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Stop All The World Now

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The dock was hard and cold beneath Ed’s back, but he hardly noticed. Hours of waiting, of watching the night sky, had left him with a numb, detached feeling. The brightest of the stars that shone across the horizon were Stede, Ed thought, moving further and further away from him as the dawn approached.

It seemed impossible. Unreal. But as the first streaks of purple began to color the sky, Ed had to admit a truth so painful it stole the breath from his lungs.

Stede wasn’t coming.

Just hours ago, Ed had allowed himself to dream and hope in ways he would have never even thought to imagine before meeting Stede Bonnet. Now, the future in front of him seemed bleak and colorless, and his beating heart deflated the joy it had held as he moved to ready the dinghy.

At the end of the dock he stood still, staring out at the ocean. He couldn’t yet bring himself to step into the boat. To sit, grab the oars, and move away from the one place where he had felt truly happy for the first time in his life.

He couldn’t see the beach where he and Stede had been, but he could picture it in his mind’s eye, clear as the streaks of sun lighting up the sky above.

“You make Stede happy.”

He closed his eyes. He could do this. He would have to.

He took a step forward and that’s when he heard it. At first he thought his mind was playing a cruel trick on him, but no. Again, in the softest of voices.

“Ed.”

His heart gave a painful lurch, coming back to life as he turned to see Stede standing where the sand met the dock, looking as shaken and uncertain as Ed had ever seen him. Even facing a firing squad hadn’t put that haunted look in Stede’s eyes, or the tracks of dried tears on his face.

“Stede, what – ” Ed moved toward him without conscious thought, concerned but also buoyed, almost jubilant in his relief. Stede hadn’t left him.

“I’m… I’m so sorry I’m late. It’s terribly rude of me, I just… I thought your man on the inside to be waking me up, but it was Chauncey, and he dragged me away at gunpoint into the jungle and he said, well, he said some things that I... and then he tripped and shot himself in the head, right in front of me, and I just… oh, Ed.” And now Stede was crying in earnest, shoulders shaking.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Ed said, hands out in a placating gesture as if soothing a spooked animal. The look in Stede’s eyes reminded Ed of green sailors watching pirates raid their ship for the very first time. “It’s ok. You’re here. I’m here. We’re both here, together. Just breathe. That’s it. Breathe with me, Stede.”

Stede practically fell into Ed’s arms when Ed got close enough for him to do so, and Ed held him tightly, cupping the back of Stede’s head as Stede cried into his shoulder. While Stede’s clear distress was upsetting to Ed, he also couldn’t help savor the feeling of Stede in his arms. The despair he’d felt only moments ago was slow to dissipate, and he wanted to hold onto this man, this strange and wonderful man who had chosen him, chosen him, as long as he possibly could. He looked around, making sure that they hadn’t attracted any attention.

“Those Badminton’s are clumsy fuckers, yeah?” Ed said lightly, and Stede managed a wet chuckle against his collarbone. Ed smiled gently and pressed a soft kiss to Stede’s head.

“I don’t want to rush you, but we do need to get moving. I want you to tell me everything, though. Please. Will you be all right?”

Stede pulled back and Ed hoped that his sincerity had come through, his honest desire to know what had upset Stede and, hopefully, make it better. It must have done, because Stede smiled beatifically through his tears and nodded, taking a deep breath.

“Yes. All right. Yes. Lead the way, Captain.”

*

Stede didn’t seem fully present with him, which Ed was doing his best not to worry about.

Too much.

“It’s not much further now,” Ed said to fill the silence. “There’s a small island about an hour or so from here. Abandoned rum cache. Possibly haunted. We wont be bothered there.”

“How do you know it’s abandoned?” Stede asked, and Ed was pleased that Stede’s attention had wandered back to him.

“Well, that would be because I raided and looted it a while back. There was a rum shortage, you see. Or perhaps Izzy was just lying to me to get me to – ”

“Wait,” Stede cut in, “did you say possibly haunted?”

“You don’t become a master of Fuckery without practice, Stede.”

Stede’s laugh was genuine, his smile real. The first real smile Ed had seen on his face since their kiss. The weight that lifted from Ed was surprising in its intensity. If Stede could laugh, he would be ok.

They would be ok.

*

“Did you… set this island on fire?” Stede asked, kicking out at a charred tree stump with his toe.

“The Fuckery may have gotten a little out of hand. Who knew rum was so flammable?” Ed said, stomping around in the sand to find the hidden door leading to one of the island’s underground stores. There wouldn’t be much there, and although Ed had managed to pack away a change of clothes for them both and nick some cheese and fruit from the academy kitchens, anything he could find would help at this point.

Stede sat down on his stump, watching Ed with a bemused smile on his face. “You never cease to surprise me.”

Ed looked back over his shoulder, returning the smile with a wink and a grin of his own. “Well, may I continue to do so for the rest of our lives. Wouldn’t want to get boring, would I?”

“You could never be boring,” Stede said with perhaps more emotion in his voice than he’d meant to allow. They were both flush at Ed’s mention of the rest of their lives.

Ed cleared his throat. “Yes, well.” He continued to kick at the ground, wondering if he ought to kick himself instead. Only hours ago, on the beach with Stede, everything had been so easy. Now he felt about as surefooted as a newborn calf, every step an opportunity to fall flat on his face.

“Chauncey took me from bed at gunpoint,” Stede said suddenly, and Ed was surprised into stillness. “He marched me into the jungle. He was drunk and he was determined that I was going to die for what happened to his brother.”

Stede wasn’t looking at Ed, but out toward the sea, where their dingy bobbed up and down with the ebb and flow of the ocean tide.

“He told me...” Stede cleared his throat, visibly emotional, but he took a deep breath and set his shoulders. Ed wanted to go to him, wrap a comforting arm around him, but he understood that what Stede needed to say next might require there be some distance between them.

