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Benedictions

by Melusina

 

Fandom: PoTC    Rating: NC-17    Pairing: Jack/Will/Elizabeth    Full Header

 


Prologue

The last few embers of the fire glowed red-orange in the darkened room and warmed Will's back.  Overeager, they hadn't made it to the bed, and were instead curled up on the hearthrug, Jack snug between Will and Elizabeth, his hand cupping Will's shoulder loosely.  Will was floating in a vague lethargy between sleep and waking, pleasantly sore from their exertions.  The firelight glinted off a new bead in Jack's hair, and Will was wondering where it had come from when he heard Elizabeth say Jack's name.  Her voice was clear and sharp, and a bit forceful, as if she'd been mulling something over and had only now gotten up the courage to speak. 

Jack shifted to face her, blinking blearily.  "Mmhm?"

"Why haven't you ever. . ."  Her pause stretched out so long that Will very nearly drifted off.

Jack yawned pointedly.  "What, love?  Spit it out and let's get some sleep."

"Why don't you ever. . ." She flailed her hands in an inarticulate gesture.  "You know. . ."

Jack snorted.  "Swive you?"  He poked her stomach.  "Roger you?"  His fingers danced along her ribs and elicited a giggle.  In one smooth motion, he rolled on top of her and pinned her hands to the floor.  "Fuck you?"

Through her laughter, Elizabeth gasped an assent then wriggled out of his arms.  "Jack, I'm serious."

Will held his breath, as eager as Elizabeth to learn the answer to this mystery.  But Jack merely smirked and said, "Hear that, Will?  The woman's insatiable!"

"Jack!" 

He traced a complicated pattern across the smooth, flat plane of her stomach.  "Even with a, ah, preventative, which, mind you, I'd rather not use -- nasty things, more trouble than they're worth -- there's liable to be certain consequences to that particular indulgence.  I don't imagine you'd appreciate being saddled with my by-blows."

Elizabeth sat up, and in the dim light, Will could see the stubborn set of her jaw that meant she wouldn’t take no for an answer.  "That's ridiculous.  How could we know which of you fathered the child?  You and Will are alike enough in color -- we'd never be truly certain."

Jack sighed heavily.  "Have you asked your husband how he feels about raising another man's bastard?  Even if we never knew, don't you think he'd wonder?" 

That was hardly a charitable thought, and Will was mildly vexed that Jack would think him so petty.  Despite his resolution to keep silent, he found himself jumping in.  "If I acknowledge the baby, who would dispute it?  What does it matter if the child is mine or yours?  I'm no lord with a patrimony or a bloodline to preserve.  Besides, if. . .the worst should happen, we'd be glad to have something of you."

Jack kicked at Will's leg.  "Fine way to talk about getting your wife with child!  'If the worst should happen.'"

"That's not what I meant."

"I know."

I. In prosperity and adversity

Will had been working late to finish a commission, and when he slipped into the bed, he was surprised to see Elizabeth still awake.  She cuddled up to him with an air of smug satisfaction, as if she'd done something terribly clever, and said, "I didn't want to say anything until I was sure, but I've not had my courses in two months.  I think perhaps. . ."  She laid her hands on her stomach, in a gesture as old as Eve.

"You do?"  Will made to embrace her then drew back, fearing he might harm her or the child. 

"Don't be silly!  I shan't break.  I'm just going to have a baby, I'm not an invalid."

She certainly looked the picture of health, but Will couldn't help imagining the worst.  Elizabeth's mother had died in childbed and Mrs. Brown as well.  It was far too easy to imagine himself as lonely and bereft as poor Brown, finding his only solace in the bottom of a bottle.

As if she'd guessed what he was thinking, Elizabeth gave him a dissatisfied moue and shook her head.  "None of your brooding, Will.  All will be well -- you'll see."

****

As pleased as Elizabeth was at the thought of a baby, her new state did not agree with her.  She felt sluggish and snappish much of the time, and too queasy to eat more than a little dry toast.  She had even less interest than usual in her social obligations, and it was with great reluctance that she agreed to attend the ball in honor of the Commodore's engagement.  The thought of dancing made her positively green, but her father had been insistent that she accept the invitation, so as to avoid any appearance of hard feelings towards Norrington and his bride-to-be. 

