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The Still-Beating Heart

by Jayne Leitch

[Story Headers]

Tortuga is a melee. The yard outside the Faithful Bride cannot contain its multitude of cutthroats and thieves, whores and pirates, noise and stench; shrieking and laughing and brawling, they spill out into the streets and beyond.

They do not reach Tia Dalma, whose business this night has her in the shadows of a palm thicket past the edge of town. There she hands over three small bottles, each stoppered tightly with blood-red wax to safeguard their sticky, potent contents. The hand that brushes hers in the dark gives three cloth packets in exchange; she rests them on her palms, weighs them each against her expectations--puts them to her nose and breathes deep, confirming the requested spices and musks--before tucking them securely into her pockets. "Don't take the green one yourself," she says, and shifts just enough to let her teeth gleam in the moonlight. "It don't do nobody good."

Her contact hurries away, as always. Tia Dalma strides back towards the glimmering cesspit of town at an easier pace, drinking in the sights of frenzied revelry with the same pleasure she takes in tasting the breeze from the sea.

She arrives at the dock to find the Indian Mist adrift and ablaze, its captain's body cooling under the pier, and the night loses a measure of its glamour. She had an arrangement with Captain Vidor, one so long-standing that it's been years since she last brought money or common bartering items to Tortuga. Now, with flames consuming her berth and the jeers of drunken onlookers echoing across the water, she wonders why she wasn't better prepared.

Turning away from her ruined passage home, her glance lands on a man lounging against a nearby pile, watching the fire. He touches the brim of his tricorne hat in response to her attention; when she keeps staring, his eyes narrow. "Desirous of anything in particular, lass, or will you content yourself with the view?"

She hears the ocean in the grate and slur of his voice, and sees its deeps in his eyes, and remembers that preparation isn't a requirement, not for the likes of her. "You gonna take me back to my island," she answers.

He smiles. "And why would I do that?"

"'Cause I can taste the salt in your veins, Captain Jack Sparrow," she says, liking the way he goes completely still, "and I know it to be the salt of the wide open sea. And 'cause it's time I know another man like that."

Dawn has begun gilding the sky when the Black Pearl drops anchor off Pelegosto. Tia Dalma encourages the Captain to row her ashore, then to continue upriver to her shack, with a promise of more material compensation; she follows through with a bag of jewel-encrusted trinkets and old coins. "I'll be needin' you back in one year. Precise, mind."

He takes the purse, weighs it the way she did her three packets in Tortuga, then ties it to his belt. But it's the dart and flash of his gaze as he catalogues his surroundings--the totems, the phials, the corroded curios and stained bones--and the sly speculation with which he turns his attention back to her that makes her certain of their arrangement. "One year it is," he agrees.

When he darkens her door again barely three weeks later, she grins and invites him in.

*

Jack Sparrow doesn't tend to indulge in superstition; certain members of his crew do. When the Pearl is all but becalmed on its way back to Pelegosto, Tia Dalma spends the hours before the sun turns hateful wandering the deck while below her feet most of the crew heaves at the sweeps and curses her presence.

Returning to Jack's quarters is scant relief from the heat; even with the lamps dark and the doors flung wide the air is stifling, motionless. Jack, bare to the waist and glistening with sweat, is sprawled in his chair with his feet on the table. His eyes follow her as she enters, then widen with habitual lechery as she begins pulling at the laces of her dress.

When her gown and underskirts fall to the floor--letting her breathe slightly more freely in just her corset and shift--his expression turns thoughtful. "I've always found beneath the skirts a fine place for woman's valuables," he comments idly, waving one laconic hand to indicate the four leather pouches dangling from the belt at her waist. "Although generally not the kind she can be parted from with the pull of a string."

She sits across from him, takes a folded map from the table and begins fanning herself slowly. "There are things that must be protected. For some, the skirts are often plundered, and useless for safekeeping; for me..." She grins, catlike, the way she does when she walks alone in Tortuga at night. "It is a fine place."

He inclines his head in assent. "And what does the lady guard so closely, I wonder?"

She pauses her hand, lets his question hang in the dead air until the silence provokes a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes. Only then does she resume fanning herself, and answer. "Not everyone is of the water, Jack Sparrow. Not everyone wishes to be. And the deck of a ship lacks the decision of solid earth."

He considers this, frowning a little. "Not jewels, then?" he says eventually, as if to make completely certain.

Smiling again, she settles back in her chair and shakes her head. "Not jewels."

