REUNITED

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'Pirates of the Caribbean' belongs to Disney.

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Halfway to dawn, the proliferous bouquet of Tortuga was in full voice. It spilled from the myriad brothels and taverns, down the crooked lanes and byways to the docks, where the usual long row of buccaneer vessels rocked on their moorings. Like their masters, the ships displayed variant hues and degrees of wear; timbers fresh and furrowed, sporting stains, paint, ornaments and battle scars. Most rang with sounds of onboard carousing... but not the slightly-removed one at the dock's end. Of no great age, yet weathered by a hundred rare adventures, she rested silent as a night cloud, and as dark.

Virtually all the Black Pearl's crew were ashore- occasionally one or another of their voices could be recognized amidst the general cacophony. Only a single member had elected to remain aboard. Captain Jack Sparrow was presently ensconced in a net hammock strung along the bow's starboard side. Having so recently regained his beloved ship, he found her company more alluring than any entertainment Tortuga had to offer. At least for the moment.

Sparrow reclined lazily, watching wind tug the folds of the furled overhead jib, as he savored a sip from a large rum bottle. His free hand fondly stroked the nearest bulkhead. It felt proper. Not like when he'd been brought aboard as Barbossa's captive- that had been similar to viewing free ocean surf through jailhouse bars. But now, having regained his rightful status as her Captain, he could wallow in the balm of finally being back aboard his Pearl...

At least he could if not for that one persistent anxiety, tugging at the edge of his consciousness. Jack took a faster swallow, hoping to drive said concern from his awareness. Along with a recent, galling disappointment.

He'd been so sure, when he'd struck that deal with Davy Jones, that he'd find a way to squirm out long before the debt came due. Too well, he recalled the first time he'd set sail for the Isla de Muerta, fully confident he would soon acquire the means to do so. But then came that unanticipated decade-long delay... Damn Barbossa to the hottest depths of Hell!

The minute Jack took the Pearl's helm, following his most impressive escape from Port Royal's gallows, he'd set course back to that treasure-strewn island. He had been certain then, as before, that its riches would give him the means to nullify the threat of servitude on the Dutchman. It had been extraordinarily hard to conceal the depth of his frustration, when they'd arrived at the coordinates to find naught but floating debris. Somebody amongst the Powers really had it in for Jack Sparrow!

The crew had trawled amongst that flotsam for a full day, hauling aboard any vaguely valuable bits, just to gain some profit from the voyage. Hardly sufficient compensation for the other thing they'd picked up.

Sparrow bent his head back to shoot a venomous glare at the crow's nest- the current denning site of Hector's pestilential primate. Again, he cursed his own failure to recognize what that roundish potrusion on the floating trunk was, until it'd leapt onto his ship's side and scrambled aboard, up into the rigging. The little demon had resided there ever since, making whatever trouble she could, demonstrating unnatural resistance to all attempts at extermination. Jack fiercely hoped the feculent simian would decide to jump ship before they left port, but that didn't seem to be the way his luck was going.

He let his gaze return forward, to the far more esthetic sight of his ship's figurehead, gleaming like ebony in the sparse illumination of the dockside lanterns. Still so maidenly, after all she'd been through... Jack smirked a bit, recalling his instructions to the Dublin wood-sculptors. Thinking it an amusingly ironic counterpart to his ship's name, he had ordered them to carve a lass with all the traditional accoutrements of a virgin. She could hardly be anything else, being delved from a chunk of oak.

His smile broadened as he recalled how stunning she'd looked the day the Wicked Wench was first launched. Pale arm stretched forward to release a pure white bird, strawberry-blonde tresses crowned with spring flowers, gilded wings, sky-blue gown. Jack reached to caress the graceful folds of that gown, now burnt to solid black. A more-piratical shade, to be sure. Even so; once he'd settled his business with Jones, Sparrow intended to repay Cutler Beckett for so cruelly robbing his ship of her original vibrant color scheme.

Jack noticed something else. The flickering light from the whale-oil lamps was projecting moving shadows on the figurehead's beautiful face, making her expression change from moment to moment. She now appeared to be frowning, in a most disapprobatious manner, at something on the docks. Jack sat up in his hammock, to ascertain the object of her contempt. Several gaudily dressed 'soiled doves' were traipsing along that stretch, cooing enticingly at every male in sight. The captain lay back down, out of their view.

"Aw, Pearl, don't scorn 'em so," he chided, gently but with feeling. "'Tis more'en likely those wenches have passed through hard straits, ta land on such shores. If the truth be known, theer was a time even I... that is, when my circumstance were of such..." Jack's voice faltered. He had never related that story to any being, living or otherwise.

The shadows shifted, making the figurehead's eye seem to turn towards him. Her regard was not judgmental, just curious- even sympathetic. Jack pondered for a second, took another slow gulp of rum, and solemnly began his narrative.