At first acquaintance, Norrington's fiancée had appeared to be the very sort of insipid miss that Elizabeth most disliked: small and plump, with light hair, china blue eyes and the complacent demeanor of a spoiled housecat.  Elizabeth would ordinarily have dismissed her out of hand, but rather than fuel the Port Royal gossip mill, she sought out Cecilia Strand and made a point of conversing with her.  To Elizabeth's surprise, the placid exterior hid a sharp tongue and a dry wit.  ("You can get away with saying the most impertinent things," explained Miss Strand, "if you look as if you have no more sense than a well-fed milch cow.")  Elizabeth predicted that they would be great friends, and she was glad for Norrington, who looked delighted with the match. 

Caught up in her conversation with Miss Strand, Elizabeth barely noticed the mild cramping in her stomach, but as the evening wore on, the nagging pain grew worse; in the midst of discussing Robinson Crusoe, she was struck dumb by a sharp pang.  Miss Strand noted her discomfort and immediately took charge of the situation, dispatching her sister to locate Will, and ordering the Governor's carriage sent around.

The ride home was excruciating; the stabbing pain increased with every bump and turn, and when they arrived at home, Elizabeth could hardly walk up the stairs.  As Estrella helped Elizabeth undress, something shifted inside her and a slick gush of blood coated her legs.  Estrella clutched Elizabeth's arm and cried, "Oh no!" and everything went black.

******

Estrella tried to hide the sheets as she brought them from the room, but Will could see that there was far too much blood.  The child was lost, that much was certain.  The governor rushed in, dressed in his banyon, his wig frowsty and slightly askew, but the midwife, who'd already banned Will from the bedroom, refused Swann access as well.  He paced and fidgeted with his watch fob, muttering to himself.  Will pressed his forehead to the window, wishing desperately that Jack were there (although, in truth, that would only have complicated things). 

Just before dawn, Estrella came out of the room with a basin of rusty water.  Before she could pull the door to, Elizabeth's voice rose in a feverish rant and she called out loudly, "Jack!"  Estrella blanched and her eyes skittered to Swann's face and then to Will's.  She said quickly, "Poor thing, she's imagined herself back on that island with that good-for-nothing Jack Sparrow."  Will wondered how much she'd guessed. 

********

       

Elizabeth's fever came and went, burning and chilling her by turns.  She drifted in a sea of voices: Estrella, full of forced cheer; Will, his words low and strained; her father, sounding helpless and fretful.  Her bones ached, as if something were eating her from the inside out, and she was too weak even to sit up in the bed when Miss Strand came to visit.

Three times the surgeon bled her, the last time shaking his head and frowning.  He and Will retired to the corner of the room, where they engaged in a fierce exchange of whispers.  At last, Will pounded his fist against the wall and shouted, "I refuse to believe it!"  The disagreement was cut short by the arrival of the new vicar, looking nervous and Friday-faced.  He stumbled through the interminable prayers and his hands shook when he pressed the chalice to her lips.  Tart wine filled her mouth, and she choked most of it up onto the snowy sheets before again descending into delirium. 

In a hectic fancy, she thought Jack was there, singing to her softly as he coaxed some bitter brew down her throat, but this could not be; even in her confusion, she remembered Will reading to her from Jack's last letter.  Something about the Black Pearl being damaged?  Whatever it was, Jack could not come for some time.  In her dream, Jack tucked something behind the headboard, and pressed an icy kiss to her forehead.  As the world slipped away, she whispered, "Stay," but when she came to herself, there was only Estrella bathing her head with a cool rag and complaining of the sand that had somehow gotten in the sheets.  After that, the fever abated, leaving everything limp and colorless, and Elizabeth was filled with an aching sense of loss.

II. Mutual society, help, and comfort

"A mermaid, Jack?  Surely you don't expect me to believe that, like Odysseus, you were seduced by a siren."  To Will's ear, Elizabeth's laugh sounded rusty from disuse, but at least she was smiling, and it was a genuine smile that lit up her face, instead of the strained grimace she'd assumed of late. 

"And why not?  You saw Barbossa's crew turn into living skeletons before your eyes.  This was just as real. . .She had a voice like an angel and great gold eyes like a cat, and nothing but tail from here down.  Lured me down into her watery boudoir, and had her wicked way with me.  When it was over, she gave me this," he indicated the stingray spine in his hair, "for a remembrance.  I'll swear on anything you like that it's true!"  Jack placed both hands over his heart in a theatrical gesture, and Will laughed too, and refrained from asking how a man tupped a woman with a fish's tail.

