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sure as the tide comes in

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Stede’s mother had always loved the sea.

Even when his father scoffed and rolled his eyes, Stede’s mother would insist on taking his tiny, chubby hand in hers and leading him along the shore. They’d spend all day out, if they could, Stede running through the surf and getting increasingly sunburned while his mother waded, staring out at the horizon with something in her eyes that Stede wouldn’t be able to name until he was much, much older: pure, naked longing. 

Even when she grew older and sickly, Stede’s mother would sigh and wave away the maids and call for their driver, just so they could go down to the beach for an afternoon. Stede would accompany her as often as he could, her frail arm looped through his, a basket of lunch clutched in his other hand. She’d smile wistfully and throw scraps to the gulls that swarmed overhead, laughing and calling to them as if they could understand her.

She died when Stede was still in his teens. He found the sealskin the day after her funeral, hidden in his father’s study, and received quite the black eye for his trouble. 

The second, smaller sealskin was at the bottom of a trunk in his mother’s sitting room, buried beneath a swath of fine red silk, and he knew it was his from the moment he touched it.

“It’s mermaids, I’m telling you,” Wee John insists, gazing out at the horizon, squinting against the harsh glare of the sun off the crests of waves. Far off in the distance, dark shapes play in the shallows, twisting and jumping and putting on quite a show. The crew of the Revenge, bored of their daily chores and always looking for a chance to slack off for a bit, had gathered along the starboard rail to watch the instant Buttons pointed them out. 

“Witches,” Buttons declares confidently. 

“I’m pretty sure it’s dolphins,” Lucius says. 

“Aw, babe, you’re no fun,” Black Pete pouts. Lucius rolls his eyes but knocks their shoulders together anyway, almost as if apologizing. 

“Fine, maybe they’re witches,” he allows. 

“Dolphin witches!” Roach says proudly. 

The crew murmur their general agreement, though Jim only sighs and mutters, “Ay, you’re all idiots.”

“What if they’re selkies?” the Swede breaks in. 

Stede’s heart skips a beat, though none of the crew notice it, as captivated as they are by the dark blobs on the horizon. From his position leaning against the mast, Stede can’t really see what, exactly, they’re all watching, but he’s pretty sure it’s not selkies. Any selkies this far south would have to be particularly idiotic selkies indeed, and he’s pretty sure there’s only one particular selkie that fits that bill. 

“What’s a selkie?” Oluwande asks, and the rest of the crew make vague noises of agreement. It appears that they’re not overly well versed in ocean monsters beyond the typical mermaid and kraken, and Stede quickly bites his tongue to keep from responding. 

“Oh! They’re seals!” the Swede says. “They take off their skin and turn into beautiful women!”

“Okay,” Lucius says slowly. “So it’s like a myth, then?”

“I’ve seen them with me own two eyes, I have,” Buttons declares, despite clearly having never heard of a selkie not a minute prior. 

“So they peel off their skin? Kinda gross, if you ask me,” Olu says. 

“It’s more like taking off a coat, actually,” Stede says without really giving himself permission to. The assembled crew turn to look at him, varying degrees of confusion and skepticism written plainly on their faces. He fiddles with the lace on his cuffs, self conscious, wishing he’d just kept his mouth shut. “Uh. I studied mythology, at boarding school?”

“Makes sense,” Wee John says with a shrug, “That seems the kind of thing you fancy types would be into.”

Stede sags a little in relief, leaning back against the mast with a sigh. 

“Wait, so they take off their skin, and turn into beautiful women, and then what?” Frenchie asks. 

“They seduce the menfolk,” the Swede explains. “And if you find her skin, she has to marry you, because she’s trapped until she gets her skin back.”

Stede’s father’s face flashes before his eyes, purple with rage when Stede had unearthed the sealskin, brown and soft and dusty from years hidden under a broken floorboard. Stede’s hands shake a little at the memory of the unholy beating he’d gotten for that one, the feeling of hot blood pouring from his nose surfacing with a vengeance. He doesn’t know what his father had done with the skin after that, but he’d never seen it again. 

“Aw, the dolphins are gone,” Black Pete whines, pointing to where the shapes have disappeared. Everyone groans and starts to disperse, picking up buckets and ropes and making their ways back to their posts, the spectacle over with. 

Stede heads back below deck and retreats into the captain’s quarters, settling down with a book and a glass of brandy to settle his nerves, but not before running careful fingers over his own gray sealskin, safely hidden away. 

Stede is still feverish and half out of his mind with pain from the searing stab wound in his abdomen when he meets Blackbeard ( The Blackbeard!), though he doesn’t know it at the time. When Stede meets Ed, he’s just Ed, a nice guy with gentle hands who holds out a glass of water before Stede can even ask for it. Ed asks genuine questions and actually listens to the answers with a focus that Stede has never been on the receiving end of before, and somehow, it doesn’t make him squirm. If anything, he feels seen. 

