|Rating: PG-13, slash, drama
Other characters: Lieutenant Groves
Summary: A crime has been committed aboard HMS Dauntless. Norrington tempers justice with mercy, but his lieutenant is not impressed.
Author's note: belated birthday story for Alex!
One should have thought that avoiding the company of a man aboard a ship was impossible. They lived, worked and fought in close proximity; there was hardly any privacy, not even for an officer. And yet Gillette had managed to avoid his captain for five days. Not that they hadn't talked or crossed each other's path; Gillette would have never neglected his duties, no matter how angry he was. And by God, he was angry. Norrington could feel disapproval combined with contempt radiating from Gillette, and as much as the thought pained him, he had to accept that he had failed in Gillette's eyes.
It was not for the first time he felt inferior to his lieutenant, this exemplary officer who demanded absolute obedience and respect, but also held his own person to the highest standards. Thomas Gillette was always the first to draw his sword, and the last to put it back into its sheath, be it in battle or in life. The word "compromise" didn't exist in his vocabulary. Norrington, on the other hand, always tried to strike a balance between two extremes, considered all possible options and, as a consequence, often left the impression of a man who avoided making a decision.
For five days, Norrington played along. He tried to ignore Gillette's cold behaviour and the anger in his eyes. This time, it would not be him to cave in and try to make amends. This time, he would not move heaven and hell to be liked again. He had done nothing wrong, handled a difficult situation to his best knowledge and in perfect tune with the law. But Gillette, that much was obvious, felt that he had been overly lenient and merciful. Norrington knew that, had the decision been in the hands of his first lieutenant, Matthews and Roberts would have been hanging by their necks from the yardarm, rather than being put into irons.
Gillette's opinion was shared by the men, but to Norrington, their thoughts didn't matter at the moment. Only Gillette's did. This was a painful lesson to learn - he needed his lieutenant's company. It was important to his well-being and sanity to talk to him, be respected by him and have him close. It was also scary to discover that this evil which could not be named, this despicable need he'd hoped to have left behind years ago was still there, ingrained in his heart and very soul. The less he saw of Gillette, the more Norrington thought of him, and many of those thoughts were of a rather indecent nature. So Gillette couldn't have found a more effective way to punish his captain than by depriving him of his company. Not that Gillette knew, of course. And God forbid he ever would. Nothing escaped his sharp mind, and if Norrington didn't want to find himself in front of a court martial as well, he had to be very careful.
It was shortly before the end of the first watch on the fifth day when Norrington couldn't bear Gillette's short-spoken "Yes, Sir," and "No, Sir," anymore. He sent his boy to fetch the lieutenant, determined to settle the matter. At the end of the day, he was the captain aboard the ship, and Gillette was the lieutenant. It wasn't his place to criticise the actions of a superior officer in such an impertinent way.
Norrington went to the length of wearing his coat as well as his wig, despite the scorching heat. He didn't expect much respect from Gillette for James Norrington the man, but he'd demand respect for James Norrington the captain.
Soon after, Gillette stood in the great cabin, head inclined so not to hit it on the ceiling. His roundish, freckly face was reddened from the heat, the cravat drenched with sweat. A strand of red hair had escaped the ribbon holding the pigtail and hung in his face. Gillette reached up to tuck it behind his ear. Norrington caught a quick glimpse of the small strip of pale skin between Gillette's tanned hand and the cuff of his uniform. An explorer discovering a new continent couldn't have been more excited than Norrington upon seeing a part of Gillette's body that had so far been hidden to his eyes.
Gillette cleared his throat, and Norrington snapped out of his musings. No pussyfooting now, the only approach to discuss anything with Gillette was the direct one.
"Mr. Gillette, I understand that you don't agree with my actions concerning the crime committed by seamen Matthews and Roberts?"
Gillette didn't show any surprise; he'd probably expected what his summon would be about.
"Your understanding is correct, Sir," he replied without hesitation.
"You're aware that I've acted in accordance with all laws and regulations?"
"And that I'm under no obligation to justify my actions to you or the men?"
If only Gillette had shown some small sign of insecurity, of doubt, of weakness. But once again, Norrington was not the one in charge. The wig made no difference.
"Let me explain my reasoning to you," Norrington began, but Gillette cut him off.
"Sir, you have already established that you don't have to justify your actions. So, with all due respect, don't do it."
Norrington, hands clasped behind his back, dug his fingernails deep into the palms of his hands.
