Well, this is the end... and I hope all you fantastic readers have enjoyed the story all the way through! Thank you all for the support! By the way, I wonder if any of you would be interested in a Groves story, so I'll probably put a poll up, but if you for some reason don't feel up to going to vote, you can leave it in a review or message me! Thanks again!
The Endurance docked the next morning, having found a safe, pirate-free port with a surrounding village. All of the wounded men were taken off the ship and placed into various rooms of the village's small fort that had been turned into a makeshift hospital. Several of the presiding officers, as well as the village doctor and fort's physicians, were tending to the wounded and ill, with the help of men from the fort and the Endurance. Even a few civilians arrived to offer help.
The physicians advised the men stay at the fort at least for a couple of days, though some would have to rest for the duration of their voyage back to Port Royal once they set sail again. Governor Byron was satisfied with that, though it meant his men's duties would be doubled with caring for their fellow men in addition to their usual tasks.
Clayton was even brought to the fort, but isolated for his condition. The physicians all agreed he had been poisoned, though they could not determine with what, nor how long his condition would last. He was to remain isolated when they set sail again as well, possibly sent into quarantine once they reached Port Royal.
Though he had already given his answer regarding Governor Byron's proposition, Norrington had no regrets afterward. He did enlist Groves's and Governor Byron's help, something he never thought he would do for his circumstances. He only hoped he was right in asking them for a favor, since he was not used to doing so.
Annabelle's spirit had lightened somewhat during their stay at the small village. She still felt a twinge of guilt for what happened with the Black Pearl, but kept reminding herself she was only one person. There were a combination of factors to every situation she had endured, and all she could do was fulfill her part of repairs and learn to live with her actions.
She was surprised, however, when on the day before they planned to leave for Port Royal, Governor Byron summoned her again. He had her sign her pardon papers, which she did with a shaky hand, then explained she was to go into the village and purchase a dress for her return home. As much as she enjoyed the thought of a new dress, she couldn't help but see it as ridiculous for appearance purposes's sake.
Before she dared voice her opinions, Governor Byron added, "I know it is a strange request for you, but your handmaid Sophie wished for me to see to it. She voiced concerns for her mistress arriving as comfortably as possible, even if that included clothing. My guess would be she plans to give you a proper welcome upon your return."
Annabelle was a mite suspicious. It sounded like Sophie to want to welcome her home once she returned, but to have her arrive so? And to make a request of it to a third party? Then it occurred to her: perhaps Sophie merely wanted to distract Annabelle from the more somber circumstances that followed her and the other men home, not to mention the ones that still faced her from before she last left. It was possible Sophie voiced these concerns meekly or if Governor Byron offered any assistance once she had discovered the will. It was very much like Sophie to offer even the slightest ray of light in a dark situation.
Annabelle understood, and Groves was assigned as her escort. He was to not only accompany her, but handle the money she was allowed to spend. She thought nothing of it, assuming it came from home, somehow. Though she cherished Groves's friendship, in the midst of it all, she secretly wished that Norrington had been the one accompanying her.
The next day, all of the men were loaded back onboard the Endurance, having been tended to. Not only their wounds and oncoming illnesses brought on by them had been taken care of, but every officer's uniform had been washed and mended during their stay. Governor Byron told the Commanding Officer at the fort he would write to his Majesty for proper compensation, despite the man's protests and explanation of helping fellow men.
A bit shy at wearing a lady's clothing again, Annabelle remained in her cabin for most of the day the Endurance prepared to set sail. The village dressmaker and her assistants had been brought onboard to dress Annabelle in her new garments. It had worked in her favor, for she had not wanted to catch the eyes of the men, nor be in the way as they were all loaded back onboard to their respective rooms and cabins. She kept her eyes and ears peeled for a chance to stroll on deck once all arrangements were taken care of and the least amount of people would be about.
To her delight, it was around twilight when the time came. She found the deck to be nearly empty of men, and her favored spot, the deck on the stern, was empty. She happily remained there, with the soft, sea breeze and the sun still with about an hour to set, making for a colorful display.
