Norrington leaned back against the wall of his cell and tried to ignore the various twinges and aches clamoring for his attention. His cell was nothing more than a rough stone square, with a thin slit cut high in the rock allowing Norrington watch as day faded to murky twilight. He'd been stuck in here for hours, with nothing to do but try not to re-open his split lip and listen as his captors discussed his fate.
He liked to think himself a stalwart man, but he had to admit the current situation was somewhat wearing. His present was miserable, and his future likely to be worse. He did not foresee the band of reprobates that he had fallen in with treating him kindly.
It had started well enough, his flotilla patrolling the waters around Gibraltar. They were mostly a defensive fleet, not much action to be seen. The Spanish were mostly focused on their land war. Still, Norrington had acquitted himself admirably, as had the captains under his command. They had seized two prizes, the money from which would…
Well, there was no wife to support. Battle after battle, he had emerged victorious, basked in the admiration of his men, and gone back to his cabin with a sense of uneasy hollowness lurking alongside his lungs. Norrington hoped his nieces and nephews would enjoy their eventually enriched inheritance. His sister's youngest girl was a spitfire, she reminded him of—
No point in thinking about that now.
It was a run ashore, of all the ridiculous things, that had been his downfall. They had set up in a port, small but friendly to English coin, and Norrington let his men loose for a night or two of freedom, before they returned to duty. He himself had actually deigned to take a stroll through the local market.
That had been a mistake.
He had gotten clubbed over the head, woken up woozy, miserable, and locked in the back of a carriage with all the gold buttons stolen off his uniform. Norrington immediately responded in a reasonable fashion, namely, hurling himself against the locked doors. The action had yielded some result, namely, that his shoulders were bruised and sore, and he was still stuck in a carriage.
Not precisely the outcome he had been hoping for.
The little bit he had seen of the town between being dragged out of the carriage and thrown into a cell did not engender feelings of hope within him. It was a run-down, rum-soaked little place, full of leering men with large gold earrings.
Two of their number—one long and lean, that Norrington had named "Stick," the other sturdy and short, which Norrington gave the name, "Stone"— had been speaking for the last two hours about the best place to ransom him for the most coin. Stick held out that the Spanish were always a safe bet for selling English officers, and Stone was of the opinion that men like Norrington pissed a lot of pirates off, so one of their crew might pay handsomely for the right to rough him up.
Norrington held out a slim hope that he would be sold to the Spanish. There was a chance that whichever officer he was sold to would behave like a gentleman and let Norrington ransom himself. But considering this was a port full of pirates, and Norrington had once earned a reputation of being a scourge to pirates everywhere, it didn't seem like a terribly reasonable hope.
"It's the king," Stone hissed, and then the sound of limbs scrambling greeted the opening and closing of a door. Louder, Stone proclaimed, "Ah, greetings, Your Majesty! Come to take a look at our wares?"
Norrington was curious despite himself, and leaned in to see if he could peer down the hallway. His ribs twinged, but he ignored that, peering down the murky blackness of the hall.
"I thought I made myself clear," an imperious voice rang out. "I don't approve of the flesh trade, and those that engage make themselves my enemies."
It sounded female? Odd affectation for a king.
"Oh come on, Yer Maj," Stick wheedled, "this ain't proper slaving. We just nabbed him from the next town over and hauled him here for a ransom. He's proper rich, he'll buy himself free from whoever we sell him to."
"I fail to see how, when I say, 'Don't sell humans,' you seem to think I've made an exception."
The footsteps strode closer, rounded a corner, and Norrington was face-to-face with the most intimidating pirate he'd ever seen. She (and no matter what titles were applied, she was most certainly a 'she') was clad in black brocade strung with gold, flintlock on one hip and her sword on the other. But what really made her intimidating was the fact that Norrington knew her, and she was one of the most resourceful, cunning, and determined people he had ever had the good fortune of meeting.
"Miss Swann," Norrington said, fighting through the ache in his ribs and the pounding of his head in order to get to his feet, just so he could have the pleasure of sweeping her a proper bow.
"Oh damn," Elizabeth said, looking at him flatly. "James?"