"I have no intention to justify anything, but I will explain my actions to you. The accused were drunk. The witness was drunk. The hold was dark and visibility was poor. I could not have passed judgement with clear conscience, and condemn to death two good tars who have served under my command for years, based on such evidence. I feel that the court martial is the appropriate body to come to a judgement, and I have no doubts that the two men will have a fair chance to present their case. I'm aware that this way of dealing with the matter is more lenient than what you think proper, but I won't put up with your anger for tempering justice with mercy."
Norrington wouldn't have thought it to be possible for Gillette's face to turn even redder, yet the impossible happened. Indeed, had Gillette been a teapot, steam would have come out of his ears.
"You think I want to see the men hanging from the yardarm?" Gillette shook his head in disbelief, like a man who had just learned that he'd become father of triplets. "Eight years I've served under your command, Sir, and if not friends, then I'd at least considered us good acquaintances. And yet I have to learn that you know nothing, absolutely nothing about me."
"I don't understand," Norrington said, rather helpless.
"That much is obvious. I ask for your permission to leave, Sir."
Norrington wanted to hold him back, make him talk, explain himself, but he knew Gillette well enough to know that nothing good would come out of it.
"Permission granted," he said.
The next days passed without further incidents. Gillette kept his distance, and Norrington made no further attempts at talking to him. Despite the narrow space aboard the ship, Gillette couldn't have been more distant if he'd served on the moon. Norrington felt ailing, as if he'd contracted a disease. Seeing Gillette made him shiver as if he'd suffer from a fever, he felt sick and giddy. The less he wanted to think about Gillette, the more time he spent watching him, studying him. Everything about the man seemed to be noteworthy now; how he stood, walked, talked, gestured, the way he rolled up his sleeves to help with manual work, his anger directed at his left stocking which repeatedly slipped down, revealing a hairy calf, marked by an ugly red scar. Trivial things, yet of greatest importance to Norrington.
According to Gillette's calculations, they'd make port tomorrow in fair weather, and the ship's company began to prepare for shore leave. Norrington had ordered double rations of rum for everybody; maybe this would improve the mood aboard the Dauntless. As for himself - he wasn't looking forward to being ashore. For one, the stifling heat was even worse in town, away from the fresh air of the sea, and for the other because he knew that he'd lose Gillette. Maybe not in that port, but he would leave, eventually. While sitting hunched over his writing slope, trying to focus on the list with provisions they'd have to take aboard, his thoughts drifted off. Before his inner eye, he could see Gillette, holding a quill in his long-fingered, freckly hand and writing a petition to the Admiralty, asking to transfer him to a different ship. He'd have the tip of his tongue firmly pressed in the corner of his mouth, as it was his habit when a task demanded his full concentration. Norrington felt sick to his stomach at the thought of parting ways with his lieutenant, losing the privilege of listening to his voice and seeing his lopsided smile. And he felt sick and guilty for feeling in such a way.
Norrington tried to return his attention to the task at hand when the door opened. He looked up; he hadn't heard anybody knocking. Seeing how it was Gillette who had entered, it was very likely that the lieutenant hadn't knocked at all. He looked determined and carried a wooden case under his arm. Norrington knew immediately what it contained, and his hand closed tighter around the quill.
"I've come to settle my account with you." Gillette put the case on Norrington's writing slope. "It's time."
Norrington opened the case and looked at the two duelling pistols. They looked as if they'd been used before. Not a surprise, really. Gillette wasn't a man who'd suffer insults.
"Have you come to murder your captain?"
"I admit that this thought has crossed my mind once or twice during the last years, Sir. But - no. Just a duel among gentlemen."
"Why on earth would I agree to such a folly?"
"As I said, I'm here to settle my account with you. I'll say what I have to say, you'll be insulted, demand satisfaction and then you'll shoot me. I'd like to assure you that I have no intention to shoot back, though."
Norrington stared at the pistols, then at Gillette.
"Go ahead, insult me then," he ordered.
"I'm here to tell you that you're a coward and a hypocrite. Indeed, Sir, you're the biggest coward I've ever met during ten years of service. Now I'd be much obliged if you could set a day and time for our duel. I will ask Lieutenant Groves to act as my second, if you don't mind."
Gillette's matter-of-fact tone just emphasised the surreal nature of this conversation. Norrington was stunned.
"Not before you've explained to me why you think me to be a coward."
Gillette looked at Norrington like a teacher may look at a particularly obtuse schoolboy. Whatever inner safeguard had kept his fury at bay so far snapped. He grasped Norrington by the lapels of his coat and pulled him across the table, sending writing slope, pistol case, inkwell and Norrington's wig a-flying.
