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the lovers, the dreamers, and me

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Stede never used to talk about his family.

Ed never asked, and the crew didn’t seem to want to know, and it was just— easier, this way. Mostly everybody left someone behind when they signed up to be on the seas instead. It’s not like he was special, or anything. Drawing attention to it, it just— It didn’t seem necessary. He didn’t want anyone to know, really. Easier that way.

Eventually, though, Stede had had to tell Ed, just because— Well, they’d told each other most things. So, when Stede finally found him again, he told him absolutely all of it. Part of his massive overall apology to Ed, after coming back, had been that explanation. Ed had wanted— needed— to know about the family Stede had gone back to, to understand why he had done it, to learn about— about the person who married Stede before he got to, about the children he has, about the family he had after his father but before he made his family here.

Stede had felt like his chest was turning itself inside out when he’d confessed to Ed, “I didn’t want to ruin them, like I didn’t want to ruin you,” and he hadn’t even fully realized all of that before that moment, and then he’d cried, and then Ed had cried, and it’d been a whole— thing.

In all of his confessions, he’d told Ed everything he could think of to tell him about his family. Just— Truly, everything he could think of, everything he thought Ed would care to know, to try and make this easier for him, to throw it all wide open and let the light in where he’d previously kept everything hidden in shadow. He told him about Mary, about Alma, about Louis; he’d told him about his old life, and the one he’d tried to rebuild when he returned, and the one he eventually realized he couldn’t ever go back to. He told him about Mary’s new life, and he told him about Doug, and he told him about the realization Mary had helped him to have, and he told him about— everything.

He told him everything, because that’s what they do now. They communicate, and they’re honest with each other, and Stede—

Stede is not going to risk him. Not again. He’s not. He’ll tell him every thought he has. He’ll talk until he’s blue in the face if it means he’s honest with Ed. Even if he’s— Even if he eventually will probably say the wrong thing, and Ed will hate him for it— he’ll tell him everything. He’ll tell him the truth. Ed asked for that much, and he deserves it.

Ed deserves everything, actually, in Stede’s opinion; he’d give him the world, even if he didn’t ask for it, even if he didn’t— didn’t love him, too. He knows he, himself, deserves worse after leaving.

Lucky him, Ed doesn’t seem to think the same way, not now. It’d taken— a little bit of begging, at first, and then a lot of talking, and even more rebuilding after that, but Ed didn’t kill him. He didn’t hurt him, or turn him away, or— or even hate him, really. Not anymore, anyway.

Stede’s afraid to ask if he ever did; he’s sure he’d also deserve that, if he had. That still doesn’t mean he’s strong enough to ask, though.

From there, however, Ed had almost— started trying to pry information out of him. Like he had a— a fancy little knife and he was just trying to pluck every little detail about Stede’s entire life out of his brain. He asks, now, about his kids and his family and his life before, as if exposing all of these things to the light will make them seem less like terrifying monsters, concealed in the dark, to him.

It’s a little nerve-wracking, admittedly. Stede had never brought the children and Mary up in casual conversation before because he was certain Ed wouldn’t think very much of them, nor very highly about his decisions regarding them. Not just that, but he felt— he felt ashamed, really. Ed shouldn’t think highly of him. He should think he’s shit. Especially after everything Ed had told him about his father, he just— couldn’t stop thinking about what Ed would think of him as a father, a father who— who abandons his children, who’s not there when they need him.

“My dad was there when I didn’t need him,” Ed had told him, when he’d confessed that to him. “Better leave it right then if you’re fucking it up than stick around to finish the job.”

Which, that— Stede’s not sure where the happy middle ground is, there, or if there even is one, but it’d broken his heart in multiple ways, for sure. He does understand, though, what Ed means, and what he wants: to pull back the curtains, to yank out all the skeletons from their shadowed closets, to— to make all of this less huge, and less frightening, and instead make it more— more honest.

That’s really what all this boils down to, Stede thinks. For all he tells his crew to discuss their feelings— and he does a rather splendid job of dealing with his more superficial emotions, he thinks— he struggles to do it himself, most of the time. There’s— so much weakness in him, so much that has never been enough. It’s difficult, to willingly expose that, in a way that’s not just him being himself on the surface, but is him being vulnerably himself, all the way down to his core, and flaying himself open for another person to accept or destroy as they see fit. He hasn’t done that since he was a boy and was found wanting; it’s not easy to try it again now.

He forgets, that Ed’s doing the same thing. He tries to remember that it wasn’t just him opening up his insides; Ed was, too. Ed is, too. The both of them are flaying themselves open; he’s not alone in this. That’s kind of the whole point. Or, really, the point—

The point is, Stede feels like he and Ed have worked very hard, for a very, very long time, now, to establish this open, honest, vulnerable communication with one another. He keeps telling himself: he didn’t ruin anything. It’s— He can’t ruin anything. People aren’t his to ruin. He just— keeps reminding himself of that fact. Not Ed, not Mary, not Louis, not Alma, not even himself. He can’t.

Since then, though, he’s tried not to bring up the children too often, tried not to mention Mary too much. It’s easier, to avoid the issue altogether. Ed knows all the important truths, so. There’s nothing more to say. Everything’s out in the open, pinned apart, exposed. There’s no more left to tell. He’s not about to belabor the point and upset all the hard work and forward progress he and Ed have made.

So, when they’re next in port at the Haven, and he picks up the accumulated mail that’s been left for various members of his crew, he’s surprised— and only slightly afraid— to find a letter from Mary amongst them, addressed directly to him.

Or— nearly addressed to him. However Mary’s sent and conveyed this message to him, she avoided putting Stede Bonnet on the outside and giving away the fact that he is very much alive by instead writing For Ed’s Co-Captain on the front above its destination address. Stede thinks this is as clever as it is overwhelming; it’s as if she’s put Mister and Missus Edward Teach on the front, for the way his heart responds to it.

Ed had been the one to find it first, recognizing his own name on the front and asking, “Someone sent me something?” before Stede could snatch it back from him.

“No,” Stede had said, excited, flustered. He’d grabbed back for the letter, demanding, “Now, Ed, give it here—”

“No, no, it’s got my name on it,” Ed had argued, “I want to see,” and opened it for him, skimming over the words.

Stede struggled to take it back, fighting against Ed’s longer arms, but eventually conceded, letting Ed read what he could of it. He’d watched his face crease, and then he turned over the letter, pointing out a section at the top.

“Does that say help?” he’d asked, and Stede’s heart had rocketed up into the back of his throat, and he’d grabbed the letter, skimming it quickly.

“Oh,” Stede had breathed, clutching his chest with one hand. His heart had been slamming inside, attempting to beat out from within the cage of his bones. “It’s a— a request for assistance. She and— Sorry, this is from Mary, and she and Doug— Well, it seems they’re taking the children on a tour, and she’s— It appears that she’s wondering whether or not we might want to ferry them over a couple of days.” Stede’s heart had kept racing faster; he’d stroked his thumb in a soft sweep over Alma’s name where it was indented into the letter with ink. It’s been so long, he’d thought. “It would help them out quite a bit. Give me a chance to see the children again, too.”

Ed had been silent, for a moment, before Stede had glanced up at him, curious to see what he thought. There’s— a slightly struck expression on his face, something uncertain, something that made Stede frown a bit.

Then, though, Ed had asked, “Your family wants to come?” and Stede’s whole chest had sort of— sank inwards.

“No,” he’d answered. “Well— Yes, but— Also, no.” He’d taken Ed’s hand, and reminded him, “You’re my family, Ed,” and he’d given Stede this look, and, well.

“Right,” Ed had said. He’d paused, appearing to think for a moment, before he just repeated, “Right. Well— That’s fine, then.”

“What?” Izzy had demanded beside them. “We’re not a goddamn passenger ship—”

“And you’re not a goddamn captain, Izzy,” Ed said backwards without hesitation. Looking down at Stede, he asked, “So, you want that? You want me to— to meet your kids?” He laughs once, like it’s a joke, but Stede knows better, and he seems tense, or nervous, even. It’s the sort of reaction that has Stede’s whole chest swelling. “You sure about that?”

It had been then that Stede had imagined Louis and Alma really, truly coming here, and Ed meeting them, Ed actually— actually seeing them, and being in the same space as them. As if his family really is one cohesive, real family; as if he can actually live this way. As if he can have this.

“Yes,” Stede had choked out, then. He’d meant to be— lighter, maybe, or sweeter, or more excited, but it was difficult, when he felt strangled with so much potential joy and terror, all at once. “I’m very sure about it, actually.”

Ed had given him this new sort of look that kind of— burned, a little, then, and said, “Alright, then, well—” before he’d stopped, cleared his throat. “Guess we’re gonna be a goddamn passenger ship for a few days. Where’re we going, then?”

And Stede—

It’s not that he didn’t expect Ed to agree. It’s just— He didn’t expect him to agree so quickly. If it were him, he’s sure he might’ve had— had a few reservations about meeting the people Ed had belonged to before, the people who he might have thought still held a piece of his heart, but—

But, also. When he considers it— when he actually does think about it, and imagines what it’d be like if Ed had a child— some piece of him out there in the world, his flesh and blood, somebody he loved as much as Stede loves his own children, it’s— It’s an overwhelming sort of thought, and he’s struck with this intense want, to give Ed that, and it’s— not even something he can give him, really.

Still, it’s all very striking, and he thinks he might understand, at least a little bit.

He’s very grateful, really, and he gets— more thankful the more he thinks about it, as time goes on, as they make plans to actually pick up Mary, and Doug, and the children, to actually have them on the ship for a length of time. This becomes real; this is happening.

The day the Revenge is supposed to pick up Mary, Doug, and the children from a neutral port-island off the coast of the Carolinas is drawing ever-nearer, and Stede doesn’t really know how to express to Ed how— grateful he is, with each passing day, that he’s being so— so understanding, and emotionally honest, and— and good, about this. He wants Ed to really, truly realize just how much it means to Stede, that he’s doing this.

Now, as they get closer and closer, nearer and nearer, to the day they’re meant to retrieve their passengers, Stede spends most of his time struggling to get the ship prepared for their arrival. He laments not having more time for this, but at least his crew is helpful, if not— completely, fully understanding of why he wants this, exactly. It’s not easy to explain the dynamic he and Mary have, now, but they at least understand his desire to see his children.

“Children are bad luck on board a ship,” Izzy had pointed out, before. He almost had a grim sort of optimism when he said it, seemingly purposefully within Buttons’ earshot to do so.

He’d looked a dozen times more upset, then, when Buttons had said, “Not the Captain’s blood, not in these seas,” before licking his entire palm and sticking his hand straight up in the air. He’d tsked, then said, “Nah. That’s perfect. Won’t have a problem with that, sirs.”

Stede had had to genuinely stifle a laugh at the look on Izzy’s face, then, and turned to conceal his face only to find Ed already watching him, eyes sparkling-bright, doing the same thing. He always catches him off-guard, like that.

There’s a great sort of swooping in Stede’s stomach, as a result. Ed, all glowing warmth and open mirth, threading their hands together— the crew, preparing with something like anticipation for their guests to eventually board— the ship, all in excitement around him, the obvious workings of a family, and— and he’s struck all over again.

It becomes doubly important, then. Stede needs this all to go just right. His families are— combining, sort of, or at least meeting in one proper, larger family, and he feels like it’s his responsibility to ensure everything goes smoothly when they’re together. Not—

He doesn’t just feel it. It is his responsibility. Making sure they have provisions, and cleaning as much as he can, and trying— trying— to convince the crew to act at least child-friendly, if not child-appropriate. Knowing his crew, it won’t happen; knowing his children, it wouldn’t even matter if it did.

His brain, in short, becomes little more than a stew. He’s scrambled, and perpetually concerned, and unable to— stop, really.

He also— and he’s particularly proud of this bit— has been trying to think of a way to thank Ed for all of this, for these days of preparation before he’ll have even more days of passengers on board his ship.

It can’t be easy, he knows that much. Ed doesn’t say anything bad about it, not really, but— Stede knows it can’t be easy.

Now—

Now, finally, finally, preparations are mostly finished, and the Revenge is meant to receive Stede’s family— or, former family; or, half his family; or, whatever this is— tomorrow, and Stede thinks—

He thinks this might really go okay. He does. Everything’s been accounted for, as far as he knows; at least, he can’t think of any last-minute changes he could make that would actually mean anything, or make any sort of difference, at this point. That means, though, that he’s free to execute the last step of his pre-boarding procedure, which is: thanking Ed properly for what he’s agreed to do, what he’s been doing, what he’s about to do. With everything else done and dusted, he sets his sights on the most important piece of all of this. And—

And maybe he’s something of a piss-poor father, because he’s sure his children should be the actual most important piece, but he can’t help but continuously prioritize Ed over pretty much everything and everyone else in his life.

Shifting a glass slightly on the tray before him, then shifting it again, trying to get the crystal to catch the light from his fireplace correctly, Stede tries not to dwell on thoughts of what he is or is not piss-poor at. Instead, he attempts to focus on something he knows he is good at: pleasing Ed. Or, thanking him properly, at least.

Ed crashes through the door to their shared quarters not seconds later. Stede’s long since used to his battering sort of entrances into rooms; he doesn’t even scream anymore, barely ever startled by him. It helps that he’s constantly at least semi-expecting him to appear out of thin air.

“Heyo, the boy said that you—” Ed starts, then stops. There’s a beat. “Well, he said that you were looking for me, but you’re not looking very hard, are you?”

Stede huffs a laugh. Glancing back at him finds Ed pushing the door shut behind himself, curiously examining Stede where he’s fixing the tray. “Well, it’s not as though you were lost.”

“Guess not,” Ed replies. There’s a curious down-crease to his brow. “What’re you doing, anyways?”

He can’t help smiling, at that, lifting the tray and spinning it to offer a glass to Ed. He receives a brow furrowed even further in return, confusion written all over his face. “I’m treating you. As a thank you. Go on, take it,” he prompts him, shaking the tray a bit. “It’s for you.”

Ed draws closer, takes the glass he’s being offered. In a hurry, Stede sets the tray down, adjusting his dressing robe, sweeping his hair back from his face. He tries not to seem like he’s being— particular, but he catches his reflection in the looking-glass by his vanity, and it’s not right, not for this, and he has to stop and try to fix his hair again.

Behind him, Ed catches his shoulder. There’s heat in Stede’s face, his chest, a flush of embarrassment and a rush from being touched that come up together. He lets Ed turn him, twist him around to meet him.

“Hey,” Ed says, eyes flickering over Stede’s face. His brow furrows a bit, confused. “What’s wrong?”

“What?” Stede asks, bewildered. “Nothing’s wrong. What makes you think something would be wrong?”

“Uh, well,” Ed says, and motions to him, and the room at large. “You’re acting like I’m going to fling you overboard for nothing. Or— For something, I guess. Did you do something wrong?”

“No!” Stede insists. “Wh— No, I haven’t— Well, I—”

“There it is.” Ed throws his drink back in one go like he’s taking a shot, twisting back to set the glass down on the tray again. The fast, sinuous move leaves Stede— flustered, but more surprised than anything. “Alright, hit me. What’d you do?”

