Beckett pronounces him an Admiral, but to James, the promotion feels hollow. The honour does not feel earned, only bartered for, but he is so grateful to be restored to his position and to his life - his purpose - that he will not look a gift horse in the mouth.
At first the title feels too large for him, and the jacket fits poorly on his shoulders. After all, he was hardly a Commodore, and now he is an Admiral, when all along he would have settled for a privateer. But he ignores all of this, blocks it from his mind. Instead he attempts to find his stride; re-familiarise himself with the way of life that he used to know.
He will push Sparrow, and his Pearl, and most of all Elizabeth out of his mind now, for they have chosen a different path, one where he cannot follow.
James never used to dream before he set foot on the Flying Dutchman. Occasionally in his younger sailing days, he would wake with a start, not knowing the cause, but as he grew older even this gradually disappeared. Sleep for James was quite simply just that: sleep.
His previous absence of dreams make the ones that occur now even more vivid in his imagination; so stark that they feel almost genuine, until he awakes in a sweat and tangle of linen, limbs afire, and heart beating rapidly in his mouth.
They are not nightmares, which is more what James would have expected on a ship like the Dutchman. He could have understood that, what with the daily horrors he and his men witness at the hand of its cursed and bitter Captain. But instead they are the sweetest of dreams, so frighteningly real at times that James struggles in those hours to draw himself from sleep, and separate between what is imagined and what is his new reality.
They are not always the same dreams - but always, they are of Elizabeth.
Sometimes, he would see her sitting on a beach, the restless tide lapping softly at her bare feet. He would smell the sea; that strong salty sweetness, and taste the ocean air rich on his tongue. Sometimes she wore breeches, other times skirts, and she would turn and look at him, eyes alight, and he would melt like ice in the sun, slowly and steadily.
Other times, there would be children, one with brown eyes and one with green, a girl and a boy. They would be assembled on the dock beside their mother, watching the horizon; waiting for their father. Elizabeth would smile her most beautiful smile, and inside James always knew it was completely for him.
Other times, it would be in the privacy of their room, the moonlight lacing through the curtains, over entwining bodies. James would feel the curves of her under his fingers, the suppleness of her smooth, creamy skin. He would hear her gasp; her whispers and moans, and he would make love to her sweetly, tenderly, and his name would be a breathless sigh on her lips. There were times where his touch was rough, and his fingers bruised her thighs, and her nails scored his back, his arms, and it was almost a battle, a tireless struggle of dominance and willpower. Her teeth would nip against his mouth, and he would move harder, faster, and would elicit such sounds from her that he did not know possible. They would move together in urgency, in desperation, not settling until they were both sated and undone.
On those nights, he awakes trembling with need and desire, a frantic gnashing in his belly, a sickness in his heart. Those feelings are like the horizon: infinite and endless; dreams of something he can never hope to obtain, nor expect to possess.
His horizon had slipped through his fingers long ago.
Things are not right on the Dutchman, and he fears it. For the first time, he fears for himself.
For the longest time, he believed that his side was right: the navy was the side of the good and the virtuous. But while he was gone something shifted, and suddenly James feels like a stranger in his own uniform. The world has changed irrevocably; tilted on its axis, and he is doubtful of everything he once knew, and all he used to believe in.
There is what is lawful, and then there is what is right. James has learnt that lesson before. One day's head start, and a man condemned to hang had shown him that life and circumstances are not always black or white. There are always shades of grey; colours where there should not be, and that is where the contradiction lies. He knows this now, after hurricanes, and men like Sparrow. He knows this now, looking at the Dutchman, and his tarnished uniform. The brocade is new, but feeling of hopelessness is not.
But James will not question his orders, not this time. The balance is too delicate, and the wounds are too fresh for him to have doubts now. He cannot – and will not – fail again. What else is there for him otherwise? James knows nothing apart from the ocean, and how to follow orders. He knows nothing but ships, drills, tactics and protocol and is nothing without these things. Without this new order, he is nothing, and so he cannot allow the loss of it to happen again.
