a far better fate
Pairing: Elizabeth/Norrington (with some subtle Jack/Elizabeth)
Spoilers: At World's End
Word Count: 5,113
Summary: "Our destinies have been entwined, Elizabeth, but never joined." Three ways the story could have gone.
Author's Note: Part of what really got me about Elizabeth and Norrington in AWE (and man, did I get got by them) was the sense that Elizabeth finally realized the strength of Norrington's love for her and, on some level, recognized for the first time that under vastly different circumstances, she might have been happy with him. Her change of heart made that scene all the more tragic and amazing for me, so naturally, I had to play around with what-might-have-been-type fic ideas. :D
The pirate Jack Sparrow is captured at Port Royal on the day that Elizabeth accepts Commodore Norrington's proposal.
Three days later, he is hanged.
Elizabeth stands beside her fiancé (fiancé – it turns her stomach) and waves her fan with a graceful disinterest she does not feel; she is growing better at imitating the other women around her, but on the inside a storm erupts in her. It's a wonder her hand does not tremble.
The air is hot, heavy, as smoldering with discontentment as she is. It will rain, she thinks.
She half-listens as the pirate's offenses are read off (. . . arson; kidnapping; perjury; piracy; pilfering . . .); she senses Norrington's eyes on her and feels again like she might be suffocating. She'd nearly fainted on the afternoon that he'd asked her, and would have fallen to the mercy of the rocks if he hadn't taken notice at the last instant – reached out quite suddenly, his hand sure and steady against her waist.
"Thank you," she'd breathed, suddenly uncertain on her feet, meeting his eyes.
There had been something foreign there – not the dignified reserve that she knew to associate with him, a quality she found at turns admirable and frightfully dull (and in truth, mostly the latter). No, in that moment it had disappeared entirely, replaced by something of a very different nature. Something she might have imagined to be passion.
"Marry me," he'd said then, low, the words so tinged with intimacy, with urgency, that they summoned the same blush to her cheeks that might have accompanied a caress.
He'd seemed surprised at once afterward, as though his mouth and mind (and heart, perhaps) had betrayed him. "Forgive me. I – I meant to – I mean – that is not how I'd intended to—"
"Yes." She'd surprised herself. "Commodore Norrington – James . . . I would be honored to be your wife."
Her intentions had not been – are not what they ought to be. She knows this much. But he is a great man: a man who will provide for her, and perhaps even cherish her. It would be foolish not to take advantage of such an opportunity. And she's a child no longer, anyhow, and ought to let go of silly delusions, things like freedom and true love. She knows her place in the world, even if she'd pretended not to for so long. It will be a comfortable life.
She stands here now beside him, staring at the condemned man and perhaps dying inside, feeling as though her blood is on fire in her veins; she is a creature of spark and flame, bound by all her blessings.
To her surprise, the pirate's eyes meet hers. She recalls every story she's heard of him, is struck with the sudden silly desire to ask him which ones are true. Her gaze does not waver.
The trapdoor disappears beneath his feet; for a foolish instant, she suspects he'll fly instead of fall.
She steps tentatively into the blacksmith's shop, quite out of place against soot and metal. The blacksmith snores in his chair. Will turns at the sound of her footsteps.
"Miss Swann," he says, his eyes immediately falling from her face. "I was not expecting you."
She answers, recklessly, "The Commodore and I are getting married."
The color drains from his face, just as she'd expected.
"Oh," he says, and that is all.
Idiot! she thinks furiously; wishes desperately to say it aloud. Coward! Fight for me!
But resignation dims his eyes, and she knows the battle is lost before he speaks a single word.
"That's wonderful news," he says, his lovely mouth curving into a smile that breaks her heart nearly as much as his cowardice. "Congratulations."
She wants to scream – strike him – find some way to break down the loathsome walls that have come to stand between them.
"Thank you," she says instead, with all the propriety in the world.
Their engagement becomes the talk of Port Royal. A grand party is arranged to celebrate the news, of course – no less could be expected for the Commodore and the governor's daughter.
The evening is tedious, holding the aura of a death sentence. Elizabeth looks lovely on the Commodore's arm: she smiles through what seems thousands of trivial anecdotes, every bit the perfect fiancée for a man so celebrated. On the inside, she rages; her mind is alight with the books of adventure she'd spent all afternoon devouring in some insignificant act of rebellion. She takes careful steps, curtsies with grace, and all the while thinks of foreign savage worlds, goddesses of destruction.