Ed is so enchanting, even, that Stede hobbles his way over to the auxiliary wardrobe, giving a cheeky wink before pulling the hidden lever. He watches carefully to see the way Ed’s jaw drops, eyes lighting up with sheer astonished joy, and is a bit confused at the way his stomach gives a little flutter. Perhaps he’s more feverish than he’d thought. 

“All these are yours?” Ed asks, voice hushed, as though speaking too loud will break something. 

“Yes,” Stede admits. “My wife always teased me for having more clothes than she did, but, well, who am I to deny myself the things I enjoy?”

“Hedonist,” Ed accuses, even as he reaches out to trail a careful hand over a particularly soft woolen jacket. He pulls his hand back quickly, glancing at Stede like he thinks he’s about to be shouted at for daring to touch things, and Stede frowns.

“You can try that on, if you like,” he says. 

Ed shakes his head. “Nah. Clash with my look.”

“Well, something in here must fit your aesthetic,” Stede says, and turns to start going through drawers. If this strange gentleman from Blackbeard’s crew is going to be the first person in ages to take an interest in Stede’s love of fashion, then he’s determined to indulge him, and he’s fairly certain he’s got a lovely purple scarf stashed somewhere that would look absolutely stunning with Ed’s complexion. 

Across the room, Ed seems to be having no trouble going through some of the drawers on his own, occasionally shaking his head as he trails careful fingers across some fabric or another. Stede half watches him as he hunts for the scarf he’s wanting to show off, so he almost doesn’t notice when Ed opens the drawer on the bottom of the chest on the left. 

“What kind of leather is this, then?” Ed asks, genuinely curious, holding up a beautiful gray pelt. 

Stede barely restrains himself, barely keeps from lunging across the room to yank the sealskin out of Ed’s hands. It’s only the decades of propriety and tight-lipped smiling that keep him polite when he pretends to scoff and say, “What, that old thing? Just an old hide, bit of a family heirloom. Not worth anything, really.”

“‘S nice,” Ed muses. He trails a gentle hand along the sealskin, pausing to touch at a collection of spots that mirror the freckles on Stede’s collarbone, which begin to tingle furiously under the phantom of Ed’s touch. “Soft.”

“Ah, thank you,” Stede says. His tongue feels thick and stupid in his mouth. No one has ever touched the sealskin, touched him, with that sort of gentle reverence. 

He’s about to say something else, probably something idiotic and fumbling, when there’s a crash from the main room, and an angry man shouts, “Ed! You in here?”

“Oh! Is that Blackbeard?” Stede asks quietly, whispering, determined to not be found. He doesn’t know what he’d do if Blackbeard ever got ahold of the sealskin, but he knows it would not be good. Just the thought of something so precious in the hands of a monster like that makes him sweaty and nervous.

Ed takes his careful, gentle hands and uses them to fold the skin up and place it tenderly back in its hiding spot. He’s smiling a little bit when he turns back to Stede, lighting up those warm brown eyes, and good heavens, how does he manage to look so handsome and mischievous at the same time?

“Nah,” he says, “I’m Blackbeard.”

Stede’s blood runs cold. 

“Hey, what about this?”

They’re back in the auxiliary wardrobe, days later, and Stede is searching once more for that delightful purple scarf that he knows would look so wonderful on Ed. He can’t believe that just days ago he stood in this exact spot and trembled at learning that Ed (kind, funny, clever, enigmatic, beautiful Ed) was actually Blackbeard, scourge of the seas, bane of merchants and navy men alike, bringer of death and unholy fates. Now, having actually gotten to know the man, having gotten to share tea and late night talks and inside jokes, Stede can’t imagine being genuinely frightened of Ed. Every time he tries, all he can think of is Ed’s gentle hands on his sealskin, careful and reverent despite not knowing the importance of the pelt. 

Stede turns to see Ed holding up a light green coat, horribly out of season, and far too pastel for his rugged look. 

“Hm, not a bad choice,” Stede hedges. He picks out something dark red and says, “But perhaps this instead?”

“Oh, blood color for the nasty pirate, I see how it is,” Ed teases. Stede tries to yank the coat away in a huff, but Ed grabs for it. Stede lets it go easily just to watch Ed evaluate the softness and fineness of the fabric. He hums contemplatively. “Quite a nice color, though.”

“Thought it might look quite fetching on you,” Stede says with a smile. Ed shrugs the coat on and spins to make faces at himself in the mirror, glowering and sticking his tongue out and staring at Stede, eyes twinkling, over his shoulder. Stede rolls his eyes fondly.

“Hm, I’m not sold,” Ed says finally. He picks at the cuffs and frowns. “Fabric at the edges feels weird on my wrists.”

