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Rules of Water

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When he dies the second time, Barbossa goes into it without fear.

There are no expectations. Heaven has never been a place he's been hoping for, and Purgatory is too harmless for one such as he. There are destinies which Barbossa has forsworn before he even knew he might miss them, and years before he might want to rethink his course. Heaven is beyond his reach, Purgatory wouldn't know what to do with him, and Barbossa thinks he knows everything there is to know about Hell because he has walked it for years: bereft of pleasure, but full of pain.

He dies, and falls, and the cold gradually fades away. Eventually, even the lassitude of sleep loses its grip on him. He overcomes it gradually, keeping track of the world like a dream.

By the feel of it, he's completely submerged in the tide. There is water rushing over his face. He isn't bothered by the possibility of drowning; he hasn't needed to breathe in a very long while, except for one stuttered gasp at the end. Running water is a bountiful omen. He's at peace.

Barbossa is a sailor. He knows the rules of water. Running currents are the sailor's friend. Standing water's bad luck. No tides and no wind make for a slow death at sea, and that's not the worst of it either: still water breeds disease, flies and poisons. Still water turns brackish, both in rivers and in barrels in the hold. Trapped water kills.

Barbossa opens his eyes.

Jack's standing there, still where Barbossa left him in the bowels of Isla de Muerta. Bootstrap's whelp and the girl are gone. There's only Jack, waiting in the downpour of moonlight through the cavern's cracks.

"You're really out of time, mate," he says. The moonlight plays over his ruined features, over the crags and hollows where his nose should be. "Eternal life isn't what we thought it would be."

Barbossa's no longer lying in the water; he realizes this now, as Jack sways in and out of the field of his vision. Instead, someone's propped up his body against one of the overturned chests. Gold glitters around them, turning the light silty. The ocean beating against the cavern's entrance echoes sonorously, like a while groaning amidst the tinier gasps of the waves. But there's something else too: another noise, crooned like the sound air makes while blowing over a narrow porthole. It's singing something. Barbossa can't tell what.

"What's that sound?" he asks.

"Sirens, mate." Jack's footsteps clack walking over, like sandpaper grit. "Here to ease you to your rest."

Sirens are another death for sailors, one involving broken ships and rocks. There's no earthly reason Barbossa can think of to be concerned with the state of affairs now, though. He's dead. Jack also is dead -- or cursed, whichever it is doesn't matter. If the boy's gone, then Jack must have killed him or been left by him. The lack of the girl's a shame.

"We had some good times, Jack," he chooses to say instead.

"Like the time you betrayed me?"

"That was the best one," Barbossa admits, grinning. He pushes back against the chest, using it for leverage as he staggers upright. Sodden wood creaks beneath his weight. "I kept my word to you as a pirate, as much as I gave it. Hardly my fault if you misheard a little, Jack."

Jack's teeth are stained and pitted black in the moonlight. "Kept your word, did you? And do you always keep your promises that way?"

Outside, the singing stops.

In the abrupt, harsh silence, Jack is suddenly standing too close.

Barbossa tries to pull away, but his heels strike the wooden chest and tangle themselves in splinters. There is a hole in his ribcage. Jack has a finger plunged into the gap, knuckles twisting and wriggling, and Barbossa's back is a stiff line of pain as he jerks like a worm on a hook.

Barbossa is the Lord of the Caspian Sea -- as much as he can be while standing on another man's ship. He's heard the sniggering. Not right for two Pirate Lords to fraternize off and on for so long, not proper for only one ship to split between them, for one to be subservient to the other. How toothless Barbossa must be, clinging like a mussel to someone else's vessel.

All told, however, there is less mockery than he expects -- which disappoints him a little. Fewer and fewer pirates these days even know the Lord of their own waters, let alone why such a position exists. Most of them stutter when it comes to the Code. None of them believe in the Brethren Court. To them, Barbossa's humiliation is one shared by all pirates who had the dignity to be a proper Captain, but hadn't a ship to their name.

Barbossa knows the way of things. He's a patient man -- rare, among pirates -- and he knows how to wait until the tides are in his favor.

The Pearl loves him, fills full her sails whenever he strokes her wheel, rippling like the skirts of the sweetest whores. He's heard the way the water slaps her wooden thighs. He's touched her.

He catches Bootstrap when the other man's just coming off his shift. It's a strange afternoon. The sun's just right in the summer air that little wind's moving, and the sea is barely stirring. They're not more than a half-day from the nearest coast, though, so no one's worried. The apple that Barbossa's pilfered from the stores is unreasonably hard. It's good that there's no bruising or mush, but it's more stone than fruit to the touch.