“I haven’t done anything,” Stede says, if only to try and insist one more time. “I’ve only just—” He takes a breath, then rubs at his face. “Fuck.”

“Oh, shit,” Ed says. “Right into cursing, eh? Not so good this time?”

“I wanted this to be nice,” Stede laments.

“‘This?’ What i—”

“I wanted to surprise you,” Stede says, confessing in a rush, “I want— Well, it’s just— You’re being so nice about this whole thing and you didn’t have to be, really, I probably wouldn’t have been as nice about it, what with all the— But— And you— I just— I wanted to say thank you, but I— Actually, I should’ve probably planned better instead of just—”

“Wait, what the fuck?” Ed cuts him off. “Slow the fuck down, I don’t even know what you’re saying anymore. What happened? What’m I supposed to be being so nice about?”

Stede evaluates him for a confused moment. He seems— to be genuinely asking, so Stede answers, “With the children, and Mary, and the ship, and— Fuck, I’ve been an absolute fucking terror, and you still let me—”

“Stede,” Ed says over him again, but Stede barely hears him. He’d meant for this to be all about Ed, fucking— goddamnit, and about thanking him, and now all he’s done is get himself worked up again. His blood is just racing in his veins all the time now, a constant coil of anticipation that feels like it just can’t go away, no matter what he tries, what he does. No matter— No matter how many times he cleans the ship, or prepares for the children, or reassures himself in the mirror, no matter how many times he says this will be okay and reminds himself it’ll be over in a week, no matter if it goes well or poorly, he just can’t stop fucking buzzing—

“I don’t know,” Stede says. “I don’t know, you still let me go— Go all crazy here, and I don’t even know what I’m doing! You shouldn’t let me do— Well, actually, honestly, you shouldn’t let me do anything, I should just— Just let you be in charge and you’ll just tell me what to do all the time, it’ll be much easier and I can’t possibly fuck that up—”

“Stede,” Ed repeats, catching his face between his hands, thumbs crossing up over his lips to silence him. Stede frowns at him, but Ed just tightens his grip a bit, forcing Stede to tilt up and meet his eyes. “What in the actual, living fuck are you talking about right now?” He squints at him, then asks, “Are you drunk?” Stede shakes his head, frowning. “High?”

“No,” Stede insists— or, tries to insist, because Ed is still holding his jaw shut and his lips closed. He doesn’t let him go, either, so he just shakes his head in Ed’s hands again instead.

“Then what the fuck are you talking about?” Ed asks him. “And none of this crazy shit. Tell me what’s actually going on.”

Stede looks up at him, brow furrowed, frustrated, waiting. For a moment, Ed doesn’t move at all. He waits, too, watching Stede with a mystified sort of expression. It’s not until Stede’s actually physically relaxed a bit, shoulders slumping slightly, that Ed withdraws his thumbs, frees his mouth; he keeps framing his face, though. Still waiting.

“I wanted to thank you,” Stede finally tells him. There’s a peculiar sort of thrumming, burning frustration in him when he confesses, “But I can’t— do it right.”

“Thank me for what?” Ed asks.

“For— all of it,” Stede says. “Everything. Letting Mary and th— and the children come, and being so nice about it all, and just for— putting up with me. All the time. Thank you.”

He’s slumped in, now, collapsing towards himself, but Ed doesn’t let him, holding him upright, still framing his face. It’s with wild confusion that Ed asks, “Is that it? You look like you’re going to be sick, that can’t be it.”

“Wh—” Stede starts, then stops. Flickering back up to Ed, he asks, “Why are you being so nice about all of this?”

“Why do you look like you’re sucking a lemon every time you talk about them?” Ed asks right back. “I thought you were excited. Isn’t that the whole point of doing this in the first place?”

“I don’t know what the point is,” Stede laments, agitated with himself to the point of his voice breaking, which— It’s just embarrassing, and he starts to twist away again, but Ed catches him, reeling him in.

“Hey,” he says, loud at first, then quiet when he repeats, “Hey, what’s going on?” Stede shakes his head. “Stede, you fucking talk to me. We pinky-promised, mate, remember?”

Stede huffs a laugh. “I remember.” He lets himself fall forward, forehead thumping into Ed’s shoulder. There’s a beat where Ed hesitates, bewildered, before he lets his arms come up and wrap around Stede, joining at his back. Muffled by Ed’s chest, by the leather over his skin, Stede confesses, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Ed. I just— I want— I want you to be happy.”

“I am happy,” Ed insists, baffled. “Why d’you think I’m not happy?”

“I don’t—” Stede starts, then stops. After a moment, he says, “I really— Ed, I don’t—”

“Hey,” Ed says, and kisses Stede’s forehead. “You’re alright. Take a breath.”

Stede does as told, inhaling and exhaling shakily. He lets his own arms drift up to wrap around Ed, too, clinging to him, burying himself in him more fully. It’s mortifying, actually, and— also a bit selfish, or— a lot selfish, because he’s supposed to be thanking Ed, and here he’s gone and made him take care of him again, and that’s just— unfair.

He separates himself from Ed, swiping under his eyes with his thumbs to dry away any moisture that should not have gathered there. Frowning, Ed catches him, reeling him back in.

“I’m happy,” Ed insists again. “Are you?”

Stede nods jerkily. “Yes, I—” His throat chokes him up, and he sighs, then says, “Ed, I really don’t want to fuck this up.”

“Fuck what up?” Ed asks again.

“This,” Stede insists. He motions around them— to Ed, to himself, to the ship, to— to everything. “What if— What if I— Oh, shit, Ed, I don’t know what in the actual fuck I’m supposed to be doing. I was a terrible father, I’m— I was terrible at this, they’re not going to want to see me, and when you see me with them, and see how they— You’re not— Oh, fuck—”

Ed’s hand comes down to cup Stede’s chin in his hand, beard prickling under his fingertips, tugging him up with an unexpected amount of force. Brow furrowed, Ed says, “Is this what’s been bothering you? For real? You think nobody’s going to like you or something?”

Stede bristles, and he tries to shove away. Ed doesn’t let him, though, even when Stede adds, “I know I’m being stupid, just—”

“Whoa, hey, who said you’re being stupid?” Ed asks, which makes Stede’s stomach sink. Whatever expression crosses his face has Ed backpedaling quickly, hastily insisting, “No, no, that’s not what— I like you! Everybody likes you, love, I really don’t know what you’re fucking talking about.” He hesitates for half a beat before he asks, “Is that why you don’t talk about them with me? Is it ‘cause you think I won’t like you? ‘Cause of them?”

That—

Actually. Stede’s not entirely sure what the answer is to that.

His brow draws in, and he stares forward into empty air for a second before allowing his eyes to flick up to meet Ed’s, hoping he’ll find at least a small amount of guidance, there, about what he’s supposed to be doing, or saying, or even thinking.

Ed is studying him right back, though, waiting for his answer just as much as Stede is.

When Stede still doesn’t speak, not entirely sure what the truth is, Ed ventures to ask, “Why don’t you think I’m gonna like you?”

It’s a ridiculous question. He shouldn’t have to ask ridiculous questions like that. Stede is a— a grown man, and he’s doing grown adult things, and his wife— ex-wife— widow? His widow— is coming tomorrow, and bringing their children and her— her new husband, which—

These are all very adult things, and he’s an adult. He’s a pirate captain, and an ex-husband, and a father, and an adult, and he’s not supposed to fall apart when he has to do or be any of those things. He’s not— not supposed to be afraid that his new husband won’t like him anymore because of this, but—

Well, when the fuck has Stede Bonnet ever done what he’s supposed to do?

“I don’t know,” Stede finally answers him. It’s as honest as he can get himself to be, because he thinks the answer might be yes, but he also hates that the answer might be yes, and he’s not entirely sure how to admit it to either of them.

Ed studies him for a long beat. His expression is deep, and considering, and Stede can’t help watching him in return, studying him, waiting to see what he wants.

Eventually, Ed asks him, “Why wouldn’t I like you?”

Stede exhales with a humorless gust of a laugh. “Who would like me for what I—” He stops, swallows with a click. “What I— What I did.”

“What’d you do?” Ed asks him. Stede shakes his head; Ed catches his face, doesn’t let him move. “Hey. What’d you actually do?”

This time, when Stede takes a breath, it’s trembling. His eyes dart up to meet Ed’s, and he confesses, “I left them. Twice. And I left you. And now—” His eyes burn, and he takes another shaky breath. “I don’t deserve this, Ed. And I’m— I’m scared. I’m scared I can’t keep it.”

Ed frowns down at him. He doesn’t speak, for a second, apparently just thinking over what Stede’s said to him. His hands are— so warm, and Stede wants to push into him further, but he doesn’t let himself. He just waits instead, staying in place until Ed gives him his sentence, whatever it’s going to be. He’s expecting something along the lines of a, That’s dumb, or probably even a, No, you don’t deserve these good things, because— It is dumb, and, no, he doesn’t deserve this, not a single bit of it. Not Ed being understanding, not the children wanting to see him, not Mary’s forgiveness, none of it.

Instead, though, Ed just says, “Fuck off.”

Stede blinks up at him.

“What?” he asks.

“Fuck off with that shit,” Ed clarifies. “What the— You should’ve fucking talked to me if you were thinking about this shit. You’ve got me puking up every feeling I’ve got, and you’re bottling up I don’t deserve this? Fuck off, Stede.”

“Hey!” Stede feels heat rise up in him. It’s strange, this— It’s almost a glowing heat, at the same time that it’s so impossibly sharp. Ed’s got him feeling warm and hot, all at once, somehow. “Y— You fuck off! It’s important for you to share your feelings—”

“What, but not you?” Ed asks. “Why would—”

“Because mine are—” Stede stops, jaw slamming shut.

“Because yours a—”

“Because mine are wrong,” Stede tells him, feeling like he’s the one vomiting up feelings, now. “I’m not supposed to feel this way.”

Ed stares down at him, this time. There’s a long beat, and then Ed reaches out, yanking him into a rougher hug, this time. This embrace— It’s tight, and then tighter, and Stede collapses into it. He collapses into Ed, letting him hold him up, burying himself in him.

“What’d you say to me, like, two days ago?” Ed asks him. He drags his nails along Stede’s scalp, through his hair. “It’s not about ‘supposed to.’ It’s about ‘do.’ Right?”

Stede huffs, nodding against Ed’s chest. “Don’t use my words against me.”

“Don’t use words I remember,” Ed shoots back. “So. If it’s not about ‘supposed to’ feel, and it’s about— about what you ‘do’ feel, then— What do you feel?”

There’s a pleasure in Stede, hearing Ed bring all this back on him, that is almost impossible to enjoy right now. Even in this, though, he’s still impossibly proud of him, and bewildered, and just— He’s in love with him, and that’s not fair, frankly, when he’s this much of a mess. Ed deserves better than this.

Oh, he realizes.

“It’s not me,” he says. “It’s you.”

“Hey,” Ed says, sharp. “Fuck off—”

“No, that’s not—” Stede starts, then insists, “You don’t deserve this. You— You deserve better than this. I think that’s— that that’s maybe what I’ve been meaning to say.”

Ed’s quiet for a second. Stede’s— honestly, expecting him to say, You’re right, because he is, and he’s earned that.

That’s not what he says. What he asks instead is, “What do I deserve, then?”

“What do you— Everything,” Stede tells him, insists. This is the easiest question he’s had to answer all night, if nothing else. “You deserve— You deserve a lot better than me. You should have someone who’s not fucked up so badly that now you’ve got to deal with it and pretend it’s not bothering you.”

“Mm,” Ed says, nodding a bit. Stede can feel the motion where his head is jostled by his movement. “So, what’re you saying, then? I should be with someone who loves me and lets me make my own choices on what I wanna deal with, right? Yeah?”

“Well—”

“And be open about my feelings?” Ed continues. “Talk about ‘em? So I’m not pretending nothing’s bothering me?”

“You kn—”

“So,” Ed clarifies, “just to be sure, you want someone who loves me and wants me to talk about my feelings and understands that I can make my own choices and that lov— Well, that loving me’s not gonna ruin me. Right?”

Stede sighs. It’s a fairly complete echo of the same things he’s said to Ed in the past, the same apologies he’s constantly been making, the same— the same feelings they’ve been trying to express the whole time.

“Right?” Ed asks again, jostling Stede a bit.

“Yes, I get your point, thank you,” Stede replies, mumbling into Ed’s chest.

Ed keeps holding onto him, still, for a long beat. He’s not about to break an embrace freely given, so Stede just hangs right back on, letting himself draw strength from him, and his reassurances, and his physical presence here with him. Everything he’s been saying and doing feels like it’s soaking into his skin, sinking in and warming him throughout.

A bit embarrassed, Stede says softly, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me, I’m— I’m sorry.”

Ed kisses the top of his head. “Don’t worry about it, mate. Happens to the best of us. I spent a whole night crying, like, not even two weeks ago, you remember.” He kisses his temple, this time, then his cheek, before he releases him. “So. You think I’m not gonna like you when I meet your kids. You know that’s fucking bullshit, right?”

“Yes, thank you,” Stede repeats, but Ed cups his chin in his hand. Stede sighs.

“That why you don’t like talking about them?” Ed asks him. “Think I’m gonna get all pissed off at you? I know you’ve got kids. I saw ‘em in your— fancy little frame you had on the mantle over there. Even before you said something about them.”

“Oh.” Stede says, and frowns, glancing backwards. “I’d forgotten all about that, actually. I don’t—” He hesitates, then asks, "Well, I suppose it’d be foolish to ask where that ran off to, wouldn’t it?”

He’s certain that frame, along with the image of the children contained within, ended up at the bottom of the ocean, along with the rest of his things, left in their little breadcrumb-trail by Ed when he pitched each of Stede’s belongings into the sea one by one. It’d been a— a favored portrait of his, certainly, drawn of the children just after Louis became capable of holding his head up by himself, but Stede’s already accepted the destruction of most his things, as painful a memory as it could sometimes be.

So, it’s a bit confusing that Ed looks sheepish, then, before admitting, “Maybe— not that foolish.”

“Not that foolish?” Stede echoes, surprised. “Why— Ed, why would you keep a thing like that? “Where would you keep—”

“Hey, shut up, don’t go making fun of me, now, since you’re all feeling better now,” Ed grumbles at him, voice good-natured and rumbling. “I just— I don’t know. It’s fucking stupid. You can’t replace a dumb thing like that, I guess.”

“Aw, Ed.” Stede pats the side of his face, over burning skin and the sweep of his growing-long beard. “You’ve got a soft spot left in you, haven’t you?”

“I said shut up,” Ed insists. “Just— Fuck. It’s dumb.”

“It’s not,” Stede replies, heart racing just a bit. “Did you really save it?”

Rather than answering with words, Ed sighs, then pushes to the far wall, closer to the bookcases. Tugging at the figure on one shelf, he pops open the door to Stede’s secret closet, shoving his way inside. He only ducks in for a second before reemerging with an entire satchel.

“What the hell is that?” Stede asks this time.