*

He arrives unexpectedly at her shack one evening, two months early for their standing appointment and soaked in rum. As he staggers in the door, banging it against the wall and knocking shelved trinkets to the floor, she catches a glimpse of an unfamiliar skiff--shorter and narrower than the Black Pearl's boats--drifting loose behind him, spinning lazily in the river's slow current. "I have come," he announces very loudly, in a tone of great importance, swaying gently, "because I am at a loss for where to go." With that, he crosses unevenly to where she stands, interrupted in the act of selecting ingredients from a row of foggy glass jars, and falls against her, pushing her back to the wall before she can brace for his weight. He kisses her clumsily, most of his open mouth on her chin, then reels away backwards. "Hallo, lovely."

"At a loss," she repeats, watching him produce a nearly-full bottle from somewhere in his jacket and drink deep.

"Mmm." He lowers the bottle, then waves it at her; she reaches out and takes it from his weaving hand, and takes a swallow. "As it just so happens to have occurred, I've suffered a small change in fortune since last we met."

She already knows; the skiff was simply confirmation. "Ah, Captain Sparrow. You lost your Pearl."

"I did not lose the Pearl!" He takes the bottle back and, all at once, drops into a chair, suddenly mournful. "She was stolen from me." His face twists, frowning vigorously, and he adds in a sullen mutter, "Bloody Barbossa, scurvy...cur. Whoreson. Bugger."

Tia Dalma kneels before him, tsking softly. "So without him Pearl, Jack Sparrow comes to me, hmm?" He looks down at her, bleary-eyed, then reaches out and slides his hand around the back of her neck. His touch is clumsy, heavy enough to remind her of dead weight. She pulls back against his attempt to drag her close. "I warn you, Jack: woman is no substitute for the sea."

He appears to think on this for a moment--then he smiles, slack and humourless. "Fortuitously," he replies, the words little more than a slurried rumble deep in his throat, "the sea is no substitute for a woman, either."

She is quite unable to argue.

*

She sees less of Jack after the loss of the Pearl. His visits, now based more on need than whim, and subject to the availability--through honest barter or outright theft--of suitable conveyance, become increasingly rare.

Finally, after Jack fulfills his yearly obligation by ferrying her to Tortuga and back again in a leaking dinghy only just large enough to seat them both, he disappears altogether.

*

Almost two years to the day since Tia Dalma last saw Jack Sparrow, he is dragged into her shack by a girl--barely more than a scrawny child--covered in blood. It turns out to be his, from the mangle that remains of his left arm, soaked through the layers of fabric wrapping the wound and tied in place with sailors' knots. "Do something for him," the girl demands, one hand on the hilt of the dagger at her hip as she glares distrustfully around the shack.

As Tia Dalma stitches, the girl paces and talks: "We'd just stole the Garnet Gamble. Sailing out of port, wind at our backs. Jack hangs over the rail, waves at the crew left treading water under the pier, and says, 'This is the day you shall always remember as the day Captain Jack Sparrow took your ship!'" She sneers, and Tia Dalma understands exactly why. "And then one of the other ships in the harbour opened fire. They had nothing to do with the Gamble, no shared colours, and a poor angle--but they fired. And something ricocheted, and Jack took it in the arm. Went down like--" She stops pacing, shaking her head. "While he was still awake, he ordered us to bring him here. Said to tell you he's got a boat again. Said to say, if you save his arm, he'll take you to Tortuga in payment."

Tia Dalma hisses, quietly.

The girl pulls her dagger, strides back across the room and looms over her; the threat is childishly blunt. "He was stealing it for you," she spits, annoyance and anger almost managing to cover her fear. "So he could take you to Tortuga. So you would owe him in return!"

Tia Dalma's fingers make nimble work of knotting the slick thread. Then her needle stills for a moment as she reaches over to scoop yellowish paste from a jar and smear it over the wound. "Jack, Jack," she murmurs, watching the paste turn orange, then brown with blood. "He never understand, negotiation is a skill..."

The girl stays just long enough to see Jack's arm bandaged in fresh cloth; then she hurries back to the boat, claiming anxiety over the state of their stolen ship, obviously anxious to be out of the shack. Tia Dalma packs away her supplies and cleans blood from the floor, then settles herself at Jack's bedside and waits for him to stir.

It's not until the tree frogs begin to chirrup the next night that he wakes, slowly and with low sounds of pain. Tia Dalma is ready with a bottle--strong grain alcohol, not rotgut rum--and he swallows thirstily, unthinkingly, until she takes it away. "Tell me, now. Will you always remember this as the time Captain Jack Sparrow nearly lost him arm?"

