rations.
Boston Harbor, Boston, Mass.
One week later…
"Now what I'd like to know," Hart said thoughtfully, "Is how far the Chinese will let the EITC go before cutting off trade altogether." He paused to sip his ale. Lanternlight flickered on the deck, and the ambient noises of the port city rose and fell in the background. "I think this entire wretched business may just provide them with the excuse they've been looking for."
"Perhaps not," Knight argued, his musical French accent growing slightly stronger as he leaned forward to make his point. "They may not be so eager to take back the task of suppressing piracy on their shores."
"One would have to weigh the damage the pirates were doing to legitimate trade against the value of the goods the pirates brought to the black market," Stephen put in.
"And the implied insult the Company is giving by policing waters under China's authority. That, I think, might tip the balance," Hart added.
James leaned back in one of the chairs they had brought up from the mess hall and half-listened to the discussion. Himself, the other three men, and Ransom, who was belowdecks, were the watch crew for the night while the rest had shore leave. Stephen had offered James the night off as well, but he had declined. Despite the fact that he'd been living among them for the better part of the year, he still felt like an intruder among the younger crew members when they grouped together during off-duty hours, as if he was someone's stodgy uncle dragging them down. Besides, the evening was pleasant, all crisp New England air and a star-scattered sky; it would have been a shame to spend it under a roof.
"The real question is how will the Company respond if they do?" Stephen was saying. "Word is that they're becoming rather casual with the use of Greek fire, and the tales I've heard of it are enough to make one rather sympathize with the pirates." James's attention was drawn back to the discussion by that last comment.
"Save your sympathy for those who deserve it. The Chinese may not deserve such measures, but the pirates have earned them a dozen times over," he told Stephen. "Your pity is wasted on them."
"I sympathize with anyone who's up against those bastards, pirate or not. After our experiences in the Orient, I'd rethink my opinion of the Devil himself if the East India Trading Company declared war against him. What is it with you and pirates anyway?" Stephen wanted to know. "I seem to recall spending a good deal of our childhood pretending to be pirates."
"Only so we could 'commandeer' cake from the scullery and have play swordfights and spend all afternoon on the pond in that little jollyboat we rigged up with a mast and sail," James reminded him dryly.
"And now you hate pirates so violently you scowl every time someone says the word," Stephen persisted. James's mouth tightened. "How come, and since when?"
James glanced away for a moment. "When I was fourteen…"
The second ship he had been assigned to as a midshipman had been the HMS Peregrine, a privateering vessel operating along the North African coast. He'd had little in common with the old, taciturn lieutenants or with the other midshipman, a nervous lad given to seasickness and writing poetry about birds, so he'd ended up mainly keeping company with the other seamen, whose respect he'd eventually gained with his steadiness and courage in battle. It had been a heady thing, pursuing enemy ships up and down the coast, fighting and winning battles, and for the first time in his life, being treated as a man rather than a boy. He'd fallen in with a group of rowdy, high-spirited young sea dogs who'd even sailed on a pirate ship for a couple years. He had eagerly eaten up their wildly exaggerated stories of the freedom and adventure of pirate life. He'd looked up to them.
That had all ended the night he turned fifteen and they invited him to join them in an unsanctioned raid of the small farm near the port where they were docked, an evening of 'fun' and 'pirate-style revelry.' He'd been thrilled to go, but shocked and sickened when he saw what their idea of revelry entailed. When they had spoken of a raid, he had imagined looting food and ale, letting the animals loose, generally scaring people.
He had not imagined the farmhouse set on fire, the torture of the livestock, the rape of the farmer's wife and son, and the brutal killing and defilement of the bodies afterward, nor the remorseless delight the other men had found in it all. Any lingering childhood illusions about piracy had been immolated with the farmhouse that night. His screams at them were lost in the cacophony of destruction, his horrified attempts to stop them unnoticed, futile. Memories of that night had haunted his dreams for years afterward.
This is what pirates are, he had realized, crouched on the ground, retching, hot tears burning unshed in his eyes, the horrible sounds of their sport too clear to block out.
