A Delicate Predicament
by Luvvycat


Author's Note: This is a two-part story I wrote recently for Cersia5 as part of the Merry Pirates Holiday Fiction Exchange on LiveJournal. Set Post-AWE; previous canonical events intact. This story is a stand-alone, and is not related to my "Rum and Persuasion" story cycle.

Please note: I had a hard time determining what accent Anamaria uses (if any!) in CotBP, despite replaying her scenes multiple times. Sadly, she has so few lines! Some of her words in the recruitment scene are clipped, as though there is an accent at play, and in the scene where Gibbs et al are following the Code and leaving Jack behind, it does sound like she says "Hoist de sails!" For the sake of this story, I opted to give her a slight Islands/Jamaican accent (though not as pronounced as Tia Dalma's, and with much better use of English.) I hope this is acceptable!

This fic was beta'd by the charming and delightful GeekMama, with my most sincere gratitude! She indeed was very thorough, and this story has been much improved due to her input! Any residual flaws or errors are entirely my own, and in no way reflect on the excellence of her beta skills!

Naturally, the usual disclaimers apply. All rights to PotC belong to Disney. No harm or profit is intended on the part of the author.

Take care, and enjoy ...

-- Cat

Summary:
Six weeks after saying their final good-byes on the Black Pearl, Elizabeth and Jack meet again in Tortuga…


Part One

He had never expected to see her again, once they said their final good-byes on the Pearl (had it only been six weeks ago?). She had gone off to consummate her marriage to her new (and now—largely thanks to Jack—immortal) husband, and Jack had hightailed it to Tortuga, to drown his sorrows the only way he knew how: with massive quantities of rum, and an abundance of warm female flesh…

But he should have known better. Like the proverbial bad penny, she had a tendency to turn up, usually when he least expected it…

Like the last time they had been reunited in Tortuga, on the moonlit docks, she dressed most charmingly as a boy…

"I'm here to find the man I love…"

Like that day in the Locker, when he turned at the sound of her voice, to see the author of his destruction standing there, beautifully wind-swept, sea-soaked, and sun-burnt …

"Jack, this is real… we're here…"

Like now, when Captain Elizabeth Swann Turner, Pirate King, came breezing into the Faithful Bride, and back into his life …

Oddly, he sensed her before he saw her … felt a slight change in the air, as one often did with the onset of an approaching storm … or a harbinger of impending doom. A strange electricity dancing along his skin, raising gooseflesh, shivering down his spine like the brush of cool fingers.

Then, the cadence of a familiar voice, a low, higher-pitched murmur that his ear somehow was able to distinguish from the rest of the din and ambient noise of the crowded tavern, as a marked man can sometimes hear the almost soundless whisper of a blade being drawn in the dark, alerting him to danger …

His body and his heart recognised her, responded to her, an instant before his mind put the pieces together …

His stomach clenched, fluttering as though Calypso's infernal skittering crabs had taken up residence therein …

Oh, bloody buggering hell …!

* * * * *

He had returned to Tortuga a fortnight ago … having come to his senses, and the belated realisation that he'd never chase Barbossa down in a tiny, leaky dinghy, nor could any port he might hope to reach in said dinghy be as pleasantly disposed toward pirates as the island he had just left. Despite the Brethren's victory in the waters surrounding Shipwreck Island, and Lord Beckett's timely and well-deserved demise, ports such as Nassau and Port Royal were still a dicey prospect these days for pirates. Jack feared that it would take a considerable amount of time (if ever!) for the stink of hate, prejudice and injustice lingering from Beckett's one-man reign of terror to clear—an evil miasma that had brought gibbeted death to scores of the innocent as well as the guilty—before the Caribbean air was relatively safe for a circumspect (and incognito) pirate to breathe again.

He was now, as it were, in the market for a new ship and a new crew to replace the ones that Barbossa had shanghaied out from under him. The old crew, he reckoned Hector could have—if they had been so easily wooed by the shifty old bastard, then good riddance to the lot of 'em. But the Black Pearl … she was irreplaceable, as essential to Jack as the breath in his body and the blood running through his veins. He must needs get her back, by any means possible …

And, for a pirate, there was still no better place than Tortuga, with ships and seamen of all types coming and going at all hours of the day and night, for "acquiring" what was required to launch his mission to reclaim his beloved Pearl. Even now, as Jack was taking his leisure at the Faithful Bride, Gibbs was out, busily prowling the docks for likely ships with unusually lax security.

