By Dream Descends
Sleep had proved futile for James Norrington. It seemed he was no longer capable of passing calmly and quietly into slumber—it took either a bottle to the mouth or a bottle to the head, both of which he was regrettably incapable of providing. Not to say he hadn't tried; Jack Sparrow was simply too bloody clever to leave his cache unlocked. James had almost gotten down on all fours and tried to pick the thing, but a distantly familiar wrench in his gut had stopped him. He liked to think, deep down inside of him, beneath the layers of shit and mud, he had some inkling of decency left, the morals of a gentlemen, an officer under—
Oh, sod it. His complete and utter inadequacy in the art of lock picking had stopped him, and may God strike him down if the bastard gave a bilge rat's backside in the matter.
And so James lay, hitherto safe from the lord's outraged judgement, restless and heavy-lidded in his hammock. The weighty roll of the Black Pearl, her belly creaking with obedient effort, had long since lulled the rest of the crew to sleep. Somewhere above him, James knew Captain Jack Sparrow was caressing smugly the familiar grooves of his ship's helm, with a weary Elizabeth at his side. Last James had seen of her, she was clutching the exalted compass tightly in both hands, her shoulders hunched forward in response to a chill that no other crewman could feel.
He worried about her far too much, he knew, for a woman who was not his to worry about. If months of stumbling through a broken life in a drunken stupor could not expel Elizabeth Swann from his blood, his memory, and his heart, he knew there was nothing that could. He knew as soon as he had glanced up from a pile of his own smouldering shame to see her face, framed repulsively by a ridiculous hat and a frizz of badly plaited hair.
She looked positively indecent, and then starved twice over—but his heart had nearly split from blind joy, right before sinking somewhere below his ankles at seeing the unsightly pity in her gaze.
Damn pirates, he thought suddenly. Damn Tortuga, Jack Sparrow, rum, gin, grog, and Will Turner! He bit his tongue to keep from swearing aloud, stomping mercilessly on his wig, abandoned and dripping on the floor. The lumpy hammocks around him remained motionless save a few alarmed snorts before the compartment slipped back into a breathy silence.
James had at long last begun to think he might get around to joining them that evening when a slender shadow appeared on the stairs.
In the meagre light of the remaining lantern, she glowed like amber. Her hair had come loose, resting in a matted pile over one shoulder. Her movements were slow and awkward—she was sleeping on her feet, soft brown eyes blazing an agitated bronze as they passed over him and settled on the empty hammock next to his.
He shut his eyes and fell still, tensing as she settled down beside him, letting out a ghost of a sigh that made the hair of James' arms stand on end. Wait and she'll fall asleep, he told himself, wondering why he was filled with terror at the thought of facing her awake. Just wait, Norrington, and—
Oh, for the love of—
"Are you awake?"
"I could just fling myself overboard, if you like; say I had finally lost my mind, finish myself off and save you the work."
"What?" She lifted her head incredulously.
James groaned and sat up. "I wasn't talking to you."
"Oh." Her fingers curled and uncurled around the sides of her jacket, and there was a foreign waver in her voice that put him on edge. "I'm sorry if I woke you."
He stared absently at his wig, several metres away, and waved a hand in pardon. "You didn't."
At that, she sat up once more, neat as a cat, her eyes sparking with nervous energy. "I'm so frightened," she murmured hoarsely, "So frightened for him."
James had thought the muck of his existence could sink no lower. As she spoke, he felt his insides plunge below the floorboards and be agonizingly and ruthlessly crushed by the pressure of the waves he once worshipped so candidly. He at once wanted to choke the breathing life out of William Turner and hang his mangled corpse from the strap of his belt, so he could display him at public gatherings and say, "See this man? Yes, that's right, I killed him."
"Jack seems to think there's hope for him yet," he replied instead. "He'll do whatever he can to save a loyal friend." It was a singularly blatant and bold-faced lie—James didn't doubt Jack Sparrow had no room in his unbearably incisive mind for anyone but himself.
"I'm worried, James, not stupid," Elizabeth said with considerable offence. He snorted in plain surprise and bent his head in defeat.
"Even so, he must have a plan of some kind, and—" it killed James to say it, "—Mr. Turner isn't entirely helpless."
She shrugged and, looking at something beside him that wasn't there, said, "Neither are you." Her refusal to look directly at him finished the sentence. And look what good it did you.
None, he answered silently. "I see." Unable to think of anything else to say, he turned his back and began to lie down again.
"No, I—" He felt a hand graze his forearm and when he moved it fell away. "You're still my friend, James; always my friend."
To his credit, he didn't turn around immediately. He didn't want her to see the pitiable hope he knew would be showing through his tired eyes, his down-turned mouth. Scrubbing his face with both hands, he looked at her over his shoulder.
Her smile was genuine and yet it seemed smaller somehow, along with the rest of her. She was drawn up like tightly stowed canvas, her knees together and her shoulders curved into a shell, shielding the rest of her body.
She reached for him and abruptly, almost desperately he was seeking her too. She took his heated palm in both hands, her slender fingers seeming all the more fragile against the ruddy tan of his own. "My oldest friend," she speculated quietly, examining the dirt around his fingernails.
His breaths were shallow, uneven. He feared he would either overwhelm her or, God forbid, cry. "I want only to protect you, Elizabeth," he finally murmured. The strength in his voice made her look up, and the emotion made her shiver. She was now focused somewhere just below his chin, her hand squeezing his with all the exhausted energy he imagined she could muster. It was as though he anchored her to this world and without his hand, she might be swept away by the seas and the wind and the helplessness, casting a shadow over her now.
She sighed heavily, almost a moan of despair and she met his gaze searchingly. "Then protect me," she begged, commanded; she invited.
He felt he might go mad—the nausea and primal fear of what he was doing, pushed back by thrill and ageless anticipation—he leaned in, saw her eyelashes quivering in the tide of his breath, could feel her exhaling into his mouth. Her eyelids drooped, her lips fell open slightly and she brought a trembling hand up between them that secured itself in his hair, tugging him closer.
At first they were both clumsy—he too nervous, she too weary—and then a slow rhythm emerged, both their hearts pounding against each other, their mouths spurring and retreating, as steady as the repeated hug of wave to shore. He could taste her, drink her, mark her…merely hold her…
And then with great, jerking force, she began to cry—the wet trails made stripes down her dirtied face, washing away the resilient exterior he took just as much pride in as she. The rhythm was gone, and the strange thrum that had filled the cabin, blurred the light of the lanterns was gone too, pitching everything back into sour clarity.
She fell against him, her body gone limp, only moving with the heave of each sob, and instinctively he gathered her up, kneeling with her on the floor as she wept.
"I'm sorry," he whispered raggedly. "So sorry."
She shook her head silently, and he lifted her up onto her hammock. She didn't move even after he had returned to his, and all night she stayed that way. He didn't sleep, and in the morning she didn't ask about the grey circles under his eyes, as he didn't comment on the redness of hers.
Nor did he watch for her, late in the night when she had been on deck for hours, the compass shrouded by her thin fingers, her body wilted and her gaze gone cold. The keys to the rum cache were easily stolen—he was careful to have fallen asleep long before she might lie down beside him.