"You, ah, know our esteemed guest?" Stone asked. "Perhaps you'd like to get in on the bartering?"
Elizabeth drew herself up, and turned a look of such scorn on Stick and Stone that Norrington himself was tempted to quail. "Does your depravity know no bounds?" she said, and Queen Elizabeth herself in the height of her power could not have sounded more regal. "You defy the very core of the code, to prey upon the Pirate King's kin."
Norrington felt his eyebrows make a break for his hairline, and he quickly furrowed them back into place.
Stick and Stone were not so measured in their surprise. "Kin? You ain't got no family!" Stick protested, while Stone had eschewed speech in favor of making a sound like offended bagpipes.
"He is my fiancee," Elizabeth replied with finality.
Hm. In a certain way of viewing the universe, one that did not account for the fact that she had thrown him over in favor of a blacksmith with a kind heart and good cheekbones, that was even true. Come to think of it, Norrington had never officially withdrawn his offer of engagement, and he hadn't made a new one to anybody else.
"Oh, well then, he's not properly kin then, is he? Elsewise you could go around naming every last slave your fiancee, now wouldn't you?" Stone said, clearly looking like he had a better handle on the proceedings. "But make an offer, and we'll consider it in light of your proclaimed attachment."
Elizabeth's eyes narrowed. "You play a dangerous game."
Stick shrugged. "No offense, Your Maj, but you haven't actually killed our boss yet. And as long as the Ichor Baron he sits in the castle on Tenpence Isle, it ain't worth our hides to let this one go." He gave a casual jerk of his thumb at Norrington. "Not just because you fabricated an engagement."
"Not fabricated," Elizabeth murmured, her mind clearly churning through something else. "Just long dormant. Right!" she declared, her eyes coming alight and fixing on Norrington again. They had the same fiery gleam that had always captivated him, long before she had any sort of command. "You haven't actually gone and gotten married to somebody else, have you?"
"Ah…no. My offer still stands," he said, and not only because it seemed increasingly likely that his continued survival depended on that answer. His heart had certainly never been pledged elsewhere, no matter where her's had dwelt.
"Good." Elizabeth took a deep breath and bellowed. "Nasco! Porter! Get in here."
A man and a woman, both dressed in piratical finery, came striding through the front door. Stone made the bagpipe sound again, while Stick protested, "If you take our captive by force the Ichor Baron will—"
"Don't be ridiculous," Elizabeth said, smiling a viper's grin. "This is a happy occasion! Nasco, I have found my fiance again, after many long years apart. I wish to be wed to him immediately."
"Oh, damn," Stick muttered eloquently.
"Very good," Nasco answered laconically, turning to Norrington. "You want to marry her?" he asked.
Norrington blinked, the sheer ridicule of that sentence striking him mute. It was enough time for Elizabeth to give him a worried look. Norrington swallowed hard and answered, "Very much."
"You gonna do right by her?" Nasco asked him again.
"As well as I am able," Norrington swore, feeling a sick churn of emotion well up inside him. So close. So close to what he wanted, and so far from anything that would satisfy.
"And you, you want to marry him?" Nasco asked, turning to Elizabeth.
To Norrington's shock, Elizabeth reached through the bars and took his hand, looking him squarely in the eyes as she said, "Yes, I do."
"You gonna do right by him?" Nasco asked.
Elizabeth gave Norrington a lopsided smile. He was surprised to see a little wet shine to her eyes as she echoed back, "As well as I am able."
"Good, good, as the Captain of the Sirena Roja, I declare you both married," Nasco announced.
On his heels, his compatriot, Porter said, "Best wishes upon your marriage," before she rounded on Stick and Stone, her hand on her sword, "Oy, gents, you got the Pirate King's husband locked up."
"As her captains, we don't like that," Nasco said.
"The Ichor Baron's slaving the family of the Brethren Court?" Elizabeth added, clicking her tongue. "Doesn't look good. What would you wager I can raise a consensus among the court? How fast can I bring a thousand ships to your master's door?"
"No need to be like that, Your Maj," Stone said sulkily, "We'll let him go."
And with that, the bars to his cell were opened, and Norrington found himself a free man once more, aside from the unexpected shackle of matrimony.