Jack smiled crookedly over his tankard of rum. Aaah, yes! Delegation of tasks was a wonderful thing!

Indeed, Tortuga had everything he needed, at present … including certain reasonably-priced amenities to which he had become accustomed (once said amenities had forgiven him for the harsh words, and he them for the admittedly well-deserved face-slaps, that had been exchanged upon their last parting). Business as usual, as far as he was concerned.

And now, here was a bit of unfinished personal business, dropping into his lap—or rather, into a chair across from him—at his favourite corner table of the Faithful Bride.

* * * * *

"Jack!" She peered at him from under her tricorne, her smile deceptively welcoming … old friends, meeting unexpectedly at a social function, very civilised. But, in her men's clothing, hair pulled back in a sailor's queue, lips slightly chapped from wind and salt spray, nose sunburnt, she could hardly be mistaken anymore for a lady of "polite society." And here, at the Faithful Bride, there would be no tea in delicate china cups; only rum and ale, in battered pewter tankards and humble earthenware mugs.

And, as he felt the bottom falling out of his life again at the sight of her, and memories, like ghosts, drifted around him, whispering in his ear, he seriously doubted the ensuing conversation would be tea-party polite.

"My Liege," Jack responded, sardonically. "Or do you prefer 'Missus Turner' now?"

A flicker of some emotion passed quickly over her face, there and almost immediately gone. "'Elizabeth' will do just fine," she said.

"Well, Lizzie," he said, deliberately eschewing the formal for the nickname, "To what do I owe the pleasure of this little impromptu reunion?"

The corner of her mouth quirked … a familiar and quite endearing expression that tugged at his memory, and threatened to shake loose the chains he had so carefully forged around his heart. "Actually, I had no idea you were here in Tortuga, Jack." She leaned forward, and laid her small hand over his, where it rested on his mug. "But I'm glad you are!" The warmth in her gaze, and of her hand upon his, made something in his chest tighten, and an emotion he had worked so hard to bury stir to life …

A hank of her golden hair, having worked its way free of its queue, fell forward against her glowing cheek, and his fingers suddenly itched to brush it back, to linger, to trail across that sun-blushed skin, skim over those full lips …

And, of course, where his peripatetic fingers wandered, his lips, jealous creatures that they were, simply would have to follow …

Unbidden, a memory bobbed to the surface of his mind: their first, last, and only kiss, on the deck of the Kraken-doomed Pearl

He recalled, with stunning clarity …

the press of her lithe body against his own …

her lips meeting his with a passion that just couldn't have been feigned (could it?) …

his own body's answering response as he was sucked into a vortex of hunger, of desire, of exultation …

Then …

… the feel of cold steel closing around his wrist …

… the snick of a manacle snapping shut…

… the bellowing roar of the Kraken, like a trumpet-call to doomsday …

… the searing hot desolation of the Locker…

The bubble burst, and his hand suddenly clenched into a fist, tightening around the handle of the mug.

Oh no you don't, missy! Not again! You won't lure me in this time …

He steeled his heart, and fixed her with eyes as hard and black as coal, pointedly moving his mug, and his hand, out from under her touch. "Are you, now? Glad, eh?"

"Jack …" she tried once more to reach for his hand, and again he deliberately moved it away from her grasp. "Could we talk? Something's happened since we parted company, and I've some rather important things to tell you…"

"Talk," he said, disdain icing the word like a rime of winter frost, "That's the problem, Lizzie. When we're together, that's all you want to do … talk. Quite the ear-bender, you are. That is, when you're not trying to kill me."

He turned his black-rimmed eyes upward, forefinger touching his lower lip, as though contemplating the grimy ceiling of the tavern. "Let's see … what shall we talk about? There's the usual popular subjects, of course: the weather, which never fails to speak for itself … or gardening, of which I know bugger-all … or the latest gossip, if you're interested in who's sleeping with whom…" He gave a pointed glance around the tavern, "… which, this being Tortuga, could take days … or perhaps our mutual health." He leaned forward, and started to lift up the hem of his greatcoat, "Or perhaps you'd like to see the new tattoo I got on me bum …"

She seemed perplexed that he was not as happy to see her as she was to see him. "Jack … I don't understand why you're being this way…"

"And what way is that, Lizzie?"

