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all hands through the salt lands

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A brief gasp, quickly stifled. Ed nearly growls — he wants to hear Stede being taken apart — and he presses his teeth into the skin of his hipbone in punishment. He feels Stede’s hips jump beneath him, and Ed uses his weight to pin him back down. Once it’s been made clear that Stede can’t buck him off, Ed goes back to what he was doing, which was mouthing at Stede’s clothed cock, getting him hard in the hopes that Stede’ll fuck him.

Stede’s voice is breathless and pitched higher than normal. “Ed, you can’t—”

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” says Ed, and this time it does come out as a snarl. Stede’s hand, which is in Ed’s hair, clenches and pulls. Ed bares his teeth, fighting the whine that builds in his throat. He allows Stede to wrench his head back, and meets his eyes.

Ed knows what he looks like with all of this warpaint. Stede left too many fancy fucking mirrors in his absence. Ed couldn’t walk a goddamn inch without seeing his face in some stray reflection.

“Can we talk?” says Stede. “You’re angry with me.”

“I’m not angry with you,” says Ed. He even smiles as he says it.

But Stede continues to look into Ed’s eyes with that worried little crease between his brows. He keeps on looking, like he’s searching for some remnant of a different man.

“Hey,” Stede says, just a whisper. “It’s me. It’s your Stede.”

Ed twists away, out of Stede’s hold, and gets to his feet. He looms above Stede, breathing hard. He’d pulled him in here because he knew Stede was building up to a Conversation. He’d pulled him in and wrenched his shirt from his trousers and shoved him to the bed to put his face between his legs. But it seems that, despite that, Stede still only wanted to talk.

Ed sneers. “Mate, if we’re not going to get on with it and fuck, then this is a waste of time, isn’t it? I do have a ship to run.”

Stede blinks at him. He looks appealingly undone, his shirt rucked up to his chest, bruises left on his belly, all flushed at the attention. On his face, though, worry wars with arousal, and it looks like worry’s winning. 

Ed doesn’t give Stede a chance to say anything else. He turns and he leaves.

It’s not easy to make yourself scarce on a ship of this size, but it’s not impossible either. Ed fucks around belowdecks for a bit, but he would hate to be caught sulking by one of the crew, so he stalks about on the deck, glaring at anyone who gets too close.

Then, when this wears off, and Ed begins to catch the crew giving him looks, like they’re trying to gauge his mood, make sure he’s okay , when he sees Stede come out of his cabin and give him a careful nod, when all of it becomes too much and Ed doesn’t know where to start holding himself together, Ed flees again. 

He goes to the brig. He sits on the floor by the bars, and he pulls out a deck of cards.

“Go Fish?” he asks Izzy.

Izzy grimaces. “What kind of a game is fucking Go Fish?”

Stede had taught him Go Fish. It was the only card game Stede knew, and Ed had gathered halfway through their third game that he’d only ever played it with his children.

“Just a game,” Ed says. “Guess I’m dealing.” He shuffles the deck.

“Why are you down here?” Izzy says. 

“I pulled the short straw,” Ed lies. “Prisoner watch duty. Guess even a co-captain has to look after dogs like you.”

“Does he not want you anymore, now that he’s seen what you really are?” Izzy says with a hint of smugness. “He doesn’t want the ugly bits of you, that Stede Bonnet. He thought you were something you weren’t, and now he’s going to leave you again. He’s already done it once, hasn’t he?”

“Shut the fuck up,” Ed says, but there’s very little fight left in him. 

He deals the cards. He kicks Izzy’s ass at Go Fish. 

And then, finally, when Ed has nowhere else to go, and the ship is quiet but for the night watch and the creaking ropes, and Ed is tired enough that he either has to go to sleep right this instant or stay awake until dawn — he finds Stede.

He slips into bed beside him. Stede wakes up and makes a soft noise of surprise.

“Don’t say anything,” Ed says quickly. “I don’t want you to say anything. If you say anything, I’ll leave.”

He feels Stede reckoning with this. Even in the dark, it’s like he can hear Stede deliberating, presenting counter-arguments. In the end, though, Stede only sighs.

“All right,” he says, voice raspy with sleep. Then, “Come here. Scoot.”

