They arrive in Havana to find they're half a day too late, according to the scuttlebutt around port, which honestly is better than Stede expected because he would've sworn they were at least three days behind the Revenge. Stede's not the only one who's disappointed: Oluwande visibly sags when Roach returns with the news, and even Wee John sighs. Lucius, still recovering from sunburn and "saltwater-chafe," which Stede doesn't think is a thing but doesn't know enough to argue against, looks relieved.
"The sooner we get this island off our horizon," Buttons says darkly, "the better."
"C'mon, man, what've you got against Cuba?" Black Pete asks.
"There's a witch what lives here," Buttons says in a low growl. "I've heard tales of her, and what she does to those who cross her. She defiles a shrine as her home and lures in sailors with her abstruse and foul magicks, like Circe of old."
"Yes, all right, Mr. Buttons, we get the - " Stede starts, and then stops, staring at Buttons. "You've read the Odyssey?"
"Karl told me the story," Buttons says sadly.
"Hang on, I think I've heard of her, is she the Catholic witch?" Roach asks.
"I didn't know witches could be Catholic," the Swede says.
"That's how she communes with the devil to get her powers," Buttons says, and although Stede finds himself emotionally done with this ghost story, the rest of the crew seems into it so he resigns himself to waiting for the next conversational opening. "The witch claims to watch over Havana in the name of Mary, but she consorts with Satan to do it. The whole isle is damned by her bargain, and the only hope of salvation for its inhabitants is mercy from the great Virgin herself."
"Food's good, though," says Wee John, looking back at Havana, which is tragically (to Stede) empty of Edward Teach.
"Right, thank you for that story, Mr. Buttons. Everyone! Start preparing to put out again," Stede says, trying not to let his disappointment come through in his voice.
"What do we do with the cat, though?" Roach says, and everyone, in unison, turns to look at the gangplank to the wharf.
There is a cat on the gangplank.
Its claws glint in the sunsetting light, and its back arches like a pirate flag whipped up by the wind. Stede has seen cats before, mostly feral ones, and this one looks well-kept and angry as hell. Its long fur is only moderately dusty, black-and-white with a black splotch around its mouth like it licked up some ink and a little dark spot right on its chest like the blood-drip of arterial spray. It is the floofiest thing Stede Bonnet has ever seen in his life, and it has murder in its eyes.
"Uh," Stede tries, "shoo?"
The cat explodes into motion.
It's everywhere. It climbs halfway up the main mast, launches itself on and immediately off Buttons's head, rips its way up the mizzen as it hisses and spits and makes noises that Stede's never heard from any living creature before, let alone a cat.
"Since when do cats growl?" Stede wonders half-hysterically, steadying a ladder against the mizzenmast.
"That's not a cat," Buttons says grimly. "That's a man cursed into a cat's form if ever I've seen one. For awful, terrible crimes, like as not."
The cat hisses at him, and its claws flash out.
"Ow!" Stede yanks his hand back and sucks on the long, hot line along the center bone of his hand and down his middle finger. "What was that for?"
The cat gives a low, guttural mmmmmrrrrrroooooooowwwww that's probably the sound that greets new residents of Hell, and relieves itself directly over Buttons's head.
"Oh, c'mon, that's just unnecessary!" Stede calls to the cat. "Where's - Oluwande, Roach, someone, come on, help!"
"I think you've got it, Captain," Lucius calls from where he's lounging against a barrel. "Top-notch job, totally under control." And he gives a thumbs-up.
Stede turns to his idling crew, who, luckily, are not laughing or even apparently enjoying themselves. "If we don't get this cat off the ship," he explains patiently, "then the cat will stay on the ship, is that what you all want?"
"We could do with a mouser," Roach says, and then cocks his head. "Or dinner."
"We're not eating the cat, Roach, ew," Black Pete says.
The cat hisses at Roach. At least it's an intelligent little fuzzball.
"Well, help me anyway!" Stede yells. "We're not keeping the cat!"
In Stede's defense, they don't keep the cat, so much as they utterly fail to remove it from the ship. If anything, the cat keeps them. It's well aware of the gangplank for the entire three hours they chase it around the deck (and belowdecks, and up the masts, and in the crow's deck where they almost corner it until it drops a hairball onto the Swede's face with quite impressive accuracy), and it makes sure they know it knows, too, disappearing for ten minutes and then reappearing licking a paw right there on the gangplank, framed by the lights of the harbor until someone else lunges at it and then it's off again.
This is all to say that over the course of three hours, Stede sort of falls in love with the cat. It's smart, it's malevolent, it takes effort, and Stede misses the hell out of Ed and might be projecting just a tiny bit.
So they leave the port of Havana with another member of the crew who is either a mouser (according to Roach), a demon (Wee John), or a human confined to feline form for terrible crimes et cetera (Buttons).
The cat definitely has it in for Stede, though.
"I don't know," Stede says dubiously over breakfast, staring at the rent, twisted carcass that was once a mouse that he'd woken up to on his pillow. "Isn't that a sign that cats like you?"
Everyone turns to look at the cat, which has its eyes directly on Stede. It's in a pose that Roach calls a loaf and Oluwande calls a prelude to murder, its shoulderblades high and its eyes intent.
"I think it's a threat," the Swede says.
"It's gotta be a threat," Oluwande agrees.
"Tell you what, it seems pretty smart," Stede says brightly, and leans forward onto the table. The rough wood of it stings against his new calluses, and he immediately leans back again, shaking his hands out. "Kitty-cat, can you blink once if it was a gift?"
"Twice if it was a threat," Roach adds.
"Just hiss if you want the captain dead," says Lucius carelessly, and everyone jumps when the cat immediately, with no pause at all, hisses with great vigor.
"Oh, shit," Oluwande murmurs.
"I'm telling you, it's a man," Buttons says.
"No, it's - it's not that smart, it's just a coincidence," Stede says, but he makes sure he keeps eyes on the cat for the next few days. Just in case.
Stede lets out a little shriek when he opens his auxiliary wardrobe - which in this purloined schooner is a narrow closet - to find the cat tucked between two stolen hatboxes, its paws folded neatly beneath it.
The cat lets out a low grumble of warning.
"Look, I - I think we got off on the wrong foot," Stede says, holding his hands up. "Or - paw?"
The cat's tail flicks. The growl doesn't falter.
"It's - I just didn't want to take you from your home accidentally," Stede continues, keeping his hands raised. "Because we're probably not going back to Havana for a bit, you know that, right? So I don't know when we can get you back to where you want to be."
The cat's eyes narrow.
"Of course, if it's adventure on the high seas you're looking for, then you're in luck!" Stede says, infusing his voice with false cheer. "You're - you're more than welcome on my crew, if that's what you want!"
The growl gets louder.
Stede drops his hands with a sigh. "I know it doesn't look like it, but I really am trying," he says. "In fact, if you could see how I started off as a pirate, you'd know just how far I've come! Which is - a bit sad, yes, that this is progress, but there we are. I'm trying to change, I really am, and I know I've screwed up, but I - I didn't know what I had before, I didn't have the context for it, if that makes sense, and - and - " Stede sighs again at the cat. "And you're not the one I want to be saying this to," he says.