He wanted them dead for what they had done, and for the joy they had taken in doing it. He wanted them dead because their very existence was a violation of all he'd believed of the innate goodness of man. He wanted them all dead.
The silence after James finished relating that story was heavier than lead.
"What did you do, after?" Knight asked finally.
"I'd seen what they were capable of. I didn't dare say anything to the captain until we were back in London and I'd a chance of being transferred to another vessel. After we made berth, I spoke with him, told him everything that had happened. A court martial was held. Nearly all the men who had been involved hung for it." He'd watched the hanging silently, the memory of the burning farmhouse so sharp within him that a flickering ghost of it lay like a film over his vision. "I'd most likely have been discharged from the service for my complicity in it, but the captain spoke up on my behalf."
"Your complicity in it?" Stephen asked incredulously.
"I'd known there would be a raid and gone along with them," James explained in an almost expressionless voice, as if reading items off a list. His gaze was fixed on a point somewhere off in the darkness of the marina. "And I could have gone back to the ship and reported it immediately when I discovered the true nature of the raid."
"But then they would have killed you," Hart pointed out.
James nodded grimly. "The court martial took that likelihood as well as my youth and the captain's testimony of my character into account. They were much more lenient than I had imagined they could be." He glanced back at his shipmates and felt his shoulders tense even further at the expressions of sympathy on their faces. "I've quite obviously spoiled this conversation," he said abruptly, getting to his feet. "Wake me for my watch shift later." He turned, feeling guilty and strangely jaded, and headed towards the sick bay, where he still slept.
James had been in charge of the sick bay since an incident with a concussion and a swinging boom four months earlier, during which it had become evident that over his years of Naval service, James had managed to acquire a more thorough knowledge of shipboard medicine than Zanna could command. The young woman had surrendered her post to him with unconcealed relief, and out of expediency, James had continued to bunk in the sick bay when the cot was unoccupied. He lit the small lantern and tried to read a book he'd borrowed from Stephen, but the words on the page slipped out of his mind as quickly as he read them.
It had been a long time since he'd thought about that night in any detail. He'd been so painfully naïve that it nearly made him sick. They were pirates, after all. Shouldn't that have sparked in him some suspicion? It had been nearly twenty years ago, yet the recriminations played on in his mind.
He was pulled out of his reverie a few hours past midnight by sounds of laughter and song coming from out on deck—the rest of the crew, returning. A sudden knocking on the hatch caught him somewhat off-guard. He rose and opened it, and a rather drunken Zanna was pushed into his arms, laughing. He caught her unthinkingly and shot a questioning look at the equally-if not more- drunken young men who had brought her.
"She cut 'erself somewhere," explained one young seaman, slurring his words slightly.
"I'm fine," Zanna protested in a slightly too loud voice. "It's a scratch, I just scratched it's all. See?" She held up her arm for inspection, the sleeve torn and stained with dried blood and dirt. "Doesn't even hurt!"
James nodded at the other men. "I'll take a look at it." He led her into the sick bay, over her persistent protests that she was perfectly fine, and sat her in the chair while he hunted up some clean water and bandages.
"It doesn't hurt?" he asked as he sat on the bed beside the chair and began to roll up the damaged sleeve.
"Doesn't hurt," Zanna confirmed happily. James nodded vaguely as he examined the wound on her arm. The long, deep, messy scrape wasn't nearly as bad as it had looked at first. It didn't require stitches, but it could certainly do with cleaning- there were a few splinters and a fair amount of dirt in it.
"How did you contrive to do this, anyway?" he asked Zanna, who was watching with obvious amusement as he examined her. She shrugged and carelessly waved the arm not in his grasp.
"Jus' happened," she explained breezily. He had to smile at her attitude of lazy, benevolent unconcern, so different from the precise and efficient young woman he'd come to know in the past months.
"You really are foxed, aren't you," he stated, dipping a rag in the water and beginning to gently clean the cut. Zanna giggled.
"Could be worse. I could be badgered," she told him, then cracked up laughing at her own joke. James bit back a smile.