"—and then dear Geoffrey, bless him, wrote home in the very knick of time—"
"Will you excuse us for a moment?" she asks graciously, and is answered by a fluttering chorus of affirmation.
She drags him out into the empty corridor.
"What are you doing?" he asks a few steps behind her, bewildered. "My dear, are you all right?"
"Does this never tire you?" she demands, strangely reckless as she spins abruptly on her heel to face him.
"What?" he asks, confusion creasing his features.
"This!" She throws her arms up in exasperation. "This maddening ritual!"
He opens his mouth to protest. She decides not to award him the opportunity.
"I couldn't stand another second of Lady Milton's insipid chatter," she fumes. "She yaps away like a little dog, and doesn't care that no one's listening."
"Elizabeth!" he admonishes, but doesn't quite succeed in hiding the first traces of a smile.
It's enough to motivate her to go on. "Honestly! Another anecdote about her dear son Geoffrey, and I'm not going to be able to be held accountable for my actions."
And perhaps it is, in some fashion, a test.
She hadn't contemplated whether he might pass.
"Hush," he orders, but his eyes are growing bright. "Geoffrey is a matter of utmost importance."
A plan suddenly grabs hold of her mind. "It's a lovely night."
"Yes," he says, surprised at the sudden shift in topics. "I suppose it is. The stars are quite bright—"
"Come with me," she interjects.
He is nearly as surprised by her as she is. "What?"
"Come with me," she urges. "Now." She laces her fingers through his, ridiculously brave. "Your bright stars are calling us; can't you hear them?"
"We'll be missed," he counters helplessly. She thinks she can see his resolve weakening. "In case you've forgotten, the party is in our honor."
"And don't you ever feel inclined to abandon honor, Commodore Norrington?" she inquires devilishly, and chooses on a whim not to await an answer.
She turns and sets off without looking back, a flurry of quick footsteps and skirts whispering against the floor.
After a few seconds, his sure footfalls join hers.
They have been married for seven months, and it feels to Elizabeth as though each day has been filled with some kind of unanticipated surprise: the strange exhilaration of running a household (not unlike the captaining of a ship, she enjoys thinking to herself), the unexpected independence accompanying the transition from child to wife – and, of course, her husband.
"Take me with you," she murmurs one night, sleepy and glowing, her head resting against his chest. She traces lazy patterns against his skin.
His fingers are tangled loosely in her hair. "Where?"
"Out to sea."
"It's impossible," he reminds her fondly, not for the first time. "You know that."
"Yes, I know," she counters, teasingly defiant as she lifts her head to better look at him. "But you've yet to give me a sufficient reason why."
"It's dangerous," he protests gently.
"Mmm." She closes her eyes reverently, as though the word is her particular kind of ambrosia. "A bit of danger sounds positively ideal."
He laughs and presses a lingering kiss to her hair. "I thought it might."
"Let's just go," she suggests grandly, smiling at the thought. "You and I. Commandeer the Dauntless."
"Take no prisoners," he contributes.
"Well," she says, laughing, "perhaps one or two, to swab the deck."
His tone suddenly turns serious. "You're happy," he ventures; it is not quite a question, but she hears his uncertainty all the same. "With me."
"Yes," she answers truthfully; drops a kiss to his shoulder to lend credence to her words. "Yes. I just . . ."
"What?" he prompts quietly.
She takes a moment, trying to choose the best way to express the discontentment that she fears will always haunt her, buried deep.
"I'm so tired of solid ground. Of sameness. I yearn for change."
She chances to look at him. There's a new sadness in his eyes.
"I'm sorry," he murmurs.
"It's not your fault," she protests affectionately, lifting a hand to caress his face. "I don't expect you to change the whole world on my account."
"You know that if I could," he says softly, his eyes locking with hers, "I'd take you away in an instant."
"I know," she says, and kisses him.
Will weds a shopkeeper's daughter a little after the one-year anniversary of her marriage to James. The news summons a quick pang in her heart – what might have been, and such lovely bittersweet nonsense, but it passes more quickly than she'd have ever thought possible once. She finds herself smiling at the news; genuinely wishes him all the happiness in the world. She does miss him, sometimes, but they're both quite grown up now, and fell out of each other's lives right alongside games of make believe.