“Perhaps this instead?” Stede offers up a purple garment that is deliciously soft, a rich color that he can already tell will be gorgeous on Ed. Ed immediately shucks the red one, leaving it carefully draped over the top of a dresser, and replaces it with the purple. The change is immediate. His face lights up, eyes going soft and a little bit distant, and he lets out a tiny exhale like he’s been holding his breath all this time. 

“It’s perfect,” he says softly. 

“I daresay you’re right,” Stede agrees, giving him an encouraging smile. “Now, I’ve got a set of cufflinks somewhere here that ought to look marvelous with that, if you’ll just give me a moment.” 

“I can help look!” Ed insists. He starts opening drawers at random, leafing through their contents with a complete lack of shame at invading another man’s privacy. Stede shakes his head and leaves him to it. He loses himself quickly in the act of searching through his many fine and shiny things, and would probably have stayed that way for quite a while, if Ed hadn’t said, “Why do you even keep this thing? It smells fishy.”

Stede whips around to find Ed once more holding the sealskin, still gentle and careful, but this time with a bit of confusion. 

“It’s important!” he half-shouts, and clears his throat to say, “I mean, it’s important to me. And it doesn’t smell fishy.”

“Smells a little bit like fish, yeah,” Ed says. He takes a theatrical sniff and grimaces. Stede, who carefully rinses and dries the sealskin each time he has the occasion to put it on, turns red. 

“This whole boat smells like fish! We’re on the sea!” Stede says. 

Ed shrugs. “Alright, I’ll give you that. Doesn’t explain why you have it, though. It’s not for wearing, is it?”

To Stede’s vague horror, Ed shrugs the sealskin over his shoulders like a cape. Nothing happens, of course, because the skin doesn’t belong to Ed, but it still steals the breath from Stede’s lungs to see someone else wearing it. It makes something like fear rise up in the back of his throat, and his father’s face is suddenly all he can see, that and his mother’s sad longing for the open ocean. 

“No,” he says distantly. “Not for wearing.”

“Ought to display it or something. It’s a little weird, to just have a random animal skin in a closet.” Ed folds the skin and lays it on top of the dresser, draped across like a decoration. It feels… wrong. Stede hadn’t even known the sealskin existed until his teens, and from then, all he’s known is to keep it hidden and safe. The only thing he truly knows about selkies, about people like him, is that their skins must be kept away from any who would claim them for their own.

Ed’s not like that, Stede realizes. For the first time, he considers that the sealskin could be safe with someone else, not hidden in a bottom drawer, but kept somewhere close at hand, where it can be seen and appreciated. 

It’s a strange thought, so Stede shrugs it off and returns to searching for accessories for the party. 

That night, after the party goes down in flames, Stede stands on the bow of the ship with Ed at his side, gazing distantly out at the moon, shoulders touching. The quiet between them is soft and gentle, like Ed’s hands on the sealskin, and Stede finds the words he’s never said before that are clamoring to be left out. For the first time in his life he wants to tell someone, wants to tell Ed, about the strange and unbelievable life he’s living. He’s never told anyone, not even Mary, because neither of his children were born with a sealskin. He has been completely, utterly alone for so long, and as he stands there above the water in the moonlight Stede finds himself wanting. 

“You wear fine things well,” he says instead, and leans in when Ed stares at his mouth for just a second too long, but panics and draws back. 

Some other time. 

Some other time turns out not to be any time soon. The days pass in a comfortable haze of waves and sunlight and Ed’s laugh, Ed’s soft eyes, Ed’s gentle snoring from the couch in Stede’s quarters. At no point in Stede’s life has he felt such an all-encompassing… something for another person. It’s some feeling that lives in his ribcage and flutters like the wings of a thousand butterflies, and sometimes he thinks he might be sick with the intensity of it. 

He’s not an idiot. He knows what it is. He simply does not want to name it, because that would make it real, and then he would have to deal with it. And above all else, Stede knows that someone like Ed is not made for someone like him, no matter how much they smile and laugh together, no matter how many times Ed’s hand gently brushes his own. So he keeps it quiet, because really, what’s another secret?

The first tipping point comes on the heels of a lovely fuckery, when the Dutch sailors have been chased back onto their own ship, while the crew claps one another on the back and takes turns removing stage makeup from one another’s faces. Down in the dark safety of Stede’s fancy bathroom, Ed sobs into his hands and won’t look Stede in the eye. 

“I’m a monster,” he insists. “Fuck, I’m barely even human.”

Stede shushes him, a careful hand coming up to run through Ed’s hair. Ed leans into it, and Stede sighs. “No, you’re not a monster. I know a thing or two about monsters, you know.”

“Yeah, Olu said you studied mythology at boarding school,” Ed says. “Selkies and whatnot.”