He lets himself sink down in front of the auxiliary wardrobe - closet - with his legs crossed and his chin in his hands.
"I know I don't want to be the kind of captain that I pretended to be," he says. "Or the kind that, I don't know, that Izzy was. And I'm trying to keep morale up, so I do appreciate everything you've been doing to keep the crew occupied, I really do, but Lucius seems a tad traumatized still and Wee John keeps humming Frenchie's old songs and Oluwande misses Jim and..."
Stede can't get any words out for a second.
"I just hope he's all right," he says finally. "He's got to know we're chasing him, even if we're doing a terrible job of catching up. We haven't exactly been subtle about it. And I know I've got no right to worry, after what I did, but I just - what I've heard, it sounds like...he doesn't sound...happy."
He tips his face forward into his palms, scrubbing at his face. After a moment, he hears a soft sound next to him and looks over to see the cat on the floor.
"Mrrow," the cat says, almost sympathetic, and then trots past Stede.
The cat and the crew reach a detente of sorts. Well, most of them do. He - because by now they've figured out the cat is a he - still has it in for Stede, at least a little bit, based purely on the distribution of scratches across the crew, but that might also be because he just spends the most time around Stede.
If Stede is on deck, desperately pulling on a line in a sudden and savage wind with the rest of his crew, then the cat is behind him, batting at the extra tail of rope but otherwise remaining admirably out from underfoot.
If Stede is on the quarterdeck, compass between his teeth as he tries to hold down the charts in front of him, the cat will saunter onto the paper and lie down, which on the one hand is nice because it keeps the charts from flying off with the wind but on the other hand also renders them completely useless.
If Stede is in his hammock (Christ does he miss having a bed, his back aches like nothing else when he wakes up now) reading one of the seven books he's accumulated since starting his second go at the pirating life, the cat is instantly in his lap, as stretched out as necessary to block any text.
If Stede's reaching for a teacup, or a plate, or a biscuit, or really anything that isn't necessary to the sailing of the boat (and the cat has an unerring instinct for that sort of thing), then the cat, or more accurately his claws, are there, too, hungry for blood.
"That cat is proof that everything Frenchie said about cats was right," Oluwande says as Stede flips through a book trying to pick a story to read, about a week into the cat's tenure.
"I don't know, he's sort of growing on me," Stede says. He hadn't paid enough attention to his choice of book - it's Ovid's Metamorphoses in the original Latin, and while he can certainly translate on the fly, all of these stories are a tad...depressing. He'd thought at least Eros and Psyche was in here, that at least had a happy ending, but that was in Augustine of Hippo's The Golden Ass, now that he thinks of it. He used to know all this by heart, but, then again, he used to have a copy; he's given to understand it's now sponging up seawater somewhere off the coast of Barbados.
"That cat's gonna murder you in your sleep, Captain," Wee John says earnestly.
"Oh, come on now, I think you're being a bit hard on the cat," Stede protests.
"That cat has killed before and will kill again," Black Pete says.
"I think he's a sweetheart," the Swede says.
Lucius points at the Swede. "Now there's a red flag."
"Captain," Roach says, "you've got scratches on your neck that are going to scar. How did the cat know to go for your neck?"
"Well, I was asleep and snoring, he just probably went for where the annoying noise was coming from!"
"Pretty sure that's where the jugular is, Captain," Oluwande says. "Which, again, raises Roach's question of how did it - "
"I keep telling ye, it's a man," Buttons insists.
Stede finally looks up from his book with a sigh, and, with the rest of the crew, turns to survey the cat.
The cat looks up, his leg tucked solidly back behind his head, and flicks one ear. Then he returns to licking his own asshole.
"Showoff," Lucius mutters.
"I'll name him Ned," Stede says decisively.
The cat's gaze snaps up and his ears go flat against his head as he lets out a long, sustained hiss.
"You're...naming him after Blackbeard?" Roach says uncertainly.
"What? No," Stede says. "Ned. With an 'n' - oh, that probably doesn't help, does it. Well, I'm naming him after the jungle cat that helped fake my death. They say never work with children or animals but Ned was a real pro - always hit his marks, really sold it, didn't get too method."
Ned lets out an uncertain mrow.
"So the cat's staying, then?" Oluwande asks, already sounding defeated.
"The cat's staying," Stede announces, and Ned celebrates by wandering over and raking Stede's nose hard enough to draw blood.
He holds a handkerchief to the wound as he tells them the story of Beauty and the Beast from memory. He always did love a story with true love's kiss.
Stede's ship hasn't exactly been gaining on the Revenge. More of the opposite, really, which isn't surprising since the Revenge is a beautiful, lithe thing, cutting through water sweet as silk, and the new ship that they haven't bothered to name yet is - well, it's a step up from the dinghy, that's for sure, but not, like, a big step. They keep meaning to upgrade, take another ship like the proper pirates they are, but Stede's been a bit distracted by his singleminded focus on Ed, Ed, Ed and hasn't so much as looked at another ship in weeks beyond what's absolutely necessary to survival.
So it takes them all a bit by surprise when they wake up just after midnight on a new moon to a warning shot and a full party of raiders.
Ned, surprisingly, defends Stede, as best he can. Stede is still fumbling, sleepy-eyed, to reach his sword while Ned darts between ankles, tripping and hissing and even getting a few good slashes in - Stede thinks one of the raiders might lose an eye, which is damned impressive. But there are just too many of them, and Stede is being hauled abovedeck with his arms twisted behind his back and a knife held to his throat before he's been awake five minutes.
"Congratulations, Stede Bonnet," says Izzy Hands, which, shit, "I have a single use for you, which is why you're still alive."
"Uh, good evening," Stede tries, blinking hard. "Or - morning?" He hasn't even had breakfast yet. He hasn't even had his morning tea - is Izzy going to let him see Ed again, does Ed even know Izzy's here, is Izzy just going to kill him here, tea-less and tired and heartsick -
"Where the fuck is Blackbeard, Bonnet," Izzy says, level as a guillotine blade at the ready.
That pulls Stede's attention away from both his panic and his scan of the deck to make sure his crew is safe (they are, just captives, which is the best they can hope for now, really). "What?"
Izzy pulls out his sword and lays it atop Stede's shoulder. "Where the fuck is he, and don't fuck me around, I'm not in the fucking mood for it."
"He's not with you?" Stede says blankly.
Izzy pulls back his blade and, with great relish, plants it just below Stede's left collarbone.
It's for show. Stede can tell it's for show because it's not nearly as deep as it could be, the end of the blade doesn't even go out his back, barely even rasps against his shoulderblade, but it absolutely does its job as Stede's whole brain goes blank except for pain and terror and the need to make it stop.
"Fuck," he chokes out, without quite meaning to swear, "I don't know, he isn't with us, I thought he was with you, that's why we've been chasing you - "
"I don't fucking believe you," Izzy says, and lets the tip of his blade rest against the wound, which somehow hurts almost as much as it did going in the first time. "Where the fuck else would he go?"
"If he's not with you, and he's not with us," Stede manages, "then what if he's in trouble?"
"Then I'd have no reason not to end your fucking life," Izzy says.