She is inclined to believe, these days, that it was for the best.
She finds out she is with child a few months later. When she tells James, his face breaks out into a smile so overjoyed it summons tears to her eyes. He takes her into his arms and spins her 'round; her surroundings blur and she is left with nothing but a flurry of jubilant colour and lightness and the sound of their laughter entwined.
And oh, there are the moments when her eyes wander out to sea, when she's struck with a yearning that she never quite knows how to define. But even this fades with time.
It could be called a satisfactory happily ever after.
On the day that Will aids Jack in his escape from Port Royal, Elizabeth tells James Norrington that nothing has changed.
"I made you a promise," Elizabeth says, willing her gaze to keep steady, "and I have every intention of keeping it."
He is unconvinced (and with good reason).
"I understand that you consented under certain circumstances," he responds evenly. His composure matches hers, but she takes note of his hands, shaped into tightly clenched fists. His knuckles have gone white. "I'm willing to free you from that agreement now if it contradicts the desires of your heart."
She glances back to where a crowd still lingers, aflutter with the excitement of Jack's escape; Will stands amongst them, looking equal parts pirate and hero. Norrington's eyes follow hers.
"Elizabeth," he says, in a tone low and imploring.
She turns her head back, her eyes meeting his. Life had seemed, over the past few days, to finally hold the promise of escape, of freedom. Already, it slips away from her, flashes of terror and excitement and joy fading into pretty, dwindling memories. Will is a good man, she knows. He has a brave soul, and undeniable skill in times of adventure – he will sacrifice himself without thought for the greater good – but he doesn't have a pirate's heart. He wants to sink into comfortable repose. To live happily ever after and be done with it.
A loathsome, stupid part of her – a part that won't die quietly – wishes Jack had taken her along with him.
But she isn't a pirate, of course. She is Miss Elizabeth Swann, the governor's daughter, and she will spend her life with her feet firmly planted on the ground. The sea holds no place for her.
And so she quiets the parts of her that scream to act on impulse, to latch onto every desirous whim of her heart and never let go, damning the consequences. She ought to be good, like Will.
Will, she knows, would never break his word.
And so here she stands with the man who will be her husband, the picture of elegance for all her inward savagery.
"James," she says, meeting his eyes, "I will be your wife."
The next day, they walk by the shore, her arm looped through his.
"We're setting off in pursuit of Sparrow bright and early tomorrow morning," James informs her.
"I thought you were only giving him a day's head start."
"Yes, well, there were things to be put in order," he responds with awkward brusqueness; he adds, with a fleeting glance at her, "Goodbyes to be said."
"Ah," she says uncertainly. She resists the urge to throw in, 'Do tell Jack hello if you see him.'
"It ought to be a turbulent expedition," James continues a bit wearily, "considering the . . . colorful interworkings of Sparrow's mind."
Elizabeth doesn't know precisely how to respond at first. She recognizes the fact that Jack is quite certainly mad, but can't shake the memory that he usually made a good deal of sense to her. She doesn't know precisely what one ought to make of that.
"I liked him," she confesses instead. Something about the admission makes her feel wonderfully, dangerously bold.
For a few steps, there is silence.
"So did I," James confides then in a mock-whisper. There is a glint of unfamiliar slyness to his smile that she likes. She smiles back.
It rains the next day – the whole sky erupts, as though pronouncing the voyage futile. Elizabeth wouldn't be much surprised if Jack had some sort of command over the weather. She imagines him as the sort who has well-formed connections with witchdoctors and voodoo priestesses.
"Good luck," she says to Norrington, feeling odd as she does so. The truth of the matter is, she doesn't want Jack to be captured and hanged, not in the slightest – but all the same, she can't quite wish doom upon James. She's beginning to like him.
And, of course, there's the fact that he's her fiancé.
"Thank you," he answers, his eyes warm as he smiles at her; his affection for her is becoming blatant. It doesn't leave her as unsettled as it would have once. He is a good man, she knows. And this – this is her choice.
"I'll give you two a moment to say your goodbyes, shall I?" her father asks, his eyes twinkling as he steps back into the house. He's pleased that their engagement has endured; she knows her fondness for Will has always unsettled him. He only wants the best for her.
