“I think Charles Vane is something you and I survived.”
- episode xiii
He cuts her hair, lends her a pair of trousers and his most discreet jacket—short all the frills and decorative buttons—and signs her up as James Bonny. The dirt on her face combines with her typical sneer to obscure almost all hints of feminine appeal, and those that remain could easily be supposed as the vestiges of boyhood which cling to a man in the earliest parts of his adult life. With her voice pitched low, a wide-brimmed hat hung over her brow, and a glare shining out from beneath it, she’s twice the man he’s ever been.
“Shall we get you a beard? A tufty thing we can strap over your ears?”
She spits at his feet by way of answer.
“Alright, alright, only joking.”
“Next time, we’re putting you in a fucking dress,” she grunts.
“I rather think I shouldn’t mind that, but it would hardly be conducive to our current goal. Now,” Jack says, as if it needs to be said, as if half of what he says needs to be said, “let me do the talking. Just stand by and try to look brutish.”
She plays her roll to a tee, and it all goes very smoothly this time, utterly unlike his every previous attempt to join a crew with a woman in tow. All testimonies he’d made to her ferocity and her competence had been laughed off, but as a man she goes unquestioned, and Jack comes away with the feeling that it had been her glare that had gotten them aboard, and not, in fact, his colorful descriptions of their virtues as crewmen. How disgustingly easy the life of a man is, and how much easier when he is what a man is supposed to be: strong, unemotional, taciturn.
Between his biological fortune and her natural temperament, they might have just enough masculinity between them to get somewhere in this world.
They fuck in the hold.
It’s a week of sweating hard labor, which troubles Jack rather more than it does Anne, who takes to ship work with the ruthless ingenuity that he takes to a library, not wincing at the blisters that split her palm, nor the sun that burns her face, but leaning into them, learning them the way he learned Erasmus. Erasmus is all of useless on the sea, as is Dante, Plato, the whole lot of them. Most of the men don’t read or write, and those that do have little more than a rudimentary understanding, enough to interpret a ship’s log, or sign their name, and all of them openly detest the way that Jack speaks. He gets punched twice within the first three days for reasons which he cannot discern, but which Anne describes as relating to his, “mouthy know-it-all pansy fuckwit,” attitude.
“Shut-up. Put your hand lower.”
They fuck in the hold in the dead black of night, not five feet from the dairy goat, scrambling like fools to touch parts of each other which are forbidden even to be acknowledged in their quarters, among the men who would do God knows what to Anne if they discovered the truth of her sex. Jack’s had to create innumerable distractions already just to afford her a moment to wash, or dress, and the burden of secrecy is already wearing on him. She takes it without blinking, of course. She’s never winced from anything in her life. She is so much stronger than him, and she is—Christ—so warm.
Hips pressing against his, fingers knotted into his hair, tugging on his scalp, pressing him up and against her as she undoes the buttons of his trousers and he undoes the buttons of her’s. She sinks down onto his cock in a rush, and the gasp he gives makes her grin and shove a hand over his mouth to quiet him, to keep them secret, to keep them safe. He fucks up into her and she fucks down into him, body pressed flush, holding him steady. She’s so much stronger than him, she’s beautiful, she’s fucking—
A throat clears, and she freezes atop him.
“Well,” says a voice that Jack doesn’t recognize, “this is interesting.”
His eyes are clenched shut, braced for a blow, and when it doesn’t come after several moments he opens them and blinks indistinctly at the man standing in the doorway, holding up a lantern and smirking. A man who is also, Jack is fairly certain, the captain.
Anne’s shirt is open, he shouldn’t have opened Anne’s shirt. He reaches up, too late already, to pull it closed, to obscure the most telling parts of her body, but her trousers are shoved down around her calves and her gender is obvious, undeniable. She makes no move to deny it, doesn’t cover up, just stares at Charles Vane, the most infamously vicious pirate captain in all of the Bahama Islands, as he stares knowingly back at her.
She pulls herself up and off of Jack, and the shift of her body is unfittingly pleasurable, even as his skin is crawling, his erection shrinking. She pulls up her trousers and buckles her belt as the captain watches.
“This is,” he says, far from booming thunderously at them as Jack expects, voice tinged with something like amusement, “actually funny. The men had you pegged—what’s your name again?”
He’s looking at Jack and Jack’s cock is still out. He rustles himself back into his clothes as he replies, almost tremulously, “Rackham. Jack Rackham.”
“Rackham, right. They all assumed you were a poof. Can’t say I gave it much thought myself, what with you and your boy,”—he gives the word an ugly sound, leering at Anne as he says it—“being completely irrelevant and without consequence to me.” He takes another step forward, regards them calmly. “Now, however, I think there will be consequence.”
His voice is low and rasping, a smoked out voice, a voice belonging to a man who is enraptured with his own machismo, who wishes to impose it on everyone with whom he comes in contact. Jack won’t be overly surprised if he kills the both of them.
They shouldn’t have come here. They should have joined another crew, with a less notoriously violent captain, or no crew at all. They shouldn’t have gone where they weren’t wanted.
The dairy goat bleats loudly and pointlessly.
“I—if you please,” Jack attempts, pulling himself, with stumbling effort, up to stand at Anne’s side, “I know it appears as if we’ve misrepresented ourselves to you, and, in fact, it’s true that we have, but if you’ll take a moment to review the circumstances as they stand,”—Captain Vane walks toward them and Jack’s words speed up as he approaches, his wince deforming them, making them sound futile—they are, in fact, futile—“you may find that,”—
“You brought a fucking woman onto my fucking ship.”
Anne moves to stand between them, stiff and sneering and unafraid. “What the fuck you going to do about it, then?”
Vane pauses, grin strung halfway upon his face, and glances between them. He lets out a full-throated and unpleasant laugh. “This begs the question of who is really the fucking woman between the two of you, doesn’t it? You cower there,” he says to Jack, “while she stands her ground. It’s fucking pathetic, is what it is.”
Jack finds himself nodding in desperation. “I may be so, but she, demonstrably, is not. She’s proven herself just as willing and as capable, if not more so, as any man on your crew to do the work required of him. Ask Slade, ask Hammond, ask anyone.”
“I don’t care if she’s Joan of fucking Arc,” Vane says, still half grinning, as if this is all some elaborate bit of fun for him. “You brought your woman onto my ship without my knowledge, you fucked your woman on my ship without my knowledge. You’ve insulted me. You’ve insulted my men.” He takes a step closer to Anne, setting his lantern down on a stack of crates. “Do you know what they would do if they found out what she was? To kill you both now would be a mercy.” He says so in such a way that, to Jack’s relief, suggests that he does not, in fact, intend to do anything of the sort. He takes another step toward Anne. “Of course, there’s a month yet until we reach the next port. I’d be willing to spare you both, if reparations were properly made.”
His eyes are locked on the buttons of Anne’s shirt, now fastened, which before hung open in full view.
“Anythi,”—Jack begins, too fast for the implication to fully set in, but when it does he drops the word like it’s filth on his tongue. “No.”
Vane’s brow creases with feigned confusion. He is delighting in Jack’s fear. “You were just about to say anything.”
“I’ve changed my fucking mind,” Jack snaps, moving to Anne’s side faster than he thought he was capable of traveling. “There’s no way, not under any circumstances, not ever.”
She is still and silent and knowing. If she is afraid then she holds it somewhere deep within her where she holds everything else, emotions that are released only in the privacy of Jack’s palms, Jack’s mouth, Jack’s hips. To have all that is decent in this world, all that either of them own or depend upon, yanked out into the open before this vulgar fuck, to have him request that they give it up to him. That they give her up to him.
“It’s the only way to adequately atone for the insult,” Vane says, casually, utterly comfortable.
“The insult?” Jack says, pulse thudding with the enormity of his rage. “You’re just a slavering fuck who,”—
“I’ll do it.”
Anne’s voice is clean and clear, back to its normal gritty pitch. She doesn’t look at Jack, doesn’t shift her eyes from Vane’s face, his glowing bright grin of enjoyment, of superiority, dominance, every filthy thing that rules this world.
“Anne,” Jack says, and he can hear the weakness in his own voice, the desperation, the full and undisguised pain.
She shrugs. “Can’t be any worse than any of them.”
Jack shakes his head, shakes it so fast his vision blurs, his fingers tremble, his heart physically aches. “I promised you. I promised you would never be subjected to anything like that ever again, that I would never let any man, not anyone,”—
“You’re not letting anything happen,” she says. “You don’t have any power to stop it.”
“Anne.” His head keeps shaking. He feels as if he’s going to weep. “I’d sooner let him kill me.”
“Even if I kill you,” Vane says, lip curling, “I’m still going to have her. Might as well take the free pass that I’m giving you, and live to fight another day. Or quiver another day, whatever.” The contempt he holds for Jack’s frailty, for Jack’s impotence, is evident in his voice, his eyes, his every fiber of himself. A man who is so fully sure of his worth as a man, of his power, unlimited, vast and God-given, his right to whatever it is that he wishes to take, and his abhorrence for Jack’s inability to ever understand himself in such terms, to defend himself, to defend one whom he loves.
The shape of his glance changes when it shifts from Jack to Anne, and in it is none of the disgust, just an eerie, grinning self-satisfaction.
“You’ll come when I call you,” he says, and Anne nods, expressionless.
He leaves them like that. The dairy goat bleats again.
Jack does cry, undramatically, tears welling at the corners of his eyes, stinging in the far back part of his nose. He wipes them discreetly into the flesh of his face, back over his temples, into his hair. He feels physically ill. Anne says nothing to him and he says nothing to her as they hang in their hammocks, side by side, in the least populated section of the barracks. He’d hold her hand if he thought it’d go unnoticed, if he thought she’d even let him.
This is his fault, and neither of them have to say so for him to feel it thudding at the bottom of his throat. He was the one who had insisted that they join this crew. That way lay sandy palms and mountains of glittering gems, wine by the bucket, freedom, freedom, not more of this, not more hell. He was her savior, in his way, in whatever way a flimsy swordsman can be to a caged warrior. Not very long after he had taken her away from that foul man she’d eclipsed him in every realm of physical prowess, but first, when she was still cornered, owned, and unaware of the possibility of her own strength, he had done something uncharacteristically brave and chanced his life on the hope that he could give her one.
The crew that he’d been sailing with at the time had, of course, kicked him off when he’d refused to share his catch.
“Would you like to fuck Mr. Mundy? Mr. Bale? Mr. Wraight?” he’d asked her, low voiced, not truly curious, but willing to entertain any option if it might salvage his reasonably comfortable position. She’d been so quiet then as to make her present self appear downright verbose, and she’d shaken her head very quickly, eyes wide. “Then,” he’d told her, “it will never be so.”
They’d worked odd jobs since then, skipped from crew to crew, sometimes pirates, sometimes just trading vessels, disguising her when necessary, granting her board as his wife when possible. The further south they’d gone, the harder it had been to find a ship that would take them on. They’d only been accepted onto the Ranger on account of the rather massive prize that she’d taken a few weeks earlier in a battle which had killed off most of her crew, while making the survivors very rich men.
She falls asleep before him, and he watches what little he can see of her face in the moonlight that passes between the planks of the deck above. He had not saved her without a fantasy tickling the back of his mind, of this beautiful, sharp-faced girl falling in love with him, of course, of course, he does everything in conjunction with a fantasy, an organizing narrative through which to make sense of the noise surrounding him. But he had recognized the impulse from the first day of their partnership as ill-conceived, one-dimensional, and dull, for the beautiful, sharp-faced girl of his dreams was but an image implanted by impersonal ideals, a waif-like fantasy creature inscribed upon the hearts of men by the dictates of society. He had found himself less enamored of her face, her body, than in awe of her ferocity, her rage, her mind that did not flit from thought to thought, drunk and dizzy, like his, but which took everything carefully and weighed it like a stone, squeezed it until it popped. The infantile desire to be fallen in love with was replaced by a love so full and bright as to be unconcerned with reciprocation, overcome with admiration, with a sense of camaraderie so deep that to look into her face was not to see a lover, but to see a part of himself, a part without which he would be incomplete, which is essential not only to his happiness, but to his sense of reality.
Charles Vane is going to fuck her.
“I’ll slice his balls off in his sleep,” she’d said, but she knows just as he knows that they could neither kill nor maim the captain of the Ranger and live to see land again.
All they need to do is make it to the next port, make it to the next port and leave, but that’s a month, Vane had said. He does not doubt Anne’s resilience, but he feels sick that she should need to employ it, that the joke of biology should align things so that he has nothing with which to bargain for her safety, that a man like Charles Vane should see it as just to fuck her just because she is a woman and she is there, and, even worse, as a repayment of insult. To throw the insult back at Jack, as if she is his, as if it’s no more than an exchange of fucking property. He feels sick to be alive, to be a man, to have a cock, to have made promises which are incompatible with the nature that is thrust upon him.
He stews in self-hatred, lets it boil, lets it peak, awake and exhausted through the night, and finally when he has seen himself through his indulgent suffering, he cobbles together enough strength of purpose, not to mention physical resilience, to enact the plan which has been percolating in the back of his mind the entire night, seemingly ridiculous, laughable, unworkable, but which in this state of sleep deprivation and self-pity, appears suddenly quite valid, quite as plausible as anything.
Like the image of the sharp-faced girl, so too is the man an invention, made real by the widespread agreement to accept his being so. To react to this crisis like a man is to serve no purpose other than to fold into the narrative given to him, a story in which he is pathetic, in which he has no choice but to fight against an enemy he cannot defeat, or bow to it.
There are other options. The problem is easily solvable with the right tools, and he happens to have them—or, close enough, anyway.
