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the relationship counselor

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Three weeks after Blackbeard’s violent takeover of The Revenge and Stede’s triumphant (awkward, messy, work-in-progress) return to their lives, Lucius is called to the captain’s quarters. When he enters, Blackbeard is standing stiffly in the center of the room. Stede stands beside him, his hands clasped in front of him and rocking a bit on his heels.

Stede clears his throat. “Lucius, thank you for joining us,” he starts. “Can I get you anything? Tea? A bit of coffee?”

Lucius lets his gaze bounce from Blackbeard to Stede and back again. He feels distinctly on edge. Why is everyone standing around like that? Blackbeard looks like he’s about to face down a firing squad.

“I’m… good,” Lucius manages.

Stede clears his throat again. “Right then. Well. I suppose you’re wondering why we called you down here.”

“You call me down here like all the time,” Lucius reminds him.

“Yes, well,” Stede continues. “Edward has something he needs to say to you, don’t you, Ed?”

Blackbeard shifts his weight. He can’t seem to meet Lucius’s eyes, which is all right with Lucius, given that the last time they made eye contact Lucius was tossed into the sea and nearly died.

“I’m,” Blackbeard says. He lets out a breath. “I’m sorry for trying to kill you. It was misguided and, and…” Stede touches him gently on the back. On another breath, Blackbeard says, “And I was taking my emotions out on you instead of dealing with them in a healthy way. I’m sorry.”

Lucius has never been particularly good at hiding his emotions, and he’s sure – he can feel his own face muscles betraying him – that he’s grimacing quite obviously. He tries to force it into a grin.

“Oh, that?” Lucius says. He waves his free hand – the one not clinging to the journal like a lifeline – dismissively. “Oh, psh. That? I’ve almost completely forgotten about that.” He swallows.

Since Stede’s return, things have been gradually – if messily – getting back to the status quo, the way things were before the Big Breakup. There were a few days there with a lot more attempted murder, and a lot of crying that could be heard through the walls, and the 48 hours that Stede spent locked in the brig, but after those difficult growing pains, things have been almost, sort of, back on an even keel.

Lucius wasn’t aware that he was going to be part of Blackbeard’s redemption arc. He really would prefer, all things given, that he is left out of it.

“Come now,” Stede says to Lucius, “you don’t need to pretend on our account.” He leans forward. “I can’t imagine it felt very good to almost drown now, did it?”

“Not really,” Lucius admits, his eyes darting to Blackbeard.

Stede’s nose scrunches. “No, not nice at all, was it?”

“I think I felt an eel touch my foot,” Lucius says.

Stede recoils a bit. “Oh, really? Ew. Oh, I wouldn’t like that one bit.” He shakes his head. “The point is, we’re here to make amends, okay?” He looks to Blackbeard. “Okay? So, this is a place for you to share your feelings openly, Lucius.”

Lucius looks to Blackbeard again, but he’s just standing there, eyes on a point beyond Lucius’s shoulder. He’s not looking particularly murderous. Lucius still feels a bit like he’s being led into a trap, but everyone seems to clearly be waiting for him to say something. Stede begins to gesture in a go on motion at him, incessantly. So, Lucius says, addressing Blackbeard, “I suppose it… it did make it a little harder for me to feel safe around you, sir.”

The careful mask of indifference that Blackbeard’s been maintaining crumples then. His shoulders slump. He turns to Stede, looking bereft. “I told you, he hates me now! And I don’t blame him! I’ve gone and ruined everything.” He collapses back onto the sofa behind him and puts his head into his hands.

Stede shushes him and pats at him. “No, no, oh come on,” he says. “He doesn’t hate you!” He looks to Lucius. “You don’t hate him, do you, Lucius?”

“No,” Lucius says, unconvincingly. He finds his voice. “No. No, not at all.” Even despite everything, he can’t find it to be entirely a lie. Blackbeard is not even the worst boss that Lucius has ever had, even with the attempted drowning.

“See there?” Stede is saying. “He doesn’t hate you. It’s just that trust takes time to build, doesn’t it?” He sits on the sofa beside Blackbeard, his gaze down on his own boots. Quietly, he adds, “I think we all know a little something about breaking trust.”

The guilt is coming off of him in waves. It’s enough to shake Blackbeard from his own self-pity. He turns to Stede to watch him, that intense look he usually gets around Stede. Their gazes meet, hold for a tense two seconds, and break away.

