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guardians of a rare thing

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1.

In all honesty, Stede’s not entirely sure how Ed’s going to react to this one.

It’s been a couple of months, now, since they reunited and began co-captaining together once again. Recovering Lucius and the rest of the crew from their various wash-ups meant Stede was plenty pissed himself by the time he returned to the Revenge. With that, the two of them had reunited with fierce words and heated, vicious emotions and a ferocity that made it seem as though they might never salvage even a fragment, a thread of what they had before.

Stede swears, he’s never been closer to losing his marbles. And he’s been fairly close quite a few times. Ed, though—

There’s something about Ed that really pushes his buttons, sometimes. He thinks it might be because of how much he loves him. It’s— stupid, maybe, but— he cares so much about him that his emotions are exploding, and so are Ed’s, and he thinks it might be for the same reason. They just— They can’t always handle the intensity of how much they feel for one another.

Once they were able to work through it, though, and express to each other, yes, I love you, yes, I want you, yes, you’re it for me, you’re the only one, this is the end of it for me, yes, yes, yes, everything started falling back into place.

Even more— it seems like things are better than they were before. They’ve had such a wild blowout that the worst has basically already happened. Stede left; Ed had a meltdown and nearly murdered some important people; the both of them tried to destroy each other and screamed themselves hoarse and nearly lose everything.

When you’ve done that and still managed to fight through the other side to end up together, everything else seems like fucking— peas in comparison.

Which is how Stede’s ended up crocheting an entire blanket for Ed before he actually has the thought, Is Ed even going to want this?

He stares down at the quilt in his lap. It had taken quite a bit of time to make it— Ed’s not a small man, and Stede wanted to make him something he could wrap himself up in, if he wanted. Not only that, but he’d just had to use whatever bits of wools and yarns and strings and silks and cottons and just— anything he came across in their travels, so the visuals of the blanket leave quite a bit to be desired, if you ask Stede, but—

But.

He wants Ed to be warm, and he wants to give him a gift, and he wants to— to make him happy, and comfortable, and safe. Ed has spent so much of his time uncomfortable and afraid and unloved. If Stede can do anything, he wants to change that.

The door to the captains’ quarters pushes in, and Stede hurriedly shoves the blanket under the other covers.

In theory, a captains’ quarters is meant to be a captain’s quarters, for just one single captain, but. There are no single captains aboard the Revenge, so, they share. They share a room, a bed, a— a life.

Stede smiles to himself.

“It’s colder than Hell out there,” Ed tells him, shoving the door shut so it latches without letting any more freezing air in.

“Isn’t Hell meant to be warm?” Stede asks him. He shifts the covers over the blanket to better disguise the misshapen lump of it. “That’s what I’ve heard, anyway.”

“Well, clearly you’ve never been,” Ed replies. He shakes a bit of frost from his hair, dislodging it in tiny crystals.

“And you have?” Stede asks. “I feel like that might’ve come up before.”

“Ah, see,” Ed says, drawing closer to Stede, shedding equipment and weapons and boots and clothes with every step. “I’ve not been to Hell, but I’ve been close to it. And, I’ve already been to Heaven, so I know what the opposite of it would be, thanks very much.”

He strips off the last of his clothes as he says it, hopping out of his tight pants and tossing them aside in a heap of leather. With that, he falls backwards into bed beside Stede, letting himself flop onto his back. With his head tipped up towards him, chin tilted, he grins.

Stede leans over him, threads his fingers through his hair to cradle his head before he kisses him softly.

“And when did you go there?” Stede asks him.

Ed grins. “I’m there now,” he replies, and draws him in for another kiss, longer this time, slower.

Stede can’t help smiling into it, too, pushing in closer. He drags his hand down, lets his fingertips dig into the thick hair of his new beard, already so well grown-in, continues on to his shoulder, tugs Ed a little bit closer in to him.

When they separate again, Stede can’t help chasing the taste of him, his tongue swiping across his lower lip. He lifts his head, and Ed, still smiling up at him, says, “And it is very warm, so. Hell’s gotta be much colder, right?” Contemplative, he adds, “If I like it warm so much, heat wouldn’t be much of a punishment.”

Stede feels impossibly warm, too. He hides his joy in Ed’s throat, burying into him. When Ed has to shift to accommodate the new position, he rolls back onto the shape of the blanket beneath the covers.

He shifts again, wriggling a bit, then frowns. When he sits up, already reaching backwards, he asks, “What the hell did you leave in bed this time?”

“Oh, no, that’s not— That’s nothing, I wouldn’t—” Stede’s hurriedly trying to stop him, but— there’s really no getting out of it, now. Ed was going to find it eventually; there’s only so many places he ever could’ve hidden this thing on the ship, unless he just gave up and threw it overboard. Enough has been lost from the Revenge into the sea by this point, though.

Ed tugs the blanket loose from its hiding place, holding it up in the flickering light inside their cabin. He examines it with a confused furrow to his brow, a slight twist to his mouth. Bewildered, Stede thinks. He doesn’t know how to make sense of it.

“You hid a blanket?” Ed eventually asks, holding it up. “It’s very nice, did you not want to share?”

Stede can feel his face warming a bit. He’s sure he’s got a flush on his cheeks, but he knows he has to make himself answer anyway. He’s a— goddamn pirate captain, he can tell his— whatever Ed is to him— that he made him a silly blanket.

Unless Ed thinks this is something a woman would do, or that it’s absurd, or that he doesn’t feel for Stede what he used to, or—

“Hello?” Ed asks him. He holds up the blanket, asks, “You’re hiding this why?”

“I made it for you,” Stede tells him in a rush. Ed’s confusion deepens, his attention returning back down to the blanket. “I’m sorry, I know it looks like— Ah, well, it’s something of a mess, I didn’t get to use the same fibers all the way through, you know, but— Anytime I could get my hands on anything, I tried. And I thought you might enjoy this, that you— You might like it to keep you warm.” Stede pauses, then adds, “When I can’t. Because I am more than happy to keep you warm, if you ask.” He hesitates again, studying Ed’s expression. He continues, “I’m sorry, I’m a bit— I am a bit nervous about it, so if you coul—”

“You,” Ed starts to interrupt him, then stops, clearing his throat. His voice is almost— gritting, cracking in the middle. When he starts again, he’s stronger, but still— shaky. “You made me this? I mean— You made this? For me?”

Stede’s not entirely sure what he means by that, but he has that little bubbling sensation he always gets when Ed is making him happy. It’s this simmering, glowing joy that always rises inside him, like it’s going to blow him up. He’s already smiling.