It’s almost light out by the time he calls on the captain. He’s giddy with both sleeplessness and the clarity which comes after a compromising shock, when the mind begins to reorient itself. He is afraid, but he thinks of how easily, how assuredly Anne had offered herself up in exchange for their lives, and from her example he takes inspiration. He holds her gnarled, strange laugh in his head as he knocks on the door. He holds the press of her fingers inside him, the press of her lips against his, the look of bewildered amusement she gives him when he goes off on a long and embarrassing tangent focused on no discernible subject.
There is no answer, so he knocks again. There’s a muffled curse from beyond the door, and then nothing, so he takes that as an invitation, and slips inside.
The room is dark, so he moves first to light the lamp, but no sooner has he located it in the dim than Vane’s got him shoved face-first to the wall, arm crushing the back of his neck, knee jamming his legs off-balance.
“What the fuck,” he breathes, and the rasp of his voice is less threatening somehow, more comical, “do you think you’re doing?”
“Um,” Jack begins.
“Rackham?” Vane’s grip loosens slightly, likely having determined this threat to be minimal at best, better classified as a mere annoyance. “You’re really a pitiful fuck, aren’t you? You thought you’d sneak in here nice and easy and kill me in my sleep, just like that. I find it hard to believe that you’re as weak of mind as you are of body, but,”—
“I think,” Jack says, words muffled by the wall he’s still pressed into, “that if this had been a covert assassination attempt, I might have refrained from knocking very loudly on your door.”
Still for a moment, Vane snorts, and lets go of him. “Depends just how stupid you are.” Moving to light the lamp that Jack had been set upon, he seems to have relaxed out of his initial predatory instincts and back into the detached malevolence that he seems to be most comfortable cloaking himself in.
Jack straightens up and watches him light his pipe.
“If you’re not here to kill me,” Vane says, “I can only assume that you’re here to beg for mercy for your girl, so I’ll save you the trouble. If this revolved around my physical appetite alone, I might be willing to spare her, given that her work has been adequate enough that she already serves some purpose to the ship. Unfortunately for the both of you, however, this is a matter of principle. I can’t have it said that Charles Vane had another man’s woman smuggled secretly aboard his ship and let it pass without recompense. You should just thank me for conducting things privately, and not handing her over to all of my men.” He inhales deeply, blows a thick stream of smoke. “That’s a personal favor, because I respect her nerve, though you having woken me up in the middle of the fucking night is making me want to reconsider.”
“It’s almost morning,” Jack says, and then curses himself, shaking his head very quickly. “Nevermind that. I’m not here to beg you for anything. I’m here to offer you a more suitable alternative.”
Vane sits back on his bed, palms spreading out behind him, broad-chested and thuggishly superior. “And what’s that?” he asks, with minimal interest.
It’s harder than Jack had expected to say it outright. “Anne—Anne is dangerous. Far more dangerous than I am, I’m sure you’ve realized. Having her in your bedchamber, even just for long enough to get a quick fuck in, could present a very real threat to you. I once saw her stab a man just for grabbing her indecently. Well, I—actually, that depicts me as rather adjacent to the incident, when I was, in fact, holding him down as she did it.” Vane blinks slowly, and he’s giving Jack the same look that the other two men had just before they’d, respectively, punched him in the face, so he hurries onto the point. “What I’m trying to say is that she is much, much more likely to be successful in killing you if she is invited into your intimate vicinity than, for example,”—here, he gives a dramatic cough—“myself.”
Vane stares at him, brows rising slowly. Jack wonders if perhaps he ought to have been more transparent. Captain Vane is, after all, famous for his brutality, not his nuanced understanding.
But then he laughs, full-throated, gory, and real. He lets it fade after a moment, when it is not joined by Jack’s own, when a further point is not made, and it is apparent that this, yes, is really the offer in full.
“You’re,” Vane says, still smiling, “asking me to fuck you instead of her?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
He sits up on his bed, leans his hands on his knees, suddenly keen and awake. “And why in the hell would I want to do that?”
Jack rolls his eyes. “Well, I just spent several minutes explaining why, didn’t I?”
Vane is grinning. “I’m not afraid of her, so you’ll have to come up with something better than that.” He cocks an eyebrow. “The men were right, hmm? You are a poof.”
Jack opens his mouth, utterly ready to embark upon a long lecture regarding the complicated nature of such a categorization, and how utterly irrelevant it is under these circumstances, anyhow, but finds the restraint to save his breath. He swallows. “Believe whatever you’d like about me. All I care to know is whether you’ll accept my offer, or not.”
Vane shakes his head. “Not.”
“Shit.” Jack’s insides clench a little bit. He’s so far past humiliation as to have entered another state entirely, one beyond ego, that wishes only to achieve the ends it had set out towards. “Listen. It’s more fair this way. You said yourself that Anne’s work has been valuable, that she’s contributing. You’d hardly say the same for me, would you not? My talents happen to lie in the intellectual rather than the physical, but as there’s nothing to really engage the mind in an industry such as this, I’ve been very useless thus far.”
“You’re asking me to put you to use?” Vane asks, with a tone of unparalleled enjoyment, a shocked enjoyment, as if he couldn’t foresee that someone as insignificant to himself as Jack could be so very amusing.
Jack feels nauseous. He doesn’t answer the question, but pushes on. “It was me that insulted you by bringing her aboard, and it’s my debt to pay. Let me pay it, and leave her out of it. You won’t be disappointed.” He’s lying, of course he’s lying, talking straight out of his arse, but it gets easier with every word to pretend that this is a good idea, that this is a plan that he can manage to uphold, that won’t collapse disastrously in on him.
Even if it does, it would still be better than seeing her suffer that way again.
“You must,” Vane says, smirking, “really want my cock, huh?”
Jack is momentarily at a loss for words. There is so much that is monstrous about this, to twist his devotion into a purely salacious act makes him feel ill, as if his body is out to sea from the rest of him, as if his body is not himself, but a prop, something that he must use to his best advantage. He’d like to kill Charles Vane, like to see Anne kill him, and blot out the stain of his perception of Jack. He is the only one who has seen this moment, this degradation. If he is destroyed, won’t it be destroyed, too? No. Of course not. This degradation is everywhere. The world is made of it. Anne has lived through it more than once, been subject to it more than once. Jack can manage to pay his fucking dues.
So, instead of pointing out the fallacy in this line of reasoning, he says only, “If you’d like.”
Vane watches him, and his face shifts, expression growing harder, less amused, more unpleasant. “Come here,” he says.
“Are you,”—Jack tries not to stumble over the words—“accepting my offer, then?”
He does. There is no squirming out of it now. He stands in front of Vane, not touching him, but close enough that he could if he wanted to, and waits for whatever will come next. Vane doesn’t reach for him, just nods at the space between their feet, and Jack doesn’t need a signed invitation, thanks very much. He drops to his knees.
Vane unlatches his belt without ceremony, lips curled, and grabs Jack by the jaw. It’s not horrible, certainly, just flesh. He knows what a cock feels like, and not just his own. He’d lived a life upon the sea before Anne, and he’d never been very discerning when it had come to this sort of thing, just accepted what was offered to him when it was offered. Vane is harsh with his thrusts, and his cock hits the back of Jack’s throat within the first few seconds, shortening his breath, gagging him. He feels like he might throw up and Vane must notice, for he pulls out for just long enough to grant him breath, then shoves in again, violent, almost angry.
There’s nothing pleasurable in it for Jack. Even if he might be able to muster up some purely physical enjoyment for the sake of making the experience slightly less awful, the whole process is too fast, too much, too intensely physical and emotionally absent. Vane pulls him up by the hair when he’s gasping for air, presses a finger to his mouth where it’s wet with split and slick, and then shoves him face-forward onto the bed. Jack’s eyes are watering, and the world is too blurred for him to even make out Vane’s expression, but he imagines it’s vacant. The whole thing feels vacant.
He strips Jack out of his trousers, hands warm, fingers calloused and heavy on his flesh. He doesn’t touch Jack’s cock, just presses his own to his arse, grinding against him a few times, then spits on his palm and coats himself.
“Fuck’s sake.” Jack breathes out through his nose, sick to his stomach with the anticipation of pain. “Do you think you could manage a little delicacy?”
“This isn’t our fucking marriage bed,” Vane snaps. “It’s a lesson.”
There’s something unsteady in his voice that prompts Jack to look over his shoulder, bolsters his confidence enough to allow him to spit, “And what’s the lesson, professor?”
He grabs Jack by the hair again, and shoves his head down against the bed, leaning over him so that his lips hit his ear, a blur of breath and hot skin. “You think you’re so smart, do you? You think you can wriggle your way out of the worst of it, that you can cross me but suffer no harm?” And this, Jack will admit, this is not without its pleasurable aspects, the heat and the feeling behind it, the way he says smart, like it’s true, like he’s angry because it’s true. “It’s got to fucking hurt, Jack. That’s the whole point.”
Jack feels himself get a little hard. He couldn’t dissect the particularities of biology that cause this reaction, no more than he could explain why he prefers Anne to pull him around by the scalp just so, or tie him down, or stick the occasional finger or two up his arse. These things just are, facets of himself which usually cause no trouble to his mind, but which at present are forcing him wonder if he truly gets no pleasure out of this situation as a whole, or if the act of laying himself on the chopping block in the service of love does not in some way thrill an unspeakable preference that lives way down deep within him.
“Alright,” he says, expressing these thoughts in the only way that Charles Vane can understand them.
“Alright?” He doesn’t sound pleased, but rather a bit discouraged.
“Then make it hurt.”
That, if anything, is the right thing to say, because Vane appears to be one of those rebellious personalities which, while thinking themselves complex and inscrutable, are actually utterly predictable once one realizes that they will always crave to do the opposite of what they’re told. So, he doesn’t really make it hurt. He sticks in two fingers first, not gently, but the with a great deal more mercy than he needs to employ, and once his cock is in Jack, he doesn’t use it to any ill effect, but fucks him perfunctorily, strained and careful not to let anything of himself loose, and Jack presses back against him just to assert himself, to let it be known that he is not afraid of this, that Vane is more uncomfortable than he.
Vane comes with a grunt, the pads of his fingers digging into Jack’s hips, making him sloppy inside, making him wet, but the stain of humiliation is gone. It’s a bodily fluid, and sometimes, for some people, an act of love. Just because it’s used as an act of violence does not make it inherently debased, and if it is not inherently debased then Jack can let it not be, can let it just be something that is happening and has happened, and something he withstood because it was the right thing for him to do in the situation that he was in.
He is not ashamed, and when Vane pulls out of him and rolls over, he realizes that he is alone in that, and that means that, in a way, he has won. He has crossed Charles Vane and suffered no harm.
He stands, cleans himself, and dresses, while Vane’s breath levels out. He lights his pipe again and doesn’t look at Jack.
“So, do we have a deal? You’ll leave Anne alone?”
“Get out,” Vane says, still without looking at him.
Jack sighs and walks the other side of the bed so that he is directly in Vane’s line of sight, and stares down at him with an imperiousness that he doesn’t think he’d be capable of if the man he was speaking to hadn’t just come inside of him. “Captain,” he says, using the title almost facetiously, “do we have a deal?”
Through the thick plume of smoke that Vane breathes in his face, Jack discerns a nod.
He returns to the barracks with a quarter of an hour to spare before the call comes down and they’re meant to rise. Jack has not slept at all, feels burnt and hyperaware, but gets up and dresses, conceals Anne from view as she dresses, and walks out into the pale blue morning.
While he loathes the culture inherent in piracy, and finds the work itself taxing and unpleasant, the one thing that always drags him back aboard a ship is the mood, not always present, but slipping in on occasion when a crew first bristles to life, when the sails are unfurled and the sun blushes against the horizon and a heavy salt breeze off the water obscures, for a time, the stench of sweat and shit and rum. It is this small portion of reality which overlaps just enough with his fantasy to keep him ever upon the shore, ducking from crew to crew, in search of a ship where this ecstasy of simple purpose will not be but a flicker, perceived now and then atop the water, but a constant, a state into which he can finally settle and thrive.
The Ranger, he suspects, is not that ship, but in this moment, she will do.
“You’re off the hook,” he says to Anne, unable to prolong any longer the exquisitely pleasurable moment of relieving her of some agony.
Her hands are already gripping the ropes, she’s braced to climb, but she halts, frowns at him. “What?”
“You don’t have to worry about him, anymore—the captain, I mean. I took care of it.”
She blinks. “What the fuck does that mean?”
He gives her a small, a tender smile.
“Jack, what the fuck did you do?”
There’s a day of work between the implication and the explanation, and by the time they’re called to dinner in the mess deck, Jack is bleary with exhaustion and not half so confident, and Anne is bristling with unease. They eat at the furthest end of the room, outcasts both by their own preference and by the preferences of their shipmates, and speak in low, emphatic voices.
“I didn’t ask you to do that. I wouldn’t never’ve asked you to do that for me,” she bites out from behind a mouthful of hard-bread.
He ought to have foreseen this, but blinded by his own faulty sense of identity, he had forgotten her’s.
“And I,” he says, though his glittering benevolence glitters rather less by this time of day, with the ache in his lower back and the dry burn of his wide-open eyes, “would never have asked you to do that for me.”
She stabs at her plate, eyes drawn down, focused on something past her hands but before him, something sunk in between the two of them that he cannot see but perceives by it’s weight against his heart. Does he wish for tearful gratitude? Can he even picture it: Anne choked up, palm to her chest, praising his name? It is a caricature, incompatible with reality, incompatible even with his fantasies.
She swallows, looks up at him, and says, “Thank you, Jack,” guiltless and frank, as sentimental as she could ever be. This is what his fantasies are made of.
