|Rating: PG-13, slash, drama
Pairing: Norrington/Gillette, Groves ment.
Other characters: Crew of the Dauntless
Warnings: Telling would be spoiling. There are some details about burials at sea which might be disturbing.
Summary: Following a battle with the Black Pearl, the crew of the Dauntless prepares for the sad duty of committing the bodies of their fallen mates to the sea. Norrington breaks with an age-old tradition, unaware of the consequences this will have.
Muffled voices, the creaking of planks, the wind and the sea. Apart from that, the only sound Norrington could hear was the one of yarn pulled through sailcloth.
He couldn't think of a more ghastly sound. Twelve of his men whom he had fought with side by side for many years were sewn into hammocks and prepared for their burial at sea. And with that terrible last stitch through the nose, the transition from life to death was final. They would never return to their families, their bodies would be committed to the sea, and that was it.
Norrington walked slowly from body to body; a grisly mirror of the Sunday inspection. Sailors sewing, saying prayers, going about their sad task with a grim face. He just nodded and moved on; hands clasped behind his back and his face a mask of controlled mourning. He showed the concern expected and appropriate, without losing his poise. At the end of the row, Norrington halted; Gillette's boy Sam fiddled with the needle. Norrington could still see Gillette's face, white and peaceful and, thanks God for small mercies, still intact. While an other lieutenant's remains had to be collected in a bucket, Gillette had been felled by a single shot through the heart. Such a small wound, yet what a devastating effect.
Sam didn't dare to look up to his captain. The boy had probably been crying and didn't want Norrington to know. Brave lad.
So, Thomas Gillette was dead. The impossible had happened; he, whom they all had thought to be invincible and indestructible, was no more. Norrington would say a prayer, everybody would say amen, and then Gillette's body would be committed to the waves. Gillette would never infuriate Norrington with his arrogance and his know-it-all attitude again; they'd never share another bottle of port. He had moved on to a better place, and left Norrington behind.
Yes, he'd been left behind, and Norrington was angry. By God, he was so angry with Gillette for dying and leaving him alone that he was close to kicking the corpse in front of him. Couldn't Gillette have stayed behind, just for once? No, of course not. Gillette was always the first to attack, always the last to retreat. He had spotted the pirate aiming his pistol at Norrington before his captain, and if he hadn't shielded Norrington with his own body, it would have been him, James Norrington, lying here and waiting for his burial at sea. Curse you, Thomas Gillette.
Sam had almost finished his task; nothing could be seen of Gillette anymore save a single strand of red hair. The boy's hand ran over the canvas-covered face of the dead lieutenant, trying to find the nose. Norrington knew what would follow, and something inside him cracked. The thought that somebody would force a thick needle through Gillette's nose was too much for him to bear. He wouldn't allow it.
"Don't," he said, and put his hand on Sam's shoulder. The boy finally looked up, and yes, he had been crying.
"But Sir, the last stitch-"
"We know he's dead, Sam. No need for further confirmations. You've done your duty."
Officially, the last stitch through the nose should ensure that the man who had been prepared for his burial was really dead. Mistakes happened, and more than once the last stitch had cited a cry and a shriek and the miraculous resurrection of a crew member.
But to the men, it was more than a medical proof of death. The last stitch sewed the soul of a man to his hammock, so that he may not return and walk among the living. In other words, it was superstitious nonsense. Sam nodded and stood up, but it was obvious that he thought his captain was making a very grave mistake. No doubt there would be long conversations in the lower decks about his order, and it was very likely that, in a day or two, somebody would start the rumour that Gillette was walking again. Norrington predicted first sightings in proximity of the rum barrels. It didn't matter now; he couldn't have lived with the thought that Gillette's face had been mutilated in such a way.
Norrington kept the service brief; they were all exhausted after the battle, they all mourned for their dead mates, and the sooner he could retreat to his cabin and lick his wounds, the better.
"We therefore commit their bodies to the deep... the life of the world to come ... the sea shall give up her dead ... Amen."
"Amen," the men said in unison. Twelve bodies had to be committed to the waves. Twelve times the sound of a body submerging in the water, twelve times the final confirmation that a man had lost his life. He looked away when Gillette's body was given to the sea; there was only so much he could take, and this went beyond his strength.
* * *
The following days passed in monotony and routine. Groves had been promoted to first lieutenant; a capable officer, no doubt, and good company as long as the conversation didn't drift off into pirate territory. Not that it did, lately. Gillette's death had obviously wiped off any air of romanticism that piracy might have held for Groves. Norrington enjoyed his company, but Groves wasn't Gillette. Groves couldn't replace Gillette. Nobody could.
Norrington had just returned from the middle watch, the bleakest time of the day; those dark, cold hours between night and dawn. They were in for bad weather. Like most old sea dogs, he could tell from the metallic smell in the air. But for now, the Dauntless made swift way, and all was quiet. The Nine Men's Morris board on the bench under the stern windows caught his view; he'd spent countless hours playing with Gillette and, inevitably, losing countless times. Their last game had been interrupted by the sighting of the Black Pearl. The pegs hadn't been moved, and despite his mood, Norrington couldn't help but smile when he noticed that Gillette would have won that game too with the next move.