Elizabeth was still weak, and before Jack finished telling her about the shark he had wrestled on his way to the surface, her eyes drifted shut.  Seeing that she was asleep, Jack trailed off into silence.  Will wanted to ask him why he'd stayed away, why he hadn't visited during Elizabeth's long illness, despite Will's letters with their thinly disguised pleas, but he didn't know how to start.  Jack was always coming and going -- they could no more hold onto him than keep the tide from heeding the moon's call, and Will feared that if either of them clutched too tightly at Jack, he'd disappear for good.  Floundering for the right words, Will said, "We. . .we've missed you, Jack. . .I wish-" 

Jack sat up suddenly, dislodging something from behind the headboard where he'd been resting his arm and sending it flying to the carpet. 

Distracted, Will asked, "What's that?" 

Jack picked up a dusty little bundle of herbs and leaves and it crumbled in his hand, filling the air with a sharp, heady scent.  "Looks like a gris-gris," he said casually.

"A what?"

"A charm."  He weighed the fragments in his hand and sucked on his teeth thoughtfully.  Avoiding Will's gaze, he continued, "I warrant that maid of yours hid this back there, thinking it would hasten Elizabeth's healing.  And who's to say it hasn't?"

Will knew little of witchcraft, and had no desire to learn more.  But, as Jack had said, he'd seen too much to doubt that such things could be real.  He poked the package dubiously.  "Ought we to move it?"

"It's done its work.  Best to burn it now."  Jack stood and tossed the charm into the fire.  Only when the flames had licked up and devoured it did he turn back to the bed.  He rested his hand on Elizabeth's hair, his thumb brushing repeatedly over her temple.  "It was a close thing then?"

"Closer than I like to remember."  Will shuddered and looked away, certain that if he met Jack's eyes, he would be unmanned.  Their hands tangled together in Elizabeth's hair and Jack grasped tightly at Will's fingers; for a long while, neither of them spoke, and in the silence, Will found the comfort he'd been seeking.

****

Worn out from Jack's raillery, Elizabeth seemed settled for the night.  Jack soon became fidgety, flipping through Elizabeth's novel (and losing her place), toying with the trinkets on her bedside table, and generally making a nuisance of himself.  When he suggested a visit to the tavern, Will accepted with perhaps more speed than was seemly.  Other than a few trips to the forge to ensure that his apprentice and the recently hired journeyman were managing without him, Will had barely left the house since Elizabeth had fallen ill.  He felt cramped from so much time in the sickroom, forcing his voice to a quiet, gentle tone, and keeping his movements slow and even.  The guilt he felt for leaving Elizabeth behind was assuaged by Jack's assurance that they'd be back well before she woke, and that she would sleep more soundly without them there to disturb her. 

The boisterous dockside tavern, chosen more for anonymity than for conviviality, was nevertheless a welcome change.  Shouting amiably over the noise, Will felt the fears and worries that had bound him loosening.  He leaned back against the wall, let his legs sprawl under the table with Jack's, and laughed until his belly ached.  When Jack clasped his arm to punctuate a particularly rude joke, the heat from his hand slowly seeped through Will's shirt, and Will felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.  Lust, thick and sweet as cane syrup, coiled in his gut. 

He'd been chaste too long -- since Elizabeth had fallen ill; no, longer, since she'd told him about the baby.  Jack had been gone, and Will had been afraid of hurting Elizabeth, and then she'd been so ill.  Between one thing and another, it had been months since Will had bedded either of them.  Until now, he hadn't even thought about it much, other than the few times he'd awakened from a lewd dream with a cockstand.  He'd taken care of himself in the same mindless way that he'd shaved and changed his linen, not as a pleasure, but as something that must be done. 

In the dim light, Jack was a caricature of himself, a stage-Mephistopheles, all seductive eyes and sardonic lips.  He was sketching the shape of a ship in the air, and when the lamp flickered and flared, the light bounced from Jack's gold teeth to the rings on his hands.  He was talking now of a raid and some bold strategy he'd concocted using false colors, but Will had lost the thread of the story, and the conclusion made no sense.  He smiled and nodded absently, but Jack wasn't fooled. 