“It’s just a couple of things I kept,” Ed admits, voice low. There’s a split second where he hesitates, knuckles tightening around the strap of the bag, before he relents and turns it over to him.

Despite Stede’s curiosity, he stays focused on Ed, just for a moment. He seems uncharacteristically shy, and it has something vulnerable beating harder in Stede’s chest. Tilting down, he supports the bag from the bottom so he can tug it open, peering inside to see what it is that Ed’s held onto long enough to show to him.

At first glance, it seems to be more fabric than anything. There’s two robes, a shirt, two nightgowns, and more than a fair handful of handkerchiefs, scarves, ribbons, cravats. They’re all recognizable as having belonged to him; he’d thought them all lost to the sea with the rest of his things.

Now, though, they slip through Stede’s fingers as he digs through the bag, curious to connect the threads of why Ed would’ve kept these things in particular. Sure enough, there’s the framed image of the children in here, and a couple of apparently random books saved from his shelves. One’s a storybook; another’s just a random journal he’d kept, nothing important. Furrowing his brow, he pulls out two empty marmalade jars, a teacup, a spoon. A few rings, in the bottom of the bag. Odds and ends, really.

“What on Earth have you kept these things for?” Stede asks, unable to connect the items to one another. They’re just random things he’d had on board.

Ed doesn’t answer until Stede looks up at him to see him shrug. “Dunno. Just— Missed you, I guess.” He laughs, half-humorless. “Should’ve chucked it all, probably.”

“I’m pretty glad you didn’t,” Stede says. “Thank you very, very much, Ed, this is wonderful.” Fishing out a couple of the objects from the bag, Stede passes the rest of it over to Ed again. “You can keep this, darling, it’s yours now anyway. Why’d you keep all these clothes, though?”

Ed rubs one of the robes between his index finger and his thumb, shrugging again. He laces the bag back up, replaces it in the closet; he’s closing it again by the time Stede’s set the portrait of the children back up on the mantle. Adjusting it just so, he centers it, then steps back.

It’s been so long since he’s seen their faces; even seeing them like this, so young, it’s impossible not to think of them, and the last time he saw them. He thinks about them constantly, actually. It’s a struggle not to.

There’s a warmth that comes up behind him, then, when Ed joins him. His chin hooks over his shoulder, arms wrapping around him.

“Why don’t you like talking about them?” Ed asks.

Stede frowns slightly. “What— What makes you say that? I love my children.”

“I didn’t say that,” Ed says. “I said you don’t like talking about them.” He kisses Stede’s cheek. “‘Cause you don’t. I feel like I gotta pluck stories about them outta you.” He shrugs; Stede can feel the motion of it against his back, jostling his own shoulders. “Unless you just don’t— like talking with me about them.”

“No, that’s— Ed, that’s not it,” Stede says.

“Then there is an it,” Ed counters.

Stede pauses, for a beat. He doesn’t want to lie, but— the truth is— stupid, he thinks. Foolish. Then again, Ed knows he’s foolish; this won’t come as any surprise to him.

“I didn’t think you’d want to hear about them,” Stede tells him. “I’d never— never brought them up before, and I wasn’t sure if it’d be a— a sore spot. And I don’t want to upset you, and it didn’t— It really didn’t seem worth it, honestly, if it wasn’t something you’d want to hear about. And I’m— I’m ashamed about what I’ve done, I’ve— And I know you know that, and I know this isn’t new, and I should be— talking about things, but I’d never want you to be upset, and you’ve been so happy, and why would I—”

“Holy shit, Stede, babe, slow down,” Ed stops him, catches him again. He tilts Stede’s face up to meet his. “I wouldn’t ask if it upset me. I wanna know about them. They’re your family.”

“You’re my family,” Stede insists again.

Ed kisses his cheek. “And you’re mine. But they’re, like— bits of you. I guess I— I wanna know about the bits of you, if that’s alright.”

That— Stede can’t help smiling, at that. He reaches up to take Ed’s joined hands in his, bringing them to his mouth so he can kiss the backs of them.

“What happened to the famous tale?” Stede asks him. At the confused creasing of Ed’s expression, he clarifies, “The dread pirate Blackbeard, who kills terribly naughty children and traps their ghosts aboard his ship as eternally-damned crew?”

Ed huffs, burying his smile in Stede’s throat. “Well. Obviously the killing part’s bunk, so. S’long as they’re not naughty, they won’t even need to find that out.” He tilts up to kiss Stede’s cheek. Against his skin, he murmurs, “Then again, they’re your kids, so I’ll assume they’re proper polite little things.”

“You’d assume wrong,” Stede half-laughs. “The opposite, actually. Mary wasn’t particularly enthralled with my more— ah, seafaring impulses, regarding them.” Ed glances at him. “I’d tell them lots of the stories I’d read about pirates. Played pirates with them, y’know. Made up all sorts of games. Whole thing. Not so proper of me, after all. I suppose a father’s not meant to do those kinds of things, I should’ve been— Maybe I should’ve been grounding them more. Teaching them to live in reality. But— Actually,” he says, “I intended them to join me, at first. If they’d’ve liked to come. I thought they rather might’ve liked the whole thing. Piracy, sailing around. Exploring the world. Alma, especially.”

Ed’s silent, for a beat. Stede wonders if he’s said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing. He wonders, too, if he should take it back.

Then, though, before he can, Ed says, “I literally don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. You were the least proper of that whole lot, weren’t you?”

Stede fully laughs, this time, relief and amusement washing through him all at once. “Yes, I suppose so. Or, Mary thought so, anyway.”

“That’s ‘cause you didn’t belong there,” Ed insists. “You belong here. This is where you fit in.” He tightens his grip on him. “You’re my family, too.”

And— it’s different, when Ed says it, than when Stede says it. To him, anyway. Inside his chest, he knows that Ed’s his family. He already— He’s well aware of how much he loves him, knows that he puts him above literally everybody else, knows that he’s— he’s actually the person Stede considers closest to him, right now, and probably ever. Discovering that Ed feels that way, too— that he feels that way strongly enough to refer to Stede as his family— it’s—

It’s an overwhelming gut-punch of a feeling, one that has his whole body wanting to push further into him.

“Well,” Stede says, and pulls out one of the rings he’d filched from Ed’s bag of stolen goods. Holding it up in the palm of his hand so Ed can see it, he says, “Family present, then? A gift for my husband?”

Ed smiles against his cheek. Holding out his hands, he comments, “You’ve given me loads of rings, babe. Like, loads. Good luck finding a free spot for it.”

Stede considers Ed’s hands, examining the rings exposed by his fingerless gloves. Stroking his thumb up from soft leather over hard, warmed metal, he glides past the ring from their first matelotage ceremony, their third, and then their first wedding. He slides this ring on next to them, kisses his knuckles.

“Romantic,” Ed accuses him.

“Well, I try,” Stede replies.

Ed reaches up, tilts Stede in for a messy kiss to the cheek. All Stede can do is grin, twisting to return the kiss before he turns back around towards the mantle once more. Honestly, he— Even though he knows he’ll see the children tomorrow, he’s just so excited to see their faces again, even in this sketch-portrait. It’s hard to look away.

It’s like Ed can sense his shift in focus, his slight tilt in mood. He shifts to match, asking, “So. Alma’s piratey, is she?”

“Oh, yes,” Stede answers before he can think twice about it. “The both of them always loved playing the games with me, but she really truly enjoyed all of it. The stories, too. Louis is— Well, he’s a fair bit like me. And rather a lot like I was as a child. Doesn’t have the stomach for all of it. Mary would get so angry with me for giving him nightmares, which, I— I deserved that. Alma, though, she was obsessed, just like me, she—”

Stede catches himself rambling, hesitates. Behind him, Ed shifts slightly.

“You don’t have to talk about ‘em if you really don’t want,” Ed adds. “But it kinda sounds like you do. And I’d like to hear it. Before I meet them, ‘specially, I sh— Y’know, should probably be a little prepared, at least. Don’t wanna freak ‘em out or be weird or anything.” He’s a little strained when he says, “I don’t really know what I’m doing with kids, y’know. Don’t wanna fuck it up.”

“Aw, Ed, you’re not going to fuck anything up,” Stede says. “They’ll just be happy to meet you. Mary, especially. She wanted to know all about you, last time I saw her.”

“Yeah?” Ed asks, and Stede nods. “Wanna tell me more about them?”

For a brief beat, Stede hesitates again. Then, though, he asks, “Are you sure? I really did want to— You know, thank you tonight. Seduce you properly, show you how grateful I am. We might not get the chance while they’re here, and I wanted you to know how much I— I appreciate all you’ve done for me, and been doing for me, and all that. You know? And that I love you.”

Ed kisses his shoulder before releasing him. Stede tracks him, confused, when Ed steps around him to move up, taking the portrait of the children back up off the mantle.

It’s with his eyes turned down on it that he says, “I know you love me. And you can always fuck me—”

“Seduce,” Stede corrects. “I can seduce you.” Ed raises an eyebrow at him. Acquiescing, because Ed isn’t technically inaccurate, Stede amends to, “Or— Well, both, I suppose.”

“Right,” Ed says. “You can do that after. Build up to it. Make sure I’ve earned it.”
“Oh, you’ve earned it,” Stede insists, and he steps up, but Ed just turns, pushing the picture into his hands.

“Tell me more about them,” Ed pleads with him. “Not just that they’re your kids and what they look like and their birthdays and stuff. Tell me, like, actual shit about them. Like the pirate stuff, tell me more about that.”

“Only if you’re sure,” Stede says, unable to suppress the eager edge in his own voice.

“I’m sure,” Ed agrees. It’s so much like Stede’s getting to have his cake and eat it, too, as Ed insists, “I wanna know,” and lets Stede undress him into comfortable nightclothes, lets him guide him to the sofa, lets him talk about his children for hours, until the sky seems like it’s edging towards lightening outside and Stede has to insist that they get some sleep before they have to dock to pick everybody up.

Really, it ends up being for the best that Stede falls asleep so late, because it means he’s not up at dawn, anxiously waiting for useless hours on end until it’s time to go. He still wakes up a bit early, and can’t even fall back asleep then.

Rather than struggle, though, Stede confines himself to bed for a few minutes more. He wakes up this morning like he usually wakes up: splayed on his back, ankles and knees and legs all tangled and interlocked with Ed’s, while Ed’s arms wind around him and his head is pillowed on his chest. He’s like a heavy blanket in his own right, their sheets and covers gathered around their waists instead, less useful while Ed’s here.

Stede kisses the top of his head, and enjoys the warmth of Ed’s body, and just relaxes, for a moment. Just for a moment. There’s a gathering intensity in the back of his mind, inside his chest. Anticipation keeps coiling; he knows he can’t stay here much longer, his body beginning to itch for movement, but, still. He wants to be with Ed for just a bit longer, to hold onto this memory through the rest of the day, just in case things don’t go— don’t go exactly how he’s hoping they’ll go.

Eventually, though, his blood’s humming just too much for him to stay in bed any longer, and he ends up having to disentangle his limbs from Ed’s so he can wriggle out of bed.

In his opinion, Ed’s more than earned his sleep, so he tries not to wake him, but he wakes up all the same. The two of them— They move through preparing for the day together, with the easy routine they’ve established at each other’s sides, since Stede returned to the ship, and it’s—

There’s something so wonderful about it, today. It just reminds Stede that he finally has gotten it right. Maybe he didn’t take the best path to get here, and maybe he’s fucked a fair few things up, but he’s happy now, and he’s got this lovely family, and he’s got Ed at his side, letting Stede comb out his hair for him every morning, and that— That’s something Stede never thought he’d get, ever.

It’s terrifying, but Stede’s not sure there’s any more preparing to be done, anymore. All that’s left to do is find their rendezvous point, meet up with Mary, Doug, and the children, and bring them on board. They’re only meant to stay with them for about four days, if the weather’s in their favor the way Ed’s anticipating, which means only three nights, and Stede knows he can handle three nights. He can. This is no problem, none at all.

He repeats this to himself over and over all morning. I can handle this, I can handle this, I can handle this. This is exciting, this is good, I’m looking forward to this. I can handle this, I can handle this, I can handle this. No problem. None at all. I can do this. I can handle this. I can. I can. I can.

Taking a deep breath as their ship slowly coasts in closer to shore, and Stede sees the four tiny dots that are slowly becoming the outlines of people on the sand, he says out loud, “I can handle this. Of course, I can. I can handle this. This is exciting. I’ve got this.”

“You good, mate?” Ed asks at his side.

Stede brings the spyglass up to his eye, focusing on those figures in the distance. He lands on Louis’ face, first, the shortest of the four, and smiles when he realizes his son’s smiling already, too.

“Yes,” Stede says, and thinks he might even possibly mean it. “I’m good.”

He passes up the spyglass so Ed can see, too. He leans over the rail, just a bit; Stede catches the back of his jacket on instinct, holds him in place so he can’t slip. Not that he would, but— It reassures him, to hold him.

“Oh, hey, look at that,” Ed comments. He sticks one hand up in the air, waves it, then immediately jerks it back down. “Aw, fuck, was that weird? That was probably really fucking weird, wasn’t it?”

“Don’t overthink it,” Stede assures him, lifting both hands up so he can start waving, too. Alma waves back at him, jumping up and down on the sand. When Louis notices, he does the same, sprinting towards the water’s edge before Doug runs to catch him and haul him back.

Much like Louis, the crew that’s on deck is all running to one side, fast enough that Stede actually briefly worries they might tip a bit. The ship holds, though, and the crew starts all murmuring to each other, observing the figures on shore. Stede grins, when Mary lifts her hand to wave, too. He waves back, a small little motion, but he can tell she seems to be laughing, when he does.

“Well,” Stede says, and turns back to his crew, clapping his hands together, grinning, terrified. “That’s them! Who’s helping me pick them up, then?”

Everybody stares at him, for a long beat.

“Two people are coming with us,” Ed adds, in a tone that doesn’t invite argument. Stede clasps his hands in front of himself, beaming at their crew. “You decide, or we do.”

In the end, the crew elect Oluwande and Fang to go out with them, because they’re voted Most Likely to Not Fuck This Up So Badly the Trip is Cancelled, and so they accompany Stede and Ed in their longboat, helping to row them in.

There’s a visible change, in Ed, the closer they get. His buzzing excitement and usually-constant confidence are starting to leak away. Instead, he’s manifesting this fidgety sort of anticipation, a prickling, shifting nervousness that has Stede starting to twitch, too. His eyes are fixed— fixed— on the horizon of the incoming shore through the entire row into port.

Well, “port.” It looks as though Mary and Doug have halfway-fashioned a makeshift dock for them, which is where Fang guides them. By the time they’re close enough, though, Stede’s already gripping the edge of the longboat and launching himself out. He’s too excited; laying eyes on his children for the first time in months has him already laughing, desperate to be closer, giddy to be seeing them again.

It’s not like last time, when he’d been sure they’d hate him, certain of a frosty reception. Now, now, they actually seem delighted to see him in return. Louis’ practically hopping in place; Alma grabs his hand, once Stede leaps out of the boat and splashes into the water, so the two of them can sprint out to him together, and Mary and Doug allow them, this time.