She narrowed her eyes slightly at him. "Snide. Ill-mannered. Disagreeable. After all, I thought we parted more-or-less amicably ..."

She was right. He knew she was right, which put him even more out of sorts with her. But having had weeks now to ruminate, to fume, to regret, to fantasise over what could have been … hell, to bloody well miss her, despite his best efforts to cleanse his mind of her, to close the book, as it were, on the story of Elizabeth Swann-sodding-Turner, Jack was in no mood to be conciliatory. He was in a mood, in fact, to have himself a bloody good snit.

"Oh, yes … best of mates, we were … while you were rushin' off to knock boots with your new husband. Couldn't get away fast enough, could you? And without so much as a goodbye kiss…"

"Jack!' she interrupted his flippant diatribe, and when he looked in her eyes the confusion had been supplanted with a flash of anger. "If you're going to sit there acting like a horse's arse—sulking and pouting—perhaps it's best I leave…"

"I am not sulking!" he muttered, "And I never pout!" His actions then belied his words, as his lower lip thrust out petulantly.

"And, if I recall correctly, it was you who refused a farewell kiss, not me…" she said, with heat … and was that the merest trace of hurt … of disappointment … in her voice?

Oho! Is that, then, what this is all about?

A cocky grin replaced the pout. "Aaaah! So that's why you're here, is it? Been obsessin' about that thwarted kiss, have you?" His voice lowered suggestively as he leaned forward, peering up at her through his dark lashes. "You wanted it, and I denied you. And Lizzie Swann is accustomed to getting what she wants…"

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, yes … of course. That has to be it! There's no other reason I could be in Tortuga, except to hunt you down for that elusive Last Kiss."

He leaned back in his chair, his grin turning smug. The lady doth protest too much, methinks … "Can't say as I blame you, luv. You'd not be the first lass who's gone to extraordinary lengths for the pleasure and the privilege of a kiss from Captain Jack Sparrow! In fact, I'm renowned far and wide for my osculatory prowess."

"As well as, no doubt, for your enormous ego."

He smirked. "It's not egotism, luv, if it's all true! Need I produce sworn, signed affidavits from the lasses in question?"

"No doubt, forged ones…"

He leaned closer, with a rather nasty, virgin-eating pirate smile. "And, speaking of … enormous things. Perhaps you'd care to repair to one of the Bride's private rooms, where I can give you a … ahem … personal demonstration of said prowess…?"

She eyed him, dubiously. "At kissing?"

He allowed his eyes to wander up and down her, and was pleased to see her face flush. Interestin'… "Among other things…"

She emitted a small, rather unladylike snort. "Thank you … but no, thank you."

"Well, if you're not here to kiss me senseless and ravish me person, then why exactly are you here?" he asked, and motioned a passing barmaid to bring him more rum. "I would have thought you'd be back at Shipwreck Island, or some other little retreat, making a cosy little nest for yourself, setting up housekeeping, keeping the home fires burning until William's return in … what is it, now? … nine years, ten months, two weeks, and how many odd days …"

"Jack, I should think you know me better than that …"

He frowned. That was exactly the problem. He'd wanted to "know" her … God and the devil himself only knew how long he had ached for the "knowing" of her! And all he had gotten, so far, from all that aching and wanting was a kiss … and of the Judas variety, at that!

"In fact, the reason I'm here, is … I've all but decided to give up the Empress … to let Tai Huang take it, and his crew, back to Singapore …"

Jack's eyebrows rose. "And why is that, luv? Discovered a pirate's life is not for you after all? Not up to the rigours of command? Tired of being a captain so soon?" His lip curled, letting his gold teeth show. "I'm surprised, Lizzie. I thought you were made of sterner stuff!"

"That's not it at all…!" she continued, "And if all I had wanted was a 'cosy nest' and a quiet life of domestic bliss, I would have been content, years ago, to stay in Port Royal, marry whoever my father chose for me, and play the dutiful daughter and wife." She smiled. "You, yourself, were the one who recognised me for what I am: a pirate."

"Yes, well … a little too late to prevent myself becoming Kraken-bait, as I recall."

She winced, and lowered her gaze. "You're never going to let me live that down, are you?"

"Some things are not easily forgotten, or forgiven, luv," Jack said. "Best remember that in future, when you decide to end a man's life." The barmaid brought his drink, exchanging a full mug for his empty one.