“I did,” Stede says. Ed sits up properly beside him, and Stede nudges his shoulder, jostles him a bit. “I thought you could use something a little bit soft. Besides me, you know.”

He’s expecting Ed to tease him in response, but instead, he doesn’t speak. He just keeps staring down at the blanket, clutched between his fingers. One of his thumbs keeps stroking over the blanket, over a patch of pink and white wool; his eyes stay fixed on it.

After a moment, Stede stops waiting for a verbal response and instead pulls his legs up into the bed with them, tucking himself into Ed’s side. He rearranges them, pushing Ed back again, laying them down with the blanket tugged up over him. Ed falls right into him, lets himself get moved around, the two of them shuffling into place until they’re tangled up in each other, wound up, inextricable.

Stede catches Ed’s hand in his and kisses his palm before he guides Ed’s head to rest on his chest. He wants to speak more— There are a lot of things he wants to say, actually, starting with, Do you like it? and including, Do you believe that I still love you?, Do you believe I’m not going anywhere?, and Can you ever trust me again?, but he keeps them all inside. There’s going to be plenty of time to ask about that later.

Besides, he reasons with himself— how can Ed know whether or not he likes the blanket until he’s used it properly?

Rather than vocalize any of the nonsense rushing through his mind, Stede lets himself lean into the warm, silent comfort of their bed, and Ed, and the blanket Ed is tugging closer around himself, wrapping them both tightly in until they can’t get out of it, tucked in around their bodies to pin them together in the quilt’s confines.

“I love you,” is all Stede says instead. Ed smiles; Stede can feel it pressed to the soft curve of his cheek, the run of his jaw.

“Thank you,” Ed mumbles in response. He winds into him, reaches up to thread his hands through Stede’s hair and displace it. Hanging on, he murmurs, “I love you,” in response, buried in Stede.

That, he thinks, is answer enough, and he kisses the top of his head again before tightening his grip on him and letting him relax in the safe warmth of the blanket he’s made, just as messy and comfortable as the rest of their relationship.


2.

Stede’s not entirely sure where Ed is, which— That’s not such an easy feat, on a ship. There’s only so many places one can hide.

He searches as many of Ed’s usual favorite spots as he can before he starts just hunting anywhere and everywhere. Nobody’s seen him for about an hour, apparently, and that makes Stede just the tiniest bit nervous. Not that Ed can’t be alone, but— He just likes to know he’s okay. And when he’s not sure, he’s a little anxious until he’s certain again. It’s just that— Well, you know. He loves him, is all.

It turns out, though, that Ed is hiding. Stede finally uncovers him in one of the mostly-empty storerooms, armed with nothing but what is apparently a single reflective hand-glass and a comb. A single candle rests at his feet while he sits on an empty barrel.

For a moment, Ed doesn’t even notice him. It’s not until Stede softly closes the door behind himself with a gentle brush of sound that Ed stiffens, back going straight, shoulders squaring.

When he shifts, he catches Stede’s eye, then says, “What?” in such a surprised voice that Stede can’t help furrowing his brow in confusion himself.

“What do you mean, what?” Stede asks him. “You’re the one sitting in the dark like a loony holding a comb like it’s a knife. What’re you doing?”

Ed frowns, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he casts them down. After a defeated moment, he sighs, knuckles whitening— and then he throws the comb into the corner of the room with a sharp snap, letting it slam into the wall. It looks, for a furious moment, like he’s about to do the same with the looking glass, before Stede rushes forward and catches his wrist.

“What’s going on here?” Stede asks, completely baffled. “Are you alright?”

“I’ve just— I’ve gone and fucked it all up, b— It doesn’t matter,” Ed insists, then twists away, leaving Stede holding the handle of the mirror rather than his wrist.

Stede stands over him for a moment, perplexed. It takes him a couple of beats to actually process what’s going on here, and then an additional few to put it all together.

When he does process it, though, he reaches down and gently strokes the back of Ed’s head, over his coarse hair. Ed yanks his head away, but Stede follows, not letting him escape. This time, when he makes contact, Ed doesn’t move; he lets Stede drag his fingers through his hair, pushing down to his scalp.

His hair is knotted in more than a few places, and not very clean, right now. Stede runs his thumb over one strand, considering it.

“We’ve nearly made port,” Stede informs him. “I’m going to get us a room for the night, and you’ll have a bath.”

“What?” Ed asks, whirling around to look up at him, all wide eyes and confusion and misplaced frustration. “Why’re— We haven’t got— We can’t get a room.”

“Maybe you can’t,” Stede says, “but if I cover your face nicely and disguise my own a bit, then, well, I don’t see why we can’t get ourselves a room. We’ve more than got the coin for it right now, actually, so that’s not the problem.”

“B— We can’t,” Ed repeats. It doesn’t really mean anything, nor is it said with fervor.

Stede takes it for what it is, leaning in to press a kiss to Ed’s hairline. He gets a mouthful of hair before he gets to warm skin, but he smiles there, and he can feel Ed tilting up into him, drawing closer to him and further out of himself.

“We can,” Stede tells him. “And we will. I think we are both overdue for a bath,” and he reaches to cup Ed’s cheek in his hand, guiding him to look up at him. “I’d like to get your clothes off, if you don’t mind. You look like you need a bit of looking after.”

Ed looks like he’s going to protest for a moment before he stops himself. Then, he just— doesn’t. He doesn’t protest; he doesn’t argue.

Instead, he leans a little bit further into Stede’s hold. Stede can’t help leaning down to wrap further around him, burying his face in his hair. He tells him, “I’ll help you. Don’t worry,” and Ed sighs, a rattling sort of sound.

Stede does exactly as promised. They were already heading for port; the moment they’ve paid to dock, he’s disembarking, allowing Ed to leave Izzy in charge just for the sake of time, so they can go. He hasn’t been to Port Vora before, but he’s sure he can find suitable lodgings for the both of them, and he’s correct. It doesn’t even take much to convince the man in the tavern to give them a room. When he digs a few more coins up, he’s even able to procure them a bathtub and water. It’s not hot, but he can warm it himself by the fire, he’s sure.

It takes an inordinate amount of effort, to get Ed into a comfortable, enclosed room with a bath filled with steaming water in it. There’s something in the back of Stede’s chest that wants their lives to be easier, that wants Ed’s life to be easier; he wants to be able to find him and bring him right into a bath, to take care of him as promptly as possible, to build a home with him that he can live comfortably in.

For them, alas— This will probably never happen. He’s not even sure he wants it, wants it. He just knows he wants Ed to be happy.