But still, even as he tries to ignore it, there is a nagging in his gut – taut and sharp – and it pulls at him, dragging him deeper into hesitation and grave misgivings. He knows that Beckett has placated him with what James thought he needed most; a return to what he knew, a life he understood. But it is only pretence. The reality is that it is now a game played under different rules than the ones James thought he knew, and a game with far higher consequences. He acts as the Admiral, with a stern brow and steady demeanour. But really James knows he is one in name only, and one that has been forced into submission, and obedience; one who is expected to remain blind to the horrors he sees.
James has regained duty, but not honour, and his stomach is sick with it.
So instead he will stay blind, although he loathes himself for doing it. Instead, he will remain with eyes closed and pray for better things, even though it kills him to do so. He thought he had chosen a side, but it seems the side he was looking for no longer exists. But he has no choice anymore and therefore he must sail on and close his heart to it. He will be as strong as iron, and hard as rock; he will not break; will not yield. Any emotion is weakness; he knows that now. If he opens himself to it, then that is when he will fall and he cannot let himself fall again.
Dante said, the ninth circle of hell is reserved for mutineers and betrayers. But glancing at his surroundings, James knows he is already there.
She is there, shouting his name, like it is the most natural thing in the world for her to be here with him, on the Dutchman of all places. He offhandedly remembers how Elizabeth strangely always manages to show up in the most unlikely of places: a rum-runner's island, Tortuga, and now here. Somehow they always manage to intersect, him and her, their lives overlapping and circling, but never joining – not quite.
She breaks free from the officer restraining her, but draws up short of him, but not before he himself takes the final step and embraces her, crushing her small body to his own. She is tense in his arms, but that is irrelevant to him. James feels only relief that she is alive, and amazement that she is here. There are so many questions, but now is not the time to ask.
"Your father will be so relieved to know you are safe," he murmurs softly, wanting to touch her hair, soft about her face.
Her jaw sets and eyes blaze. "My father is dead."
He is confused. "T-that can't be true. He returned to England." It is what Beckett told him, and only now he sees the deathly flaw in this information.
Elizabeth reads his mind, or perhaps his sudden realisation is blatantly written on his face.
"Did Lord Beckett tell you that?" Her tone is bitter, and the words drop like stones; reinforcing that ever-present barrier that always seems to form between them. In the past it has been made of other things: propriety, duty, or William Turner. Now it is her loss of faith in him, and he finds that it hurts most of all.
There is confusion in his mind, but he draws himself out when he hears the word 'captain' and one of the other captured pirates of the Empress is pointing to Elizabeth, with accusatory eyes. James ought to be stunned, but he has gone past that stage. All his shock has been taken up with her being there only inches in front of him, and alive. Besides, he doubts that Elizabeth Swann could do anything that would surprise him anymore. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the sinister skulking figure of Jones, and James has the sudden urge to get Elizabeth as far away from the sea captain as possible.
"Tow the ship. Put the prisoners in the brig. The captain shall have my quarters." The orders are perfunctory, natural off his tongue, and yet somehow leave a bitter aftertaste in his mouth.
He feels Elizabeth regarding him from under her eyelashes, and he turns to her to obtain her agreement. He does not get it, but if he is honest, he never expected it either.
"Thank you sir, but I'd prefer to stay with my crew." She is too stubborn to be convinced otherwise, and James knows much of this is to spite him, or at least to punish him even more than he is already punishing himself. She turns to leave, but he finds himself reaching for her just as he has all his life. Usually she is always beyond his grasp, stepping into the arms of another man, or another life that doesn't include him. This time his fingers curl around her forearm, and he says the only thing he can think of to try and convince her.
"Elizabeth! I swear, I did not know." He is sincere, and he does not know how she cannot see it. Weatherby Swann was more a father figure to him than James would ever admit, or Elizabeth could ever realise. Although James does not show it, not yet, the news, this betrayal, pains him so very deeply. He tightens his grip on her arm, as if he can transmit his regret through their contact, or at the very least implore her to believe him.