"Although I notice that didn't keep you from saving my life … yet again … when the Dutchman went down …"

Her words triggered a sense-memory…

Her arms, wrapped around him, her wet cheek pressed to his chest, the sensation of soaring as the world and the deck of the Dutchman dropped away …

No. Nope! Don't think about that … that way madness lies!

He bit out, rather callously, "A small error in judgment, Lizzie. One I swear I won't make again."

He saw the barb strike. Saw the hurt in her eyes as it hit its mark.

Rather than the expected sense of satisfaction, he was immediately awash with regret. Even more so when her earlier words actually sunk in … and then he could have kicked himself for being a great, bloody fool.

Lizzie was here.

The Empress was here.

He needed a ship.

Lizzie had a ship … and a crew.

And now, he might have just ruined his chances to … persuade her … to let him "borrow" them …

Because now her eyes were flashing at him again, anger displacing the hurt like lightning presaging a thunderstorm. And, as she pinned him with her hot glare, he felt certain he was about to feel the brunt of that storm's fury …

She had no sooner opened her mouth, when a serving wench passed by with a tray laden with mugs of ale and a large platter of something that reeked of boiled cabbage and cooked onions.

Suddenly Elizabeth went pale and froze, a look of mild panic flitting through those dark amber eyes as she placed trembling fingers against her lips, covering her mouth. "Excuse me …" she gasped out, rising rather unsteadily from her chair, and making a beeline for the back door of the Faithful Bride.

Jack stared after her, a bemused frown furrowing his bandanna-swathed brow. "Was it somethin' I said?" he muttered to himself as the alley door banged shut behind Elizabeth.

He had little time to ponder Lizzie's strange and hasty leave-taking, though, as another shade from his past saw fit to visit him …

"Jack Sparrow! Well, I see you ain't lost your touch wit' de ladies," a familiar, feminine voice, spiced with an Islands accent (Jamaican, with perhaps just a trace of French), sounded at his elbow.

He turned, looked up to see Anamaria standing over him, arms folded across her chest, gazing at him with a mixture of sternness and amusement in her dark eyes.

"Ana!" he exclaimed, both glad and a bit wary to see her. He wracked his brain briefly to make sure he had given her no cause recently to slap him, but ever since he had kept his promise to her, and gifted her with a new ship, taken during one of the Pearl's more successful raids (quite a lovely ship, at that — as swift, sleek and beautiful as her new captain), their account had been square. She had left the Pearl and set out on her own piratical pursuits on her new ship—formerly bearing the very unpirate-like name of the Rosebud, since rechristened the Midnight Rose. That had been well over a year ago, just before Jack had set off for Turkey in pursuit of a certain elusive key …

As his eyes swept over her, he saw that she had changed … her clothing no longer simple canvas sailor's trews, homespun cotton shirt, and threadbare vest, but something much more suited to her new role as a pirate captain. She now wore fine dark broadcloth breeches that clung to her slim thighs like a second skin, an intricately embroidered russet satin waistcoat, and a well-tailored brocaded topcoat which, Jack noticed with envy, put his own comparatively shabby raiment to shame. The headcloth tied 'round her brow was silk the same deep shade of blue-green as the vivid waters of the Caribbean, shot with threads of silver. Piracy certainly had agreed with Anamaria, and she wore her new confidence well.

"Where've you been keepin' yourself, luv? I almost expected you to resurface at Shipwreck Cove in time for the battle."

She scoffed. "I ain't no pirate lord, Jack! Nor am I a fool. When Beckett started makin' t'ings too hot here, I took me an' my Rose off to friendlier waters! There are still some places in dis world where de East India Company don't prowl—yet." She eyed him closely. "And how are you, Jack? I hear tell ye been dead since I see you last, though ye look well 'nough now."

For a moment, he felt the shadows of the Locker closing in on him again. But he pushed them away, and gave Ana a wan smile. "You know me, luv. Got as many lives as a cat, I have."

"I also hear ye done lost de Pearl again … and after all de trouble we went t'rough to help get 'er back for you." She shook her head and tsked. "Very careless of ye, Jack."

He scowled into his rum. "Yes … well. Rub salt in me wounds, why don't ya, Ana."

"And to dat bastard Barbossa—for de second time!" She shook her head again, then pinned Jack with an incisive look. "And how dat man come to be alive again, after you kilt him?"

He eyed her narrowly. "I'm surprised, Ana, that your informant didn't complete the story for you. You really need to get yourself a more reliable source."

