Everyone knows about the geese.
The main problem with the geese (other than the inherent problems of geese in general) is that there are no distinguishing features between a regular goose and your designated soulmate goose.
The first time Stede sees a goose up close it's grey and black and the most exciting thing that's ever happened to him. True, it tricks him into bending over so it can steal his hat and, yes, it half-chases, half-leads Stede all the way down to the shallow breaking waves of the seafront before the hat is unceremoniously dropped onto the wet sand, but that's just part of the natural struggle and joy of finding true love.
Imagine, a soulmate already, at his tender years! A childhood sweetheart to play and grow up with and adore for the rest of his life! The distinct lack of anyone else on this beach is a small hitch in the narrative but the goose launches itself into the waves with a satisfied honk and Stede's heels are sinking into the sand as he watches it go, watching the waves part like the bow of a ship around its feathers and realises, yes.
He runs all the way home because hope is still a sharp-cornered thing behind his ribs, the edges not yet worn down.
"I'm going to join the navy," Stede announces, his voice and chin lifted high. "My soulmate goose says that's where I need to be."
His father ruffles his newspaper, and grunts. "You're too old to believe in such nonsense," he says.
"Soulmate geese are never wrong, dear. That's just science," his mother says serenely, her gaze fixed somewhere beyond the window as she sips her tea. Stede beams at her. She doesn't look at him.
"Right," his dad says, and gets up. That's settled then, Stede thinks, and wonders where his commission will send him. He wonders what his soulmate is like. The daughter of a pirate, perhaps! Someone who likes to read and has adventure in her blood, he thinks, and wonders why that doesn't sit right in his stomach. Nerves, probably.
His father has a goose under his arm when he comes back. It's grey and black.
"It's just a goose, boy," his father says, when they're down in that cold and coppery-smelling space near the kitchens. "Watch."
That's not even the same one, Stede thinks, but then there's something warm and wet splattered on his cheek and the edged thing behind his ribs cracks anyway.
"People like you don't get love, child, they get land," his father says, later, when they're walking through the fields.
That's fine, Stede thinks, staring at the horizon so hard his eyes burn, the treeline shimmering blurred and watery. That's fine, because his destiny lies out on the sea.
"Why do you keep insisting we have picnics on the fucking beach?" Mary says, after another herd of geese has trampled straight through the quiche and chased Louis into the water, again.
The fact that it's the only place that makes him feel like the sunlight can reach through his ribs doesn't seem like the right answer, somehow, so Stede agrees that they don't have to keep doing this, and pretends he doesn't see geese every time he looks towards the ocean.
He doesn't see them anywhere else — there are no happy signs or sharp-beaked metaphors around their cold and quiet house, or on their steady and unchanging land, or in their anchored and monotonous life. Mary does paint a picture of a white-feathered bird she saw near the old workshop but it's in that angular style she's so fond of, and, honestly, Stede thinks it might be a swan.
What they need, Stede decides, is a change of scenery, and the goose pecking at the dust outside the ship builder's office is just another point in this clearly brilliant scheme's favour. True, it comes at his pockets like he's hiding cake (he isn't) and, yes, somehow manages to knock his portfolio of sketches out of his hands and into a puddle, but that's simply a blessing in disguise. Those sketches were for the sort of ship he imagined a pirate might have, with the same number of ropes as other ships and lots of space for booty.
He has back-up sketches safely in the carriage, which he'd abandoned at the last minute thinking that they were perhaps a bit too much. Normal ships don't have secret passages or modern amenities for attracting the most fearsome and qualified of crew members, but every time Stede strives towards normal the geese and the sunlight fade out of his life. The puddled plans didn't even have space for a full library, for god's sake!
"Thanks, goose," Stede says, beaming from the safety of the doorstep, and pushes open the door to destiny.
He encounters no less than seventeen geese in the process of getting the Revenge crewed and vittled, which is either an extraordinarily good sign or evidence of a mass escape from a local goose farm. Stede chooses to believe the former.