“You don’t have to thank me,” he says, with a small smile down at the table, but this fawning falseness is exactly what he respects her for lacking, so he shakes his head, jostles the feeling around in him, and rephrases it. “I only mean—it was my miscalculation that got us into this mess in the first place. It was only just that I should have to make sacrifices to rectify things.”
“It’s not just,” Anne says. “It’s fucking horrible.”
“I suppose.” Jack shrugs. From this distance, it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t even sting. “At the first port we reach, we’ll take our leave of this abominable ship.”
“And go where?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far. Somewhere better.”
“Is anything really much better?” She’s not looking at him again. Where he runs from pain, she absorbs it, holds it inside of her, secret and accounted for.
He understands, of course, what she means. It is, in some ways, a desolate moment, but he breathes deep, tilts her head up by the chin, and says, “My darling, it is true that this world is filled not with rivers of milk nor of honey, and often instead with gruesome, unintelligible violence, but in between there is a vast gray area, and I for one refuse to believe that this earth, and even this small section of it, has nothing better to offer us than a simple-minded thug like Charles Vane.” He taps her bottom lip. “We will survive this voyage, and we will do so in jovial spirits. And, in the not-so-distant future, when we inevitably have a ship and a crew of our own, we will track down the Ranger and we will blow the living daylights out of her. How does that sound?”
She smiles despite herself, and he thanks Christ, or whoever, that, among all his numerous failings, he has this one true gift: to, by speaking, change the shapes of things; to, by speaking, make her smile.
Time passes, they eat, they drink, they make as much merry as they are able. She is mostly silent and he is mostly not, meandering through lines of conversation aimlessly, pointlessly, passing only the time, and he notices, of course, when she stops listening, when she is thinking of something else.
“Did it hurt?” she asks, when he’s halfway through the description of the elaborately carved figurehead that his inevitable future ship is going to have, and his voice drops away immediately.
“I—minimally. Somehow, I don’t think his heart was in it.”
She’s not looking at the table, or her hands, or a far off spot in the distance, but directly into his face. “Will you have to do it again?”
Jack shrugs his shoulders. “I couldn’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t think so. He hardly seems to prefer men. He said it was a lesson,”—he is unable to restrain an unpleasant smile—“and I think the lesson is over. He said he’d leave you alone, too. Of course, I may be giving him too much credit, and he’ll end up killing both of us yet just for the diversion of it. I don’t pretend to understand the mind of that man.”
That last bit, while not a lie, is an oversimplification, but Jack is tired. Jack wants to sleep, and not to mention, not even to think of, Charles Vane.
Jack’s bleeding from the arm, and his sword is gone.
He’s been in battles before, mind you. Bluster and canon-fire are not unfamiliar to him, nor is the stench of flesh rotting in the sun, nor even the occasional enlivening brush with death—but this, this was of another order. This was a fucking massacre. For the first time since they’d joined her, Jack is thankful to be on the crew of the Ranger, and not the unfortunate little gold-mining vessel of which they’d put almost every occupant, with inhuman fervor and excessive joy, to the sword.
Anne finds him in the aftermath. “Alright?”
He nods, stunned, in disgust or awe he could not say, and grips his arm where it’s bleeding, as if that will do any good.
She gets him in line to be seen by the ship’s doctor, who, unimpressed by his minimal resilience in the face of pain, grunts and spits at his feet. Jack’s not sure he trusts his medical credentials.
He only begins to feel the depth of the wound after about an hour, once the rush has worn off, and his body has repaired to its normal pulse and rate of breath. He and Anne are sat sunk in their cups in their usual corner of the mess, listening to the laughter, the pleasure, that follows a slaughter of that size, and the prize earned through it.
“Even just our cuts,” Jack says, “with this kind of gold, it’s bound to be—well.”
“You saying we’ll be rich?”
Jack shrugs. “Richer, by far, than we are at present. At the very least, we’ll have plenty of time to figure out where to go and what to do once we make land. We may, heaven help us, be a bit more discerning about the crew that we join next… um. Hello.”
It’s much too late to twist that sentence into something more flattering, and from the sneer of the man who has come to stand at Anne’s back, it wouldn’t do much good to try. “Captain would like a word with ye,” he says, looking over her head.
Jack swallows. “Which word, exactly?”
The man’s sneer just deepens. Jack rolls his eyes and moves to stand, and Anne, automatically, stands with him.
“Just you, mind.”
Jack cannot say he is violently surprised. He gives Anne a reassuring look, as if to say, quite falsely, that he knows what he’s doing, and takes his leave of her.
Evening is coming on, and everything is shaped differently in this slant of light than it had been at sunrise. It’s been several days since Jack’s spoken to, touched, or, in fact, seen Charles Vane, aside from a few frightening glimpses during today’s battle which had not left him with any doubt as to the validity of the captain’s reputation for brutality. He thinks of knocking, but forgoes it in favor of a decisive entry.
Vane is slumped back on his bed, pipe in his mouth, open bottle clutched in his hand. He blinks at Jack, as if he’s annoyed to see him.
Jack coughs, shifts on his feet. “Evening.”
Vane blinks again, and sits up, and it’s at that moment when Jack realizes that he’s perhaps not stone cold sober. “This,” he says to Jack, waving the bottle at him, “is very good rum. Top shelf rum. We took it out of the captain’s cabin, unopened. I imagine he was saving it for a special occasion, but I killed him, so I guess that’s sort of special.” He takes a swig, face wrinkling with gnarled pleasure. “We don’t have rum like this on my island, though we could stand to.”
Jack feels his face contort with the false nicety which is shown to drunks when one is trying to pretend they’re not slurring their words. “I’m sorry, but are you offering me some?”
This makes Vane laugh a drunken, unmalicious laugh. “You’re not that good of a fuck,” he says.
“Well, then, forgive my indelicacy, but why exactly am I here?”
He knows, of course. It tingles down his spine to rest low in his stomach. He’s not sure if he should be more or less afraid of Charles Vane when he’s intoxicated.
He stands from the bed, setting down his bottle and taking up his pipe again. “I’ve just had some very good rum,” he says, “and I’ve just killed a lot of men. I want to fuck something, and since I’m a man of my word, it’s not going to be your woman.” He leers, and exhales a cloud of smoke.
There are many shades of terror that Jack could feel, but instead, perhaps by design of his unconscious in an attempt to allow him to cope, he is struck only by the hilarity of the fact that Captain Vane of the Ranger, infamous throughout the New World, feared even on the shores of England, is unabashedly soliciting sex from him.
“Well,” he says, falsifying some confidence, “I couldn’t have been so bad, then.”
He doesn’t take a step forward, nor does he take a step back. He had not planned for this, only considered it with the vague apprehension that one feels towards a storm in the distance that is unlikely to cross one’s path, and he supposes that had been his mistake. They had made a deal, hadn’t they? He had been too convinced by Vane’s posturing, assured that his aggressive adherence to the masculine principle would prevent him from showing any further interest in Jack, let alone from feeling it, though, perhaps, behind those bulging pectorals lies a heart of complexities that have yet to be glimpsed.
More likely, he’s just very horny.
He walks up to Jack and grabs him by the scalp. “This arrangement would work a whole lot better for me,” he says, “if you would shut the fuck up.”
Jack thinks of goading him, but he’s quite bruised enough from the battle and has no great desire to diversify the shades of black and blue he’s colored in. He thinks for a weird, frazzled moment that Vane is going to kiss him on the mouth, but he just pulls Jack close, breathes threateningly in his face, and then shoves him onto the bed. That seems to be his signature move.
Vane follows him, pushes him onto his front, and, beleaguered by inebriation, struggles to get Jack’s trousers off without first undoing his belt.
“Lord,” Jack breathes, and just goes ahead and does it for him. He’s really quite a witless fuck.
Vane pushes down on the back of his head as soon as he speaks, shoving him face-first into the bed, and finding bare skin, grinds against it with a straining grunt of indiscreet pleasure. He manages to undo his own buckle without assistance—bravo—and the wet slide of his cock on Jack’s arse is—well, there have been worse things. Vane’s madly hard, desperate and drunk enough to restrain nothing. His body is warm against Jack’s, labored breath tickling the back of his neck, hands on his hips, his thighs, gripping his hair, gripping his arms.
“Ah.” Jack winces. “That—arm.”
He’s a little bit shocked when Vane actually stops, still pressed against him, but no longer moving, breath coming loud. He doesn’t let go of Jack’s arm, but his grip loosens, fingertips hovering just against the flesh.
“This is from the battle?” Jack glances over his shoulder to see Vane frowning at his wound with a sort of discernment, as if he is trying to judge if it adds any worth to him. “Did you kill anyone?”
Jack can’t quite shrug from this position, so he tries to communicate the sentiment of the gesture through his expression. “I stabbed a man. I’m not sure if he died. I didn’t check up.” Vane’s cock is still pressed to his arse, and it still feels good. “Anne killed at least three.”
Vane scoffs, but something about that must please him, because he grinds against Jack again, between his arse-cheeks. “God, you’re pathetic,” he groans. “What would you do without her? You’d be torn apart.”
Jack groans, too—without adding that things are vastly more complex than that, and that his necessity for Anne is mirrored by her own necessity for him, that they are, each of them, incomplete without the other, and that she too would be torn apart without him, just in different ways, by different things—because he can tell that Vane likes this. He wonders if it’s his sense of superiority to Jack that gets his cock so hard, or else something still more subtle, more unspeakable, which lives inside every person and is understandable, as far as it is understandable, only as the fascination with a thing that one is not, could never be, has no will and no possibility to be, but which one can still conceptualize, in a far off fashion, as being alike to oneself.
Vane fingers him, fucks him, and, in an unexpected show of good manners, grips his cock and sloppily jerks him off. If there’s some pride that ought to hold Jack back from pressing into the touch, of bucking his hips and clenching his jaw and coming, quickly, quietly, dazed with relief, it is absent on this night, this far out to sea.
Vane gasps into his hair and finishes with a strained, inward groan. Unlike the last time, he is too drunk to pull out immediately, and instead settles against Jack’s body, breath evening out. It’s not two minutes before his inhalations start to roughen to snores. Jack stays still beneath him, sweaty, tousled, and getting more uncomfortable by the moment.
“You’ve got to be fucking joking.” With a sigh and an unimpressive little shimmy that he will one day leave out of his memoir, he extricates himself from the solid weight of Vane’s body, finds the floor with his feet, finds his legs far from seaworthy, and rises.
At the shift of the bed, Vane mumbles something unintelligible and rolls over. Jack doesn’t kiss him goodnight.
Anne is waiting for him on the quarterdeck, arms crossed, pacing the breadth of the ship. When she sees him approach, disheveled and slick with sweat, his face contorted in a confused wince—eyebrows up, nostrils flared, mouth crooked in a grimace—she strides toward him with poorly masked concern.
“I’ll fucking kill him,” she offers, by way of greeting.
Jack cannot begin to parse the convoluted mix of shame, bodily fear, attraction, personal pride, visceral disgust, and genuine interest that he feels currently towards Charles Vane, or the present inalterable circumstance, much less could he verbalize same to Anne with any degree of accuracy or sense, so he says, for once in his goddamned life, only what he needs to.
Vane tells him not to talk, but Jack does, anyway.
His time aboard the Ranger is not, as he had feared, defined by his arrangement with Vane so much as peripheral to it. They don’t exchange words above deck, nor nods, nor glances, but for the times that Vane will catch him staring, puzzling over some element of his outward persona which does not align with the impression that Jack is beginning to perceive, behind closed doors, of a decently fair-tempered person. Not to say that Saint Peter is likely to be clamoring to lead to him through heaven’s gate on account of a life of good works, but for all the harm that Vane suggests, at length, that he is capable of doing him, Jack suffers no ill-treatment at his hands.
Vane tells him not to talk, but Jack does, anyway, says, “If you want me to lie stiff and silent, you’ll have to marry me first,” expecting to be disciplined in some way, to be taught, at some point, the oft-referenced ‘lesson,’ but Vane just smiles his slow smile and pins his wrists. The more Vane tells him not to talk, the more Jack talks, and the more he talks, the more Vane gives him that smile.
Between this and the fucking, they build a strange rapport.
Mostly the voyage is tinted the same shade that the past several years of his life have been: ginger. Anne looks odd without her hair, like a tufty dog given a shave. He still reaches to tuck it behind her ear, but finds only her skin, salt-sticky and freckled by the sun, the tough curve of her cheek when she hitches up her lips in that never-quite-whole grin. She doesn’t stop offering to kill Vane, and he doesn’t stop declining. She doesn’t understand what he’s getting out of this, but she lets him have it.
She lets him rest his head in her lap, strokes his scalp in their secret place behind the galley.
“Set me right,” he croons up at her, body still aching from the last battle. Vane always sends for him after a battle. He’ll say, “You were of very little help during the raid today, so you’re going to be helpful now,” and Jack—Jack will be helpful.
“What’s to set?” Anne asks, cards her fingers through his hair.
“I came again.” He holds his eyes closed. He’s never ashamed of it until it comes to telling her, naming the thing and watching her frown, and study him, and accept it.
She shrugs. “Might as well.”
He squints out through one eye, deforming his expression in a comical display of discomfort. “Might I, though?”
She shrugs again. They often have conversations in which her end is all shrugs, or jolts of the brow, or grunts. Lately, though, she has shown him an unnecessary deference, a patience with his trivialities, his vanities, which had long since withered in the years of their partnership as they had gotten to know each tick and mechanism of the other, the lays of their respective minds and their labyrinthine paths of thought. Since his bargain with Vane, there has been less, “Jack, you fuck-wit,” even when he is, in fact, being Jack, a fuck-wit, and he’s not sure he likes that, but if her guilt makes him feel guilty, he’s not going to make her feel guilty for that, too.