Elizabeth waved off Nasco and Porter once they emerged into the fresh air outside the prison. "Thanks for the backup."
"Ichor Baron's trouble," Nasco said, tilting his head at her.
"We'll figure it out," Elizabeth said firmly. "Later. I've got a husband to break in."
Norrington felt heat race over his cheeks, as Porter let out a lecherous laugh. "Want some company?" she asked, looking him over like a stud for breeding. "He's not awful."
"Go find your own husband," Elizabeth said, claiming Norrington's elbow and steering him away.
"You can unbend your spine," Elizabeth said. "I have no intentions to take advantage of you. Come, you look like you could use a meal. Let's talk about your future."
Norrington supposed it would have been bad manners to admit he wouldn't mind if she took a bit of advantage. But he couldn't remember when his last meal was, and he was happy to take a hearty bowl of stew as his consolation prize.
She lead him through the streets as night bloomed, a thousand small lanterns giving the ramshackle port an almost mystical feeling. Someone had picked up a fiddle, a few streets over, and the breeze off the ocean was thick and warm. Elizabeth settled them in the patio of a little cafe, and as Elizabeth ordered a meal in a language Norrington was too tired to recognize, he realized with a small shock that he was enjoying himself.
Food arrived soon after, and they both set into the meal with gusto. Once he had enough food in him to satisfy the creak in his belly, Norrington felt it was time to face the matter at hand.
"So, Miss Swan," Norrington said, trying to sally forth into the conversation about their futures. He was tangled as soon as he began, realizing that, legally, Elizabeth was no longer a Miss, and that wasn't even touching the tangle of the last name. He lapsed into confused silence.
"Honestly, James, just call me Elizabeth," she said, leaning back with a contented groan after demolishing her own bowl. "So, what to do with you?"
Norrington swallowed. To business. "England will pay handsomely for my return."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "I'm not going to make them pay for you. Can you imagine the moral outrage, freeing you from one cell just to exploit you myself. No, I'm trying to figure out how to see you safely out of the city and back to your fleet without being gifted one of those hemp necklaces crown and country are always so keen to give out."
Norrington winced. "I never dreamed you would be out here. I had no idea that if I chose to run down a ship flying the black flag it could result in—" Norrington shook his head, trying to stop his imagination from travelling down this bleak path.
"I don't think anyone in my life imagined this as my fate, aside from myself." Elizabeth twisted the end of her braid around her finger. "I've thought being a pirate would be a grand idea since the age of eleven."
"True," Norrington inclined his head. "A failure of imagination on my part. I had imagined you and Will, married, happy. I must admit, the thought of your contentment brought me a measure of my own."
"You are a kind man," Elizabeth declared with a little smile, sadness tinged at the edges. "But my life has been far stranger than your dreams. On my end, I had always imagined meeting you sooner. I thought you would be dogging Jack's heels."
Norrington shook his head. "My intention, to be sure, but the admiralty had other plans. I was just about to set off in chase of Jack when new orders came down. I've been dancing with the Spanish around Gibraltar these past years. Well," he amended, "less dancing than I would like. Mostly blockades."
Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. "Thrilling. I wonder if I've seen more action than you, at this point?"
Norrington found himself wondering the same. And then a different, disturbing thought, his flotilla versus her fleet, moving their ships around, trying to strike each other down. There was no point imagining if he'd win such an engagement. There was no path to victory in that fight.
Grim thoughts again. Casting about for a lighter topic, he asked, "What about Will? Is he well?"
"He's death," Elizabeth said flatly.
"He's…dead?" Norrington echoed carefully.
"Might as well be," Elizabeth said. "He obtained the heart of Davy Jones, which he stabbed to free his father, which then meant that he had to take Davy Jones place. All without telling me of his plans."
"Are you...well?" Norrington asked.
"As I said, James," Elizabeth said with an artificial lightness, "far stranger. I wouldn't believe it unless I saw it myself. But to put it into terms the layperson might understand…Will found a cause and a calling more pressing than even his betrothal to me. He left me behind."
"The cad!" Norrington burst out, unable to contain his passion. "I would never—" he cut himself off, mastering himself with an effort. "I suppose that's immaterial."
