It was easier to forget at the bottom of a bottle of rum, than to remember the cards that fate had dealt him.
The problem was, former Commodore James Norrington did not believe in fate, anymore than he believed in destiny, or luck. He had certainly not had his fair dealing in either if that was the case. He believed in skill, and strength; in being a good man.
And look where it had got him.
He had lost everything in life; was no better than a common outlaw. The bottom of that rum bottle was looking increasingly good, and he found it smarted even better at the back of his throat. Everything he had worked for, all direction in his life had shifted with the twisting of a hurricane off Tripoli and now his life's compass was without direction; without hope.
Maps and atlases that used to console him, mocked him from tavern tables. Gold teeth and staggered walks reminded him only of the man who had pushed him into this cesspit he knows as Tortuga. Another of these men had offered him good money for his navy coat, but James found that something within him would not get rid of it. Some sick part of him enjoyed the constant sharp reminder of what he once was, and what he had now lost. It helped him wallow in his self-pity more easily; helped him punish himself that little bit more.
His hair had gotten long, longer than he had ever let it before, and he found that he did not miss washing it – or bathing on the whole for that matter. Bathing showed pride; something that James no longer possessed. Shaving was no longer a problem either. Every time he happened to glance in a mirror (which was becoming far less often), he was rather perversely pleased with the result of what he had become, and how it reflected the rotting of his own soul. Dirty flesh, dirty soul; James was so very deserving of both.
It wasn't until he had found himself face down in a pile of muck that he realised how low he had sunk. It could have been the rum drinking or the bar fighting that caused him to realise, although he secretly took pleasure that either one could kill him (if fate so decided, he thought wryly). It was the look of pity on Elizabeth Swann's face as she pulled him out of the dirt that was enough for James to realise his life was not over yet.
The Dead Man's Chest was a load of rubbish as far as he was concerned; a myth at best, but Elizabeth seemed prone to believe Sparrow, as usual. He didn't like the looks she cast the pirates' way; as if roving him for some hidden treasure or something entirely different that James would never be able to see, or at least, could never expect from her in regard to himself. But Jack had spun her some story about a heart, The Flying Dutchman, and Davy Jones and she was happy to jump aboard his ship and take his word for it - anything for that latest fiancée of hers.
Despite better judgement, (and he hadn't had much of that recently) James had nevertheless followed them aboard, goat and all, and made sail under a pirate flag for the first time in his life. It was a relief to feel the boards of a deck under his slightly wobbly feet again.
The sound of the wind whipping the sails of the infamous ship echoed like firecrackers. James remembered the last time he saw such a display was in Port Royal, a local celebration for something or other; he couldn't remember. He recalled only that Elizabeth had been by his side, corseted and done up; stature rigid as a board (to match his own, probably – he had not forgotten the pompous side to the navy). He had thought her beautiful; daring to watch her out the corner of his eye; her father standing an appropriate, yet subtle, distance off. He wanted to ask for her hand then, but saw the set of her jaw and decided against it. Instead he allowed his hand to brush the small of her back as he escorted her home.
Of course now, her attire of breeches and a man's shirt were not entirely appropriate for a lady, but nevertheless still equally as becoming on the governor's daughter. No doubt now was hardly the time for propriety since, as she told him, she was as much an outlaw as him. James found himself fascinated by this new her; this wild thing, even after his resolution to put her from his mind all those months ago. It hadn't been hard what with the hurricane, and the bottomless rum, but now here she was, and he knew no amount of drinking was going to let him forget her now. It was the way the light caught her eyes, he surmised, before realising he sounded like some awful poet, and promptly set to swabbing the deck.
Sparrow had put Turner on the Dutchman - that much was obvious. Elizabeth may trust Jack, but James did not. After spending months hunting for this pirate, and then finding him within arms reach was almost too much for him; until he remembered that he was powerless now. He fought for no one; certainly not His Majesty's Navy, only himself. His throat swelled with bitterness.