She says, after a long silence, “James used to make me wet, sometimes.”
She doesn’t speak about James very much. The last time she had was before they’d boarded, when he’d asked her to pick a false name, a man’s name, had suggested Aaron, Albert, but she’d just shrugged and said her husband’s name, and Jack hadn’t asked why. To become him is, in its way, he supposes, to usurp him. Before that, it’d been longer. He can’t remember the last time before that.
“That’s not—I don’t think that’s quite comparable.”
He sits up, pulling himself out of her lap, and looks at her face. “Please don’t think that I’m suffering, even in the slightest, to the same degree. You were a child, with no choice and no context through which to understand what was being done to you, and James Bonny was an abominable fuck without a single decent quality to recommend him.”
“And what’s Charles Vane?”
Jack hesitates. “I—don’t know.”
That’s what Jack is trying, night by night, to figure out.
“We’re going to leave as soon as we make land,” Jack tells him, after it’s done. “I hope that’s apparent, but if it isn’t, consider this our notice of withdrawal.”
Vane packs his pipe. Jack sprawls on the bed and examines his things, his empty and half empty bottles, his clothes, his comb, his papers. Vane’s stopped kicking him out and Jack’s stopped running at the first opportunity, and in these short, hazy intervals between the act and the door, he has begun prodding for weak spots in the construct, trying to find where Captain Vane, the masculine archetype, a thing of power and of gold, a thing without mercy, meets the pitiable drunken fuck who can’t go half a week without sending Mr. Hart, a slack-jawed man with straw colored hair and a hell of a right hook, to bark at Jack, “Captain would like a word with ye.”
Vane doesn’t blink. “I can’t imagine what else you’d do.”
“If we were to stay—and this is a purely hypothetical proposition, mind, for the purpose of what one might call morbid curiosity—when would I be finished ‘paying my debt,’ to you, so to speak?” He admires the shape of Vane’s arms, vaguely, with restraint. The ship rocks beneath them, the bed with it. He does not expect the answer that he gets.
“The debt is paid.”
Vane’s not looking at him, and gives the words no special emphasis. Jack blinks once, twice, stiffens to a sitting position and waits for an elaboration that doesn’t come. “What?”
“The debt’s been paid.”
“Then why, in the name of all that is holy upon this earth, if there is any such thing at all, have you continued to call me to your cabin?” Jack’s face is hot and his pulse is running. He hasn’t felt this angry since that first night, when Vane had looked at Anne like she was a prize he had the good fortune to catch.
Even with his eyes turned downward, his attention focused elsewhere, Vane’s smugness, his pleasure in discomfiting Jack in this way, is obvious. “I call to see if you’ll come. And you do,”—he looks up, gives a detestable jolt of the eyebrows—“every time.”
“I—I was under the impression that if I were to decline, you would kill me.”
Jack’s rage is tempered by shame. His mind flits back over their every encounter, parts and where they’ve gone, and feels sick. Was there a moment, a cut-off point at which Vane thought to himself that this could stop without consequences, or has it been so since the beginning, since Jack had crawled here on hands and proverbial knees, and asked—nay, begged—Vane to please, be merciful and fuck him. Has there ever been a debt at all, or was it all just posturing? But what creates a debt, beyond posturing? It’s a formless, a theoretical thing, dictated into existence by Vane saying it’s so, and then snatched out again by his saying it’s not. What right has he to create, to alter the rules on a whim?
He takes even steps towards Jack. Of course, it’s by the same right that all rules are created: the right of the strongest man.
“I could kill you now,” he says, conversationally. “I could kill Bonny. I could kill any of these men, at any time, for any reason at all, and the only thing that stops me is my own will.” He gives Jack a condescending pat on the cheek, not quite a smack, though vigorous, almost affectionate, degrading. He smiles. “The debt is paid when you finally man the fuck up and refuse to pay it.”
“What,” Jack says, reactively, without even thinking about it, “absolute and utter bollocks.”
Vane laughs, and that just makes him angrier. He ducks out of his reach, shoves past him to collect his clothes, face red, mind fuming, not just at the indignity of this moment, but at all the indignities of his life, lined up together, back to back to back to back, all centering around the same common cause, the same man with different faces, appearing, again and again, like an old friend, to kick him into the dirt, to stand upon his back and declare himself conqueror, giving Jack no choice but to occupy, always and forever, the role of the conquered.
Vane smokes, and watches him. “I like you, Jack,” he says. “That’s most of the reason why I don’t kill you.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
Jack’s shirt is hardly buttoned, belt hanging loose, jacket tucked under his arm, boots unbuckled, but he can’t stand to remain here not a moment longer. He hopes that there’s no one about at this time of night to witness his departure, but even if there is—well, what’s one humiliation to a thousand?
He slams the door behind him.
He doesn’t tell Anne. He knows he’ll have to at some point, but he’d like to wait until the feeling is less sharp, until he can withdraw far enough away to laugh at it, to laugh at himself. Isn’t that how he’s coped with every slight, every abasement, since birth on up? If he has to, inevitably, by some innate misfortune, be a joke, then he’ll write the damned punchline himself.
“Captain would like a word with ye.” Mr. Hart’s sneer, grown so familiar as to lately hold a sort of comfort for Jack, now makes him sick to his stomach.
“Sure,” he says, part of the routine, but this time, after Mr. Hart takes his leave, muttering disparagingly under his breath, Jack makes no move to rise.
“You ain’t gonna go?” Anne asks, attention distracted by her whetstone, the whistle of a knife against it. This is the sort of job she likes, laborious, precise, and independent. The men all bring their blades to her now; she’s the only one with enough patience to do them all. They like her, Jack has realized, or at least respect her, in a way that they don’t, could never, respect him.
“No, I’m not.”
She glances up then. “He ain’t gonna be angry?”
“I’m sure he will be.”
“Thought you didn’t like to make him angry.” There’s a slant of resentment in her voice, and it’s not the first time it’s slipped in lately, although she surrounds it always with that same tenderness, undeserved, perhaps, owing to the favor that she thinks he’s done her.
“What exactly is that supposed to mean?”
Her hand twitches a little bit, but she steadies it quick, wrist arched just right, scraping along. The sound makes Jack’s skin crawl. “Nothing,” she says.
“Nonsense. Please, Anne, do not, under any circumstances, withhold your true opinion of me out of some misguided belief that you owe me for—for anything. If you feel, in your heart of hearts, that I roll over for Charles Vane like a dog, please have enough respect for me to say so.”
Her hands finally still. “Look, I ain’t saying—I know you have to,”—
“I don’t have to.” Jack feels nauseous as he says it, like he’s play-acting, embodying the role of a wholly different person. “I don’t have to do anything.”
Anne frowns, sets down the whetstone, sets down the knife. “No,” she says, as if it’s a truth she’s understood all along and has been waiting for him to come around to, “you don’t.” She bites the inside of her cheek. “So, can we kill him now?”
“What? I don’t know. Yes. Maybe.”
Anne just stares at him, brows up. Jack can see Mr. Hart watching him from across the deck, waiting for him to move. The words replay in his head, though their tone is warped, their cadence mangled: “I like you, Jack. That’s most of the reason why I don’t kill you.”
“Yes,” Jack repeats, more surely. “We could do that.”
They’re due to make land within the week, according to the navigator, so they decide to do it just before they reach port. Jack will spend one last night in the captain’s cabin, and Jack will cut his throat while he sleeps. He doesn’t think that Anne really believes that he’ll do it, and Jack’s not sure he really believes that he’ll do it, but the fantasy is enough to sustain him, to vindicate him in some way. Man the fuck up? Well, alright, Charles. Fine.
In the meantime, he waits for retaliation. Mr. Hart still approaches semi-regularly, with a summons, and every time Jack declares his full intention to take it, but does not. He’s waiting for Vane to strike first, to tip his hand. He sees him on deck, shouting orders, pointing toward the horizon, to the sky, back to the horizon. They don’t make eye contact.
They’re four days from shore, and Jack can barely contain himself.
Three days from shore, and Jack can barely stand upright. That morning they’d taken on a Spanish trading vessel that had looked to possess minimal defenses, only to be blindsided by a second wave of men hidden in the hold, armed to the teeth and hard to repress, and by the time they finally have her, the sun’s at its peak and an unblemished blue sky shines down upon the bodies of the boatswain, two carpenter’s mates, and the quartermaster, along with another half-dozen nameless crewmen of which Jack is, by some miracle, not one. He is, however, blood-spattered, sweating puddles, searching the crowed mechanically for Anne, thinking of nothing but himself, his unscathed body, his continuing life—when he hears her voice.
“Don’t touch me. Don’t fucking touch me.”
He quickens, searching her out. With no red curtain of hair through which to identify her, he has to follow the sound of the argument, the gruff reply that comes, not uncharacteristically, from the ship’s doctor. She’s leant against the rail of the deck, doubled over, clutching her abdomen, as he tries to examine her wound. There’s blood soaking through her fingers, bright in the noonday light.
“Come on, Bonny. Even you ain’t too good for a bandage.”
“Gentlemen,” Jack says, but he’s still too far away, steps quickening, pulse wild, “if you would just,”—
One of the men has wrested away her arms to give the doctor a moment to stop her bleeding, but he’s frozen, eyes wide with realization as he pulls back the tatters of Anne’s shirt to reveal to wound, a long, deep slice just below her breasts. Jack arrives a moment shy of being any use at all. He’s panicking, and he can see it in Anne’s face that she is, too.
“Get the fuck off me!” she snaps, shaking out of the grip, but it’s too late.
Jack thinks, briefly, of just shooting the doctor in the head and calling it case closed, but then it’s past time for that, then he cries, “He’s a woman! Bonny’s a fucking woman!”
Jack goes to her immediately, arm around her shoulder, pulling her to his side. They’re drawing a crowd, they’re putting out a ripple: Bonny is a woman. It spreads like disease. Jack cannot fight them all, and Anne, who’d have a better hope, is not fit to even hold a sword. Jack fears that she’s losing too much blood. Jack fears that he won’t be able to stop them, that he can’t protect her, can’t even protect himself. He’s dizzy. He has to say something. He has to speak. That’s the only way out.
“Please, before rushing to any hasty conclusions,” he begins, but it’s already hopeless. He can see the interest, the merriment, the disgust, the hate brewing on the growing mass of faces, leering, dirty men’s faces, searching out something new, something pretty. Bonny is a woman. Bonny is a fucking woman. Jack has never figured out why it matters, but it does. “You might consider,”—
“You a woman, too, Rackham?” one of them barks at him, sneering, pleased. It’s Mr. Hart.
“I,”—he stars, hands tight on Anne’s shoulders, feeling the jolts of her breath, the shakes of her rage, the strange terror that for once belongs to both of them. “Listen, for fuck’s sake, she’s injured. Might we,”—
He drops off when he realizes that no one is looking at him anymore. All eyes have been drawn behind far and away to the left, the crowd parting like the red sea, the chatter and commotion dropping off into a gleeful, foreboding silence. Jack knows who it is without looking.
“What’s got you all standing about like lazy wretches?” Vane asks, voice booming, tone heavy with the buzz of battle. Jack knows that tone, knows those hands. He cannot decide how much worse things are about to get.
“Bonny,” says someone, not the doctor, not anyone Jack’s ever spoken to or seen Anne speak to, “is a woman in disguise, Captain.”
Jack chances a glance. Vane doesn’t look at him, doesn’t shift his expression at all. “Yeah,” he says, “and?” This causes, if possible, an even greater stir. He looks around at the men gathered, eyes passing over Jack and Anne as if they’re not even there. “Pick your jaws up off the floor and get this prize underway, unless you want to wait around for Havana to come looking for her missing tobacco.”
“He knew?” a man whispers to another, but it falls in one of those dips of silence between noise, fully audible to everyone nearby.
Vane turns slowly. The man looks like to shit himself.
“Mr. Hammond,” he says, conversationally, “are you the captain?” Hammond shakes his head vigorously, apologetically. “Then why the fuck would you suppose that you and I should be privy to the same information? Why the fuck would any of you,”—he turns on his heel, glowering at the crowd at large—“deserve to know anything? Have you earned it? I don’t see you earning it. Aye, don’t move!”
A few stragglers are beginning to drop off, likely to begin the so-called earning, but Vane doesn’t want real action, Vane wants fear. Vane’s getting it.
“Bonny might be a woman, but she fights better than half of you—combined. She’s earned her keep. If any man is found to touch, to harass, to even speak to Anne Bonny without her leave, he’ll have to answer to me.” He gives a slow, a denigrating smile. “And he won’t like to do that. Now what the fuck are you still standing around for? She’s bleeding a mess over there,” he snaps at the doctor, and to the rest of them, “and the crates in the hold aren’t like to transport themselves. Get underway.”
The crowd parts again. Jack feels dizzy. He digs his fingertips into Anne’s arm, and even when the doctor approaches to patch her—eyes downcast, hands reserved—he won’t let go.
It’s bad, may scar, but she says that’s she’s fine, don’t touch her, so many times that the doctor just hands the cloth over to Jack, and, with his typical bedside manner, gives a hacking cough and leaves. Jack boils the water, Jack mixes in the wine, soaks the cloth, wipes her wound with it. This is, at last, something he knows how to do.
“It hurts?” he asks.
She takes her shirt off when it’s just the two of them. Her body trembles with how still she’s holding it. The first several cloths come away soaked in blood, but finally the flow of it stops. Jack’s hands are coated in it. It’s not a deep wound, but it’s a large one, crossing diagonally across the width of her abdomen. He knows all that skin and how it’s meant to look. He tells her, “Dig your fingernails into my palm.”
She does. She always listens to him, even when she doesn’t believe him.
“I’ve had worse,” she says.