And so they are left standing alone in the courtyard, the rain steadily soaking them both.
"Are you sure you ought to go in this?" Elizabeth asks, staring up into the sky.
"Time is of the essence," he responds.
"Good luck," she says again, awkwardly, as she looks back down at him; the inevitability of his departure turns the air heavy around them, igniting expectation. She wonders whether he will kiss her goodbye.
"Yes," he agrees. "Thank you. I – I shall see you upon my return."
"I look forward to it," she answers.
They speak like strangers. She watches him walk away, and is suddenly desperate for some hint of passion; she doesn't know whether she'll be able to stand waiting for him otherwise. She yearns, suddenly, to know whether there's something worth waiting for.
He turns at once. "Yes?"
But it wouldn't be fitting.
She must learn to stay in her place.
(After all, isn't that the point of this to begin with?)
"Nothing," she amends, forcing a smile. "Goodbye."
He smiles slightly back at her, and she turns, her cheeks burning as she hurries to the front door. It's ridiculous, she thinks furiously. He's just as cowardly as I am, and has no excuse to be; surely we'll never be happy—
She turns back, and he is kissing her, sudden and swift and sure. Her heart pounds violently against her ribcage; if it weren't for his hands on her waist she's sure she would have collapsed. There is an overwhelming, unexpected rightness to his mouth against hers – something so much more immediate and real than she'd ever contemplated in all of her imaginings of kissing Will. When he breaks the kiss, she finds herself leaning into him, unsatisfied.
"When I return," he breathes, his forehead resting against hers, "we will be married."
She cannot speak; only dumbly nods her assent.
He kisses her again, but barely – a quick, fluttering thing, like a promise – and pulls from her. She watches him walk away until he turns a corner and is gone. She pays the rain no mind.
Months pass. He doesn't return to her.
She dreams of Jack.
They sit on that detestable island, side by side, each clutching a bottle of rum. When she sips hers, she discovers that it's only water.
"This isn't how it ought to be," she declares, glaring at the bottle.
"You're telling me, love." Jack wrinkles his nose and asks, with flagrant distaste, "You really going to tie the knot with old Norrie then?"
"Yes," she responds defiantly, and crosses her arms over her chest.
"Hmm," he muses with mild interest. "I s'pose you'd appreciate me surrendering, then, so's your gallant fiancé can sail right on back to his fickle-but-bewitching beloved, is that right?"
"As a matter of fact, it is," she informs him haughtily.
"Right," Jack says dismissively. "You give a message to your new one and only for old Jack."
"How can I, when you're keeping him away??" Elizabeth points out irritably.
He ignores her. "You tell him this, darling—" He leans in until their noses practically touch. "—'Catch me if you can.'"
"That's very unhelpful," Elizabeth informs him, scowling.
"Who says I'm being helpful?" Jack inquires with a cheeky grin. His gold teeth glint in the unrelenting sunlight. Still, when he sees she's not having it, his expression grows more serious. This is why she likes him. "Might be destiny at work, then. Wouldn't be the first time."
"What do you mean?"
"Some destinies have a funny way of dancing around each other," he explains. "Entwining without joining, see?"
"No," Elizabeth says stubbornly.
Jack sighs impatiently. "I suppose I should've expected that. Here, let's see if we can't make things a little clearer, as you apparently insist upon making everything as bloody complicated as possible."
She glares at him.
"Yours and his. His and yours." He holds each of his pointer fingers a considerable distance away from one another. "In the event that that's the case, no amount of wishing's going to push them in a thisways direction." He presses his fingertips together.
Elizabeth rolls her eyes impatiently. "You still aren't helping."
"Say, whatever became of the whelp?" Jack asks conversationally, and takes a swig of rum. "Thought you liked him."
"Oh, shut up," Elizabeth grumbles.
Finally, there is news of him: a hurricane off the coast of Tripoli. A shipwreck.
She has barely begun to mourn when miraculously, he returns. He is one of three survivors – a blessing enough, she thinks, although his conduct is deemed unacceptable and his position is revoked.
Elizabeth and her father go to visit him the day after his return, and are informed by the butler that he is upstairs, and doesn't wish to see any visitors. Her father insists. The butler acquiesces, and they climb the stairs together.
"Go on," her father urges gently, standing outside the bedroom door. "Your face will be a far greater comfort to him than mine."
