Warnings: a wee bit of angst
Feedback: very welcome. Good or bad.
Author's notes: for Dauntless :-)
Summary: James Norrington misses the auction, but he doesn't have to return home empty-handed.
"Pardon me, Sir, but what's going on here?"
The corpulent man, sweating heavily under his grey wig, looked up.
"The auction of the late Mrs. Gillette's estate. If you're here about the house, you'll have to talk to Mr. Jennings, the executor. He's over there."
"Thank you," James Norrington replied, and went to Mr. Jennings. The young lieutenant looked very confused at the people who carried away chairs, pots, carpets, pictures and all those other things that had made Mrs. Gillette's house a home, and shook his head.
"I'd say I came just in time," he muttered, glad that he'd been spared the sight of vultures fighting over the property. Mr. Jennings was making notes on a list and glared at Norrington, who dared to interrupt this important task.
"You're too late, lieutenant, the auction's over," he snapped. "Not my fault if you missed your bid. First come, first served. Or are you interested in the house?" he added a little friendlier, noticing the good quality of Norrington's uniform and the large golden signet ring on his finger.
"No, I don't think I need a house. Mr. Jennings, what has happened here? My name is James Norrington, I came to visit the wife of a late friend, and now I have to learn she's dead?"
Mr. Jennings pushed his pince-nez down his nose.
"Oh, I see, you're a friend of the family. Please accept my sympathies, Sir. She wasn't able to recover from birth and died a few days later from childbed fever. Took the little girl with her, what a shame. Do you know of any family?"
Norrington, too shocked upon hearing this news, could only shake his head.
"I know that Henry had a younger brother, but he died two years ago. Mrs. Gillette didn't have any family that I know of. Good grief, what a tragedy!"
"Absolutely. Well, please forgive me, Sir, but I have to see that the auction for the house takes its course now, so..."
"Certainly. Thank you, Mr. Jennings, just one last question: where is Thomas?"
Jennings looked puzzled.
"Yes - the boy. The son, I mean. Where is he? I'd like to see him, if that's possible. Must be terrible for the little lad, all of this."
The man scratched his head.
"I think I've seen him over there, somewhere," he replied, and gestured vaguely in the direction of a hillock. Norrington shaded his eyes against the sun, and he could make out a small figure in the distance.
"Very kind of you, Mr. Jennings," he said, then he began to walk in the direction where he hoped to find the boy.
His eyes had not betrayed him; it was Thomas sitting in the grass, the family likeness left no doubt. He held a large kite; next to him lay a bundle, probably containing his few belongings. Norrington could tell from the fabric that it must be one of Gillette's old cravats.
"Are you Thomas?" he asked, and the boy looked up.
"Yes. Who are you?"
"I'm James Norrington. I'm a friend of your father."
"You were a friend of my father."
"Still am, I think."
Thomas shook his head.
"My father is dead. So, he isn't my father, but he was my father. So he can't be your friend anymore, he was your friend. That's what Mr. Partridge said."
The conversation would be longer and complicated, Norrington decided, so he sat down next to Thomas in the grass. Why was the lad sitting here all alone, anyway?
"Who is Mr. Partridge?"
"A neighbour. His wife looked after me these last days."
They sat for a while in silence. That had been one of the many things he had appreciated in Henry: he had been able to talk with him about everything, but he had also been great company when James wanted to be silent. Those who could talk came twelve by the dozen, but one who knew the art of being silent was rare.
"I don't remember ever having seen you," Thomas finally said, giving Norrington a sidewise glance. "But you are the one with the horses, aren't you?"
Norrington looked puzzled, then he had to smile.
"Yes, I'm the one with the horses. There aren't many horse races aboard our ship, though. I found that seahorses are trotters rather than racers, but we do occasionally have rat races."
"Mother said you've lost a ship."
"A ship? Oh - no. The ship was a bet and had nothing to do with horses. And it was really more of a boat than a ship, you know. No big loss."
Sally Gillette had obviously painted a rather realistic picture of her husband's good-for-nothing friend. Well, he couldn't hold it against her. He had caused a lot of trouble in the past, and if it hadn't been for Henry Gillette and his unshakable faith in him, James would have probably been drummed out of the navy quite a while ago. After Henry's death six months ago, James had written to Sally and offered his help, but she had turned the offer down in a brief note.
News had been slow, and James had only learned about the financial troubles of Gillette's widow a month ago. It had taken him a while to get here; and quite obviously, he had come too late.
"Father always promised he'd show me his ship one day," Thomas said, fiddling with the kite. "But he never had the time. I didn't see him very often. But I remember he had red hair, just like me. And his eyes were - blue?"
"Brown. He had brown eyes, Thomas, also just like you. But it's not that important; just remember that he always thought of you. And he often talked of you as well."
"Did he?" Thomas asked with sudden interest. "What did he tell you?"