Like Lucius said: messy, and still in-progress.

***

The moment with the world’s most awkward apology seems to break a dam between him and Blackbeard. The next morning, Lucius is called to the captain’s quarters again.

The rooms are still sparse – much less cluttered than they were before – but in the last week the shelves have slowly been gaining a few more knickknacks. Memorabilia from the ship they pillaged a few days ago, books purchased from a few of the towns they’ve stopped in. Still, the rooms are nowhere near their former glory.

Blackbeard is alone in the sitting room when Lucius arrives; Lucius knows that Stede is busy with something up on deck.

Blackbeard doesn’t bother with a greeting. Instead, he says, “I need your help in penning a letter.”

It’s a step up from throwing him overboard, so Lucius takes a seat delicately on the opposite side of the sofa from Blackbeard.

He opens to a blank page of his journal and readies his pen. “Okay,” he says.

Blackbeard leans against the back of the sofa, his head tipped back. Three of the fingers of one hand press delicately against his brow.

“Take this down,” he says unnecessarily; Lucius knows how to do his job. “Dear Stede,” he begins, and Lucius thinks oh good lord.

Blackbeard raises his hand enough to unveil his eyes and peer at Lucius. “Is that a good opening? Is it too informal?”

Ah, good. As if taking down Blackbeard’s brokenhearted musings weren’t enough, now he’s making Lucius an active member of it.

“You know the captain well enough to be informal, I think,” Lucius says.

“Well, yeah, sure, but. He’s a gentleman, isn’t he? He must be accustomed to a certain type of letter, a certain style. I’ve never written letters to a gentleman before. Well, unless you count warnings written in blood on the sides of ships. Do you count those?”

Lucius tries desperately not to picture it. “Yes, sure, those count,” he says, his voice only cracking a little. Blackbeard sighs, despondent. Lucius adds, “Just… be yourself, sir. That’s all he expects.”

Blackbeard sighs again, but after a moment he continues. “Dear Stede. I know that I’m not the easiest man to get along with, but you’ve been patient with me while I figure things out. Thank you.”

He stops. Lucius taps his pen on the paper and waits, but Blackbeard says nothing more.

“How was that?” Blackbeard asks.

“Um,” Lucius says. He reads over the brief – very brief – message. “Succinct?” he offers.

“Too short?”

“No,” Lucius says quickly. “No, it’s fine. Not all letters need to be long.” Lucius is starting to wonder if they getting-back-together stage will somehow be worse than the breakup phase.

Blackbeard groans. “It’s too short, isn’t it? Fuck.” He slumps down even further into the sofa. It pushes his chin into his chest.

Lucius says, “Oh, it’s not that bad. Maybe if you tell me what you’re trying to say, I could help you… fluff it up a bit.”

That seems to perk Blackbeard up. He sits up properly. “That’s just it, I’m not sure what I want to say. I thought it might just sort of… come out of me if I wrote it down.” He turns his whole body toward Lucius, leaning his shoulder against the back of the sofa. “If I tell you something, can you promise not to tell anyone?”

Lucius blinks. He immediately pictures himself telling Pete. After that, he immediately pictures himself nearly drowning over the side of the boat.

He swallows and nods.

Blackbeard says, “Stede and I had… a moment. When the British had us.”

“Okay?” Lucius prompts.

Blackbeard’s hands cut through the air frenetically. “A moment! All right? That’s all you need to know.”

Lucius pauses, his brain turning the idea over. So… they fucked? They haven’t been fucking this whole time? Or maybe they did a sort of… under-the-table, sinful sort of marriage ceremony. Lucius would be disappointed if that was the case; he wanted to be in the wedding party.

“Okay,” Lucius repeats.

“So we had a moment, and then he left, and now he’s back, and I don’t know how to get back to that moment. I don’t know how I can…” He trails off, at a loss.

“Trust him again?” Lucius tries.

Blackbeard shakes his head. “Protect myself,” he says quietly.

Oh. Lucius remembers the days in the pillow fort. The lyrics, the songs. The metaphorical cutting out of his own heart. The way he started brightening up again when Stede came back. The time he said that he didn’t feel fear.