“He said that I was a monster. A plague. That I defile beautiful things. His brother. My family. And then he said,” and then Stede did look up at Ed, and the misery writ across his face twisted Ed’s insides, “that I had even managed to bring history’s greatest pirate to ruin. And Ed… he was right. About all of it.” Stede looked down at his shoes, blinking furiously although it did nothing to stop his tears. “He was right.”

Ed, who rather thought that when it came to beautiful things, Stede was the most beautiful of them all, would have killed Badminton himself were the man not already dead. He was kneeling in front of Stede before he even fully realized he’d moved, wiping Stede’s tears away and cupping the man’s face in his hands.

“Hey, no. Look at me. Stede. Look at me.”

Stede did, and Ed tightened his grip on Stede’s face, shaking it gently. He would leave no room for Stede to misunderstand what he had to say.

“You didn’t ruin me. You didn’t ruin anything, Stede.”

“You gave up everything for me, Ed. Piracy. Your crew. Your whole life.”

“It was my decision to make,” Ed said. “And I’d do it again. My whole life? A life I was drowning in, until you showed up with your books and your fabrics and your endless stores of baffling optimism and your bedtime stories and your...” Ed moved one hand from Stede’s face to gesture at him in general. “You-ness.”

Stede laughed softly, pressing his cheek into Ed’s hand.

“I’m not sure I feel worthy of it, Ed. Any of it.”

“Also not your call, mate, to decide whether or not I find you worthy of anything.”

“You’re making it very difficult for me to feel properly guilty over here,” Stede said a bit churlishly, but Ed didn’t miss the way the corners of Stede’s mouth ticked upward.

“Good,” Ed said, leaning forward to press his forehead against Stede’s. They stayed like that, content in the quiet.

“How’s your face?” Stede asked, stroking the smooth skin of Ed’s cheek.

“It’s a face.”

“You know what I mean.”

Ed shrugged, pressing his nose against Stede’s, nuzzling there. “It’s weird. Different. Not bad.” Worth it, he wanted to say.

“Hmm. And uh, what was it you were looking for in the sand, again? Am I keeping you from something important?” Stede asked, his breath warm against Ed’s lips.

“Can’t quite recall at this particular moment,” Ed said before Stede leaned forward and pressed their lips together.

If their first kiss had breathed life into Ed, this one lit a fire inside of him. He pulled Stede closer to him, and Stede reached up, fingers sliding into Ed’s hair as his tongue pressed against Ed’s lips. Ed opened willingly to him, meeting the warm slide of Stede’s tongue with his own. It was like sword fighting in a way, he thought, and that caused him to break the kiss with a laugh.

Stede pulled back, looking mortified. “Did I...”

“No, no!” Ed pulled Stede closer again, leaning in for another kiss, softer and more gentle this time, much like their first. “It just reminded me of dueling swords, and I...” Ed shrugged, smiling at Stede impishly.

Stede took a beat, but then he laughed out loud, throwing his head back and holding onto his stomach. “Is everything going to be pirate metaphors with you?”

Ed shrugged again, unapologetic. “Probably. Shall I sing you the Pirate Ballad of Apology?”

“There’s a Pirate Ballad of Apology?! Are there other pirate ballads? Ed, why have I not heard any of these --” Stede stopped talking when Ed couldn’t hold back his laughter any longer, shaking his head and giving Ed’s shoulder a gentle shove.

“If it helps, I think teaching you to sword fight may have been some form of foreplay for me? You do look rather fetching with a sturdy rod in your hand.”

“Do shut up,” Stede said, face flushed the most fascinating shade of pink that Ed had ever seen. Stede pulled Ed back to him, and there were no more words between them for a while.

*

As Ed had expected, there wasn’t much in the underground stores once he found them. A couple of old, moth eaten blankets and an empty wineskin. The island did yield a few coconuts, so Ed cracked one open and pressed the water into the wineskin, which he and Stede passed between them as they ate bits of cheese and apples near an open fire while the sun set.

Ed didn’t know if a meager meal and an uncomfortable sleep on the sand under the open sky could be considered romantic, but as he looked at Stede’s face in the firelight, his heart had never felt so full.

“I, um. Mary and I, we never really kissed.” Stede said, curled close to Ed like they had been on the beach back at the academy. “It was all very… informal and, well, mostly to procreate, I suppose.”

“Stede, I hate to tell you, but that doesn’t happen with just a kiss,” Ed said, raising an eyebrow at Stede, who rolled his eyes in return.

“You know what I mean. When she and I touched each other, it wasn’t with...” Stede stopped himself, clearing his throat. “Does it bother you, me speaking of her?”

Ed gestured around them, to the beach and the open ocean beyond it. “Is she here now, with us? With you? Stede, you can always speak freely and plainly with me. You always have. It’s one of the things that I, well,” and it was Ed’s turn to clear his throat. “I hope you always will.”

Stede nodded, fingertips dancing across the top of Ed’s hand. Ed was finding it difficult to pay attention to anything else.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that, however we proceed, I’m not going to, um, know. A lot. Or be very good. At any of it.”

Ed thought about the countless men and women he’d dallied with, their faces blurring together in his mind. Pleasure without meaning for the sake of release, or for a bit of fun, or even just to pass the time. All of that, and nothing had seared into Ed’s mind and into his heart like the moment he’d pressed his lips to Stede’s for the first time.

“Calico Jack told me about the two of you,” Stede said before Ed could reply, and the intensity in Stede’s voice was surprising to Ed, who had never known Stede to be particularly acerbic in his tone.

“Were you… jealous?” Ed asked, trying not to smile, feeling exceedingly pleased at the knowledge.

“No!” Stede said automatically, and then, with a rueful smile, “Yes. I’m not sure I knew it for what it was at the time, but… yes. To hear that he’d known you in a way that I didn’t, maybe never would… I didn’t like it. It made me feel wrong-footed. I felt like you had given me so much of yourself. That there was a part of you that had been someone else’s, not mine, it...”

“It is, you know,” Ed said softly, turning his hand so that his fingers laced with Stede’s.

“What?”

“Yours.”