His first mate, nominated on account of having the most experience and being the first person member to actually say yes to being part of Stede's crew (not that Stede is going to stick to traditional hierarchical structures, of course; he prefers a more fluid, every-man-to-his-strengths sort of approach, but people do keep asking who the first mate is after looking Stede up and down), agrees. "Aye, I reckon we're on the right track," Mr Buttons says, as their interviews on the jetty keep getting interrupted by geese hissing at prospective employees. They possibly shouldn't have set up right next to where the geese were nesting, but it's too late now. "At sea I'd nae listen to a word from these demons, but they know how to size up a man."
His steward, on the other hand, is horrified. "Why are there always geese around you?" Lucius says, and doesn't relax until they're out on the waves with the salt breeze in their hair and no birds beyond Karl in sight and, "Sorry, did you say pirates? When you said cabin boy I thought you meant, like, roleplay —"
There's a distinct lack of geese out in the vast ocean and being a pirate is so exciting that Stede does — sometimes, late at night when the crew is asleep and it's just him alone in his cabin — wonder if his soulmate is the sea itself. Which would be fine! It's cold and mercurial and unable to reciprocate and Stede's fairly certain it will kill him in the not too distant future, so it's pretty similar to his experiences of love so far.
Somewhere, far away, a goose starts waddling purposefully.
"They've brought a goose," Roach says, watching the British dinghy approach through the galley porthole, and the rush to get the lower deck ready for the cake-or-death inspection pauses for a beat.
"A live goose?" Wee John asks.
"A live goose," Roach confirms. "Should I cook it, Captain?"
"What? No! It might be a soulmate goose!"
"It looks like a barnacle goose," Roach says, squinting. "Those make very succulent roasts. It would be a great use for all that thyme I've been storing."
"We're not cooking the goose, Roach, but thank you. We'll wait and see if it's interested in anyone in particular."
"I vote we eat it," says Wee John.
"Where's your sense of romance, guys? Your soulmate could be on that dinghy!"
"God, I hope not," Frenchie says, peering out of the gunport.
"No," Stede agrees, frowning. "Well, perhaps we're just meant to help it along its way to whoever it's supposed to be leading. The Revenge might be a small part of someone's great love story! Imagine that."
"Why wouldn't it just fly to whoever it's supposed to be peckin'?"
"The ways of geese are not for us to understand, Wee John. Anyway, is the table laid yet? Come on! They're almost here!"
"I don't think it is a soulmate goose," Frenchie says, leaning on the cannon. "Everyone knows their feathers are made of lead and if you put one on a boat, the boat'll sink."
"That's not — why else would they be bringing it over?"
Frenchie shrugs. "Have you ever tried to say no to a goose?"
"Yes, actually," Stede says, lifting his chin. "You just need a firm command and a good handful of corn to throw in the other direction."
"They be about to board us, Cap'n," Buttons calls from above.
"Bugger," Stede says. "Places, everyone!" he says, and hurries up to the main deck.
"My God, look at this ship. Bonnet, meet Officers Wellington, Hornberry and Shaw," Badminton introduces, waving between them as his gaze flutters around the rigging.
"And the goose?" Stede asks. The goose stares at him, head cocked on one side.
"We haven't named it. Damned thing's been stinking up the ship for weeks," Badminton says.
"I think I heard someone cheer when it hopped onto the dinghy with us," one of them - Hornberry? - says lightly. His hands are bleeding.
"It somehow ruined every barrel of tea we had in the hold and yet you can't even kill the beasts unless you want an idiot mutiny on your hands. Superstitious bollocks, if you ask me. This way to lunch, is it?"
"Ah, yes. Lead the way, please, Lord Buttons. Leave the goose. You can have your staring contest with it later."
The goose, having lost the staring contest with Buttons, stays on deck and starts pecking at a poorly tied line.
It's a while before anyone remembers the goose, what with all the murder and the hostage taking and that one sail suddenly dropping to the deck when Wellington tried to make a break for it.