Bootstrap, predictably, hesitates. "Are you sure you want to do this? Captain hasn't given us any cause, any reason -- "

Barbossa resists the urge to sneer. He turns the apple around with his fingers instead, studying each side of the lavishly ripened fruit. "I'd hope you paid attention as to who you signed up with, Bootstrap. If you don't think Jack Sparrow would slit all our throats if he thought it'd make him a profit, then you're more fool than I thought. No pirate lives through what he has without dabbling in betrayal. And you won't either, Bootstrap." He pauses, withdraws his attention away from the fruit long enough to fix his gaze on the other pirate. "Let me put this in the easiest way for you to comprehend, mm? You've got family back home. Wife, son. You're a family man. Now Jack -- Jack's got only himself. And in this world, who d'you think he's going to look out for the most?"

Bootstrap huffs and fidgets and Barbossa keeps his smile tight. He knows when he's won.

Kinder now, honey after the salt. Barbossa tunes his voice to a reasonable note. "I'm not asking much of ye, Bootstrap," he coaxes. "Just look the other way. I, for one, would prefer to pull one over on Captain Jack Sparrow before he pulls one on us."

And Bill rolls his eyes in that dolorous way of his, and sighs heavily, and sinks backwards over the rail. Barnacles erupt from his flesh. Barbossa ignores it all in favor of taking a bite of his apple at last -- but when he does, his teeth slide over the glossy skin and turn loose in his mouth, dangling from his gums. He spits one out as it lands on his tongue, and then another one comes free; he spits again, and again, and again, trying not to swallow any of them by accident. They bump against the back of his throat like a dozen ivory marbles.

He spits, and spits, and gags.

Barbossa is thirty and has stepped onto the deck of the Pearl for the first time. It's his ship. He feels the truth of it through every bone packed into his sailor's body, every bruise and fracture that cries out when the winds change. The Pearl is not Jack Sparrow's vessel. It's simply been waiting here in Sparrow's care, rocking as serene on the waves as a babe at her momma's teat. It's the ship he's always wanted, always dreamed of. It's the ship he knows already he could die on without regret.

Sparrow looks at him cockeyed. His hat's too new to fit right, and it keeps sliding down at an angle backwards over his head and the thick ropes of hair. The effect's comical. Makes it easy to underestimate Sparrow, and Barbossa doesn't want to do that. Filch every last coin off him and leave Sparrow stranded, yes, but not be taken off guard by him.

Outside on the docks, a woman is singing. The melody is crooned like a wave: deep humming that rises and falls, again and again. It reminds Barbossa of something. He can't remember what. Possibly desire. He's been having a lot of that lately. All kinds of cravings and wants and needs clawing on the sides of his brain, like his body's trying to take inventory of what it can and can't do by testing each and every muscle again.

Today, he's been wanting food. The memories leap at him, systematic and unbidden: the taste of buttered corn, of olives, of soup broth. Fresh-baked biscuits. Meat drippings. He can taste them. It makes his mood foul when he's forced to turn away from scrutiny of the Pearl and readdress politeness with her keeper.

The strumpet on the dock giggles; Barbossa isn't certain why Jack is tolerating the presence of a woman so close to board. Maybe she's a token for the crew; maybe Jack's just that charitable of a guy, buying a doxie for the crew to share before they shove off again for weeks at sea. Months, possibly more. Maybe she's only hoping to tempt one of them off, lifting a skirt and wallet together, luring soldiers to their doom.

Jack's interested, by the look. He's leaning on the rail, insolent and wary. "And what would the Pirate Lord of the Caspian Sea want with me?"

"A better question yet is why will the Pirate Lord of the Caribbean take me on as part of his crew." Barbossa takes a few steps away, a few steps back. "Answer being -- because I've got one, and you don't. Oh, aye, ye've got a handful of men," he allows, charitably. "Not near enough to turn a profit with. Not enough to empty the belly of a proper galleon. And, as you know, my predecessor came to a very unfortunate end. I need the auspices of whatever fair weather I can find."

"So you plan to use me to escalate your own fortunes? Cowardice," Jack decides, but adds in a mused, "I like that. But what makes you think I would find any value in risking my fate with yours?"

Barbossa is close enough that he can smell the stink of unwashed flesh rising off Sparrow's bones. "Why, the loyalty and favor of another Lord," he answers grandly. "Also, I'll be forgetting about the gambling debts you owed the previous Lord of the Caspian Sea."