Ed would be hard pressed to say which of them moved into the kiss first. Despite Stede’s misgivings about his own talents or lack thereof, Ed had no complaints about the way the man kissed him. What Stede lacked in technical skill he more than made up for in naked enthusiasm. The rest would come, and Ed couldn’t wait for each and every moment of it.

Stede laid back onto their threadbare blankets, pulling Ed down on top of him. The feel of Stede’s warm, firm body beneath his made Ed feel drunken and heady. They kissed for minutes or hours, Ed couldn’t say. He found his hands wandering underneath Stede’s tunic, gently caressing his stomach, spurred on by Stede’s breathy yes against his lips, hardly breaking their kisses as he pulled the tunic up and over Stede’s head, tossing it to the side.

Ed was no connoisseur of the fine arts, but as he sat up to take in Stede’s bare torso, bathed half in moonlight, half in flame, Ed understood why a melody, the stroke of a brush, or the carve of a stone could move a man to tears.

“You’re fuckin’ gorgeous,” he said. Stede blushed, but he didn’t look away from Ed’s hungry gaze. Ed was loathe to break the eye contact, but he wanted to feel the press of Stede’s bare skin against his own. He pulled his own tunic up and over his head, and then he was pressed against Stede chest to chest. Stede’s tantalizing skin was smoother than his own, less marred, but no less beautiful for it.

Stede’s hand had come up between them, touching Ed’s chest tentatively, almost reverently. His fingertip brushed across one of Ed’s nipples and Ed hissed, arching back.

“I’m sorry, did that hurt?” Stede asked, immediately contrite.

“No, s’good. Feels good,” Ed murmured. “Don’t stop.”

Ed’s nipples hardened under Stede’s curious fingers, and Ed buried his face in the crook of Stede’s neck, gently nipping at the flesh there. Stede gasped softly, “Ed, oh, yes.”

Ed wanted to mark Stede, claim him as his own, and he realized with a thrilling jolt that he could do just that. As Stede’s hands moved to Ed’s back, sliding up and down tendon and shoulder blade, Ed sucked and bit at Stede’s neck, and when he felt Stede harden beneath him, he moved his hips so that his own hardness met Stede’s against the friction of their trousers.

“Ed!” Stede cried out, and his hands moved to cup Ed’s backside, pushing Ed forward as Ed mindlessly rutted against Stede. They weren’t even naked and Ed had never been so turned on in his life.

“Off,” he growled against Stede’s neck, tugging at one of Stede’s pant legs. Both men scrambled upward, trading messy half-kisses, laughing as Stede nearly tripped over his knickers. They were no strangers to each other’s naked bodies, not really. Living in such close quarters didn’t always afford one total privacy, and besides, Ed had sat at Stede’s bedside after rescuing him from the Spanish and had not been entirely uninvolved in the man’s care. However, seeing Stede standing before him now, naked and impossibly beautiful, Ed found himself hot and hard between his own legs at the sight of him. And judging by what he could see, Stede found himself similarly afflicted.

“Edward,” Stede said softly. They came together, arms wrapping around each other as they kissed, hips grinding together in simultaneous motion, and Ed thought the feel of Stede’s erection against his own might be his undoing. Stede rocked against him with something close to wild abandon, whimpering with each thrust that brought them into contact with one another.

Ed maneuvered them back to the blankets, reaching blindly for one of the discarded coconut shells. He pressed the inside until his hand was coated in oil. He reached down between himself and Stede, and took Stede in his hand, softly stroking him.

“Is this ok?” he asked.

Stede nodded, pulling Ed into a bruising kiss, one he broke to gasp and clutch at Ed as Ed twisted his hand just so.

“Tell me what you like,” Ed said, voice gruff.

“This,” Stede replied. “You. Please, Ed. Don’t stop.”

Ed’s hips were moving of their own accord, and he gripped himself in hand as well, rubbing his hardness together with Stede’s own. Ed watched, enthralled, as Stede’s head thrashed back and forth, his hips moving up and down erratically, eyes wide and watching Ed in return with something akin to wonder.

It did not take long for Stede to finish, spilling himself over Ed’s hand with a piercing cry. A few more erratic tugs and Ed was there too, collapsing on top of Stede with an inelegant groan. As far as sex went, it was fairly rudimentary when compared to some of the things Ed had done in his life, but as Ed rolled off of Stede’s body, wrapping Stede tightly in his arms, he couldn’t recall a time it had been better than this.

“I think I’ve sand in my bottom,” Stede complained, but made no effort to move from Ed’s arms.

“Hmm. I think I’d like to hear more about your bottom.”

“Go to sleep, Ed.”

“Fine. But don’t think I’ll be forgetting about your bottom any time soon.”

Ed pictured Stede’s cheeks flushing that appealing, alluring shade of pink and closed his eyes, smiling in satisfaction.

The smile stayed in place as Stede lifted his head to place a soft kiss on Ed’s lips. “Good night, Ed.”

“Good night, Stede.”

*

They ate another cracked open coconut for breakfast. Ed had a couple of different ideas for where they could head next, find supplies and a proper ship. He wanted to run them by Stede, but the man had gone quiet as the morning progressed. He and Ed had awoken, stiff and a little sore from a night of both sex and sleep on the beach, but smiling ridiculously at each other nonetheless. They had kissed lazily as the sun rose, and Ed had never felt happier.

Stede was back on his burnt stump, staring out at the ocean again. Ed sat on the sand next to him, resting his head on Stede’s knee. “We should probably think about heading out soon.”

Stede’s fingers began combing gently through Ed’s hair. The moment was blissful, and then Stede spoke. “I need to go home.”

“What?” Ed sat up and turned, looking at Stede incredulously. Stede held out his hands to Ed, who took them in his own, not sure he’d heard Stede properly.

“You were right, last night. Your choices are not mine to commandeer. They are your own. But Ed, I didn’t give Mary and the children a choice. I just… left them. I think that if I’m ever going to be able to live my life, this life, with you… I need to make sure they’re all right.”