"A dreadful fate," he agreed gravely.
"Or hounded, or cowed," she continued, watching with detatched interest as he carefully removed a long splinter from the wound. He nodded encouragingly.
"Or dogged," he added as he got the last of the bits of gravel out of the scrape, wondering where in creation she had fallen, then stood to get the iodine.
"Yes! Or… or slugged, or goosed!" She grinned at him, looking far cuter than she had any right to, and he smiled and tugged gently on the end of her braid as he passed by her.
"Or whaled," he contributed.
"Or turtled!" Zanna added triumphantly and he gave her a puzzled look.
"Can one be turtled?"
She looked at him perfectly seriously for a long moment, then burst into hysterical giggles so contagious that he couldn't help but laugh too.
"All right, enough of that," he finally said, catching hold of her arm and swabbing iodine onto the scrape. She bore the sting without flinching; perhaps without even noticing, for she was staring intently at him.
"What is it?" he asked finally.
"You have the prettiest eyes," she announced unexpectedly, making him blink and stiffen slightly in surprise.
"Uh-huh," she assured him. "It's like looking into stormclouds… you know, when you can see the lightning flashing inside them and it gives you this shivery feeling in your chest cause you can almost feel the heat from it?" He felt his face warm a little and he turned away, gathering up the things he'd taken out to tend to her cut and going to put them back in their places.
"Well, ah, I think we've confirmed your state of drunkenness, goldfish. No more for you this evening," he said.
"Because I'm turtled?" Zanna wanted to know. He chuckled.
"Yes. Because you are turtled." He realized that he was self-consciously avoiding her gaze and silently reproved himself for being silly. Her comment had been perfectly innocent, and besides, she was so young—
It suddenly occurred to him that she was several years older than Elizabeth, and his thoughts jerked to a sudden halt as the realization hit him like a deadeye swinging from a broken halyard.
"James?" He looked down and saw that his hands had also frozen in mid-motion, the bandage half-wrapped around her arm, and quickly finished the job.
"Sorry, I was… woolgathering. There. All done." They stood and she gave him a quick, impulsive hug before she left. He returned the embrace a little awkwardly, his mind still swimming as his thoughts worked to adjust themselves to this new realization of her.
She had brushed against him during the momentary embrace. She was warm.
Oh, no, he told himself firmly as the hatch clicked shut behind her. I am not going to start thinking of her in that manner. She is not warm or pretty or pleasant-smelling. She is a shipmate, that's all… even if she does smell good. Like cinnamon and ground pepper and fresh bread.
And exactly what kind of deviant finds the smell of fresh bread arousing? he asked himself sternly before sitting down and trying to return his thoughts to his book. He didn't have a much easier time concentrating on it than he had before. This time, however, the thoughts of pirates and old mistakes remained at bay for a while, chased away by her laughter and the echoes of her voice.
"It's like looking into stormclouds…"
Off the Western coast of Hispaniola
Barbossa watched as Elizabeth once again paused in her work and sagged tiredly against the gun she was supposed to be cleaning, face gone pallid and gray underneath the flush of sunburn.
Although he'd gotten the truth of her "illness" out of Pintel and Ragetti only minutes after she'd left Sanctuary, but he'd not realized the extent of her grief and her lingering bodily weakness. He'd had to give her more work than he'd expected to. He'd been cautious at first, worried that she might break under such harshness, but she hadn't yet, and if left to her own devices, she drifted through spells of tears and apathy. Working herself to exhaustion at least kept her from forgetting to eat and wandering the decks half the night with bleakness in her eyes.
But be it the hard work or the change of scenery, her health was improving, he thought, giving a slight, silently approving nod as she returned to her task, though she did not see him watching. Though he'd not have wished her loss on her, she'd grown from it, grown a little older, a little more thoughtful, less inclined to act on rash impulse. As she grew stronger and steadier, he could see more and more of that maturity rising to the surface, and it made him more confident of his plans for her coming to fruition.
She'd need that strength for what lay ahead.