"Except," Stede gasps, it's really very painful, "if he is avoiding you, then maybe he's looking for me."
"You really think he wouldn't've fucking found you by now." Izzy's voice is contemptuous, but his blade stays outside of Stede's body, which is progress.
Stede summons all his self-control and looks Izzy dead in the eye. He may not know Izzy well - but he knows worrying about Ed inside and out. "Maybe," he tells Izzy. "Are you willing to risk it?"
Izzy stands, unconvinced, but no immediate violence occurs.
"Besides," Stede continues, "you and your crew have a reputation, don't you? Me and mine, though. People will talk to us who won't talk to you because they don't know us from Adam."
"You're suggesting," Izzy says in a voice as low as a gut-stab, "we work together."
"Well. We can, you know," Stede says, trying to remember words through the pain, "synergize our networks. Leverage our potential. Maximize productivity - "
"I didn't come here to listen to your fucking nonsense," Izzy says.
"I know," Stede pants. "You came here for Ed. And that means - " he never fully appreciated how much chest is involved in breathing, but now every inhale reminds him - "for once, we're on the same side."
"I'm not on the same side as you, you useless fuck," Izzy says.
"Really?" Stede says, and tries to make his squint one of menace, or, like, smugness, rather than pain. "Because right now I'm Team Ed Not Being Dead. What team are you?"
Izzy's face is a virtuoso of useless fury, twitching with indecision for a solid ten seconds before he finally says, "Fuck!" and lowers his sword. Then he gives a dismissive wave to Stede's handlers - oh it's Ivan and Fang, that’s nice, Stede always liked them - and says, "Get yourself fucking cleaned up. We start looking in the morning."
Then he walks away back onto the Revenge.
"Sorry about that," Fang whispers, pulling Stede up onto his feet by his uninjured shoulder. "You all right?"
"I mean, bit stabbed," Stede says, wincing, "but beyond that, you know, same old, same old."
"Right," Ivan says. "Well, uh. Hope to see you over there. Maybe we can catch up? I can make a cup of tea? We raided a shipment of sugar out of Havana just a couple days ago, so we're loaded up."
"That sounds lovely, Ivan, thank you," Stede says, and finds that if he presses his left arm to his chest his shoulder won't move as much. "I think I might see if I need some stitching up, though, first. Because of the stabbing."
"Yeah, course," Ivan says. "I'll put the kettle on just in case."
"Perfect," says Stede's mouth automatically, bless it.
"And I haven't forgotten how to do it - take it off the heat just before it starts whistling, I'm right there with you, Captain," Ivan says, waggling his finger.
"You're a star, Ivan," Stede says weakly.
"Ha," Ivan says, and turns his head to point at the crescent tattoo on his scalp. "More like a moon, am I right?"
Stede gives the obligatory chuckle, and as soon as the raiders - Izzy's raiders - are out of earshot he says, "Oh thank god, could someone help me, I think I'm about to faint or possibly die."
He does neither, and as Roach runs down to get his needle and thread - the good ones, not the sewing ones - his crew helps him perch on a barrel to wait. The moonless night might make it a tad harder for Roach to see, but Stede doesn't see any need to track blood belowdecks if he doesn't have to, so might as well do the stitching here.
"Well that was a fucking lot, wasn't it," Lucius says over Stede's head, and Stede lets the conversation just wash away for a while as he concentrates on not crying or screaming. It's easier to control this time, compared to all his stabbings, which, wow, he'll have to process that later. Maybe now anything short of exposed brain matter doesn't do it for him.
Thank God the Badmintons weren't triplets.
A shadow moves near the rail, and Stede has to blink a few times before he sees Ned. Ned stays huddled down, watching Stede with wide, frightened eyes, and Stede realizes he's never seen Ned scared before.
"It's all right, Ned," Stede says, bending at the waist to hold a hand out to him. "Everything's fine now. You've got good instincts avoiding Izzy Hands, though."
"You just survived Hands, now you're gonna let Ned do you in?" Black Pete demands.
"C'mere," Stede says, and Ned inches forward, belly barely scraping the deck. Every now and then, his head telescopes up, surveying the ship for danger and revealing the small black dot on his chest, which suddenly gives Stede a flash of memory: the knot of the cravat Ed happened to forget to give back, the way it sat against his collarbone, so discreet but Stede could never not see it.
So Ned crawls forward, flinching at every movement or swing of the lantern, and gently sniffs Stede's hand. The velvet of his nose barely touches Stede's hand, and for a moment the tiny huff of Ned's breath feels like when he'd hold Alma or Louis, when they were still infants, when he'd had to concentrate to feel the weight of them in his arms, when he'd worry that they were just too small, how could a living thing be that small?
"It's gonna be all right, Ned," he says again in a creaky voice, and Ned's yellow eyes tip up at him, pupils fat as a waxing moon -
"Guess who I found!" comes Oluwande's voice, and Ned bolts.
Stede sighs, but when he looks up it turns into a gasp.
Oluwande leads them back over the plank to the still-unnamed ship. Stede hadn't even noticed Oluwande leave, but he blames the stabbing. (He's going to milk this excuse for all it's worth.)
"¿Que tal, cabrones?" Jim says.
"Thank fuck you're all back, Blackbeard's been really, really scary and apparently now he's missing," Frenchie says.
"You're all right," Stede says faintly, and his stomach feels a bit lighter. He'd always trusted Jim and Frenchie to do what it took to survive on Blackbeard's ship, but seeing them again feels like - like when Alma handed him his half of the petrified orange. Like his lodestar is still there.
"Holy shit, you're not," Jim says, raising their eyebrows at Stede's shoulder. "Piss off Hands? I hear we're working together, the fuck is up with - "
"How about we let the Captain get stitched up and, you know, catch up," Oluwande says, his hand intertwining with theirs. "I've, uh. Got a room."
Without hesitation, Jim says to Stede, "Good talk, see you later," and ushers Oluwande belowdecks with a possessive hand on his ass.
"Oh, hey you," says Roach, as all three of them try to awkwardly pass each other in the too-tight doorframe. But he's got a bottle of rum in the hand that doesn't have the needle and thread, so Stede will forgive him quite a bit at the moment. "And you! The whole gang's back."
Almost, Stede says but doesn't say, because he's got a modicum of tact and a bottle of rum to get into his system as quickly as possible before the stitching starts.
"You have to tell us all the gossip," the Swede says, and Frenchie does. Stede half-listens, not particularly able to concentrate through the pain and now the drink. The trajectory of stab-wound-pain is sadly familiar to him now, and this one's moved from part two, Why Is It Hot And Painful, to part three, The Throbbening. If he gets enough rum into his system he might be able to dull part four, The Throbbening Again: This Time It's Sharp Somehow, and it feels nice to have a mission.
He's in enough of a haze when he finally makes it to his berth that he barely notices Ned curl up next to him on the floor.
Stede is, surprisingly, not in too bad a state when he wakes up. Sleeping on the floor almost felt better than sleeping in the hammock, and he has a vague memory of someone - he thinks Frenchie maybe - making him down an entire canteen of water so his hangover isn't too bad.
His shoulder hurts terribly as he pulls himself into a chair, of course, but he's almost at the point where stabbing pain is old hat.