"That you like to read books, and that you are a great help to your mother. And he mentioned that you're very skilled in making kites."
"He told you that?"
"He did. I can even tell you where he did so: in China."
Thomas' eyes became wide like saucers.
"You've been to China? Really?"
"Of course! We saw men there who flew kites. Beautiful kites, made of silk and bamboo, some painted by great artists."
"Men playing with kites? But kites are toys!"
"Sometimes it doesn't take much to turn a man into a boy again, Thomas. That's something you'll learn in time. Your father said that your kites were far better, though."
For the first time, Thomas was smiling. Then he looked up in the sky.
"Mr. Norrington, if I tied a note to my kite, and if it would fly really, really high, as high as the sun, do you think my mother would receive it?"
Norrington, surprised by that question, pushed his hat deeper into his face and scratched his head.
"That's something I really don't know, Thomas. But I guess a mother always knows what her son wants to tell her, don't you think? With or without a note. I know mine does."
Thomas shifted closer to Norrington and lowered his voice.
"Mr. Partridge said that my mother is dead, but I know that's not true. I've seen her last night, you know?"
"You did? That's - well," Norrington stammered, intimidated by the boys serious face and the odd statement.
"I did, yes," Thomas said, and nodded. "Mr. Partridge said it was a godless thing to say, but I really did see her. But she left before I could tell her that I'm sorry for breaking Mr. Mallory's window."
"You know, Thomas, maybe you're both right? Mr. Partridge and you? Your mother is dead, that's true, and it's very terrible. But she could still be alive somewhere else. You know why she died, don't you?"
"Because I caused so much trouble."
"Now who on earth said that?" Norrington asked, quite outraged. "What nonsense!"
"Mr. Partridge said so. He said I was evil for playing with my kite though my mother and my sister were so ill. And then the line snapped and the kite smashed Mr. Mallory's window. This upset mother quite a lot, and then she died."
Norrington came to the conclusion that Mr. Partridge was an idiot. The boy was twelve and had just lost his mother, shortly after losing his father, what did the man expect?
He put an arm around Thomas' shoulders.
"Now listen, that's nonsense. See, your mother fell ill when your little sister was born. And your little sister fell ill as well. It happens sometimes, you know? Two of my brothers died right after they were born. Now, babies are pretty annoying, all things considered. They can't walk or talk, one has to feed them, change them, look after them - they make a lot of work."
"That's true," Thomas replied. "And they cry a lot."
"That, too. So, you're almost grown up, and you have a good head on your shoulders. But your little sister, she was quite helpless. So - well, I don't know how those things work, but maybe your mother thought she had to look after her baby girl, to make sure the little one will get everything she needs?"
Thomas considered Norrington's words for a while.
"That could be. She also always looked after me when I was small."
Norrington breathed a sigh of relief.
"See? Not your fault in the least. Your mother just did what mothers do. Don't be angry with anybody. Some things, also very sad things, just happen, and we'll never know why."
Thomas gave Norrington a thoughtful sidewise glance.
"You know a lot of things, don't you?"
"I know a bit of everything and nothing of most. That's why it was such a good thing your father and I were friends, Thomas. He made sure I didn't get into trouble."
"You miss him very much, don't you?"
"I do. He was a bit like a father for me as well."
Thomas wanted to ask something else when they were interrupted by loud wheezing and groaning. A man came up the hillock towards them, wiping the sweat off his face from time to time with a large red handkerchief.
"Thomas, you devil!" he cried. "Don't you dare running away again!"
"I suppose that's the formidable Mr. Partridge?" Norrington asked, and stood up.
"Yes," Thomas replied, and hid behind the tall lieutenant.
"You rascal! I'll show you, making me come up here in that blasted heat! Come, come, we have no time, I'm late already!"
"You are Mr. Partridge, I suppose?"
The man wiped his face one last time, then he put the handkerchief back in his pocket, took a deep breath and blinked at Norrington.
"Indeed, indeed. And you are one of our fearless, hard-drinking naval heroes, I assume?"
That tone didn't go down well with Norrington at all.
"If you wish to know if I am lieutenant in the service of his Majesty, the King, then my answer would be 'yes'. I hope this will find your approval. My name is James Norrington, I'm a friend of the boy's father."
Partridge, not too keen on getting into an argument with the lieutenant, produced a smile.
"Be assured that I've always had the greatest respect for the navy, Lt. Norrington."
"No doubt. It's actually a good thing we meet, Mr. Partridge. I desire to know what will happen to the boy Thomas here, now that his parents are dead. Have any arrangements been made?"
The man looked slightly insulted.
"But of course! We're no brutes here, after all. The house has been sold; didn't fetch quite as much as I've hoped, but these are bad times. At least all the debts will be covered. As for young Thomas here, I'll see to it that he'll find a place in the county's orphanage. Maybe not right away, you know that those places are notoriously overcrowded."
