“I saw you, on that very first day. And I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but the first thing I thought? The very first thing? I said to myself, ‘this is a man who has been so very sad, for so very long.’”
He feels, rather than sees, Ed’s wince, the slight shift of his body that Stede is all too familiar with now, the sign that they’re approaching a topic that Ed has been fleeing for a long time. They lie together in the dark, Stede curled around Ed’s body, their arms wrapped around each other, Ed’s face half buried in the hollow under Stede’s chin. Skin on skin, their chests press against one another, and bare legs tangle in the cotton sheets. Outside the wide window, the sky is cloudy, obscuring any hope of moonlight, and the waves lap gently, ocean currents guiding them like a mother’s gentle hand. Under layers of blankets, safe with each other and their crew scattered across the ship, Stede feels brave enough to broach the topic.
At last, Ed takes a breath, and replies with a forced, practiced lightness, “I dunno if I ever really thought of myself as sad or whatever. Feels like a word with too much behind it, y’know?”
Wait for him to elaborate. Give him space, time. He listens when you prattle on about the smallest, most insignificant things, so you must be present, when it is his turn. Stede nods, strokes gently through long, recently-combed hair (he’d sat Ed down between his legs, run a comb through his hair until even the finest tangles were gone, and kissed him over and over, fiercely). “Mmm?” he settles on as a response, hoping it is enough, and not too much.
Thankfully, Ed seems to take this as enough of an indicator, or invitation, to continue. “Thought I was bored, mostly. Before we hooked up—whichever definition you want to take out of that—it was all just getting a bit much, all the pirating. The monotony of it all, everything being all the same and so easy. None of it mattering, in the end. Should’ve seen Izzy’s face when I mentioned dying,” he chuckles, the laughter shaking his whole body the tiniest bit, giving Stede a sudden urge to wrap his arms tighter around them both. “Like, he couldn’t even respond. Left him sputtering in one of your hallways.”
Stede takes as long as he dares to think about how he can respond to this too-casual admittance. In the end, he settles for the same light tone, murmuring back, “love, I don’t know that I would be able to respond either. Perhaps you can’t blame it all on Izzy in this case.”
A scoff, a small shrug hindered by their close position. Stede can’t see, but it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to assume there was an eye roll in there as well.
“Oh, come on. It’s not like I want to load a bullet up into my own skull, it’s just wishful thinking. A change of pace, like your pirating.”
Biting his lip, Stede does his best to not flinch at the lack of emotion in Ed’s voice, the steadiness as he describes ending his own life. And Stede isn’t a novice when it comes to death, to looking at something that could kill you and hoping, just a little, that it would. But it is, unsurprisingly, different coming from the man you love. Still, he replies, a slight-but-audible tenseness in his voice, “a change of pace is investing in some eye-catching new colours for your wardrobe, Ed, not dying.”
The noise Ed makes in response is somewhere between a mildly disgruntled cat and a horse who hasn’t had a good meal in weeks. He seems unwilling to respond, so Stede takes it upon himself to press a little further.
“Ed, do you—“
Or at least he tries, until the words that he needs get stuck in his throat, because he’s had the thoughts, and he’s walked out of a life before, and really, isn’t it a bit hypocritical of him? To be all needle-y about this, when some days, he himself can’t even get out of bed, trusts the crew to do as they will, and prays for a stray cannonball to fly through his window, strike him dead before he can blink.
Pulling out of Stede’s embrace, Ed sits up, silver hair falling around him in waves. “Just ask. You’re going to have to, sooner or later, inquisitive little bugger that you are.” He says it fondly, like the question Stede has is something innocent about the herbs they have left for bathing, something that doesn’t have a very heavy answer hanging in the balance.
“Do you think about killing yourself?”
The question hangs like a sloppy pirate caught by English soldiers. Weighty, eye-catching, a little bit rotten after a day in the sun. Despite himself, despite knowing that he won’t be able to live with himself not having said his piece, Stede isn’t sure if he wants an answer.
“I don’t know that I think about killing myself as much as I think about dying,” Ed says carefully at last, sounding almost lost in thought. Stede doesn’t blame him. Even as the person who asked, he can’t fathom what answer he could give, would give, were their roles reversed. “It’s scenarios, mostly,” Ed continues. “Dreams, little fantasies to distract after a long, not-so-good day, that kind of shit. A right bit of fuckery to wrap it all up. Nothing I do to myself, just—a bit of an accident, as it were.”