Ed tried to ignore the rushing in his ears and the sudden pounding in his chest. The rational part of his mind heard what Stede was saying, could maybe even make some sort of sense of it, but his stomach had twisted uncomfortably at the idea of being parted from him, of sending him back to his wife.

“Is that selfish of me?” Stede asked, and Ed focused on the feeling of Stede’s warm hands holding his own, let it ground and center him, abate the panic he felt bubbling up into his throat.

“I dunno,” Ed said honestly. “Never had much of a family. But… I reckon you’re my family, now. My only family. And… I guess I wouldn’t want to leave any bad blood between us, no matter what happens.”

Stede’s eyes were shining as he leaned in to kiss Ed, something almost fragile. “I’m not your only family, Ed. You have a family, back on the Revenge. And we need to go back for them, too.”

Ed groaned at that, even though deep down he knew Stede was right. It had been easy to ignore the guilt gnawing at the back of his mind when he was cocooned here, just him, Stede, and their island.

“You know I’m right,” Stede said. “We can’t leave the crew at the hands of, well, Izzy Hands!”

“Izzy’s not so bad,” Ed said, but even he didn’t believe himself as he said it. He moved his head back to Stede’s knee, and Stede let go of his hands, fingers resuming their trail through his hair.

“China’s a wonderful dream,” Stede said softly, “and if the crew want to go there, once things are settled with Mary, then we’ll go there. I bet there are all sorts of delicacies Roach can learn to cook for us, although I don’t know how well oranges grow in China, and I’m certainly not prepared to have that disagreement again!”

Ed smiled at that, even though he felt like crying, too. It would be easier to just run away together, to never look back. But even Ed could admit that he wasn’t that man anymore, the one who would abandon people he cared about, who maybe even cared about him, too. He thought of Lucius standing up to him on the treasure hunt, not just for Stede’s sake, but for Ed’s too. He thought of how they had all worked so hard to impress him with their Fuckery, and how happy they’d been when he’d approved. He thought of how they effortlessly made space for him in their circle during Stede’s bedtime stories, how they deferred to him as Captain, not out of fear, but out of respect. How they trusted him, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. Because Ed had earned it in his own right.

Yes, maybe he had people who cared for him after all.

“So, what’s the plan, then?” Ed asked, resigned but trying not to be.

“Well, we need to get back to the Revenge. And then I’ll break off, head to Barbados. I don’t want to give the English too much credit, but they may be scouting the area. I mean, I don’t think I’d be of much import, but you… Blackbeard pledging himself to the crown and then escaping very shortly thereafter is going to be of some note, I feel.”

Ed wanted to argue that Stede was plenty important, especially to him, more important than anything, really, but he understood Stede’s point.

“So I’ll create a diversion, then. Lead the English away if they do decide to come poking around. And then when you’ve concluded your business, we’ll take our crew and head to China. Or wherever.”

“To China,” Stede said with a smile, leaning in for a kiss.

*

It did not take long for them to find the Revenge, and Ed didn’t know whether to attribute that to dumb luck or the fact that for the talents Izzy did possess, captaining a ship was not one of them. In fact, as they boarded, it appeared that the crew was in the midst of a mutiny.

“Edward! Thank God,” Izzy cried as Ed made his way onto the ship, followed by Stede. The crew, in their surprise and delight, dropped Izzy to the deck with a thud as they ran to greet their captains.

“Cap’n!”

“Blackbeard!”

“Oh my God, what happened to your face?”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Stede held up his hands and the crew quieted to listen to him. For all that Stede did not make a great pirate, Ed didn’t think he’d ever stop being quietly impressed at how effortlessly Stede commanded loyalty.

“Ed and I have escaped the English. I think you can see that, as we’re here. But we fear they may be coming. And I have... business that I need to attend to, back in Barbados. I will be taking my leave of you shortly, so that you may have a chance to outrun any naval ships that may be headed our way. That is… Ed and I don’t want to put any of you in a position to… well, I don’t want to assume...”

“Captain,” Oluwande said, pausing until he had Stede’s full attention, a small smile tugging at his lips. “It’s good to have you back. Both of you.”

Stede’s eyes watered as he smiled, and Ed had the sudden urge to drag him into his cabin and keep him there. He’d been focused on getting back to the ship, able ignore the thoughts of what would happen once they got there. Now that they had arrived, the idea of being parted from Stede loomed like a gathering storm.

“Edward? Could you help me up, please?”

Ed looked down to see Izzy, his hands and feet tied, trying to maneuver himself into a sitting position. Ed was still furious at him for what he’d done, selling Stede out to the British and trying to use Jack to bait him away by preying on Ed’s own insecurities.

If Ed was truly honest with himself, he was also angry at how close it had come to working.

“Give me one good reason,” he said, giving Izzy a disinterested glance.

“If you’re going to be too wrapped up in Bonnet for any proper pirating, you’re going to need someone who can make sure we don’t just sail the ocean aimlessly for the rest of our lives until we’re blown up by the British or the Spanish or any bloody pirate on the seas with a vendetta against you, which, as you know, is most of them. You’re going to need a man in charge when you’re otherwise… occupied.”

Izzy said it like it tasted foul in his mouth. Ed fought the urge to punch him again.

“And you think you’re the man for the job? If we’d been any later, they’d’ve already thrown you overboard. Not sure you’re what they call leadership material.”

“If I wanted a fucking platitude from Bonnet, I’d talk to fucking Bonnet. I’m talking to Edward. To Blackbeard. If you don’t want to get annihilated at the earliest opportunity, get me out of these fucking ropes and let me do the fucking job you fucking hired me to do!”

“Christ, man, all right, if only to get you to shut up,” Ed muttered, helping Izzy right himself and loosening the ropes on his wrists. “But I swear, Izzy,” Ed said, and he felt some of that old steel crawling back up his spine as he pulled Izzy in close by the front of his shirt, “I swear to any fucking God that’ll listen, if you cross me, or Stede, or anyone else on this ship, I will cut off your toes one by one and feed them to you until you fucking choke on them.”

