Here it is, dear readers…the last chapter!
Once again, thanks to my dear beta Michelle (Princess of the Pearl) for her assistance in organizing my thoughts on paper (figuratively, of course) and for inspiring me. I'm glad you liked your birthday present!
Also, a huge thank you to my husband Anthony, who gave me a wonderful idea for this chapter when I had a terrible case of writer's block. I love you with all my heart.
Elizabeth's ascent from the murky depths of unconsciousness was arduous and seemingly interminable. Images and snatches of conversation swirled around her, Will's voice and Jack's mingling together. "…death is a certainty…" "A place between the living and the dead…"
She forced her eyes open with great effort, the harsh sunlight streaming through the window momentarily blinding her. She winced and tried to massage her aching head, but a pair of warm, strong hands held her own tightly clasped between them.
Elizabeth inclined her head and saw that Jack was asleep in a chair beside the bed, his head on the edge of the mattress, near her thigh. His face was turned toward her, and she could see at once that his slumber was not restful; a frown marred his aristocratic features, his mouth pinched in a tight line. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was strangely fascinated by the sight of Jack, normally so animated and full of swaggering confidence and wild gesticulations, so still and somber. As she watched, he twitched slightly, a long, shuddering sigh escaping from his lips.
"Jack," Elizabeth whispered, but he didn't stir. She tried to wet her lips, but her mouth was parched. "Jack," she tried again, jiggling her hands slightly in his grasp.
"Why is the rum gone?" he mumbled. His frown deepened. "Too quiet…Elizabeth!" His fingers tightened spasmodically, and Elizabeth could feel her bones grinding together. She frantically attempted to yank her hands out of his grip when Jack suddenly sat upright, nearly pulling her with him. She watched as he blinked and raised a hand to his head, clearly shaken by whatever dream had been plaguing his subconscious.
"Jack," Elizabeth whispered again. Jack jumped, his head whipping around to look at her. His eyes grew wide, and for a long moment he simply stared.
"I thought…" he began, then swallowed and shook his head. "Must be a hallucination," he muttered. "At long last, the rum's done me in."
Elizabeth lifted her hand, her slender fingers gently tracing his jaw line. Jack closed his eyes, reveling in the sensation… "Bloody hell!" he yelped as he felt a sharp tug on his chin braids. He rubbed the now throbbing area and glared at her, his lower lip protruding in a slight pout. "What was that for?"
Elizabeth's hand fell heavily to the blanket, and she smirked. "I'm not a hallucination," she rasped.
"You've made that quite obvious, darling," Jack replied dryly, still rubbing his sore chin. The enormity of the situation finally permeated his sleep-fogged brain, and he grasped her shoulders almost painfully. His eyes roamed her face, drinking in every detail. Although her lips were pale and chapped, every blessed breath that warmed Jack's cheek felt like a miracle to him. Her eyes were a bit glazed, but God help him, they were beautiful and open and alive. Relief coursed through his veins, and he slumped against her, his cheek pressed to hers, his lips near her ear. "You're alive," he whispered gratefully.
"Crushing…me…" Elizabeth wheezed, pushing weakly against his shoulders.
"Oh!" Jack straightened quickly, overbalancing and nearly toppling over in his haste. "Sorry, love." He pushed his chair back. "Need some water?"
Elizabeth nodded. Jack hurried to a cabinet in the corner, rummaging until he found a tin goblet. Once out on deck, Gibbs was at his side almost immediately.
"Any change?" he queried anxiously.
Jack grinned. "She's awake," he replied. "And thirsty," he added, peering at a barrel over Gibbs' shoulder. "Move," he commanded, fairly shoving him out of the way. Gibbs lost his footing and landed on his backside with a resounding thud.
"Warn a man, why don't ya," he grumbled, but there was a knowing twinkle in his eye as he watched his captain fill the goblet with fresh water and rush back to his cabin.
When Jack returned, Elizabeth's eyes were closed, and his steps halted abruptly, water sloshing over the rim of the cup. "Elizabeth?"
Elizabeth languidly opened her eyes, Jack's panicked expression nearly moving her to tears. "I'm still here."
Jack's heartbeat resumed its normal pace, and he crossed the room to her side, settling on the edge of the mattress. He held the goblet to her lips, and Elizabeth drank heartily, the cool water deliciously soothing to her raw throat.
"Easy, love," Jack cautioned, placing the cup on the bedside table. "We don't want your stomach to rebel." He wrinkled his nose as though the very thought offended his senses.
Elizabeth started to laugh, then grimaced, her hand inching toward her wound. Jack's fingers closed around her wrist. "Don't touch it." A tiny smile appeared on his lips. "And try not to laugh. As much as I'm glad to hear it, you don't want the stitches to pull loose."
Elizabeth nodded. "How long have I been unconscious?" Watching Jack's face, she noted for the first time since she'd awakened how exhausted he looked, fear and worry etched in the fine lines in his forehead and around his mouth.