"Hello, Feeling My Pulse Somewhere I Shouldn't Feel It And Also It Hurts, good to see you again," he mutters to himself as he gently prods around the wound. It doesn't feel hot and, when he manages to ease out of the sling - which he doesn't remember getting - and his shirt - that one he does - it doesn't look red, either. Both good signs.
Stede freezes, and turns his head to see Ned, sitting neatly on the floor with his tail arced around him in a graceful curve. One of Ned's ears flicks curiously.
"Well," Stede says after a moment, and can feel his injured shoulder forcibly relaxing beneath his hand. "I'd say you don't want to kick a man while he's down, but, well, you're a cat, so you probably do. And I guess if I've got to go, better you than Izzy." He sighs and holds his uninjured arm out to the side to clear the way. "Do your worst."
Ned approaches, and then doesn't stop, but keeps going and gently rubs his head across Stede's shin as he passes by.
"Are you - what is this, a trap?" Stede says, as Ned winds the other way. Stede feels a rumbling in his calf. "Is that purring? I didn't know you could purr. I thought the only joy in your life was torturing me."
Ned drops the front of his body into a long stretch - "Biiiiiiiiiiig stretch," Stede whispers before he can stop himself - and then returns to twining around Stede's legs.
"Oh, wait, let me guess," Stede says. "You can tell I'm not long for this world and you're staking your claim before the devil gets a shot, hmm?" He risks lowering a hand, and has a sudden flash of having done so last night, too, and the gentle flow of air around his fingers as Ned had breathed him in. "Did I ever tell you about your namesake, Ned?"
Ned brushes up against Stede's hand, without any bloodshed whatsoever. In fact, Ned pulls his head back and rubs again, petting himself on Stede's hand.
"God, you're soft," Stede says quietly, letting his fingers move a little. It's true: Ned is softer than cashmere, and warmer, and Stede can feel the delicate firm pressure of Ned's skull beneath the fur. It feels like a precious thing, the same way Alma and Louis did; the same way Stede thinks Ed would've felt, if Stede had been less of a coward and had cupped his jaw the way he wanted to.
"Ed would like you," he whispers, and Ned stops, looking up at him with a sudden tension. "I hope wherever he is," Stede says, pulling his hand back, "he's surrounded by soft, fine things." He scrubs his face one-handed, and takes a deep breath. "Okay. New day, new shirt."
Ned watches him, silently, as he eases himself into his spare shirt. Stede wishes he had a jacket, or vest, or cravat, or something to put as many layers as possible between him and the world today but, well, this is the choice he made.
"He disappeared in Havana," Izzy says, belowdecks on the Revenge.
They're all standing, which feels unnecessarily menacing, the check-patterned light along the floor separating Stede's crew from Izzy's. They're flanked by their crews, like a rear guard, although Lucius had declined to come back aboard the Revenge. But they'd all been one crew, once, although there are certainly a lot of new faces behind Izzy, and they seem a bit...cliquish. Even Ivan had handed Stede his cuppa and taken up position behind Izzy like a watchtower.
(The steep is perfect but it's definitely light on the sugar; Stede wants to encourage progress, though, so he smiles thankfully at Ivan and chokes down what is definitely tea with a dollop of milk and only six sugars. It's just not the same, but Stede has bigger problems today. Like the way his attention is split between Izzy Hands and trying not to wince at the added pressure the saucer in his off hand puts on his stabbed shoulder.)
"Havana," Stede repeats, frowning. "So - just recently, then?"
"We stayed in port for an extra two days, but we couldn't find him anywhere," Izzy says.
"And how was he before?" Stede presses. "Was he, I don't know, talking about any big life changes? Giving away things that were important to him?"
"He was slitting throats and stealing property," Izzy spits. "He was Blackbeard."
Fang gives a little cough behind Izzy.
Stede raises his eyebrows, tilting to one side to get a better line of sight. "Fang? Is there something you'd like to share with the group?"
Fang glances from Izzy to Ivan to Stede. "Well. It's just. His targets'd been getting, sort of...riskier. Not necessarily bigger, in terms of the haul, just..."
"Trickier," Ivan finishes.
"He got bored and went to steal a statue from some church and we haven't seen him since," Izzy says, impatient.
Buttons inhales sharply behind Stede. "Tell me he didn't."
"Didn't what?" Stede says, but he says it at exactly the same time that Izzy does so he hates himself a little for it.
"The witch of Regla," Buttons whispers.
"But witches aren't real," Wee John says.
"What did I fucking tell you!" Frenchie says, quiet but with deep feeling.
"And why'd you leave without him, if you were so worried?" Stede says, determinedly ignoring the conversation behind him. The dramatic lighting helps; only Stede and Izzy are really, properly visible, while everyone else is shadowy at best.
One corner of Izzy's mouth tightens in a cruel, humorless smile. "Could ask you the same fucking thing, couldn't I."
Stede can't breathe for a moment. His chest seizes up with it, making his pulse thud painfully in his shoulder wound.
"We left," Izzy says after a moment, "because the only thing that could make that disaster any worse was you fuckwits."
"Joke's on you, we're here anyway!" Black Pete pipes up from somewhere behind Stede.
"Yeah," says Izzy in a dry drawl. "Ha-fucking-ha."
"It seems," Stede says, but it comes out creaky. He clears his throat and starts again. "It seems that the first step, then, is to return to Havana. Even if he's not there, we can get records of what ships went in and out of port that he might have boarded. Does he know anyone there, or - no, Jim, no thank you, that won't be necessary," he says hastily. "How'd you even get back there?"
Izzy glances behind himself. "Jesus fuck!" he snaps, flinching full-body away. Jim is standing behind him with their dagger raised exaggeratedly high, looking at Stede with a suggestive raise to their eyebrows.
"Aw, c'mon, are you sure?" Jim asks.
"I think on this particular point, we happen to be on the same page," Stede says.
"More fool me," Izzy mutters, glaring at Jim with a gloved hand against his chest like a shocked debutante.
"I know we don't get along," Stede says loudly, as much for his crew's benefit as for Izzy, "but I think, ultimately, we want the same thing. We want to find Edward safe and sound. You're a good friend to him, Izzy Hands," Stede says.
"We're pirates, for fuck's sake," Izzy says, although he sounds more defeated than anything else. "We don't have friends."
"Then you're a good not-friend to Ed," Stede corrects himself.
Izzy takes a step towards Stede, who feels more than sees the rest of his crew tense behind him. He gives them a quick shake of his head over his shoulder.
"You," Izzy tells Stede, "make him soft. Soft gets you killed in these seas. I'm trying to keep him alive."
Stede swallows thickly. "Maybe you've lost sight of what he wants, beyond survival," he says. "Maybe...maybe we both did."
Izzy stares at him for a long, furious moment. "Absolutely not. No. I'm not having a fucking moment with you, you twat," and he turns away with a shake of his head. "God, I fucking hate you," he mutters to himself as he leaves.
Stede clears his throat. "So! Havana, I suppose."