But she does not, and her eyes are dark with anger. She cannot see beyond the Admiral's uniform, and suddenly James does not blame her.
"Know what?" she demands coldly, "- what side you have chosen?" She shakes off his arm in that haughty way of hers. "Well, now you do."
James has written many letters to Elizabeth over the years of their acquaintance. At first they were perfunctory notes enclosed with a book, expressing his sincere wishes that she would enjoy it.
Then they progressed to eloquent thank you notes for her generous hospitality over dinner or afternoon tea. They were always addressed to both her and her father, but he knew that she was the one who would claim ownership of them.
Sometimes there were letters he wrote from his duties at sea, detailing their progress and conquests. These were mostly addressed to her father, but he knew Elizabeth would read them eventually, and so he wrote them for her too.
Then there were the letters he wrote her from about the time she turned eighteen, and he knew he was in love with her. There must have been at least one hundred of them over those few years, if James thinks about it now. Page upon page of smudged ink, and scratched out lines, and all eventually crumpled into a ball and discarded. He could never say what he truly wanted to say, and knew that he would never have the courage to ever send one.
They varied from subtle compliments and soft expressions of ardour, to more passionate proclamations that made him blush just to remember. It was hard to write a letter to Elizabeth, for if he complimented her on her beauty she was sure to think it was all he appreciated about her (and while he did appreciate it, it was certainly not the only reason he loved her). If he was too soft in his confessions, she would more than likely discard them as feeble and ignore them completely; too violent and she would think him forward and depraved and he could not tolerate that. Any poetry and she would write him off completely; as he had heard the scorning laughter she had bestowed upon other suitors who attempted such.
No, it was impossible, though he spent many an hour puzzling over this dilemma, even when there were far more pressing matters at hand. His feelings for her were not to be taken lightly, and yet he could never find the suitable words for them. He was a man of the sea, not of the pen. Mostly his only experience in writing was letters addressed to the Admiralty, or in shipping reports and such.
And so it was that these letters were attempted, but never finished, or sent. Not one was taken out of his office for him to dwell over or consider for delivery. Even what he considered his best attempts were feeble, and felt shallow in comparison to the depth of what he truly felt. They were all cast aside with due haste, and with a sharp reminder that he should not dare to hope too greatly for Miss Swann.
Looking back, he sometimes wonders what could have happened if he had ever sent one of those letters to her, and how perhaps, it might have changed things. At any rate, she could hardly have been completely unaware of his feelings for her, certainly not as she got older and more conscious of her father's hopes. But would a letter have shown her, perhaps, the man he was behind the uniform? Sometimes he felt that he was merely the Captain, or the Commodore, and that she never really saw that he was still only James under it all.
Somehow he always felt that, although she must have known of his affections, she was oblivious of the intensity of his feelings for her. His love was not based on situation or class, or even her beauty. She would never have been, in his eyes, merely a wife. Perhaps these are the only things she felt he wanted from her, but in truth it was none of these things at all. James loved her for all her faults, for all her silly ideas and romantic notions. Even now, with all her reputation stripped bare - a girl on the run with pirates - he would marry her if she asked, if she loved him.
But she doesn't, so the letters do not matter.
No, it is dangerous to dwell on these things: these might-have-beens. For James' letters are nothing but ash and dust, eaten away by fire and the passing of time. From once being a fine couple standing over the ocean on the parapet, to what they have now become, their lives have turned out so very different than either of them could ever have predicted.
Elizabeth will be the death of him, but James has chosen his side once and for all.
She stares at him resolutely as he swings open the door of the brig, eyes narrowed and untrusting. She sees him as the enemy now, he knows - loyal only to Beckett and those which have killed her father. He is innocent of that, but not of other things.
"What are you doing?" she demands coldly, haughtily, tilting her chin up towards him in some sort of defiant gesture.
He stares at her in those dirty Chinese robes, and his heart aches. "Choosing a side," he answers, before tearing his gaze from her, and motioning the prisoners to follow him. They seem reluctant; faces wary in the murky light.