She smiled secretively. "Let's just say me 'source' is not dat big on talkin'. It take a lot of time, and patience, to get a coherent story outta him."

"You might try massive quantities of rum to loosen his tongue. Or perhaps you should threaten to cut it out entirely, if he doesn't spill. I'm led to understand that is quite an effective method of persuasion."

She gave him an odd look, then seemed to shrug the comment off.

"How long she been like dis?" Ana asked, nodding in the direction in which Elizabeth had disappeared.

"Like wot? Intractable? Intolerable? Insufferable?" he sulked, pouting.

Ana fixed her eyes on Jack, a frown creasing the smooth cocoa skin between her shapely eyebrows. "No. Pregnant."

Jack nearly fell out of his chair; he couldn't have been more stunned if Ana had whacked him across the side of the skull with an oar.

"P—pregnant?" Jack stuttered, his voice coming out a high-pitched squeak, as he stared at Ana.

Ana nodded. "Aye."

Jack's eyes turned away to also fix on Elizabeth's departure point, his face going through a series of shifting, elastic contortions as he sputtered, "But … she's not … I mean, she couldn't be …" His expression finally settled into wide-eyed horror. "… could she?"

"I'm a woman, Jack … wit' four married sisters. I seen de condition often enough to know de signs…" She cocked her head, listening intently over the tavern's din, then jerked her head at the back door. "Even now, she's heavin' her guts out in yon alleyway, sure 'nough." She nodded, sagely. "One of my sisters, she got took like dat at de smell of cabbage. Another, t'was fish — which was a real bad t'ing, her bein' married to a fisherman. She was sick for a solid mont', 'cause de house and her man always stink of fish."

Her keen eyes bored into Jack, as though trying to penetrate his skull, to see the thoughts inside. She gave a quick flick of her head toward the door through which Elizabeth had vanished. "Is it yours?"

Jack became even more flustered, and couldn't seem to prevent his hands flapping around him like a pair of agitated birds, nearly knocking over his mug of rum as he squawked in affronted outrage, "Wot? Mine? Impossible!"

Her eyes narrowed at him. "Where a man and a woman are concerned, Jack, all t'ings be possible. And I know how ye are wit' women …" She smirked. "… partic'ly one pretty as dat girl."

"There, you have it all wrong, Ana. Lizzie and I are just friends … we've never … I mean, we're not … Ana, she's a married woman!" He spread his tar-stained hands, casting her a wide-eyed and ingenuous look, as if that settled the matter.

"Dat never stopped ye before, Jack Sparrow, as well ye know … And you can't tell me dat you don't wanna 'know' her…" She grinned, slyly. "But dis is a rare and auspicious day all de same … when dere be a pretty lady dat Cap'n Jack Sparrow ain't been able to seduce!" Her grin turned slightly wry, no doubt thinking about her own weakness in this area…

He glared at her, and puffed out his chest, trying to shore up his wounded male pride. "Oh, don't get me wrong, Ana … I could … if I wanted to … if she wanted … except for the fact that … well, her husband's a good friend of mine."

Sharp eyes transfixed him. "No such t'ing as a 'good friend', for a pirate. You and I know dat, from experience, eh? And, I repeat …dat never stopped ye before." The corner of her lip quirked, and her eyes flooded with amused wonder. "So … she and young Turner finally jumped de broom, eh? I take it, den, dat he is de father?"

"Presumably so," Jack said. As averse as he was to speculating about just what went on between the young newlyweds on that little island (whenever he thought on it, he couldn't help imagining himself in Will's place, doing lovely and delicious wedding night things with Lizzie, which then gave … rise … to other sensitive issues, which then had to be taken care of), he at last admitted to himself that Ana might be right about Lizzie's "delicate condition." It would certainly go a long way toward explaining the Pirate King's erratic (well … more erratic than usual) behaviour.

"And where's dat husband now?"

Jack fell silent for a moment. "That, darlin', is not so easy to explain."

She sat down, leaned back in her chair, and set her feet up on the sticky, rum-soaked table. "I got de time," she said.

Jack scowled slightly as he realised she wouldn't let the matter rest. Women! Why were they determined to be his bane today? "Well … in a way … that is, for all intents and purposes … at least in the eyes of the laws of nature and of man … Will Turner is … well, for the most part …" Jack allowed his moustache to droop as he donned a sad and thoughtful face. "… dead."