“I know. If you’ll recall, I was there.” There for every wound, every brush with death, every dangerous attempt, plan gone awry, holding a cloth and bottle of rum. Sometimes he’s been the one wounded and she’s treated him, hands too rough, couldn’t be soft if she tried, laying him out and keeping him alive. He loves her, as always, with a low devotion. He thinks of all the ways this might have gone very badly and all the ways it didn’t.
“Well, my darling, it looks as if you’re going to live,” he says, wrapping her up, hands steady, hands careful.
He gives her the rest of the wine and she falls asleep there on the bench, rocked by the slow shift of the men dragging cratefuls of tobacco aboard the ship, lulled by the complaints of the seabirds. They don’t once speak about Charles Vane, or their plan to kill him.
For the first time since the first time, he goes to Vane’s cabin without being invited. He waits a while, at Anne’s side, for Mr. Hart to appear with a summons, but when nothing of the sort arrives, he takes the initiative for himself. He doesn’t knock, just slips in as he has become accustomed to doing, and, finding the lamp easily in the dark, sets it alight. Evening is beginning to rise around them, and the air is thick with the smell of oncoming rain.
Vane is at his desk with a smaller lamp, looking over the logs for the prize they’d taken. He shifts when Jack enters, but doesn’t look up. Jack coughs.
Without taking his eyes from the page, Vane says, “If you’re here to thank me, you can save your breath.”
Jack tongues the roof of his mouth. “Save it for what, pray tell?”
Vane breathes a laugh in through his nose, and looks up, as Jack had known he would. Despite the insult and inanity of interacting with the man, Jack has become awfully proficient at it, learning his humors, his vanities, his preferences—not, perhaps, what his fears are, but in which parts of him they reside. He gives Vane a look of benevolent understanding which—eyes soft, the edges of his lips barely turned up—is as good as a thank-you.
“I didn’t do it for you,” Vane says.
“Having a woman on my crew?” Vane continues to justify himself, despite Jack’s attempts to humor this premise. “They’d string me up by the balls if I didn’t sooner scare them out of it by threatening their own. That’s the secret to life, Jack. Always strike first.”
Jack sidles further into the room. He is deeper in debt to Vane than he has ever been, has avoided what could have otherwise been a life-altering trauma on his whim alone, and yet it has only imbued him with confidence. Why, indeed, would Vane have spared Anne if not for him? His pretensions are self-protection; Jack lets him have them.
“Is that all it is?” he says, mercifully jocular. “No wonder my plans always seem to go tits-up.”
Vane sets down his quill, turns in his chair, angling his body so that if Jack were to drop to his knees, there would be space for him between Vane’s. “Your problem is your head,” he says, looking up from under is eyelids.
Jack doesn’t know if manners insist that he suck Vane’s dick in thanks, or if a simple handshake will suffice. He shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Right. I’ll just go ahead and get rid of that, then.”
“There you go,” Vane says, hitching his lips. “For every ten things that come out of your mouth, one is very sensible—important, even. The other nine are just hand-waving, glitter to distract from your weakness.” He gestures imprecisely at Jack, not singling out one single example of weakness but suggesting its sum total in his very figure.
Jack deprecates himself by smiling. “And what of your barked orders,” he asks, “your pipe-smoke, your shirt split down the middle so that everyone can see your oiled chest? Is that not, too, to distract from your weakness?”
Vane’s brow twitches. Jack’s body tenses instinctively, prepared to accept the blow should it come.
It doesn’t. “See,” Vane says, “there’s your one in ten.”
His voice is low, fond, and condescending. It scratches Jack behind the ears, like a favored pet. The impossibility of equality between them, owing mostly to their differing criteria for what a person—or, more accurately, a man—ought to be, is, Jack realizes, the reason that Vane likes him. Surrounded on all sides by either cronies and imbeciles, which are delegated, or competitors, which are defeated, he is absent something simpler, and quite a bit more difficult to come by: a friend. Jack has begun to fill such a role because he is quick, he’s clever, he’s nice to have around, but even more-so, he’s inferior—at least according to whatever war-tarnished standard Vane keeps. Their hierarchy is secure.
Jack says, abruptly, and with unfounded self-assurance, “I think that you should make me your quartermaster.”
Vane’s bark of laughter is bright and abrupt. Look, says the jeering wrinkle in his brow, the dog is standing on its hind legs. “We have a quartermaster.”
“On the contrary. He died tragically in this morning’s battle, or hasn’t anyone mentioned that to you?”
Vane frowns. “Oh yeah.” He dismisses the consequence of that detail with a wave of his hand. “I thought you and Bonny were going to take your leave of us very soon? We’re but days from Nassau.” His voice is deliberately distant. He’s teasing, holding the bone out of reach, but Jack can tell the audacity of the request has charmed him.
This is where things get more difficult to maneuver. “I thought so, too,” he concedes, and then hovers on the edge of an admittance. To mention the plot is to tempt requital, but to disguise it only to have it come up later could be disastrous. The variable upon which all things depend is whether or not it is a plot that he and Anne may one day have need to reuse. He clears his throat, scratches the back of his head, makes a decision. “We had a plan to kill you. Did you know?”
Vane tilts his chin up, doesn’t appear shocked. “I might have guessed. I suppose it was her idea?”
“I take full responsibility.” Which is just another way for Jack to say, yes, of course.
“And yet, I’m supposed to want to promote you? Give you higher office, a larger cut, a clearer shot at my back?” Vane shakes his head, but there’s an element of humor to it.
“I said had, not have. We haven’t actually discussed it, but I do think that after your performance today, Anne will come around.”
Vane stands, and Jack takes a step back without meaning to. “It wouldn’t have worked, whatever your plan was.”
“Probably not, no.”
“I could kill you where you stand.”
“Yes,” Jack agrees, but then follows with the crux of the thing: “If you wanted to.”
Eyebrows raised, Vane steps around him, close enough to knock their shoulders, careless, almost intimate, if not a little cruel. He gets down a bottle, uncorks it with an emphatic twist, and takes a short swig. He doesn’t offer Jack any. “The quartermaster is a position elected by the crew, not by me. None of them like you very much, or at all, so I don’t expect that anyone will be putting your name in for consideration.”
Jack lets out a very quiet breath.
“And you,” he asks, voice quaky, trying to maintain this unusual run of self-possession, “feared and powerful as you are—able, by your own estimation, to kill any of these men at any time—don’t believe that you could sway them one way or the other? You could not have your will done?”
“You think that’s my will? For you to become quartermaster?”
“If it isn’t, it should be.” It’s a risk, but what else is there for it? Leave as soon as they land, while Anne’s wounded, find a place to stay where they won’t be harassed, find another crew that will take on a woman, or fit her into another disguise? It’s the same game they’ve been playing since they’d ever met, one of survival, of dissatisfaction, of disgrace. With Vane there lies sandy palms, mountains of glittering gems, wine by the bucket, freedom, freedom—of a sort.
Vane regards him with restrained interest. “And why’s that?”
Jack taps two fingers against his temple, dumbs it down for him. “My head is only a problem,” he says, “when I’m in a position where I’m not allowed to use it.”
Vane’s lips hitch up. Strange mercies.
Aside from that short sojourn, Jack stays at Anne’s side for the next two days. She says she’s fine, bends her bandages, insists on dressing herself, feeding herself, still sharpening all the swords that have need of it, though fewer by far come her way. She smells like copper. He has to clean her wound fastidiously so that it won’t become infected, and she gripes, declares it a scratch, declares her strength and watches him bow before it, on his knees so as to have the best angle, while her legs hang over the bench, calves brushing his arms.
“Keep still,” he says, and she nods, steels herself, won’t say that it hurts though he knows it does by the clench of her fists.
It’s in this position that they are found by the man who comes to inform Jack that he has been elected—by an almost unanimous margin, how very quaint—the new quartermaster of the Ranger, while trying with profound effort not to look at, not to even intimate an awareness of Anne, so as to avoid the swift and painful retribution suggested by his captain. Jack thanks him for his news with a beneficent smile of superiority.
Anne jabs her toe into his ribs. “The fuck’s he mean?”
Jack maintains his smile, spasming at its edges, until the man takes his leave.
“He means,” he tells her, attention focused back onto her wound, “exactly what he’s said. I’m now the quartermaster.”
“You?” She blinks. “The fuck’d you have to do to make that happen?”
Jack stills. He doesn’t trust his hands not to twitch as he speaks. “I assume, by your tone, that what you really mean by that is, ‘Where, Jack, did you have to let him put it?’ to which my answer is, with God as my witness—if the old bastard is still paying attention—absolutely nowhere.”
Anne’s brow rises, as if she doesn’t quite believe it. “Yeah?”
“We settled it with a tête-à-tête. I simply explained the merits of my character clearly and concisely, in such a way that he managed to understand, and,”—
“Did I, Jack?” comes Vane’s low drawl from the far end of the room. “Did I manage?”
Jack spins, off-balance in an instant, to see him stride in, pistol at his hip, shirt spread from the abdomen upward, giving them a jeering once-over. “Captain,” he begins, attempting to rise on some instinct—defensive or obsequious or both—and knocking his shoulder noisily into the bench. He swallows back a curse.
“No need to stand on my account,” Vane says. “You’re fine down there.”
“I was just, eh….” Jack gives a pained smile and shrugs. There’s no point trying to reframe what he’d been saying in a more flattering lens, and, if he indeed has the measure of things, he suspects that Vane is not so petty as to seek retribution for so trivial an insult.
“What d’you want?” Anne says, pulling her shirt closed, though her bandages are only half done.
Vane smirks. “Just to check in, see how you’re faring.” The less pleased they are to see him, the more he enjoys being seen. “From what I hear, even after you took that wound, you continued to fight until the battle was won. That takes a measure of strength that many men don’t even have. Right, Jack?”
He grips Jack’s shoulder, palm rough, and not without its obligatory implications. He tries to shrug inconspicuously out of it, but Vane’s fingers only tighten, pulling him conspicuously in. Jack finds himself strung between two separate rapports, and thus two organizations of self. There is the easy, blathering charm of the him that is also Anne’s, which is the most authentic and the least assertive, half of a whole—and then the other, the self which emerges within Vane’s cabin, wincing and eager for praise, but also competitive, excitable, almost egotistical, a man’s man… of a sort.
“I realize that you intended that remark to be backhanded,” he says, managing not to stutter through sheer willpower alone, “but if you’re looking to wound me, extolling Anne’s virtues is a rather inexpert way of doing it. I get nothing but pleasure from recognizing her feats, coincide as they may with my own failures.”
Vane’s brows rise minutely. “How good-natured of you.” He looks to Anne. “He is that, isn’t he?”
“Fuck off,” she says, lip curling, in so many ways the sort of person that Jack wishes he could be, aggressive and unrelenting and strong beyond strong. He doesn’t like Vane addressing her, coming into this room while she’s half-dressed and acting as if he owns them now, owns them both, but it is almost worth it to witness her sneering dismissal.
“Not exactly the reception I was hoping for,” Vane says, unperturbed, “given the fate I so recently spared you from.”
“Didn’t ask you to do that.”
“Would you have preferred that I stayed my hand? Let my men have their way?” He’s grinning. He looks from her, to Jack, and back again. It’s a game to him, but one can only wonder of what sort, with what aim in mind.
“Would have at least got to kill some of them, then. Wouldn’t have to be in your debt.”
Vane laughs, pleased; they share, perhaps, a common brutality. “If it bothers you so much, then don’t think of it like that. You’re not in my debt, you’re in Jack’s, and he’s in mine.”
His voice is so gnarled and burning that Jack doesn’t half blame her for what she says next, though he does pinch the bridge of his nose and hope that Vane hasn’t made out her mutter, and if he has then that he will take it civilly.
“What was that?” he bites, leaning in with bristling interest.
“Said,” Anne snaps, fully audibly this time, “who’s really the fucking poof?”
Jack thinks she ought to have saved a remark like that for when she’s back to her full strength, but Vane does not strike her, nor seem to take particular offense. He laughs, full-throated and amused, a conquering laugh which has the peculiar ability to make one doubt whether what had been said had not been his idea all along, had not been supplied by him, and wasn’t recited for his pleasure alone.
“I like her, too,” he tells Jack, dismissive, sure of his own power. Instead of expressing this newfound fondness by letting Jack go, he instead places his other palm on Anne’s shoulder, jolting her body with the force of his grip, leaning in so that they’re all three of them conspirators. “I can see why the two of you are as attached as you are. No doubt you’d each have trouble surviving on your own.” He looks between them and there is a tilt of ownership in his glance which is shocking in its eagerness. “No more trouble, long as you’re aboard this crew. I’ve invested a lot of trust, and credibility, into the both of you. You understand?”
“You’re asking us not to fuck it up?” Jack ventures. His pulse is thudding heavy in his throat.
“I’m telling you. You fuck it up, you fuck me over? And you’re dead, the both of you. The only question left to answer will be who goes first and who gets to watch.” He’s still grinning. “But if you’re good, if you’re loyal, if you do as I ask? No more backs to the wall, scrambling for your lives, dressing up as a man,”—he gives Anne a once-over, then turns to Jack,—“or whoring yourself out. You’ll be rich, you’ll be protected, and all you have to do is whatever the fuck I tell you to. I’d say that’s the best deal you’re like to find.”
He claps them each on the back, like a fond benefactor, then lets them go. Anne is frowning vehemently. Jack’s lips are parted, on the edge of saying he knows not what. Thank you? Sorry? Aye, Captain?
Vane pauses in the doorway, glances backward. “Oh, and no more fucking behind the galley. You’ve got your own cabin now.”