“Yes. Selkies and whatnot,” Stede agrees, if only because having a focus for the conversation has helped to dry the tears still dripping from Ed’s chin and into his beard. 

“I’m not like a selkie, though. Selkies, they’re just pretty ladies who can turn into seals. I’m a fucking monster, Stede. I’m… I’m the Kraken. I’ve done so many horrible things. Jesus fuck.” Ed’s breath hitches and he curls impossibly tighter, nails beginning to draw little half moons of blood where they dig into his upper arms. Stede’s heart hammers and he reaches out, ignoring the trembling in his fingers, and takes one of Ed’s hands in his own. 

“I’m sure selkies can do horrible things,” he says, thinking of Mary and his children. “And I’m sure the Kraken can do wonderful things as well,” he adds, thinking of Ed’s smile, his laugh, the gentle way he teaches Stede things without ever talking down. 

Ed tips over at that, crashing into Stede with force, his head coming to rest on Stede’s shoulder. Stede catches him, of course he does, and tries to rub soothing circles onto Ed’s back while he cries. 

Ed’s confession of planned murder is muffled by Stede’s shoulder, but he hears it all the same, and he has to work very hard to keep from going still. From the way Ed is clutching at Stede like he’s the only lifeboat in a hurricane, the murder plan is probably not still in the works, so Stede merely shushes him and tucks his hair back, careful not to snag his rings on any tangles. Someday, when Ed is not sobbing and breaking down in the tub, Stede would very much like to use it to run a comb through Ed’s hair and work through the tangles and snags, maybe even braid it back like he used to do for Alma when she was very little. 

“I wish I could be a selkie,” Ed whispers, and Stede blinks in confusion for a moment before he remembers the earlier analogy. “I don’t want to be the Kraken anymore.”

Something in Stede crumbles a little at that, and before he knows what he’s doing, he’s saying, “Wait here,” and leaving a still-weeping Ed in the bathtub. 

“Stede?” Ed calls after him, voice wet and tentative, but Stede doesn’t turn around. Instead, he makes for his hidden closet, going directly to the bottom drawer of the dresser, where the sealskin is carefully folded and hidden away. Stede’s hands shake a bit when he grabs it, but suddenly, he’s never been more sure of what he’s doing as he takes the skin out and holds it close. In the low light, he can see the dappling of spots that parallel the freckles on his neck, on his chest. The skin is soft and smells faintly of lavender, and it really has been far too long since Stede has been able to shrug it on, but that’s a worry for another time. For now, there’s a devastated pirate in the bathroom, and Stede’s been gone long enough. 

When Stede eases the bathroom door back open, Ed is staring at the wall, completely blank.

“Thought you’d left,” he mutters darkly, not taking his eyes off the wall. 

“Just had to grab something,” Stede replies, and lays the sealskin over Ed like a blanket. Ed blinks at it without comprehension. Stede shuffles awkwardly. “I can’t exactly make you into a selkie, can I, but I can give you my own sealskin for safekeeping. Er, if you’d like. To keep it, that is.”

Ed still just stares.

“Well, you don’t have to, of course,” Stede starts. He goes to reach for the skin, to take it back and stuff it in its drawer and maybe toss it overboard, but Ed grabs it with all the reverence in the world. 

“You’d give me your fancy weird leather? As some kind of metaphor?” he asks, hesitant, like he’s not sure where the punchline is or when it’s coming. 

“Yes,” Stede says weakly, “As some kind of metaphor.”

Ed draws the sealskin up to his shoulders, nestling under it like a blanket, like a little kid in a thunderstorm. He exhales a huge, shaky sigh and rests his chin on the skin for a moment before–carefully, tenderly, and without making eye contact–he brings it up to his cheek and rubs the smooth leather against his face. 

“Soft,” he observes. “‘S nice.”

Stede’s heart is pounding when he says, “Yes, I rather think so too.”

Stede’s sealskin is not a blanket, of course, but that doesn’t stop Ed from treating it like one. Even when they wind up in the oppressive wet heat of St Augustine, Ed sits on Stede’s fainting couch and pulls the skin into his lap every evening. They sit together and talk and drink and laugh for hours, Ed’s calloused hands running over the spots on the skin like he’s trying to memorize them. 

Ed doesn’t know what he’s got, of course, but Stede is absolutely not going to be the one to tell him. He can’t imagine that Hey, mate, did you know I’m a mythical creature and that leather you’ve got there is actually the most important and irreplaceable thing I own, and that giving it to you is basically a declaration of undying love and trust would go over well. 

Even so. Stede tells himself it’s enough that Ed has it. Someone he trusts and yes, loves, has the sealskin, and is keeping it out of harm’s way and is not shoving it into a trunk in a rarely-used room of a stuffy mansion, like Stede’s father did to his mother. Ed might not know the significance of the act of handing it over, but that’s alright. Stede’s fine with it. 

