The sun is hot, and Elizabeth feels like she is melting.
Her stays are far too tight, and she wishes she'd had the foresight to ask one of the maids to loosen them before she left the house. Her ribcage feels like it is being slowly crushed, and it is all she can do to get enough air. Although she admits the silk is beautiful, it is far too heavy for the noon heat. Her father is all kindness with such extravagant gifts, but really does not have the faintest idea of even the rudiments of practical female costume.
She tries fluttering her fan for some relief, but it is futile. Even the breeze is hot, and it only makes her suffering worse. The ceremony is long, and although she is pleased and proud for James Norrington as he is made Commodore, she wishes they could hurry proceedings along a little, if only to hasten her removal to somewhere shady. Even James, standing to attention, looks handsome but uncomfortable in breeches, and stockings, shirt, and heavy wool uniform jacket. He would never admit to it – he is far too proper – but she can tell he rather wishes all this pomp and fuss would just end and be done with.
Even from a distance, she can see he is all coiled strength and power, even when dressed in miles of brocade and that ridiculous wig. She knows he has dark hair, but it has been years since she has seen it, and for some strange forlorn moment, Elizabeth has the odd desire to see it once again. He is a handsome man, even with the stern brow and the tendency to frown quite often. But that is perhaps the officer, not the real James. There is still much she does not know about him, after all.
The sun moves directly overhead, and Elizabeth lets out a hiss of breath between clenched teeth. Mrs Sanderson, standing next to her, shoots her a sharp look. Humbled, Elizabeth waves her fan a bit more vigorously, and sets to work counting the stonework at her feet.
The pillar in the shade is cool, and she leans against it heavily. Her hands trace the cold stone, letting the chill seep into her fingertips, and hopefully through her entire body. Her father offers her some tea, and she declines, claiming she is not thirsty, when really she could not think of anything worse than hot tea at that very moment.
She cannot wait to get home, and out of this infernal dress.
"You look very beautiful," a voice says from behind her.
Elizabeth jumps, guiltily – startled out of her thoughts, and turns.
James Norrington appears from behind the very pillar she was leaning on, with a slightly bemused expression that quickly falters into a frown when she does not immediately speak. It takes her a moment to find herself, before she falters into a curtsey, determinedly ignoring the pain of the corset digging into her ribs.
"Congratulations, Commodore," she smiles at him, dipping her head. "Port Royal is very blessed to have someone as capable as yourself as its protector." It is not a social grace said for mere politeness and the need to fill the silence; it is the truth. She cannot think of a braver or more honourable man than James.
He flushes endearing, and it seems strange to Elizabeth to see him slightly undone by such a small compliment.
"Thank you, Miss Swann," he answers, the words tumbling out his mouth in a rush, rather than his usual calm clipped manner. She does not think she has ever seen him look quite so agitated.
"May I have a moment?" he stammers, gallantly offering her his arm. His face is redder than normal, but that is probably the heat more than anything else. Slowly, James escorts her away from the crowd, and they head towards the top of the ramparts overlooking the ocean. Elizabeth finds herself driven to the edge in hope of picking up an errant breeze to cool herself with. With her movements, she is conscious again of her corset, which feels like it is tightening more and more with every second. She hopes James does not notice her unladylike efforts to breathe. Thankfully, he seems distracted.
They are silent for a few moments, and she leans against the battlements, pressing her hands to her ribs in a futile attempt to ease the pain. No avail – her breath becomes even shallower still.
Concentrate, she wills herself, and turns her attention to James. He is staring thoughtfully out across the ocean, hands clasped behind his back, and Elizabeth is suddenly struck with a feeling of what exactly this is all about.
His next words confirm it.
"I apologize if I seem forward -- but I must speak my mind."
He means to propose!
Elizabeth, if she is honest with herself, is not really surprised, but then again she certainly is not prepared for it either. Her vision is starting to swim, small dots of every colour darting across her eyes and growing progressively larger. Her heart, pounding like the fort's naval drums, feels like it is determine to pop out of her chest. James, still staring out across the ocean, distracted in his own nervousness, does not seem to have noticed her restlessness yet.
"… all that I have not yet achieved… a marriage to a fine woman."
Oh, oh, she feels frightfully ill, and so clutches onto the nearest solid object she can find. James Norrington is proposing to her, and all she can do is try and draw enough air to keep herself from fainting. This should be one of the most important moments in her life, and yet she….
"I can't breathe…" she manages to gasp, wanting to reach out to him to steady herself, but he is too far away.
"I'm a bit nervous myself," is his faint reply, and it is accompanied by a shy smile, and she wants to curse men for being so blind.
