Disclaimer: All characters belong to The Walt Disney Company, not to me.
Notes: Post-CotBP AU. Thanks to Schemingreader for beta-reading.
WITH NO RIGHTS IN THIS MATTER
by Rex Luscus
Lieutenant Gillette lingered on the threshold, and James made an impatient motion with his hand. "Well, what are we afraid of now? Courier get delayed? Bad news from the yard? What?"
"Sir--" Gillette cleared his throat nervously, "--the sloop Saint Margaret was lost two days ago, off Cape Tiburon."
"Damn." James slumped back in his chair. He looked at the ceiling and clenched his teeth. "Weather? Christ, tell me it was weather and not something worse."
"A gale, yes. Sir--"
"What did we lose? Who was commanding?"
"Damn." James closed his eyes. "I had high hopes for him." He sighed. "Damn, damn."
"Sir." Gillette swallowed. "There were passengers aboard."
James's eyes opened.
"One of them--well, you see, it was Elizabeth Turner."
"She--apparently she'd been to visit a sick friend in Antigua. The friend since passed away--I don't know, actually--and she was on her way--well, home--"
"I'm sorry." James blinked a few more times. "Can you repeat what you said a moment ago?"
"Who--who did you say was on that ship? We're talking about the ship we lost, yes?"
"The ship we lost. Elizabeth Turner was aboard it, sir."
He looked around. His eyes touched each object in the room, as though one of them might explain what had just been said. Gillette hovered on the edge of his vision.
He heard himself murmur, "Christ, who's going to tell Turner?"
"He's already been informed, I think. As has the governor."
"Oh. Yes, of course." Husband and father, yes. He'd feared for a moment he'd have to tell them, which would have been hilarious since he couldn't even tell himself anything.
"Thank you, lieutenant," James said, eyes fixed on his inkwell. "That will be all."
He stayed the rest of the day, but could remember nothing of it. He didn't think he could call those first few hours grief, per se. He simply didn't have any idea what to do.
Sleep was when it all started to come together. His dreams supplied the images his waking mind wouldn't. Her face as vivid as life as she spoke to him--unintelligibly, though her expression told him it was something funny and important and private--the sound of her voice, again without words he could understand, but full of humor and urgency. It was like seeing her through glass, or hearing her in the next room. When he woke, hot and drenched in a tangle of sheets, he strained his ears to catch her, until he recalled why he could not. In her place, he heard awful, wet, hoarse noises, like somebody being sick. He was remarking on how much they sounded like how he felt before he realized he was making them.
As he worked, he felt brittle, as though if he turned his head too much to the right or left or bent over too far, some kind of glaze would crack and everything would ooze out. He wasn't sure what "everything" was and he didn't want to find out. Work kept his head above water. He had so many habits, so many stock responses to routine problems, that he could keep going for days on muscle memory alone. He thought he was doing well until Lieutenant Gillette got into his field of vision with grim eyes and a set mouth.
"Sir, please take a rest. Everyone agrees you're entitled to it."
"Lieutenant." He put his hands down a little too hard on his armrests. "I appreciate your concern, but I wish to remain busy. Idleness cures nothing."
"That may be, sir, but I asked you a question five minutes ago that you still haven't answered. You've been staring into space like you're doing mathematics in your head, and frankly, if a crisis came up, we'd be scuppered with you in command."
Gillette's expression suddenly seemed deeper--not one of mild irritation, but of fear, sadness, dread. It had been there for days, James realized.
"Of course," he murmured. "Tell Captain Bledsoe he's in command." He got up, walked out of his office, and went home.
He quickly found out what he'd been afraid of. The inside of his house sickened him. As he roamed the town, he couldn't stand it either, but at least if he was moving, he never had to tolerate one place for very long. With time to think about what it meant, he couldn't stand the sight of the sea. He'd never heard another word about the lost sloop, he realized. Had he dealt with the situation without remembering it? Or had others handled it to shield him? He hadn't even stopped to wonder. The last several days were full of holes everyone but himself had seen, and now that he knew of them, things were bubbling through them that he didn't want to see. He went home.
Neither wife nor mother, daughter nor sister. It wasn't his right to mourn her. Not like this.
