It may not be as far as the end of the world, but the journey to Singapore is hardly a quick one.
They had needed a spy to go on ahead, and Will had insisted, of course. Typical of him, always self-sacrificing, always putting himself in the most danger. Elizabeth supposed she was grateful that this time he wasn’t pointing a pistol at his own head, and she had to admit that he was the best choice. And of course, they couldn’t all show up to Singapore together, not without attracting attention. So Will and Tia Dalma had gone on ahead and the rest of them had found passage in ones and twos, following behind. It makes perfect sense.
It’s just that Elizabeth had never expected to see Hector Barbossa again, much less spend this much time in his company.
She’s gotten used to twisting her hair up under a hat, tying rags across her chest, pitching her voice low, and walking with a slight swagger in her step, as though she’s got something in her trousera to be proud of. She got enough practice with that sort of thing in Tortuga, after all. And it’s not like she hasn’t had time to study the men around her, figure out how sailors act- she’s spent more time on ships than she had ever meant to. It seems to surprise Barbossa, though.
“I can’t imagine you haven’t seen this sort of thing before, Captain Barbossa. And if I’ll be traveling alone, you know this is the safest way.”
He continues to stare at her thoughtfully, and there’s something in his expression she can’t place. Finally, he grins. It’s a horrible, pirate sort of grin, the same one he used to have as he threatened to murder her in all sorts of ways, and she has to suppress a shudder. Of all the people in the world who could have helped them bring back Jack, it had to be him, the one who first dragged her into all of this.
“Aye, that be right, Miss Swann. Or should I call ye Master Swann?”
Elizabeth scowls at him, but nods.
“But ye needn’t be travelin alone, ye know that.”
“As though I’d be safer in your company? You kidnapped me and tried to kill me twice, have you forgotten?”
Barbossa laughs, but it’s not the threatening one it could be. It’s a big, throaty laugh, like she’s never heard from him before.
“No sense in killing ye yet, Miss Swann,” he says, echoing his words from so long ago. “Not while we’ve a journey to the Locker yet to make, and Jack to find. Not while ye can be of help in that.”
“What happens when I’m no longer of help, pray?”
Barbossa shrugs. “Then, all’s fair in war and piracy. Can’t say ye don’t have the right idea.”
“And what idea might that be?”
“Never trust a pirate,” he says simply, as though it’s obvious. Which, to be fair, it is.
Elizabeth rolls her eyes. “As if I hadn’t figured that out already, Captain. One of the first lessons I learned, along with ‘never expect a pirate to abide by the rules of parlay.’”
Barbossa nods. “Ye pick up quicker’n Jack did, for certain.”
She dresses as a boy anyway, knowing how much less bother it’ll be. The cargo ship they hitch a ride on is safe but slow, and Elizabeth passes far too many nights in a cramped hold. Barbossa keeps his distance, but she can’t help but notice that he always sleeps with his feet toward the door, and with her within eyeshot.
They stop off in a tiny port town one night, for the ship to refill its stores. Elizabeth is grateful to be able to do something besides sit on the ship worrying about Will, and Jack, and whether this mad venture of theirs has any chance of working. Barbossa naturally finds the seediest tavern on the whole island, but Elizabeth doesn’t bat an eye.
“Not as big as the one on Tortuga, but the smell’s the same.”
Barbossa agrees. “Ye’ll find all these places stink of fish, old beer, and old whores.”
They get a drink, for the sake of the thing, though Barbossa seems to prefer his apples.
“What?” he growls at her, juice dripping down his beard like it so often does.
Elizabeth just smiles. “Have they lived up to expectation, then? The apples, I mean. You spent so many years waiting to be able to eat them again.”
He snarls. “Don’t ye talk to me about those years.”