He sucked on a lime to keep the scurvy at bay, watching her through the corner of his eye. She fiddled with that damn compass of Sparrow's; the thing that pointed to what you really wanted (broken, James scorned); and spent the rest of the time staring aimlessly across the horizon. He offered her some of his rationing of rum, (a feat in itself) and to his surprise she took it with a wry smile.
"I did not think you would deem this appropriate for a lady", she said raising a haughty eyebrow; a smile twitching at the corner of her delicious mouth. She took a delicate sip, attempting to hide her flinch at the taste from him, and handing it back.
"It seems…." James punctuated his sentence with a sharp mouthful of the bottle's contents, savouring the spice on his tongue, thinking that perhaps it was the closest to her lips he might ever get, "… you have decided the life of a lady is not for you, Miss Swann." His eyes roved her body with a drunken confidence he didn't know he possessed, and disdainfully smirked when she noticed his attention.
Folding her arms across her chest, Elizabeth leaned heavily back on the side. "Commodore – … James" she had caught herself in her mistake, "I have to do this. For Will."
He nodded, pretending not to care, when actually he cared a great deal. "And you think that Sparrow is worried about your precious fiancée right now? You don't seem so very worried about him yourself; you and your Captain seem to be getting along just fine without him."
She stood upright, and snatched his rum bottle away from him. "You know, I don't particularly like who you have turned into, James." The venom in her tone could not be ignored.
He shrugged, turning back to face the rippling water, and away from her sharp brown eyes. "I don't know, Elizabeth. I always wondered if you liked me at all."
He knows the Letters of Marque are his ticket to freedom, but he will have to bide his time. James has let himself sink so low he could hardly remember the man of honour he used to be. The thought of regaining his reputation was every bit as addictive as the burning sting of rum down his throat.
The price of ambition.
Elizabeth was drunk; very, very drunk, and leaning on him quite heavily. He was very, very drunk too, but found he liked the weighty feel of her body pressed hard against his shoulder. If he closed his eyes he could almost imagine the warmth of her flesh burning through the heavy fabric of his coat.
They were sitting on the deck, James leaning against the mast, staring up at the moon. He likes this Elizabeth. No doubt he had liked the old Elizabeth, but he was enjoying this new version very much also. Perhaps it was the way she wore her hair loose, a tricorn hat perched pertly on her head, or the idea that he could see the slender curve of her legs in those men's breeches. A lifetime ago, James would have berated himself for such thoughts, but somehow all the mud and filth, and his jacket stiff with salt, had suppressed the extreme side of him that had been Commodore Norrington and all his measures of propriety. He was rather enjoying being this new kind of James.
"Kiss me," she murmurs suddenly, her head tilting back, offering her lips to him. "I know you are no better than a common pirate now, just as I am."
"You are drunk, Elizabeth. And I am no pirate."
She drops her head, meeting him square in the eye.
"Oh, so you are an honourable man, James?" she asks, her fingers reaching up to stroke the lapels of his filthy coat. Those long elegant fingers.
He reaches for his rum if only to distract him, but finds the bottle empty. He cannot do this with her. Willing himself to stand up, he finds his legs uncooperative but manages to pull himself up against the mast, and looks down at her at his feet.
"I was an honourable man, Elizabeth."
Her hand is on his bare ankle; his boots discarded earlier in the evening. "Was?" she wrinkles her nose at the word. "Was? What are you now?"
James looks down, wishing somehow that she would let him go, but finding himself immobilised by this tiny creature. He wishes she would stop asking him these questions; stop looking at him like the way she is looking.
"I don't know." He answers, breathing a sigh of relief as she releases his ankle from her surprisingly firm grasp. Sucks it in again as she stands up beside him, her slight figure swaying again with the roll of the ship; and the rum. "But I am not who I was."
"Then kiss me, James." His name sounds delicious off her tongue, the drink has made her unsteady. She does not know what she is saying.
His heart is in his mouth, but he knows now that it his honour is still inside him; the thing that causes him to baulk. Here is his Elizabeth, with face upturned to his, offering all he has ever wanted for the taking, and still he cannot.