Ed scoots. Stede tucks him into his arms so that he’s surrounded on all sides. Ed can feel Stede’s chest rising and falling, like the ocean is against his back. Ed clenches his fist so tightly in the sheets that his knuckles creak. Stede must feel him go tense, because he begins to draw back.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Ed snarls.

Stede doesn’t say anything — a part Ed is pleased that Stede is doing what he told him to do, and another part just wants to hear Stede’s voice — but he stays with his arms around Ed. He presses a kiss to the back of Ed’s neck. 

Somehow, Ed goes to sleep.

 

 

 

Everyone Ed’s ever cared about has also hurt him. Why should Stede be any different?

With Jack, it wasn’t like this at all. In some ways, it was easier. Ed’s memory of that time on Hornigold’s ship has all the haze of a head wound. Ed spent most of his time either doing violence, thinking about doing violence, or drinking to forget the violence. When Jack had him, he usually had him bent over in some corner of the ship, laughing when Ed made any kind of sound of discomfort, driving into him until it stopped hurting and became something else.

Maybe it’s for the best that he doesn’t quite remember all of it.

When Stede touches him, it’s different. In the morning, when Ed wakes up in Stede’s arms, and their bodies both want each other, Stede doesn’t immediately pile on top of him or anything like that. He touches the side of Ed’s face, his fingers light against his jaw. 

“Morning,” Stede says. “Am I allowed to talk now?”

Ed is stunned, for a moment, by Stede’s smile. It’s too gentle to bear. He nods.

Stede looks relieved. “I missed you yesterday,” he says. “The crew mutinied again. I talked them down, though. Gave them some perks. I knew stocking up on marmalade was the right call.”

Ed has long ago observed that the crew mutinies at least once a week, clearly so that Stede will bribe them with perks. 

“Hope there’s still some left,” Ed says with a yawn. “That marmalade is pretty yum.” 

“Don’t worry, I still have my private reserves,” Stede says conspiratorially. 

They’re pressed together on the bed. Ed shifts over, so he can get closer, and Stede’s hand goes automatically to the small of Ed’s back, his fingers rubbing back and forth against the patch of skin there. Ed regrets not changing out of his leathers last night. Stede, meanwhile, looks like a fucking temptation in that loose white nightgown he wears to bed. Ed’s long wondered what he wears beneath it.

“Shall we eat?” Stede says, and pulls away.

“What,” Ed says, and watches with disbelief as Stede gets out of bed.

“I’ll call for breakfast,” Stede says, clearly oblivious to the reason for Ed's distress. There he is, in that loose white thing, his collarbone bared, his hair all mussed. Ed wants him so badly and he doesn’t even know why . He just knows that if anyone else sees Stede like this, he’ll stab out their eyes for the dishonor.

“Let me do it,” Ed says. He gets out of bed and storms furiously to the door. 

“Breakfast!” he bellows at the top of his lungs, and soon breakfast arrives. Ed takes the tray from the unlucky crewmember before they can see Stede, and he shuts the door with his foot.

Stede looks a little sheepish. “I do like to say ‘please’. And even a small expression of gratitude can make a whole world of difference.”

Ed grumbles, and Stede’s expression goes fond and indulgent. He begins to set the table. Ed, who is still invested in the idea of some vigorous morning buggering, wonders if Stede means to build up their energy with a hearty breakfast first.

Stede pours them both tea. Ed coils up in his seat and doesn’t even reach for the sugar. Stede gives him concerned glances over his breakfast, until finally, he puts down his fork and knife, untucks the napkin from his collar, and leans forward across the table.

“What I did to you was unforgivable,” Stede says. “I know that.”

Ed pulls in a sharp breath. “Stop. It’s fine.”

Stede flashes a look at him, and Ed sees the glimmer of anger.

“It’s not fine at all,” Stede says, hotly. “I broke a promise to you. I had my reasons, but that doesn’t make it all right. You deserved better.”

“So what?” Ed says. So what if he deserved better? He’s lived long enough to know that people never get what they deserve.

Now Stede looks like he’s been brought up short. Instead of saying anything more, he stands and kneels by Ed, gathering up his hands in his.

“Edward,” Stede says, quietly. “I’m sorry I hurt you. Please let me say it.” He bends his head and kisses Ed’s knuckles.