Jack's laughter cut off abruptly and he met Will's eye with a shrewd look.  He slowly pulled his arm away, dragging his fingers across Will's wrist.  He took a sip of ale, and his tongue darted out to catch a drop from the corner of his mouth.  The noise of the tavern seemed to recede, and Will's head tilted slightly to the side.  Fully aware of the effect he was having, Jack drank again, doing something obscene with his mouth.  The avaricious way he narrowed his eyes reminded Will of Elizabeth, and he thought of how she liked to watch Jack fuck him, of the way she leaned forward and pressed her hand between her thighs.  Beneath the table, their knees collided and Will had an incoherent moment of gratitude for the dark corner they'd found. 

The back door opened, letting in a miasma of sewage and salt water.  A fair-haired girl with a garishly painted face came in, followed by a portly sailor, still buttoning his breeches.  The girl disappeared into the crowd; the man rejoined his companions, who greeted him with much ribald jesting.

Inspiration glittered in Jack's eyes; he stood, yanking Will up with him, and dragged him out the door.  Before Will could question this sudden departure or complain of the tankard of ale he'd left sitting on the table, Jack had him backed against the wall, kissing him desperately.

Fearful of discovery, Will breathlessly exclaimed, "We can enjoy ourselves in comfort at home. . ."

A feral grin.  "Excellent.  We can retire there after we've taken the edge off."

Will started to complain of the stench in the alley, but Jack curtailed this half-hearted protest with another kiss, pinning Will's hands to the wall.  Jack's insistence was enticing, and even the pain of the masonry biting into his wrists only served to inflame Will's passion.  Drunk more on lust than ale, he succumbed easily to Jack's beguilements.  His hips bucked forward, and their hard pricks rubbed together.  Will groaned and buried his face in Jack's neck to stifle his cries.  Underneath the smoke that clung to Jack's coat, Will smelled Jack's own scent -- salty, metallic, and acrid, like lightning on the water.   

They were careless with one another, taking their pleasure with a rough intensity that resembled fury, yanking hair and tearing at clothes.  Their kisses were sloppy and interspersed with muttered instructions -- "harder," "there," "damn you, don't stop."  Will came quickly, from nothing more than the pressure of Jack's cock against his. 

The friction of his damp breeches against Will's softening prick quickly became painful and he pushed Jack away, silencing his protesting snarl by unbuttoning his breeches and taking him in hand.  Jack moaned and stumbled forward, steadying himself against the wall.  He squeezed his eyes shut, but as Will's hand began to move, slick and sure, he opened them again and met Will's gaze, inscrutably.  He did not look away until he spent himself, shuddering and scrabbling at the wall.  Then, resting his head against Will's shoulder, he took Will's hand, brought it to his mouth, and began to lick it clean.

Will felt again the magnetic pull of attraction and desire and clutched at Jack's hips urgently.  But now that Will's lust was somewhat sated, he was more aware of how exposed they were, hidden by nothing but the doorframe, and at risk of interruption from any of the whores.  Torn between caution and desire, he held Jack still, and breathed deeply in an effort to clear his head.

The door creaked open, and the muted sounds from the tavern briefly grew louder.  The blonde girl emerged once more, giggling and pulling a callow youth behind her.  Will jerked away and set to putting his clothes to rights, while Jack merely shrugged and winked at the whore, then nonchalantly buttoned his breeches.  Will flushed with shame, and muttered belligerent oaths against randy pirates the entire way home.

III. Carnal lusts and appetites

There are ladies who thrive on cosseting and coddling, who manufacture illnesses in order to shirk their duties and to elicit sympathy and comfort from those around them, but Elizabeth was no malade imaginaire, and three months of ill health and confinement -- not to mention her husband's excessive pampering -- had left her short-tempered and irritable.  It was one thing to lie in bed when she was close to death, weak and confused, but now that she was nearly recovered, she itched for activity and excitement.  Her sphere had shrunk to her small room, overheated and still fetid with the smell of sickness, and it seemed she would never escape into the wide world again. 

She flung her book down and gazed eagerly out the window at the patch of blue sky.  A doctorbird lit on the window box and cocked its head at her, then flitted away, long tail trailing behind it.  Grumbling to herself, Elizabeth swore that she would go out tomorrow, even if it was only for a short walk.  They could hardly keep her prisoner forever.

She picked up her book, but before she could find her place again there was a clatter at the window, and Jack tumbled through, one hand clutching his pocket.  Elizabeth thought she'd never been so happy to see someone in all her life.  If she couldn’t find excitement, perhaps excitement would find her?  "Jack!  We didn't look for you for another week. . .But Will won't be home for hours.  He'll be sorry if he misses you.  You can stay, can't you?"