"I will not take what will be regretted in the morning." It is the only answer he can think to give.
"And if it won't be regretted?" Suggestively she smiles, falling against him with a sudden graceless lurch.
He walks away, unable to speak. Unable to formulate words lest he finds himself against her, mouths, tongues, touch. He will not take what he is not his. He is no pirate in that way.
"You do not know what you are saying, Elizabeth."
He goes to the galley, for whatever scraps he can find. They have little of great variance, but he does not care. Just anything to settle the rolling of his stomach, or the dull ache in his head.
She speaks but does not think; he knows she is mourning the loss of a wedding night and James knows it is not him she wishes for, but for love, intimacy, attention.
A lesser man would take her. A pirate like Sparrow would not hesitate on such a tempting offer, but James bitterly knows this is the difference between them. A month ago, he would not have hesitated if such a question was asked, such an offer made, but somehow she disarms him. Her small hands knock down every barrier he ever built; even the ones against her. Everything he used to be emerges when she looks at him. She makes him want to be a good man; a honourable man; even now with all the fragments of his broken life are scattered around him in ruin.
James would happily give her these things she asks for – spoken, or unspoken; he aches to give her these pleasures, but does not think he can cope to give her back again afterwards. He once before had ceased claim on Elizabeth (although he knew, claimed was not a term she would approve of at all), and for his pains he vowed he could not do it again. But that was a different man; a different lifetime. A man with more morals than he possesses now ; a man balanced, and poised. Not one so close to toppling over the edge.
He wants her, but he fears opening the floodgates to what he has long since locked away. She will undo him, he knows; and it is only a matter of time.
The footsteps are soft, but steady and he knows it is her. James does not move from his position hunched over the table, head buried in his arms. He can hear her breathing; he is sure she can hear his.
"James. I know you're awake."
Reluctantly, head raised, he looks at her. Her hat is gone, hair flowing loose in waves down her shoulders. She looks so young, he thinks, so pure, so very innocent.
(But surely not? They have been engaged for months, he realises.)
Distracting him from his thoughts, she sits, unfolding herself onto the bench beside him, lithe like a cat. She is even a little too close for his liking. The smell of rosewater – he cannot imagine how, perhaps he imagines it? – invades his nostrils, mixed with the heady spice of rum.
"Elizabeth," he says, breaking the silence.
She picks at the rough wood at the table; tugging at the loose splinters with short dirty fingernails.
"You think me cruel."
Does he think her cruel? He truly does not know.
Instead he stands up and rummages in one of the spare cupboards until he finds a piece of stale bread, and enough rum for two. He takes a share, and places the rest in front of her, retaking his seat.
"You do, don't you James?"
"I never said anything." He thought this the wisest answer.
Pulling apart her bread Elizabeth sighs, flicking the crumbs onto the tabletop. "The problem with you, James," she says mournfully, "is you don't even need to say anything for me to know what you are thinking."
Incredulous, he says nothing.
"You don't believe me," she says resolutely, finally finished demolishing her bread, and starting on his own piece. "You forget that I have known you since I was a child."
"I would not think I was of much concern to Miss Swann." He knows he sounds bitter. Perhaps he is; but he can only feel one thing at the time, and at that moment staring at her full bottom lip, he knows it is not bitterness.
His words have hurt her; but she is too proud to show him this. But he knows it nevertheless.
"I have always known when you are angry at me, James. Or annoyed, or disappointed. Mostly angry." She gives a small smile; almost a wince. "You think you are good at pretending, but you are not."
He almost snorts in derision. "Pretending, Miss Swann? Pray tell."
"Your face." Her hand is fast, reaching to touch his face; no longer the smooth face of an officer; the rough face of a shattered man. Her caress is so fleeting he wonders if he imagined it. "You have never been any good at hiding your feelings. It is… your mouth, you see."
A raised eyebrow. "My mouth?" he repeats, his tone mocking.
They fall silent again. The shift of the boat creaks beneath them.