"Come with me. Quickly!" he hisses, and the pirates finally move. They sidle hastily past him, tense with mistrust, but too eager with the thought of escape to question him. She is less certain, but follows anyway, gliding under his vision with all the dignity and poise of a queen.
They are towing the Empress, and he knows that getting the pirates onto it is the only way he can guarantee her safety. After all, this is what it has come down to: his conscience, and her survival. The two are so intertwined that this is the only solution, and it is ironic that it satisfies both.
"Why are you doing this?"
"Elizabeth," he murmurs softly, his eyes still flickering occasionally to the shadows, making sure they are not spotted. Her hair is piled up atop her head, revealing her slim neck. She looks thinner, more strained, and tired – so very tired. She has come a long way from the Governor's daughter that he once knew, with rosy cheeks and full lips curved in a smile. The lips are still full, but her mouth is hardened, and face set in a frown.
"You must escape," he says in urgent tones, "but do not go to Shipwreck Cove. Beckett knows of the meeting of the Brethren. I fear there may be a traitor among them."
"It is too late to earn my forgiveness." Her eyes and words are still sharp, almost accusing. The crew is on the towline now, scrambling across with quick precision even with the motion of the ships. James feels suddenly cold.
"I had nothing to do with your father's death," he says seeking her gaze, a lump hard in his throat. He so desperately needs her to believe him this time. James does not want to let her leave without truly knowing this. "But that does not absolve me of my other sins."
No, it does not, but he will not rest without her acknowledgement or understanding nonetheless. He will be judged for his other deeds in time, just as he is being punished for them now too. His greed and blindness have condemned more than just himself and Elizabeth, and that is why at least he must ensure her safety: her freedom. It is the one thing he can still do.
Her eyes search his, studying him. After tense moments, she softens, obviously having realised in him what she was desperately looking for, registering the sincerity and honesty James is so desperate for her to see. It is her acknowledgement that he is no longer the Admiral that stands before her, only the James she has always known, despite time and mistakes, and fates that never quite met. Fleetingly, her eyes break from his and flicker downwards to his mouth and up again; it was so quick he thinks he must have imagined it.
"Come with us." The words are sudden and surprising even as he hears the thinly veiled desperation in her tone. Her eyes are amber, full of fire and life, and he feels like a statue carved out of stone in comparison.
"James, come with me!" she repeats urgently, and reaches for him, tugging him by the lapels of his jacket. It was never his intention to leave the Dutchman when he started these wheels in motion, but his will has always been open to her manipulations, and so he nods, briefly, quickly.
All of a sudden, there is a raw angry shout from the darkness above them. James feels his calm façade splinter as violent fear grips his heart.
They have been discovered.
"Go! I will follow!" he hears himself saying. His hands are pushing her towards the line, but there are heavy steps coming nearer, and he knows there is not time for both of them to escape now. He hardens his eyes, and his resolve, in an attempt to try and make her believe what she so sorely wishes.
But it does not fool her. It is an empty promise, after all.
"You're lying!" she cries, with such indignation in her tone, and he wants to laugh - not from amusement, but fear.
One of the Dutchman's crew is almost upon them, and James knows she must leave, now. It cannot all be for nothing, and he will not let it be. He will do this, though this is but one step on his new path to redemption. It is he that has placed her in this danger, and it is only he who can save her from it now. Beckett may do what he likes with him, and he will most likely swing, but at this moment James does not, and cannot care.
Elizabeth is so beautiful, glaring at him with such fury, and shock. But she knows, he can see it in her eyes that she realises what he has done. She realises the sacrifice he has made. And that he has done it all for her – for his love of her. She opens her mouth to speak, but he stops her. He knows he cannot bear to hear what she has to say.
"Our destinies have been entwined Elizabeth...but never joined."
And so without pretence, or hesitation, he moves forward and softly kisses her. It is the last reckless thing he will ever do, the only thing he will ever take from her, and the most precious thing of all. It is all he has ever wanted - for her to know and understand what he feels, how he loves her, and always has, most desperately.