“I can not believe that scary nun was Jim’s nana,” Ed says for what must be the fourth time, swirling the orange juice in his cup. Mimosas are usually a morning drink, of course, but Stede had decided to rewrite the rules of brunch to celebrate the acquisition of so many oranges. If he listens closely, he can hear the faint sounds of the Swede singing drunkenly after chugging many, many, many of the drinks. 

“Explains a lot,” Stede muses. “Lovely woman.”

“Oh, yeah, great lady,” Ed agrees. 

“Lovely oranges,” Stede says. 

“And lovely alcohol!” Ed laughs. He finishes his mimosa and carefully sets the glass on the table, mindful to not leave water rings. If someone a few months ago had told Stede that one day he’d have Blackbeard using a coaster, he’d have laughed himself to death, but here they are, and here Ed is, beautiful and enigmatic and using a coaster. 

Ed hums contemplatively and wipes the condensation from his glass off of his fingers and onto the sealskin, which he’s using as a lap blanket. “Been meaning to ask you, where’d you even get this thing, anyway?”

“Oh, it's mine,” Stede says without thinking. He frowns down at his glass. Perhaps he’d mixed them a little stronger than he’d initially thought, if his tongue is this loose in his head. 

“Well, yeah, of course it belongs to you, but like, where’d you get it? It’s a really nice leather and those aren’t cheap.”

“Always had it, I suppose.” Stede shrugs. Truth be told, he’s not completely sure where it came from. His mother had never told him about it in the first place, and he’s never actually met anyone else with a sealskin like his. 

There’s a bang! from up on deck, and Ed glowers. 

“Well, I should go see to that before we get banned from St Augustine,” he says, and goes, leaving the sealskin in a pile on the couch. 

Stede hates Calico Jack, and Stede does not usually like to use such strong language for things other than offensive textures or lukewarm meals. Jack is abrasive and cruel and looks down his nose at Stede like the boys at school always did, and it rubs Stede the wrong way immediately, though he’s determined to make an effort for Ed’s sake. If Stede is going to be slightly obsessed with Ed, he ought to make an effort to befriend the man’s friends, no matter how distasteful he finds them. 

Blind Man’s Cove isn’t terrible. It’s a cute little island with white sands and clear water and jungles that are sure to house all kinds of interesting flora and fauna, and Stede is genuinely excited to go exploring. Of course, Ed and Jack and the guys seem content to sit on the beach and get blackout drunk all day, but that’s not going to stop Stede from enjoying a day off. 

He grabs the sealskin on a whim, stuffing it into the bottom of a bag with a towel and bar of soap. Maybe he can get far away enough from the screaming and smell of liquor that he can enjoy a swim, and a relaxing bath. 

Stede finds a little pond easily enough. A small stream feeds into a spot that’s been long since dammed up by fallen logs, and the water is cool and clear when Stede dips his feet into it. The rocks at the bottom are slick with algae and tiny fish dart in the shallows, skirting the edges of rocks and hurrying to hide when Stede disturbs the water.

He glances around quickly before shrugging out of his clothes, leaving them on a rock to warm in the sun. Then, with another furtive check to be sure he’s not being watched, Stede slips on the sealskin. 

It feels like coming home every time Stede steps into his other body. The first few times he’d tried it, he’d been terrified and clumsy and awkward, but now it’s as easy as breathing to slide into the water and turn in lazy circles, effortlessly gliding out into the pond. The cool water feels divine on his fur and the stress of the past few days begins to melt away as he floats. 

Stede snaps playfully at a few of the little fish, not actually trying to catch them, happy just to watch them dart around at the bottom of the pond. He’d never want to actually catch one (sounds horribly wriggly and slimy, no thank you) but it’s fun to give chase. It feels like being a small child again, running in the yard of his parent’s summer estate, chasing butterflies and feeling the grass on his bare feet. Not for the first time, Stede wonders what his life might have been like had his father not hidden his mother’s sealskin to keep her tame. Could he have done this, back then, if she’d been free? Could they have darted about in the shallows together under the hot sun, turning and twisting and chasing one another in the cool water?

Stede puts those thoughts out of his mind as he floats. He could probably fall asleep here, he thinks, but then who would captain the ship? Certainly not Calico Jack, and he’s not entirely sure he trusts Ed’s judgment with the man around, so he heads back to the shore. 

It’s with a heavy heart that he removes the sealskin. He feels so unbalanced when he does, like his brain’s gotten too used to being a seal, and having legs and arms is too much for it to comprehend. The slog through the shallows and back to shore is a difficult one. 

“Alright,” Stede says to himself. “Let’s get cleaned up.”

He reaches for the bar of soap, lavender scented and very expensive, and is about to head back into the water to begin washing when there’s a crash from within the trees. 