"And what of your Mr. Turner, Elizabeth?" James pauses, jaw clenched. "Is a marriage interrupted fate intervened?" He tries to keep the sneer out of his voice, and fails.
"Perhaps." This is all she says, leaving him to ponder her meaning. He takes another swig of the rum, and offers her the bottle.
She drains the dregs without hesitation, almost desperation. Sensing it, James reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a small flask he keeps and hands it to her. She takes it wordlessly, a nod of thank you before tipping back the contents of that too.
She starts coughing, almost dropping the flask. "That's not rum."
"No. Whiskey." James takes it back, and has a sip himself. The familiar warmth of it pools in his stomach.
"I don't love him, James."
This snaps him to attention; like a lightning bolt on an otherwise cloudless sky.
Her eyes fill with tears.
"I don't love him."
Her revelation is a snap of his resolve; and he is on her. Any reservations have been forgotten and he is simply a man, wanting a woman. Wanting Elizabeth.
Teeth clash, and she is sweet; so very, very sweet. In contrast, the salt from her tears taste bitter on his tongue but he finds he cannot stop even if he wanted to. The words from her mouth have broken the spell, and he prays to whatever is holy that she will not break his already fractured heart again.
James does not expect her to be bold, but she is. Her hands make quick work of his coat, discarded on the galley floor. His hands are in her hair; diving, stroking and guiding her mouth closer. He releases a guttural moan as her hands stroke a path down his neck.
His tongue is in her mouth; and he can scarcely believe what he is doing; how he is doing it. For years, his dreams of her have been of chaste soft kisses, and slow exploration, but he finds now he has not the control to carry them out. All he can feel is the movement of her body under his hands as she crawls closer into his lap, her legs spread astride his own.
All he feels is primal.
Despite everything, he wants to be a good man; knows he should be. Knows she is vulnerable, and he should probably stop this, but his self-control is gone. All of those years of distant admiration for her, which he hid so long under an icy exterior, and stiff courtship, are melting away in front of his eyes, and he sees the desperate man he has become. The man she has made him.
Warm hands are reaching under his shirt, pulling frantically at the hem. "James," she murmurs, "oh, James."
He does not want her to speak; especially not his name. He needs no reminders that if he were a decent man; the man he once was; he would not be compromising Miss Elizabeth Swann (with or without her permission) in the galley of a ship; let alone the Black Pearl. When he dreamt of this, she was laid down on feather light pillows, and covered in even lighter kisses; introducing her tentatively to how these things were done.
Instead, he pushes off her own coat, his lips never leaving hers, tasting frantically; needing her now, yesterday, years ago. She is not William Turner's fiancée, she is not a pirate; for now, for this moment, she is his and he wants her to know it.
He struggles with the buttons of her vest, then the laces of her shirt, his fingers feel clumsy against something so small. He wants her undressed; her skin upon his skin, as quickly as possible before she realises that this is not what she wants; he is not what she wants. For the second time in his life.
Suddenly, he lurches, only now noticing she has pulled away, her upper body heaving very becomingly, cheeks rosy, her mouth thoroughly swollen from his assault. Her small hand places itself on his chest.
"James.," she says, and he wants to devour her.
"Elizabeth." He is breathless.
The rock of the boat punctuates the silence between them. His fingers itch.
"You do realise we are in the galley." The statement is coupled with a wry glance at their surroundings.
"I had not noticed," he replies, reaching for her again; mouth connecting with the hollow of her throat. A moan of gratification escapes, and it shocks him to think that he is the one drawing such an illicit sound from her. He does it again, just to be sure.
"Surely you do not –" a gasp "- intend to have me in the galley?"
Frankly he did not care where he had her; and said so.
"So I am no better than a common strumpet?" she asks, her hands tracing a rather pleasurable path down his thigh. "You plan to have me upon the table? Or against the wall?"
Those brazen words, in that sweet proper tongue made him stop.
"Elizabeth, darling Elizabeth." He lets the endearments slip out of his mouth before he can tame them. "I would have you any which way, as long as you are mine."