Turning around two ships in close proximity to one another with very different handling qualities takes the better part of the day, and that quick only because the wind, for once, helps them. It's hard work, the way that the work's been hard since Stede actually started learning to, well, do things on the ship, although being functionally down an arm limits what he can do - the Swede swears it's possible to climb the ratlines with only one arm, but Stede is disinclined to test it himself. So he spends the day mostly hauling on various ropes, since he figures out that if he wraps the rope around his waist a few times he can use his body weight to compensate for using only one arm.
This only leads to him misjudging the tension in the rope and diving face-first into the deck twice.
Ned accompanies him through it all. Stede doesn't quite know what to do with him at first, but Ned is surprisingly knowledgeable about sailing, batting at the lines Stede is about to attend to, delicately walking down the bowsprit as Stede points to the bobstays and forestays to explain how he wants them rigged, and generally being present without being a nuisance.
Stede stays on deck until sunset, looking at charts and trying to figure out where in God's name Ed might be if he's not in Havana. Cuba is not an insubstantial island, as the Caribbean goes, and Havana isn't exactly a bottleneck - if Ed managed to go overland to another port, say Santiago de Cuba or even Baracoa -
Ned appears and flops over the map onto his side, looking pointedly at Stede.
"What?" Stede says, and then looks up. He's not alone on deck - Buttons is at the ship's wheel, ignoring him - but the overall lack of people as well as the encroaching night makes Stede realize that he's actually quite hungry. "Ah. Thank you, Ned, yes - time for dinner."
Ned follows close on Stede's heels as he goes down to the galley, and the murmur of voices from inside makes them both stop. It feels a tad awkward, eavesdropping on his own crew, but if they're talking about a problem then he wants to solve it and if they're complimenting him, well, he's never claimed to be above vanity.
But his crew is, he realizes, talking about mutiny.
"I mean, we decided on Oluwande last time," Wee John says. "Seems like not much's changed."
"Yeah, thing is," Oluwande says slowly, "I don't actually...want to? And besides, Jim's here, so maybe - "
"Fuck no, you're not dumping that responsibility on me," Jim says immediately.
Roach says, "There's not really anyone else, though, is there?"
"I mean, why can't it be Captain Bonnet?" Oluwande says. "He's been trying really hard, Jim, you just haven't gotten to see it yet - "
"Yyyyyeah, we already knew he was a tryhard," Jim says.
"No, I mean, he's, like, doing stuff," Oluwande insists. "Hard stuff, the stuff nobody else wants to do. He's getting pretty good with the ropes, and he does this math stuff with the stars and a book and this thingy he picked up in a port that tells us where we are, we haven't gotten lost in months, and that one time he got the spider out of the cannon when nobody else would touch it - "
"He cried the whole time," Roach points out.
"Still counts," Oluwande says. "You all have to have realized by now that we're just not good sailors. You know that, right? Except for Buttons."
"Everything he learned," the Swede says sadly, "he learned from Karl."
"I hate to say it," Oluwande continues, "but I genuinely don't think we'd last long without him. At first it was 'cos of the money, but now...he actually knows his shit."
There's a pause.
Then Black Pete says, wistfully, "Do you think if we mutiny and start to throw Hands off the side again, Blackbeard will appear out of nowhere?"
"We don't want Blackbeard back," Frenchie says firmly.
"Maybe you don't," Black Pete says.
"Um, babe, he tried to murder me, remember?" says Lucius.
"Not, like, the evil Blackbeard that's been around lately," Black Pete says. "The old Blackbeard. Goodbeard, not Badbeard. He and Captain Bonnet were...actually a pretty good team."
On this side of the door, Stede grimaces down at Ned, who stares back up at him with wide eyes.
"I suppose that's my cue," he tells Ned, and knocks on the door.
"Oh, shit," comes a whisper - Stede can't tell whose.
"Who is it?" says Frenchie.
"Just me, I'm afraid," Stede says, and opens the door just enough to poke his head in. "Good morning, all, sorry to interrupt."
"You heard all of that, didn't you," Jim says.
"I did, yes, quite a bit of it," Stede says apologetically, and steps all the way in. "And I'm completely on-board, no nautical pun intended, for the mutiny, but I just wanted - I wanted to say that - well..." He clears his throat. "I'll respect and abide by whatever decision you all come to. Captain-wise. And I know it hasn't always been easy, and we certainly haven't talked outright about, you know, career goals and professional development..."
"Just say you want to be Captain again already," Frenchie mutters.
"Ah," Stede says, and the grimace is back. "I'm...not sure I can say that, actually."
All eyes in the crew turn on him.
"What?" Wee John says.
"Well, I respect you all," Stede says, his throat suddenly tight. "It's been an honor, truly, to watch you all blossom under my leadership."
"God, I hate that I agree with him," mutters Oluwande.
"But I also know that you have...quarrels, and legitimate ones, with - with Ed."
Silence descends in the galley.
It's the Swede who speaks first this time. "You're still going after him?"
"Yes," Stede says simply, because what else is there to say, really?
"He'll kill you if you find him," Jim says.
"Possibly," Stede allows.
"I'm not joking, he's super into murder these days."
"I know he is."
"Right, quick question then," Frenchie says, raising a hand.
"Yes, by all means."
"Why the fuck are you going after him?"
"Ah," Stede repeats, and straightens his shoulders as much as he can with one arm strapped to his chest in a sling. "Because...because I love him."
Wee John groans outright. "Oh, come on."
"I love him," Stede says stubbornly, "and I hurt him, and I never got to tell him - well, quite a lot of things. And even if I can't tell him those things, I - I at least need to know if he's all right."
"It's a big world out there, Captain," the Swede says, an apologetic rise to his shoulders. "Do you really think you'll find him if he doesn't want to be found?"
Stede swallows. "I hope he does want to be found, then. But that's his choice. And this is mine."
Another silence. Fang sniffles, and discreetly wipes his cheek.
"I'll help out with the mutiny for sure, though," Stede continues. "Get you all set up for when I go. Show someone how to use the backstaff, and - can any of you do trigonometry? No? Then we'll stop off somewhere and get some charts - "
Lucius slaps his hand down on the table. "Fuck it, I'm in."
"What?" Stede says.
"To go find Blackbeard and try to save him with the power of true love or whatever," Lucius says. "Count me in."
"He - he did try to murder you - "
"Yeah, but I'm a cheeky bitch who loves drama and now I'm invested, so." Lucius shrugs, and looks around the rest of the crew. "What about you all, then?"
"Well, I'm obviously in," Black Pete says.
"Could've called that," Jim mutters.
"Well...I mean," Oluwande says, looking at Jim. Jim frowns back at him, and Oluwande shrugs. "What else've we got to do, right?"
"He's got a point," Wee John says. "I'm in, too."
"Sure, why not," says Roach.
"I suppose," says the Swede.
"Obviously we're in, too," Ivan says quickly, and Fang nods emphatically.
Everyone looks at Frenchie, who sighs.
"Did I ever tell you why I started sailing?" Frenchie says, leaning forward onto his elbows. "I actually love it. The smell of salt on the air, the way the horizon fades into the sky at night, the holy fuck is that a fucking cat on this ship - "
Frenchie jerks back from the table, taking the bench he's sharing with him, and Jim and the Swede tumble backwards to the floor. Ned sits placidly on the table, the very tip of his tail twitching as he watches the commotion.