“Here we are,” Stede says, dumping into the tub the last of the water he’s heated to steaming in the fire. The warmth in the room is making his hair curl, he can feel it. Holding out a hand to Ed, setting his bucket aside, he says, “Come here now, don’t be shy.”

Ed hesitates for only a brief moment before he comes to Stede’s side. He’s still dressed, wrapped and clasped into all manner of equipment and uncomfortable apparatuses. For Stede, who has spent more than his fair share of time learning how to undress Ed as quickly as possible, this is no difficulty at all. He makes quick work of latches and buckles and straps, sending everything falling to the floor around Ed’s ankles.

It’s only when he’s bare, standing there with his shoulders huddled in slightly, that Stede guides him towards the bath. He’s got a layer of grime on his skin— the both of them do— and there’s goosebumps raised all along his arms, down his thighs.

“There we are,” Stede murmurs, helping Ed to sit, though he doesn’t need the assistance in the least. “How’s that?”

“Hot,” Ed informs him. He finally seats himself, then sinks lower, letting his shoulders slip below the surface. After a beat, he goes further, submerging himself until his nose and eyes remain above the water, and little else. Looking up at Stede, he speaks, but the words are lost into the water, nothing but noises and bubbles.

Stede sits on the edge of the bath, reaching down to let his hand break the surface of the water, reaching through Ed’s wet beard to take his chin in his hand. Tilting it upwards, until his mouth is in the air again, Stede tells him, “I can’t hear a thing when you talk like that, darling, speak up.”

“It’s hot,” Ed repeats himself— then, hurried, as if Stede might inexplicably take it away otherwise, “but I like it, though.”

“Excellent,” Stede says, then stands.

Ed makes a soft noise, nearly a whine, shifting to sit up in the bath. The water sloshes slightly around him, waving in motion with him.

“I’m only going here,” Stede says, and kneels to the single case he’d brought with him. Snapping it open reveals absolutely everything he’s brought along on the sea for bathing rituals. Oils and emollients and perfumes and soaps and combs and petals and creams and powders and— just— absolutely all of it.

Ed leans over the edge of the bath and whistles, one long, wet arm trailing down to the floor, tattoos glistening slick like the underwater creatures on his skin are coming to life. The bright light in the fireplace is flickering so handsomely across his face as he asks, “What’re you going to do with all that? Prepare me for dinner?”

Stede laughs. “I suppose, in a way.”

He motions to the water.

“Dunk your head,” he tells him. “Get your hair wet. I’ll be right there.”

Ed evaluates him for a playfully suspicious moment before allowing, “Alright,” and doing as told.

Stede knows what he’s doing. He carefully selects from his case before returning to Ed with his arms full, guiding him to lean back against the curve of the tub. For his part, Stede drags up the room’s only stool and sits himself behind him, his bottles and jars set on the ground around him.

“Now,” Stede murmurs, pulling Ed’s wet hair between his hands. “Let me take care of you. Alright?”

There’s a beat before Ed agrees, “Alright.”

Smiling to himself, Stede reaches for one of his powdered soaps and brings it to Ed’s wet hair. The fragrant dust makes Ed tilt his head back a bit, seeking it out, curious. Stede only guides him back forward, though, brings him down again. He works the soap through every inch of his hair, starting from the bottoms-up. Every snaking tendrils is slowly worked loose between his fingertips.

The product of too much salt and sand and wind is more than a few mats and knots in his hair, but Stede takes his time with them. Comb in hand, he untangles each knot he finds while cleaning. They’re worked apart with ease beneath his fingers, falling to clean, separate strands with his work.

Ed relaxes more and more with each moment, slumping down into the warm water, kept so hot by its proximity to the fire. His muscles all seem to melt apart as Stede works water and soap and cream down to his scalp. He scrapes along with his nails, works up every grain of dirt he can find. He makes certain that the white of his hair— and the black truly is mostly gone now— becomes truly white, cleaned beyond what even the finest dressers in London would be capable of doing.

“You don’t have to,” Ed says, once. Stede only hums to him.

“I want to,” he replies, and doesn’t stop.

They talk, on and off— the odd discussion point or comment to each other. Mostly, they enjoy each other’s company, as Stede uses his plethora of products to clean Ed’s hair, and then his beard, one lock at a time.

He takes care with his body, too. He washes each of his limbs, he scrubs him down, he kisses the center of his palm and rinses him clean and makes sure he’s warm and wet and soft all the way through, all over. Ed becomes a melt in the water, barely awake, watching Stede move around him with half-lidded eyes. His fingertips occasionally reach up to trail along his cheek, or his wrist, leaving a thin wet stream, every time.

The water is still warm when Stede guides Ed out of it, taking his hand to help keep him from slipping. Steam sizzles up off of his body into the air around him; Stede guides him into a blanket warmed by the fire. He pats him dry with it before swapping for another blanket.

“C’mon,” Stede tells him, keeping his voice appropriately low. Ed is pliant, now, the tension gone; he lets Stede herd him into the bed, barely sitting up when Stede pulls him between his legs. “There we are. Just try to keep upright, darling, and I’ll be quick.”

Ed makes a soft noise, almost an agreement. Stede takes it as compliance enough.

Comb in hand, he starts working his way once more through each strand of Ed’s hair. He’s careful not to pull, drawing carefully until he’s worked out every last snarl, leaving his hair clean and drying and bright.

“Isn’t that nice?” Stede asks him.

Ed hums. “Feels good,” he agrees.

Stede kisses his forehead, same as he did before Ed was clean. He’s kissed him in worse circumstances, though he’s not sure how he could kiss him in better. This seems pretty much perfect, to him.

“Here,” Stede says, and separates them briefly so he can reach to the crown of Ed’s head. He gathers hair in three small strands, then considers him for a beat.

It’s then that he starts working, starts weaving Ed’s hair into a neat plait for him. He takes his time, lets his fingertips stroke through his hair, along his scalp, pulling every strand in effortlessly. Ed’s eyes drift shut, and he stays that way until Stede finishes the braid, tying it at the end with a leather band. He turns Ed to do the same with his beard, to work the water out and to comb the snarls free and to braid it cleanly, loosely, every strand in its place.

Ed’s eyes drift open, when Stede’s nearly finished, and slide up to watch his face. His attention remains there lazily, a sleepy, burning heat that keeps slipping all over. Stede knows his own face must be burning in response, but he doesn’t mind all too much. Ed usually makes him feel that way; it’s no secret, now.