“I don’t think you do protect yourself,” Lucius says. “I think that’s the thing about… liking someone. I think it goes hand-in-hand with the risk.”

Blackbeard hangs his head.

Lucius waits. Then, he waits some more. He taps his pen against the paper. “Do you want me to come back tomorrow?” he asks.

“I think that would be best,” Blackbeard says.

***

He’s sketching by lamplight in the back of the ship that evening when Jim finds him. Jim leans against the ship’s rail, a slender figure giving off all of the vibes of not caring. Lucius is suspicious.

“What’re you drawing?” Jim asks.

“What do you need?” Lucius asks in response. He doesn’t say it unkindly, and Jim has always responded well to bluntness.

They push off of the railing and sit on the barrel next to the one that Lucius is perched on. “Okay,” they say. “I…” They huff, frustrated. “Let’s say I have this friend, right?”

Potential gossip? Lucius sets down his sketchbook. “Uh huh?”

“Let’s say this friend has another friend,” Jim continues. “And then that friend and the other friend start hypothetically fucking.”

“Wait,” Lucius says, “how many friends are there? Is this a threesome situation?”

“No,” Jim snaps. “It’s two people, okay? Two friends.”

“Two friends who are fucking.”

“Yes! Okay?”

Lucius holds up a hand in surrender. “Okay! So what’s the problem?”

Jim huffs. “So how do you…” They grunt, annoyed. “How do you know…” The lamplight is low, and Lucius can’t really make out their expression, but the tenseness in their shoulders and jaw are evident enough. They finally manage, “What’s the difference between friends who are fucking and people who are, you know, committed?”

“Oh Christ,” Lucius says. “Why do people keep coming to me with their relationship problems?”

“Who else is talking to you about relationship problems?” they ask quickly. Undoubtedly worried that the other friend in this equation has been gabbing.

But Lucius rolls his eyes. “Who do you think?”

“Oh. Well, that one makes sense, doesn’t it?” Jim says. “’Cause you’re… you know. And they’re… you know. They trust you to know your stuff.”

“Because I like men? So now I need to guide everyone who likes men through their relationships?”

“Yes,” Jim says. “You’re the local expert.” They hop off the barrel. “If you didn’t want to help me, you could have just said so.”

Lucius grabs their arm. “Hang on, hang on, I didn’t say I didn’t want to help! I’m here to offer my expertise.” When Jim is resettled on the barrel, Lucius says, “As far as I see it, it’s just a name, isn’t it? You and Olu are the ones who get to decide when to use it.”

Jim looks away, toward the dark horizon. “I’ve never,” they say, “been in a relationship before.”

Yeah, Lucius thinks, but wisely does not say, that tracks.

“I don’t know how all this stuff works,” Jim adds.

“No one does,” Lucius says. “We’re all just making it up as we go, right? Look, you and Olu like each other. Things are going good. If putting a name to it makes you uncomfortable, then don’t.”

Jim looks at him. “You can do that?”

Lucius shrugs. “We’re pirates, it’s not like we usually play by the rules. This is just another rule we can ignore if we want to.”

“Huh,” they say. “That actually does make me feel better.”

“Well,” Lucius says, sharing a smile with them, “I have it on good authority that I’m the local expert.”

***

Early the next morning, Stede calls him down, ostensibly to help him dress for the day. They’re set to go to shore in a place called The White Cove, where they’ll be doing some basic maintenance, some restocking, and apparently will be looking for a place called a “flea market” in which “people sell all sorts of things, including some rare antiques,” as Stede informs him in an uninterrupted ramble while pulling clothes from his wardrobe.

“It’s my first outing since returning as The Gentleman Pirate,” Stede continues, pulling out and immediately rejecting a navy blue waistcoat, “so I need to make a good impression. I need it to be- to be perfect. And I’ve been thinking, you know, that maybe it’s time for a bit of a style change, don’t you think? Now that I’m back. It’s a new me. I’m a new me, Lucius, and I need my outfit to reflect that. Are you even listening?”

Lucius looks up from where he had been picking at the dirt under his nails. “Huh?”

Stede sighs. He flops onto the sofa beside Lucius, looking despondent. “I faked my own death, you know. It was very symbolic. Well, and literal. It was both literal and symbolic. I want to leave the old me behind and become a newer, better version of me.”