"Fuck, Frenchie, are you serious right now - " Jim begins.
"I'm not the only one seeing it, right?" Frenchie says, pointing to Ned.
"Oh, right," Stede says, looking between them. "We forgot to tell you about Ned, didn't we?"
"You named the cat after - "
"Ned," say Wee John, Roach, Black Pete, and Lucius all at once.
"With an 'n,'" Lucius adds.
"After some dead jungle cat," the Swede says.
"No - no, the jungle cat didn't die, I faked my death - you know what, it doesn't matter," Stede says.
"The cat's not going to hurt you, Frenchie," soothes Wee John. "Besides, it can't steal your breath, you're not a child!"
"But will it consort with the devil and plant the seeds of evil in my heart?" Frenchie retorts, although he seems somewhat calmed by Wee John's words.
"Nah, this one mostly goes after Captain Bonnet," Roach says.
Ned springs into action, drawing everyone's attention. They all watch with bated breath as Ned strolls across the table and sniffs tentatively at Frenchie's cup of grog. Then Ned looks Frenchie square in the eye and tips it over. Frenchie flinches at the noise like cannonfire.
Stede sighs and lifts his hands, letting his unbuttoned sleeves fall down around his elbows.
"Jesus fuck, those aren't from swords?" Frenchie demands, staring in horror at the linear carnage covering his arms.
"No," Stede says resignedly. "I'm Ned's favorite."
"You realize now that it's drawn your blood it has claim to your soul, right?" Frenchie says.
"Very probably," Stede agrees.
Frenchie pulls his legs over the toppled bench to inch back a bit further. "So...so the cat's staying, then? On this voyage of whatever?"
"Well, we're going back to Havana, where he joined us, so..." Stede says, looking over at Ned, who looks placidly back. "I rather think that's up to Ned."
"Okay but you do know he's a cat, right? And he can't make his own decisions? Because of being a cat?" Lucius says, and says, quieter, to Black Pete, "This isn't a new Karl situation, is it?"
"Yes, I know he's a cat," Stede says impatiently, "but you were there the last time we tried to get him off the ship and now he knows the terrain, so I really don't think it's our choice."
"Fair," Lucius cedes.
The cat in question stands, stretches - which gets a quiet gasp out of Fang and a whispered "I would die for him" out of Ivan - and saunters down the table back towards Stede.
"I, uh, hope we've reached an accord - " Stede begins, before Ned pounces.
And lands on Stede's good shoulder.
"What - " Stede begins, and Ned turns himself around, so he's facing forward, on Stede's shoulder, and wraps his tail lightly around the back of Stede's neck.
"What," Lucius says in tones of quiet awe, "is happening."
"Uh," Stede says, wincing. "I, uh, appreciate that, Ned, but it turns out when you use one shoulder, you also sort of use the other shoulder, so if you wouldn't mind...?"
Ned bats his head against Stede's cheek and jumps back onto the table.
"How can it understand human language," Frenchie wails under his breath.
"Well, Buttons says - " the Swede begins.
"Oh, shut up, it's not a person," Lucius says, rolling his eyes. "Magic isn't real."
"Probably," adds Roach, watching Ned. Ned watches Roach back, unblinking.
"So - mutiny in the morning, or...?" Jim says, and the plan is settled.
Stede tries to sleep in his hammock that night, because he figures he needs to make sure he gets a good night's rest before the big mutiny. That lasts for about half a second before he can't stand the way the cloth rolls and squeezes his shoulder, so he gets back on the floor, which is at least flat. He's got a blanket, and he wads up his bloody, stabbed shirt as something like a pillow, and it's not ideal but frankly his standards have plunged in the past few months.
He tells himself tomorrow he'll be back in his own bed, aboard the Revenge, surrounded by his books and all his things.
He's just closed his eyes when he hears the low rumble. "Ned? Is that you?"
The rumble approaches, and then Stede feels pinpricks of gentle weight on his stomach.
"Oh, Christ, careful, Ned - "
But Ned carefully picks his way across Stede's stomach, well below the wound, and nestles between the good side of Stede's chest and his arm, purring. The vibration echoes through his ribcage, in a way that somehow doesn't hurt his stab wound, and Stede lets out a sigh he hadn't even realized he'd been holding.
"Thanks, Ned," he says, and feels Ned shift against him in response. "Can I tell you something, Ned? I don't know how I ended up with a crew this good. I really don't. I don't deserve them." He swallows. "I don't know what I'm doing. What if I get them killed? We're going to try to mutiny against Izzy Hands for Christ's sake, and what if they're following me out of - of obligation? I'm - I'm not good at this. I don't deserve them. I'm - I'm a monster, a plague, I'm not even human, I - "
The soft bounce of Ned's paw hits him right in the mouth, startling the hell out of Stede.
"What was that - ?" he demands, and then cuts himself off because in that moment he gets it: he is being ridiculous. He shakes his head a little. He'd slap himself on the face, just hard enough to feel it, if that wouldn't mean disturbing Ned. "No. You're right. No backsliding," he reminds himself. "The crew is all adults, and they can make their own choices, and I - I need to respect that. My feelings are my own to deal with, not theirs." He takes a few breaths, letting the words sink in, and then finds himself chuckling humorlessly. "See, Ned? Apparently I can learn." He shifts his arm, just to feel the way Ned's weight plays across it to remind himself he's still there. "I just hope it isn't too late."
It turns out that Ed's new crew is less cliquish than constantly watching one another for an opportunity to stab everyone in the back, so the mutiny goes rather splendidly, all things considered. Blackbeard had incentivized this bunch with violence and kept them in check with fear, and it turns out neither is a long-term, sustainable source of motivation.
"Could you just let us off at the next port, maybe?" says someone Ivan identifies only as 'Killer.' "Honestly, I didn't envision this as a long-term commitment."
"I thought I'd be sailing under Blackbeard, not Hands," says, apparently, Johnny Two-Teeth. ("Because he only needs two teeth to kill you," Fang informs Stede.) "Doesn't have the same ring to it, does it."
"There's not much opportunity for upward mobility," says Bob.
"I'm just a temp," says Big Fat Ugly Bug-Faced Baby-Eating O'Brien.
"And what are we going to do with Mr. Dizzrael Hands?" Lucius asks Stede as they watch Blackbeard's crew start taking their things to Stede's placeholder ship (Stede figured it was the least he could do, and also he really hated that hammock). Ned, currently leaning against Stede's ankle, looks up with an attentive meow.
"Well," Stede says, "I have half a mind to send him over and let his crew deal with him, but they don't seem any fonder of him than we are - "
"And if they don't kill him, he'll take that ship and come right back and kill us all," Lucius says.
"Yep, that's a downside of that plan for sure," Stede agrees.
"So we should definitely kill him," Lucius continues with a pointed look at Stede.
Stede grimaces. "I wouldn't go that far - surely there's something in between? I mean, for one thing, from Ed's, you know, actions subsequent to our parting, I get the sense he might be a bit, ah, angry? So this might be an act of good faith, to keep him from - "
"Killing us the second he sees us?" Jim says, and Stede tries not to jump - he hadn't heard them approaching.