“There we are,” Stede says again as he finishes his work, drawing his hand down Ed’s chest, reaching to take his hip. He kisses between his eyes, tells him, “All done. You can sleep now.”

“What about you?” Ed asks blearily. There’s no way he’ll be awake another five minutes, let alone enough time for another bath.

That doesn’t matter, though. That’s not what this was about. It was about Ed, and his comfort, and his warmth, and Stede thinks he’s maybe given him that, at the very least.

He falls back into their rented bed, says, “I think I’m all set for now,” and pulls Ed to rest against him, guiding him into sleep.


3.

When Stede wakes up in the middle of the night and Ed isn’t there, his first guess finds him.

“Hi,” Stede says. Ed doesn’t move from where he’s leaning over the rail at the edge of the ship. The Revenge cuts through choppy waters; Jim is at the helm, guiding her so effortlessly they make it seem easy. They don’t look back at Ed and Stede, though, eyes fixed on the water ahead.

Stede keeps his focus on Ed accordingly. His knuckles are white on the rail, as bright in the moonlight as the mellowing white of his hair. It’s like he glows, here, though his eyes are cast downward, fixed unshakably on something Stede’s not sure he can see.

When Ed doesn’t respond, Stede comes to stand beside him. He mimics his posture— sets his hands on the rail, leans forward to look into the water. It seems maddening, to him. Terrifying and vast and exciting and deep and cold and familiar and close and strange and so, so far. He wonders what Ed sees when he looks down.

After a beat, he chooses to ask him. “What’re you looking at, then?”

Ed still doesn’t answer. His brow does furrow a bit, though, pulling together just as a slight frown touches the corners of his mouth. All his edges turn down, frustrated into a mute silence.

Stede knows these moments. He nods once, says, “Alright,” and then reaches to put his hand over Ed’s on the rail.

He’s not always sure where Ed goes, in these moments. It could be any number of places, revisiting any number of events, recalling any number of terrible, horrible things that he’s experienced. All he does know is that it’s his self-appointed responsibility to bring Ed back from those places he goes in these shattered, lonely moments.

When he’s not talking, Stede doesn’t try to make him speak. Instead, he talks for him, says, “Why don’t I just— There we are,” as he loosens Ed’s death grip from the railing, pulling his fingers until they interlock with his. “Ah, see? Much better.”

Pulling Ed’s arm around him, tucking himself into his side, Stede tells him, “I rather like it out here. There’s nothing like the— the absolute endlessness of night on the sea, don’t you think? There’s so much out there. We have no idea about so much of it.” He draws Ed’s hand up, kisses the back of it. When his eyes drift from the water to Ed, he finds he’s already looking back, furrowed brow fixed forward on him. It’s to him, not the moon, that Stede says, “I have to say, it all seems like a mere pittance when I compare it to you, love.”

Ed’s lips twitch, just a bit, at his dramatics before he drifts again, attention slipping back out over the water. Stede reclaims his focus, threading an arm beneath the dressing robe Ed had stolen from him to wear out here, pulling him in until their chests meet.

“Why don’t you come with me?” Stede suggests. “I’ve got a bit of cinnamon bread with your name on it, I think.”

Though Ed doesn’t respond, he doesn’t fight against Stede’s guiding touch pulling him towards his library. The shelves are still bare, but Stede has taken to ignoring them. He and Ed have long since discussed the destruction of his property, which Ed thought appropriate following the destruction of his heart. It’s over now, though Stede does rather miss his books, but— He’d much rather have Ed, when it comes right down to it.

Sitting Ed down on his sofa, Stede only leaves him for a moment to retrieve the tiny box of little spiced preserved-fruit pastries he’s been keeping in his desk. He knew a moment like this would come sooner rather than later, though he dreads every one. At least he had resolved to have something ready for him this time.

Stede returns to him on the sofa, offers him the box of treats. For a moment, at least, Ed considers them, his eyes cast down, brow drawn as his eyes flicker over his options.

Then, though, he exhales, a sound close to a sigh, and his breath shakes.

His eyes dart up, and meet Stede’s. It only takes a beat, but he doesn’t need to speak. Stede closes the box softly, sets it aside on the table behind him without a second thought. It’s not what he needs right now, he can tell from the creases in his face, the curve of his loose arms, the fog in his eyes.

“Oh, darling,” Stede murmurs. “Come here.”

Ed’s face crumples, slightly, before he tips right into him, falling into Stede’s side. It’s left to Stede to situate them, to guide them, to get them into a comfortable position. He shifts them around, here in the darkness; the moon barely gives enough light to see by, but he can always see Ed just fine. He has him memorized; he fills in his own gaps.

He lets Ed burrow himself in him, and he wraps himself around him, holds him close. Pressed between the back of the sofa and Stede’s body, Ed seems to be calming slightly, coming back into himself a bit. His breath is warm, heart pounding well enough to feel as Stede reaches up and starts rubbing his back. Ed buries in his throat, arms snaked around him; Stede drifts his fingertips up the line of his spine, strokes the muscles, holds him close.

It’s into this soft, quiet darkness that Ed makes a broken sound, nearly muffled by Stede’s sleeping gown, and then whispers, “I can’t— lose you, not again—” and then starts to cry in earnest.

The feel of hot tears seeping through his clothes twists Stede’s heart in his chest. He cradles Ed’s face in his hands, pulls him in so he can kiss his forehead. When Ed’s breath hitches, so does his own, and he has to fight to keep quiet, and calm.

“I’m right here,” Stede promises him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Ed nods, the movement just a little too jerky, a bit frantic as he pushes back into Stede’s hold, as close as he can go.

When he pushes in, he reaches up, seeking out Stede’s chest. His palm presses flat over his breast, hunts for the beat of his heart. It’s only when he finds it that he relaxes even the slightest bit again, his other hand scrabbling up until he can lock onto Stede’s throat. Then, with his heart pounding under his hands, evidence of his life so obvious under his palms and his cheek, Ed closes his eyes again.

“I’m here,” Stede says again. He drags his hand through Ed’s hair, along the planes of his shoulders. They tuck in closer together; Stede tangles their ankles. They’re wound together, inseparable, indivisible, inextricable. Kissing the crown of Ed’s head again, Stede assures him, “I’m here. Right here, love.”


4.

“Where are we going?” Ed asks, suspicious.

Stede’s not sure if he’s playfully suspicious or genuinely suspicious. He actually believes it might be a healthy dose of both, which is not only fair, but probably smart. Ed hasn’t gotten this far in life by being a fool and letting men take him wherever they fancy in tiny boats.