Jack kicked off his boots, dislodging a small beach's worth of sand, and dropped bonelessly onto the bed. "I'm here for the night.  Got to shove off in the morning, but I wanted to see for myself the miraculous recovery that Will reported in his last letter."  Squinting, he lifted her eyelid and scrutinized her eye, tugged her chin down and examined her mouth, and ostentatiously felt the pulse in her neck.  Ignoring her giggling, he patted and groped her thoroughly, finally pinching her bottom.  She squealed and swatted his hand away.  "Better, indeed!  Doctor Jack declares you good as new."

"I've told Will I'm well, but he insists that I should stay a few more days in bed.  He worries overmuch."

Jack patted his pocket in an odd way, and said, distractedly, "I gather he had good reason to worry.  Don't fault him for that."

Before Elizabeth could respond, she too was diverted by the bulge in Jack's pocket, which shifted in a peculiar way and made a curious little squeak.  Squirming between Jack's fingers, an apricot ball of fluff appeared and scampered up Jack's arm.  From its perch on Jack's shoulder, it peered down at Elizabeth with large amber eyes.  "Ship's cat had kittens -- thought you might like to have one.  The mother's a champion mouser, and this one looks to take after her." 

Ignoring Elizabeth's proffered hand, the cat pawed delicately at the coin in Jack's hair.  "What a funny color -- he's all mottled like peaches and cream.  Or is it a girl?"

Jack shrugged.  "Gibbs says it’s a tom."

"And he's a mighty rat slayer?  He doesn't look particularly dangerous."

"Ah, but looks can be deceiving, didn't you know?" 

Elizabeth shifted to get a better look, and the cat hurtled down onto her sheet-covered knee.  "Ow!"  She grabbed for it, but it was too quick, and had already raced down to her foot, where it was attacking her toe. 

Jack bent down and it pounced at his beard, batting at the beaded plaits, and then at the larger beads in his hair in quick succession, drawing a sharp claw across his cheek.  Jack squawked indignantly, ripped the scarf from his head, and swatted at the kitten ineffectually.  Blood beaded up along the scratch, as Jack scrabbled for the kitten.  When he'd finally captured it, he held it fast at arm's length.  "Should I toss him out the window or throw him in the fire?" 

"Put him in this basket."  Elizabeth clapped the top of the basket down and fastened it shut, then turned her attention to Jack's cheek.  She dabbed at the wound with her handkerchief until the cloth came away clean.  "I believe you'll live," she declared.

Jack pulled a melancholy face.  "I wouldn't be so certain -- I'm grievously injured."

"Shall I kiss it all better?"

"Have a care!  I know what you're up to, you saucy wench."

"Not you too!  I am perfectly well, and nearly mad with longing."  Encouraged by the sympathy in his expression, she kissed his cheek coyly, and then grazed his lips with hers.  He made a soft sound in the back of his throat, and she snuggled up to him, nibbling on his full bottom lip until he returned her kiss.

He ran his fingers lightly over her body, as if to reacquaint himself with her form, and this simple touch was enough to make her gasp and squirm.  "You have no idea," she said, between kisses, "How much I've missed this."

He nipped her ear and soothed the bite with his tongue, his hands busily pushing her dressing gown up.  "And here I thought you were perfectly capable of entertaining yourself. . ."

Her reply was lost in a murmuring cry as Jack's nimble fingers found their mark, and slipped and slid in maddening circles.  One long finger dipped inside, and she ground herself against his hand, mewling and pleading until he bent his head and put his mouth to her nipple.  A slow wave of pleasure rolled over her, building at an excruciating pace and finally crashing in a dizzying climax that sent tiny shocks rippling through her body.  She curled her toes and stretched languidly before reaching to loosen Jack's sash.  As delightful as that had been, it was only a prelude to what she truly desired.

Jack stayed her hand.  "That's quite enough of that, I think."

"You can't mean to stop now!"  She struggled with him, convinced that she could persuade him, if he would only let her free, but his grip was firm and implacable and she could not overcome it.  Finally, she surrendered, collapsing back against the pillow with tears of frustration in her eyes.

Matter-of-factly, Jack said, "I know where Will stands on this, and I'll not come between you and your husband, darling, not for all the sighs and tears in the world."