"You wouldn't, would you?" Elizabeth tilted her head, giving Norrington a hooded look. "You'd have every right, you know. I essentially did the same to you. Passion over previous oath."
Norrington spread his palms in a little shrug. "Seeing you like this…you would never have been content as a Commodore's wife."
"And yet here I am anyway." Elizabeth tilted her head. "Not that England would properly recognize our marriage. I do suppose that saves us the trouble of being divorced."
"Elizabeth, if you wanted, I would be happy to…" Norrington trailed off, unsure what he was even offering. He was only sure that she deserved the world, and he wanted to give it to her.
"I have no desire to go back to England and be a proper lady, thank you." Elizabeth laughed at the idea.
"Good heavens, no." Norrington found himself laughing as well. "As much as I relish the idea of releasing you on high society, no. You have found the place that you are happy," Norrington said, gesturing around the town. He saw it with different eyes, now that he wasn't being dragged through it. Worn down and dangerous, but also wild and free. "It suits you."
"And you, James?" Elizabeth asked, leaning in to give him an intent look. "Respected officer with a distinguished record and a clear track to the Admiralty? Is it the place you are happy?"
Norrington found himself unable to give a ready answer. He folded and unfolded the corner of the napkin in front of him as he thought. "I am good at it."
"That is not the same as being happy," Elizabeth said, surprisingly sympathetic.
"It is not," Norrington said finally, smoothing the napkin out with the tips of his fingers. "No. I am not happy. But I have never lived my life to prioritize my happiness. I am useful, and I serve my country. That is enough." A heavy leaden feeling sunk in his chest at that, a numbness along his skin. It was true. And it was enough.
Elizabeth made a low hum in the back of her throat. "I have two ideas," she finally said. "Option one, we go out to the Empress, set sail back toward your fleet under cover of darkness. I lower you down in a rowboat with some flares, and you set them off once we are sufficiently away."
"While I appreciate the flares, that is a risk, isn't it?" Norrington asked, trying to wrench his mind over to where Elizabeth's was, focusing on logistics. "I could draw attention to you."
"Well, for one, I don't think any ship in your fleet can outrun the Empress," Elizabeth said with a proud smile. Waving a hand in dismissal, she continued, "And I'd just ask for your word that you wouldn't light the flares until we had the chance to draw off."
"After years of piracy, I think you would have stopped taking people at their word," James said.
"Not people," Elizabeth said, "you."
That single 'you' filled Norrington with a golden sense of satisfaction. Whatever else he had been in his life, he had been honorable enough that Elizabeth, despite years and lives apart, still trusted his word.
"You don't make vows you don't mean," Elizabeth said, pausing for a moment before adding, "which brings me to my second idea."
"By all means," Norrington said, gesturing for her to continue.
She didn't for a moment, looking instead down at her empty stew bowl with a look of consternation. After a long enough pause that Norrington felt the need to start inspecting her stew bowl himself for fear a poisonous critter of some kind had manifested in it, she finally spoke. "Option two, we go out to the Empress, and we…don't go back to your fleet."
Norrington tilted his head, not understanding. "Where do we go instead?" Perhaps she'd feel more comfortable making the handoff near some secluded shore in England. It would be easy enough to make his way back to Portsmouth by land. And he certainly wouldn't deny that he'd enjoy more time in her company.
"Wherever the horizon takes us," Elizabeth said with relish. "I'm thinking Tenpenny Isle, take care of the Ichor Baron once and for all, but that's the beauty of piracy. You don't really need to commit to a plan."
Norrington didn't really hear the words. The line between himself and Elizabeth was a starkly drawn as it had been since the day she chose Will. Himself, with his duty and responsibility. Her, with her freedom and adventure. It wasn't just a line, it was an insurmountable wall, it was the truth between them. Elizabeth was never his to keep.
But perhaps, it was possible, Norrington thought as he parsed Elizabeth's words with all the terrified care his schoolboy self had once applied to a tricky passage of Latin under the unflinching eye of his stern tutor, that Elizabeth meant to keep him.