As he pulls away, so very reluctantly, there are tears in her eyes, and he knows that she finally understands.
That is enough for him.
"Go! Now!" he murmurs to her, not wanting to take his eyes off her, but there is a shadow in the corner of his vision, and he cannot fall apart now.
He feels her hesitation, the fleeting touch of her hand on his arm, but unwillingly she turns and seizes the rope.
The shadow is closer.
"Back to your station, sailor." James' tone is firm even though his hands are starting to shake as he draws his sword.
There is a hoarse reply from the darkness in front of him, and footsteps. "No one leaves the ship."
"Stand down. That's an order." She is not far enough across, not safe yet.
There is more mumbling, and James steadies himself.
"Part of the crew, part of the ship!" the voice cries, and a panic seizes James' throat. Before he can react the sailor is bellowing. "All hands! Prisoner escape!"
"Belay that!" James cries, desperately, fumbling for his pistol, reacting in the only way he knows how.
Even in the sudden chaos, he can hear her screaming his name, and he turns. She is crawling desperately back on the rope towards him, and he wants to shout at her, but he knows her – she will not listen. She is too wilful, and too brave, but James cannot endanger her any more than he already has, and especially not for his sake.
To save her, he does the only thing he can do. He aims his pistol and fires. The rope falls and she falls with it. He will never see her again.
At first, the pain is immense; so sharp it steals his breath. He hears her scream his name; over and over, but it is distant to his ears, almost as if it was over hills and valleys, and time and, perhaps, it is.
He does not fear death; he is resigned to it, and has always been. There is life and there is death, and they are just two sides of the same coin, after all.
The air is cold, and there is a numbness spreading through his limbs. He slumps hard against the railing, but it does not hurt him. In fact, that first immediate pain has mutated into a lack of sensation altogether, but he can feel his heart still beating hard, and the blood still pumping. His vision is blurring, and he struggles against it – not quite willing to close his eyes to the world, not just yet.
"James Norrington, do you fear death?" It is a rasp against his ear, and he wants to shout at it, but he can't because there is not enough air in his lungs, or voice in his throat. Instead, he summons up what energy he can in his failing limbs, and raises his sword, the beautiful Turner sword. With his last gasp of strength, he moves - stabbing it as hard as he can, directly into the chest that possesses no heart – and he knows this action speaks volumes for what he can no longer say.
It is dark, so very dark, but he is not afraid. He thinks of Elizabeth, and that makes it all right; it quells the knowledge of the encroaching unknown for that little moment. She is familiar and safe, beautiful and so alive, and she will go on where he will not. His sacrifice will not be in vain, for more would miss her, than would ever miss James Norrington. Where he has been admired, she is loved, and that is more important than a thousand praises and military medals. He has laid his life down for hers, and there is no regret in his heart.
James can now be satisfied that she understands, and will always understand the extent to which he loved her; enough to put to rest his own happiness, his own dreams, and his own life. He can live for eternity within a kiss; a brief meeting of souls that would never join, and a heart that will never stop loving her, even though it has ceased to beat.
He always knew she would be the death of him, and so she has been: little by little, over the years, first his mind, then his heart, and now finally his body.
...there is Elizabeth, small with freckles, precocious and bright at the prow of the Dauntless...
...ribbons fluttering in a sea breeze, curled up in the sand...
...spinning in a minuet, her hand lightly pressed against his own...
...watching him from the corner of her eye across the dinner table, a hint of an amused smile upon her lips...
...in the groves, eating an orange with great vigour, the juice running down her fingers...
...in her shift, wide-eyed and earnest, accepting his proposal...
...hair in a braid, picking him up from the muck in Tortuga, a look of concern and pity in her eyes...
...on the deck of the Pearl, resting against the rail, scanning the horizon...
...her lips, against his, on the Dutchman, soft and sweet, and mingled with tears...
It is enough.
Elizabeth Swann was always going to be the death of him, but he had been nothing without her anyway.