All she can feel is the heat seeping into her skin like hot liquid metal, and the corset ever tightening. Elizabeth makes one last futile attempt to choke out his name, but it is too late. Her knees give way from under her, and all she sees is white.
When she comes too, she knows even without opening her eyes that she is wet, but she can breathe, and it is such blissful relief. She feels light, and cool, and quite peaceful, really. Then she notices that she is not only wet, but immersed in water, and almost panics until she realises there are strong arms around her waist, and so hesitantly opens her eyes.
The arms belong to James, and Elizabeth is suddenly very aware of how small, and yet very safe, she feels within them.
"Elizabeth! Are you all right?" He is staring at her, full of concern, and she has never noticed how green his eyes are before. They are green, like the sea after a storm, except his seem to have infinitely more depth than even the greatest ocean. His wig is gone, and his hair – that dark brown from her childhood memories – is wet about his face. He is holding them both afloat; treading water.
"What happened?" she manages to choke out, only noticing now that her ribcage is unrestricted and free, and she begins to take big gasping breaths, trying to calm her rapid heartbeat.
"You fell," James states simply, never being one for saying too much. They are practically nose-to-nose, and her body is pulled very tightly against his, and she is very underdressed, but James – ever-proper James – seems to be oblivious to it.
"Oh," she answers, abruptly remembering exactly what was happening before she fell. She looks at him sheepishly, feeling more than a little mortified, but she sees only relief in his face.
"My corset?" she asked.
"At the bottom of the ocean." James answers succinctly, and she feels him kicking them both back towards the docks, and Elizabeth notices the swarm of people gathering there. "Please, don't tell me you are missing it already?"
Elizabeth smiles, despite herself, and is relieved when she sees him smile back. He really looks so much younger when he smiles, she notices. Without the wig, especially…
"I had to cut it off," he adds, and she looks at him quizzically. "Your corset. And your dress… it was too heavy… so I…" James trails off, looking more than a little uncomfortable, even in the motion of moving them both slowly through the water.
Then it dawns on her.
"You jumped in after me?" She is surprised.
"Of course." His answer is flat, almost embarrassed.
"But you could have been killed!" Elizabeth cries, glancing up towards the battlements and then down again, taking in the distance between it and the water. "The rocks! You could have –"
"- but I wasn't," he interrupts smoothly. "I could not let anything happen to you." His confession is hushed, so unlike his usual brisk tone.
"Thank you, James," she murmurs, tightening her grip on his forearm, and her heart does a little flip in her chest. "You saved my life."
"Elizabeth, I -"
"I trust your fall from the battlements was less to do with my… declaration, and more to do with your… undergarments?"
She could not help at giggle at his formality, especially, when all things considered; they were bobbing up and down in the ocean, looking less than proper for any company.
"I assure you, James, although your… declaration… was somewhat surprising, it was certainly by no means a reason for me to throw myself from the battlements."
He raises an eyebrow, and there is a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. "I am relieved to hear it. If it had been, I do not think my pride should ever have recovered."
"Your pride will survive another day," she teases.
They lapse into a strange silence, him slowly propelling them both back to shore. Elizabeth moves her grip up from his arm to his shoulder. It is taut under her grip, the muscles moving with the motion of pushing them through the water.
"My pride," she says breaking the quiet between them, "however, will perhaps not recover quite so soon after having… fainted like some sort of silly girl," Elizabeth utters the words with such disdain, and she is startled when she hears him laugh.
"It shall be our secret, then." There is a quirk of the eyebrow, and a twist of an ironic smile lurking at the corner of his mouth, as he nods to the nearing faces of what seems to be half the town waiting on the dock. Elizabeth can see her father at the forefront, wringing his hands with impatience.
"But…but why James?"
"Why what?" he answers distractedly.
"Why risk yourself in such a manner?" Elizabeth feels awkward for mentioning it, but she truly cannot quite believe that the Commodore would act in such a rash and reckless way.
"It is nothing."
"Nothing, James?" He seems determined not to catch her eye. "You jump off battlements, and could have hurt or even killed yourself, and you say it is nothing?"
"Not nothing then. I did it because…because… I-I care for you… greatly." He has turned to look at her now, and they are floating gently with the lapping of the waves. "I do not know how I would cope if any harm were to come to you, Elizabeth."
She is rendered speechless at his sincerity, and truly realises the depth of feeling behind his seemingly simple words. All this time, she has known that she and James are considered a smart match, and in truth had resigned herself, not unhappily, to the eventuality of their marriage. She has no reason to oppose such an alliance; he is a good, and honourable man, and will make an excellent husband. Elizabeth has always held great affection for him, and in time knows they would settle into a steady companionship, a partnership of equals. Indeed, there were many worse things in the world than to be married to a fine man such as James.