They kick up water around them, in those shallows, and Stede runs to catch them. He has to force his way along with the waves, but he manages to reach them in no time at all, falling to his knees so he can take them both into his arms at once and hold them tight together.

Something in his chest fits back into place again, being here with them once more.

“Hello, there,” he says, so joyous he can hardly stand it.

“Hi, Dad!” Louis exclaims, while Alma kisses him hard on the cheek.

“Hello,” she says, too. She’s gotten a fair bit taller; Stede wonders if she might not take after his own father, get a bit of height on her side. He and Mary aren’t going to be the most helpful in that department, that’s for sure.

“Look at the two of you,” Stede says, and then follows his own advice, pulling back so he can actually, properly look at the two of them. “Oh, my goodness.”

Setting his hands on their shoulders, letting them turn their faces up to him as he stands again, the both of them smiling, he can’t help smiling back. Alma’s starting to resemble Mary so strongly; she’s so young, still, but she’s growing like a weed, and her hair’s got a lot more length, and it won’t be long, Stede thinks, before she’ll ask him if she can get married, if she even bothers asking. He thinks he might be even prouder if she didn’t.

And Louis— He’s, shockingly enough, becoming something of a spitting image of Stede himself, and he’s a bit startled to see his own reflections in his son’s fair little face, still so round and small but so much like his was then, when he was a boy, slowly becoming like his is now, becoming older, growing into himself.

“Look at you,” he says again to them, voice almost breaking, and ducks back down, tugging them in once more. They throw their arms around him when he wraps his own around them; this time, he doesn’t really want to let go.

Rather than release them, he staggers up to his feet with them still held on his hips. He’d held them like this a fair bit as smaller children, but they’ve— actually grown quite a lot since then, and it takes him a moment to adjust to their added weight. Luckily for him, he’s gotten quite a bit stronger since then, himself, on board the Revenge— and largely against his own will— and the muscles he uses to navigate the ship around in a storm or haul a longboat into shore or climb up the sails when one of his men’s fallen and gotten knotted up in the ropes of the topsail are just as valuable for hoisting his children up into his arms, growth be damned.

“You look like you’re going to fall over!” Mary calls from the sand, just out of the way of the smallest waves, loose skirts gathered up in her hands. She looks so much more comfortable, now, than she had in the stiff gowns she’d worn while they were married. “Please be careful!”

“They’re fine!” Stede shouts back.

He’s fighting back the old, familiar prickle he always used to get— Mary knows better, don’t fuck this up, you don’t know what you’re doing— when Alma exclaims, “Yeah, Mom, we’re fine!” and Louis laughs right in his ear.

This— This is what Stede had always wanted. Maybe Mary and Ed and— and everyone else was right, maybe— maybe accepting himself and being honest with himself and his children is actually the right thing to have done. It seems to have done wonders for all three of them compared to the last time he greeted them from a long time away, anyway.

While Stede’s ferrying his children back up to land, he can hear the splash behind him of another set of boots hitting the water, then another. The customary sounds of his crew towing their longboat in, except— Usually, his children aren’t watching over his shoulders with huge eyes.

“Wow,” Louis breathes.

“Is that yours?” Alma asks.

“What?” Stede asks, and turns. The children both shout at him simultaneously for cutting off their view. “Sorry, sorry—” Spinning again, he asks, “The ship? Yes, it— Well, half-yes. I’ve got a co-captain, so it’s co-mine.”

He turns back again, seeking out Ed near the longboat. When he finds him, Ed’s jumping from inside the hull down onto the shore, water erupting up under his boots. He doesn’t seem to know how to hold himself, for a moment, before he ends up putting his hands on his hips, looking over at them, reaching up after a second to brush hair back out of his face.

Stede can’t help smiling, watching him. There’s a silly flush on his face, even, just from the sight of him.

“And there he is now,” Stede says. Unable to do more than vaguely motion, with the children still held heavily in his arms, he introduces, “Loves, this is my co-captain, Ed.”

“Ah,” Mary says, clasping her hands together with an abrupt clap. “So, this is Ed, then?”

Stede can’t fight down the heat-flush that feels like it washes over his entire body, at that. “Yes, w— Yes, this is him. This is Ed. Ed, this is— Well, this is everybody.” He turns to set the children back down on the ground, into the wet sand beneath, his arms like jelly when he finally releases them. Shaking them out, he turns back to Ed to tell him, “This here’s Alma, and this— this is Louis.” He sets his hands on their shoulders, says, without any further adieu, too excited for them to finally meet, “And, children, this is Ed.”

The two of them stare up at Ed. Stede does the same, watching him to see what he’s going to do. He tries to remember what it was like the first time he saw Ed, but all he’d felt was intrigued, and compelled, and— like he had a little bit of a crush, maybe. Ed never scared him all that much.

Looking at him now, though, in all his leather and weapons and the dark glower of his darker eyes, Stede wonders what he looks like to somebody else. To him, he’s Ed, and he can see the warmth in him, and the hesitation, and the humanity of him. He’s just Ed, looking at his children with wide eyes before his brow furrows, clearly trying to think over what it is he wants to say.

Eventually, he settles on, “Hey,” and Stede beams at him.

“He’s my co-captain,” Stede informs them.

“Mom said you’re like Doug,” Louis says upwards to Ed.

“What?” Ed asks, and Doug raises his hand behind him.

“Hello,” Doug says. “That’d be me, hi.”

He sticks his hand out into the air in front of him and, for a beat, nobody moves. Then, though, Ed’s eyes flick up to Stede’s, and Stede smiles to him.

Ed, apparently, takes that as his cue, and he steps forward to take Doug’s hand, shaking it roughly. He hesitates, for a beat, before offering Mary his hand next, and she takes it, smiling right back up at him. Looking to Stede for approval, he gets it in the form of a smile and a nod that has him flickering a smile back.

“So, you’re our dad, now, too?” Louis asks Ed, recapturing his attention.

Alma elbows her brother in the side. “Step-dad,” she corrects him in a harsh whisper. Ed’s eyes snap up to Stede’s; there’s a rush of heat in Stede’s chest, hearing that. “That’s what she meant by him being like Doug. Dad’s our only dad.”

That— That has Stede’s eyes prickling, and he— He’s not their only father, really, because— Well, he is their father, but Doug’s the one who’s there, and he— He’s really the one who deserves that title, with all the mess that Stede’s been as their dad. But—

Hearing them say something like that, when he doesn’t even believe he deserves it, it— It knocks the wind out of him, a bit. And hearing them consider Ed this way, like he’s a step-father—

“Yes,” Stede says. “That’s exactly it.” He squeezes his children’s shoulders, then releases them so he can return to Ed, guiding him forward with beckoning fingers. Ed catches up to him, falls into place at his side. “I’m so delighted to finally get to introduce you to one another. Now, I don’t want you to be alarmed,” he says, and spreads his hands in front of him, and Louis and Alma both grin up at him. “But, do you remember the stories I used to tell you about those fearsome pirates who lived out at sea? And, remember how I told you I went on adventures with Blackbeard? Well—”

“Mom already told us you married Blackbeard,” Alma cuts him off, taking— Well, taking the wind right out of his sails, as it were.

“Alma,” Mary hisses at her. “Don’t interrupt y—”

“No, no, that’s fine, it’s— It’s fine, really,” Stede says. “I was— I was, admittedly, a little excited to tell you, but— That’s fine, honestly, we—”

“No, no, do it anyway,” Mary encourages him.

Stede flushes, looks away towards Ed, then down, sheepish. “I don’t—”

“She was reading a book and saw his name and said that that’s gotta be who you said you love,” Louis explains. “‘Cause you said it was Ed and that’s his name, too.” Louis points up at Ed. “And you talked about Blackbeard all the time when you were home.” He turns up, then; when he accidentally catches Ed’s eye, he shrinks back a bit, timid. “Sorry.”

“Wh— Aw, don’t be sorry,” Ed tells him. It’s the most Ed’s said so far to them, besides ‘What?’ and ‘Hey.’ “Was your dad talking about me when you saw him last? Did he say anything good?”

Being directly addressed seems to frighten Louis back even further, and he darts back to Mary, pushing himself behind her skirts.

Alma, for her part, stands her ground, looking right up at Ed, her hands clenched right up at her sides.

“Yeah,” she tells him. She hesitates, for a beat; seeing Ed still watching her, though, she continues, “He talked about Blackbeard pretty much the whole entire time he was home again. Mom said she should’ve figured it out before. And ‘cause one night I saw him talking to the orange before I split it and he called it Edward, and when I told Mom she—”

“That’s probably enough, darling, thank you so very much,” Stede cuts her off, a slight edge of panic seeping into his tone.

“Mom said don’t interrupt,” Alma protests.

“Let me introduce you to a couple members of my crew,” Stede says quickly, turning, attempting to redirect her attention away. “This right here is Fang! Isn’t that a terribly interesting name? For a terribly interesting fellow, I might add.”

“Thanks, Cap’n,” Fang replies.

“Wow,” Alma says from the sand with real admiration, functionally distracted. “You’re like a real pirate.” There’s delight and awe evident in her voice and across her face as she takes a tentative step closer to him, then stops.

“He is,” Stede tells her. He moves around behind her, crouches to nudge her forward. “Go ahead, say hello.”

It only belatedly occurs to Stede that Fang likely doesn’t have people gesturing children forward to greet him very often, not in their particular line of work, but it doesn’t actually cross his mind at all that Fang wouldn’t like talking with her. He wonders what it says about him, but he thinks he’s rather impressed with his own abilities to read his crew, to know their strengths instinctively.

“Hello, there,” Fang says, and holds out his hand to her. Alma grins right away, stepping away from Stede and up to Fang, taking his hand and shaking it hard.

“Pleasure to meet you, Mister Fang,” she says upwards, grinning when he shakes his arm with hers, as if her force is enough to move him.

“And a pleasure to meet you, Miss Bonnet,” he replies.

“Alma,” she insists.

“Then you can just call me Fang,” he tells her, squeezing her hand in both of his before releasing her.

“And this here is Oluwande,” Stede says. “He’s my second-in-command-in-training-of-sorts. He and Fang both have been helping a great deal in preparing for your arrival aboard the Revenge.”

“Ooh,” Doug says. “How menacing-sounding.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ed says. “Super menacing. All-over scary sort of vessel, the Revenge.”

Stede beams at him. There’s a beat, for a second, of silence, before he claps his hands together, desperate to fill it, and says, “Well! We should— should get moving! Let’s get you up onto the ship, hm? I can introduce you to the whole crew. They’re going to be so excited you’re here, honestly, we’ve been preparing for days.”

“Are you sure?” Mary asks. “Not that I’m not happy to see you, I just want to make sure that this all really is alright. I know it’s a bit— unconventional.”

Stede starts to say, “Of course it’s alright,” but then he pauses, because he’s not sure it’s an ‘of course,’ but Ed steps in before he can figure out what it is he wants to say.

“Yeah, for sure, it’s fine,” Ed says. “Everyone’s super hyped. Outta their minds, really. Prepping for days, like he said.”

Mary looks at him, and Ed looks away almost immediately, turning to look down towards Louis at her skirts instead. The boy ducks back again, and so he refocuses on Alma as a last resort.

“Wanna—” he asks her, motioning backwards. “—Uhh, need help with the boat?”

She stares up at him for a second longer before she nods and extends her hand to him, waiting. “Yes, please.”

Ed only hesitates a beat longer before he holds his hand out to her, too, letting her slip her fingers up into his, catching his palm against hers. He turns back to Stede, mouths to him, “What do I do?” with panic written across his expression, but Stede shoos him forward with his hands.

“You’ve got this,” he mouths back, waving them off towards the longboat.

Ed furrows his brow at him, before Alma tugs on him, pulling him towards the boat. She’s not even looking upwards when she asks, “Do you actually have tentacles under your beard?”

There’s no hesitation, this time, before Ed laughs. He tilts his head and lifts his beard for her, showing nothing underneath but his neck, his chest, his leathers. “Sorry, nope.”

“Oh,” she says, sounding almost disappointed. Ed laughs again. “How come?”

“How come?” he asks her. “I didn’t grow ‘em, I guess.” He looks her over, says, “How come you’re so small?”

“‘Cause I’m not done growing,” she tells him, exasperated.

“You sure?” he asks her. “Your dad’s not so tall. You might be all done.”

“No,” she insists, “What are—”

“Hey,” Mary says, right beside Stede, distracting him from their increasingly-comfortable conversation, and he jolts, his heart leaping up into his throat with surprise. She laughs, impossibly close to his ear. “Done staring at him, then?”

“No, I— I was not staring,” Stede insists to her, embarrassed. “What’re you— You hush up, Mary. I haven’t seen you in months, and you make fun of me immediately? That’s terrible of you, really. I’m shocked.”

“Well, you shouldn’t be,” Mary says. “I’m a terrible person.” She tilts to look up at him, smiling; when he smiles back, rolling his eyes, she nudges him, tipping further into him.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Stede allows.

“Merciful of you,” Mary says. She nods her head in Ed’s direction. “That’s him, then? Ed? Was I right?”

Stede glances backward, making certain Ed is occupied with lifting Alma up into the longboat. To Mary, unable to take his eyes off Ed, he answers, “Yes. That’s him, then. Ed.” The smile that blooms across his face then is automatic; he can’t stop it any more than he could stop the waves lapping up onto the shore. “You were right.” Sideways, he asks her, “What do you think?”

Mary loops her arm through with his. “I think you haven’t stopped staring at him at least since you got here, and you look at him like you’re in love for real this time, which is what I was hoping for for you, Stede. Really.” She tightens her grip, pats his hand. “I’m so glad you’ve found this.”

He beams at her, then leans in to kiss her cheek. “And I’m so glad to see you again. Where are your things? Let me take them—”

“You?” Mary asks skeptically as he unwinds his arm from hers.

“Yes, me, thank you,” Stede tells her. “I can carry your bags, I think. I am a pirate captain, after all.”

“Oh, excuse me, Mister Pirate Captain,” Mary says, backing off, hands up in surrender.

Stede evaluates their bags and trunks. He looks back to Oluwande, who says, “Oh, I think you’ve got this, Captain,” which just makes Mary laugh. Louis laughs, as well, and Stede can’t help smiling when he hears that sound.

Downwards, he asks, “Will you be so kind as to give me a hand, Louis?”

Louis hesitates, glancing backwards at Doug, shyness starting to sink back into him now that the initial excitement’s wearing off. When he gets a nod from Doug, he looks back up to Stede and nods, too.

“Lovely,” Stede says, and claps his hands together. “Come over here, give me a lift.”
Doug ends up contributing, as well, but between the two of them— and with Louis’ guidance, as helpful as he can be from the sand— they’re capable of loading everything into the longboat with relatively little splashing and sliding. It becomes a point of pride, actually, and Stede stands back when he’s finished, watching Oluwande offer Louis a hand up into the boat.

Ed joins up beside him, clapping him on the shoulder. “You coming, mate?”