"Tempering justice with mercy," Gillette hissed, shaking Norrington hard. "In truth you didn't want to be the one to condemn them, and thought you would leave the dirty work to the court martial. How charitable of you! But make no mistake; their blood will be on your hands anyway!"
Gillette let go of Norrington as suddenly as he'd grasped him.
"My apologies. I shouldn't have lost my temper."
It took Norrington a moment to gather himself. Gillette's words were like parts of a puzzle, and when the individual pieces fell into place, it was a revelation.
"You don't accuse me of leniency, but of cruelty? Have you lost your senses? You know just as well as I that buggery must be punished with death!"
Gillette laughed without humour.
"Yes, and by the sentence of a court martial. You followed the letter of the law, I know. Now name day and time for the duel, Sir. I have to return to my duties."
Norrington turned his back to Gillette and picked the pistol case from the floor. Of course Gillette had seen through him, how could that come as a surprise? Nothing escaped him, he who knew ship and men like the back of his hand. Finally, Norrington turned around and handed the case to Gillette.
"It's not worth shooting my best officer over this. Now fetch Lieutenant Groves, Mr. Gillette. You two will find me in the hold."
Gillette, caught unawares by Norrington's seemingly disjointed order, stared at his captain for a moment, then tucked the pistol case under his arm.
"Aye, Sir. In the hold. We'll be there."
Gillette and Groves were already standing next to the water leaguers when Norrington arrived. It was a bit cooler here than on the other decks, as the hold was below the waterline, but the heat was still almost tropical in nature.
"Gentlemen, I won't beat around the bush. I wish to talk to you here because the nature of our conversation is strictly confidential, and it's vitally important that nobody, I repeat nobody shall ever learn of its content. Have I made myself clear?"
"Yes, Sir," the two officers replied in unison. Groves looked with curiosity at his captain, Gillette with suspicion. At least there wasn't anger anymore, a fact that encouraged Norrington to go ahead with his plan.
"The behaviour of Matthews and Roberts will reflect badly on this ship and its crew, even if they should be found to be innocent. A court martial, especially one involving such unsavoury matters as this one, will attract all kind of unwanted attention. We all know that the tongues of sailors are like windmills. 'No smoke without a fire', they'll say, and we'll have great difficulties to man this ship in future and achieve a good reputation again."
Groves nodded. "That's true. They'll call the Dauntless a floating molly house, and worse. I'd hate that to happen, Sir, fully agree. But what can we do?"
"That's what I'm wondering as well," Gillette said. "Were you considering the option of Matthews and Roberts having an accident before we make port?" His voice was dripping with irony, but that detail escaped Groves.
"Don't be ridiculous, Mr. Gillette," Norrington snapped. "I'd never condone murder aboard this ship. I have, however, considered the consequences of the hypothetical event that Mr. Roberts and Mr. Matthews could launch one of the boats and escape."
"I don't think I understand," Groves said, but it was clear that Gillette knew what Norrington hinted at. To his great relief, Norrington saw a quick smile on his face.
"Now, Mr. Groves, imagine that Mr. Roberts and Mr. Matthews would manage to steal a boat and launch it tonight before we make port, deserting the navy and never be seen again. Very unfortunate, of course, and damnable, no doubt, but on the other hand-"
"-on the other hand, there would be no court martial, no gossip and no trouble," Groves finished. "The penny's dropped, Sir. Not that such a hypothetical thing would ever happen, but if it would, we'd all be out of the wood, aye?"
Groves gave Norrington and Gillette a sly look.
"I suggest the gentlemen stay here for a while and look after the cargo. An hour or so will do. You can't hear anything happening on deck down here, and what one doesn't know, one can't be bothered with, right?"
Groves greeted captain and fellow lieutenant, and went to arrange everything necessary. Gillette waited until he couldn't hear the man's steps anymore, then he turned to Norrington. Before the captain could say a word, Gillette pushed him behind the water leaguers, out of sight for anybody who might come to the hold. He made quick work of Norrington's coat and waistcoat, and after recovering from the initial shock, Norrington found that it wasn't too difficult to undo the buttons on Gillette's breeches, despite the heat and the darkness.
"You didn't ask me why I thought you to be a hypocrite," Gillette stated while untying Norrington's shirt.
"I already knew the answer," Norrington replied. He buried his hands in Gillette's hair and pulled him close for a kiss. It was a rough kiss, neither romantic nor tender, but it was real and good and absolutely perfect.
* * *
by Molly Joyful