Jack’s own cabin, which really means Anne’s, too. She spreads out on the bed, he sits on the chest at the foot of it, head between her legs. They’re surrounded by a dead man’s things, letters, ledgers, weapons, clothes, secret stashes of rum, of bread, of money. Jack doesn’t even know his name, though he had heard it more than once, had, indeed, been admitted aboard the ship on the former quartermaster’s orders. They absorb him and every man who’d come before, slotting into the room as if it’s an inn, they’re only passing through. It doesn’t feel quite real.
“Maybe we should still run,” Anne had said, though she hadn’t sounded sure.
“He saved you,” Jack had pointed out, as if she’d forgotten, as if it’s easy to forget, “when I could not.”
“So, we don’t kill him, as a thanks. We just go. Hide out somewhere ’til I’m well.”
“Hide out where?”
That had punched a hole in that line of thinking.
Her hands are in his hair. She’s not clean, neither of them are, but even stinking of salt and sweat, with that ever present tang of blood, he loves the taste of her, the pulse against his tongue, the swelter of her skin. She won’t speak much, unless he’s not doing it well. He knows he’s doing it well when she goes silent, legs stiff, breath heavy, fingers tight on his scalp, pulling him in. She’d told him to fuck her but he’d been too afraid of tearing her wound, so this is his concession. She had not been afraid, but she had let him have his way.
“It will be better,” he’d said, laying her down upon the stiff mattress. “Think of it: you will neither have to disguise your gender, nor consign yourself to the impotent role of the wife. And I, I’m to finally be allowed to do something which I’m actually good at. I can finally make something of myself. He’s offering us safety, and riches, and glory,”—
“Glory’s for you. I ain’t interested.”
“Fine, yes, then for you we’ll have drink, and meat, and the finest of weaponry, and—and strapping men in little golden loincloths to dance before you.”
That had made her laugh. He can always do that. “Don’t want men. Don’t want loincloths.”
“No? I suppose we can leave them to Charles, then. He’ll make use of them.”
Her hips press up now. He hears them outside his cabin, calling to one another, joyous, relieved. “Land! Land!” They’re home now. Nassau, New Providence. A land of opportunity. A new life. “Land!” She comes gasping, slicking his mouth, his chin. Jack gasps into her.
“Charles?” she’d said, earlier, taking a moment to put that name to a face. And then, with a roll of her eyes, “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
They disembark in a flurry of hectic activity. Men run down to the harbor to meet them, to see what news Captain Vane has brought, hear what tales his men have to tell, see which of them have returned and which haven’t. It’s midday, and the whole shore is a ruckus, hot, dirty and crowded. Friends greet each other by name, enemies spit, men spar, wagons creek, fish reek.
“I don’t want to see a man among you at the brothel before all of this cargo is unloaded and delivered for pricing,” Vane barks, perfunctorily, then turns to Anne and Jack, who hang warily on the far side of him, not knowing whether or not to join in on the labor. “Not you two. You two are coming with me.”
“To the brothel?” Jack guesses.
“To the pub. Pub has what we want.”
The pub has, they discover, sunburnt men in shirtsleeves turning redder with drink, playing cards, arguing, laughing, knocking shoulders with one another. Vane leaves them at the bar with a pint of beer each and goes to the stairwell to confer with a man who Jack takes for a slave, at first, but from the manners with which they address one another, decides must hold some high enough authority to force Vane into a stiff-shouldered posture, an unsmirking mouth.
Anne finishes her beer quickly, peers warily from beneath the brim of her hat. “The fuck did he bring us here for?”
“He has business here, I presume.”
“No, I mean, why’d he bring us?”
Jack shrugs. He’s not quite sure himself. “This is what we do now, I suppose.”
“Follow him around, like dogs?”
Too skittish to have a taste for it, Jack slides his unfinished beer down the bar to her. She takes it without a thank you.
“Like henchmen,” he says, then leans off of his stool, colliding unscrupulously with the fellow who is just then passing in back of them. “Ah, pardon,” he offers, turning to see a portly man with his eyebrows high, of an age beyond Vane’s, though consistent with the run of men which one finds in piracy. Jack wonders if he hadn’t said the wrong thing, if he would be better off taking insult and claiming the right of way. The manners of this place are inscrutable to him.
“Pardon?” The man repeats, with a snort. “Too right.” He looks from Jack to Anne, who is not noticeably feminine in her dirty clothes and short hair, but slight enough, with a pretty enough face not to fool anyone for long when she’s not trying to. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”
Jack takes the opportunity to assert himself. “Rackham. Jack Rackham. Quartermaster to the Ranger.”
The man’s brow creases, his lips struggling against a grin. “That so?” He turns, to address a man two seats down the bar, “Aye, Flint. This man says he’s the quartermaster for the Ranger.”
Jack’s insides do a comical circus routine. There are multiple Flints, certainly? Flint can’t be so very uncommon a name, what with the prevalence of the object from which it is derived. Jack must have known a Flint or two back in London, to be sure. But London is not Nassau. Here the name is infamous enough to discourage imitation, and no doubt see anyone who tries it on put to the sword.
Slowly, the man turns in his stool, grave-faced, uninterested. He looks Jack up and down, looks at Anne for a moment longer, and says, with the lack of menace particular to those who are sure of their authority, murmurs, “What happened to Mr. Briggs?”
He’s addressing Jack, who wishes earnestly that he’d kept his beer. He swallows a stutter, says, “Dead.”
“Unfortunate. He was a half sensible man. Did his part to keep your captain in line.”
Jack’s not sure what to say to that. If the last month at sea had been Vane in line, he shudders to guess what he’s like out of it. He’s spared the effort to come up with something memorable enough to put him in the mind of Captain Flint—for it must be him, how could he be anything but, with his monotone control and deadened eyes—but inoffensive enough not to get him killed, by the arrival of Vane himself, knocking Jack off-kilter with the force of his back-slap.
“Flint,” he says, with an unfriendly smile, “don’t tell me you’re already poaching from my crew? I haven’t yet been back an hour.”
Flint snorts humorlessly, low in his throat. The other man flares his nostrils and makes nice. Nicer. “We were sorry to hear about the death of Mr. Briggs. A very decent man, that.”
Vane scoffs. “He showed weakness in times of crisis. I would have preferred to have him voted out than to have seen him dead, but such is the fate of those who lack a stomach for the account.” His grip is tight on Jack’s shoulder. On his other side, Anne is tensed, fist clenched on the handle of her flagon. “I heard about your latest prize. Supposed riches unimaginable, but you came back with a few crates of spice and little else to show for it. Your men were up in arms, I understand.”
“We got what we wanted,” Flint says, expressionless.
The other man looks set and ready to hold him back from a fight, if need be, but Flint is unmoved, evidently immune to Vane’s goading. Vane doesn’t seem to mind, just shrugs, haughty and satisfied, and says, “Well, nice to chat, but we ought to be going. Mr. Gates.” He nods to the older man. He does not address a goodbye to Flint.
“We just got here,” Anne points out, speaking up for the first time, her undisguised voice leaving little mystery as to her sex. Flint and Gates exchange an almost imperceptible glance, brows slightly raised.
“And now we’re going,” Vane tells her.
“You ought to try the brothel,” Flint offers, unasked, fixing Vane with a look that suggests retribution, “if Eleanor’s not here. She’s been spending a lot of time there lately.”
Gates looks like he expects Vane to hit Flint, but he only clenches his jaw, clenches his hand on Jack’s shoulder, digging deep against the bone, says, “Finish your drinks,” and turns on his heel.
Anne does as he asks. Jack watches her, and wonders who exactly Eleanor is.
Eleanor, as it turns out—along with being the acting overseer of Nassau’s fence, daughter to Richard Guthrie, the Bahama Islands’ wealthiest black marketeer, and the sole member of the town’s aristocratic class—is a missing piece of the puzzle. When she is taken into account, Charles Vane, in all his vagaries and strange sentiments, makes a slight bit more sense.
They sit at a table in the center of the brothel, surrounded on all sides by women in sheer silks and flimsy dress, or less, who, conspicuously, do not approach them. They wait there, nursing drinks, until she emerges from a room at the top of the stairs, followed by a laugh and a few tittering strings of persiflage from the accented voice of what must have been her companion for the afternoon. Her hair is mussed, though not derelict, and her blouse, while clean and buttoned, does not sit perfectly on her shoulders, as if she had pulled it on hastily. She walks with her head high, pausing only slightly when she sees Vane, slumped in his seat, lackadaisical, as if he is here by mere coincidence. Her steps slow, her shoulders straighten.
When she reaches the bottom of the staircase, she hands the proprietor a coin and says, “Mr. Noonan, it appears that Captain Vane is without a companion at present.”
Jack wonders what he and Anne are, and then shortly realizes that what she means is a whore.
“He professed his disinterest today, Ma’am,” says Noonan, disinterested himself, stooping to stow away his payment in the till.
Vane smiles, sits up a little. He’s come to the whorehouse not for the whores, but for her, and she’s just proved it. Clever girl. Or perhaps he’d wanted her to know, to demonstrate a sort of devotion? Certainly not a fidelity? Jack wonders if they are in love with one another, or if it’s only Vane.
Eleanor looks pleased with herself. She takes measured steps to their table, and Jack realizes that the seat opposite Vane has been left vacant for a reason. She takes it as if this is an appointment she’s been expecting, says, “So, what have you brought me?”
Vane leans his elbows upon the tabletop and gazes smartly at her. “Why don’t you ask Mr. Scott, back at your office.” He shakes his head, feigns disparagement. “Running off to the brothel, in the middle of the day? Not very professional of you. What would your father say?”
“He’d say that I probably learned it from you.” Her expression is pleasant, self-assured. She’s quick, and she knows it. “Who’s this, then?” She nods to Vane’s left, where they’re sat, awkward spectators to a private affair.
“My new quartermaster, Mr. Rackham.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Eleanor says, dismissively, without sparing Jack a glance. “I meant the girl.”
Vane, Jack realizes, had been waiting for that question. “Hands to yourself, Eleanor,” he coos. “She’s not for sale.”
Brows up, Eleanor blinks. “Then what, might I ask, is she for?”
“She fights,” Vane proudly professes. “Works aboard the ship. What’s the matter? You don’t think a woman capable?”
Eleanor’s laugh is condescending and slim. “I just,” she begins, shaking her head, more pleased by the moment. “Flint, you know, once intimated to me, when I was a bit younger, that should I ever develop an interest in seafaring, he’d be fully willing to show me the ropes of the business. Hornigold, Manderly, Phillips, Holt—many are the captains that I’d sooner expect to find with a woman among their crew than Charles Vane.”
She’s not looking at Anne, however, nor at Jack, but fully and pointedly into Vane’s eyes, a sort of denigrating flirtation. He gazes back, enraptured, almost sweet in his pleasure at her attention.
“Maybe,” he says, “I’ve come back a changed man.”
Eleanor laughs shortly, falsely. “One can only hope.”
The crew of the Ranger keeps house not in any building, but in a series of tents along the beach, thick with silks, wine-drenched and stinking of opium. Jack and Anne are given the one which Mr. Briggs used to occupy, though Jack rather thinks that once their payment comes in, they’ll rent a room somewhere, with a bath and a real bed, doors that shut and stay shut. Anne sleeps heavily, on her back so as not to aggravate her wound, after having taken dinner with the ravenousness of a starved animal. Jack has little appetite. Everything is bright, loud, and immediate, a separate world from that upon the sea. His body overbalances on instinct, expecting the ground to rock beneath him, swayed by absent waves. From the bonfire, there is singing.
Sleepless, he wanders among the revelers, listening to their bawdy chants, their laughter, watching them palming women, grabbing them, flinging them about; their squeals of ravishment, high and false. It’s not difficult to find Vane’s tent among the labyrinth. It is the largest, and smells the strongest. Jack half expects to find him with company, Eleanor Guthrie, some other girl, squirming and bejeweled, ordered perhaps from Mr. Noonan, but he is alone, collapsed in a heap of feather pillows and plush furs, long pipe gripped in one hand, opium lamp burning hot with oil.
He blinks blearily up at Jack when he enters. “What?”
Jack bites the inside of his cheek, kicks a short stool closer to Vane’s side, and sits down upon it. “I’ve often wondered,” he says, “over the course of the last month, why, exactly, you even accepted my offer to begin with. It wasn’t convincing, certainly, unless you truly do have a strong preference for men—which,” he’s quick to add, when Vane’s mouth half opens, as if to defend himself from such a spurious accusation, “I think we both ought to have the courage to admit, is fully permissible. But, if not—well, if he’d rather a woman, a soulless sack of shit will just take her, won’t he? You accepted my offer when you just as easily could have not, perhaps out of a genuine desire to abase me, perhaps out of sympathy for my position, or perhaps, as I’m beginning to suspect, in an effort towards some misconstruction of fidelity to a woman whose favor you strike me as very keen to have.”
Vane sits up, squinting, and swigs from a nearly empty bottle. “Fuck are you saying?”
“What I’m saying is that knowing that your decisions are primarily based upon your affinity for Eleanor Guthrie is giving me an understanding of, and therefore a leverage over, you which I hadn’t previously.”
Vane blinks a slow, heavy blink, and slumps back down. “Jack, this is one of those times when you shouldn’t speak.”
“Just because you don’t like to hear it does not mean I oughtn’t say it.” He leans his elbows on his knees and pitches forward, balancing on the heels of his boots. “You love her, and you believed that taking Anne as a concubine would be beyond forgiveness, but taking myself, and putting Anne to work, would not be.”
“I accepted your proposition,” Vane snaps, sitting up again, “because a man ought to protect what’s his. It’s the only half brave thing I’ve yet known you to do.”