“Yes,” he says, and catches Ed’s hand before he can separate from him. Tugging him back, keeping him lingering with him for a moment, he tells him, “Thank you.”

There’s the weight of his thank you from earlier in his chest still, too, coming up from his chest, into his throat, through his words.

Ed smiles a bit, knocking his shoulder into Stede’s arm.

“You’re welcome,” he replies. “Just— Don’t make me talk to any of the adults, yeah? I think kids’re my strength now, actually. Alma’s real easy to talk with.”

“Yes,” Stede agrees. “She is charming, isn’t she?” He pulls Ed towards the boat, offering him his hand to help him step in. Ed pushes down against his palm, leaps over the side, his fingers wrapped tight around Stede’s shoulder. “Very sociable. I think she’s really going to be the toast of the town when she’s a bit older.”

“Dad,” Alma all but snarls backwards at him, her face red.

Stede holds his hands up in surrender once again before he moves to hoist himself up into the boat, too. Both Mary and Ed move to help him at the same time. In the next beat, they pause simultaneously, watching the other one, waiting for a cue.

Mary breaks first, says, “You go ahead,” and takes a seat between Doug and Fang instead. Ed only hesitates for a beat before he extends his hand further, leaning to help pull Stede up and in.

“This is nice,” Doug comments, and Stede moves quickly to take a paddle in his hand, determined to hide his burning face in the ocean wind. “Never been aboard a proper pirate ship before.”

“Still won’t, really,” Oluwande replies. Fang nudges him, but they both smile.

“Oh, laugh all you like,” Stede says, happy for the conversation. “It’s got everything a proper pirate ship needs, including proper pirates, hasn’t it?”

“Some,” Oluwande allows. Ed leans forward on the next push of the paddles and flicks him on the shoulder. “Well, most, then.”

“We’ve also got some non-humans on board, is what he means,” Stede explains. All of his crew— human crew, anyways— are proper pirates, thank you, himself included. “You can meet them, if you’d like.”

“Sea beasts?” Alma asks, excited.

“Sea beasts?” Louis asks, nervous. “Like what?”

“There are no sea beasts aboard the ship,” Stede tells them.

“Alma, quit scaring your brother,” Mary says.

“Quit being scared,” Alma tells Louis firmly. They’re certainly getting more comfortable, which has got Stede catching Oluwande and Fang both hiding smiles, which— is fair, because he’s suppressing one himself. He’s just got a little bit more practice at it.

“Don’t worry,” Fang tells him. “Blackbeard scares off sea beasts.”

Louis actually visibly relaxes, his shoulders slumping as he exhales and says, “Oh, right,” with such relief that Stede actually does laugh, this time.

“That’s right, mate,” Ed tells him. “Won’t let anything get you.” He pauses, then says, “Besides, most of the sea beasts’re gone by now.”

“You’ve seen them?” Alma demands. Louis’ eyes are wide, part-awe and part-sheer fear.

“Oh, loads of times,” Ed says. “Even fought a few. Isn’t that right, Fang?”

“Aye, Captain,” Fang agrees without missing a beat. “Watched him wrestle a mermaid once.”

Ed glances back at him, one eyebrow lifted, but he says, a bit dryly, “That’s— right, yup. Wrestled a whole— mermaid, for some reason. She was being— Ah, rude to your dad.”

“You wrestled a mermaid for Dad?” Alma asks, skeptical.

“I’ve wrestled worse for him,” Ed tells him.

“Like the Kraken?” Louis asks, hands clutching the fabric of his breeches so tight it crumples up in his fingers.

Stede’s breath catches involuntarily, his eyes snapping up to Ed’s face. His mind’s already working, and his mouth is ready to speak, preparing to run interference, but Ed’s expression kind of— twitches, like he’s thinking. It reminds Stede, a bit, of when he’d first met Ed— or, when he first properly remembers meeting Ed— and he’d asked him, “Do you work for Blackbeard?” and Ed, poet-slash-maniac that he is, had answered, “I suppose I do.” Not the truth, but not a lie.

“Yeah,” Ed tells him. “I beat the Kraken.” He takes both hands off of his paddle for a moment, holding them up and curling them into fists. “Destroyed him with my own bare hands.”

“Holy shit,” Alma breathes.

“Alma!” Mary exclaims. “Are you f— Alma—”

“This is really great, Cap’n,” Oluwande comments cheerfully from behind Stede. “You were so right.”

Hauling the longboat through the waves to the Revenge isn’t as difficult as it once was, but, when Stede’s chest is as tight as it is now, it feels a bit more impossible than it might normally. It’s taken the better part of the day to prepare themselves, find their new passengers, and return to the ship; by the time they’re bumping up close to the hull, Black Pete and Wee John feeding down a ladder from above to help them board, the sun is already beginning to set.

“Wow,” Doug comments, right behind Mary, accepting Stede’s hand for shaky support as he steps up onto the ladder. “Look at that, kids, right? What a beautiful sky!”

“Yeah, Doug,” Alma replies, already sounding further away. Stede can’t see what she’s up to, up on deck, but she’s disappeared quickly. He should’ve thought already that she might be trouble on board; he makes a mental note to at least try to keep tabs on her location at all times, even if she wants to explore a bit.

Ed hops up right after him, then turns to offer Stede his arms. It’s an unnecessary amount of assistance, but Stede takes it gladly, smiling as he wraps his hands around Ed’s upper arms, letting him pull him up close.

“There we go,” Ed says, dragging Stede back on deck. “Up and over. Got your sea legs back, there, babe?”

“Yes, thank you very much,” Stede says, squeezing Ed’s hand before he releases it. He turns to help with the ladder again, assisting Wee John and Oluwande as they’re pulling the boat up into place once more. In turning to check on Ed, just to make sure he’s alright without him, he sees him kneeling beside Alma, letting her show him something held in their hands between them.

While he’s watching, Louis runs over, curious, sticking his head right over their joined hands. Alma withdraws hers sharply, but extends it back a moment later, letting Louis see whatever it is. The image of it strikes Stede, in that moment, like some wild sort of vision. He really never imagined this sort of thing, never— He couldn’t have fathomed something like this happening, but. Here they are. It almost feels like a dream, seeing these two worlds coming together, this way.

In fact, Stede’s sure he’s had a dream just like this. There’s Ed, head bowed, and his children beside him, excitedly whispering with him. The landscape behind is painted like a portrait, all pinks-oranges-purples-reds above and reflecting-deep-ocean below as the sun sets into the sea and soaks the sky in the process. The crew’s between them, sandwiched between foreground and background, filling in this picture so perfectly, and Stede just— stops, and smiles, and tries to commit this to memory, tries to— tries to burn this into his mind. He never wants to forget it.

“Captain, watch it!” Pete exclaims, and Stede ducks on instinct. It’s the wrong move; he’s dipping down when he should have moved back instead, and ends up immediately getting whacked in the side of the head with the very front of the longboat as it bumps up into place for his troubles.

He staggers backwards, cursing, “Ah, fuck,” in the second before he loses his footing. Wee John reels back to catch him by the front of his jacket, holding him upright, hanging back on one heel; Stede catches his wrist, patting the back of his hand.

“Gotcha,” Wee John says. “Alright, Cap’n?”

“Yes, thank you,” Stede tells him, blinking, a bit dazed. He rocks back forward onto the flats of both feet, rebalancing himself. In the next beat of his heart, Ed’s hands are on his shoulders, then his face, tilting it upwards.

“You’re such a fucking shithead,” Ed says in a rush. He turns Stede’s head to the side. Instantly, he’s scowling, twisting back to call, “Roach!”

“Aye,” Roach says, stepping up.

“Can we have a— cloth, something?” Ed motions to Stede’s head where it’s smarting, aching just along his temple. “Something to wrap this?”

“Sorry,” Stede says upward.

“The fuck were you looking at?” Ed asks him. He pulls a kerchief from his pocket, a silk strip of fabric filched from Stede a long time ago. “Fuck—”

“Head wounds bleed a lot,” Stede reminds him cheerfully. It really doesn’t hurt all that badly, compared to how much it could have hurt, and he’s mostly just happy he didn’t get knocked overboard. Or unconscious, which would have been very embarrassing to do before he even introduced his children to the crew.

“Are you alright?” Louis asks, slightly tearful.

“I’m right as rain,” Stede tells him. Ed’s holding the fabric against the center of the throb on the side of Stede’s head, stemming the slight trickle of blood until Roach returns with a little jug of clear alcohol and a strip of bandage. “Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary.”

“Just for fun, then,” Roach says, slightly muffled as he sticks his pipe in his mouth, freeing his hands to press alcohol to the wound. Stede curses through his teeth, fists clenching up; Ed grabs his shoulders, rubbing at the muscles to relax him. “There you go. Great job, Cap.”

“Thank you,” Stede hisses at him. When Roach pulls back again, he slumps, eyes fluttering closed. “Hell.”

“This is so exciting,” Doug says in an aside to Mary that Stede can’t help overhearing.

He huffs a laugh, reopening his eyes, returning his attention to— Well, to everybody, it seems. He feels hot all over, a little clumsy inside and out, eyes all on him. And he—

He really does want this to go well, he wants—

He wants this to go so, so well, actually, and it’s making his heart pound to think he’s just started off by already fucking this up, that maybe this is some sort of cosmic fucked-luck, some terrible bad omen here to kick everything off.

“Happy to have you aboard,” Stede says, then brushes his hands together as if dusting them off. “I’m— Well, I’m very sorry about that, that’s horribly embarrassing, isn’t it? Not quite the best captain yet—”

“Ah, he’s just being modest,” Ed says, and throws his arm across Stede’s shoulders. He jostles Roach slightly, where he’s finishing tying off Stede’s— in his personal opinion, unnecessary— bandage, but Roach doesn’t even break stride, finishing off his knot. “He’s a great captain, actually. Steered us—” He whistles, zipping his hand through the air. “—Right through a storm last week. Killer one, too. Lesser men would’ve died in it.”

“Is there going to be a storm like that while we’re here?” Louis asks upwards nervously.

“No, love,” Doug tells him, which— There’s likely not supposed to be, but he doesn’t know that.

“Not one we can’t handle, anyways,” Stede assures him. He’d hate for the boy to see a cloud and panic, later. “Remember what Ed told you? We’ll keep you safe on the ship.”

Louis nods, tilting his head just slightly. Stede turns, twisting to see what he’s looking at, and finds the rest of the crew watching curiously, lingering just behind him. It’s not unlike Louis hiding behind Mary’s skirts, on the beach, and the thought of the parallel has Stede smiling again.

“Children,” Stede says, “Doug, Mary, this is my crew. The crew—” He sweeps his arm back towards them, using some of the leftover dramatics that have remained unused when he didn’t get to properly reveal Ed’s identity— “—of the Revenge.”

Buttons offers a wave at them. Izzy’s actively frowning. Everybody else just keeps kind of— standing there, for a moment, and staring.

“Well,” Stede says, in the next beat. “Let’s go through them all. Now, don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially if you don’t remember names. Everybody here is very, very friendly, and we’re all just so very excited to have you on board. Isn’t that right, everybody?”

“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Lucius agrees. There’s a general hum of agreement, and Stede beams at them.

“Alright, so, you’ve already met Fang and Oluwande,” Stede says. He turns, motions, informs them, “This here is Roach, whom you’ve also just met. He’s our head chef, as well as our— chief of surgery, as it were. And behind him, here, we’ve got Pete, he’s one of our best actors on board, and this is Ivan, he was on Ed’s crew, and he’s the absolute best at embroidery. Even better than you, Mary, sad to say. And this here,” Stede says, getting more and more excited, drawing the children, Mary, and Doug from one crewmate to the next, “is Mister Buttons, see, he’s been invaluable to me on the sea, he knows everything about sailing. And Jim here is our assassin—”

“Really?” Alma interrupts, finally unable to keep in her excitement any longer, practically vibrating in place. “That’s so— That’s amazing. Would you show me?”

“Shit,” Ed comments to him in an aside, voice low. “She is just like you.”

“Show you?” Jim asks her. “Show you how I kill somebody?”

Alma pales, a bit, but she stands firm and insists, “Not on an actual person.”

Jim looks at her for a long, evaluating moment before they say, “Alright. Maybe later.”

She reaches up, snatching Stede’s hand and squeezing excitedly. Stede can’t help turning to smile at Jim, thankful; they roll their eyes, looking away, but he knows they saw, and he’s fairly certain they’re smiling a bit, too.

“Yes, Jim is the coolest person on the crew,” Lucius says. “We all knew that, thanks.” He ducks down, smiles. “Hi, there. You’re Alma?”

“Yeah?” Alma replies, almost a question. She corrects herself instantly, says, “Yes, I am. Why?”

“Why?” Lucius asks, then laughs. “Because I wanted to steal your identity,” he teases her.

She frowns. “Well, you can’t. It’s mine.”

“Gotcha there, babe,” Pete comments.

“Shut it,” Lucius says backwards. Downwards, he tells Alma, “You can have mine. Trade?”

Alma, playfully, considers this, before asking, “Who are you?”

Pete laughs once, clapping Lucius on the shoulder. Lucius can’t help smiling, too, telling her, “Lucius Spriggs.”

“And what do you do, Mister Spriggs?” she asks him, fairly proper. Stede folds his arms, hiding his own smile behind his hand, watching her.

“I log everything for the captains,” Lucius tells her. He holds up the book in his hand. “Write it all down for him, tell the story, you know.”

Alma thinks on this before turning back up to Stede. “If we did trade, then I could be on your crew, couldn’t I?”

And what a thought that is— and certainly something Mary might still try to skewer him for, so he just laughs, right now, rattling her hand in his a bit.

“When you can beat Mister Izzy Hands in a sword-fight,” he tells her, motioning towards Izzy, next in line, “you can join my crew.”

For a moment, Alma just stares upwards at Izzy. Louis has already retreated back behind Mary again, clinging to her entire leg, mostly submerged in her skirts. For her part, Alma just stares up at Izzy with open wonder, taking him in. He, of all of them, must look the most properly piratey to her, Stede thinks; he’s certainly got that menacing scowl down that Stede used to theatrically perform on his own face in the mirror, or when he’d play pirates with the children, before.

“Is he very good?” Alma asks Stede, voice lowered just slightly.

“Oh, yes,” Stede says. “He nearly beat me once. But I beat him just—” He holds his fingers about a hair apart. “—By this much. On little more than luck and a single good idea, really.” He smiles up at Izzy. Izzy scowls right back down at him. “He’s one of the greatest swordsmen on the seven seas.”

“Wow,” Louis breathes from behind Mary’s legs.

“Wicked,” Alma whispers. She looks from Stede to Izzy; when she finds him looking back, she briefly drops her eyes back down.

Behind her, beside Stede, Ed’s hand hesitates just briefly before he reaches out to pat Alma on the shoulder. It’s a slightly awkward touch, like he’s not sure how to do it, or if he should be doing it at all. For her part, Alma doesn’t even move; she doesn’t brush him away, but she just sort of glances back at him, then away again, smiling a bit.