She breathed in the fresh breeze and let her full mind finally spill. While she was ecstatic to go back home, it would never feel the same again, if not as empty as her last return. Her family would not be there, waiting for or with her, and she would have to take care of proper arrangements alone now that the matters were settled.
Or did she have to face it alone? The will had specifically stated she would need an overseer to help guide her in her decisions. She knew who she would choose. Not only that, but her last ounce of optimism held the hope of another chance once she returned home. A chance for her to not only live her life again, but be open to the opportunity to expose her heart if it presented itself.
She hid a smile as she exhaled through her nose. That would also depend if she was given the chance to see that vulnerability reciprocated from him. James Norrington was a very private man, but Annabelle always sensed a soft heart underneath that firm façade. If she would have to prove her love to him, she was willing to wait as long as it took.
James emerged on deck, basking in the first breath of fresh sea air. It calmed his nerves, despite them just being soothed by Groves that afternoon. Groves had been more than willing to carry out Norrington's favor, and had even given him encouragement and reassurance with what they had discussed. James had headed below deck earlier to assist the boarding of the men, and now here he was, on his way back home. Hopefully, this time it would be for good. Hopefully, he wouldn't feel the need to hide from or resort to the actions he despised the most ever again, despite the fact that some of those actions saved his life-and, he remembered, so did the actions of someone else. He smiled to himself at the thought of Annabelle; that was usually all it took, visualizing those brown eyes and dark waves.
He reminisced over the events of the last few days, and he still had no regrets. Though gracious, he had turned down the offer to become Lord Norrington, and instead recommended Groves for the position. After hearing his reason why, Governor Byron instantly accepted it and offered it to a surprised Groves after he had been summoned. Needless to say Groves was more than grateful to accept it-provided that he think about it and finalize his decision upon their return-and he privately double-checked with Norrington of his certainty to pass the opportunity.
Not too long ago, Norrington would have jumped at the chance, but his recent experiences influenced his decision otherwise. For back then, he had wanted to achieve what he could for his personal success and well-being. Back then, a promotion brought on a realization of one other feat he had not yet obtained: the fulfillment of sharing his life with someone else. Back then, he had not had anyone to share that success with, although he thought he had at one point. Now he believed he did. His success and honor meant no more than barnacles on a ship's hull if it meant he couldn't share it with her. He believed accepting Governor Byron's offer would have prevented him from doing that.
His heart skipped a couple beats once he saw her. He smiled to himself and swallowed his nerves when he noticed her wearing the afternoon dress she had bought in town yesterday. Not tonight, but someday, he could probably muster the courage to confess he had paid for her purchases yesterday because he felt she deserved them upon returning home. A way of looking after her and providing for her, as he saw it.
As Norrington stood there watching Annabelle, he checked off the numerous things she hadn't deserved. She didn't deserve the pain she had endured of losing her family and coming to Port Royal to only have it happen to her again so soon. She didn't deserve the frightful encounters she'd had with the likes of Davy Jones, Sao Feng's men, and briefly with Captain Drake. Even if it hadn't been him, she certainly hadn't deserved witnessing the trauma she did on the Flying Dutchman when she watched him die. Should circumstances call for it, he would willingly die for her again. He hoped he had proven that to her.
What she did deserve was a fulfilling life. She deserved to be back at home, but with her family there. She deserved the life her uncle had provided for her when she came to live with him: it was easy for Norrington to imagine her at the parties and promotional ceremonies, balls, and fine dinners; wearing fine gowns and dresses that made her appear to float when she moved...
And he wanted to be beside her every step of the way.
Norrington shook his head to himself as he took a few steps in her direction. He knew her better than that. All of that finery and emphasis on trophy appearances did not matter to her; nor to him. He accepted the importance behind it, and had developed tolerance for it, and because, to an extent, appearances came with his job.
He smiled to himself. What she absolutely deserved was happiness, whatever kind of life that entailed for her. He wanted nothing more than to see her taken care of, with a good man at her side, perhaps even beautiful children. She would make a kind, loving mother, as well as a caring, affectionate wife.
And he desperately wanted to be that man beside her.