Night draws over the sea, and Stede reads the crew another chapter of their bedtime story, and he's mostly thinking about how much tougher it is to be a pirate than the books make it seem when he pulls back the curtains around his berth and is met with a honk, and a sharp jab straight to the stomach.
It chases Stede out of the cabin and somehow slams the door behind him, but Stede doesn't mind. He rushes onto the main deck, where the crew are fast asleep, and yells:
"Guys! I think it's my soulmate goose!"
Down below, the goose honks.
"Fuck me," Lucius says, and pulls the blanket over his head.
"Just to be clear, Cap'n — is the goose for eating?"
"Absolutely not, Roach. He has a sacred duty, and I'm pretty sure they taste vile."
Roach shrugs. "I could make it taste good."
"Still a no, but I love your confidence. Keep it up!"
"I'll just take a wing, you don't need the whole bird to find a soulmate."
They run aground.
It's not actually the goose's fault.
"Captain says follow that ship," Izzy says, and before Fang can ask why there's a flurry of heavy feathers and a goose thumps down onto the deck.
"Kill that, we'll have it for dinner," Izzy says, and stalks off.
Fang stares at it. "I thought it was bad luck to kill a goose?"
"That's albatrosses, innit."
The goose stares at them, head cocked to one side.
"You catch it," Ivan says.
"I can't kill a goose! It might be on the way to my soulmate!"
"It's waddling towards the captain's quarters, is what it's doing. Jesus, what sort of person would have Blackbeard as a soulmate?"
Fang hisses like he's stepped on something small and sharp and brightly coloured. "I hope we never meet them," Fang says, a grimace stretched over his teeth. "They'd have to be even more insane than the boss."
("Is that goose dead yet?" Izzy calls, and then, distantly, "Where the fuck did it get a knife—")
"Are you sure this is the place we need to be, Cap'n?" Oluwande says, as the lines are thrown ashore and the Revenge is manuervered in to dock. "I mean, the goose doesn't seem like it's ready to lead you anywhere right now, does it?"
The goose, asleep on top of the capstan with its head tucked under its wing, doesn't stir.
"On the contrary, I think that means we're firmly on the right track! Besides, you heard it when Buttons floated the idea of coming here. Every crew member got a vote, except those who wanted to kill the hostage, and the goose was firmly on the side of ransoming."
"Yeah, but..." Oluwande tries, but Stede is already off and directing Lucius on the perfect way to leash their hostage.
Jim, leaning close to Olu with their back to the crew, grins under their beard.
"I can't believe you sided with the goose," Olu says.
"I'm just following the path of true love, man," Jim says, their voice clenched tight over a laugh. "You can't fight destiny."
Olu looks at Jim for a second, then down at his hands. "Yeah," Olu says, quietly. "At least the goose doesn't seem to be coming ashore with us, right? My shins have had enough."
"Can you imagine a goose in Spanish Jackie's? Ha! I bet a goose has never been within a mile of that place."
"Actually," Olu starts, but then the gangplank's down and Jim turns around, mutely facing the crew again. They're still grinning, though. We're going to die, Olu thinks.
The Republic of Pirates is a feast for the senses, even if it's not the cornucopia of plunderers ready to fling gold at a man's booty that Stede had hoped for. No matter! The sheer quantity of geese around affirms that Stede is nevertheless on the right track.
Stede glances down a promising-looking alleyway and then notices the man passed out across the mouth of it, laying in a puddle of something indiscriminately reddish.
"Perhaps not," Stede says, and a goose pecks sharply at his knee.
"Oh, hello," Stede says, beaming down at it. "Are you here for me?"
"It's just another goose, boss," Lucius sighs. "Look, there's another one."
"A gaggle does not preclude the possibility of many happy meetings, Lucius! There's no need to be a pessimist. This isle could be packed to the gills with people ready to drunkenly stumble into their soulmate."
"God, I hope not," Lucius says, and exhales with a noise high in his throat as Stede skips over the probable-corpse and trips happily down the murder alley, the goose waddling ahead.