Which part of his offer earns Jack's smile, Barbossa doesn't know, but the man addresses the first half. "Ah. Loyalty," he drawls, husky with cynicism. "I've a better idea. How about I just take that out in trade, Hector, and you find a way to trade it to me?"

Barbossa spreads his hands, the very picture of equanimity. "If you prefer to have it that way, Jack, I can. I can."

Barbossa is nineteen and in Singapore for the first time. The evening has just started to roll in over the harbors, so he and Jack go whoring -- even though Jack rightfully shouldn't be old enough to know there's more between his legs than piss and shit. He doesn't look his age, and Barbossa doesn't care. Jack looks older than him whenever Barbossa catches sight of them together in the patterned silver coins they pass, dangling on braided silken strings in the windows.

"We threw you in the water," Jack informs him, saucily lurching towards the nearest tart. She giggles with a mouth full of brass teeth. "You'll thank me for that someday."

This early in the evening and Jack's already drunk, Barbossa decides. "You're just saying that so I stop making eyes at my ship," he declares.

Jack releases the woman, and sways around a mooring. "Think what you will, Hector," he drawls. "My ship isn't making eyes back."

Their path is slowly, but inevitably steering them towards the thick doors of one establishment. An opium den, Barbossa thinks -- or at least he hopes it's one. Already he has found at least one reason to dislike the Far East: everything feels like it's written in Chinese or Dutch. He can't read the polyglot of trading languages perfectly, English and Indian and spice route tongues. The East India Trading Company may have colonized the outpost, but they're not the masters of this land, and it shows whenever Barbossa tries to understand what he's eating half the time.

"I don't think I've ever come here before," he comments, suddenly, coming to a halt on the wooden walkway. He doesn't know why the revelation doesn't sit right on him. There aren't enough brothels in the world that he could have visited them all anyway, but it's a bothersome sensation.

Mistress Ching sniffs as she trundles past, her slippered feet whispering in tandem. She turns towards Barbossa, eyes blind and staring, looking through him as if the faded skins on her irises are only for show. "You haven't," she snaps. "This is a matter of convenience."

In Barbossa's stomach, acid rolls. He feels the thud of liquid in his belly, like rancid wine he doesn't remember drinking.

Then Jack is vanishing between a set of opened doors, his arms spread in a supplicant's bliss, and Barbossa must run to keep up.

"She's not your ship, Jack," he says when he catches up, digging in his pockets for the den fee and dropping it in the collection bowl. The beaded curtains rattle as he pushes through them, a series of gate after gate. "She's just something you picked up along the way. Holding onto her, y'see, until it came time to pass her on to more appropriate hands. Can't blame me for wanting, Jack. Don't we all take what we can and give nothing back, or else we'd be poor excuses for pirates indeed?"

"Ah," Jack breathes, and then he's pausing in his swagger down the stairwell. "And what else would you take from me next, Hector?"

Caught suddenly by the way Jack's voice echoes in the parlor, Barbossa stops two steps up. He can't identify what about it seems amiss. Nothing in Singapore is agreeing with him today. "What is it you want, Jack?" his mouth asks for him, and in that question is everything, every honesty and every truth and every strange, plaintive hope that confused itself on pirate laws that allow for betrayal and brandy.

But Jack doesn't answer, except to turn away from him and into the furrow of paid rent couches, grabbing a bottle out of the rack and uncorking it with rough measures. Barbossa ducks his head as he steps into the nook. Nothing in Singapore is agreeing with him today. The smell of the opium den is too thick; it feels like he's breathing liquid instead of air.

Around them, entertainers mix with the den workers. Their nook has a view of an outside stage. Two singers gyrate between ululations. A dancer twirls a hoop on the end of a stick, gleaming with false-fire in a rite to one of any number of heathen gods. The lights flicker: dim and bright and dim again. Jack's mouth is wet. He pulls Barbossa closer suddenly, and then passes the sweet sting of alcohol along upon with his lips.

Barbossa doesn't recoil from the gesture. Despite the initial stiffening of his shoulders, he holds himself steady. In the great race of nerves between them, he refuses to flinch before Jack does. Jack hasn't resorted to buggery before, but it's a possibility. It's possible.

Which is not to say that Barbossa's completely immune to a mouth that's damp for him -- just that he won't lose to Jack, won't show cowardice first.

But the moment is saved by the attendants carrying trays with opium past, mixed with spiced treats that reek of cinnamon. Golden tokens jingle in their hair. Golden rings are in their ears and around their wrists. There is a boy walking among them, servicing the customers with sweets. His hair is sandy brown and long around his ears.