Ed had known Izzy too long to be surprised by the slight smile on his face. “Yes, Captain.”

*

Ed had thought they would have more time, a day or two before Stede departed, but he had readied himself to leave only a few short hours after their arrival back on the Revenge. Part of Ed knew there was no point in delaying the inevitable, but he could barely swallow the meal Roach had prepared for them as Stede spoke of his plans.

“I should have just enough daylight to arrive at Barbados by sundown. I’m thinking I’ll wait until the children have gone to bed, and then I’ll speak with Mary privately. Hopefully I wont be seen. As you know, I’ve been declared dead, and it likely wont do to be seen until I know exactly how dead I am.”

“I think dead’s dead, Stede,” Ed said, shifting his food around aimlessly on his plate.

“Oh, chin up, Ed. It’ll all be alright,” Stede said, wrapping an arm around Ed’s shoulders and squeezing. “Plus, you’ll be having so much fun Captaining again, you’ll hardly notice I’m gone.”

They both knew that wasn’t true. Ed would miss Stede every moment they were apart. He didn’t respond. What could he say? Instead, he leaned his head in until it was resting on Stede’s shoulder.

Stede gave the top of his head a kiss. “I’ll miss you too.”

*

“Well, that’s everything,” Stede said as he climbed up the rope ladder back onto the deck. “Thank you Frenchie, Wee John, I do appreciate the help!”

Most of the crew had been giving Ed a wide berth, sensing his mood as he wordlessly watched Stede prepare the dinghy. Ed was beginning to feel as he had back on the dock, nearly convinced that Stede had left him behind. But Stede, he kept reminding himself, hadn’t left him behind.

Ed hadn’t been left behind.

If Stede needed to close the chapter on his old life to begin their new one, Ed knew it wasn’t his place to stop him. He wanted Stede to have this, but he also never, ever wanted to be parted from Stede. Stede’s impending departure was making him feel panicky and off kilter, and he didn’t know what to do with those feelings as they tried to share space with the giddy joy he felt whenever Stede smiled at him, whenever the man pressed his lips to Ed’s own.

Stede approached Ed, looking at him in a way that was both adoring and sad. “Oh Ed. Come here.”

Stede opened his arms and Ed went willingly. They held tightly to each other for long moments. The deck had cleared, the crew giving them a moment alone, but Ed hardly noticed.

As they pulled back, Ed pressed his forehead to Stede’s, and Stede gently stroked his cheek, gestures that were becoming achingly familiar now.

“I, um, I have something for you,” Ed said, fidgeting nervously as he stepped back from Stede to reach into his pocket.

Stede smiled at him. “Ooh! A parting gift? Well, what is it? You know I love presents!”

Ed pulled out his red cloth, the one Stede had tucked into his pocket under the moonlight, the night Ed had first thought, I could kiss him. He held it out to Stede, and Stede’s excited smile immediately turned soft, eyes shining as he looked at Ed.

“Oh, Ed. This is… thank you.” Stede took it from Ed as if it were something infinitely precious, and Ed felt something crack inside of him.

“I want it back, you know,” Ed said, desperate to regain his footing. “When you come back. You keep it while you’re gone, give it to me when you get back. So don’t like, fuck it up or lose it or anything.”

Stede folded it just as he had shown Ed all those nights ago under the full moon and put it in his breast pocket. The left one, directly over his heart. “I will cherish it, Ed. No fuck ups. I promise.”

And what could Ed do at that moment but kiss Stede until there was no air left to breathe into his lungs?

*

Ed sat in the windowsill of the main cabin, wrapped up in one of Stede’s robes, the pink one, which smelled more strongly of him than the others. Ed had stood watching Stede row away, and had continued watching long after he had disappeared from Ed’s line of sight. Black Pete had brought him a plate of dinner, which was untouched on the table. Ed was, however, nursing a bottle of brandy, which he felt was a perfectly sufficient meal.

There was a soft knock at the door and then it opened and Lucius’s head appeared. “Hello, Edward.”

Ed gave him the barest hint of a nod, not even looking in his direction.

Lucius sighed as he stepped into the room, looking at his untouched plate of food with a cross between pity and sympathy. There was a time in Ed’s life when he would have tortured a man a little for directing an expression like that his way.

“So, this is not going to do,” Lucius said. “Tonight, you can be sad, but tomorrow, we’re going to need you functional enough to lead us. Buttons has hexed Izzy twice, and I think Fang might cry if he tries it a third time.”

Lucius sat down on the windowsill at Ed’s feet. Ed curled up his knees tighter into his chest, still not looking at him.

“Ed,” Lucius said, quiet and kind, and Ed squeezed his eyes shut.

“He’s coming back. He’s coming back to you,” Lucius said.

“Then why does it feel like he’s left me?” Ed asked, and there was a part of him that was horrified at the crack in his voice. He didn’t even know how Stede was going to find them again.

“Well, in a literal sense, he did,” Lucius said. “But if I know Captain Bonnet, and after weeks of writing down the man’s every wild whim and nonsensical thought, I think I do, he’s off to make a clean break with his family. And I think he would only do something like that if it was of the utmost importance to him, to start a new life. With you.”

Ed sniffed and blinked back tears, finally feeling brave enough to look at Lucius. Fearless pirate, indeed. And yet, Ed was starting to realize that opening his heart was perhaps a far braver act than pillaging the seas.

“I feel like a miserable wretch without him.”

Lucius chuckled as if he truly understood, as if he too had once been sitting bereft in a windowsill, wrapped up in his lover’s finery. “It’s love, Edward. It’s a miserable business for the most part, until a person comes along to remind you that it’s not.”

Love.

He and Stede hadn’t said the words to each other, but hadn’t they both almost, in the quiet solitude of their island? The love Ed felt for Stede had been instantly recognizable to him, having gone most of his life without it. What could the feelings Stede wrought in him be, if not love?