Elizabeth takes the hint and stares into her mug of ale instead. The minutes pass, the tavern busy around them, loud and coarse and rank. Everything she’d never seen, before. Before the Black Pearl, before the pirates, before Jack. She’s not bothered by it now, though. “No place for a lady,” that’s what Will had said. Or had it been her father? Both of them, probably. Elizabeth hardly looks a lady now, in her boots and loose trousers, with a hat to hide her face. She wonders what Will would think, her in a place like this, dressed like a boy, drinking beer with the man who killed his father. She wonders if he’s safe, if he’s completed his mission, if she’ll get to see him soon.
He’s nearly all she thinks about, but she’s used to that. Anyway, better to think about that, than to think about their dangerous journey to the land of the dead which looms ever nearer, or to the stab of guilt that haunts her, that means she has to try to bring him back, no matter what, she has to try. Better not to think about that at all.
“It’s a funny thing, bein alive again. Really alive.”
Elizabeth looks up, and Barbossa is contemplating the core of his apple. He throws it to the floor, and rises. She makes to follow him, but he shakes his head.
“Just headin upstairs, none of yer concern.”
Elizabeth remembers the presence of a few girls dressed suspiciously similar to Scarlett, back on Tortuga, and understanding suddenly dawns.
“Reaccquainting yourself with the pleasures of the flesh, Captain Barbossa?”
“Ye keep quiet with that name here! Ye know better than that.”
Elizabeth scowls. But she knows he’s right, they don’t need the sort of attention a name like that will bring- “a man so evil, the Devil himself spat him back out,” indeed. Not that the stories are entirely false.
“As te yer other question,” Barbossa continues, face twisting from a scowl into a truly impressive leer, “ye should know by now that life is short. Best to enjoy its pleasures while ye have half a chance.” He’s looming over her where she sits now, one hand on the rickety table, entirely too close for comfort, and lets out a low, evil chuckle as she blushes, avoiding his eyes. She’s reminded all too vividly of the dining room on the Pearl, remembering the way he spoke to her then. But he pulls away without further comment, and takes his leave.
Later that night, Elizabeth is walking back to the ship. She’s alone, and why not? No one will look twice at a young ship rat coming back from the inn. She passes a few sailors, one passed out drunk in the gutter, another smoking a pipe and leaning against a wall, two more stumbling along bellowing sea shanties to the best of their current ability.
She makes it back to the docks, but instead of heading straight back to the ship, finds a deserted spot and sits down, feet dangling off the edge. Elizabeth stares out at the sea. It’s black as ink of course, in the small hours of the morning. But she can feel it, can hear it rushing around her, feel it spitting cold drops and fine mist, smell its brackish scent rising up to meet her. It stretches out before her, infinite, full of promise and danger all at once. A ship is freedom, Jack had told her once. Elizabeth thinks she knows what he meant, now. It’s the freedom to go where you please, instead of having to pay to ride along on someone else’s journey. It’s the freedom to escape people’s expectations of you, to go somewhere new where you can reinvent yourself and nobody can tell you different. It’s the ability to be surrounded by leagues of ocean and yet not drown.
Voices from nearby cut through her thoughts- angry voices. A smart girl, Elizabeth thinks to herself, would walk away from strange angry voices in the middle of the night. She moves toward the voices.
They’re pretty close, just off the waterfront, coming from down a dark back alley.
“What this be about?”
Barbossa’s low growl is unmistakable. Elizabeth moves around the side of a building, stepping quietly.
“…had died,” Elizabeth catches the end of a sentence from a new voice.
A third voice cuts in “An that’d be a pity, that would, if’n Sparrow had done what he said he done, cos it’d mean you was dead and gone. But lucky for us, looks like he lied.”
“Ye should know by know, he always lies,” Barbossa scoffs.
Elizabeth risks a peek around the corner and sees four shadows- on the right, one with a very distinctive hat, his back against a wall. On the left, there’s a man facing Barbossa, with his arm raised in front of him. And closer to Elizabeth, with their backs to her, are two more men, one tall and lanky, the other short and broad. Elizabeth goes for her sword, quietly as she can, and crouches down, inching her way forward.