Then again, Ed had never had Stede before in his life.

“You’ll see when you get there,” Stede repeats for the umpteenth time. He continues rowing with determination, fixed on his compass, navigating them further from the ship. “It won’t be long, just be patient.”

Ed looks out over the ocean. After a beat of consideration, he says, “Well, either we’re going to that island,” and he points, “that island,” and he points again, “or you’re going to send me to Davy Jones’ Locker, which is probably long overdue—”

“Pish,” Stede cuts him off. “Stop trying to ruin the surprise. I worked very hard on this, I’ll have you know.”

Ed’s silent for only a second before he asks, “So, how hard did you have to work to plan my death? Are you going to just shoot me, or will you draw it out, or—”

“Just for that,” Stede says, “I’ll draw it out.”

Ed grins at him, leaning back in their dinghy as if he were reclining on a plush lounge. Legs crossed at the ankles, he asks, smug as anything, “And how, exactly, would you do it?”

“Hm,” Stede replies, considering.

He keeps rowing, set on the island ahead. His arms burn with the muscles pulling, but it’s a pleasant burn; he’s not even sure Mary would believe the amount of muscle he’s put on at sea, though it’s nothing compared to the bulk Ed keeps.

With that bulk in mind, Stede returns his attention to Ed’s question. His eyes can’t stop tracing the strong lines of his arms, up to the handsome planes of his face, as he tells him, “I think I would— I would do it with my hands.”

Ed raises an eyebrow at him. “Would you, now?”

He spreads his legs, thighs gliding apart as he leans forward. His arms are bare, sun baking down onto him. It’s like he’s glowing with heat, and warmth; Stede wants to lean into him, already smiling at him. He keeps rowing, though it’s a near thing.

“I would,” he tells him. “I would, uhh— I would—”

He considers his words carefully. Letting his attention wander a bit, his heart races, following the broad planes of Ed’s strong chest, down his belly to the spread vee of his thighs, to the obvious half-hard line of his cock through his tight pants—

Stede’s eyes snap up to Ed’s, and he finds him grinning at him, a smile somewhere halfway between cocky and anticipatory, predator and prey all at once.

He smiles back at him. Nobody has ever quite made him feel the way that Ed makes him feel; sometimes, it’s like he’s young all over again, hungry for him in ways he hasn’t felt in so long, starving sometimes. His hands itch to land on Ed’s body, rather than wrapping around the rough wood of his paddles.

“I would use my hands,” Stede finally tells him. Ed’s cheeks pink a bit, which Stede takes as encouragement, pushing, “I would— Well, if you liked, I’d just— Put my hands around you, and—”

He breaks off, makes a slight face. He’s trying to figure out how to phrase this, but the words aren’t coming well.

“Yes, and?” Ed demands to know, leaning forward further. “Then what, what would you do?”

Stede looks from Ed’s thigh to his face, meets his eyes. He tries to put words together and can’t. Sometimes, it’s overwhelming to feel like a creature of desire. He’s used to lusting, and wanting, and desiring, but he’s not used to receiving that in return. His time with Ed— it takes a great deal of adjusting, to truly believe that Ed wants him the way he wants Ed in return. It still sometimes feels like it can’t be true, but—

But then, there’s Ed in moments like these, and there can’t be any doubt in Stede’s mind. He likes to consider himself a rational man; more than that, he believes he knows Ed rather well. With those facts in mind, he can’t deny the evidence in front of him. Ed must find him attractive; Ed must see him as a creature to be desired; Ed must want him, or else he wouldn’t be devouring him with his eyes like this, hanging on his words, leaning forward with one strong hand curled along the meat of his thigh like he’s desperate to touch his own cock just from looking at Stede right now and making this clumsy banter with him.

“I’m sorry,” Stede apologizes, a bit flustered. “I was— trying very hard to flirt with you, but it’s difficult to come up with innuendo and row and not— you know—”

Ed waits for him as he stammers, for a beat, then prompts, “Cum in your pants?”

Stede exhales in a rush.

“Yes,” he replies. “And it is not very easy, so if you don’t mind go—”

“Not very easy, you say?” Ed asks. “Might you even say it’s—”

“Don’t—”

“—hard?” Ed finishes, as if Stede hadn’t spoken.

“You are unbelievable,” Stede laughs.

Despite Ed’s attempts to shift the mood lighter for him, it’s having the opposite effect. Having Ed laughing with him like this, teasing him, it’s almost— somehow more attractive to him than the flirting had been in the first place. Just— the layers of Ed, and their relationship, and— all of it, it can get overwhelming.

Stede spreads his own legs. He’s not exactly trying to be alluring so much as this is just a necessary move, to accommodate the heat gathering in his own gut, stiffening his own cock. If he does try to take advantage of the move, though, that’s his business, really.

And— a little bit Ed’s business, as his eyes burn a hot trail down between Stede’s legs. There’s an accompanying flush on his face, and a twist in Stede’s gut.

“Are we there yet?” Ed asks him. Stede laughs.

“Does it look like we’re there yet?” Stede responds. He lifts his eyes, realizes they’re nearly at the sand, and says, “Oh— Actually, yes, we’re about to be there. Here, rather.”

Ed twists, then lets out a joyous, wordless exclamation, twisting back around to Stede. “It looks like a goddamn picture book! That’s beautiful, would you— Look at that! What a painting, Stede, do you see the tree there?”

Stede can’t help his own excited reaction to Ed’s open, obvious delight. He’s rowing with fervor, now, pushing them up onto the sand. Once they’re jolting close enough that he can hop off and drag the dinghy the rest of the way in, he’s doing that, letting Ed help him guide them in to a makeshift dock he fashions for them himself.

“Ah, see?” Stede says, hands on his hips as he observes his handiwork. “Look at that. I’ve come a long way, haven’t I? I’d like to show this to Lucius, I think he’d be rather proud of me. Don’t you?”

Ed draws up behind him. His hands fit over Stede’s on his hips, his chin hooking over his shoulder. It’s with a new smile that Stede twists around, turning to plant his hands on Ed’s chest. He glides up to grip his shoulders, pushing him backwards. His body’s already remembering the heat Ed slammed him with in the dinghy, cock half-hard in his pants.

He tells him, “You know, when I was younger, I used to dream about— running away from it all with some big handsome fella that would treat me right.”

“Oh, yeah?” Ed asks him. He lets Stede knock him backwards, push him down into the shore. The chest Stede’s brought in gives them Ed’s favorite blanket, the mismatched fabric laid out on the sand. With Ed pinned down, Stede climbing to sit up over his hips, Ed inquires, as if casual, “And who exactly was that big handsome fella?”