Jack wrinkles his nose. He ought to let the remark lie, but as Vane’s currently immobilized by his own vices, and unlikely to remember this conversation very clearly besides, he allows himself a measure of honesty. “She’s not mine. That isn’t—we aren’t—I mean to say, do you actually understand what love is, Captain?”
“Love is possession,” Vane tells him, with his usual unselfconscious melodrama. “Not only of women by men, but of men by women. The point of owning a woman is to see to it that she doesn’t own you.” He speaks as if he’s explaining some very basic and widely known conceit.
Jack winces. “What a viciously horrible perception.”
Vane rolls his eyes. “Christ’s sake. Don’t you ever get tired of acting like a fucking woman?”
“Don’t you ever get tired of acting like a fucking man?”
And couldn’t they unpack that remark for days? But they won’t, and they don’t. Vane scoffs. He either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to. To do so would be to see himself as inauthentic, a product not of personal will but of external forces—which he is, which Jack is, which they all are, unavoidably. Who knows what would come of a release from sexual dictates, what sorts of people they would be and who they would feel urges to protect and to fight if they had not the iron role of man weighing upon their every move. The answer to that question lies not in this tent, with Vane, but in his own, in the place between his body and Anne’s, in the supple, simple understanding of a person, another whole mind separate from one’s own, which sees one with a clarity that transcends the physical. Doesn’t matter who has a cock. With the right material and a minimal level of craftsmanship, anyone can have a cock. It’s irrelevant. That’s love, isn’t it? Or anyway, it’s in there.
Vane doesn’t respond and doesn’t seem like to. He slides the bottle across the ground so that it stops beside Jack’s feet, and holds out his opium pipe.
“No, thank you,” Jack says, though he does accept the rum.
Vane shrugs and pulls it back.
“And what of men and men?” Jack asks, feeling bold, encouraged by Vane’s haziness, in a way, his weakness.
“What of them?”
“Where does possession factor in? Or, women and women? What of your Miss Guthrie and her French courtesan?”
Vane shakes his head. “That’s not love, that’s just—Eleanor displaying her power. Not just over me, but over all of them. A girl her age, skipping prettily into a whorehouse? It’s a place where men come to buy women by the hour and use them how they like, and she knows it, and by going there, by spending her coin, by being kind to the whores, making them presents, treating them gently? She’s asserting herself over a domain which typically belongs to men. She’s making it her own.”
“That’s…” Jack ventures, “rather admirable, isn’t it?”
“It’s fucking genius, is what it is. And something no other woman—no other person—would be capable of. Eleanor is unlike other people. If she’d been born a man, well, she’d have a much easier time of it, that much is for certain, but she wouldn’t be nearly as terrifying. A man who asserts himself with unrelenting fortitude is something to be wary of, but a woman who does so is something to avoid, to run from, for there is no winning there. There’s no beating her. There is only being dragged in, and drowned.”
He looks forlornly at the dipping canvas roof of the tent. Jack feels a queer and unavoidable fondness for him, which he has by this point resigned himself to experiencing semi-regularly. If unencumbered understanding and acceptance is Jack’s conception of love, then this is Vane’s: a drowning love. He is, in his way, abjectly pathetic, just as he is terrible, and mighty, and strong.
“And,” Jack asks, steering away from the lower territory, “men and men? You didn’t address that part.”
Vane’s lip hitches up, and Jack doesn’t wonder why. He is being awfully transparent.
“Well, are you in love with me, Jack?”
Jack’s eyebrows rise, his face creasing awkwardly, both amused and uncomfortable. “I—rather think not, no.”
“Nor I with you. So, we really couldn’t say for certain, could we?”
“No,” Jack agrees, “I don’t suppose we could.”
When he climbs back into bed with Anne, he’s reeking of opium, doing his best not to wake her. She’s heavy in sleep, slumping over into him and sinking down. He lets her sink. This is their home now, he realizes, suddenly overwhelmed by the immediacy, the warmth. Not this tent, not the beach, or the town, but the things among them: Eleanor Guthrie and the brothel, Mr. Hammond and his jeering laugh, Captain Flint and his stony face.
Charles Vane and his drowning.
He tucks himself against Anne, and sleeps.
The lay of things is quick to settle. Jack and Anne’s world, once a gray slog, an uphill battle against what at times had seemed like every force upon the earth, now revolves utterly around Vane. Vane’s world, by turn, centers mostly on Eleanor Guthrie, with a few allowances made for drink, substance, and brawls, but even these activities are just as often shades of his obsession. He drinks more when Eleanor is spotted visiting the brothel, or, as has become routine, taking her girl up to her rooms above the pub. Smokes deeper, starts fights over nothing, or seeks out men who have been witnessed airing grudges against the young Miss Guthrie, and, without explanation, takes revenge in her name.
It, Jack begins to realize, is a bit of a problem for him.
“Don’t know what’s so great about the bitch that he needs to get himself half-killed over her thrice a week,” Anne grumbles into her toast of a morning.
They’ve a room at the inn, and she sits cross-legged on the bed, wound fully healed, barely scarred, taking breakfast with orange juice—will the heights of their newfound fortune never cease?—while Jack dresses. From the armchair where he’d collapsed in the late night, or else early morning, after stumbling in after a particularly messy incident, if the blood—not his—soaking his jacket is any indication, Vane grunts, “Don’t fucking call her that.”
Anne’s eyebrows jolt a little, not having realized he was awake. “Why not? You call her that and worse all the time.”
“She’s mine to call what I like.”
“Don’t think she’d agree,” Anne mutters under her breath, giving Jack the flat-eyed, unimpressed look which she often wears in Vane’s company.
Vane is so quickly up out of his chair that he has to steady himself against the bed frame. His hair is knotted in places, the bags under his eyes hanging heavy. “Jack,” he says, nostrils flared, eyes trained on Anne, “tell your woman to watch her mouth.”
Languidly, Jack does up the front buttons of his shirt. “You’ll have to tell her yourself. She never listens to me.” He smooths out his sleeves, then picks up a pitcher, clinking cold with ice, and pours Vane a glass. “Here.”
Vane sneers and takes it, downs it in a gulp, and makes a face. “The fuck did you give me?”
“It’s water, Captain.”
Vane scoffs. Anne, unmoved by his sloppy intimidations, holds out a piece of toast, brow cocked. After a tense moment, Vane snatches it, and takes a large, ravenous bite. “Fuck the both of you,” he says, words muffled by chewing, and stomps out diagonally with his jacket hanging open.
It’s several weeks into his office as quartermaster before Jack manages to, through a long and brutish argumentative process, negotiate a price hike from Mr. Scott for a quarter ton of tobacco on account of the past growing year’s low yield, which wins him, if not the respect of the crew, then at least their slurred pronouncements of appreciation. The week after that, he arranges a credit system with Mr. Noonan that causes his popularity to abruptly spike, though in effect leads to little more than a sharp decrease in the number of men coughing, “Cocksucker,” into their hands when he passes them in the Ranger’s tent enclave.
Things grow in and around one another. Anne kills men on Vane’s orders, staunch, unblinking, and quick. She scrubs the dirt out from under her fingernails and then, with clean and shining flesh, shows Jack her fistfuls of coins. She likes having money, likes the freedom of it, and the protection. She doesn’t take to Vane quite as Jack has, but she loses her distaste for him, regards him sometimes with wary respect, sometimes with pity, always with a her characteristic distance.
There is no such distance between Jack and Vane. When he drinks himself sick, Jack cleans him up, and when he fights himself to a bloody mess, Jack wraps his wounds. They don’t fuck now that Vane has his free run of the brothel, but there is a level of unmistakable physical familiarity in Vane’s hands upon his shoulder, his back, his arm, a current of ownership which imposes itself in their every interaction, and is, perhaps, the basis of Jack’s cocksucker reputation.
He keeps his hands off Anne because he doesn’t want to lose them, but he treats her to the same favoritism, granting her liberties which none of the other men receive, forgives her slights, humors her temper.
He walks in once—well, once more—while they’re fucking. Anne is atop him, knees on either side, riding him with relentless, quick bounces which have rendered Jack beyond both the desire and the ability to speak, and certainly past the point of noticing when the door creaks open and the floorboards bend beneath a pair of tanned boots.
He only opens his eyes when Anne stops moving, and Anne only stops moving when Vane says, “Put your fingers in his mouth. He likes that.”
“Get out,” she says, without bothering to cover herself. Her hair is slicked to her forehead, cheeks pink, eyes tough.
He does as she asks, but not before calling, “We had an appointment, Jack. It was your idea to refit the shrouds. I took time out of my day on your account, and you can’t even bother to come?” His brows are up, lips straining, unable to disguise the falseness of his irritation.
“Fuck’s sake,” Anne says, but when the door is soundly shut, she does press her fingers between his lips, and Jack, for his part, does like it.
Her name is Max, just Max, nothing before, nothing after, which Jack only knows because Vane had made a point of finding out, and only remembers because of how unfitting it had seemed, male and drab, for a woman as decorated as she. She runs into him on the back staircase that leads up to Eleanor’s rooms, which he takes only when Vane has sent him to deliver a message to her—a threat, a request, a flirtation—which he does not wish Mr. Scott to know, or even know of.
Max swallows her gasp of surprise, stiff-backed, unyielding, the way a woman of her means must need to be when encountering strange men in alleyways. Her posture relaxes slightly as she registers his face.
“Pardon me,” she says, voice absent the sultry decadence that she cloaks it in when at the brothel.
“The mistake was mine, madam,” Jack tells her, stepping aside to allow her unencumbered passage down the remaining steps.
She looks like to take it, but then, rocking back on her heels, seems to change her mind. “You are Captain’s Vane’s man, yes?” she asks. With her a step above him, they are at level height, eye to eye.
Jack coughs. “I’m his quartermaster.”
“Quartermaster,” she repeats, mouth shaping the word imprecisely, blurring the emphasis, making it sound prettier. “Mr. Rackham, is it?” His name, too, is victim to her vocal contortions. “You are less seen at the brothel than any of the other Rangermen, though often spoken of.”
Jack, impatient to deliver his message, pauses, settles into his stance. She’s intriguing him on purpose, of course, and yet he cannot resist asking “I won’t pretend disinterest in what’s said of me.”
She smiles, graceful and sure. She’d known as much. “Not strictly complimentary things, though not strictly uncomplimentary, either. Men are rarely kind when privately discussing their superiors.”
Though Jack’s curiosity is piqued, he takes pains not to be taken in. “I see what you’re doing,” he tells her, tapping his temple with a smart squint. “I imagine you have many good reasons for wishing to stir up distrust within my crew, and I commend your efforts, but they’d be better spent on one of my inferiors.”
Max’s smile doesn’t lose its shape. “And what reasons would those be? The men that your captain sends to spy upon me, upon Eleanor? The gifts he leaves her? The notes? Does he know that she reads them aloud to me? Does he know how pitiable she thinks him?”
Jack, caught out a bit, can only shrug. “I—don’t think he cares.”
Max regards him carefully, weighing God knows what against God knows what else, before finally saying, in her knowing way, “Love does make a mockery of us all.”
“Perhaps,” Jack allows, “but Charles is especially easy to mock.”
Max’s expression tilts, slow and uneasy. She’s a beguiling thing, would have to be to take up so much of Eleanor’s time and attention, to frustrate Vane so utterly, the quick sort of woman around whom a man should keep one eye on his wallet and the other on his throat. She nods, almost curtsies, and then, passing alongside him on the steps, says, “You will not want to go up there. Richard Guthrie is visiting from the interior.”
Jack’s eyebrows caress his hairline. He takes the warning as a sort of peace offering, and, watching her depart, is tempted to offer to discourage Vane from further frustrating her affairs, but the thought dies as soon as its born. Even if he would be at all likely to achieve success—which he isn’t—she is even less likely to believe his intentions unselfish—which they aren’t—and Jack, if he’s honest with himself, really has enough on his plate as it is.
His thanks are thus delayed. By the time he opens his mouth to give them, she’s already disappearing around the corner, out of the alleyway and into the sunlit street.
It’s two days hence that he walks in on Vane in bed with Eleanor, and walks straight out again, without even venturing an instruction for her to stick her fingers anywhere. Such are his elevated manners. He does not even remark of the folly, the ineptitude, the emotional devastation which is sure to follow, according to the cycle which Vane has described to him, often in unnecessary detail. He feels little sympathy for them, their ravenous, stupid lust, their games. Love only makes a mockery of those who ask to be mocked. Love is also, when asked, kind, and steadfast, and whole.
He finds Anne by the wrecks, with her knife and her silence, and tells her of this latest development.
“Sad for the whore, isn’t it?” is her only response. He’d mentioned his conversation with Max to her yesterday, because he mentions everything to her.
“It is,” he agrees, with little investment, distracted by the way the strands of her hair, growing out now, fall from where they’re tucked behind her ear. “But not for us. For us, all is well.”
This latest round of romance ends hellishly. Vane and Eleanor get into an argument so fierce that, somehow—Jack’s a bit fuzzy on the particulars—it ends with Captain Flint shooting Vane in the arm. Though it’s little more than a graze, there is no shortage of blood, and it soaks into Jack’s shirt when he hauls him out of the pub and into the street, struggling to keep ahold of him as he thrashes, yells, spittle flying from his mouth, fists swinging.
“I swear to fucking Christ, Jack. I’d sooner kill you than let you stand between me and that piece of shit!” He elevates his voice near the end, launching it through the swinging door, making himself heard even as he works to peel Jack’s grip from the material of his sleeve.
They tousle inexpertly. Vane is stronger by a wide margin, but he’s drunk, he’s wounded, and he’s emotional to the point of folly, burnt-out captain’s roar breaking down in places, shaking in places. He shoves Jack to the wall, but Jack just keeps his grip.