His thoughts were interrupted by an odd, scratching sound, coming from below the window. Norrington looked up. There, again! A dangling rope, maybe? He stepped closer to the window. No, there was no rope, only a regular pattern of scratching noises. He shook his head; it was too early for a bird looking for food, and anyway, they were too far from the shore for seagulls to follow them.
Norrington narrowed his eyes, and really, now he could see something moving outside the window, a dark shadow, shifting from left to right. He took a step back; if he hadn't known better, he'd said somebody was out there. That, however, was impossible.
There was a knock. Norrington couldn't move; he stared at the window and the being out there with increasing fear. Another knock, a second, then impatient, almost angry raps, a true tattoo of ghostly knocks.
Norrington knew that he should fetch his sword and call for the marines, yet his voice refused to work. He felt drawn to the window and the dark shadow demanding entrance. One final knock and Norrington reached out, opened the window and quickly retreated.
A gush of icy water flooded the cabin, bringing with it the smell of algae and fish and salt, and the body of a man, writhing on the cabin floor like a fish on dry land. A puddle formed around him, rivulets of water spreading from it, almost like a spider's web. It was bizarre, it was surreal, yet Norrington noticed to his great surprise that he wasn't that surprised, after all.
Of course it was Gillette. Had been Gillette? Norrington wasn't too sure which tense should be applied in such a case. The lieutenant's uniform was in rags, and Norrington noticed bits of sailcloth. But that aside, Gillette didn't look like a corpse which had been floating in the sea for a week. True, his skin was of an unhealthy shipwrecked-green, but then Gillette had looked like that more than once before after a long night drinking at a tavern in Port Royal.
Gillette sat up and shook his head, slowly, like a man who had just awoken from deep sleep. The algae in his hair were a stark contrast to its red colour, it almost looked as if a mischievous little sister had tied it with green ribbons while he had slept.
Slept? Gillette was dead, and Norrington began to fear for his own sanity.
Gillette's hands slowly pushed the shreds of his shirt aside. He touched the wound on his chest, still clearly visible, and looked up at Norrington with an expression of greatest confusion.
"I've been shot," he stated.
"That's - true," Norrington confirmed, relieved to hear the familiar and much-loved voice again, even if it was a bit hoarse. The eyes looking up at him were Gillette's as well; button-like, narrow set, though now veiled by a thin white layer of - something.
"Why didn't you wait for me?"
The reproachful tone in which Gillette asked his question cut deep into Norrington's heart.
"How could I know you'd return?" he spluttered. "You were - you are dead, Thomas! I said the prayers over your body, and we committed you to the waves. You shouldn't be here!"
"Yet I am."
Gillette attempted to get up, but he struggled. Norrington dropped the sword he'd still held and rushed to his side, offering him his hand. The hand clinging to Norrington's arm was cold and wet, but the grip was strong. They stood now face to face, and Gillette frowned.
"You denied me the last stitch."
"The last stitch?" Norrington paled. "Oh, good God." So it hadn't been all yarn and old wife's tale! Indeed, Gillette had returned to walk among the living.
"Where are my clothes?"
Whatever death had done to Gillette, it hadn't affected his sense for decorum. Norrington pointed at a sea chest in a corner of the cabin.
"Your effects are there. I've kept them."
Gillette nodded and crossed the room, leaving wet footprints on the floor. While he opened his sea chest and began to pull out clean clothing, Norrington sat down in his chair, exhausted and overwhelmed. Only a short while ago, he had been mourning Gillette's death, and now he watched the lieutenant getting dressed. He moved a bit slowly and clumsily - Norrington had always secretly admired the elegance of Gillette's movements - but maybe this was just a temporary phenomenon.
"What was it like?" Norrington asked. He couldn't help it; nobody should ask that question, and there certainly shouldn't be anybody able to answer it!
Gillette closed the buttons on his breeches, then returned to Norrington.
"You mean what it is like, being dead," Gillette corrected. Seeing him in stockings, breeches and shirt lifted some of the eeriness of the situation. It wasn't possible to be scared of a man who tied his cravat so carefully, not even if he was dead.
"Death is truth," Gillette said casually, finally satisfied with his cravat and reaching for the waistcoat. "It's as simple as that. We see who we really are, realise the consequences of our actions, and there are no more lies. Not about ourselves, not about others. You've cut my hair, James."
"Only a small strand," Norrington admitted, lowering his eyes. "As a keep-sake. For your sister."
Gillette closed the last button of his waistcoat and straightened his sleeves.
"I feel better now. I always knew that I was born for a life at sea, but after a day or two I realised I wasn't made for death in the sea. What are we going to do now, James?"
That was a just question, and a thousand thoughts raced through Norrington's head. How could he explain the return of a slower, clumsier and, not to forget, dead Gillette to the crew? What would Groves say? He began to pace up and down.
"I'll tell them this was part of a secret plan, and that you've been away on a mission," he said. "I'll blame it on the Admiralty. They'll believe that. And anyway, it only makes sense to fight undead pirates with undead lieutenants. Equality of arms, I'm sure they'll understand."
"That's not what I meant."
"James, I don't have a sister."
"I'm well aware of that."
Gillette smiled. And while this was a new smile for him, neither arrogant nor belittling, it was nevertheless a bit smug.
* * *
by Molly Joyful