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Beyond Vanity

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Once Ed had inspected and dressed his wound, and declared that Stede had, in fact, done it right, and that nothing of great importance had been punctured—

(“How would one know? Not that I’m doubting you, of course, but how could one be sure?”

“Bile. Black bile. And blood about the mouth.”

“Ah.”)

—they retired to the two sitting chairs before the fire, which Olu had kindly stoked, despite the lingering humidity. 

Stede felt rather gingerly, in his nightshirt and dressing gown, with strips of cotton wrapped about his middle. His abdomen was tender at both entry and exit point, but Ed had been very gentle once they’d managed to unskewer him from the mast and bundle him downstairs to his quarters. 

“You’re getting to be a dab hand at that,” said Ed, peering at him over the edge of his cut crystal snifter. He nudged Stede’s bare ankle with his booted foot. 

“At what? Getting stabbed?” 

“Second time since I’ve known you. I’d say that’s dab indeed, and you’re up and about.”

Stede felt his cheeks warm, and it wasn’t the Island heat, the fire, the possible fever from ensuing infection, or the brandy, which he was also partaking in. 

“I dare say I am.” He smiled, closed-mouthed. He didn’t feel terribly expert at anything lately, although perhaps he never had. Or, no, he did feel he was rather expert at reading people. At knowing what they needed without having to be told. That was a kind of skill, to be sure. It wasn’t business sense or butchery, but it was something. 

Beside him, Ed sighed and stared into the fire. The flames caught on his glass and refracted, sending tiny rainbows dancing across the room. Then Ed lifted his glass for a long swallow and the ballet stopped. 

“Shall I bill you for the dingy, then?” Stede asked, keeping his tone drawing room light. 

“Hm?” 

“I couldn’t help but notice that Mr. Hands is no longer a member of our merry company. And it would seem he absconded with one of my dinghies.” 

Ed huffed and shifted in that way he had, a subtle change in the shoulders that said he was embarrassed but prideful, and also not ready to talk about it. Stede had become quite adept at reading him, too. 

Imagine!

Here sat he, Stede Bonnet, beside a fearsome pirate, whose body language and noncommittal sounds somehow spoke volumes more clearly than Ecclesiastical Latin on a good day. 

“You know,” he said, wading ever so carefully into the shallows. “My mum always said the best way to shake off a bad day was to have a bath about it.”

“Can’t remember the last time I had a proper bath,” said Ed. He shrugged. “Possibly haven’t ever.” 

“Well!” Stede clapped his hands together before he could temper his response, his pleasure at the thought of giving Ed something new to enjoy—something beyond marmalade and spirits and fine fabrics—something healing. “Then have one you shall.” 

“It’s too much trouble,” Ed protested. His brow furrowed. “I wouldn’t want to put you out. And—and you’ve been stabbed!” 

“Nonsense. And it’s not as though I’ll be drawing you a bath myself.” Stede chuckled and patted his leather-bound forearm. “What’s the point of having a tub if you don’t use it?” 

Ed seemed to mull this over. Sometimes, getting him to wallow in a bit of harmless diversion felt like luring a kitten out from under a shed and over to a bowl of cream. Tough but  rewarding, and Stede could be patient. 

“Right,” said Ed at last. “Yeah. Of course. Can’t have it go unused. What would be the point in that?” 

“That’s the spirit.” Stede offered his most reassuring smile and didn’t even wince when he stood to fetch someone for the water. “You sit tight. And don’t worry about a single thing.” 

“Could—“

“Yes?”

“Could I have a smidge more brandy while I soak?”

Stede’s smile became entirely genuine. “I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.” 

The water was steaming hot, little tendrils of vapor rising up from its surface. The lads had done an admirable job filling the copper basin nearly half-full. The perfect depth for a grown man, as Stede had directed when they formed a crew. 

It was remarkable, truly, what some people knew and others didn’t. Each day he discovered that what felt like common knowledge to one person might be wholly foreign to another. Absolutely remarkable! 

With a fluffy towel draped over his arm, playing the role of a steward and not the captain of his own vessel, Stede called out the aft window to summon Ed. Ed, who for reasons passing understanding, had taken himself above deck, as though he were ashamed to watch the men toiling away, toting buckets of hot water to and fro for his solitary enjoyment. 