“He looks scarier than he is,” Ed assures her, though he’s looking at Izzy when he says it. Stede—

He understands, actually, a beat later. The way Izzy’s watching Ed, the way Ed’s set his hand on Alma then taken it back. He understands even better when Izzy’s brow furrows slightly, between Ed and Alma, back to Louis, around to Stede, to Ed again. It’s practically visible on his expressive face— not that Stede would ever tell Izzy he found him expressive— when the pieces all click into place. There’s this dawning realization there: They’re part of Ed’s family.

Stede wonders if Izzy understands that he’s part of Ed’s family, too. Maybe— Maybe they don’t always work things out in the best of ways, but, as much as Ed has family here with them, Izzy is his family. Izzy’s his oldest surviving family at this point, pretty much, actually.

Maybe it’s that connection, in Izzy, that has him actually looking down at Alma instead of just completely ignoring her. He still doesn’t really respond to her, but he still nods his head once and says, “Hello.” He doesn’t even sound that pissed off about it, and his eyes aren’t completely filled with hellfire-flames, so. Stede considers this, largely, a win, and ultimately a net positive as far as Izzy-based experiences go.

Desperate to move on before this can go sour, Stede guides Alma to their next crewmate, tells the four of them, “And right over here you’re going to meet Wee John, quite possibly the strongest man I’ve ever met.” He motions to his chest. “Body, heart, and soul.”

“Aw,” Wee John says. “Thanks, Cap’n. Really.”

“No, John,” Stede says. “Thank you.” He steps to the side. “And here’s… Swede. He is—”

“Swedish?” Mary guesses.

“In my own way,” the Swede tells her.

“And so very lovely,” Stede says. “And this is the spectacular Mister Frenchie, our poet laureate and musician-in-residence.” He evaluates the crew, then asks, “Have we introduced everyb— Oh, right.” He claps his hands together, then turns. “Everybody, this is Mary—”

“Hi, Mary,” the crew says in slightly off-rhythm unison. A funny, light sort of feeling pops up in Stede’s chest; his smile’s burning-wide.

“And Doug—”

“Hi, Doug,” the crew greets him, too.

“And this here is my son Louis,” Stede says, drawing him out.

“Hi, Louis,” everybody says. Oluwande waves at him; Louis waves back, smiling, before ducking behind Mary again.

“And I believe you’ve all met Alma by now, at least,” Stede says, grinning.

“Hi, Alma,” the crew says.

“Is this done now?” Izzy asks.

Stede turns back towards the horizon, evaluating the sun where it’s disappearing beyond the edge of the sea and sky, that red-purple sky bleeding towards night-blackness, moon popping up beyond the edge of the horizon. “You’re quite right, Mister Hands. It’s nearly time for family dinner.”

“Family dinner?” Mary asks him.

“Oh, just you wait,” Ed murmurs to her. Stede glances at them both, playfully put-upon, but that funny, light feeling in his chest doubles, just hearing Ed start to warm up to her this way. “He’s got a whole plan.”

“It’s a lovely plan, thank you,” Stede says, stepping back. “Everyone, please, over here! Family dinner will be in the dining hall in twenty minutes, do you hear me?”

“Aye,” comes— well, most of the voices on the crew, in rumbling answer. Stede knows they’ll all be there, regardless; everybody wants to eat, and, grumble as they occasionally may, he knows they enjoy family dinners. Especially when he has a special occasion like this to celebrate, something proper to base their family dinners around.

Watching them start to move now— witnessing the crew attempting to introduce themselves to Mary and Doug, observing while Jim actually approaches Alma and starts talking to her, seeing Louis hesitantly creeping around Mary to stare wide-eyed at the side of Izzy’s face— Stede’s left feeling a bit shell-shocked, to be honest. It’s as though everything’s hitting him all at once. Looking out over them all, he realizes—

He realizes he’s looking at his family meeting, for the first time. His entire family— Well. Everybody left who matters, anyway. His new family— his crew, his family at sea— meeting his— well, not his old family, but his— his former— his— Mary, and Louis, and Alma, and even Doug, it’s—

It’s overwhelming, in a worlds-colliding sort of way. His land family and his sea family, the two parts of his heart, clicking right into place, here.

It’s also deeply disorienting, as though he’s having a waking dream, and it’s nearly so overwhelming as to make him a little bit nauseous, when he thinks too hard about it.

 

It’s a struggle, trying to calibrate all of this. He kept all of this so separate for so long— and for a great deal of that time, that separation was very, very deliberate, and necessary, and he intended to keep it up for— his entire life, essentially. Now that he can have this— and can combine his families, and can combine his lives, into what he can only hope could become something like one big happy family in one big happy life— he feels almost whole.

The picture isn’t complete without Ed, though, who steps in beside him and completes the last piece of his heart, who watches Stede’s face settle between his hands, tilting him towards him.

“Watch it,” he says, voice low, examining his bandages. “Looks like you’ve stopped bleeding. How’s it feel?”

“Barely an ache,” Stede tells him. Not entirely true, but he also thinks it’s not entirely important, either, so that’s in line, at least. He turns further into Ed, looping their arms together. “I think it’s going well so far. Don’t you think?”

“Oh, yeah,” Ed says. He kisses Stede’s forehead, then drapes his arm across his shoulders, turning to watch the crew awkwardly attempting to mingle alongside him, conversation audibly stilted. “Only a few drops of blood, a couple tears. No biggie.”

“Could’ve been a lot worse,” Stede pointed out.

“I believe it,” Ed replies. “Let me take a look at your head, there, babe, just to make sure—”

Stede sighs, smiling as he turns himself over to Ed’s ministrations, to his unnecessary fussing. He catches Mary watching them over his shoulder. She, for a brief flash, gives him a thumbs-up with both hands, and Stede can’t help laughing.

“Hold still,” Ed insists, smiling himself. “Shithead. Quit squiggling around.”

He remains still just as long as it takes for Ed to adjust his bandage again, but then Stede has to be moving again. The burning, bubbling excitement and anticipation in him is too much, and he says, “Let’s have ourselves some food before we get a little rest for the night, shall we? Like I said— twenty minutes, and then we’re eating.”

The crew scrambles, this time, darting off to prepare themselves to eat, and the ship to continue on for the time it takes them to eat. It’s a bustle of activity, for a moment, before everybody is abruptly gone.

Into this new silence, Stede turns back to his family— well, to Ed, to Alma, to Louis, to Mary, to— to Doug— and says, “Well, then. Who’d like a quick little tour of the Revenge before dinner, hm?”

Their tour of the ship, tragically, ends up incredibly abbreviated when they reach the dining hall after only several minutes and find most of the food’s already been laid out. Alma and Louis are immediately distracted by it, tugged forward to examine everything with rapturous curiosity; Mary and Doug, for their part, join them, too hungry to resist. It’s left to Stede to observe— and to watch them select their places, and to see the crew begin to trickle in and sit themselves around them, and to witness this first puzzle-piece-fitting of his two families into one pretty new picture.

It is, certainly, very strange at first. Very strange.

Stede holds himself back, just for a beat, just because he’s— he’s overwhelmed, for sure, but he also just wants to see. Ed pauses at his side, shoulder bumping just barely into his, jostling him a bit.

“Hungry?” Ed asks.

“A bit,” Stede answers, threading his arm through Ed’s. “Isn’t this nice, though?”

Ed makes a soft sort of hum, looking out over the crew, over their newcomers, as they try to navigate eating with each other. They’re all slowly realizing that everybody’s hungry enough to have relatively poor etiquette; Stede gives them maybe half an hour more before everyone’s eating with their hands, Mary included.

With a slight tilt of his head, Ed asks, “What do you think the boy’s talking to him about?”

Stede follows the direction he’s indicating, finds Lucius leaning into Doug and talking animatedly about— something. Based on the somewhat bombarded expression on Doug’s face, it’s something he likely doesn’t often discuss at the dinner table. For his part, Doug’s pretty much the only one still using all his utensils, rather than just one or none— again, Mary included.

As they’re watching, Doug abruptly crosses into a loud laugh, and Lucius starts laughing along with him in the same moment, shoving into him. It’s an endearing sort of moment, for Stede, who rathers feels that seeing something like this, the two of them joking together, is akin to having a very strange dream that he’s just about to wake up from, now that he’s become aware of it.

“I don’t know, to be honest,” Stede answers. “I’m a bit afraid to speculate, even.”

“Probably very tough-guy things,” Ed comments, and Stede can’t help the brief laugh that comes out of him, too. “Macho pirating things. Looting, and all that.”

“Oh, absolutely,” Stede agrees.

“Dad!” Louis calls from down the table, and Stede and Doug both look up in the same moment. Stede’s heart actually catches when he realizes Louis is looking at him, knelt up onto his seat; when they catch eyes, Louis waves, and asks through the general noise, “Sit next to me?”

“Of course,” Stede says, beaming, and pulls Ed to loop around with him, shoving into the tight space beside Louis on the barrels at the table. “What have you got there, hm?”

Louis frowns at his plate, then says, “I don’t know. What is it?”

Ed laughs above him, and Louis’ eyes flick right over to him, wide, startled. His whole face colors in a fast flash of red; he looks down at his plate, brow furrowed.

“Oh, no, he just thought you were being funny,” Stede tells him, voice soft. “He’s not making fun of you.”

“Oh,” Louis says, though his face stays turned firmly downward. Stede pats the back of his hand. “Sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for,” Stede assures him. “He just thinks you’re very funny, actually.” Louis tilts up to look at him, just slightly. He only looks at him for a beat before he frowns slightly, attention tipping past him to Ed.

“I think you’re funny, too,” Louis tells him politely.

Stede glances over at Ed and finds him— surprisingly rather red-faced, as well. He says, “Thanks, mate,” before hesitating and saying, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to laugh.”

“‘S’okay,” Louis allows, turning back down to his plate. “What is this, anyway?”

“This is salted cod,” Stede informs him. “Bacalhau. It’s preserved here on the ship until we’re ready to prepare it. It’s a sort of fish.”

“I know,” Louis says, eyebrows lifted. “It smells like fish.”

“Everything here smells like fish,” Alma comments down the table, shoving a forkful of the aforementioned fish into her mouth. Slightly garbled, she asks, “Mister Hands, can I have a bread, please?”

Izzy glances at her after a second, as if startled that he’s been addressed at all. Then, once he has, there’s a beat where he still doesn’t move.

For a second, Stede wonders if he’s actually not going to move, if he’ll really just sit there and not pass her anything, but—

But then, he takes up the bowl of warm little breads Roach had baked not long ago, leaning to hand the steaming basket over to her across the table. She takes it, smiling, already distracted, and says, “Thanks, Mister Hands,” as she sets it down in front of herself. If Lucius and Doug interacting felt like Stede was in a dream, this— this feels like a fever dream, like a hallucination.

“You’re welcome,” Izzy replies, and Stede thinks he could just about roll over and die happy, hearing that.

“He actually prefers Izzy,” Ed comments. Izzy glares sideways at him; Ed just tears a hunk out of his own bread, grinning at him impudently as he chews.

When Alma amends her gratitude to, “Thank you, Izzy,” though, he still repeats, “You’re welcome,” again— and, if Stede’s not mistaken, he sounds even a little bit warmer than he did the first time.

Turning towards Ed, Stede asks, “Wasn’t that charming?” in a low voice.

“Yeah,” Ed says, but he doesn’t actually meet his eye, which is— peculiar. He’s focused more downward on his plate, at sawing off and shoving around a chunk of his cod with a strange new single-minded focus. “Hey. Something happened. Something happened? What happened?” Ed shrugs. “Ed. What is it? C’mon, you can tell me.”

Ed glances towards him, then. Tilting in, he says, eyes carefully turned back down once more, “I’m sorry, mate, I didn’t— I didn’t mean to fuck up with your boy, that was fucking stupid of—”

“You haven’t fucked up,” Stede insists before Ed can entertain that thought any further. “You didn’t mean anything by it, and he’s already forgotten.” He motions for Ed to eat, jostling the fork in his hand. Ed huffs, smiling a bit, but does as bid, shoving fish into his mouth. Satisfied, Stede pats his cheek before redirecting his attention down on his own meal. “I think you might find yourself surprised by just how resilient children can be.” He nudges their shoulders together. “Or, maybe you won’t, resilient child you were.”

“Resilient, or fucked up?” Ed asks, smiling.

“Are they really resilient enough to bounce?” Wee John asks from across the table. “Or is that just babies?”

“They never bounce,” Stede informs him, momentarily aghast. “Please don’t drop—”

“One time,” Mary comments, taking a sip from her glass, “I did accidentally trip holding Alma, but she was absolutely fine.”

Alma grins up at them, a chunk of bread torn from the hunk in her hands, held tight between her teeth.

“Oh, yes, perfectly fine,” Stede says. Doug reaches over to push the bread into her mouth and close it. “Chew, swallow, then talk, darling.”

“Why?” Alma insists, muffled, before she coughs, nearly choking.

“That’s why,” Mary tells her, Stede leaning around Louis to join Doug in whacking her on the back until she’s breathing normally again. Just as he watches, Mary leans in to say something to Alma softly; Alma rolls her eyes, but she nods.

Stede doesn’t get a chance to ask before his attention is captured again by Louis, tugging on his sleeve to ask after another unfamiliar dish. These kinds of interactions are the sorts he hasn’t had since the children were still very small, the kinds of interactions he wasn’t sure he’d ever actually get to experience again, just these— these silly little moments, the tiny things that remind him that these are the people he created, who he is meant to at least try and help navigate through the life he literally— kind of forced them into having, and that he actually— does sort of like it. Maybe he’s not the best at it, and maybe the concept of being a father and a parent is overwhelming, but—

The reality is, he adores his children. When he thinks about them— not about the concept of them, or of parenting, or about the act of being a guide, or about his role within society— he’s not so afraid of it all. It seems less massive. All he’s got to do is what’s best for them.

Sometimes that means him not being there, he thinks, when being there means he’s not— not present, not really there.

Sometimes, though, he thinks it might also mean him caring so deeply about them that he’s still a little rattled when Louis reaches over to pull on his hand, or Alma calls his name to ask him a question, and he remembers, You’re my child, and he remembers, I want you to be so much better than me, and he remembers, I love you.

Family dinner, for all its madnesses, goes smoothly, by Stede’s measure. Everybody actually manages to eat, which is impressive. Conversation becomes less segmented, smaller groups chatting with one another until everybody at the table is practically shouting over each other, engaged in one wild cacophony of conversation. They finish off the meal, and linger for a little while longer after, just to enjoy the company. Even when Mary enlists the children to help clean up, they do it with excitement, eager to see what Roach’s kitchen looks like while they gather up dirty dishes.

Stede’s passing over a few forks into Alma’s waiting hands when Pete asks, “Hey, Cap’n, you still doing storytime tonight?”

“You still do storytime?” Mary asks.

“He did it at home, too?” Pete asks in return, brow furrowing.

“Aw, babe,” Lucius says. He kisses Pete on the cheek. “He’s got kids. Did you think he started telling us stories ‘cause he wanted to tell us stories?”

“Well, I mean,” Pete answers. “Kinda.”