Stede freezes, suddenly realizing he hadn’t checked to be sure he was alone before taking off the skin. 

The only thing moving in the trees is the flock of birds that are taking flight, cawing madly, but Stede rushes to get himself clean and dressed and back to the beach. 

The men are all exactly where he left them, including Ed, who seems to have sobered some. He’s not even looking at Calico Jack, who is attempting to balance a coconut on his head while screaming for Jim to throw a knife into it. Instead, Ed is staring blankly out to sea with something of a pensive expression, and his eyes barely dart to Stede when he informs the group that he’s heading back to the ship. 

That night, Stede has already changed into his nightshirt when Ed practically kicks down the door. 

Stede jumps, but relaxes when he realizes it’s only Ed.

He tenses back up when Ed locks the door behind him. 

“Everything alright?” Stede asks, firmly telling himself that this is his friend Ed, not the fearsome and terrible Blackbeard. Even with the influence of Calico Jack (who Stede can still hear drunkenly screaming on deck) Ed would never do anything to bring Stede to harm. He knows it like he knows the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. 

“I saw you today,” Ed says casually. He crosses to the writing desk and picks up a paperweight, turning it over in his hands like he’s studying it. He won’t meet Stede’s eye. 

“Yes, I saw you as well,” Stede says. “We do live on the same boat, after all.”

Ed makes a frustrated sound in the back of his throat. “No, I mean, I saw you.” 

A finger of ice starts to trace itself down Stede’s spine. Ed looks up and their eyes meet, and Ed’s face is deadly serious. Stede, breathing shallowly and rapidly, swallows hard. 

“What exactly did you see, then?” he dares to ask. 

“That,” Ed says, pointing to where the sealskin is folded on the fainting couch, freshly dried and smelling gently of lavender soap. Stede had carefully folded it when he’d gotten back and left it on the end of the couch in hopes that Ed would tire of Calico Jack’s antics and come down for their customary nightcap. Now, the skin is just incriminating. 

“Oh,” Stede breathes. His knees suddenly feel like they’re made of jelly, and he sinks down to sit on the edge of his bed. He flinches a little when he hears the thumping of Ed’s boots on the hardwood, and he sits absolutely still when he feels the mattress dip under Ed’s weight. 

“So,” Ed starts. He claps his hands to his knees and sits slightly hunched, awkward, like he doesn’t want to be talking about this either. “When you said that was your seal leather, you meant it.”

“I did,” Stede admits. His eyes sting a bit. He’s never had this conversation before. 

“Why’d you give it to me?” The words punch out of Ed like he’s spitting them, but he’s not angry. When Stede looks up to finally make eye contact, Ed looks gutted, like he’s expecting some kind of terrible blow. His eyes are glimmering in the low light, and he’s worrying at his lip with his teeth. 

“I knew you’d take care of it,” Stede says honestly. 

Ed flinches. “You let me use it like a lap blanket. Like something unimportant.”

“Exactly!” Stede tries for a smile, but he knows it comes out nervous and wobbly when Ed doesn’t brighten. “My father kept my mother’s sealskin in a trunk, hidden in a room no one ever went in. My mother kept mine hidden my entire life. I even kept it hidden away, until you pulled it out. I suppose I just didn’t want to hide it anymore.”

“Fuck,” Ed breathes. He grinds the heels of his hands into his eyes. 

“I’m sorry.” Stede’s floundering a bit now, because this is not how he expected this conversation to go. He expected shouting, or horror, or some kind of revulsion once Ed realized exactly what Stede is. He didn’t expect Ed to look at him with such tenderness, such softness, such hesitant hope in his eyes. 

“Sorry? What the fuck are you sorry for? Fuck, mate, you gave me your sealskin,” Ed says. “You’re a selkie then, yeah? A real, actual selkie, like in the stories.”

“I am,” Stede admits softly. 

“And if someone hides your skin, you’re trapped with them,” Ed continues. 

“In the case of my parents, yes.”

Ed sounds absolutely broken when he says, “Then why would you give it to me? Why would you give it to Blackbeard?”

“Because Blackbeard is my friend!” Stede says. “Because you’re my friend! Because, like I said, I knew you’d take care of it. You treated it so gently when you first found it, like it was something special, and I knew you would never do anything to harm it or me! You’re a good person, Ed, and I’m not sure how to make you believe that, but if you’ve got any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.”

“Fuck,” Ed says again, and then he surges forward. 

Their teeth clack together and Stede gets half a mouthful of beard, but he wouldn’t change it for the world. The kiss is bruising. Ed’s hands find a home in the front of Stede’s nightshirt, fingers clenching into fists in the fabric, using it as leverage to pull him impossibly closer. Stede makes an embarrassing noise that opens his mouth a bit, which Ed uses as the perfect opportunity to slide his tongue inside. 