This would be so much easier if Stede just wanted to fuck him.

Ed tugs on his hands, pulls until Stede stands with a small amused huff and sits himself delicately on Ed’s lap.

“Hey,” Stede says, his thumb stroking over Ed’s cheek, which is still black with smudged charcoal. Ed thinks, distantly, that he’ll have to reapply it at some point.

Ed pulls him down for a kiss. Stede gasps against his lips before opening for him, arranging himself so that he’s seated more fully across Ed’s lap. Ed feels a ravenous hunger build in him, and slides a hand into Stede’s soft hair, breathing in the perfume of his soaps. His gown begins to ride up, and Ed helps it along by rucking it up roughly with one hand, delighting when he touches the bare skin of Stede’s thigh underneath. 

If he keeps going, Ed’s pretty sure he can wrap his hand around Stede’s cock, make him come onto his chest, on all this fine upholstery and silk. Maybe that’s the only thing he’ll ever be good at in Stede’s world — soiling fine things.

Stede breaks away to catch his breath. He has his arms around Ed’s shoulders, and he smiles and says, “I love you.”

Ed freezes.

A moment passes, and Stede’s expression goes stricken. 

“You must know,” Stede says. “Surely, you must.”

His arms are still around Ed’s shoulders. 

“Um,” Ed says. “Guess I never really thought about it.” Liar. Liar, liar.

Stede looks relieved. “That’s all right. I should have said it sooner, I suppose. But yes, my dear. You have my love, if you want it. You have all of me.”

He kisses Ed again, and Ed tries only to remember how to breathe.

 

 

 

He finds a way to excuse himself, leaving Stede to his breakfast. He’s more abrupt about it than he should be — he sees the lost puppy look Stede throws at him on his way out — but he’s suddenly too restless to stay in one place. 

Stede told him he loves him. And, as it turns out, Ed’s a coward.

The ship stops to resupply water at an island. Ed’s on the first longboat out.

It’s a relief to be off the ship. Ed quickly splits off from the rest of the crew, finding a stretch of beach where he won’t be easily found. He sits in the sand, uncorks a bottle of rum, and starts to drink.

It doesn’t take too long for the sobs to start. Ed spent so many years methodically cauterizing his life’s wounds, and all it took was one Stede Bonnet to undo him. He cries for his mother, for his father. He cries for the boy he used to be. He cries for the years he spent longing for love without even knowing it. He cries for Stede.

The sun is on its way to setting and Ed’s long since finished all the rum when Stede finds him. He sits next to him on the sand, and like some wretched, ruined thing, Ed crawls over and puts his head in Stede’s lap.

“How did you know where I was?” Ed mumbles, rubbing his nose into the soft material of Stede’s trousers.

“Could see you from my cabin with my telescope,” Stede explains. “I knew something was wrong when you left breakfast like there was a fire lit under your tail.” Stede tuts over the state of Ed’s hair, crusted all over with sand and salt. He produces a comb, and begins patiently teasing apart the tangles. 

“Do you want to talk about it?” Stede says, softly.

“I missed you when you were gone, Stede,” Ed says hoarsely. “I cried for ages and ages. I threw your books into the ocean, and stabbed some of your pillows. I even smashed all your perfume bottles.”

“I noticed,” Stede says dryly. “You threw Lucius overboard. He’s still not very happy about that, you know.”

“Yeah I fucking started a war for you,” Ed says. “It’s not my fault you didn’t like it.”

He sniffles miserably, curling further into Stede’s lap. Stede immediately makes a small, concerned noise, and runs a hand up and down Ed’s arm to soothe him.

“Do you even want me around anymore, man?” Ed says.

“Of course I want you, Ed,” Stede says. “What I said this morning — it’s all true.”

“I know that,” Ed says. “But what I don’t know is — what if you decide to leave again?”

Stede is quiet, then. He’s quiet for so long, that Ed turns and looks up at him. He sees Stede’s face, something broken in his expression, and beyond that, stars.

“I can’t make that promise, my dear,” Stede says. “I want to stay. I want to stay very much.”

Stede adds, almost to himself, “I’m afraid I’m not a very good man.”