"Ah. That's - fine, I guess," Norrington replied. Orphans went to orphanages. Not a pleasant thought, but that was the course of the world. "What are you going to do with him until a place becomes available?"
"For the time being, he can stay at the workhouse. He'll be well-cared for, so there's no need to worry about him. He'll have food and a roof over his head."
Norrington winced upon hearing the term 'workhouse'. Partridge took his silence as approval and addressed Thomas.
"Now let's go, Thomas. Make a bow to the lieutenant, and then hurry."
Thomas came forward and made a bow to Norrington, who, not used to dealing with children, made a bow in return and felt like a real idiot about it.
"No, you can't take that with you," Mr. Partridge said, and reached for the kite.
"But I have to take it with me," Thomas protested, and didn't let go. "I need it!"
"We will absolutely not have such things at the workhouse! You have to earn your stay, now leave this foolish thing here!"
Partridge pulled, Thomas pulled, and with a cracking noise, the kite broke in two, man and boy each holding a half. Thomas stared down at the torn paper, but he didn't cry. He just glared at Partridge, angry and upset.
"You've broken my kite!" he said. "You had no right to do that!"
"Now I'll teach you..." Partridge began, and raised his hand. Norrington quickly moved in front of Thomas, shielding the boy from possible repercussions of the incident.
"I'd like to have a word with you, Mr. Partridge," he said, took the man by the arm and lead him away from Thomas.
"Terrible brat," Partridge cursed. "Talks to people that aren't there and has his head in the air. Brain of a five year old, I tell you! I'm afraid there won't be enough birch to drum some sense into that boy, ever!"
Norrington looked over his shoulder. Thomas knelt in the grass, holding the two pieces of his kite.
"I see that the boy needs a firm hand in his upbringing. And what better place would there be for one such as him than the Royal Navy?"
"Think about it, Mr. Partridge. Not only could you save yourself a lot of trouble, you'd even do your country a great service!"
Partridge rubbed his chin.
"I did have dealings with the navy before about such business, you see. If I remember, I've been offered thirty shillings for a boy. Maybe you are right and I should contact the man again."
"I could spare you the trouble," Norrington quickly said. "I give you fifty shillings - consider the extra an expression of my gratitude for your good will."
"Fifty shillings? Good grief!"
He eyed Norrington suspiciously.
"Are you sure you want him for the navy and not for yourself? I've heard that-"
Norrington grasped Partridge by the collar and shook him hard.
"Hold your tongue! Fifty shillings - and your life, man! - and I have the boy. Do we have an agreement?"
"We have, Sir, we have!" Partridge whined, and Norrington let go of him, wiping his hands off on his coat in disgust.
"Here," he said, and counted the money on the man's hand, careful not to touch him.
Partridge let the coins slip in the pocket of his coat.
"Thank you, Sir," he said, and made a deep bow. Then he hastened down the hillock, afraid the lieutenant might change his mind and demand the money back.
"So, I hope that's the last we've seen of him," Norrington said, and turned to Thomas.
"Did he sell me?"
"No, Thomas. He can't sell something he doesn't own. You're your own master now. What do you think, would you like to come with me? It won't be easy, though, I want to be honest with you. The life aboard a ship is hard, and there are many dangers. But you'll have a kind captain, and I'll be there. The men remember your father with great fondness, they'll treat you well."
Thomas considered the matter for a moment, then he nodded.
"I think I'd like that," he said. "But what about the kite?"
"Well, that one's broken. But we'll make a new one, Thomas, and then you and I will let it fly."
"Do I have your word?"
"You have my word," Norrington replied, and offered Thomas his hand.
* * *
"You'll never learn it, will you?" Gillette asked, rolling his eyes in exasperation. "Spine and spar have to be at a right angle. What you did there isn't a cross, it's a Spanish hair comb!"
"It's bad luck to mention the Spanish before a battle, Thomas," Norrington replied, and handed the two sticks back to Gillette. The lieutenant's nimble fingers tied spine and spare together, then added the frame. Next came cover, bridle and line.
"They should make this a mandatory task to perform before the examination board," Gillette said.
"Then I'd never made it captain."
"There are rumours you only made it captain because you won your commission."
"That's not true," Norrington protested. "I've made it captain because I'm the paradigm of a Royal Navy officer. That's all thanks to you, Lt. Killjoy! I can't even remember what a horse looks like!"
"Ask Admiral Clarke, he's married one."
Norrington sighed and looked at the kite Gillette had just finished.
"It's perfect. Bloody hell, I couldn't make a kite to save my life."
"Doesn't matter," Thomas said, placed the kite carefully on Norrington's desk and kissed the commodore on the nose. "It's your many shortcomings that make you so loveable, James."
* * *
by Molly Joyful