*But what would Annabelle want?*
Though he shook all over inside, he kept walking in her direction. Tonight was the night he would tell her all that had been on his mind since his recollections and revelation from the Flying Dutchman. He wasn't sure how, but his determination and love for her was all he needed to propel him. Perhaps tonight could help lead him toward a revelation or a journey of what she wanted.
Annabelle heard the hollow thump of boots behind her and turned, curious who else was wandering about on deck, save for the few officers she had already seen. Her breath caught in her chest upon seeing James approaching. He stood before her in his uniform, which had been washed clean like the other men's. Despite not having worn one this whole journey, she was still a bit surprised to not see a powdered wig on his head. He appeared just as he had when she first met him all those years ago when she and her mother had met Uncle Weatherby and Elizabeth at the docks in England before they left for Port Royal: without a wig, his brown hair clean and pulled back.
Within those few moments of approaching her he took in her appearance as well. The afternoon dress was as blue as the sea, making her dark eyes and wavy hair pop. Her hair was not pulled all the way back, but he didn't mind. He personally preferred seeing her long hair free, though it tempted him to reach out and touch it. She looked more as a woman now than that day when he and Groves had seen her dancing in the parlor with Governor Swann so long ago.
"May I join you?" was the first thing he asked.
She nodded. "Yes, company is always nice."
After a shy pause, he said, "You look lovely, Annabelle." His nerves were already kicking in.
Her heart fluttered as she thanked him, returning the compliment on his dashing appearance.
"How are you faring?" he asked gently.
"Better, thank you. I am in higher spirits." Her voice grew a bit softer. "Despite the changes I will face, I am a bit anxious to return home."
"I confess I feel the same."
Their eyes met for a moment, then Annabelle looked away as she added, "So much has happened...I am slightly afraid of how things will never be the same."
*I know, but I wish to make it better for you…* He knew some of the answers, but he asked, "Such as?"
"Not seeing my family. I have already relayed my suspicions regarding Uncle Weatherby's death to Governor Byron. He has said he will look into it."
Norrington slid his eyes shut with the painful memory, mentally noting to speak to Governor Byron about helping him with that.
Annabelle continued, knowing Norrington wouldn't betray what she was about to reveal. "Elizabeth was well when I saw her, but not being able to see her all the time-if ever again-will not be easy." She steadied her breath to calm herself. "What are some of the changes you fear, if I may ask?"
*Changes that may keep me from you…* He swallowed. "Perhaps the changes that may cause the most pain," he confessed honestly.
She lowered her eyes and let out a "hmm" in agreement before answering, "Yet we must also remind ourselves of the changes we already see the good in."
"And which do those consist of?" James asked, curious and hypnotized by her voice, yet remembering what he yearned to tell her.
This time Annabelle's eyes left the water and looked directly at him, grateful for the first ounces of his vulnerability this evening. "Groves told me he has been propositioned to take Clayton's former position."
Norrington acknowledged it. "Yes, he has. I was notified this afternoon. He will finalize his decision once we return, but I am confident he will do very well."
Her voice remained low, yet held no hint of accusation or disappointment. "As am I, though I am also confident the position was offered to someone else." Her face remained tranquil, yet curious, as surprise dawned on his face. "May I ask why you turned it down?"
Here was his chance. He swallowed, though that didn't prevent his insides from trembling. He felt her eyes on him, and he found it difficult to look at her as he slowly replied, "As much as I have prided myself in my achievements, I knew accepting the offer would have prevented me from attaining that which I desire more."
Annabelle's heart began to pound, surprised by her own reaction. She couldn't quite fathom what he meant.
Norrington's eyes lowered and glided in her direction. He could see her hands infront of her waistline on the rail, one folded over the other as though trying to prevent fidgeting-or hiding any shaking. He still couldn't bring himself to look up at her. His low voice uttered, "Because there is another matter of more importance to me."
Annabelle felt confused, yet caught her breath when his timid gaze fell upon her again. How handsome he was! So tall and broad and strong! How she longed to tell him what she felt-she stopped herself, bringing her focus back in time.
In those few moments, James had struggled as well, his breath taken away by her beauty, coupled with the strong hold his love for her already held over him. He wanted more than anything to hold her, but he had to wait a bit longer. He'd lose himself if he acted hastily.