"Not sure," he replied wearily, the tension and anxiety of his nighttime vigil still close at hand. "Nearly twelve hours, I suppose."
"Twelve hours," Elizabeth repeated quietly. Her brow furrowed as the memory of a bizarre dream began to tease the edges of her mind. The details were tantalizingly close, but the harder she attempted to latch onto them, the faster they seemed to evaporate. She shook herself, returning her attention to Jack. His head was bowed, his fingers busily pleating the blanket. "It's not your fault, Jack."
Jack reluctantly met her gaze, and the guilt and sorrow in his eyes nearly broke her heart. "I could have – "
"What?" Elizabeth interrupted. "Protected me? You know as well as I that I don't need protecting. It was my choice to become a pirate, and" - she gave him a haughty smile – "I am always mindful of the consequences of my actions."
Jack's eyes narrowed and he leaned close, jabbing a finger toward her nose. "You know, you have an infuriating habit of tossing my own words back in my face when I least expect it." Despite his fierce expression, his lips quivered, and Elizabeth knew he was trying to suppress a smile.
She angled her head so that they were nose to nose. "Pirate," she whispered tauntingly. Time seemed to stop then, until all Elizabeth was aware of was the sound of her own labored breathing and her heart pounding in her ears. The corners of Jack's mouth slowly curved upward in an approving smirk.
"Touché," he whispered back before lowering his mouth to hers.
The kiss was not entirely unexpected; nonetheless, Elizabeth was completely unprepared for the joy and desire that blossomed within her the instant Jack's lips touched hers. He kissed her leisurely, gently maneuvering her back against the pillows, careful not to rest all his weight upon her. His lips moved from her mouth to her cheek, then to the delicate skin of her throat. "I don't know what I would've done if…" He swallowed, then sighed against her hair. "Lizzie," he murmured, "I may be experienced in many things, but love is something I've never truly known."
Elizabeth nearly gasped as her dream came rushing back to her in its entirety. It wasn't a dream, she realized, tears springing to her eyes as she reflected on Will's veritable selflessness. He was genuinely there with me. She recalled every element with startling clarity, the most vivid of all being her bittersweet exchange with Will near the stream. "There is another man who loves you, as much as a man who has never known love can."
"Love is a wondrous thing," she said, caressing the back of his neck. "The most wondrous thing in the world."
Jack's lips brushed her ear, feather light. "I'd never want to lose you, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth cradled his face in her palms and drew his head up so she could look into his eyes. The love she saw reflected there took her breath away. "Then you won't," she said firmly as their lips met in another sweet kiss.
Two hours later, Elizabeth was beginning to feel restless. Jack hadn't left her side for a minute, and though she was appreciative of his attention, she longed for fresh air. "I want to go outside," she announced when he brought her a fresh glass of water.
"I know you do, love, but you need some time to heal – "
Elizabeth crossed her arms and exhaled noisily. "Jack, I'm going to wither away cooped up in this stuffy cabin."
Jack raised his eyebrows. He was well aware of Elizabeth's stubborn streak, and he knew when she wanted something, it wasn't exactly in one's best interest to stand in her way.
Elizabeth glanced toward the window, tracing a pane of glass with her fingertip, the waning sunlight creating incandescent highlights in her hair. "Please, Jack. Just to feel the wind on my face for a few moments…"
Jack softened immediately. She'll be the death of me yet, he thought, shaking his head ruefully. He doubted he'd ever be able to say no to her. He strode to the bed and gingerly lifted her in his arms.
Elizabeth's arms wound about his neck for balance, and she gazed up at him in surprise. "I can walk, I assure you," she said wryly.
"I'm not taking any chances," Jack replied, kicking the cabin door open with the heel of his boot. As they passed Pintel and Raghetti, Elizabeth noticed Jack swipe something from Pintel's hand, though she couldn't quite make out what it was. Once they reached the Pearl's stern, Jack set her delicately on her feet.
"We're just in time for the sunset," Elizabeth observed, taking deep breaths of the tangy air.
As the glowing orange orb sank into the sea, a brilliant burst of light illuminated the sky. "The green flash," Jack commented. "A rare phenomenon, but I have seen it a few times in my years at sea."
"I've seen it once," Elizabeth replied quietly.
"It's been said it occurs when a soul escapes the land of the dead." Jack's tone was light, but when Elizabeth's eyes met his, she saw that they were heavy with meaning.
"Maybe it's Will's way of giving us his blessing."
Jack wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close, mindful of her stitches. "Perhaps," he agreed, chuckling. "The boy always did have a flair for the dramatic."
Elizabeth laughed, and despite her injury, she felt lighthearted. "Only after he met you."
Jack grinned and held out a bottle of rum with his free hand. "Bored?" he asked, his fond gaze warming her from head to toe.
Elizabeth accepted the bottle and grinned back. "Never."