But never in all this time, over all these years, had she considered that he might actually love her. But now, she feels, looking into those sharp green eyes, like she is seeing him for the first time in her life. Seeing beyond the brocade and duty, and the stern outer mask he always wears, and realising that there is a man underneath; one with feelings and emotions, and hopes and dreams. To Elizabeth, a society match between man and wife is one thing, but a happy loving marriage is another very different thing entirely. Had he always felt this way? Was she more than just a smart match to him? Everything now seemed to indicate to her that, yes, perhaps his feelings ran deeper than she could have ever imagined.
Thinking back, she recalls him, first a Lieutenant, then a Captain, and now a Commodore. In particular, Elizabeth recollects dancing with him on her sixteenth birthday, and being surprised at his understated grace. He made it seem effortless, and she felt like she was floating, rather than dancing, and he had smiled at her then – a truly happy smile – and told her she looked stunning. It had warmed her to her core, having him like that, and even now she remembers what it was like to be on the receiving end of such admiration from someone like James.
It is a shock, that perhaps he does care for her, but it is certainly not an unwelcome one. The only true apprehension she had felt in the past to marrying James had been that she did not believe he held her in any great esteem – or that perhaps, he felt she would be a suitable wife for a man of his status. But if this is not the case, if he loves her…?
"Yes," she murmurs suddenly. Her hands move from his arms, to his face, and he glances at her, looking quite shocked.
"Yes?" It is a timid, almost suspicious question.
Elizabeth is resolved. "Yes, James. I will marry you."
His expression flickers from surprise, to pleasure, a genuine smile breaking out onto his face, only to be suddenly swallowed by a frown.
"No." He shakes his head furiously, water dripping from his hair.
Now it is her turn to be taken aback. "No!?"
"I will not accept your hand in gratitude. I saved your life, yes, but I do not want it to be the reason you accept me."
He is too noble, she knows, and although she appreciates his heroism, this is not the reason she has accepted him. James is, and always has been, all she has ever wanted. It has just taken her longer than she thought to realise, and to be able to see him for what he really is. Her eyes have been opened, and she refuses to be blinded again.
"I request that you think about it, at least, Elizabeth. Permit me to call on you as would a proper suitor." His tone suggests that he is not going to accept an alternative. "I do not believe in a marriage that is merely a business transaction, as you may suppose, and I could not wish for you to enter into such an agreement without truly… wanting to."
She nods, astounded, trying to think of something to say, but it is too late. They are at the dockside, and he is helping her up the ladder. Her father envelops her in his arms, squeezing her tight and quickly covering her in his large coat. Officers, in turn praising and scolding him for his courage, swiftly surround James.
"Come, Elizabeth. We must get you home before you catch cold," her father is saying, ushering her away. She is too distracted to even remind him that it is near impossible to catch a cold in the Caribbean.
"No, I must speak with James," she says. Elizabeth notices her father's eyebrow rise slightly, but for once he does not protest. She shrugs off the coat, uncaring at her appearance, and pushes her way through the growing crowd.
"James!" He turns when he hears her voice. He has his dry jacket slung over one arm, his white shirt soaked through, but still manages to portray a confident and controlled demeanour even in such a bedraggled state.
"Elizabeth?" he questions, but is cut off short when she throws herself into his arms and presses her lips to his. He is shocked at first, but she does not relent, nor release him from the embrace. Slowly, she feels him relax, and return her kiss with equal fervour, both blissfully oblivious to the astonished crowd around them.
It is perfect, she thinks, as his arms move around her, and she is pulled tightly against him. This is James, behind the officer's mask – the man, not the soldier, and the one she will spend the rest of her life learning. He is a man worth so much more than a society marriage, and pretence at happiness; he deserves a woman who loves him utterly and completely. James is an enigma, just waiting for her to unravel him and discover his secrets and Elizabeth knows she will be content to do so for the rest of their lives. As a silent promise, her tongue whispers over his and she can tell he is lost, just as she is.
He pulls away abruptly, face uncharacteristically flushed. She is sure hers is too, but is so giddy she doesn't care. She grins broadly at him, and is rewarded with a smile in return.
"I daresay, you will have to marry me now, won't you James?" she laughs impishly as everyone bursts to applause around them. Grasping his hand in her own, she kisses his knuckles softly, and pulls him away from the crowd.
There is no time like the present, to start learning James.