“Mm.”

Stede shifts over him, letting his hands come down to meet Ed’s shoulders. It’s been a long road, for them— for him, to embracing himself, to feeling comfortable in his body and in the wants his body has and in everything he desires— and he’s not at the end of it, but he really does think he’s getting there.

“He was always a nebulous sort of man,” Stede tells him. “I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted. Whichever boy I had a crush on at the time, I suppose.” He reaches down to unfasten the highest buckle on Ed’s top. “Maybe I knew even then that I was waiting for you.”

Ed makes a sharp sound, something high in the back of his throat, flying up from his chest. Stede can feel it rise up in a rush beneath his palms.

“You’re—” Ed starts to say, but he’s cut off when Stede surges down towards him, tugging him roughly into a kiss. He can’t stay away any longer, desperate to have him now that they’re off the ship, far and away and off on their own, finally alone for once, if only for the day.

Stede yanks at the line of buckles down Ed’s chest to tear his top apart, spreading it apart to let his hands eat up the bare skin beneath. He dives down, bites into his throat, lets himself give into the indulgence of everything he wants from Ed, from his body. There’s no questioning or doubting the obvious, insistent desire that surges through Ed’s body, from his arms, through into Stede.

When they separate, Stede dragging down to kiss the heat of Ed’s bare flesh over the pounding thump of his heart, Ed finishes his question, says, “You’re a fucking dream, you know that? You’ve got to know that, because if you don’t, then you’re just— stumbling through life like this, and I’ll have to lock you on the ship just to make sure nobody takes you away from me—”

His words make Stede’s face practically explode with heat, fire coursing through his veins as more heat gathers in his gut, tugs into his cock, has him pounding with a drumbeat inside as he pushes in closer. The obvious hunger in his voice is echoed in his own lungs, and he steals another kiss. Cradling Ed’s head in his hand, threading into his hair, yanking on him, he bites into him, spreads Ed’s leather pants. It’s an effort to get the tight fabric down and off, but Stede is single-minded in his determination.

He pulls his pants down, one dragging bit at a time, his fingers pressing into hot skin, his mouth chasing after. Ed pushes up into him, surges to sit up and grab for him. Stede’s smiling through the blaze, meeting the kiss in a burst.

Stede pushes Ed up the blanket, reaches between them to take both their cocks in his hand. Ed makes a sound unlike any he makes anywhere else, a soft kind of cry, a begging noise. It’s— Ed doesn’t beg, not from anyone, but— he does from him, he does here.

“I’m— I can’t, you’ve got—” Ed tells him, and he makes an even harder sound when Stede comes up to kiss him, stealing the next words from his throat, swallowing them down.

Stede lets himself take, he lets himself want— he makes sure Ed knows he’s wanted, how badly he’s wanted, how Stede’s spent his entire life building up to wanting him this much, and he’s choking on it.

He draws back, sucks in air, tells him, “It’s alright. We’ve got until sunset before we have to go back to the ship.”

Ed’s grinning, wolfish and hungry and eager as Stede meets him in another kiss. The excitement is obvious in the bright shine of his eyes, the insistent flush of his face, the grasping, seeking paths of his hands. “We have—” He’s cut off with a kiss, and he tries again into Stede’s mouth, says, “We have all day, then? How many times do you really think you can—”

Without meaning to, Stede’s hips roll down, a grind he doesn’t even intend on that his body insists on. His cock glides along Ed’s in the tight curl of his hand, wrapped tight and pressure hard and harder. Ed’s words cut off, and Stede comes back in for another kiss.

He doesn’t know how much longer he can last, and he doesn’t know how many times he can do this, but he knows how badly he wants it, wants this, wants him. He knows he’s wanted him for so long, knows he wants him always, so badly. He’s hungry for him, and he lets himself go after him, devouring him in another kiss. For far too long, he’s spent way too much time preparing for exactly this— exactly this craving, exactly this heat, and exactly the way Ed’s consuming him.

The heat— he can’t— it’s all gathering, and pulling, and wanting, and they kiss with sloppy, slack-jawed, wet glides, parted lips and tongues and teeth. Ed’s hand comes around Stede’s around their cocks, works them in time with him, their fingers fitting together.

Stede’s voice breaks around Ed’s name, and that has Ed’s other hand shooting up, grabbing onto his hair. He hangs on tight, tugs, and Stede chases that fire. The searing sort of yearning inside him only wants Ed, and he goes for him, swallows him and is swallowed by him. He’s not sure he’s ever felt like this, in this moment, as he collapses, and tells Ed, “I love you so— so much,” in a gasp that shatters apart.

Ed shakes his head, dragging Stede into a kiss as he cums over their hands, soft pants and sharp, short whines falling from his mouth into Stede’s. It’s impossible, unending, and he won’t stop repeating Stede’s name before he tells him, “Fuck, I love you,” and lets his forehead fall to meet Stede’s shoulder.

“Mm,” Stede bites off, and buries his face in Ed’s hair. He kisses the crown of his head, gathers him close, doesn’t stop until he’s spilling over the edge, too. Ed keeps working him, the waves of heat rocketing through him until he’s enveloped by them all, by everything Ed is, by everything Ed makes him feel. He’s falling apart into him, and Ed’s falling apart into him in return.

He drags back, and up, and pulls Ed into another kiss, teeth finding his lip. Between them, Ed says, gasping, “I can’t— I can’t— I love you so much, I can’t take it, please—”

Stede finds another kiss, and breathes with him, and breathes, and feels for his heart, and lets himself want, and be wanted, and doesn’t let go.


5.

This is not exactly where Stede was most hoping to be tonight, but he’s going to try to make the most of it.

Actually—

He’s not entirely sure there is a most to make of this.

Watching Ed get dragged up in front of a tavern— if it can even be called a tavern, feeling more like a hole in the ground filled with pirates and liquor— is not something he’s entirely sure anybody could ever make a most of.

“Well, well, well,” says the honestly gigantic man pinning Ed to the wall in front of God and everyone present in this tavern. “Won’t y’all look who it is?”

There’s a corresponding roar in the tavern that Stede, tragically, recognizes. It is not a largely positive sound, a unanimous, cacophonous noise of anger and frustration and, as Stede is starting to recognize, a shockingly malicious sort of groupthink.