Edward had been intrigued by Stede, and then fascinated, and then he had been swept away in all that Stede was, Stede’s enthusiasm for even the most mundane things, the way he forgave Ed his foibles so effortlessly and easily, the way he was patient with Ed. Stede was kind, Stede was giving of himself to others, and there was nothing Stede had not been willing to share with Ed, and happily so.

Ed thought of how it had felt to know that Stede had cooked up an elaborate adventure, just to keep Ed from feeling some supposed sense of boredom. To keep Ed interested in Stede, as if Stede weren’t already the most captivating person Ed had ever met. Ed thought of how shame had settled hot in his belly as Stede saw the kind of man he was around someone like Jack, someone from his old life. Stede, who believed Ed could be more than his past. Stede, who didn’t want Ed to change, but to simply be who he truly was without trying to impress or hide behind a facade or live up to a name. Stede, who kept his favorite marmalade stocked on the ship and knew exactly how he took his tea.

In the face of Stede’s imminent demise, Ed had felt a despair so absolute that giving up Blackbeard and all that the name entailed had been easy, as simple as breathing. What was love, Ed thought, if not breaking himself open down to his very core and rebuilding himself anew with the knowledge that what had been seen was something to be celebrated, to be cherished? For as besotted as Ed felt around Stede, he thought about the way Stede had looked at him as they parted, tucking Ed’s red cloth against his heart with the reverence of a man kneeling in prayer.

He’d given Stede his heart, sent him away with the very living, beating piece of him, because he loved him. Ed loved Stede Bonnet down to his very core. His bones ached with it, and with that ache came the knowing that Ed was not alone in these feelings, and it settled something inside of him, quieted the tempest into a gentle rain.

Ed sniffed again and wiped at his eyes, but the smile he gave Lucius was genuine. “Thank you.”

Lucius nodded once and then patted Ed’s foot awkwardly before standing up. “I’ll see you in the morning, then?”

“Yeah,” Ed said. “I’ll be there.”

*

“How’s that part go again, Captain?” Frenchie asked, strumming an absent chord on his lute.

“Away, away today,” Ed sang. “Life’s a hard, sad death.”

Frenchie nodded and strummed along, following Ed’s melody, more or less.

Lucius sighed, cutting Ed off before he could finish. “I thought we were being happy today, Edward.”

“A happy man can still sing from the depths of his soul, babe!” Black Pete said. “Let the man emote.” A chorus of agreement from the crew rose up, and Ed smiled to himself.

“Oh, for the love of God,” Lucius said, throwing his hands up as Buttons began demonstrating his own expression of pure tonal feeling.

As Frenchie immediately began trying to strum along to the noises Buttons was making, and Wee John began tapping in time on the barrel he was sitting upon, Ed jumped up, feeling more himself than he had since Stede had left.

“I’ve an idea,” he said. “A talent show! We should put on a talent show!”

Lucius spun on his heel, returning to the group. “Did somebody say talent? As I told the English, I’m a double threat. We’re doing this.”

The enthusiastic cheers that went up among the crew heartened Ed. Even Fang and Ivan looked excited, Ed overhearing Ivan telling Fang, “I have been practicing puppetry in my spare time.”

The one person not sharing in the excited chatter was Izzy, who looked darkly at Ed before approaching him. Ed was determined that Izzy wasn’t going to sour his sudden good mood, even though Izzy had a particular talent for that sort of thing.

“Captain,” he hissed, “a word?”

Ed shrugged and followed Izzy back to his cabin. Stede’s cabin. Their cabin, Ed realized with a pleased thrum of his pulse, once Stede returned.

Ed sighed as Izzy slammed the door behind him, folding his arms over his chest. He was still wearing Stede’s floral robe. He had spent the night asleep in the windowsill, unable to bring himself to sleep in Stede’s bed without him, but wrapping Stede’s robe around himself felt like a piece of Stede was with him, and Ed found he liked the comfort of that.

“What is it, Izzy?”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Izzy asked. “A fucking talent show? The Edward I know would rather sink to the bottom of the fucking ocean than be part of something so absolutely ridiculous.”

“I am the Edward you know, Izzy. People are allowed to change, to grow.”

“Not us. Not Blackbeard.” Here, Izzy’s gaze turned calculating. “Not Bonnet.”

“Izzy, I don’t see what Stede has to do with – ”

“Do you really think he’s coming back for you?” Izzy asked harshly, and Ed felt as though he’d been tossed overboard into cold ocean waters. “A pampered rich twat playing at pirates, not for real, for a fucking lark. Meets the legendary Blackbeard and has himself a laugh of a time playing with his new toy until he’s well and truly broken it.”

“I’m not a fucking toy,” Ed said, and there was that steel again, slowly creeping in.

“Bonnet had you bewitched before you even met him. And now that he’s gone back to his pampered life, his money and his estate and his lovely wife and children, do you really think he’s going to just turn around and come back to this? To you, a mere shell of the most infamous man to ever sail the seas? It’s fucking pathetic, Edward, and I will not stand by any longer and let you fall deeper into this madness.”

“Then don’t,” Edward said, the words harsh as blades cutting on his tongue. “Don’t stand by. Get the fuck off my ship.”

“No,” Izzy said.

Ed roared, frustrated and angry in equal measure, and beneath that, unraveling at the terror locked away within the part of himself that feared Izzy’s words might be true. “He’s from my world, not yours.” That’s what Badminton had said, hadn’t he? And in the way that Stede had felt flayed bare by the barbs Badminton had thrown at him, wasn’t this terrible truth equally painful, should Ed entertain it to the conclusion Izzy wished him to? He swept the table clean, plates and candles clattering to the floor, the sound echoing loudly in the cabin.

“What the fuck do you want from me, man?” Ed asked. He sat down at the table, the fight leaving him as quickly as it’d come, the steel inside of him softening to bone once more.

Izzy sat down across from him. “I want you to be yourself again, Edward. How many times do I have to fucking say it?”

“And how many times do I have to fucking tell you that this is who I am? I was a terror on the seas once, yeah. But I don’t want it anymore, that part’s over. Now I want to, I dunno, have talent shows with the crew and hunt for petrified oranges in the jungle and learn about fucking cutlery.”