Her hand twists into his waistband. "I am no ones."
"You are William Turner's."
"Then tonight I am yours."
"And the night after that?" He almost does not want to ask.
Elizabeth nods her head. "Until we reach wherever it is we are going."
"And after that?"
"I don't know."
He was once a better man; but rum, and Elizabeth have turned him into this thing he has become. He cannot resist her pleading eyes, her flushed cheeks, and the way her lips trail across his collarbone.
She has broken him; as he knew she would. His resolve to abstain from her is a mere shadow as she releases him from his shirt. Whatever promises he made himself are lost as she rakes her fingernails across his back. He will take her tonight, abandoning all vows, and forgetting whatever future pain may come between them. Whatever she offers, he will take like a grateful slave, serving at the feet of his mistress. She beckons and he will run, because James knows this is his chance. His one chance.
He places her on the table, laying his coat down upon the rough wood.
"You broke my heart, you know," he murmurs, fumbling with the ties of her breeches. She stays silent as he sheds her last vestiges of propriety upon the galley floor, but he knows she understands.
He is deliberate in his seduction, slow and articulate. He sees her body as a map; and set upon himself to investigate every curve, every hollow, connecting each dot, following every path. Etch every inch of her skin into his mind, first with his hands, then his tongue.
She cries against him, soft skin clammy with sweat as he reaches between her legs. His fingers are pressed up against her, inside her, pushing her closer to her shuddering edge. She screams his name, not knowing how he is doing this to her – he can see the confusion in her eyes, - but he does not relent. He needs her to feel this; to know what it is like to be out of control.
"Ja-James…" she pants, her hands groping for something to steady her, neck arched. He does not think he has ever seen something so beautiful. "I need… I need…"
She cannot voice her need, but he knows what it is because he needs it to. He is gentle and careful now, pressing against her, the feeling almost too much to bear.
He is a ship adrift at sea, and she is his anchor. Shattered once upon the rocks, she will save him, only to send him back to the depths. He is a saved man; and yet he has fallen.
She flinches as he meets the resistance within her, and cries out when it is broken. He kisses those tears away, wondering how he is so lucky; why she has chosen him. Her skin is velvet, and he is wrapped up in it.
He kisses her tenderly until the pain is gone; until she starts moving against him again; until he can take it no longer. It is a new dance to her, but somehow her body knows the steps; pushing against him, hips rising to meet his. His voice is gone; silenced by her strangled moans. He lets her control him, as he always has. Her movements become urgent; her teeth nipping against his bottom lip, her fingernails crescents in his forearms.
"More, James," she commands, and he obeys; fascinated by this temptress, this siren that she has become under him. "Oh, please, dear God."
He touches her everywhere, trying to memorise her body; how she reacts to every pressure, every stroke. If this is to be their swansong, he knows he will not forget it.
He relents only when she shudders and cries out beneath him, letting himself go then and only then.
"James," he hears her murmur, as he collapses beside her, her fingers entwined in his hair. "If only we could sail forever."
The next time he is not gentle; he cannot give her courtesy, and she does not mind. He corners her below deck and she is his once again; if only for that moment.
This time she begs and pleas, so he kneels between her legs, kissing the very heat of her until her knees give away; and then he continues his fierce assault of her on the deck of Jack's precious Pearl. Later under the moonlight, she ties him to the mast and returns the favour.
The next day he receives three surprises.
The chest is real, and the heart is real. And William Turner miraculously, is still alive.
The way she kisses him is like Port Royal all over again, and James wishes that he were dead. His months of despair in the pits of Tortuga, drowning in rum and sorrow were nothing in comparison to watching her cling to him; like James never existed.
It was almost too easy in the end; taking the Letters, and the chest and the heart along with it. If the navy taught him anything, it was that opportunities are everywhere, and so he grasps them with both hands.
The heart is sticky and warm against his chest, beating a sombre rhythm at odds to his own; a requiem. He is a man with two hearts, and yet he feels nothing but betrayal.