Lucius isn’t sure what this has to do with his wardrobe. “Are you sad that most of your clothes got thrown in the ocean?” he tries.

“What?” Stede asks. “No! Well, yes. But no, I suppose that could also be a part of the symbolic death of my old self. Even if I lost my good nightgown. And dressing gown. And slippers. But no, those belonged to the old Stede, and I’m the new Stede now. And this Stede doesn’t make the mistakes that the old Stede does.”

“Oh,” Lucius says. “Okay?”

“No more hurting the people I care about, all right? That’s in the past. I’m making amends. I’m moving forward. That’s the new Stede’s deal.”

“Sounds great, boss,” Lucius says, still wondering why he’s here.

Stede sighs, a deep and prolonged thing. It sinks him deeper into the sofa’s cushion. “The thing is, I seem to hurt people just by existing, don’t I? I mean, the old Stede did. I did sort of make things right with Mary and the kids, and that was a step in the right direction, but… Well, I just seem at a bit of a loss on how to make things right with… everyone else.”

“With Blackbeard, you mean,” Lucius says.

Stede’s head wobbles – a reluctant agreement.

Lucius lets out a breath. Jim’s voice echoes in his head, The local expert. “I think he’s just afraid of getting hurt again,” Lucius says.

Stede looks down at his socked feet. “I don’t blame him.” He scratches at his eyebrow. “Somehow I need to convince him that I won’t abandon him again, that I don’t ever want to hurt him again. But I don’t know how.” He tips his head toward Lucius. “I am… open to suggestions?”

Lucius blinks. “Well, I, ahm. My first – friend – Cedric. He tried to win me back by playing a lute outside of my window. He sang a terrible song, too.”

“Oh? And that worked?”

“I got back together with him for two weeks, so… kind of?”

Stede leans back again. “Hm. I’ve never been much of a musician, I’m afraid. I’ve always been more of a writer, really. A storyteller.” He sits up, ramrod straight, with a gasp. “Of course, that’s it!”

Lucius watches as Stede stands up and begins pacing. “Are we still going to The White Cove, or..?”

Stede snaps his fingers at him. “Get your journal! Hurry up, man! We have some writing to do!”

Lucius sighs and stands.

***

It takes almost a full week before Stede declares the production of The Kraken and the Portent of Misfortune to be worthy enough for its debut. It’s a bit of a strange debut, given that the only member of the audience is Blackbeard. The crew have been under strict orders to keep Blackbeard ignorant of the play’s plot, and he sits on the sole chair in the center of the deck. Everyone else on the crew is either cast or stage crew. Even Izzy, looking grumpy under his caked-on stage makeup, has shown up on time.

Stede stands at center stage. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “tonight we will regale you with a tale of loss and redemption. A tale of a good man who thought himself a monster, and a bad man who thought himself a gentleman. We present to you: The Kraken and the Portent of Misfortune!”

Jim and Buttons pull the ropes to open the curtains (which were painstakingly sewed by the crew) as Frenchie starts up a tune from the edge of the stage. And so the show begins, played out beautifully by some above-par acting by the members of the crew. The play starts with a scene of Blackbeard and his father and a Kraken, made real with some clever puppetry from the stage crew. But through Stede’s writing, the viewer isn’t sure if the Kraken is real or is somehow a creation of the child Blackbeard.

The play moves on to show Stede’s failure as a parent and husband; the writing is a bit heavy-handed, and Lucius has a hard time believing that Stede was that bad with his family, but it’s effective enough. It shows how lost he was, how unhappy he was, and when he and Blackbeard (played flawlessly by Oluwande) meet, how things seem to make sense to him for the first time. Under Stede’s writing, it's almost justified that he would abandon the crew to return to his family, that he would try to fix the mistakes of his past and run from the murders he’s caused. But the narrative paints him as a villain regardless – he made the choice to leave. He is the Portent of Misfortune.

The show ends on Stede’s monologue about his desire to be a better person in the future, his desire to leave the Portent of Misfortune behind. As the curtain closes, Lucius doesn’t bother to fight off his own tears, even though they make his stage makeup run. The entire crew comes out to join hands and take a bow just as Stede has taught them. But Blackbeard isn’t clapping. He’s sitting in his seat watching them.

Lucius shares a look with Pete, who looks just as worried and baffled by this reaction as the rest of them. They share a shrug.