"Are…" Norrington started, faintly. "Do you suggest…"
Elizabeth tilted her head and gave him a considering once-over. "There is a different version of our marriage, you know? A different story of our lives. I did not get pulled away on Adventure, and I still sat, minding a house and awaiting your return after these long years of war. I would have done my duty. I would be useful. And, as you yourself said, I would be miserable."
"I am glad it was not so, then," Norrington said, having difficulty saying the words as he realized with a little wistful misery that the image that had been his fondest dream would have been Elizabeth's nightmare.
"Indeed," Elizabeth said with a solemn nod. "But here is my issue, my dear James, you are still living that life. And the misery I avoided is clear all over your face. So," she leaned in and smile, the curve of her lips promising delights untold, "what if you did something different?"
"You want me to come with you?" Norrington said, scarcely daring to believe the words, scarcely daring to hope.
"Only if you desire it." Elizabeth said. "I'll admit, I have very little need of a husband. But I do need a first mate. Nasco was mine before, but when we brought down the Sirena Roja I appointed him the captain. There is some promise among my crew, but…" Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. "They need weathering. And I distract myself, I don't mean to bore you with the details of crew management."
"Well," Norrington said slowly, "it would be the concern of a first mate."
He couldn't believe he was considering it. He had a career. He had an entire life, filled with…
Medals. Filled with honors and awards and no affection. There was the older sister that doted on him vaguely and nieces and nephews that hadn't seen him in years. Filled with a crew that respected him, but did not like him. A few fellow-officers to share a pint with. Would it really be so much to leave behind?
"Are you considering it?" Elizabeth asked, nudging his leg with hers.
Or, to consider it another way, could he ever imagine giving up the possibility Elizabeth offered for such a paltry prize as lonely respect and isolating duty?
"Most intently," Norrington admitted, and was struck with a bolt of joy when Elizabeth gave a delighted laugh, reaching over to grab his hand.
"And what would convince you more thoroughly?" Elizabeth asked, leaning in enthusiastically.
"I love you," Norrington blurted out, rather than answer her question. He was already committed, but this needed to be said. "I know you have never wanted it, and so I feel the need to warn you, before either of us commit. I vow not to be…overbearing. But I could no sooner deny its existence than that of the the sea. It feels as encompassing."
"Hm," Elizabeth said, and to his shock she tucked her fingers under his chin and guided his face towards hers. She kissed him then, in the open, for all to see.
It was scandalous; it was perfect. Thrill ran through Norrington as he dared to reach back, to bring a trembling palm up to her cheek and stroke it there. He had dreamed of this kiss, but had never truly believed he would get it.
With one more firm press, Elizabeth pulled back. Norrington let her go, his palm falling back into his lap as he held her gaze, her bright eyes fixed on his intently.
"Well," Elizabeth said with a grin. "You're a good enough kisser. And I've always thought you handsome." She paused, and continued, more seriously, "I cannot promise love. But I desire you, and I trust you, and I have grown enough to know how rarely those two qualities meet in one body. That seems to me to be fertile ground for love to grow. And perhaps it shall. Is that enough?"
"It is more than I would ever ask or could dare to dream," Norrigton said, simply and honestly. "It is more than enough." He took her hand and laid a kiss along its back. With his head still bowed, he promised. "I would be honored to serve with your crew. You have my word, I will follow where you lead. Unto the very ends of the earth."
"Well, I never intend to go back there, but it will be good to have you at my back if I do." Elizabeth said nonsensically, as she reached out and tucked two fingers under Norrington's chin again, raising it to meet her gaze. With an oddly serious note in her voice., she replied, "I accept. And will return service with loyalty."
James nodded, and felt his old life float away. Like driftwood from a shipwreck, perhaps it had once been a cherished, but it had been warped by saltwater and time into something unsuitable for building a future. It was time to let it go. Time to see what the horizon held.
"Excellent," he said, straightening, and decided as his first act of piracy, to reach out and steal a kiss. He wasn't quite successful, as Elizabeth gave it too gladly for him to consider it theft. As they separated, James gave a little grin. "If you're willing to take suggestions on the plan, I would relish the chance to settle my debt with the man that ordered me kidnapped."
"Good," Elizabeth said, a hungry smile on her face. "Let's go have an adventure."