“Bonnet has – ”

“I want Stede, Izzy,” Ed said. “I want him. I want a life with him.” He took a breath, knowing these next words would cost him. “Maybe he’ll come back, maybe he wont. But it’s worth it to me, to find out.”

Izzy scoffed, his lip curling, and in that moment, it wasn’t anger Ed felt toward him, but a kind of pity. What did Izzy know of love? To Izzy, every single person on the ship was beneath him, including Ed unless he was at his most terrible, most ruthless, the darkest version of himself. Ed heard faint laughter coming from the deck and realized that perhaps Stede had been more astute than anyone had given him credit for in how he’d gone about choosing his crew. They were all of them nothing like capable, proper pirates should be, but Stede had found something infinitely more valuable.

“I’m not your only family, Ed.”

“Iz,” Ed said. “You’ll always have a place with me. But you can’t stay here if you’re not willing to accept that this is the life I’m choosing. No one’s forcing me into it. It’s my choice.” Ed hadn’t let Stede assume guilt for the consequences of Ed’s actions, and he wasn’t going to let Izzy manipulate him for those same actions now.

“I could just kill you, you know. Or him.”

Ed didn’t miss a beat. “I’d slit your throat before you could even reach for your weapon.”

Izzy gave a mirthless laugh at that. “Yes, I suppose you would.” He stood, and the look he gave Ed was inscrutable. “Well. I suppose I’ll gather my things, then.”

Ed didn’t respond. He’d said what he needed to say, and while Izzy had been the closest thing Ed had to a friend before meeting Stede, it was clear that he and Izzy were at an impasse now. Ed searched for sadness, but couldn’t find any within himself. He thought of island trees in a storm, branches that thrashed and bent to the ground below, but never broke. Maybe one day they’d see each other again, meet as two men in the present moment instead of one looking forward while the other looked behind.

“Hey Iz?” Ed called out as Izzy’s hand reached for the doorknob. “Try not sell us out to the British this time. At least for a little while.”

The ghost of a smile crossed Izzy’s lips. “I’ll do that.”

*

The ship was abuzz with plans for the talent show, and Ed found himself passing the days without Stede in a pleasantly chaotic hum of artistic endeavors. At night, the crew gathered and took turns telling stories in Stede’s absence. Ed missed him terribly, thought of him more often than he didn’t, and still couldn’t bring himself to sleep alone in Stede’s bed, but he found that letting the crew’s enthusiasm wash over him kept his darker thoughts at bay. Until he could see Stede again, it was enough.

Lucius had taken charge of the show, often consulting Ed on the order of performances, the ethics of robbing a merchant vessel for more fabrics, and it wasn’t that Lucius was opposed to Buttons performing his chants while naked, but shouldn’t they be at least somewhat concerned about sun exposure?

Ed was watching Oluwande tighten the rope he had affixed to a stick, practicing what Lucius was calling exotic rope dancing. Jim was attempting to pin the end of the rope to the deck with their knife. Both of them were laughing.

Ed had heard about Olu and Jim from Lucius, who swore that he and Ed were confidantes now, and therefore they told each other everything. Ed hadn’t missed the unspoken implication that he would owe Lucius some tidbits about Stede at a later date.

When he found himself alone with the new couple, he offered a quiet but sincere congratulations to them. Oluwande had been pleased while Jim looked like they might cut him, and it was exactly the sort of reaction Ed had expected. When Jim then offered a gruff Thanks and dragged Olu back toward their room, Ed smiled and it hadn’t hurt at all.

Ed was distracted from his musings when Buttons cried out, running toward the side of the ship and looking up at the sky. Ed could see a seagull flying overhead.

Buttons waved up at the bird, and then looked out to the water, crying out again and waving his arms back and forth. “Cap’n! Over here, Cap’n!”

Ed froze as the crew ran to join Buttons, shouting out various exclamations of excitement, readying the rope ladder over the side of the ship. Ed thought he saw the Swede wipe at his eyes. There was only one person it could be and yet Ed couldn’t bring himself to join the crew. He stood back, silent as the dinghy met the ship and the crew awaiting it.

He heard him before he saw him. “Hello! Hello, oh, thank you Wee John, I appreciate the lift. Oh, Black Pete, your makeup is a delight! Are we having a party? You all look so colorful! Oh, what a sight for sore eyes you are.”

A chorus of greetings met Stede as he planted his feet aboard, and Ed could really only see the top of his head as the crew surrounded him. His mouth felt dry, his palms clammy, and for some inexplicable reason he wanted to run just as much as he wanted to shove everyone aside and hold Stede to him and never let him go.

As one, the crew realized that there was one reunion that had yet to take place and they parted, leaving the path between Stede and Ed open and clear. Ed took in the sight of Stede like he was the water brought to a man dying of thirst. He was dressed in plainclothes not unlike the ones they’d worn at the academy, but when his eyes met Ed’s, they were shining like the sun itself, and Ed flowered under his warmth.

“Stede,” Ed said, voice cracking.

“Ed,” Stede said, his name a benediction on Stede’s lips. They were in each other’s arms then, holding on so tightly Ed wasn’t sure where one ended and the other began. Ed was aware of their audience, but he didn’t care.

“I have something for you,” Stede said softly, pulling Ed’s red cloth from the folds of his tunic. Their fingers brushed as Stede handed it to Ed. He could feel that it was a little more worn than it had been when he’d given it to Stede. That Stede hadn’t just kept it tucked away, forgotten, filled Ed with a depth of feeling he couldn’t quite name.

“How did you find us?” Ed asked, stepping back from Stede. It had been wonderful to hold Stede again, to be held, but the proximity to him suddenly felt overwhelming.

“Ah, yes! The delightful Olivia showed me the way.”