She returns his smile, nods, then steps bravely inside. Her hands tremble.
The room is dark, save for a swiftly dying candle flickering beside the bed. The bedclothes are upturned; all his belongings are scattered across the room in disarray. He stands, unmoving, in the far corner.
"James," she ventures timidly.
He doesn't turn to look at her. With his hair hanging loose, his clothes worn and sullied, he looks like a madman. (A bit like Jack.)
"You shouldn't be here," he says darkly. There is an edge to his voice that chills her heart. It doesn't fit him. Not the man she knows.
Still, she takes another step toward him. "What are you talking about? I'm to be your wife. I think that gives me reason enough."
"Not anymore," he mutters.
"What?" She feels as though she's been slapped.
"The engagement is terminated." He still hasn't looked at her.
"Shh," she orders as gently as she can, coming up beside him; her hand comes up to caress his cheek. "You're exhausted. You don't know what you're saying—"
"I know," he interjects, roughly encircling her wrist with his fingers, "what I'm saying."
He thrusts her arm down, making no effort to be gentle.
"Then why are you doing this?" she demands, anger sharpening her words.
"Elizabeth, don't be foolish," he snaps. "You have nothing to gain from marrying me."
"Don't say that," she protests.
"Why not?" he demands, laughing once – the sound is stark and hollow. "It's true. I have nothing. I am nothing. Everything I once was has been torn from me."
It only takes a moment to come to her decision. She reaches up to touch his face again. This time, he doesn't make a move to stop her. His skin is darker, weathered and rough beneath her fingertips. A poorly healed gash mars one cheek. His mouth has gone hard and mean. But his eyes are the same.
"Not everything," she insists quietly. After a moment's hesitation, he leans into her touch.
"Come with us." She makes the request half-bewildered by her own change of heart; perhaps it is only that she is tired of men sacrificing themselves in her name.
But there is a softness to his eyes, a quiet wonder that she'd thought he'd lost along with his position (and her, adds a whisper in the back of her skull). She discovers she doesn't want to extinguish it. Not again.
"James," she murmurs, and feels in a way as if she's looking at him for the first time. "Come with me."
He hesitates and then nods, once.
She watches him from a distance; he stands with hands rested against her ship's railing, gazing out into the sea. He has removed his wig and coat, although the air bites with cold tonight. He looks much more like the broken man she'd discovered in Tortuga than the respected admiral he'd been only hours before. It's funny – she recalls feeling, only years ago, that he was impossibly old, that a sort of endless distance stretched between them. Now, the difference between them does not seem so very great at all.
On impulse, she strides forward to join him; he turns briefly at the sound of her footsteps. She stands to his left, letting her hands curl over the railing of the ship. For a long time, there is no sound at all but the creaking of the ship as it rocks, the whisper of the waves.
"Beckett will be furious when he learns of my betrayal," he finally murmurs.
"Yes," Elizabeth agrees softly.
He laughs once, low and weary.
"Any regrets, Admiral?" she asks; the question is wry and delicate all at once. She glances at him.
He meets her eyes. "Dozens," he confesses. And then, lower, after a moment's pause, "But not for this."
She doesn't know how she is to respond; she's struck with the sudden desire to confess her own sins. Stifles it. Never mind the fact that he – another merciless betrayer – would surely understand her. Never mind that the words she cannot speak seem to smother her from the inside, that guilt has made itself a poison and laced itself into her veins. She can't help suspecting, foolishly, that some part of her will perish soon of it; something of her soul. A piece of her heart.
"Elizabeth," he begins, his tone made timid by uncertainty, "It was never my intention to bring you harm. I was – I had lost sight of myself, after losing everything else." He casts his gaze back out to sea. "Surrendering the heart to Beckett was the only way I could think to become the man I once was. But you must know, I never meant—"
"There's no need for apology," she cuts in, blunt and unfeeling as she can manage. "What's done is done." She pauses; recalls, without meaning to, the darkness that has entered Jack's eyes. "And some things cannot change, no matter how much you might yearn for repentance."
He doesn't look to her, but he understands at once. She can tell. "You speak as though you know a thing or two about bearing burdens."
"Yes, well," she says, attempting to make light of it. "I am a pirate captain now."