It’s wet, and hot, and deliciously perfect. Stede gasps at the contact and Ed pushes harder, still trying to drag Stede in further, like he’d be happier if Stede was on his lap. Stede’s got half a mind to go ahead and do just that, but Ed breaks the kiss, gasping. 

“You said it was a metaphor,” he accuses, lips wet and red, eyes huge and round. 

“I couldn’t bloody well say I was a selkie,” Stede says. His brain feels fuzzy and his heart is pounding like it’s trying to run a marathon. His hands are shaky where they’re resting on Ed’s thighs, their legs angled together, Ed’s hands still warm and heavy on Stede’s chest. 

“You’re insane,” Ed whispers reverently, and brings their lips together again, softly this time. It’s chaste and quick. “You’re a selkie who gave his skin to Blackbeard.” 

“I gave my skin to Ed,” Stede corrects. 

Ed practically whimpers at that, dropping his head to rest on Stede’s shoulder. He drags in a few shaky breaths and Stede’s not entirely sure what to do, so he settles for resting his hands on Ed’s back. It seems to be the right choice when Ed relaxes into the hold. 

“You’re insane,” he repeats, “But I really, really like it.”

“I really, really like you too,” Stede says. 

There’s a riot of shrieks from up on deck, but neither of them truly take notice. 

“You’re serious,” Ed says, lifting his head, eyes searching. 

Stede realizes just how serious he is when he says, “Yes, I am. You make me happy.”

“You make me happy, too.” Ed smiles, bright and wide. “And I mean me. Ed. Not Blackbeard. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve really been Blackbeard in a long time.”

Another chorus of shouts drifts down from on deck, but nothing in the world could tear Stede from this moment. 

“I’d love you either way, Ed or Blackbeard or anyone in between.”

“You said love,” Ed says, reverent, holy. 

“I did,” Stede agrees. 

Ed pulls him in again, this time cupping the back of his head with firm hands, fingers tangled in Stede’s hair. He sighs into the kiss and feels like he’s melting, boneless with relief and happiness and want. Stede’s hands come up to Ed’s sides. They rest on well-worn leather, pinkie fingers drifting to the strip of skin that shows above Ed’s pants, hot and smooth and just as soft as Stede had always secretly hoped it would be. 

There’s a third crash from above, and Ed pulls away with a murderous look. 

“I’m going to kill him,” he says, and marches toward the stairs. 

Stede stares after him. His lips are tingling. It takes almost a full minute before he realizes he ought to follow, if only to keep Ed from committing actual homicide. 

There’s still screaming going on when Stede finally makes his way on deck. Calico Jack and Ed are in one another’s faces, both shouting and gesturing wildly, looking about two seconds from starting a physical altercation. Olu is standing behind Ed, one hand on Ed’s shoulder, clearly trying to mutter soothing words that aren’t doing much good. The Swede is screaming in Swedish. Buttons is practically wailing, cradling Karl gently to his chest. Karl, for his part, is blinking out at the scene with vague indifference. 

“Now what’s happening here?” Stede asks, utterly baffled. 

“This vile man nearly killed Karl!” Buttons sobs. He blows his nose loudly into Karl’s feathers. Karl stares impassively. 

“He was asking for it!” Calico Jack insists. “I’d give it another swing, if Blackie would give me back my whip!”

“You’re not killing the fucking bird!” Ed snarls, before softening slightly to a less murderous scowl. “You need to sleep it off, man, c’mon.”

“Fine, there’s more than one way to waste a seagull,” Calico Jack says, drawing his pistol. He aims it directly at Karl, which means he’s actually aiming it directly at Buttons, who tightens his hold on the bird. Karl squawks indignantly. 

“Jack!” Ed snaps. 

“Stand down, man!” Stede cries.

Jack pulls the trigger. 

The bullet goes wide, thank whatever god is listening, and buries itself into the mast with a resounding crack. The entire crew hits the deck, excepting Buttons, who stands completely still with his eyes scrunched shut, like he hasn’t realized he’s still alive. Karl finally manages to take flight. He lands on the crow’s nest and stares down judgmentally. 

“Jack, what the fuck,” Ed demands. He takes a swing and connects with Jack’s nose, which immediately begins to gush blood onto the man’s shirt. Jack just grins, red and wet and messy. 

“Coulda had him,” Jack laughs. He doesn't try to wipe his face. 

“Get off my ship,” Stede orders, cold as he can muster. He thinks that if Jack doesn’t get out of his sight right now, he may actually do something violent and insane, like stab him, or throw him overboard, or let the crew tear him apart with their bare hands. 

“Thought you’d never ask,” Jack says with a leer, and then, “You comin’, Eddie?”