The goose insists on coming with them to the Spanish Navy ship, which is a little weird for just a simple business transaction, but like Frenchie said — you can't say no to a goose.
"What goose?" Ed asks, frowning. It's taken Stede a while, what with the stabbing and his new friend Ed and the twisty feelings in his stomach and the revelation that Blackbeard is somewhere on his ship to remember about it, but he nearly tore his stitches with the sudden lurch upright when the thought thudded heavily to the front of his mind.
"The goose of the Revenge! It was at my feet when the Spanish — well, you know. Damn, I hope it didn't get hurt in all the commotion."
"I didn't see a goose," Ed says, still frowning. "Why was there a goose on board?"
"Perhaps we really were just helping it along its way to whomever it was supposed to lead," Stede says sadly, and Ed, patiently waiting for the delirium of the recently-feverish to pass, idly picks up a hand-mirror on the shelf above the berth.
"He probably thinks I'm a fool, that Blackbeard," Stede starts, and the goose, long out of sight, is forgotten.
Izzy Hands is absolutely thrilled to report that not a single goose is sighted for the entire time they're stuck on board the Revenge but Nassau is, as always, inexplicably fucking filled with them.
"And now he's whipping the water. Probably trying to turn back the tide. Ha! No breakfast spread for you today..."
"Yeah, I'm sure he's miserable," Olu mumbles, not opening his eyes. He hasn't slept, but at some point during the night the sweet blindfold of rum became the bastard hat of a hangover and he's hoping that if he stays low and doesn't move then maybe his head won't notice.
"I don't want Ed to be miserable," Stede says, from behind the telescope. "I hope they're very happy together. I hope he has a long and pleasant life passing out on the sand and never having breakfast quiche again. I hope the tide comes back in and washes them both out to sea forever."
Olu cracks open an eye. Stede's chin is, perhaps, less than steady, and for a moment he's silent enough that he might actually listen to what Olu says and then shut up and let Olu sleep. Maybe.
"For what it's worth, I'm sorry it didn't work out," Olu tries. "Even when someone's your soulmate, it doesn't mean they're ready for... everything that entails, you know?"
That, somehow, makes Stede look up. It's just an inch, just the smallest jerk of his head away from the telescope, but it makes Olu sit up. Oh, god, no. He lies back down, his captain's face just visible over the back of the sofa.
"You're quite right, but I don't see what that's got to do with anything," Stede says, frowning at the horizon.
"You and Blackbeard," Olu says, and Stede finally looks at him, blank and frowning. Something lurches unpleasantly in Olu's stomach. "Jim said — on the day you met, you know the goose was on the Spanish ship with you—"
Stede continues to stare at him, the crease between his eyebrows deepening. Olu presses on, slow and careful because if he speaks too fast he might throw up: "Jim said the goose flew away the moment Blackbeard said whatever cool thing it was he said when you were almost too-dead to hear it."
Stede blinks, and then his eyes widen, and somehow he goes even more still even though Olu can see the maelstrom suddenly thundering behind his eyes. It makes Olu feel seasick just watching him so he looks away, plucks at a loose thread on his knee and thinks about first meetings because it is stupid, really; he didn't even believe in the whole soulmate thing until he met Jim on the same day as that fucking goose.
It's been a minute when Olu looks up again. Stede still hasn't moved, but his gaze is now fixed on the ceiling.
"Ed is my... soulmate?" Stede says slowly.
"Yes," Olu sighs, not unkindly.
"... Does everyone else know?"
Olu sucks in a breath. "Yeah, Roach told everyone, like, the moment you were all back on board. He was really disappointed the goose got away, I think. He'd been making a lot of plans for goose fat."
"And... no-one thought to tell me?" Stede asks, single-mindedly.
"We all figured you knew!" Olu says. "Why else would Blackbeard be hanging around our ship this whole time?"
"Does Ed know?"
Olu opens his mouth, and then frowns. Thinks about destiny, and souls being entwined, and the absolute obliviousness of some people. "I... honestly couldn't say," he admits.