"So you'll leave me to burn, while the two of you sate yourselves with one another?"  Her fury gave her a new strength, and she sat up and grasped his arms.  "I may die in childbed, or you may be hanged or Will may be kicked in the head by a horse.  One way or the other, we'll all die, but I'll not let the fear of death steal my life from me!"

Jack winced.  "I can't say that I don't agree with you, love.  But it's not me that needs convincing, it's Will."  He gently pried her fingers from his arm.  "What say you to this?  I'll beard the lion in his den, and attempt to show him the error of his ways.  I make no guarantees of his answer -- your husband's nearly as stubborn as his father -- but I'll do everything in my power to bring him to reason.  Will that suffice?"

This was truly the best she could hope for.  The fight went out of her, and she nodded mutely.

Just then the rhythmic scratching from the basket took on a frantic quality, accompanied by a pitiable wailing meow.  The kitten had somehow wedged one paw and part of his head between the lid and the basket, and could neither squeeze the rest of himself through nor back out of his predicament.  The absurd sight brought a reluctant smile to Elizabeth's lips. 

"Should we free the prisoner and see if he's more tractable after his time in the brig?"

Worn out from his efforts, the kitten curled up in Elizabeth's lap with a rumbling purr and fell asleep.  It was impossible to feel self-pity in the face of such utter contentment.

Jack settled himself back beside her.  "Friends again?"  He produced a small flask, which Elizabeth knew from experience was likely to contain rotgut rum.  "Shall we drink to our accord?"

She took a long pull from the flask.  Her eyes burned, but she managed to choke it down.  The second draught was less painful and the third infused her with a warm glow.  They passed the flask back and forth, and before long Jack was teaching her the new song he'd learnt from Gibbs.

Elizabeth picked it up quickly and when Will opened the bedchamber door, their voices were mingling in the refrain:

Come on then, and couple together,

Come all, the Old and the Young,

The Short and the Tall;

The richer than Croesus,

And poorer than Job,

For 'tis Wedding and Bedding,

That Peoples the Globe.

****

It was a familiar scene: the shop dark and empty, the apprentice and journeyman long gone, and Will sitting at his little desk in the backroom, checking his accounts.  He had not scheduled a rendezvous with Jack, but he'd dawdled in the faint hope that Jack would appear, and when he heard a sure tread on the dirt floor, Will reached for the bottle of rum with a lightened heart.

At first, all was well.  Jack propped his heels on the desk, smacked his lips over the rum, and bemoaned Will's descent into drudgery, just as he always did.  However, there was something wary and shut off about him: Jack's mercurial moods were notorious, but it still amazed Will that Jack could be so different from one visit to the next.  A month ago, in the tavern, he'd been whorish in his persistence, now he was cool and distant, and rebuffed Will's tentative advances with a harsh laugh.

"I'll not be your accommodation, boy.  You can't leave your lady-love unsatisfied and come to me for your own relief."

Will gawked incredulously.  If he'd been certain of anything, it was that Jack would support him in this.  "What?"

"You can't have it both ways.  You make it up with Elizabeth and then we'll talk, aye?"

"Surely you're not suggesting that I take her to bed and get her with child again?  She barely survived last time.  I'll be damned if I'll risk her life for my pleasure!"

"Ah, but what of her pleasure?  Do you expect her to live like a nun from here on out?"  Jack paused reflectively.  "Mind you, I don't have much faith in all that bride of Christ business.  Even nuns have been known to succumb to the right sort of temptation. . ."  He dismissed the thought with a magisterial wave of his hand.  "I never pegged you for a coward, mate, but you're letting your fear rule you in this.  You'd best screw your courage to the sticking place and do what must be done, or you'll lose everything."

"But. . .What if. . ."  Will winced at the petulant quality in his voice, and attempted a calmer tone.  What came out sounded far more accusatory than he'd intended.  "Whose side are you on?"

"My own, love, always my own."  Jack tipped his hat.  "Pirate, remember?"  And with an elegant bow, he turned and strolled from the smithy, leaving Will alone with the rum and his jumbled thoughts.