He sat in his shirtsleeves in the green armchair in his parlor. It was all right like this, with his head tucked into the corner of the chair back, pointing his eyes at a gray stain in the plaster. If he didn't move, it was sort of all right.
Somebody banged on the front door. He shut his eyes. Then he remembered he'd sent his servants away, and got dizzily to his feet.
When he opened the door, Will Turner was on the doorstep.
First, he was surprised by a sudden, overwhelming pang of grief. When that had passed, he said, "Can I help you with something, Mr. Turner?"
Turner looked awful. He looked sick, and pale, and quite honestly, filthy. "Commodore. I was--wondering--I thought perhaps you might let me--" he cleared his throat, "--stay here."
That was enough to bring him out of his daze a bit. "Stay here?"
"I'd stay out of your way. You wouldn't have to know I was here."
Turner's eyes were wild. James didn't understand why this was his problem, or his business. "I--my condolences to you on your loss," he said stiffly. "Your wife was--a wonderful woman."
"Forget it," Turner said. "It was impertinent of me to ask."
"Turner--" James opened the door wider.
"I reserve the armchair for exclusive use, but the couch is all yours." James headed back to his chair without looking to see if he was followed. "There's a liquor cabinet. Feel free."
"No, thank you."
God, that just figured. The boy was practically a Quaker. How such a lad had ended up with Elizabeth, he couldn't--
Sitting down, he said, "Is there anything else I can get you?" The sarcasm wouldn't stay out of his voice, though he didn't really mean it. "The servants are out and I hadn't expected to have to entertain."
Turner was standing over by the couch, staring at him in a kind of dull wonder. "You look awful," he said.
"Yes, thank you, so do you." James flicked his hand carelessly. "Sit down, please, for God's sake."
"I thought you'd be working," Turner said, sitting down.
James laughed. "So did I. Apparently someone decided I needed a rest. I tried to explain that rest was the last thing I needed but they wouldn't listen. I'd expect you to be working, too; unlike me, you don't require anybody's permission."
"I tried. God knows I tried. I banged away for three straight days. But it didn't do any good and I started to hate the sight of it anyway."
"Mm." James nestled his head back into its spot and found the stain on the ceiling. "So why did you come here of all places?"
"I couldn't stay--there. I know I should be comforting my father-in-law, but I couldn't bear that either. I thought you might--" He paused, and James looked at him. "I thought you might understand."
James nodded, and looked back at the ceiling. "I might. Don't expect me to be of any use."
"I just need a place to stay for a bit. You don't have to do a thing. You don't even have to talk to me. Should I--avoid talking to you?"
"No. I think it's better if something interrupts the silence every now and then. We'll go crazy otherwise."
They sat. James listened to his breath, and traced the outline of the stain with his eyes.
"You know," said Turner, like the words had been building up during the silence, "I never quite believed you really loved her in the first place."
Bitterness flooded his throat. He lifted his head. "And what do you believe now?"
"I--" Turner dropped his eyes. "I'm sorry. I never thought very carefully about you at all. And now I'm invading your house."
James let his head fall back with a sigh. "Not all of us love with your--abandon," he said softly. "That does not make it any less real."
"I know," said Turner.
"If you weren't here, you'd probably be throwing yourself off a cliff into the sea, wouldn't you?" James said an hour later.
"It's possible," Turner replied.
"I suspected as much. But a more practical spirit pervades this place, luckily for you."
Turner's little huff of breath was probably a laugh. "I keep thinking with everything you say that if anybody else were saying it, I'd want to knock their head against a wall."
"But because you know I'm not trying to comfort you but am instead lashing out in my own pain, that makes it acceptable to you?"
James went to sleep in his chair. Turner had already curled up on the couch with his back to the room, sleeping or doing whatever he did in place of it.
When James woke, he felt stiff and foul, unwashed skin sticking to creased clothes. He shifted and learned he smelled just as terrible. His face under his fingers was bristly. On the couch, Turner was stirring.
"I suppose you'll want to eat," said James.
Turner sat up and rubbed his knuckles in his eyes. "Not particularly. Do you?"