The corners of his mouth flicker upward before he opens his eyes. "Nearly, nearly," he repeats, and coughs. "I'm sure Anamaria did her best, but her natural skills lie in very different areas. Navigation from where we were to where I am now, alive and in possession of both my arms, just as for instance."

"Both your arms for now, at least." She begins peeling back his bandage; he turns his head to watch, focusing with bleary intensity and, when the mess of his arm is laid bare, a wince. Arching her brow, she hands back the bottle of rye, and he takes another deep swallow as she applies more pungent salve. "Could you not think of anything else that would buy you my aid, Jack Sparrow?"

His good hand twitches on the neck of the bottle, and he gives a gravelly chuckle. "I liked our arrangement, when we had it. I thought we both did well by it. The Garnet Gamble's not half the Black Pearl, but..." He coughs, and sighs. "Not to put too fine a point on it, darling, but it's three years I've been without my ship. Without any ship, to speak of. And me, a Captain." He winces again as she re-wraps the bandage, and takes another pull from the bottle. "Your needs are amenable to the accommodation of alternate arrangements. Mine are not. Savvy?"

Tia Dalma nods. "You rode the Pearl, and she was yours," she says slowly, her thoughts turning inevitably towards the decision she must make. "Coaxed her over the swells, stroked her through glass, kept steady hands at her helm and tasted her freedom like the warm salt breeze." Beside her, Jack's gaze loses focus; he raises the bottle to drink again, but she reaches out, pulls it roughly from his grasp, and holds it away. When he turns to her, she levels his heavy-lidded stare with her own, wide-eyed and sober. "You want her back, but the question remains: do you want her enough?"

His expression is slow to change, dulled as he is by pain and rye. But as her question takes hold, his pale, shadowed face suffuses with wistfulness, and sorrow, and longing. And she knows the truth of his answer before he draws breath to speak; she knew it long before she asked. "More than anything in this world or next, love."

"Ahhhh." Satisfied, she raises the bottle to her own mouth, never once unfixing her gaze from his. Having drank, she lands the bottle with a hard thunk on the floor, out of Jack's reach, and stands. "Then I can help you."

When she holds out the compass, he slants her a narrow-eyed look; she answers his suspicion with a grin, and he lifts the box from her palm with his fingertips, as if unsure he wants to risk his remaining good hand. There is a moment's one-handed struggle with the catch, but it relents, and he leans forward to peer at the spinning arrow inside.

"That compass," she says, watching the wobbling arrow come to a decided stop, pointing nowhere close to north, "belonged to another man who knew well what he wanted. Too well, he knew. But ah, he wanted too much, and could not be allowed to have the thing he craved. So the compass was taken from him."

She can feel Jack watching her. She doesn't look away from the arrow. "And whatever became of this poor yearning wretch, pray?"

The arrow wavers, ever so slightly. Tia Dalma takes a hurried step backwards, turns her attention to Jack, and smiles. "He wants still." Abruptly she turns, busying herself at tidying the tools of her ministrations, feeling Jack's curiosity like a blade at her neck. "You will give me safe passage to Tortuga and back in three days' time," she announces, returning determinedly to business. "That will be payment for your arm."

A moment passes, weighted with expectation. Then, with great care, he asks, "And for the compass?"

She could demand a steep price, she knows. She considers the balance of her needs, of her wants--but when she turns, he's staring avidly at the arrow again, colour rising in his cheeks, his focus sharper, his eyes more alert, and there is nothing to consider. This man has already treatied his freedom, and will weather far worse than all she could ask. And he is ill-prepared--but preparation isn't a requirement.

Not for the likes of them.

"Find your Black Pearl, Jack Sparrow," she says, and when he spares a moment from his fascination to share his eager smile, she grins. "All things will be paid for in time."


"Only free men can negotiate." -Nelson Mandela

End.

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Fandom:  Pirates of the Carribean
Title:  The Still-Beating Heart
Author:  Jayne Leitch   [email]   [website]
Details:  Standalone  |  PG  |  gen  |  14k  |  08/28/06
Characters:  Tia Dalma, Jack Sparrow
Summary:  "Jack. . .he never understand, negotiation is a *skill*."
Notes:  Spoilers for movies one and two.
Disclaimer/Other:  Disclaimer: all belongs to the House of Mouse.
Effusive and eternal thanks to my betas: Melusina, Hannah Orlove, and as always, MaryKate. Peaches, all!

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