If anyone knows who Stede is, they haven’t recognized him yet. At least, they haven’t dragged him up in front of the tavern, and Stede can’t assume it’s out of the goodness of their hearts they’ve left him alone. He’s gone unnoticed, which means he can easily slip out of here, retreat to the ship, get the crew, and get them to come back and assist him in liberating Ed, easy—

“What say we each have a turn taking what’s owed?” the man demands over the noise. With his other hand, he unsheathes a blade.

Stede’s eyes meet the glint of metal, then soar to connect with Ed’s eyes. It’s only for a flash, before Ed’s attention snaps back up to the knife. Stede can tell he’s thinking quickly, trying to figure out what to do next, but there is nothing to do next. He’s stuck.

“A pound of flesh,” Ed’s captor declares.

Everyone cheers again, a sick kind of game. Stede’s heart is climbing into his throat, choking him off, sickening him. He doesn’t know what to do, he can’t think, but he has to. He has to, that’s Ed up there—

The knife comes down closer, reflecting the bright gleam of Ed’s eye when it draws near to his cheek. As the very point of it touches the soft flesh just below his eye, Stede sees a bead of blood come up, welling in a drop on his skin, and it’s like time slows, like everything starts moving in slow motion. He’s already moving, he can’t think, he can’t think, he’s unsheathing the sword on his belt and forcing through the crowd to climb up in front of everyone and shove the man backwards.

He’s hoping he won’t actually have to hurt anyone, but he uses his momentum to push the man back, the point of his sword coming down to threaten his side. It’s with a steady hand, trained by Ed, that he finds a point that won’t kill him, seeking a place he can avoid his vital organs.

“Get your hands,” Stede warns, “off of him,” and pushes, shoving to get him back.

The knife comes to Ed again, angling for his throat— the man won’t quit, but neither will Stede. He can’t lose Ed, he— can’t. It’s out of the question, and in that moment, Stede realizes he would burn the Earth to ashes if it meant Ed would be safe in the ruin. He would die himself if Ed would live.

This time, he won’t lose Ed.

This time, he runs the man through.

He impales this stranger on his sword, and then withdraws, yanking it out in one swift move. The man collapses at his feet, and Stede’s mind is flashing— he doesn’t know if he’s killed him, he can’t think, but then Ed’s hands are grabbing him and shoving him backwards, and the two of them are running, Stede’s legs burning as he pushes further and harder and faster.

“Oh, fuck,” Ed exclaims as they sprint. He laughs once, incredulous; they hurtle outside, and down the road, into the dying sunlight outside. The rest of the crew is already on their way back to the ship, Stede knows that. He keeps his mind focused forward, keeps himself running, but then—

In his mind’s eye, he sees again that knife at Ed’s throat. He sees it under his eye, sees that blood welling up—

Stede whirls, dragging him down an alley and finding a half-collapsed wall around a corner. It’s with a stumbling run that Stede brings Ed there, pulling them down to hide in a tight heap together. He can’t keep moving right now, not until he’s sure that Ed is okay, and here with him, safe, alive.

There, pressed into the dirt, Stede pulls Ed’s face up into his hands, holding him tight. His thumb presses into the space beneath his eye, examining for his wound, and the blood’s already stopped coming up. He leans in, presses a kiss there, exhales shakily.

Ed holds him in return. It’s like he can feel it, can sense it. He doesn’t want to let him go, either. When they draw back again, Stede kisses him, desperate for him.

“Are you alright?” Stede demands. They separate, and he asks, “You’re alright, aren’t you? You aren’t hurt—”

“No,” Ed tells him. He’s grinning. “You saw to that, didn’t you? You courageous, brave—”

Stede kisses him again, tears burning in the backs of his eyes before there’s a blast in the distance. It may have nothing to do with them, or everything, but it has Stede’s heart climbing into the back of his mouth again, so he leaps to his feet again.

“We’ve got to go,” Stede says, with that same terror that had him running up to save Ed without a second thought, knife or no knife, crowd or no crowd, threat or no threat. “C’mon, I’ve got you.”

“Oh, I know,” Ed replies. It’s as if they’re not running for their lives right now. They’re so close to the ship, and Stede takes Ed’s hand in his. There’s almost joy, in the delight that they’re alive, in the unabashed success of living, in the thrill of Ed’s hand in his as they run, just— run, away from it all, trying to make it back home.


+ 1.

“What are you doing?” Stede asks as Ed comes up behind him, silk handkerchief in hand.

“Just trust me,” Ed replies. He holds up the strip of red fabric, dark and satiny in his hands, and motions for Stede to turn.

Stede, as it turns out, trusts Ed with his life, and probably even more. He turns, as requested, and closes his eyes accordingly. It’s only a moment later that the silk slips soft over his face, coming to rest over his eyes, effectively cutting off his vision with or without his lids closed.

He smiles. “What’re you thinking?”

“What did I say?” Ed scolds him. His hands work easily to tie a complicated knot at the back of his head, binding the silk in place. “Just trust me. I’ve got a surprise for you, and you’re going to like it, so calm down. I won’t walk you off the ship, I swear.” He kisses Stede’s cheek, a brief, fleeting press, there and gone. Stede smiles, leaning into it even after it’s gone. “That’s a prank better saved for a later day. Now—”

“Please,” Stede laughs, and Ed’s drawing him in again. His hands find Stede’s hips, briefly, and he kisses him in a quick, dirty spread before he’s pulling back once more.

“Come on,” Ed says, “Come with me. Remember, I just said, I’ve got a surprise for you?” His hands come to take Stede’s, guiding him forward until he can get behind him, planting his hands on his shoulders. “You love surprises, come on, just— Walk with me, let’s go, step lively, c’mon—”

Stede laughs again, letting Ed walk him forward. He can feel the anxiety thrumming through every inch of Ed’s body, even if he doesn’t fully understand why it’s here. There’s no real reason that this surprise, whatever it is, should be making him so nervous, but it’s got Stede even a bit on edge. If it’s enough to agitate Ed, it’s enough to be concerned about, in his book.

He’s hoping this is anticipation, or excitement, but he can taste a little fear in the way Ed is navigating him.

“You know I’m going to love it,” Stede assures him. “What’re you so worried about?”

“Nothing,” Ed says. His grip tightens a bit, then loosens forcibly. “What— Why would you even think I’m worried? There’s nothing to be worried about, I’m not— Are you worried? Silly of you.” He kisses the back of Stede’s head. “Keep walking, you’re nearly there.”

“Wh— Really? We haven’t been walking very long,” Stede comments, but Ed huffs slightly. “I’m just teasing—”

“I know,” Ed replies. “I’m not worried, I promise, just—”

There’s a beat.