****

Will awoke to the amethyst light of early morning, his head aching from too much rum and his neck cramped and stiff from sleeping with his head pillowed on his desk.  Tangled threads of dreams clung to him: Jack's tar-stained hands clasped around Elizabeth's burgeoning belly, the sound of someone wailing in abject grief, and the muddy smell of the street after a hard rain.  In vain, he attempted to tie these random thoughts together, but try as he might, he could make no sense of them, and soon even these vague impressions had eluded him, replaced by snatches of the previous day's conversations.  "Women die in childbed every day, but many more are delivered of healthy children and are none the worse for it!"  "I can't live without you, and I'll not be the means of your death."  "I never pegged you for a coward."

He groaned and banged his head on his desk.  He was a coward, and there was no denying it.  He could be as brave as ever he liked when it came to putting himself in danger, but he couldn't bear the thought of Elizabeth suffering like that again, or of watching her bleed her life out.  He'd shrunk from her without considering the cost, but now he was beginning to see what it would come to.  If they could not resolve this, Elizabeth's rancor would fester, the divide between them would grow insurmountable, and Jack, unwilling to choose sides, would slip away, never to return.  It seemed that Will would bring about the very thing he feared, in his attempts to escape it. 

The remnants of rum in his mouth tasted sour.  He thought of poor Brown, who'd slept many a night on this desk, too jug-bitten to make his way home, and he shuddered.  With a new resolve, Will shoved back from the desk and strode to the cask he kept by the anvil.  He poured dipperful after dipperful of cool water over his head until he felt clearheaded and had washed the fermented stench from his skin; drinking deeply, he slaked a thirst he'd been unaware of until that moment, then, laughing ruefully at his damp and wrinkled coat, he set off to make amends.

IV. The secrets of all hearts

The tattoo of a drum reverberated in Will's head.  The sun beat down with stultifying heat, and he had to shield his eyes against the glare to see the gallows.  He reached for his sword, but his hand closed around air; the scabbard was empty and his heart raced with fear.  Elizabeth was weeping somewhere close by and Will was running and the drumbeat sped up and there was an ominous clank as the trapdoor opened and Elizabeth cried out. . .and then Will was startled awake, instantly aware that the sound he'd  heard did not have the significance his dream had given it.

Will squinted to see in the dark room, and then blinked at the sight before him.  Elizabeth was straddling Jack; her shift, silver-white in the moonlight, pooled around them.  Jack's eyes were glassy and he was just beginning to catch his breath.  When he realized that Will was awake, Jack smiled lazily and reached for him. 

Still recovering from his nightmare, Will was overwhelmed with relief, even as he struggled to make sense of Jack's unexpected appearance.  He leaned in to kiss him, but recoiled when he saw the ugly wound on Jack's temple.  A moment's scrutiny revealed that Jack had come straight from battle; a dozen questions sprang to mind, but the shuttered look in Jack's eyes stopped his tongue, and he only said, "It's good to see you, Jack."

This must have been the right response, because Jack exhaled the breath he'd been holding, and replied, "It's good to be here, mate, believe me."

Will kissed him then, hungrily, with all the concern he hadn't voiced. As he pulled away he asked, "How long have you been here?"

Jack's grip tightened as if he were loath to let Will get too far away. "'Since midnight. . .I didn't care to disturb your repose."

"Liar!" Elizabeth swatted him on the arm. "You never intended to let us sleep, did you?"

Jack gave her a roguish wink.  "As pretty as the pair of you are asleep, you're much more fun awake."

****

Since Elizabeth's recovery, she'd taken any excuse to be out of doors, enjoying the freedom she'd so dearly missed while she was abed.  She made it a regular habit to do her needlework in the garden, where bees buzzed in the thyme and the sun-warmed camellias perfumed the air.  On such halcyon days, even sewing was bearable, although Elizabeth often fell to daydreaming and speculating on the future, her thread slack and her needle forgotten in her hand.  Thus she sat when Cecilia came to call, rousing her from her reverie.

As always, Cecilia was beautifully turned out, but her creamy skin had a new glow, and, if possible, she looked even more satisfied than she had the last time Elizabeth had seen her.  Marriage appeared to agree with her.

"I wanted to return Moll Flanders -- it's every bit as scandalous as you said!  Mama threatened to throw it in the fire, but James was quite insistent that I should be allowed to read whatever I liked."  She smiled smugly and her thoughts seemed to wander.  Collecting herself, she added, "And, of course, I must thank you for attending the wedding.  It was kind of you, especially since you've been so ill."

"Oh, I'm fully recovered now!  In all honesty, I was glad of the excuse to leave the house.  Will and Father have coddled me mercilessly, but even they could not argue when I insisted it would be improper for me to miss your wedding."