Again: remarkable what some people found off-putting. 

“Your copper chariot awaits!” Stede greeted him with a courtly bow when Ed made it back to his quarters. “If you please.” He pushed open the little wooden door that led to the bath chamber, and held it wide. 

“Right,” said Ed. Jaw set, expression mulish. “I do please.” He very nearly stomped across the room, more a man going to the gallows than one about to enjoy a splendid bath. 

But, when he edged past Stede, and his shoulder grazed Stede’s front, a funny sort of tension seemed to seep into the air, carried on the very steam itself, and permeating. Stede could feel it in his pores. He cleared his throat. 

“I’ll just leave this here then, shall I?” He set the towel down on the low stool by the tub. “And obviously there’s a pitcher, just behind you. For your hair.”

“Obviously.” 

“Right then. Off I go.” 

They stared at each other, as had been happening often of late. Even that first day, when they’d changed into each other’s very garments, fabric still warmed through from skin and blood, it hadn’t felt like this. The air hadn’t been taut.  

“Is that lavender?” Ed asked abruptly. He sniffed.

“Yes. I think it adds a little something. I hope that’s not—I hope I haven’t—“

“No! No, not at all. I’ll just.” Ed fell silent. His hands went to his belt buckle. 

“Right.” Stede backed away from the tub, and the man, and took himself hurriedly out the door and into the safety of his library. 

The fire was—good gracious—much too warm, supernaturally so. Stede doused it with sand.

Behind the door, where presumably a pirate had now disrobed completely, there came a splash, and an audible groan that sent Stede tumbling into his berth with haste, the curtains drawn shut by trembling hands. 

Good lord, how he ached. He was an utter fool!

But had he ever truly known this feeling? Had Mary ever sparked something in him that reared back on its hind legs, unbroken and unrefined? Downright beastial. He thought not. Even on the nights she had opened herself up to him so that he might manage through his husbandly duties, it had been just that: a duty. A requirement. Far from a—a harmless diversion. 

Well, he thought, knees drawn up to his chest, wounds twinging to form a suddenly welcome distraction. An unhappy marital bed did not make him an innocent. He knew what men and boys and other folks who fancied each other got up to. He’d read books. His own ship sometimes felt like a floating molly house, the way the crew carried on. 

No, not an innocent at all. 

One of his hands clenched in the bed linens. He should have thought to bring a book in with him. He should have gotten thicker drapes. 

“Stede?” Came a reedy call from the direction of the bath. “Stede, are you out there?” 

Stede pushed back the curtains and steadied his breath. “Y-yes. Yes, Ed. I’m here.” 

“Would you—fuck, hang on.”

Splashing water. Stede’s heart rate picked up. What could he be wanted for? What wouldn’t he do? 

“Edward?”

“Be a mate and fetch me that brandy, would you?” 

Ah, well. “Certainly.” 

He picked out a clean glass and filled it with three fingers of the even better stuff. A plunge deserved the very best, he thought. Ed deserved the very best, even if he had been planning to kill him. But that was neither here nor there, wasn’t it? Stede’s unruly body didn’t care a whit. He took up a silver tray and set the glass upon it. It was a game, that was all. A bit of a lark. Dress up. Meaningless to care or try to show he did. 

He knocked, feeling more idiotic by the moment, but it was the proper thing to do. 

“Come,” Ed called in reply. And perhaps there was a touch of cringing resignation in his tone, too. 

“Your brandy, sir,” Stede said as he entered. He kept his eyes somewhere above Ed’s head. 

“Much obliged.” A damp hand reached out. 

Stede offered the tray and its contents. Stede looked. The water was terribly clear save for little crops of bubbles. His mouth went dry  

“Happy to help… a friend.” 

“Cheers,” Ed said. He looked more relaxed than he had in days.

Stede moved the empty tray into a more strategic position. He gave a thumbs up. He lingered.  

“You haven’t washed your hair,” he blurted.

The water rippled as Ed lifted a tan, surprisingly shapely shoulder. “Not supposed to wash curls. Damages the follicle.” 

“Ah.” Stede turned to leave. 

“You can stay, if you like.” 