Ed freezes. His hair is still messed up from having Stede’s hands in it, his shirt still wrinkled from Stede’s efforts to pull it off. He blinks once, twice, eyes wide and desperate, and all at once Stede realizes that a very important decision is about to be made. 

“No,” Ed says softly. 

Jack scoffs. “What the hell do you mean, no? I saved your life, remember? You owe me everything.”

“You saved Blackbeard,” Ed corrects. “But I don’t think I want to be that guy anymore.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Izzy was right. You really did go soft! What the fuck does this guy have to offer, anyway? Is the sex really that good?” Jack points his gun at Stede, who tries very hard not to flinch. It’s not the gun that sends his heart racing, or the cruel words, but the fact that he’s so sure Ed is about to shrug and agree that no, Stede really can’t offer much beyond a piss-poor understanding of piratical norms and a rarely-used sealskin. 

“Get off the fucking boat, Jack,” Ed says, low and dangerous, taking one menacing step forward. Jack, still bleeding freely onto his shirt, scuttles back until he hits the rail. 

“Fine! Fine, whatever! Let the English get you! I dunno why Izzy even told me to get you out first, clearly you’re too obsessed with your little boyfriend to be worth anything! Fuck!” 

Jack throws his hands in the air dramatically and tries to turn away, but Ed grabs his collar in white-knuckled hands and drags him in close, almost pressing their noses together when he hisses, “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Izzy sold you out! I sold you out, you dumb fucking prick! Why the fuck do you think I wanted to bring you to Blind Man’s Cove so bad?” Jack laughs and spits blood into Ed’s face, grinning maniacally. Ed doesn't even flinch. 

“I hope you drown,” he says, and cracks his head into Jack’s. Calico Jack goes down like a sack of dropped bricks, and Ed uses the leverage to toss him over the railing and into the water. The entire crew, including Stede, rushes to the side of the ship to watch him fall. 

He does not resurface. 

“Well, what the fuck are you all waiting for? We need to get out of here, right fucking now!” Ed shouts, and the Revenge leaps into a flurry of activity. 

They have to sail through the night before Ed deems them safe. He stands in the crow’s nest the entire time, spyglass seemingly glued to his face, and only crawls down somewhere around dawn. 

“Think we’re good, now,” he says, swaying, half dead on his feet. Stede, who is equally exhausted, can only nod. 

“I certainly hope so,” he agrees. “We’ve had a bit of a day. Two days, actually.”

“You got that right,” Ed sighs. He claps Stede on the shoulder, then looks around furtively. When it seems like no one is directly watching them, he leans in and plants a gentle kiss on Stede’s temple. Stede feels himself turn bright red, only blushing harder when Ed tilts their heads together. 

“Think the crew would mind if we took a nap?” Stede asks into the quiet space between them. 

“They better not,” Ed says. “Because I’m about to sleep for a week. Care to join me?”

Stede is thankful that they’re close enough that Ed can’t see him stutter. He knows Ed’s only asking about sleeping, but the thought of lying next to Ed in bed, curled up under the blankets and nested together in the sheets, is enough to send him a bit lightheaded. It would be heavenly to be able to fall asleep with his arms wrapped around Ed’s warm middle, his palm pressed flat to the soft skin there, his fingers maybe tracing the raised edges of scars and tattoos. Would Ed be ticklish? Would he be allowed to kiss him goodnight?

“You don’t have to,” Ed says, and Stede realizes he’s been silent for too long. 

“No! No, I want to. Let’s go,” he says. He takes Ed’s hand and leads him past sleeping piles of crew members. At some point in the night Oluwande had attempted to organize shifts, so that half could sleep while the other half kept an eye out for any English warships, but now it looks as though the only ones awake are Lucius and Black Pete, who are thoroughly busy behind a few conveniently placed barrels, and Buttons, who is perched high in the rigging, gently smoothing Karl’s feathers. 

Once they reach their shared captain’s quarters, Ed heads straight for the bed, stripping as he goes. He pauses to grab the sealskin off the back of the fainting couch, and freezes, face darkening under a brilliant blush as he stares, arm stretched halfway out, eyes locked on Stede. It would be a funny sight, having a half-naked Blackbeard so awkward and nervous here in his room, but Stede takes pity on him. 

“It makes a decent blanket,” he says. 

Ed relaxes at once, picking up the skin and pretending not to be sniffing it. “It’s warm. Soft. Reminds me of you.”

Stede gives him an indulgent smile and climbs into bed. He opens his arms for Ed to crawl in with him, and Ed obliges, wrapped tightly in the soft fur. He scoots backward until he’s pressed close to Stede’s chest, and Stede buries his face into Ed’s hair, inhaling the smell of tobacco and salt. 

“Someday you’ll have to show me how you turn into a giant fucking seal,” Ed says sleepily. 

Stede laughs. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”