“Just— Promise you won’t, like—” Ed makes a frustrated noise, then says, “How about you just— If you don’t like this, just tell me directly, alright? We’ll be open, honest communicators, just like we wanted, I swear. Just don’t be mad. Okay?”

Stede frowns slightly. He can’t help it; Ed’s obvious concern is making him more than a little nervous. There aren’t many surprises he could give him that would make him this stressed out, and even fewer he could conceal on the ship when they haven’t docked in some time. He can’t imagine what’s about to happen, but there’s not a thought in his mind that wonders if he’ll be mad at this, whatever it is.

“I promise,” Stede says, “I won’t be mad.”

He swears over his heart. Ed’s arm glides over his shoulder and down to take his hand as it slides over his chest, fingers threading together. His other hand keeps navigating him, moves him forward.

“Wait,” Ed says, and stops him, holds him in place. “Stay here, hold on.”

He steps around him, based on the creaks that he hears, and then there’s a soft snap-click and a gentle whsh.

“C’mere.” Ed takes his hands and guides him forward, one step at a time until he steps over onto something soft, a tiny ridge; he thinks he’s on a rug. “Alright, stand right— there. Perfect, now, turn, just, riiiiight… here, okay, perfect, great. Now—”

Ed lets his hands go. There are quiet steps as he moves around to his back again. Stede’s blood lights on fire, his skin prickling. He can sense him everywhere, awareness glowing, explosive.

His fingers find the back of Stede’s head, the knot being cleverly unwound by him. He is absolutely the only one who could undo the knots he ties; Stede can’t help smiling as the silk slips away, and Ed says, “Alright, now, you promised not to be mad, so— Open your eyes, then, go ahead.”

Stede’s smiling, indulgent, as he opens his eyes, not entirely sure what he should expect. He knows he’s below deck, but not entirely sure where, too focused on Ed to pay much attention to their entire path.

It’s only once his eyes clear and he actually focuses on the room, thinking past Ed to understand what’s happening here, that he understands where he is.

“Oh,” Stede breathes. He’s not entirely sure that he can believe what he’s seeing, at first. He’s certainly seen sights less believable, but, his heart is quite literally in his throat, seeing his library around him. Every shelf in the room is filled, bursting with impossible color, books in all varieties of shapes and sizes, some spines blank, some written in a multitude of languages.

He’s never— He’s never seen a collection like this. These books aren’t familiar to him, not one of them. Before he even realizes, he’s stepping forward, hand outstretched. His fingertips touch a shelf, they brush along spines, but he’s still not— he’s still not intaking. His mind is desperately churning, struggling to process, but his heart already understands. He already knows.

“Do you like it?” Ed asks.

Stede can feel him behind him, and it’s— one of the best feelings he’s ever had. Running his fingertips over this, this physical evidence that Ed not only knows and understands him, but sought to give him this, sought to— to replace what was lost, to give him this gift, to surprise him with something of this magnitude, it’s— it’s overwhelming.

Tears are burning in his eyes. He takes a shaky breath, and turns back to Ed, choked up.

“You gotta say something or I might actually scream,” Ed warns him, half a laugh and half real concern in his voice.

“I love you,” Stede replies. It’s the first and only thing he can think, for a moment.

Ed grins. “I love you, too.”

He spreads his arms, then, and motions.

“Do you like it, though?” Ed asks again.

“What is it?” Stede asks.

“Oh, no,” Ed says, “You’re sick, you’ve forgotten basic—”

“Stop,” Stede laughs. He falls into him, twisting around to look at the books in front of him again. There are so many, the walls absolutely lined with them, the shelves stuffed. Ed wraps his arms around him from behind, hooks his chin over his shoulder, presses a kiss to his cheek. “I mean— How did you do this?”

“I felt bad,” Ed tells him, as if it’s that simple. “I know I said I’m sorry, but I really— It made me sad, seeing the empty shelves in here all the time.”

“Darling—”

“I know,” Ed cuts him off, “I know, it’s all fine. But I just wanted to do— something. So I’ve been looking for books I thought you might like, just— I remembered which ones you’d read, so I tried not to get those, since you were always swapping out, but. I got as many as I could, and I’ve been hiding them.”

“Where?” Stede asks, bewildered. “I’m in here all the time.”

“I didn’t hide them here,” Ed says, as if it’s a foolish thought, as if they appeared out of thin air. “The— Well, I mean. The men helped me, I’ve kind of been hiding them all over the place, until I had enough.”

Stede doesn’t even know what to say.

He doesn’t. He barely even knows what to feel. The enormity of this is almost too much for him to process. It’s one thing for him to love Ed, and for him to express that love to him. He can make him gifts, and give him things, and take care of him, and chase after him, and surprise him, and protect him, and love him, because he understands that. Ed is— everything to him, he wants to do all of that.

Sometimes, it still feels unreal that Ed wants all of that in return, but, now—

He can’t not understand this. He can’t look at this room and not feel the absolute enormity of the love that Ed has for him, in this manifestation of how much he cares, in the thought and dedication here, in the love laced through every inch of this room. Here, here, where before they saw reminders of their most brutal separation, Stede now sees only evidence of how deeply, immensely, and truly he is loved.

“Oh, no,” Stede says, an instant before he starts to cry.

“Fuck,” Ed spits. “Shit, I am— so sorry, I didn’t think—”

“No,” Stede interrupts him hurriedly. He whirls in his hands again, wraps up in him, throws his arms around him.

For a moment, Ed’s frozen, but he thaws quickly. He comes to hold Stede in return, embraces him close, buries his face in Stede’s throat and kisses a fading bruise he left there last week before he noses up into his hair, starting to smile again.

“I love this,” Stede tells him, breathless, unable to let him go. Clinging to him, smiling himself, Stede tells him, “I love you. You— You have to know how much, don’t you? Because I feel— I sort of feel like I’m drowning in it, so you need to know that—”

Ed withdraws just enough to drag him into a kiss, his hands framing Stede’s face, the warm metal of his rings pressing into his skin. He takes a shuddering breath when they separate, but he can’t stop smiling, their foreheads pushing together.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to let you go,” Ed tells him. It’s a warning, and a promise, and a threat, and an assurance, and there’s so much love in his words and his body and this room, this room he’s given him, the room everybody else thought was foolish and Ed gave back to him— so much love that Stede’s swallowed whole by it, thick in the air.

“Please,” Stede begs him, “Don’t,” and drags him into another kiss, tears melting into Ed’s, fingers hooking into the buckles over his heart, feeling the pound under his palms, and grinning, all teeth as he refuses to let him go.