Ana's eyebrows rose. "So, she's a widow-woman now?"

"Not exactly …"

"Dead's dead, ain't it?"

He pinned her with a telling look. "Now, you know better than that, Ana luv," he said, his voice a gentle rebuke. "Look at me, for example! And have you so soon forgotten the curse of Cortez' gold?"

Her eyes widened as the implication set in. "Will Turner, den, is … undead?"

Jack nodded. "And, not only that … he is the new captain at the helm of the Flying Dutchman …"

Ana whistled through her teeth. "I had heard de rumours of Davy Jones' fall … and talk of a new captain." Her eyes narrowed. "How you know dis is true?"

Jack's dark eyes grew serious as his mind flooded with the unpleasant memories of that fateful day. "I was the one as helped him plunge the blade through Jones' foul heart. I was there when he … died. And when Bootstrap wielded his knife to finish the task, and give the Dead Man's Chest its new occupant."

"Dey say de Dutchman always gotta have a captain…" she intoned, repeating the tale she had oft heard

Jack's trinkets chattered as he nodded his head. "He who stabs the heart, takes his place… for eternity. Unless, of course, someone else comes along and stabs his heart …"

"Ten years at sea, doin' his fait'ful duty … and only one single day on land." She shook her head in pity. "Poor woman! She only get to be wit' her husband one day ev'ry ten years!"

Jack's frown finally lifted as he quirked a gold-flashing half-smile. "There's some husbands as might consider that an ideal arrangement!"

Ana's glare pinned him. "Some wives, too … and wit' better reason, I daresay!" She flicked her head again toward the alley door. "But she's not one of dem put-upon wives, glad to see dere husband's back when dey go. For her, ten years wit'out young Turner in her life, and in her bed, is like to be a long, lonely hell. And now her, wit' a babe on de way, like as not." She shook her head ruefully, then slanted a sidelong glance at him and crooked a suspiciously Jack-like grin. "But at least dey made good use of deyr one day, eh! And clearly Turner not be … lackin' in certain areas, as you like to say."

She swung her legs down from the table, and stood up, slapping Jack on the shoulder. "You be careful wit' her, Jack. She's in for hard mont's ahead. Havin' a baby ain't easy on a woman, under de best circumstances. And wit' her man gone, and wit' no home and roost but a ship… and a pirate ship at dat … It surely ain't de safest place … for a woman in her condition."

"Then what the devil is she doing in Tortuga?" Jack asked, mostly rhetorically.

"Hmmm … could be dat de mama-to-be don' even know she's wit' child. My older sister, she be nigh on four mont's wit' her first before she finally cottoned to what was goin' on. 'Course, she never was de brightest in de fam'ly…" She leaned down, and whispered in Jack's ear, almost conspiratorially. "If ye can, ask her when's de last time she bleed. Dat oughta tell de story …"

"Bleed …?"

"Aye. As in, had her courses … and when did she notice dey go missin'?"

Jack paled a bit under his tan. Well, Lizzie did say she had something rather important to tell him — that something had changed since the last time he'd seen her…

Ana laughed, and rose to leave, but Jack's hand whipped out and closed around her forearm like a flesh-and-bone manacle. "Ana," he said, a look of desperation in his face. "If … what you say is true… about Lizzie … Well … What do I do?"

She laughed again. "Oh no, Jack Sparrow … dis is one trouble you gonna have to find yer own way outta! Me … I'm goin' back to me ship …" She smiled coyly. "… and me new man." She glanced up, across the room, and her face suddenly brightened a notch. Jack knew that look. At one time, she had looked at him that way … before he had run off with her fishing boat, that is!

Following her eyes, his own swept the crowded tavern, until they alit on a familiar figure, wizened, grey and grizzled … Cotton! And, of course, his ubiquitous, multi-hued avian friend, perched on his shoulder.

His own face broke into a grin. Well, there was one loyal crewmember, at least, who had not seen fit to join Barbossa's turncoat crew! Even as he raised his hand to beckon Cotton over, the old sailor's eyes slid past Jack without a flicker of reaction, to fasten on Anamaria. The warmth that suddenly bloomed in the old tar's eyes was a match for Ana's.

As realisation dawned, Jack's jaw dropped. "Cotton?" he said, incredulously. "Cotton's your 'new man'?"