"This happened through the first half-year after Barbossa so unjustifiably engineered our separation. Thanks to some opportunely-arrived smugglers, an' a couple more-valuable beads delved from the depths of my hair, I made it back to livable shores. My first priority was ta follow in yer wake, with intent to re-claim ye. Fer that, I needed a ship. I'd a notion of how I might acquire one... the details aren't pertinent now, but it required me ta make a brief visit to the Mediterranean. This scheme was a long-shot, so, desirin' to know the likelihood of success, I paid a consultin' visit ta Tia Dalma. I trust you recollect her?"

The ship rocked on a wave- close enough to a nod. "Upon receivin' the required payment, that Obeah wench tossed a handful of crab claws, studied 'em a bit, an' made her diagnosis. This proposed venture had two possible outcomes: I'd either emerge captaining an adequate ship, or I'd shuffle off this mortal coil. In either case, I'd lose every possession I started out with. 'Seemed as good a chance as I could expect. So, I left a few especially-valued items in her good keepin..." Jack's fingertips brushed the rim of his leather tricorn, "... then set about arranging transport 'cross the Atlantic."

The pirate's eyes narrowed. "That was the most calamitious voyage I've ever endured, an' not fer lack of competition! Mishap after mishap. About a dozen times it looked like Tia's second prediction was imminent... one interval where that didn't seem the worst prospect. But I don't want ta burden yer heart with all the details, luv. I'll just say, at one point I had such urgent need ta disembark from Istanbul, I resorted ta concealing meself amongst the silk cargo on a merchant brig."

The wooden face seemed to grimace. They both knew that stowing away was a method of last resort, particularly aboard a merchant vessel.

"Twas my bad luck that that ship's captain was of a severe mindset. Between Istanbul and Lisbon, they got enough work out of my hide ta pay fer a trans-Pacific passage, on grub of quality an' volume that'd barely keep a cat alive. An' that weren't the worst! We finally hove inta view of Lisbon Port, but a league offshore, this bloody huge navy galleon intercepted our course. Some officer bearing resemblance to a Suriname toad informed us, through a speakin' horn, that we were forbidden ta approach any closer; the whole port was under military blockade. He didn't specify the reason- not that I had any interest in knowin'. Before the blighter finished, I launched meself over the rail an' started strokin' fer shore. At that crux I was willin' ta risk those naval bastards firin' on me. 'Twas sheer luck they decided I wasn't worth the shot.

"I made it to the docks, but a brief stroll revealed my situation wasn't significantly improved. I had absolutely nothin', other 'en my hard-worn excuse fer clothes. The berthed ships weren't going anywhere, so nobody was signing anyone on- 'least not into any accord that included access ta berth or fare. I had minimal chance o' landing any other work, with my sparse command of Portuguese. To make matters worse, all the local food sellers were keepin' special watch against anyone nicking theer wares, in full partnership with the patrolling magistrates. Theer's only been a handful o' occasions when my innards've felt quite so empty!

"But starvation weren't the most immediate threat. The whole waterfront was crawlin' with other stranded tars, all surly an' restless from bein' stuck ashore, many gathered into packs. From the way certain of 'em eyed me, I knew 'twould be highly inadvisable fer me ta linger there after nightfall.

"So when dusk came, I headed inland, hopin' ta locate some concealing niche where I might be able ta risk takin' some sleep. On my life, I swear 'twas by chance I landed on that particular avenue, just at the edge of the city's 'civilized' district. There were comely blokes linin' the length of it, lounging against lampposts or posin' on corners. The main vehicular traffic was carriages- fine ones- containing unescorted ladies gawkin' out theer windows, lookin' the lads over.

"I was so bone-weary by then, I paused fer a rest. One of those carriages came to a halt, right beside me. The door opened; a portly midlin'-age wench was inside, gesturing fer me ta get in..." Jack paused a long moment. "An' I did. Neither of us knew the other's language, so theer was no conversation through the drive to her house. A well-above-average dwelling it was! 'Twas obvious from the portraits within, that she shared said dwelling with a naval officer. 'Twas equally obvious he wasn't there at the moment. She handed me over to a couple sizable servants, who led me to a room with a prepared bath..." Jack's lips quirked. "I won't deny, that part felt wonderful. Afterwards, I was provided with a change of clothes. Nothin' fancy, an' a bit loose-fittin', but a considerable improvement. Then I was escorted to the dining room, where I ate dinner with the lady. I hope she weren't expectin' a mannered gent, 'cause I devoured everything in sight! The minute we'd finished, my hostess took my arm, firm as a Mum with a misbehaving child. She led me into her well-appointed bedroom... where I spent the remainder of the night expressing my gratitude.

"Next morning, her driver gave me a ride back to the pickup spot. 'Dropped me off with enough coin ta purchase food fer the day, but not enough to rent a room. Consequently, that day's end found me on that same avenue, where a different carriage stopped fer me. An' next eve, another..."