Lucius, by virtue of being the only crew member not desperately hungover, rows the dinghy. Stede has a whole speech shifting brightly around in his head like a glitterball, but he doesn't get even a glimmer of it out because when they get onto the beach Ed is too busy fighting off a goose to notice him.
"Fuck off!" Ed yells, aiming a kick at where it was a wingbeat ago. The goose hops around and stabs its beak at Ed's salt-soaked ankles.
"Ed?" Stede says, and a lot of things happen at once. The goose takes off with a honk, cuffing Ed across the head as it goes and swooping so low that Stede yelps and ducks and when all's clear again Ed is sprawled on the sand and his knife is embedded in the centre of the ship's journal. The one being held against Lucius's chest.
They all look at it, for a breath.
"I'm going back to the ship," Lucius says, his voice balancing on a very high tightrope, and he drops the journal on the sand as he turns on his heel. The knife, not having gone all the way through, falls out.
"Come on, you're supposed to be recording this! Lucius! The near-death experiences are just part of the magic of true love!"
Lucius, his feet slipping over the rocks, holds up a hand with the middle finger extended and keeps going.
Stede clicks his tongue, and turns back to where Ed is still sitting on the ground, brushing sand off the palms of his gloves.
"Things never seem to go to plan between us, do they?" Stede says, and Ed's mouth pulls to the side so he must be listening. "I suppose that's the whole metaphor of soulmate geese," he adds and that, of all things, makes Ed look up. The weight of it hits like a bullet, light and shattering.
"I'm an idiot," Stede says, and grins. He can't help it — it feels like there's an entire season in his veins, the whole of summer stretching bright and warm and impossible under his skin. "I've been chasing geese all my life and I still didn't realise what it meant when mine disappeared."
"What?" Ed says, frowning up at him.
Stede sucks in a breath, the shards of his speech glittering together. "I've never had a good friend before," Stede says, and the sharp edges of Ed's posture soften. "I honestly thought feeling like your heart had been plucked out of your chest and replaced with the sun was all part of the joy of friendship."
"Not in my experience," Ed says, and Stede beams at him.
"Exactly! I was an ignorant fool, blinded by the excitement of having someone who enjoyed all the weird things I did. That's you, by the way," Stede says, and there's a hitch in Ed's cheek, a smile hiding under his beard.
Stede reaches out a hand and, after a beat, Ed takes it, letting Stede pull him to his feet palm-to-palm. Stede, deviously, doesn't let go.
"The thing is, Ed, it's been pointed out to me by most of my crew that what I'm actually feeling is... love," Stede says, his lungs bright and full and the way Ed's looking at him right now could keep him afloat in the wildest storm, could keep him alive even if he was trapped on the bottom of the ocean for a thousand years.
"Is that right?" Ed says, soft and low and somehow hooked straight into Stede's stomach. His eyes are very dark, and very close.
"I'm in love with you," Stede says, like he's seeing dawn for the first time, and then, "I knew my soulmate goose would lead me right," and the moment wobbles.
"Hang on. You're in love with me," Ed says, as Stede nods rapidly, "because a goose said so?"
"No! Well — no! The goose just showed me the way. I fell in love with you because of who you are, Ed. All of you. Even the bits that have terrible friends and don't like olives."
"Why would you want to eat something that tastes like rancid sea water?" Ed says, right in the space Stede left for him, and Stede grins.
"We'll work on that," he promises. Ed's still here, and close, and soulmate geese are never wrong but the suspense is starting to feel like an actual weight, sinking through his stomach. "More importantly, I do have to ask — how do you feel about the whole... soulmate, thing?"
Ed shifts, looking down at the sand for a breath before glancing up. "Stede, honestly — soulmate geese are just a myth."
"Well, they are very much real, so I'm afraid you are myth-taken," Stede says.
Ed stares at him for a long, sand-swept moment. "I can't believe I found you," Ed says eventually, which could mean a lot of things.
Stede frowns, and opens his mouth to demand clarification, but then there are hands on either side of his face and Ed's lips get there first.
Somewhere, far away, a goose honks.