"Yes, you do look better than when I saw you last."  Her eyes narrowed as she assessed Elizabeth's waistline.  "You'll have to let your dresses out soon, I expect."

Elizabeth looked around guiltily, although she knew Will was still at the forge.  "Shush!  I haven't told Will yet.  He's skittish already, and I'd rather not be confined to my bed for the next six months.  Plenty of time to tell him when there's no hiding it!"

Cecilia laughed and nodded.  "I suppose all wives must keep some secrets from their husbands.  I have nothing so momentous to hide, although I confess I have little fondness for Captain Gillette.  I think James must feel sorry for him, for he invites him to dinner with tedious regularity."  She cast a demure glance at the trellis, and her lips twitched.  "I wonder if he's quite right in the head?  He tells the most improbable tales -- sometimes it's all I can do to be polite to him!"

****

"Elizabeth, your blasted cat's got his tail in the inkwell again!"  Will shoved at the cat, finally dislodging him, but not before his long tail had swiped across Will's letter, smearing ink across the page.  Will blotted it until it was passably decipherable.  Jack could hardly complain, seeing as his letters weren't exactly paragons of clarity and legibility.

"Peaches!" Elizabeth scolded as she wiped the ink from the cat's tail.  "Must you always be in the way?  Shoo!  Earn your keep, you lazy thing.  Champion mouser, my left foot. . .Tell Jack to bring us another cat when he comes.  This one's good for nothing but drinking cream and lazing in the sun."

Because you've spoiled him rotten, Will thought, chuckling to himself.  "Anything else you'd like me to add before I seal it up?"

Elizabeth suddenly became engrossed by the view from the parlor window.  "You might. . .That is. . .Do you think he'd like to know that I'm increasing?"

Will's first reaction was shock, followed by a bolt of dread and anger.  He wanted to shake her for her nonchalant tone, and from the tense set of Elizabeth's shoulders, she was bracing herself for an explosion.  Instead he breathed deeply, saying nothing until she turned to look at him.  He forced a smile to his face.  "Yes, I'm sure Jack will want to know."

Epilogue

Elizabeth, awash in warm, sleepy comfort, leaned against the foot of the bed with Jack on one side of her, Will on the other, and baby John nestled in her arms.  An unseasonable storm rattled the windows, and thunder crashed in the distance, but inside, the fire blazed, raising a cloud of steam from Jack's coat, which was hung near the hearth to dry.  John nursed insistently, his eyes fixed on the dangling beads in Jack's hair.  Jack sipped his brandy and hummed softly to himself, while Will munched on a piece of toast and absently petted the purring cat.  Elizabeth could not remember when she had felt more content. 

Finally sated, John grew still.  His inquisitive eyes slowly shut, and his mouth slipped from her breast.  When Elizabeth shifted his head to rest in the crook of her arm, a fleeting smile momentarily brightened his face.  "That was your smile, Will -- I've seen you give just such a look before succumbing to sleep."

"But his hair's darker than mine. . .And his eyes are exactly like Jack's."

Elizabeth considered this.  "Actually, I think they're more like mine."  It was odd how John could look like one person at one time, and someone completely different at another.  It occurred to Elizabeth that he would look more like himself than any of them, and that was both delightful and surprising.  "Too early to tell, I think.  But you're right -- his mouth is very like Jack's."

"I thought it didn't matter either way what the boy's paternity was?"

"Oh, it doesn't!  I'm just curious as to what sort of devil I'll be raising. . ."

Jack cocked an eyebrow skeptically, and said, "Six o' one, half dozen of the other, wouldn't you say?  Any son of yours is sure to be a rogue and a rambler, whoever his father might be."

"Unless he takes after my father -- wouldn't that confound us all!"

"Now that you mention it, I don't like to impugn your mother's honor, but how did a man like that have a daughter like you?"

Elizabeth carried the baby to his cradle.  "I take after my mother, I suppose, although what he saw in her I can't imagine."

Will grinned at her fondly.  "I can."

"As uxorious as ever," Jack tsked.  "Or is it that you're reduced to sweet-talking your wife for a tumble?"

"Speaking of which. . ."

They very well might have made it to the bed, had Will not grappled Jack to the floor and kissed him.  But perhaps it was for the best -- there was considerably more room on the floor.
 

 

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