“Pardon?” The ocean must have been roaring just for him. Some kind of aural trickery, because it simply wasn’t possible—

“I said you could stay.” Ed was looking at the water, at his glass. At anything other than Stede. “Stay with me. If you like.” 

Stede eyed the pitcher, untouched. “Have you ever used oil?”

Ed gave him a look, a boggled eyebrow shooting up his forehead. He put the brandy down on the ground with a clunk and stared.

“On your hair?” Stede amended quickly. He set the tray on the vanity beside the tub and began to rummage through its draws. He was rambling, and he had gone rather frantic and high pitched. “I have some. Well, it’s Macassar. It's a panacea. Of sorts. I could.”

“Comb it through—“ they both spoke at once. 

“Exactly.” Stede turned, holding the brown glass bottle triumphantly. “Might be nice?” 

“Yeah.” Ed stroked his beard. It was wet at the ends. 

Oh, how he wanted— 

“Yeah, I think it would be nice.” 

“Wonderful! Let me just.” Stede draped his dressing gown over the little metal rod bolted to the wall and set about rolling up his frilly sleeves. It wouldn’t do to get them all wet and oiled up. He nearly tripped over himself trying to move the towel and maneuver onto the stool. All while Ed watched him with hooded-eyed interest, which didn’t help. 

“Careful there,” he said, when Stede almost toppled over. His lips quirked into a rakish half-smile, and a wet hand clasped Stede’s forearm. “Wouldn’t want to be the cause of your next injury.” 

“How tremendously chivalrous.” 

“I’m a chivalrous guy.” 

“Are you?” It slipped out as he poured the oil into his hands and rubbed his palms together. 

“A regular knight in shining armor,” Ed added, apparently content to let the light barb float by. “I could be a knight.” 

Stede took a very deep breath. “Turn just a bit? Your back. Put your back toward me.” 

Ed hummed but did as he was told. Stede leaned forward. He had to be perilously close to a lot of wet skin to do this right. He had to fairly plaster himself to Ed’s back. He could feel the hot copper, and the warmth Ed’s body had taken from it. He could feel—

“I’d be a good knight,” Ed said. 

Stede plunged his slick fingers into Ed’s waiting hair. 

“I’d be—“ Words became a moan. 

“You’d be?” Stede prompted, it was barely a whisper.

He raked his fingers gently, so gently, through thick curls. Stopping to deal with snaggles when he found them. His nostrils were full of an almondine aroma, traces of lavender, and a smoky, leathery scent that must have belonged to Ed and Ed alone. He tried to concentrate on the work.

“I’d be extremely good,” Ed managed to say. Did he—did he sound affected by Stede’s touch? 

“Well, a knight must be brave. And you are very brave.” 

“Yeah.” 

A knot caught between Stede’s fingers. He tugged. Ed gasped, and one of his long legs twitched below the surface.

“And,” Stede said, still quite low, and quite close. Close enough that he could almost feel the shape of Ed’s ear below his mouth. “And you are very, very good.” 

“I’m not,” Ed muttered. “I told you I’m not.” He made to turn, but Stede tugged again, this time with purpose. He watched as Ed’s whole body twitched below the water, a wave of movement.  

“Well, I say you are. So you are.” 

“I—“

“Go on. Let’s have it.”

“I’m…good.”

“Lovely.” Stede couldn’t be sure if he meant the curls detangled beneath his hands or the man before him, or the swallowed sounds he could feel Ed making with each slippery strand he fingered. He had to go before he did something truly ruinous and frightfully new. He summoned all the false cheer he could muster. 

“I’m just about done here.” 

“Water’s getting cold,” Ed added. 

God blind him, this was a special kind of torment. 

“Make the best of what’s left of the heat, eh?” Stede stole one last stroke through silken locks and reluctantly abandoned Ed’s hair. His hands were shaking. “I’ll find us…ah, something yummy. To eat?” 

“Grand. Great.” Ed grunted, it was rather pained sounding. “Great plan. Just what I want right now. Definitely.” 

Stede squeezed Ed’s shoulder. He leaned in close again, bolder beyond any measure he’d ever held himself to, and this time he did let his mouth graze along Ed’s ear. 

“I have heard that being a knight is hungry work.”