"No. But getting you to eat seemed easier than getting myself to do so. There's food in the pantry, I'm quite sure, I just haven't personally looked."
For a moment, Turner looked almost interested. Then he slumped back against the couch. "Later," he said weakly.
It was confusing to mourn someone he had already, in a sense, lost. This loss made that one seem trivial, desirable even, if somehow he could be permitted to exchange them. It made him think about Greek tragedies and how the worst moments always happened after the characters believed they'd reached their worst moment. Would he look back at this quaint pain with envy some day? What if he lost his beloved wife of many years, his children? His throat constricted as if for an animal howl of pain, experimenting. But he was, as his father said, still young and cold, and the worst pain he could imagine was still the loss of a lover. Or whatever she had been to him.
Turner looked wretched. He'd aged ten years and his skin had gone off. His eyes were bruised and flat and never seemed to be looking at what they were looking at. He desperately needed a wash and a shave. On any other occasion, James would have felt sorry for him, but now, he wanted a partner in his unwashed wallowing, to share this private little spot where time didn't move forward. If Turner got better, James might have to leave its peace, and he wasn't ready to remember what it felt like not to hurt.
"There will be arrangements," Turner said after another day.
James took a moment to process. "Oh. Yes, I expect there will."
"I haven't the heart for them."
"People rarely do." James sighed. "Your father-in-law has people who can take care of that."
"I don't want them taking care of it. She was my wife, I should be seeing to her final matters, I don't want their hands all over it!"
"Then handle it." At times, James enjoyed being deliberately unhelpful.
"I'd like--I'd like it to take place beside the sea. Nothing elaborate, just--a few of her things, thrown into the sea for her. Would you come with me?"
"What?" James stirred. "Now?"
"No. I don't yet have the will. I'd have to look at her things, to begin with. I can't even go inside our house."
'Our house', 'my wife'--every now and then, he was rudely reminded that Turner had proprietary rights. There was legitimacy to his mourning. For all James knew, that made it worse. It was mourning with an audience. It was mourning more than just a person but a whole place in one's life. That was, no doubt, why Turner was here. James still found it funny in general that Turner, a blacksmith, had more rights and liberties than he did, but he was getting over it.
His housekeeper returned that afternoon. She put her head in, comprehended the situation, made them soup, and, bless her, vanished.
"Did you finish yours?" James asked, back to staring at the ceiling.
"No," said Turner.
"Good." James stretched his legs out. "Didn't want to be the only one."
A bit later, Turner said, "You offered me liquor yesterday."
"What, changed your mind?"
"No. I was just wondering why you weren't taking your own offer."
"For the obvious reason. If I started, I probably wouldn't stop."
"That's why I passed too." A pause. "Also, I don't like the taste."
"Yes." James nodded. "The soup was better."
Around seven o'clock, James got up as if someone had pulled him and fled the house. The town was still awake enough to see him storm around in his shirt, stockings falling down, head bare and beard three days grown. It gave him a little thrill, which helped cut through the hysteria. Down by the water, he resisted the urge to scream. At bottom, he was a man who cared what other men thought about him; that was just a fact.
Back home, Turner was sitting on the couch, showing signs of having recently been out himself. His hands were bleeding.
"Oh, for heaven's sake." James went upstairs, and came back down with bandages. "I appreciate that you went outside to do that, at least," he said as he took his seat. "Did it help?"
"A bit. Did your walk help?"
The pleasant frost was thawing. James mourned it, and was afraid.
"I suppose eventually we'll have to talk about her," said Turner to the back of the couch.
"Please, God, no." James had been on the verge of sleep.
"She's the one thing we have in common. She's the reason we're here together."
"That doesn't mean we should discuss her."
"When did you first--I mean--what did you love about her?"
"Please, Turner, don't do this."
"I can tell you for myself--"
"Listen, we can sit in different rooms if that's what you want."
"Don't you want--wouldn't it be best if we remembered her? Thought about what we loved about her?"
"I'm sure it would be. But not yet."
"I should get back," said Turner. He sounded heartbroken. "To my father-in-law. To handle her--affairs. I still have things to do for her."