"Well - yes," Stede says.
"Not a bad idea, but keeping Hands alive is a risk," Jim says with a shrug. "Even if we've got a brig now."
"There we are, then - wait, did you say brig?"
"Blackbeard converted the marmalade storage room."
"Ah," Stede says, his stomach sinking. "Right. Yes. I'd heard about the books, so...so I suppose it stands to reason that...just a few other things...?"
"Everything," Jim says grimly.
"Oh," Stede says. "I suppose I should go see to it, then."
His quarters are empty.
Stede lets out a little moan when he steps inside; he can't help it. The desk is still there, pushed further into the room and now covered in the pockmarks of daggers, and, well, the bed's built-in, but the other furniture is gone. The chandeliers are gone, their empty chains swinging noiselessly with the movement of the ship, so the only light filters through curtains.
And the bookshelves are empty.
It shouldn't hurt so much. Stede only brought with him books he'd already read, at first, and he'd already read the new ones he'd acquired since going to sea, but the empty shelves look like how his ribcage feels: a hollow, purposeless thing.
His eyes sting, and he scrubs at them with his non-slinged hand.
"Ugh, ridiculous," he tells himself. "They're just books. They're just books!"
Books. And the couch. And the chair. And the sideboard, and everything on the sideboard, and his wardrobe stands open and empty in the corner, and he never realized just how big the space was until he stood in it like this, his very presence echoing through it.
"They're just things," he whispers to himself, feeling very alone indeed.
A small chirrup sounds from behind him, and he turns to see Ned immediately look away, conspicuously studying the ceiling.
"I know, I know," Stede says, trying to ignore the thickness in his own voice. "It's silly. I'm well aware." He steps further into the room, but the changing perspective doesn't reveal any miraculously saved tomes. "But, do you know," he adds quietly, remembering where each book sat, "I think I found a bit of myself in each one of those books."
He thinks he found himself in this room, too. Even the first time he stepped into it, when it was immaculate new furniture and no signs of life, it was the first time he felt like he was inhabiting space and not just wasting it.
He blinks heavily and looks around, his mind filling in what's missing until it's stops on the lighthouse painting.
"Oh, lord," Stede says quietly, crossing to it. "He kept it?" He reaches out and lets his fingers trace the feather-wisps of the paint strokes. "Of course he kept it. Probably to remind himself to - to not crack up on the rocks again."
He frowns as a thought occurs to him. If Ed kept this, then maybe...
The statue, when he looks for it, is gone, of course, but he steps closer to its shelf and looks closer. The built-in base and a small shard of wood erupt from the shelf like a dinghy on the sea, and the hinge mechanism seems intact enough -
A loud hiss warns him not half a second before Ned's claws strike out, and Stede yanks his hand back too slowly, leaving hot pink lines of broken skin cascading down his fingers.
"Ned! I thought we'd come to an understanding!" Stede exclaims, shaking his fingers out.
Ned nestles protectively over the trigger, back to his original continuous growl.
"Oh, come on," Stede says, frowning. "It's my auxiliary wardrobe, what do you even care about it?"
Ears flat against his skull, Ned flicks his tail.
Stede sighs. "You realize," he says conversationally, "that you are a very small cat and I am a full human being, don't you? You're not going to win this."
Ned hisses again.
"You might absolutely make me hurt for it," Stede concedes. "But honestly, if you just move we could get this over with."
Ned settles further down, his shoulderblades rolling like the hull of a boat on stormy seas.
"Right then," Stede says, and scoops Ned up with his good hand.
He does, indeed, hurt for it, as Ned claws at his hand with his back paws like he's disemboweling a mouse, but he can't quite reach with his mouth and Stede has him clear of the shelf before he can wriggle free. After that, it's easy enough to let Ned drop to the floor and pull the switch - Ned is fast, but the shelf is tall and so is Stede.
The door to the auxiliary wardrobe pops open, and Stede determinedly ignores the way Ned ferociously attacks his ankles as he enters. None of the candles are lit, but he'd designed the room to have exquisite natural light, complete with a deck prism. This gives him an excellent view of the shockingly intact collection of clothing hanging in the wardrobe, as well as the slumping pile of blankets, clothes, and cushions left in the middle of the floor.
"Oh," Stede says, nonplussed.
Ned pushes past him and immediately begins unraveling the hem of the nearest winter jacket with great gusto, vocalizing loudly the whole time and occasionally scratching at Stede's ankle to try to get his attention.
Stede can't make himself look away from the - there's no other word for it - nest. His fuchsia dressing gown is in it, he can make the pattern out just under one of his old shirts, and - now that he looks at the shirt, it's smeared with some kind of black mark. Charcoal? Grease paint? Stede squats down and reaches his hand out to take a look.
Ned, of course, attacks it, although his heart doesn't seem to be in it. His claws barely prick Stede's skin, and he chews on the webbing between Stede's thumb and forefinger without drawing any blood. He looks at Stede the whole time, too, as though assessing.
But after a moment he gives up, stilling with his fangs resting gently against Stede's hand.
"I - " Stede starts, and his voice breaks. His eyes prickle again. The shirt, his old shirt, has a rather telltale wrinkle pattern of curves and warping as though the sleeve had been balled up, wet, and allowed to dry in that position. The sleeves of Stede's nightgown used to look like that, when he'd been telling himself Mary didn't notice his crying. "Ned," Stede says, trying to keep his voice level. "Did I...make Ed sad?"
Ned stares back up at him blankly, his jaw still hinged around Stede's hand.
"I knew he was angry," Stede says. "Everyone on the crew made that pretty obvious, but I didn't think he'd - "
His throat closes again. Ned blinks at him, slowly.
"No one's ever cared enough to miss me before," Stede whispers, and Ned releases his hand to let him wipe wetness from his cheeks. "I just keep fucking it up, don't I," Stede says thickly, and lets himself floomph forward into the nest. It's very comfortable, and he adds "compliment Ed on his sadness-nest construction skills" to his running tally of things he'll tell Ed when the see each other again.
Four gentle pads of pressure plop onto his back as Ned walks up him, leaning his head over Stede's shoulder to sniff at his face.
"Oh, now you're being kind," Stede says into his fuchsia robe, and the weight redistributes as Ned lies down, perched on Stede's good shoulder, and gently lays his face on his paws. "Just let me be pathetic a moment, will you? I'll just get it out of my system, get myself together, and get back to trying to find Ed. And captaining the ship. And figuring out what to do with Izzy. And finding out what's up with that witch in Havana." He closes his eyes in a grimace, letting his breath out in a short, miserable sigh. A soft breeze puffs against his cheek, and he opens his eyes again to see Ned leaning forward to sniff him again. "You're a very good cat, Ned," Stede says, and turns his head to give Ned a precious little kiss on his precious little nose.
And then there's a loud crack like thunder too close to the lightning.
For a moment, Stede can't track what's going on because of the sudden return of excruciating pain in his shoulder, prompted by a sudden soft weight covering his whole body, heavy enough that he can't expand his ribs even if he could breathe through the horrific grinding sensation below his collarbone, and he thinks he might manage a shout but -
"Shit! Sorry, shit, you okay? Stede?" The weight rolls off of him, and Stede's brain stops dead.