“I did,” Stede insists. “Storytime is beneficial to everybody. It unites us a crew, it provides a calming, soothing end to the day, it guides us into sleep, it activates—”

“Our imaginations,” most of the crew finishes in unison with him.

Stede laughs, feeling all-over warm. “Thank you, yes, well— It does—”

“Can we listen, too?” Alma asks.

“Imagine if we said no,” Frenchie comments in an aside to Oluwande.

“Of course,” Stede answers, unable to stop smiling. “I’ll tell you what: why don’t you help Roach clear out the dishes, then you can help me choose a book from the library? It’s time to start a new story.”

“Okay!” Alma says excitedly, grabbing up armfuls of dishes from the table and dumping them into Louis’ hands. “Come on—”

They nearly trip over each other, in their rush to accompany Roach and Buttons to the kitchen. Stede claps his hands together, turning back to the group as a whole, in the same beat that he realizes that most of the crew prefers to sleep up on deck, on a nice night after this, and he’s relatively certain that this is not the experience the children are looking to have, and actually pretty positive it’s not the one Mary and Doug want.

There’s a beat where he’s genuinely pissed at himself. He spent so much time— so, so much time— trying to figure everything out, down to the last detail, that he feels like an absolute goddamn imbecile for not figuring out sleeping arrangements for everybody on the ship over the next few nights.

Turning to Ed, catching his wrist in his hand, Stede says in a fast whisper, “I don’t have anywhere to put them,” concerned, mildly panicking.

“What?” Ed asks. “They’re right there. Put ‘em where?”

“Tonight,” Stede clarifies. “For sleeping, I didn’t even think— Oh, fuck me. I just—” He shoves his hands through his hair, then says, “I’ll find— We have a couple of folding cots. I’ll snap them out, I can sleep there, and then the— The children can sl—”

“Whoa, hey, slow down, you just conked your head, you're gonna make it explode,” Ed says, but Stede can't stop now.

“I didn’t think,” he tells him in a distressed whisper. “I— It’s not fair to you to ask if they can share the captains’ quarters, we should— I can—”

“Sorry, hi,” Oluwande says, waving slightly, edging in. “Heard you freaking out a little bit.”

“I am not freaking out,” Stede says firmly, on the verge of completely freaking out.

“For sure,” Oluwande replies. “It’s just— I sort of heard, and it sounds kind of— heinous? To sort of share that between the six of you?” He hesitates, then says, “With your— wife, and— whatever?”

“Ex-wife,” Ed says, in the same breath Stede corrects it to, “Widow.”

“Well,” Oluwande says, and glances back at Jim. They nudge him forward, making a pointed sort of glance in Ed and Stede’s direction. Oluwande looks back to them, then says, “We’re willing to make a trade with you.”

“A trade?” Stede asks.

“I got this,” Ed says, patting the back of his hand against Stede’s chest. To Oluwande and Jim, he says, “Alright, hit me. What’s the offer?”

Jim smiles. It’s just a little twitch of a thing, but it’s amused, and knowing, and deeply entertained, and he can’t quite shake the suspicion that Jim probably thought of this exact problem days ago and has been waiting for the exact right opportunity to bargain.

That suspicion’s only confirmed when Oluwande says, with a lack of hesitation that could only be pre-rehearsed, “They can sleep in our room, if we get to use the captains’ bath three times.”

“Each,” Jim adds, leaning in next to him.

“Right,” Oluwande says. “Three times each.”

Jim holds up six fingers. “That’s six total times, Cap’n.”

“Yeah, thanks, I know,” Ed says. He folds his arms across his chest, evaluating them. Stede observes him, then them, curious, heart still pounding with the new anxiety that just sparked through him at his realization. Probing, Ed asks, “What exactly does ‘use our bath’ mean?”

“Means ‘use your bath,’” Jim replies.

Ed narrows his eyes. “Alone?”

“Well…” Oluwande starts.

“Define ‘alone,’” Jim says.

“Yes, fine, that’s fine,” Stede says, all in a rush. Ed raises an eyebrow down at him. “I don’t have time to bargain, Ed! I have to take their things down and start to set up the—”

“Alright, okay, I gotcha, relax,” Ed says, draping his arm across Stede’s shoulders, rattling him a bit. “You don’t make it easy to bargain, mate.” Stede lets his face fall into his hands, just for a brief moment. With a dry huff of a laugh, he scrubs at his cheeks, at his eyes, with the heels of his hands, before dragging his fingers up through his hair again. He grips the strands at the back of his head as he lets out a long, rough exhale. Ed reaches up to unknot him from his own hair. “There you go, babe. Feel better?”

Stede nods jerkily. At least it’s being fixed, if nothing else. To Oluwande and Jim, he asks, “How soon can you have the room—”

“Already empty,” Jim tells them. Pointed, to Stede, they say, “Six each.”

“Hey,” Ed says. “Three each, six total.” He points at them. “Nice fucking try.”

“Worth a shot,” they say, and accept the hand that Ed extends, shaking it. To Oluwande, they comment, “C’mon. I want a hammock for storytime this time, and I’m not losing it to a kid.”

With them gone, Stede exhales in a gust. He tips into Ed, just for a second, letting his forehead collide with his shoulder. He’s about to speak to him, to tell him how tired he is, perhaps, or that he loves him, but—

Then, though, he hears Mary speak up behind him with an unexpected, “You didn’t have to do that,” and he has to rock back on his heels in the same movement, reeling away from Ed. His whole body’s sort of— stretching towards him, still, yearning to be with him.

He thinks he already might be very tired.

“Sorry, do what?” Stede asks. All he’s thinking about now is wanting to lay down with Ed, but he’s got to get everybody’s things down to Jim and Oluwande’s room, and string up hammocks for the children, and take them both down to the library, and bring everybody up on deck for storytime, and make sure the ship—

“Trade for a room,” Mary says, cutting off the stream of half-thought, half-madness spinning through his mind. “We’re fine with whatever’s on the ship. We figured we might be… Ahh—”

“Roughing it,” Doug provides.

“As it were,” Mary finishes. Stede wonders where this person was when he suggested going out to sea in the first place— but, then, a few days on the ocean with the man you love accompanying you is massively different than an indefinite lifetime on it with one you feel you’ve been shackled to.

“Well, you don’t have to rough it,” Ed says. He seems like he’s going to lean into Stede again before he stops himself. His arms end up at his sides, instead, hands drifting to rest on the weapons at his hips. The striking part is, Stede doesn’t think any of it this intentional— how menacing it is, how alluring it is— and Ed’s just— being Ed, and making his heart race in the process. “We’ve got the resources to take proper care of guests on board our ship.”

Stede can feel his face burning, and he glances away just to attempt to cool himself down. As he does, though, unfortunately, Mary catches his eye. Her expression is so heinously knowing, and he’s flushing all the hotter for it, trying to find somewhere, anywhere else to look.

“Well, thank you,” Doug says, saving Stede from having to choke out a word when he’s already being strangled by mortification.

Somebody is looking out for him— besides Ed, anyways— because the children come sprinting back, just then, Roach right behind them. Both of them have a fistful of hard sweets clutched in their hands; Stede raises an eyebrow up at Roach, who just grins.

“Got them last time we were in Nassau,” Roach says. “Better than Swede getting into ‘em and losing another tooth.”

“Terrible,” Stede says. Alma quickly stuffs the candy into her pockets, as if concealing it from her parents’ view will cause them to forget she has it completely. Catching this, Louis follows suit hastily, nearly spilling his on the floor.

“One before sleeping,” Mary tells them. Alma frowns at her, but she frowns right back, and, eventually, Alma relents.

“Okay,” Stede says, clapping his hands together. “Let me help you with your bags and we’ll get everything down into the room you’ll be staying in, and I’ll come help you clean up a bit, Roach, and then, children, we can select a book, and we’ll—”

“Hey, hey,” Ed stops him, catches his shoulder. “I got the bags, you get the book.”

“What? No,” Stede says.

“No, I can—” Ed starts, but Mary interrupts him this time.

“We’ll bring the bags,” Mary tells him— tells them both. “I’m sure Mister Roach won’t mind showing us where the room is. We’re capable of carrying our own things.” Stede hesitates. Mary insists, “Go, go on. You two help them choose a book. We’ll meet you—”

She searches, and Roach supplies, “Up on deck.”

“—Up on deck,” Mary echoes to finish, smiling at Stede, deliberately blithe.

“I’m happy to show you,” Roach says in conspiratorial agreement. “Oluwande and Jim’s room, then?”

Stede glances at him, suspicious, but tells him, “Yes, if you don’t mind.” He hesitates, then asks, “Are you sure you—”

“Yes, yes, go,” Mary insists. “Ed, please, take him to the library, won’t you?”

Ed pauses, himself. Stede can’t tell if it’s a bristling or a contemplation, but when Mary looks past him to Ed and smiles, something that Stede recognizes as being far more genuine, Ed says, “That’s a good idea. Smart. Let’s go, mate.”

His hands on Stede’s shoulders turn him to the door, and Stede reaches back for the children, smiling when he says, “Are you excited to see the library? I’ve got loads of exciting stories. I’ve even found a bunch of your old favorites to keep on board.”

“Really?” Louis asks excitedly. “Can I bring one to bed with me?”

“Yeah, sure, if you want,” Ed says, which— Stede would protest, but he’s kept them this long for them anyways, and the way Louis beams up at Ed, running to catch up with him and take his hand, is hopelessly endearing. He can’t find it in himself to protest a single bit of it.

Alma takes Stede’s hand, herself, after a moment. Stede squeezes it, watching up ahead of him as Ed glances down at Louis, at his small hand slipping into Ed’s half-leather grip, hanging on tight. He falls into step with Ed, letting him guide him; Alma does the same thing alongside Stede.

For a moment, Ed just watches Louis, tilted downwards, expression nearly unreadable, slightly fond.

Then, Louis asks him, “Where’s the library?” He looks up at him, seeking an answer. “Is it close?”

 

Ed refocuses, tells him, “Oh, yeah, not too far. Ship’s not all that big, you know, so nothing’s ever really all that far away.”

“How big’s the whole ship?” Louis asks him.

“Smaller than a castle, but bigger than any sea beast out there,” Ed tells him, and Louis stares up at him with wide, enraptured eyes, and Stede thinks that that’s much better than any legitimate answers of measurement he could have given them. “Bigger than whales, even.”

“Bigger than the Kraken?” Louis asks him.

“Oh, much bigger,” Ed agrees. “Mows the Kraken right down. And you know sea dragons?”

“Dragons?” Alma chimes in, bewildered. “Sea dragons?”

“Yeah, whole shitload of ‘em,” Ed says. “And we’re bigger than that, too.”

“What’s a shitload?” Louis asks.

“A lot,” Ed tells him.

“And not a word to be repeated,” Stede adds. Alma glances up at him, and he mimes buttoning his lips. She just rolls her eyes at him. “You remember that story about the sea dragons, don’t you? And the boy who could ride on the clouds?”

“Yeah!” Louis exclaims. “His name was Augustine.” He considers that, then says, “You should’ve named me that.”

“Well, should’ve, could’ve, would’ve,” Stede replies. “Ah, here we are. This, children, is our library here aboard the Revenge.”

Ed gets there first, pushing the door in for them, letting Louis take the lead inside. Stede has to shift around them to light the fireplace, but, when it ignites, it’s bright enough to catch the prisms above their heads. The room’s lit well enough, then, for the children to see the vast array of books there, plundered and pillaged and placed there by Ed slowly as replacement for those that had been previously lost or otherwise tossed unceremoniously overboard.

“Wow,” Louis exclaims, as soon as he lays eyes on the variety of books inside the room. There are plenty of books back at their house, Stede knows, but Mary’s never enjoyed reading very much. Alma did enjoy listening to the stories, though she was never much of a reader herself, but—

Louis. Louis always did seem like he might have had an inclination for books like Stede did.

Looking at the way his face is lit up with both firelight and delight is making Stede think maybe he likes them just as much as he does already. Louis releases Ed’s hand to jump forward a step before he hesitates, turning back to them, waiting for their approval before touching.

“Go ahead,” Stede tells him. He squeezes Alma’s hand, says, “You, too. Go ahead, see if you can decide on one together.”

Ed motions at them, waving them forward, and that’s all the final motivation they need. Alma runs forward to join Louis, the both of them sprinting forward to the nearest set of shelves, reaching for the most colorful spines they can lay eyes and hands on.

At his side, Ed bumps into his hip, then tilts into him.

“I see the resemblance now,” he comments.

“Hush,” Stede says, smiling. “So what if they’re terribly smart and imaginative? Their mother’s a painter.”

“And their father’s a pirate,” Ed adds.

“That’s mostly irrelevant,” Stede replies. Ed kisses him on the cheek.

“More relevant than you’d probably think, mate,” Ed says, as Alma shoulders her brother aside to grab a book with only a harpoon on the spine.

“Alma, please,” Stede insists. “Be kind to him. You know he bruises easily.”

“Sorry, Louis,” Alma says absently, already tugging the book down. “What’s this one?”

“A book about whaling,” Stede tells her with delight. She glances up at him, dry, then shoves the book back into place. “Well, then, what are you looking for?”

“Something fun,” Alma insists.

“Yeah,” Louis agrees. He keeps skimming the books, hands glancing over countless spines, huge eyes drinking up shelf after shelf of novels and journals and storybooks and texts and— everything Stede and Ed have managed to accumulate together, in here. “Something with an adventure story. And pirates.”

“Oh, gotta have pirates,” Ed agrees.

“Which one do you think, Mister Blackbeard?” Louis asks him.

“Mister Teach,” Alma corrects him. “That’s his last name.”

“Ed is— Ed’s fine,” Ed tells them. They both look up at him. “I mean. You call Doug ‘Doug,’ don’t you? Didn’t you say earlier?”

“Oh, yeah,” Alma says easily. “That makes sense.” She glances back at the books. “What one, then?”

“Which one,” Stede says.

“That what which one,” Ed says nonsensically, pointing above their heads towards the top shelf. “Pink one.” Louis hops to stretch, Alma reaching above him, but neither can get to it. They both frown back at him. “Here, hold on.”

Ed ducks, scooping Alma up off the ground by the waist, hoisting her up nearly to the ceiling so she can stretch and reach the book herself. She takes it, slides it out gingerly, and passes it down to Louis. They’re an efficient little team; Stede almost wishes Lucius were here, so he could sketch this. Actually— Maybe Lucius should be here, document everything—

 But then, when Ed sets Alma back down, and she says, “Thanks, Ed,” with such easy warmth that Ed smiles back without even thinking, Stede actually does think it’s better that they’re alone. This is nicer, really. For the moment, anyway.

“What about this one?” Alma asks Ed, holding the book up to him. “What’s it say? I can’t read all those yet.”

This book is actually one Stede read to the crew near around when he and Ed first met. This isn’t the original copy, but they’d found a new one with a similar cover to their old lost version while looting once, and, well— Stede hadn’t been about to turn away the gift as Ed gave it.