James nodded numbly. He almost wished he did too.
"Maybe--not just yet, though."
By midnight, they both slept. James snored a bit, mouth open with his head tipped against the back of the chair.
There was a pounding on the door.
He roused with a snort. Turner barely stirred.
At the door, a frantic man stared at him in confusion for a moment before saying, "I'm looking for Mr. Turner. He's nowhere to be found, and we've tried everywhere--"
"He's here," said James. "He's asleep. What is it you want?"
"His wife has been found. She's up at her father's house, being seen to--"
"Wait a moment--you mean she's alive ?"
James nearly fell over his own feet as he dashed back into the parlor. He kicked the couch halfway across the floor. "Turner!" The boy sat up blearily. "Turner, Elizabeth's alive! Put your shoes on!"
Turner fell off the couch. The next thirty seconds were noisy, wordless scrambling as Turner found his shoes and James shook out his coat, and then they were out the door, James's hand on Turner's back as they pushed out into the street.
The governor's mansion was quiet. They skittered up the dirt drive with their messenger huffing far behind.
"Where's Elizabeth?" Turner demanded in that urgent Turner way of his when the butler answered the door. James followed with an apologetic shrug as Turner dashed up the stairs.
As they burst into the room where Elizabeth sat wrapped in a rug with her maid fussing and her father patting her hand, James felt two things in quick succession. The first was overwhelming joy at the sight of her, a sight almost unreal because he'd wished for it so. The second was a profound sense that he did not belong. Turner leapt to her side, and the crying, kissing and embracing that followed was not for his eyes. He turned away, and came face to face with the doctor, who peered at him as though wondering why he was there until he recognized the Jamaica squadron commander. Then it became clear that this didn't answer his first question.
There was a hot bubble in James's throat. He wanted to look, but he didn't want to look. He settled for looking. He didn't have many rights, but he had some, as much as any person who loved another person did.
Elizabeth saw him over Turner's shoulder and said, with mild surprise, "James."
Turner pulled back and looked toward him. James recognized the invitation. He approached and knelt, and took up Elizabeth's hand where it rested on her knee. "Mrs. Turner." He gave her a trembly smile. "I am--very glad to see you."
"You both look a mess," she said with a smile, a few tears still rolling down her face.
"He took care of me," said Turner.
"It would be more accurate to say we took care of each other," James replied.
"I shudder to think what you'd look like if you hadn't," she smiled, her nose red.
He returned her wet smile, and kissed her knuckles. "I shall leave you to your husband and father," he said, then got up and left the room.
Outside, he paused to make a few hysterical, inarticulate sounds into his hands as he leaned against the wall. They were not from pain, or joy, or relief, but from the choppy seas where all three collided.
"Your wife, she recovers?" James asked awkwardly.
"She had nothing to recover from. A bit thirsty, that was it. Captain Archer said she pitched in on the rowing with the seamen."
James dropped his head into his hand. "Good God."
Turner glowed sickeningly. "That is what we love about her, is it not?"
"Alas, yes." James sat. "She must laugh at us poor men, always fretting and suffering over her troubles while she remains quite unbothered by them."
"She'd very much like to see you. She said she always hesitated to invite you to our home because she thought we didn't get on, and if she'd known it would take something like this to get us to be civil, she'd have done it ages ago."
James laughed dryly. "Well, you may tell Mrs. Turner I am her servant and await her invitation with much joy."
"I will." Turner got a dangerously earnest look on his face. "Commodore, I just wanted to say--"
"None of this, none of this." James waved his hand angrily. "For God's sake, Turner."
Turner smiled. "Right, then. She'd have you to supper tonight. If you're amenable."
"Of course. Go tell her. Go take care of your wife who needs no caring for."
"I will." The boy's smile widened. "Good day, sir."
When Turner was gone, James leaned his elbows on his desk and rubbed his face. Turner was on the mend, his joy already casting his grief in the shadows, washing the brightness out of its colors. James couldn't feel that same alignment. There was still a throb, an itch of slow, imperfect healing. Because in order to heal, a wound had to be a proper wound in the first place, didn't it?
this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover."
Theodore Roethke, "Elegy for Jane"