Blackbeard stands. Since beginning their play, the sun has started to set, and he’s backlit by the red sun. It makes his expression hard to read. He approaches Stede, who is standing in the center of the line of crewmembers.

“Did you not like it?” Stede asks nervously. “I’d understand if you didn’t, we flubbed a few of the lines in Act 2 if I’m being honest, and Roach missed his cue in Act 3 for the curtain, but if there was an issue with the writing, it was all my fault, I’m the one who wrote it, well, with a bit of input from Lucius, but you can’t blame him for any mistakes in the script-“

Blackbeard, now in range of Stede, takes his wrist in his hand and pulls. He turns and drags Stede behind him, toward the lower decks. They disappear down the stairs, still without a word from Blackbeard.

“Huh,” Frenchie says. “I’d say that went well.”

***

Lucius is summoned – again – to the captain’s quarters the morning after their show. He still has a bit of the stage makeup near his ears and he’s still kind of tipsy from the afterparty, but he makes it down with his journal in hand. He finds Blackbeard smoking and laying on the sofa and Stede rearranging the paltry knickknacks on a nearby shelf.

Stede claps his hands together when he sees Lucius. “Ah, there he is! There’s the man of the hour!” He approaches Lucius and pokes him a few times in the abdomen playfully. It’s weird.

“Wow, okay,” Lucius says, “are we poking each other now? Fantastic.”

Stede laughs. “You’re a funny guy! Look, I wanted to thank you for all your work on the play. All that transcribing and editing? Incredible! Isn’t he incredible, Ed?”

“Love him,” Blackbeard says.

“Just… doing my job,” Lucius says, feeling his cheeks heat up under the praise.

“Oh, don’t put yourself down like that!” Stede says. “You helped to make the play a reality! To thank you, I wanted to give you this.” He grabs a feather pen from his desk and holds it out. “I didn’t have time to wrap it, I’m afraid, but it’s my best quill! I want you to have it.”

It doesn’t seem particularly different from Lucius’s current quill, and Lucius can only assume that Stede’s real best quill was thrown overboard with everything else weeks ago, but he appreciates the sentiment. Plus, he’s not the type to ruin an obvious post-coital high. He takes the quill.

“Thanks, Captain,” he says. “It was a really good play.”

“It was the best play I’ve ever seen,” Blackbeard says, with absolute sincerity.

“Aw, come on,” Stede says, and now it’s his turn to flush. “It was nothing.”

Lucius says, “I’d say it was more than that, given the outcome.” He winks, and Stede’s flush darkens further. But he’s happy, and he smiles at Lucius through the blush, looking a bit triumphant.

Stede turns to look at Blackbeard, who looks at him with a soft smirk that’s evident on his now beardless face, and Lucius can feel the heat in the room click up by a few degrees.

“I’ll just go,” he waves the new quill, “test this out, shall I?”

“Huh?” Stede says, looking back at him. “Oh, well, I was going to have you transcribe the morning’s journal entry-“

“Later,” Blackbeard says. To Lucius, he says, “Come back later.”

Lucius nods. “All right, then.”

***

Back up on the deck, he doesn’t get far before he is stopped again.

“Lucius, can I talk to you?” Buttons asks.

“Sure,” Lucius says, admirably hiding his lack of confidence in his answer. He hasn’t spent much one-on-one time with Buttons, and he’s been keen to keep it that way. Not that Buttons is a bad guy, but it just seems better overall to not be alone with him too much.

“Well,” Buttons says, “I’ve heard about how you’ve been helping the captains and Oluwande and Jim and all them with their relationships troubles and what have you-“

Lucius holds up a hand to stop him. “How the hell did you hear about this?”

“The ship tells me,” Buttons says, as if it’s obvious. “Anyway, seeing as how you helped all them folks, I was wondering if you could help me.”

“Oh my god,” Lucius says. “I’m afraid to ask this, but which relationship are we talking about here, mate? Please just… please just tell me it’s a human.”

“A human? God, no.”

Lucius flinches. What will it be? The moon? The sea? The Revenge’s carved figurehead?

“It’s Olivia,” Buttons says. “Things just ain’t been the same between us since Karl died-“

Lucius turns on his heel and quickly walks away, Buttons’ voice echoing behind him. There are limits - even for the local expert - and Lucius has just found them.