Jack emptied the rum bottle with one gulp and heaved it over the bowsprit. The shattering crash on the dock provoked a brief outpouring of feminine shrieks and masculine swearing.

"I didn't want ta call it whoring. Told meself, I was just doin' what survival necessitated. If I stayed in the wharf area I'd probably wind up providing similar service to any number of those bruisers, only fer no payment an' less option of refusal. But my new occupation proved to have hazards of it's own. 'Twas about the seventh evening, when I was collected by a less-aged client. First one who was actually pretty- resembled an Italian statue, though with rather less sense. She'd badly overestimated how absent her man was. In fact, he were waitin' in ambush under her bed."

Almost involuntarily, Jack reached to his right shoulder. He could feel the pair of round scars through his shirt fabric. "Didn't hear any shots after those two; jus' the chit screechin' like a banshee. So I don't think he killed her. Might be he had a Menelaus moment- decided that, faithless though she was, he wanted his comely wench back. I'll never know!

"An indeterminate while later, I regained consciousness on a very lumpy cot, too weak an' sore ta move more 'en my head. Couldn't see naught but a splotchy dark interior, or hear anything beyond groans, sobs an' occasional screams. My first thought was I'd landed in Hades' domain. Wasn't 'til a padre came through, chantin' Latin an' making air-crosses above us, that I realized it was a church hospice. There were about thirty blokes in theer, lined up on other cots, all hurt or sick. The place was obviously on a tight budget- might be they were overwhelmed from all the stranded sailors gettin' inta scrapes. The only service the staff performed was shovelin' twice-daily doses of gruel into our mouths, an' cleanin' our worst messes. There was one stocky lad who gave my wounds an occasional sponge-off, but that weren't anywhere near adequate- the hurt jus' got worse, and moved deeper. Luv, I was sure as I'd ever been, that I'd reached the end of my hawser. The great Captain Jack Sparrow would make his last disembarkment in this odious hole, unknown an' unlamented, with none ever ta learn how his legend concluded." Sparrow dabbed a sleeve against his eyes. The Black Pearl rocked him in a soothing manner.

"But it seems that, unbeknownst ta me, a certain party had been keepin' track of my whereabouts. An' not with indifference. Lass, do you recall the disparagin' terms I've applied to me Da from time to time? They weren't entirely justified," Jack admitted. "'Twas Teague who fulfilled Dalma's first prophesy. He snaked me out of that place an' ensconced me aboard 'is ship, where his physician finally gave me some proper medical treatment- painful enough ta do an Inquisitor proud, but it put me on the mend! When I was nine-tenths recovered, Teague captured a merchant vessel an' gave her over ta my command... the Whimbrel. She were a portly thing, though surprising spirited fer..."

From deep within his ship came a loud groan, as of strained timbers. Jack frowned.

"Now theer's no cause fer that! The Whimbrel were never more'en means ta the ends fer me, as I made clear from our first acquaintanceship. Even so, that ol' gal gave me all she had to give. That reef I saluted when we entered this harbor is her final resting place."

The creakings became less strident, but the figurehead looked sulky. Jack sat straight up in the netting, addressing his dark lady with some sternness.

"Pearl, pardon if I sound like a practitioner of a certain other profession I've dabbled in, but 'tis not meet ta think ill of them- ships or people- what've been dealt a harsher hand 'en you have. I've bestowed no distain on strumpets since then- it seems probable theer stories are no happier 'en mine was at the time. So do stop regardin' 'em in such an uncharitable manner!"

More shadings flickered over the carved face- she looked genuinely hurt. Jack hastened to pat the figure again, just below the bodice. "There, darlin', don't take it that way. No fault of yours'd ever make me love you less. Didn't I spend the last ten years demonstratin' that?"

The hammock swung out a bit, then gently back, landing him close against his ship's side. Not exactly soft, but warm and welcoming. Jack smiled, settling into that embrace, pressing one cheek to the dark wood.

"It was all worth it. I got ye back, luv- that's what matters. The rest, we'll deal with when it comes." The onshore ruckus faded to insignificance; Sparrow heard only his ship's soothing wooden clicks. He let his eyes shut, contentment descended at last. "No worries, lass. We'll overcome it all, somehow..."

Just in time, he caught the scarce-heard patter of a smallish creature moving along the spar. Jack jerked upright, barely dodging a hurled belaying pin. It bounced noisily off the bulkhead, just where his head had been resting.

Snarling a choice curse, Sparrow glared back over his shoulder. A little furred skeleton was crouched at the end of the boom, baring her fangs at him. With a disappointed shriek, she leapt to scramble up the mainmast, disappearing into the dark jungle of the rigging.

Jack glowered after her. So did the figurehead.

"First thing we might do, is devise some way ta get shed of that bloody monkey!"

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FINIS