There was a lightness in Ana's tone as she replied. "Aye … dat he is. Couldn't bear servin' under Barbossa … jumped ship at de first port dey made. Lucky me and my Rose come dere shortly after. He's now me new First Mate …" She slanted him a wicked glance. "…and mate in other ways as well…!"

Jack was having trouble wrapping his mind around this latest revelation. For a moment, he thought it might be the Locker's madness, returning again. But, no …

There had been no rum in the Locker.

He lifted his tankard and took a deep draught.

"I mean … Cotton!" he said again. "Why, Ana … he's … he's … old!"

"Much experience come wit' age, Jack!"

"He … he can't talk!"

She turned to fix incisive eyes on Jack. "Aye! Sometimes a man an' woman don' need words …" She crooked a brow, giving him a significant look. "In fact, sometimes a man can talk too much …"

"Darlin' … he's … he's got no bloody tongue!"

"Dere lots of t'ings he does have, Jack … not de least of which is heart …" The corner of her mouth crooked up, wickedly, eyes alight with mischief. "… not to mention, a quite impressive—"

"Ana!" There were just some images he didn't need parading through his mind …

She laughed and fingered Jack's chin braids, her eyes and expression softening in remembrance. "Aye … you're de one who taught me how delightful a man's tongue can be, when put to proper use, in de right place. But when dat tongue is used to tell pretty lies, to distract a woman from de real truth … to steal her heart, and more, from her…"

Jack pressed his lips together, and nodded, ruefully. He knew he had done her ill in the past. Used her affection for him, had his way with her (or rather, as he remembered it, they had their way with each other—several times!), and then, when she still lay asleep in sated pleasure, crept out like a thief in the night, and slipped away with her boat, the Jolly Mon. And though their account was now square, those past memories were still there, and would ever cast a shadow over their … friendship.

"But I t'ink your lady King is returnin' now. And best I be off." Ana leaned forward, and pressed a fond kiss to Jack's cheek. "Good-bye, Jack Sparrow." She cast a sidelong glance to the approaching figure. "And … good luck." She smiled saucily. "I t'ink you be needin' it!"

She turned and walked away, and Jack sighed as his eyes strayed, distracted by the sway of her hips under the brocade topcoat. As she reached Cotton, he made Ana a small bow, took up her hand and kissed it, like a well-heeled gentleman greeting a high-born lady, and tucked her arm through the crook of his own. As they turned to leave, Cotton caught Jack's eye, smiled a semi-toothless grin, his weather-beaten face crinkling up in a mass of wrinkles, sketched him a small salute with fingers to his brow, and gave him a wink.

Jack gaped, watching them go. "Ana … and Cotton!" He shook his head, as though trying to clear it, setting his baubles jangling again. "In-credible!"

He was still standing there when he heard a light footfall behind him, and turned to see Elizabeth, looking quite peaked and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "Sorry, Jack … I'm afraid I'm not feeling all that well today..."

Elizabeth swayed slightly on her feet, and Jack sprang forward, his hand reaching for one elbow, the other slipping around her waist, lending his support. "Here, luv … let me help you to your seat …"

Her eyes flicked up to him in surprise. "I'm all right, Jack, really …" she protested, but nevertheless allowed him to settle her onto the bench. Once seated, she slanted him a glance. "Jack … Perhaps we can have that talk now? You seem in a … well, if not a better, at least a different mood than you were when I … stepped away. And what I have to tell you is important."

He patted her hand. "That's all right, luv. It can wait until you're feelin' up to it…"

Now she turned to look him fully in the face, with a quizzical expression. "Are you all right?"

He spread his arms and grinned. "Right as rain, darlin'. Never better." He glanced around the crowded tavern. "But, all things considered, if we're goin' to have a little heart-to-heart, don't you think we should retire to somewhere a little more … private?"

She laughed, sharply. "You never do give up, do you? If you think for a moment I'm going to go upstairs with you…"

He held his hands up, defensively. "Nothin' of the kind, luv. Word of honour. But, if you'd prefer your territory over mine, perhaps we could repair to the Empress, and continue our discussion there."

She looked keenly at him with narrowed eyes, then sighed. "I suppose you're right. What I have to tell you does concern a rather personal and private matter…"

He stood up and, as Cotton had just done with Anamaria, sketched her a slight bow, "As you wish, My Liege." He proffered his arm, flashing her his most dazzling golden grin. "Shall we?"