“…no, I don reckon he did…”
Just a little bit further, then, and she’ll be able to reach the one closest to her, the short one.
“…not that anyone ever did trust Sparrow’s word-”
This last disparaging remark about Jack’s character is cut off as Elizabeth kicks him in the back of the shin, and he topples to the ground, cursing. The one with the gun turns his head on instinct, to look at the commotion, and that’s a fatal mistake, of course, because Hector Barbossa only needs half a second to grab his wrist and pull his arm around, and the pistol clatters to the floor. The taller pirate snarls and draws a knife, rushing toward Elizabeth, as his companion staggers back onto his feet.
She snarls right back, holding her sword at the ready. They’re in no hurry to get to close to it, but the short one steps to the side, meaning to get her surrounded. Barbossa throws his attacker down and there’s a horrible cracking sound as his skull hits the pavement. Barbossa yells and dives toward the rest of them as Elizabeth feints back and then pushes forward, stabbing her sword between the tall one’s ribs. His eyes go wide and then glassy, but she’s already wrenching her sword back and turning to see Barbossa wrestling the short one down.
Barbossa pulls the man’s arm up behind his back and twists, and with a cry, the short pirate falls to his knees. He struggles, but Barbossa keeps a firm grip, and the man can’t get up. Barbossa might look old now, Elizabeth thinks, but an old pirate is one who’s managed to survive this long.
“If ye’d be so kind, Miss Swann?” Barbossa spits out, through gritted teeth, but she’s already moving forward, and buries her blade in his chest. The hot blood spills over her hand on the hilt of her sword, and oh, there’s blood everywhere, isn’t it, soaking her sleeves at the wrists and splattered onto her boots. She steps back, and Barbossa throws the corpse down.
He laughs, then. She can see in the moonlight the black blood that dribbles out of the corner of his mouth- perhaps one of them hit him in the face? Or did he bite someone? He grins his horrible grin, made worse by his blackened, bloody teeth. But for the first time, it doesn’t scare Elizabeth, not even a little. Her heart is pounding and her blood is singing and she grins back, her own deadly pirate’s grin.
“Come on then, Miss Swann. Best be off before they find these scum rats.”
She shoves her sword back into her belt, and follows as Barbossa strolls off. It’s the way they walk, she thinks, Barbossa and Jack both. There’s confidence dripping out of every step. She supposes it comes with being a captain.
“Ye did well, lass,” Barbossa says, and he sounds pleasantly surprised. “Them the first men you’ve killed?”
Elizabeth thinks of Jack’s eyes as he’d realized that she’d betrayed him, as surely as Hector once had. She remembers the kraken’s breath smelling of decay and its blood curdling scream.
He doesn’t press the question, just laughs, the delighted laugh of the man who’s cheated death. They’ve made it back to the waterfront, and he pauses to pull a flask out of his belt, taking a long pull before holding it out to Elizabeth. She takes a swig and laughs with him, the slightly hysterical laugh of adrenaline and not needing to be frightened anymore.
Elizabeth passes the flask back to him and looks out at the sea once more. Still giddy with victory, it’s impossible to remember its dangers, to remember that they might yet fail and find themselves in a watery grave. In this moment, the sea seems only full of promise, beckoning her onward.
“Pirate,” Barbossa says, and she whips her head around, as Jack’s last word echoes back to her. But Barbossa’s voice holds none of the grief that Jack’s did, only mirth, and when she meets his eyes, his smile is full of pride.
They stay like that for a while, drinking in companionable silence apart from the sounds of the sea rushing around them. Not for the first time, it strikes Elizabeth how much has changed since that day in Port Royal when pirates first came to town, what seems so long ago. She’d hardly recognize herself now, the girl she used to be.
He just might kill her, someday, when she’s less useful, Eizabeth muses. But she can’t help believing that day is a long way off.