He took a deep breath before uttering the words that risked the outcome of the situation. "I remember what happened on the Flying Dutchman."
He wanted to say more, but the mix of relief and despair in her eyes tore at his heart. He couldn't bring himself to speak again at first.
She spoke first, though very quietly. "How much?"
The weight on his chest increased as he dreaded seeing the distress in her face grow. "Everything."
Annabelle exhaled shakily, successfully fighting back tears. Norrington stepped a bit closer, his arms even daring to barely reach out an inch. She did not notice the gesture, and it was a few more moments before she felt completely composed, though her voice betrayed that. "My world ended that night. I thought I had lost you, James, and that was a pain I never believed I could bear..."
His gaze became more intense when he heard those words. He dared to step an inch closer. "I nearly drove myself mad to find out how I survived it, and what you endured. I could never have forgiven myself if something had happened to you."
She turned to face him, and he couldn't have taken his eyes from her for the world. "I also heard the vow a woman made, and only until recently did I realize those words gave me the will to live again. And if she had never taken those actions she may feel guilt for, I may have never seen her again. I also realize that ever since I met her, she has never left my thoughts; and since that day I saw a young woman dancing in the parlor with her uncle, I should have said words that have taken me much too long to say. Only until I pursued other desires, which turned out not to hold nearly as much worth, did I realize how true it was."
As Norrington had spoken, his hands had slowly come to grip her shoulders, hers laying gently against his chest. He was relishing holding her and sharing his soul, despite how frightened he was. He wondered if he would always feel this way around her: wanting to bare his innermost being, yet scared to death. He confessed to himself he wouldn't mind. Having her love in return would be all he needed to accomplish anything.
And now, looking into her deep, dark eyes, he bared the most vulnerable part of his soul. "I love you, Annabelle."
Her breathing became labored, her body nearly trembling with joy. How long she had waited to hear him say those words! It took all she had not to burst with the joy. How much they had endured up until now, from the moment she met him at the port in England, to their own involvement with Jack and his crew and the other pirates, to Davy Jones and that fateful night; their reunion and voyage taken under the pirates and the criminals in his Majesty's service; and now, on their way home, their lives as redeemed as possible. And now here they were, experiencing one of life's greatest forces.
Still in quiet ecstasy and disbelief, her voice remained soft as she replied, "I love you, James."
Seeing the joy and surprise in her face, as well as her smile appearing and reappearing, James felt his heart swell and grow warm. He stepped closer to her as their foreheads touched briefly, a soft exhale escaping his lips as a large weight was lifted from his shoulders. How sweet it felt to really touch and hold her; even sweeter to hear her say those words back.
He slid his hands down her arms until her hands were clasped in his, his eyes never leaving hers. He gently lifted his head from hers and breathed deeply, presenting himself with no formalities of an officer, but as James Norrington, a man of honor, and in love.
"Will you marry me, Annabelle?"
Her heart dropped upon hearing those words, her joy finally bursting inside her. Tears of joy stung the back of her eyes, but they would not go further.
Finding her voice again, she gave her answer with an excited yet peaceful tone. "Yes, James, I will marry you!"
He stepped as close to her as possible, his hands going to her waist as hers went back to his chest, both gazing intently at one another. Before he leaned in, one hand smoothed some of her hair that had been blowing in the breeze. He sighed at the touch before sliding his hand back to her waist. He gazed at her lovely face, and smiled at the thought that she was now his.
Her smile grew as she saw his appear on his face. "Oh," she breathed, her hand lifting and resting on his cheek, "so you do smile."
He chuckled and his eyes closed for a bit as his hand reached up for hers and held it away from his cheek. He then took his hand and cupped her face, drawing her to him as he finally leaned in and kissed her. The love she had stored inside for so long was now shown to him. Her heart continued to swell in her newfound happiness as she remained in his arms. His body grew warm once their lips met and she returned the kiss, her form fitting perfectly in his arms. He had now found the woman with whom his heart truly lay, and he never imagined he could feel so complete.
They both stood there for a long while, whispering to each other and kissing again.
The sun did set, but they knew their lives together had just begun.