“A bit of an accident,” Stede repeats, blindly. He isn’t panicking, of course. It would be absurd to panic, and also rather rude. This wasn’t his moment to steal, this wasn’t his story to share. (But God, the man you love is telling you to your face that he wishes for death on a not-infrequent basis, how do I do this, how do I fix this, how—)
“Yeah,” Ed says, voice hesitant for the first time.
With a rustle of blankets, Stede raises himself up, and gracelessly falls into embracing Ed tightly. He wraps his arms around him, shoves his face into the side of Ed’s neck, where his beard is softest, and doesn’t let go. There’s a moment of stiffness, something that happens often when Ed is confronted with affection without warning, but after a brief second, he hugs back just as tightly. Both of them cling on to each other, unable and unwilling to let go. Afraid, that if one of them loosens their grip, everything—them, the ship, the ocean, the world—will splinter, and crack apart.
“How do I fix this?” Stede whispers into Ed’s shoulder.
There’s a quiet sigh, tickling the little pieces of hair at his nape. “I don’t know,” Ed admits, and even though Stede has since learned that he does not have to idolize blindly, that as brilliant as he is, Ed is still human, cannot always have the answer Stede needs, the words stab, a sword thrust into the wrong side of his body.
As he’s trying not to tear up and cry all over them both, Ed draws back just a little, shifts so that he can bring his hands to Stede’s face, tilt his head to kiss him. It’s one of those long, slow kisses, not filthy and hot, but drawn out because its participants are lost in sensation, in the beautiful solidity of this moment. They kiss, and kiss (by now, plenty of practice has been had, and they know precisely the way the other likes to be kissed, to be touched), and eventually Ed pulls away, hands still cupping Stede’s face.
“I said I don’t know how to fix this, whether it’s you acting to fix me, or me trying to fix myself. And that’s true, I know fuck all about how to make any of this better. But,” he says, one of his thumbs idly tracing swirls across Stede’s cheek, “that being with you, it’s good. Not a cure-all, don’t reckon that exists, but. It’s good. We’re good.”
And Stede, overcome with affection, and love, and pure, unfiltered emotion, kisses him again, crowds Ed up against the window, one hand on Ed’s shoulder, the other splayed across his thigh. This, now, is one of those filthy kisses, sliding tongues and nips of teeth, hands wandering into all the right places as Ed groans, and Stede pushes a hand into his hair. They tease, and drag, and kiss until the need for a breath of air breaks them apart, panting lightly. In the darkness, they twine their hands together, rearranging until Ed is on his back, Stede knelt between his splayed legs, fumbling with a bottle of oil, slick fingers reaching, pressing, as Ed groans, pushes back against him, their floundering movements slowly settling into a rhythm, as Ed asks for “more, more, fucking more, damnit—“
—until Stede’s fingers slide in and out with ease, and they pull out for a final time, before they both scramble to line him up with Ed, who is impatient, almost frantic with need, and Stede carefully, slowly, guides himself in to the sound of absolutely sinful moaning and cursing.
“Fuck,” Ed says fervently as they press up close, skin-to-skin, breathing heavily.
“Fuck,” Stede agrees, thrusting cautiously and relishing the half-stifled gasp that escapes from Ed’s mouth.
They find a rhythm. They always do. Ed clutches at the sheets, curses and threatens Stede with injury—entirely unserious—if he doesn’t fuck him harder, damnit, and Stede continues at the pace he damn well pleases, taking Ed apart in the way they both secretly love the best, deep and slow so as not to hurt, but to leave something that will last for days to come, an ache that permeates, a feeling that will ground, settle, sharpen the world into a point.
As Ed’s growls become deeper, as his grip on Stede’s right hand grows tighter, as soft whines start to fall from his lips alongside the curses, Stede puts a bit more into it, drawing on every last bit of strength in his body, until Ed is practically going mad, seconds from wrapping a hand around himself and putting a stop to the tease. It is then that Stede reaches to take ahold of Ed’s cock himself, deliver the final blow and send them both off the cliff’s edge.
It’s not a quiet affair. Ed lets out a long string of swears that devolve into moans and whimpers, and Stede’s name over and over, as he comes, eyes screwed shut. Stede himself cannot hold back a cry as he finishes inside, many seconds passing before he’s able to ease out, collapse against Ed’s side in a sticky heap. They lie side by side, the blankets tossed every which way, and in their breathless haze, find each others hands in the dark, fingers hesitant then sure as they wind around each other.
“I love you,” Ed says, almost too quietly. Just as quietly, but without any hesitation, Stede replies. “I love you.”
“This doesn’t fix everything.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“You could even say it doesn’t fix anything.”
"Fuck, I still fucking love you.”
Stede turns his head, presses a kiss against Ed’s cheek. “Fucking love you too, darling.”