Ed looks down at him, crouched next to the winter jackets, hair unbound and weird dark something around his eyes and down his jaw, and his leathers have a coating of fine dust, almost more like dander -
"Ed?" Stede whispers, and manages to gasp in a breath.
"There you go, easy," Ed says, putting a hand on Stede's good shoulder. "Did that pop any of your stitches?"
At first Stede tries to push himself up with both arms, out of habit, and at his small, surprised "ah!" of pain Ed takes his arm and helps him sit back up, and Stede can't stop staring, can't take his eyes off Ed, he'd missed that face and he's here and -
"Ed," Stede says, suddenly feeling very far away from his own words, "were you just..."
"A cat?" Ed says, with a quick, small grin. "Yeah. Was weird. Kinda nice, sleeping everywhere and going wherever I wanted, but - yeah. Super weird."
"You were a cat," Stede says again, trying to wrap his head around it.
"Sure was." There's something in Ed's eyes, flickering and nervous and hopeful, that makes Stede take a fist of Ed's jacket in his good hand to hold him in place.
"You're back," Stede says, and Ed opens his mouth to -
"Guys, I found him, he - what the fuck!"
With his people-positive management style, Stede usually tries not to ignore the needs of his crew, but at this particular moment he can't imagine giving a fuck about Roach in the slightest. Not when his eyes are on Ed. Finally.
"Is that Blackbeard?" comes Pete's voice.
"Did you say fucking Blackbeard?" says Frenchie.
"Did he swim here?" Wee John says.
"I'm gonna fucking kill him - "
That gets Stede's attention. "Not necessary, Jim, thank you!" He turns to see his crew arrayed before him, crammed into the small doorway of the auxiliary wardrobe. "Ah - you see...that is..."
"Co-captains are having co-captaining time," Ed says, starting to stand up. Stede's hand tightens reflexively in his jacket, and Ed looks down at it, surprised, before tucking his hand under Stede's elbow to bring him up to standing, too. "Just got some, you know, things to work out. Negotiations to...negotiate. Maybe draw up a memorandum of understanding or something."
"Does that mean he's going to kill Captain?" the Swede stage-whispers from somewhere behind Roach.
"Nope!" Ed says, tugging Stede just a tiny bit closer. "I, uh, went through a rough patch, as you probably guessed. Did a few murders. And some attempted murders. Hello, by the way, Lucius, and, uh...sorry. I guess."
Lucius, his head tucked around Black Pete's shoulder, just stares. "Are you fucking serious?" he demands.
"D'you know what, I actually think I am," Ed says, and releases Stede's elbow. Stede lets his hand relax as Ed steps towards the crew, several of whom instinctively step back. "Ouch, all right. Tough but fair. I'll have more to say to you all later. More...detailed apologies, I guess, and - "
"How did you fucking get on this ship," Jim hisses.
"Long story," Ed says, and takes another step forward to begin to corral the crew. "Bit fantastical. But your captain and I have a few things to work out, so if you don't mind giving us some - oh, hello, Mr. Buttons, wonderful instincts by the way, really bang-on, now if you don't mind - "
"How do we know you aren't gonna murder him?" Oluwande demands.
Ed stops, and clears his throat. "Oh. Well. I guess I'd say it's...it's because I love him too."
The previous stick in the metaphorical cogs of Stede's brain, that of Ed having been a cat two minutes ago, gently recuses itself and turns its responsibilities over to a new stick that's just the words "love" and "too."
"So, uh," Ed says, finally breaking the silence, "no need to worry. I'm Goodbeard, not Badbeard."
"Who told him about Goodbeard," comes Black Pete's strangled whisper.
"Right, so if you'll just, y'know, exit in an orderly fashion, there we go, yep, watch your sleeve because I'm closing this - there," Ed says, the secret door clicking shut behind him. "Finally."
And then he turns back to Stede, who recognizes the look in his eye now: fear.
"I'm so sorry," Stede blurts out, stepping towards Ed. "I'm so, so sorry, I didn't - everything was so much and I was so wrong to leave you, and you told me, you told me I made you happy but I couldn't hear it, not how you meant it and you're back, you have no idea how worried I was, and how did you get turned into a cat?"
Ed swallows hard, looking down. "Oh, you know. Witch. Statue. Poor decisions."
Another step forward, even though Stede barely registers his own feet. "Ed," Stede says again, just for the joy of how his name is shaped. He lifts a hand and, when Ed doesn't stop him, lays it against his cheek. The stubble, halfway to a halfhearted beard, bristles deliciously under his palm, and the contours of it are exactly as perfect as he'd imagined. "I missed you, just - so terribly. I - oh, there were so many things I wanted to say and now I can't remember any of them, I just - would you say something, please? I'm getting a bit nervous."
Ed blinks down at Stede's shoes, and when he looks up, his gaze, bright with tears, doesn't make it past Stede's shoulder. "Stede," he says, his voice cracking slightly. "Can I stay?"
It leaves Stede breathless for a moment with a mix of shock and joy.
"I don't want you to leave," Stede says when he can speak again, and eases a tiny bit closer to Ed. "I don't ever want you to leave and I never will, do you understand that? And I - " He takes a breath. Ed still smells faintly of cat, and Stede still wants to breathe him in for the rest of his life. "I would also like to stay."
The corners of Ed's lips tuck with held-in emotion, and he raises a hand to press against Stede's on his cheek. "I guess that'd be okay. Yeah."
Stede's whole being burbles with joy, and it leaks out of him in relieved tears and soft, near-euphoric laughter that's the only way he can get any breath in.
Ed finally meets his eyes. "You - you said that you...Did you mean it?"
And just like that, Stede has a new life goal: make sure that Ed never doubts it, ever again.
"Of course I meant it," Stede says, and pulls Ed in for a kiss.
It's a much better kiss than the one on the beach, although that's probably helped in no small part by the fact that they're facing each other and the angle is much better. Also, Stede's brain hasn't whited out from shock like it did that time, and he revels in the opportunity to actually move his lips against Ed's, feel the rustle of Ed's beard against his chin, the play of muscles under his hand as Ed parts his lips and opens his jaw to kiss back. There's too much spit and Stede doesn't quite know how to get his teeth out of the way but neither does he care.
When they're both out of breath, leaning their foreheads against each other, Stede adds, "I really do just love the shit out of you, you know."
Ed's breath shudders. "Say it again."
"I love you so much it makes me feel stupid and also like I'm flying," Stede says, tilting his jaw forward so his lips can brush Ed's as he talks. "I love you so much, I - I faked my own death with a jungle cat to get back to you, did I tell you? I love you so much it's actually making me a little nervous that you haven't said it back yet and I also love you so much I sort of don't care because I'm so happy you're here."
"I said it earlier, didn't I?" Ed says gruffly, but his hand tightens over Stede's. "They're just - they're big words. 'Specially when they're true."
The giddy joy returns in full force, and Stede can't un-smile his lips enough to kiss Ed again even though he wants to. "Very true," he murmurs. "Although it occurs to me. This situation being what it is. I guess you could say...cat got your - "
Ed shuts him up with a kiss.