This honesty, above everything else, finally calms him. Ed wipes the tears from his eyes, and he gives Stede a watery smile. After a moment of shocked hesitation, Stede returns it.

“Fine with me,” Ed says. “We can both be something else.”

 

 

 

Back on the ship, Stede draws Ed a bath, puts all the best oils and soaps into it so it smells fab, and Ed soaks until he’s warm all the way through and the charcoal has washed off his face in little flakes of black. He idles in the water lazily, enjoying it the way he enjoys every fancy excess Stede introduces him to. Then he grabs one of the bottles of oil and goes to find Stede.

On the bed, he makes Stede put down the book he’s reading, mostly by interjecting himself between the book and Stede until Stede gets the hint.

“There you are,” Stede says, eyes crinkling. “Thought you might run off again.”

“Not tonight,” Ed says. He doesn’t say not ever, because he’s sure there will be other nights when he gets lost again, and Stede has to find him. 

Ed slides over to him, sly. “Tonight I want you to fuck me.”

Stede’s eyes go round. He sits up straight and attentive. “Oh. Well. I’ll do my best.”

“You’ll need this,” Ed says, handing Stede the bottle of oil. Stede looks down at it with some consternation. 

“Ah, yes, of course. Lubricant,” Stede says, knowingly.

Ed almost laughs. “It’s really not that hard. Me and Jack used to—”

Suddenly, Stede’s eyes go dark, and his bemused smile vanishes. Ed feels a bright thrum of heat run him through, and he snaps his mouth shut with an audible click.

“You and Jack, eh?” Stede says, and though the words are light, there’s an undercurrent of danger to them that makes bells sing in the back of Ed’s head.

“Yeah, he was the last one to do these things with me,” Ed says, perhaps a bit meanly, because he wants to see what Stede will do. “Hand stuff. Mouth stuff. Butt stuff.”

Stede makes a sound almost like a growl, and he tips them both forward and pins Ed’s wrists to the bed. Glory, glory.

“That is unacceptable,” Stede says, and thus provoked, he bites down on Ed’s neck.

Ed groans, twisting against Stede’s grip. He could break free, he knows he can, but why would he want to when everything he wants is bearing down on him? Stede’s lips move possessively over the mark he’s left on Ed’s neck. He opens the robe that Ed wore to bed, and he grazes his teeth down across one of his nipples.

“Knew you’d get the hang of it quick,” Ed says, choked.

“You’d better show me how to use that oil,” Stede says. His voice has gone so rough and low, that Ed has to rapidly revise what he hitherto believed was the sexiest sound in the whole world.

When Stede has Ed, it’s on his back in his bed, making sweet sounds of encouragement, both of them quivering and shaking like they’re coming undone in each other’s arms. 

When Ed finishes, he shouts Stede’s name so loudly he’s pretty sure the whole ship hears it, and Stede grins victoriously, like this was his plan all along.

It’s only later, when they’re both catching their breath on the bed, that Ed finds it in him to feel a bit bad about what he’s said. He turns to face Stede, and Stede curls around to meet him, like he’s mirroring him without even having to think about it.

“The things — you do to me,” Ed says, haltingly, “no one’s ever done to me before.”

Stede’s eyebrows climb. “Oh?”

“No I don’t mean — not sex stuff,” Ed says, frustrated. “I’ve done all of that, or at least, nearly. I’m talking about—”

But here, words fail him. He’s not good at this bit, the talking bit. At a loss of what else to say, he tugs Stede’s hand over to him, and lays it across his chest and over his heart.

“This,” he says, fiercely. “You do this to me.”

He watches Stede’s expression change, confusion going to understanding. His eyes grow wet and wide, and Ed watches it all play out, transfixed upon Stede’s face, and all he can read there.

“Thank you,” Stede says, and he presses in and kisses Ed’s forehead. Ed blinks, and then he closes his eyes, leaning into it.

Underneath Stede’s hand, Ed’s heart hammers. 

Is it even enough? It seems a trivial, crude thing — not the kind of grand confession of love that Stede gave to him — but it’s still his fucking heart.

Stede stretches on the bed, and in a move that makes Ed very proud, his thigh somehow ends up between Ed’d legs, pressing insistently.

“Again?” Ed says, already getting interested.

Stede’s eyes gleam in the dim candlelight. “Again.”