As he kneels beside their pillows, he uncovers the lid of one dish deftly, releasing the scent of hot, candied plums. To Jack, he gives a saucer. To Barbossa, he says, "You'll kill me."

Still disconcerted by Jack's recent proximity despite his best efforts to ignore it, Barbossa accepts his own saucer with numb fingers. "I plan to kill a lot of people in my lifetime," he replies wildly. "Would you care to leave a name, or should I just aim at random if I think I see you in the crowd?"

The boy glowers at him, but bows his head to set down the opium bowl. As his downy hair parts over the back of his neck, Barbossa sees the shape of a coin branded in scar tissue on his skin.

Hector is ten and picking up a compass. There is something he knows he needs to remember, but he can't wake up.

Women's hands are in his shirt, fingers slim and twisting. Women's hands are on his feet, tugging at his boots. Then there's only one pair of hands working, moving up and down his body. They touch him with familiarity. They run their nails over him and know every inch of his shape.

She pulls him up out of the tides, like a fishwife with the nets. He retches -- he retches and coughs, gagging on the fetid water, feeling solid teeth against his tongue, rooted in their sockets where he runs across them with the tip.

Old man's bones and gristle are wrapped around him again, like a wet woolen coat. Old man's click is back in his lungs when he breathes; he remembers that suddenly, both the pain that was developing before the curse and the absence of it after, and how at one time he thought he'd welcome that pang back. He doesn't.

Above him leers a woman with spots on her skin, like star charts gone wrong. Barbossa knows the markings. He asks anyway, to play the ignorant. "Who?" he manages, tasting brine in his throat.

The vision grins. "And who else would know how to pull you from de waters?"

Best be believing in ghost stories, a girl whispers in his mind. The glossy waves of her hair look like gold. Pirate's gold, Aztec gold. You're in one.

Barbossa struggles away, rolling over to vomit out water with a stomach that finally is working again. The weight of liquid in his belly and throat is novel enough that he fights not to swallow his bile back down again, craving sustenance faster than it rightfully should. His stomach is hungry. It begs to be sated.

He thinks he's alive.

"Calypso," he greets the hallucination with once he's done dripping bile, capable of decorum despite his circumstances. "Charge of the Brethren Court. I'll be thanking ye for your generosity, though I'll be discourteous enough to ask why."

"Why?" One dark eyebrow arches, sultry; Calypso smiles like a predator who is debating if it has the interest to play with its meal first. "Why do ye think, Hector Barbossa? 'Less you be giving it away, what else might bind ye to the sea?"

Nine Pieces of Eight, his mind whispers, and he clamps down on it. Heathen gods might be capable of reading his thoughts, for all he knows. "Nothing," he answers, and it's truth and lie together; when all is said and done, the Pearl will always call him back. Lord or no, dead or no, but he won't be giving the ship up to Calypso's purview yet. "Nothing, save for the object you know I have not on me," he retorts, politely, "or else we'd be having this conversation not at all, now would we?"

The chuckle in her throat is breathy. "Dead men usually don't, now."

The reminder makes him feel cold all over again. Barbossa tries not to shudder. Being near Calypso makes his skin remember each time he has ever walked into the ocean water and felt it swell around his legs, creep into his boots and up his legs, around his hips and along his arms. Every time he's had to bail water out of a flooding hull, every time he's swum for a longboat. "Begging yer pardon, but I don't see that I have much choice in the matter," he manages.

"Always a choice, Barbossa." Calypso shakes her head, slowly, like a beast on the end of a very thick chain. "Stay underneath de waves. Or sail them instead." She leans forward. Her hair drips over him as she traces fingers down his chest: seeking, searching. "I want to return to de sea, Hector Barbossa." Her voice twists, lilts. "Surely you understand that?"

Not for the first time is Barbossa grateful for forethought. Other Pirate Lords may carry their tokens on them, not trusting any other save themselves, but Barbossa believes in planning for calamities. Among them involves being a target. He assumed long ago that someone would come stripping his corpse in a misguided search for a coin; he never though that he'd have the chance to discuss it after the fact. "I do," he says, grudgingly. "But you'd best be aware that I do not renege on a bargain once struck, so I'd advise ye to be careful with your terms."

For a moment, Calypso's expression shifts.

"This we will see. Won't we, Hector Barbossa," she purrs, and in her mouth is the blackness of brackish water and rot. "We will see who can play by de rules, in the end."