"Yes," he muses. The shadow of a smile curves his mouth. "It seems just yesterday, you were a bright-eyed thing of twelve. Forever chattering of pirates. Imagining adventures at sea."
"And you," she returns, and can't help feeling a sudden touch of lightness at the thought of her childhood. "I thought the life you led must have been terribly exciting. Chasing pirates. I was quite envious, I'll have you know."
"Of course, instead of capturing them, you'd opt to join them."
"That was the general plan of action, yes." She smiles; he's chuckling under his breath, and all at once, she feels so thankful for his presence. Now that she's lost her father, he is the only fragment of her past that recalls her as she once was. Still sees it in her, underneath the lies and the burdens carried alone.
"When did you fall in love with me?"
He looks at her, clearly caught off-guard.
"You don't have to answer," she says at once; she finds herself flustered and is surprised by it. She was half-sure nothing so trivial could shake her anymore. "I was just . . . curious. We've never really spoken about it."
"True," he admits with a smirk. "Our engagement was rather short-lived."
"And busy," she contributes, making him laugh.
The laugh fades into a wistful, nostalgic smile. He's silent for a moment. She can see the memory flash behind his eyes. "You were perhaps eighteen. It was the evening of a ball being given in honor of your father's birthday. You were dancing with Admiral Milton—"
"Horrible little man," Elizabeth recalls, and shudders in good-natured distaste.
"Horrible," he agrees, his smile broadening for a moment before his voice goes soft. "And though you smiled prettily and said all the right things, I could see that you were unhappy. That you had everything any woman your age might dream of, and still yearned for something more." He pauses to reflect, then concludes, with a touch of irony, "I suppose it was a matter of recognizing yourself in someone else."
"I danced with you that night," she remembers dimly. It feels like recalling a scene from a book; an experience from a life not quite her own.
"Yes," he agrees fondly. "To be truthful, that evening, I thought of little else."
She recalls them as they were: herself, lovely enough to bring tears to her father's eyes (she looked so like the mother she'd hardly known) and screaming on the inside; and him, so sure and admirable and emotionless, the very embodiment of the world she wished to flee.
Or so she'd believed.
"And now look at us," she murmurs.
"Indeed," he agrees quietly. After a moment, he asks, "Do you ever think about what might have happened if we'd married?"
"Sometimes," she admits.
"Ah," he says, and there is a trace of the sardonic mess of a man he'd been months before. "More often than I'd expected, then."
She laughs quietly, and finds herself contemplating it. Before, she's only considered it fleetingly, and with relief – once, the notion of being with anyone besides Will had been unfathomable to her. It seems so long ago. She marvels at it now, that she could have been so blindly faithful. That curiosity had never touched her.
"It would have been a far better fate for the both of us," she realizes aloud.
His surprise is evident in his voice. "Do you really think so?"
"It would certainly have been a far cry from venturing to Shipwreck Cove, preparing to look destruction in the face," she points out wryly.
He lets out a blunt laugh. After it, he remains quiet for so long that she is tempted to excuse herself to her cabin. She ought to be preparing, after all – devising some sort of game plan, regardless of how insurmountable the odds against her side might seem. If anything, she'll go down fighting.
And then, suddenly, he speaks.
"I'm glad we didn't."
She blinks. "What?"
"Don't misunderstand me," he says quickly. "I – I cared for you deeply. I always will." A particular bittersweetness seizes her heart. "But this is where you belong. This is what you are. Not the doting wife of a commodore." His mouth twists up in a smile. "It would have been a horrible waste, don't you think?"
When the tears spring to her eyes, she closes them. She mustn't cry now – not now, upon the very hour that she must lead her men valiantly into certain chaos. Part of her suspects that, if she lets herself, she'll never be able to stop.
She takes a slow, steadying breath in. Opens her eyes.
"Thank you," she says, after a moment passes, and rests a tentative hand on his arm. "For coming with me. For not staying behind." She swallows, lets her gaze fall as she finishes. "I don't think I could have endured it, otherwise."
He looks down at her, brow furrowing. "What do you mean?"
She shrugs weakly. Something in the motion feels almost like surrender. "I have quite enough blood on my hands."
He seems to consider her for a moment before reaching across and covering her hand with his. "You're welcome."
His hand is gone again in seconds; there is a part of her that laments its absence. She suspects she is growing untouchable.
Still, they stand in silence, side by side, for a long time.