“Yes, perfection solution,” Jack gasps, skull rattling against the stone, “kill me. That will solve all of your problems.” He clenches his fingers into the front of Vane’s jacket, taking in hard breaths of air.
“Don’t think I wouldn’t,” he sneers into Jack’s face, not for any reason but that he’s angry, he’s been torn apart—again—and if he can’t hit back at Eleanor, might as well shit on old Jack some, yeah? “Don’t think I value you, of all people, more than revenge, more than reputation, more than pride, more than anything at all.” His hands are heavy on Jack, thrashing into him, no longer stuck within Jack’s grasp but pinned by the vehemence of his renouncement, the rage and the despair.
A fine power, Eleanor has, to make him despair like this, but quite an inconvenience for those left to clean up in her aftermath.
“I have no illusions,” Jack spits, “about the sanctity of our bond, but, for fuck’s sake, Charles, pull yourself together. You’ve been shot, and I’m almost certain you deserved it.” He drops his hands from Vane’s chest, slumping back into the wall. “If you’d like to go back in there and be shot again, I won’t stop you.”
Without preamble, Vane tries to march past him, toward the door.
Jack, his bluff having been called, scrambles to catch him. “Alright, I lied,” he says, yanking him back by the shoulder, and hauling back with his other arm and punching him the face.
Jack’s sure he’s never hit anyone so hard in his entire life. His knuckles and wrist ache. It hadn’t been enough, of course. If it had truly come down to a trial by strength, Vane would have easily won, recovering from the blow with a shuffle and a blink, but just at the moment when he was straightening up, the rest of the Walrusmen had arrived, casually swaggering up the front steps to defend their captain, and Vane had, with good sense, decided that the odds were too far against him at this point.
Muttering, “Could have taken him down by now if you hadn’t been in the fucking way,” into Jack’s shoulder, he allows himself to be maneuvered home, stinking of blood and rum, slick with sweat, swamped in misery. Jack leads him with difficulty, but he leads him.
Back in his tent, he lights the opium lamp without being asked, readies Vane’s pipe, then sets to work on his wound.
“Don’t,” Vane says at first, slumped into his mountainous bed of cushions, and his tone slants with something like guilt. Jack shushes him and washes the flesh of his arm, wraps it up, and retrieves a cold cloth for the bruises beginning to swell on his face.
Jack is careful with him. He pities him, resents him, and yet cannot reacquire the loathing that he’d once possessed for him, cannot manage to fear him, or to wonder at his power. Rather, he wonders at the state of him without it, the state that Eleanor puts him in, small and desperate, uncontrolled, the opposite of his every masculine ideal, the opposite of the image he’s crafted so painstakingly.
Jack hands him the pipe when it’s ready, and Vane smokes deep, watching him.
“I misspoke earlier,” he murmurs, after a long silence, broken only by the rustling of the bedsheets, the bandages, his heavy inhalations. “I value you more than revenge, Jack. More than many things.”
Jack could poke fun, could laugh off this sudden sentimentality, could make him work for forgiveness, could humiliate him with dismissal—but what use would that be? It would be a lie. He sits down beside Vane on his silks and gives a slight nod. “I know, Captain.”
Vane keeps smoking, keeps talking. “I thought for sure you’d be nothing, when I first saw you, underneath her. Mostly what I saw was her.” He gives a little smirking look there, quirks his eyebrows.
“Alright,” Jack says, “enough reminiscing.”
“No, no, listen. I saw her, and you? You were just a bit of extra fun. You were so frightened of me, and that was fun. You were so easy to conquer.” He leans his head on the pillow, closer to Jack, watches him upwards through his lashes. “But you’re not easy to conquer, that’s the trick. You just pretend.”
Jack can’t help but form a small grin of self-satisfaction. “To be underestimated is, indeed, a great gift.”
Vane grips him by the chin, thumb catching on his bottom lip. Jack knows what he’s going to do before he does it, and, if he’s being completely honest, opens his mouth up a little bit for it, leans into the press of Vane’s finger pads against his teeth, his tongue.
He’s not forceful, not like he has been, but neither is he without obvious intent. Jack could brush him off easily, tell him the debt is paid, he has no responsibility to fulfill any need of Vane’s, whether brought on by misery or by genuine desire, but he doesn’t. When Vane grips him by the hair he leans into it, and when he undoes his belt and pulls out his cock, Jack’s mouth needs very little leading. He tells himself he is being generous, seeing to a friend who has so recently suffered heartbreak, and in a way he is, but in another, a lower way he is caving to the principles which govern their relationship, the ownership which Vane has of him, inexplicit, and yet constant, enveloping. To deny him anything would be to deny their entire understanding of one another.
He sucks him in slow. It’s nice to have some control of it for once, nice to be able to pull back when he wants, take him deep when he wants, send him glances of coy superiority and watch his eyes flutter closed, high and dazed and lonely. Vane is slipping, or slipped, or just damned gone, undone by his woman in just the way everything of him professes to be immune to, and yet he does not take this deflation of self dramatically, but with pained ease, as if he is used to it, as if he is intimate with it.
He fucks Jack’s mouth with slow, even thrusts, head tipped back against the pillows, caving into the feeling. Jack will show him mercy, will make him feel better, and he doesn’t wonder at taking the place that a whore from Noonan’s or a street girl just as easily could, but knows, in a way, that this place is his. Not the, eh, physical space, per se—though he has often occupied it—but the space at Vane’s side, the place in his confidence, in his shrunken little conquering heart.
It’s the place of a friend, a confidante. Jack is not ashamed of anything anymore.
The shuffle of boots in the dirt makes him glance up slowly, wincingly, prepared to eat that thought whole, prepared for shame and every one of its grim cousins, if he is to meet the eyes of Mr. Hart, Mr. Hammond, any Mr. at all—but it’s only Anne.
Only? No, Anne brings everything with her, holds everything in between her pinched brows and her heavy shoulders. Here comes Anne and everything else.
Jack tries to lift his head, but Vane keeps his grip in his hair, not so strong that Jack couldn’t shake him off if he tried, but enough to communicate the intent: to hold him there, to have her watch him there. Shame, is that you again? Jack watches Anne’s face, watches her take a step back, as if to leave them to it, and Vane either wants her to stay or knows Jack does, because before she can move, he says, “You’re welcome to join us.”
Her voice is low, a little chafed at the edges. “Not a fuckin’ chance.”
“Or just watch,” Vane says, pressing up into Jack’s throat so that Jack has to concentrate on not spluttering, “whatever suits you.”
Jack thinks she’s going to bolt and then he’s going to run after her, and is plagued mostly by the moral question of whether or not he should get Vane off before he goes, when she takes a step further into the tent. Finding the stool which Jack usually occupies during his and Vane’s evenings of strategical discussion and heavy drinking, she silently takes a seat, crossing her arms over he knees, cocking an eyebrow.
Jack can hear Vane’s huff of pleasure, feels it in the pulse of his cock. Jack’s not sure whether to feel apologetic or grateful, embarrassed or relieved; all he really can manage at present is ravenous arousal. Vane fucks his mouth, Anne watches his mouth, watches him gasp, choke, suck, all manner of things which would mortify him in any other company, but with her are routine enough to be unremarkable. Her glance drifts up from his mouth to his eyes, and in them there is no doubt, no misunderstanding, no disgust, and no jealousy. Her lips tilt up, and he knows then what he hadn’t before: she likes this.
Her smile drops a little when Vane reaches between them and presses the flat of his palm to the bulge in Jack’s trousers. Jack half-groans around his cock, and Anne’s shifts on the stool. He’s beginning to see that ginger flush of her’s, creeping up her neck, coloring her ears.
By the time Vane comes, it’s reached her face. Jack swallows, because what else is he meant to do? He’s performing, in a way, and he has no wish to let his audience down—neither of them. Even after he’s spent and Jack’s breathing heavy against his thigh, Vane keeps his fingers in Jack’s hair, petting his scalp in a way which is at once degrading and sweet, the undisguised affection in the gesture almost overshadowing its current of domination, though not quite.
Jack doesn’t mind; he’s eager for both.
Sitting up, he shifts, breathing through the wanting rub of his cock against the inside button of his trousers, and glances to Anne, who’s got her lips parted, boots ground down into the dirt. Jack gives her a small look of understanding, trying to communicate her full freedom to do what she likes, whether that’s to leave, or to drag Jack off after her, or to—
She stands, unbuttons her jacket. “You’re not,” she says to Vane, as she takes slow steps forward, “goin’ to touch me.”
Vane seems sort of charmed by that. He holds his hands up, as if in surrender. “However you like.”
Then he just watches. Watches while Anne unbuckles her belt, unlaces her boots, unbuttons her trousers. She leaves on her shirt—it’s large enough to obscure most of the parts of her body which Vane is likely most eager to see—and climbs onto Jack’s lap, shoving him onto his back across the bedroll, and quickly getting him enough out of his clothes to sink down onto his cock. Jack surrenders to her, easily, without thought, as he has always done, letting her have what she wants of him, letting her fuck him how she likes.
She kisses him, though his mouth must taste of Vane, and if he could apologize for that, he would, and if he could explain that, he would, but she doesn’t let him speak except to plead, to praise her, to curse. Jack can’t see but can feel Vane watching them, and it’s not the first time, not even the second, but it is the one and only time he’s been invited, that he is not an interloper but an integral part, a member of whatever strange club of devotion, of allegiance, of love—it is love, isn’t it? Of a sort.
“Well, are you in love with me, Jack?”
No, no, not quite, but in a way, it’s close enough. Jack loves him like a friend, a partner, a captain, and something else, sometimes. Something close enough.
Anne grips his wrists, holds them above his head, presses them down into the furs and silks, and then there are other hands, larger hands, taking their place, and then Vane is pinning his wrists while Anne fucks him, and Jack is strung between them, and he is very sure he’s in the right place. He’s very sure they’d gotten on the right ship.
He wakes cotton-mouthed and bleary to the sound of a woman’s voice. In his dream it’s his mother’s, shapeless, emanating not from a person but from the world around him, though as reality overtakes his mind’s constructions, that world condenses, sharpening down into the immovable figure of Eleanor Guthrie, who stands at the entrance of the tent, lips parted, halted mid-sentence. Yellow light spills through the split in the canvas behind her.
Jack squints, forces himself into a sitting position. “Good morning,” he complains.
Eleanor gives him an unfriendly blink.
On either side of him, warm bodies breath awake. Vane is fully naked, without a blanket, splayed out on his back, his left foot crossed over Jack’s right ankle, left palm twitching against his right hipbone. He groans, shielding his eyes from the light. Anne, still cloaked in her shirt, tucked against Jack’s left, is conscious without incident, one moment still in sleep, the next awake, aware, eyes darting, shoulders tensing, like a cat stirred from a nap.
Eleanor clears her throat. “Morning, Charles.” After a moment of stunted consideration, she adds, “Rackham. Bonny.”
She does not sound jealous so much as she does annoyed.
Vane sits up, wipes inexpertly at his mouth, and croaks, “What do you want?”
“I came to apologize,” she says, straight to business, pursing her lips around the words. “Not for anything I said, for it was all justified, but that things to devolved to such an extent.” She must know that Vane knows that she would never so easily offer repentance simply for the sake of it, so she makes no effort to disguise her motive. “Your men and the Walrusmen have been getting into scuffles since last night. Flint is willing to publicly demonstrate reconciliation if you are."
“Me?” Vane’s face crinkles with satisfaction. He loves when she needs something from him. “He’s the one who shot me.”
Eleanor rolls her eyes. “In the arm. Really, Charles, don’t make a fuss. You’ll do this not for Flint, nor for me, but for Nassau.” She turns to go then, not hanging around to see if she’s convinced him, but knowing she has, or else that she will, in going, give him no choice but to follow. After lifting the flap of the tent and letting in a heavy patch of sun to blind them all, though, she pauses, turns back to add, in a voice so knowing it edges smug, “And Charles? I’m sure we can agree that this moment,”—she spares a glance for Anne, a longer one for Jack—“marks an end to your denigrating insinuations about Flint’s carnal preferences.”
With one last jolt of the brows, she disappears.
Vane stares at the space she’s vacated, makes a noise of complaint low in his throat.
“You going to go, then?” Anne asks.
“Fuck no,” Vane says, slumping back into the bed and burying his face against a pillow. Jack looks at the line of his spine, looks at Anne, looks down at his own body, pale, though reddened in places, chafed and sore and comfortable. He doesn’t have to wait long, before Vane rolls back over, blinks at the ceiling and says, “I don’t know. If I do, I’m sure to look weak. But if I don’t….”
He’s not—ha—man enough to say it, so Jack does. “You fear she may not forgive you?” Vane says nothing. “Have you ever considered that perhaps that would be for the best? For both of you.”
Vane glances at him, jaw grinding in concentration. “Perhaps it would be.”
What an addled, unpleasant way to love—but love he does, there’s no denying that. He loves as he captains, as he deals, as he fucks, as he fights: messily, on pure grit alone, without a care for consequence. He sighs, pats Jack on the thigh—a bawdy, familiar gesture—and stands, scouring the room for the nearest pair of trousers that will fit him. Jack doesn’t try to talk any further sense to him, just watches him dress, watches him swagger into himself, pulling on the man who will meet the day, sharpening up the bravado, smoothing out the stubble.
“Careful of your arm,” Jack fusses.
“Don’t get shot,” Anne advises.
Vane smirks, laces up his boots. “Fuck the both of you.” Which really means: something else.
With one last long look at the raw skin of Jack’s wrists, the hem of Anne’s shirt where it touches her thighs, he sniffs, and sets off, though to reconcile or to fight, it is impossible to know. All that matters is that when she calls, he goes—and she has called. He leaves them to one another, in his bed.
They leave him to his drowning.