The seagull that had been flying above them squawked and landed on Buttons’s outstretched arm. “Atta girl, Livy! I missed ye, but knew ye’d keep our Cap’n safe.” She squawked again and Buttons laughed, delighted. “Aye, she says you delivered a right fine Fuckery, Cap’n. One of the finest she’s ever seen.”

Stede’s smile was inordinately pleased. “Thank you, Miss Olivia.”

“A Fuckery?” Ed asked, bewildered. His insides were tied up in knots and yet he was so happy to see Stede, he wasn’t sure anything else mattered.

“Oh, yes. You would’ve been proud, Ed. Mary and I faked my death with the help of her boyfriend and an undertaker’s widow!”

“There’s a lot happening in that sentence, and I’m not sure what we should unpack first,” Lucius said.

“I wanna know more about the boyfriend,” Frenchie said, and beside him, Roach nodded.

“Doug is a wonderful chap. He’s Mary’s painting instructor. She’s got a flourishing career as the Widow Bonnet. Rather mucked that up for a moment when I arrived, but we put that to rights in short order by staging my very untimely and very, very public death. She and my children will want for nothing, and I’m back where I belong. Oh, look what my daughter Alma did to the petrified orange!”

As Stede showed the crew his half of the petrified orange to various oohs and ahhs, he looked so happy, so content and fulfilled that Ed felt himself slipping further into madness to not be sharing in Stede’s joy. Stede had flourished without Ed, and being without Stede had nearly brought Ed to ruin.

“How’d you fake your own death?” Jim asked, affecting a bored disinterest, but Ed could tell they were genuinely interested in the story.

Stede glanced at Ed, a look that clearly asked if maybe it shouldn’t wait until after they’d had some time together, alone. Ed smiled a little painfully and clapped his hands. “Let’s hear it!”

Stede waited a beat too long before turning to the crew. “All righty, then! Places, everyone. Do I have a story for you!”

*

Ed had to admit, he’d been as enthralled with Stede’s story as the rest of the crew, and couldn’t help but feel as if Stede had thrown in the jungle cat bit just for him. Listening to Stede as he told his tale, watching him, Ed could sense that something within Stede had shifted. He held himself with a quiet confidence that hadn’t been there before. Ed began to understand more fully why Stede had wanted to leave. To truly find himself, Stede had had to lose a family. For Ed to do the same, he’d had to find one.

They were seated together on the sofa, drinks in hand. “So,” Ed said, going for casual and feeling he’d missed by a mile. “Other than a truly magnificent sounding Fuckery, how was the rest of your time? How was, um, Mary?”

“Oh, she was surprised to see me, to be sure! And none too happy at first. She even tried to stab me with a party skewer, but once I’d convinced her I wasn’t there to try and insert myself into her life again, things went much more smoothly. We decided that my death, a real one in the eyes of those in town, was the answer for us both. Mary would be free to live her life as the Widow Bonnet, accomplished painter, mother, friend, confidant, and lover. And I, too, would be free to do the same.”

“Become a painter?” Ed asked, unable to stop himself from trying to lighten the mood, even as he hungered for each and every one of Stede’s words. Ed never wanted to stop hearing the sound of his voice after so many days without it.

Stede smiled at him and shook his head, taking both of Ed’s hands in his own.

“We had a lovely conversation about love, about what it means to love someone. Really love them. As she was talking… all I could think of was you, Ed. You and every wonderful thing about you that I’ve been lucky enough to be part of from the moment we met. And I realized how stupid I’ve been, and how much I regret that I didn’t tell you before I left.”

Ed couldn’t breathe, might never breathe again. “Tell me what?”

Stede looked at Ed then as if he was the sun rising and setting all at once, as if he was every piece of fabled pirate treasure that had ever been or would ever be, like he was every beloved book Stede had ever read, a ballad sung to a perfect tune. He looked at Ed like he was a marvel, like Stede couldn’t quite believe he was real, and more importantly, that Ed was his. And oh, Ed was his, had given himself so completely to this man who was beyond description. The lighthouse guiding Ed’s ship not to ruin, but to safe harbor.

“Tell you,” Stede said, “how much I love you. And oh, Edward Teach. I love you so much that I am overflowing with it. There is so much of it, I don’t understand how I have not come apart for the impossibility of keeping it inside one single body, when the ocean itself cannot contain the heart of me, each and every beat for you. You are the love of my life, and my only regret is that I haven’t told you so every single day since the moment we met.”

Ed wasn’t fully aware of the tears falling down his face until Stede reached up to wipe them away. Ed realized that Stede wasn’t just sure of his own self now, but of Ed, too. Not just the warm, open parts of him, but the cold, dark ones too. In the light of Stede’s loving gaze, Ed felt truly, wholly known. Every piece of him laid bare to Stede, who held each one safe and protected.

Ed had told the crew that he had never felt fear, but the truth was, his fear had been a near-constant companion his whole life. Being a hardened vagrant facing down scores of enemies and death on a near-daily basis, that was the easy part. Letting someone in, to let himself himself be seen, to be known, to be loved, was infinitely harder.

Ed had been brave when he and Stede had kissed for the first time. He knew that Stede would have never taken that chance. But Ed knew, as Stede’s words washed over him, that Stede was brave in their love, too.

“I love you too,” Ed choked out. “Stede, it’s so much, I can’t...”

Stede held Ed to him, stroking his hair. “Shh. It’s all right, my darling. I know. I know.” Ed was reminded of that dawn on the pier, when Stede had stumbled out of the jungle, lost and afraid. Ed had been sure, then. Sure in them. To feel that surety from Stede now, to know that he had found someone who would both give and take strength and support and love in equal measure, was more than Ed could find words to describe.

It was often said that no one was a match for the infamous Blackbeard, but Stede Bonnet was Edward Teach’s equal in every way, patchwork pieces expertly sewn together to make a perfect whole.

“Say it again,” Ed said, and he felt Stede smile against the crown of his head.

“I love you.”

“Again.”

“I adore you.”

“Again.”

“I don’t want to live another single, solitary day of my life without you.”

“Fuckin’ kiss me,” Ed demanded.

And Stede did.