When Ed takes it in hand now, examining the pink cover with its bright-blue ship on the front, white sails crisp beneath black lettering, Stede wonders if he remembers that. The story, and how Stede told it, and what they were like before. Before they were— together together, properly together, when Ed would sit close during storytime, and nudge Stede’s ankle, and pretend he didn’t, just so they could have an excuse to be close.

“That’s ‘Captain Spade’s Journey to the Stars Beneath the Ocean,’” Ed reads to them. The title, at least, stuck with him, then. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know that one,” Alma says, half-skeptical, half-intrigued.

“I want to go to the stars beneath the ocean,” Louis tells them. He turns back to Stede, excited. “Can we?”

“You want to read this one?” Stede asks, stepping forward. He holds his hands out, and Ed surrenders the storybook to him, letting him take the worn cover under his fingertips, running over the raised title.

“Yes, please,” Louis says. Alma echoes him immediately after, with a, “Yes, please,” and when Stede looks up, Ed smiles at him, catches his eye.

“Yes, please,” Ed adds.

Stede smiles, then clutches the book to his chest, right over his heart. “I think this is an excellent choice. Wonderfully done. Very democratic of you.” He holds it out. “Who wants to carry it up on deck for me?”

The children shove at each other to take the book from him first. “So much for democracy,” Ed says over their heads.

“Long live piracy,” Stede agrees. “Louis, I see you, do not bite your sister.”

Ed ends up carrying the book up on deck for them as an impartial party, just to make it fair, but they’re each permitted to flank him as if they’re his own personal guard to compromise.

Stede just endeavors to keep up behind them. They’re so excited they practically sprint up onto the deck, shepherding Ed up along with them, right ahead of them. The crew all cheers excitedly when they become visible, hollering their welcome at the sudden return.

“What’s the story tonight?” Frenchie calls over everybody else. He plucks at the strings of the guitar under his hands. “I’ll get us set up with some mood music.”

“‘Captain Spade,’” Louis tells them, and Buttons whistles from the gathering of the crew at the center of the deck, clumped on their cushions, hanging in their hammocks, laying out all over each other in a pile.

“He goes to the stars in the ocean, I think,” Alma informs them.

“That’s a favorite,” Buttons says. “Let’s go, c’mon up, Cap’n.” He grins to Mary where she’s already been seated beside him, a blanket tucked around her shoulders. “He does all these voices when he reads. It’s real good.”

“Yeah?” Mary asks. She glances sideways at Stede, smiling. “I’m glad you all like it so much.”

Stede smiles, slipping his glasses out of his pocket and onto his nose, accepting the book from Ed as he passes him to hop up onto the barrel set just before the mast. He leans back against the wood, crosses his ankles. Just as he opens up the book, he can feel Ed taking his usual spot in front of him, just a bit to his side, dragging up a cushion, tipping into Stede’s calf. His head presses into the side of Stede’s kneecap; the warmth of his fingertips wraps around Stede’s ankle, hot even through the fabric of his stockings.

“Everybody ready?” Stede asks. “All settled in? Feeling good?”

Frenchie plucks out a few more notes, then says, “Aye, aye, Cap’n.”

Stede glances downward to see Alma moving to climb into Doug’s lap where he’s sitting right on the deck. She leans into him, head against his shoulder. It’s nice, Stede thinks; it warms him, to see her so comfortable with him. He thought it might have hurt to see, but he’s— actually only very happy, and it makes him smile.

He tracks for Louis and, for a moment, can’t find him. He’s briefly startled, but then finds he’s easily spotted when he leans forward; he’s seated himself at Ed’s side. Maybe he’s not comfortable enough to sit right in his lap just yet, but he sits in the same way Ed is, leaning against the barrel, twisted towards Stede. His fingers, though, are twisted in one of the loops on Ed’s belt, clenched to anchor him close.

“All settled?” Stede asks, chest filled with a soft sort of warmth.

“Yeah,” Louis says. “Start, please, now, Dad.”

“Oh, yeah, start now, please, Dad,” Jim echoes, grinning with all teeth. Stede glances upwards at them over the edge of his glasses, but the comment feels partially genuine, so he actually does only smile and return his attention back downwards to the book in his hands.

“‘Captain Spade’s Journey to the Stars Beneath the Ocean,’” Stede reads. “‘Chapter One.’” He clears his throat. “‘ When Captain George Spade first set sail, he had no idea what the seas had in store for an old soul like his.’”

Ed’s fingers tighten around his ankle, and Stede smiles, not breaking his stride as he continues reading that first chapter. This adventure is a rather captivating one, even by Stede’s very high standards; the crew’s enthralled, and the children are completely enraptured, inching closer and closer the longer he reads.

On their insistence and encouragement, he reads a second chapter, then a third. His voice grows a little hoarse, and he’s tired, but he’s also truly enjoying himself, with them enjoying themselves as much as they are, or seem to be.

When he’s getting into the fourth chapter, he chances a glance downwards. It’s with a smile that he realizes most of the crew has dropped off around him by now, dozing in the nighttime darkness. His even voice can be just as rhythmic as the waves; he’s almost lulled to sleep himself, at times. The knock he took to the head earlier certainly doesn’t help, either.

He trails to a stop, then leans forward to check on Ed and Louis at his feet. Louis’ fallen asleep, slumped over on the deck, his face smushed into Ed’s thigh, just up near his kneecap. He’s got one arm tangled around Ed’s leg, fingers loosely holding onto the leather as he sleeps. For his part, Ed’s let one hand rest on the boy’s head; while Stede watches, he swipes his thumb once, brushing hair away from his face.

Tilting up, he finds mostly everyone’s fallen asleep. Jim’s still looking at him, half-blanketed beneath Oluwande sleeping in their shared hammock, and Buttons is leaning backwards with his eyes open, but everybody else seems to have dropped off. Alma’s draped completely in Doug’s lap, asleep; he’s tipped forward over her, deeply asleep himself. The only other soul awake on the ship must be Izzy, up at the helm, pretending he’s not been listening in on the story the entire time.

Slipping the book shut, Stede whispers, “I think that’s enough for tonight.” At his feet, Ed grunts, shifting slightly. “Need a hand?”

“Yeah,” Ed says, and Stede sets the book aside, slipping down from his barrel. His own stiff joints crack, unlocking, before he leans down to turn Louis over, hauling him up and into his arms. Underneath him, Ed stretches out, bones snapping; Stede huffs a laugh. “Shut up.”

Stede doesn’t risk answering, just balancing Louis’ dead weight. His limbs all hang, completely asleep; it takes a bit of maneuvering to get him into a manageable position. He tips his chin in Mary’s direction, asks, “Grab them for me?”

Ed yawns, doing as asked, staggering to his feet, moving to shake Mary’s shoulder. Buttons helps him in maneuvering her upward, and she’s roused enough between them to wake Doug on her own. Between them, they manage to return all four of them— Mary, Doug, and the children all— to their temporary living quarters without much of a fuss, though both of the children become semi-aware while Mary’s trying to change them into their sleep clothes.

Hesitant, unsure of his place here, Stede tells them in a soft voice, “Well— If you need anything tonight. Just— Come to the captains’ cabin. I’ll be right in there.”

“Don’t worry,” Mary says, tugging Louis’ arm through his sleeve when he’s too drowsy to move himself. “I think they’ll sleep right through, to be honest.”

“Oh, good,” Stede says. He wishes he didn’t feel so awkward, just trying to give them their space. It’s strange, these people that are his family but their own, familiar but not, his but theirs. It fits, at least, in that he has his own separate sort of family now, too. It helps, that he’s not going back to his room alone, either; he’ll be going back with Ed. “Well— Well, then, goodnight, both of you. Sleep well. And, remember, if you need anything—”

“Goodnight, Stede,” Mary says. Stede’s grateful for her, if nothing else, and lets himself smile in the warmth he feels for her.

“G’night,” Doug says, half-collapsing into bed already.

Stede hesitates one beat longer before he backs up a step, retreating towards Ed in the doorway. Then, though, Alma says, “Goodnight, Dad,” and he fully pauses, turning back to her.

“Goodnight,” he says, and then decides on impulse to open his arms. He’s glad he does, because Alma abandons the hammock she’d been about to climb into in favor of stumbling into his embrace first instead.

It’s impossibly good, to have them here again. He’s missed Mary, of course; she was his family for so long. Still is his family, really, in this unique way they have. The children, though— The children, his children, he— He doesn’t always realize how much he misses them, how immense his love is for them. Even if he doesn’t quite know how to be a father, or a good parent in the least, he at least feels capable of loving them. That much, he can do.

He holds Alma close, ducking down to hug her properly. She crashes into him, squeezing him tight, and he crushes her into his embrace, ducking down to hold her as tight as he can. It’s been so long; he’s not actually sure they’ve ever hugged quite like this, save for maybe when he left the last time, or when she was a very little girl.

He’s loath to separate from her, but he does when she yawns, jaw cracking against his shoulder. Kissing the side of her head, he says, “Goodnight, darling. Rest well.”

“Goodnight,” she murmurs, and lets him hoist her up, tucking her down into the hammock. Cradled in that, it’ll be pretty much impossible for her to get rocked out onto the floor, even if an unexpected wave slaps against the boat or rocks it while she’s resting. He adjusts her blanket over her before turning to do the same with Louis.

He already has his arms out, and Stede kneels to wrap him up in his own, tugging him in tight. Louis allows him to do just as he did with his sister; Stede tightens his grip until Louis’ squeezing him back, the two of them just— hanging on, for a moment. He exhales, then kisses his son’s head, too, before separating them. He’s still smaller and lighter, and it’s even simpler to scoop him up, to settle him in the hammock strung up for him beside Alma’s.

Ed passes him an extra blanket, and he whispers, “Thank you,” to him before tucking it in around Louis. He lets himself linger, just for a moment, before he leaves them there, turning to Mary and Doug to say, “Thank you both, as well. Very much.”

Mary reaches for him, and Stede lets her pull him into a hug. “Goodnight, Stede. Thank you very much for today. I’m looking forward to what you’ve got planned tomorrow.”

“Oh, believe you me,” Stede tells her, voice soft. “I’ve got plans.”

She squeezes him, laughing, and says, “I expect no less from you.”

They separate, and Stede allows Doug to shake his hand, though he’s feeling warm enough that he almost moves in to hug him, too. He wonders if Doug would let him or if he’d only find him strange.

Ed takes his cues from Doug, leaning in to shake both of their hands and say, “G’night, then.”

“Goodnight, Ed,” Mary says, her voice quiet. She sets her other hand over Ed’s, just for a moment, before she releases him.

“If you need anything,” Stede whispers again. “You know where to find us. And—”

“Goodnight, Stede,” Mary repeats again, more firmly this time. Ed takes his elbow, tugging him backwards a bit. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Alright, then,” Stede says. “Goodnight.”

“Bye,” Mary says, and then Stede’s in the hall right outside the door, and it’s closed in his face. With an exhale that has his shoulders slumping, he glances backwards and up at Ed, earning himself an arm draped down his chest.

“You look fucking zonked,” Ed comments. He presses a sloppy kiss to Stede’s cheek. “Bedtime.”

“Mm-hmm,” Stede agrees.

“Wasn’t a question,” Ed replies, spinning Stede around and steering him back towards their quarters. “Off you go.”

Sure enough, there’s nobody else around; the ship remains steady with Izzy up on deck still, and probably Buttons alongside him. Stede’s assured enough in his crew— and exhausted enough in general— to leave them to it, to head straight for bed without worrying about them or the ship.

Nudging in the door to their quarters, Ed says, “There we go. Don’t trip, or I can’t promise I won’t just leave you there.”

“I can’t promise I won’t happily sleep there,” Stede replies, yawning. He starts shucking off clothes the moment he hears the door click shut behind them, abandoning them in a neatly-folded little stack by the bed. Observing the sofa for a bleary second, he asks, “Should I have offered—”

“No,” Ed says, tossing his own things aside with far less care and ceremony than Stede is, braces and leathers ending up in a heap on the ground. “Now, get in bed, or I’ll throw you in.”

“Aye, aye, Cap’n,” Stede agrees easily. He accepts the long nightshirt Ed pushes into his arms, lethargic when he’s pulling it over his own head. It’s only when Ed comes back to him, soft in his own nightshirt, hands tugging back the curtain concealing their bed and drawing Stede towards it, that he lets himself really feel his exhaustion, now that he knows it’s going to be over soon.

He also, he realizes, is feeling most of the emotions and sensations he’s been trying to hold back all day, but all at once, and a cold wash of fear comes over him out of nowhere. In a brief moment of certain terror, he asks, “Do you think today went well? Or have I compl—”

“Stede—”

“I think I might’ve been a little too controlling,” Stede confesses. “Maybe I should have—”

“Stede,” Ed interrupts him, and takes his face between his hands. “Your brain’s not working right anymore, babe. You gotta sleep, or you’re just gonna freak yourself the fuck out.” He jostles Stede a bit, warm eyes burning into his. “Right?”

Stede huffs, but he agrees, “Right.”

“Damn right I’m right,” Ed says. “I’m always right.” He kisses Stede between the eyes, then moves to hug him. He hesitates, though, and seems as if he’s about to say something more before he apparently changes his mind. Though he moves to continue hugging him, to try again, Stede shifts back a bit.

“What’s wrong?” he asks him.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Ed replies, sudden and bewildered. It feels like the truth, but— still. Stede’s tired, but he doesn’t think he misread that just now.

He shifts a bit, letting his arms spread, his shoulders opening up, his hands coming around so he can drift his fingertips along Ed’s palms. There’s no hesitance in him, now; Stede knows exactly what he wants.

Tipping his head up, he asks him, “Did you want a hug, Ed?”

Ed hesitates for another beat. His face goes a bit red, but then he says, “I know I’m not a kid, but the— the way you hugged your kids was, like— I don’t know,” Ed says. Stede’s start to feel all-over warm, then, smiling up at him. “I just kind of— I— Would you— I want a hug,” Ed eventually says, desperate for Stede to understand.

He does, he thinks. Pushing in a bit closer, heart picking up just a little bit in speed, he asks, “Is this what you mean?”

Just like he’d done with the children, Stede spreads his arms further, tugging Ed in so he can wrap himself around him. Ed’s arms come up immediately, winding around him in return, pulling him in as close as he can get him. Stede gives as good as he gets and better, pulling Ed in all over, until they’re slotted in everywhere they can be. Tipping up, he kisses the side of Ed’s head, down to his cheek, letting the bursting smile inside him come out against him.

Ed exhales shakily, turning his face into him. Soft, warm, he murmurs back, “Yeah,” and Stede’s so impossible endeared, he doesn’t think he can stand it. He makes a mental note to himself to try and hug Ed properly like this at least once a day from now on, if not more. Everything Ed didn’t get before, everything he’s afraid to ask for, Stede has to give it to him. If— If Stede could kill Ed’s dad all over again for him, he can’t say he wouldn’t take the chance.

Then, though, Ed interrupts the chaos of his thoughts by sniffling a bit, drawing back. He kisses Stede on the temple, says, “Thanks,” in a slightly wobbling voice. He clears his throat; rougher, this time, he says, “Bedtime, then,” and pushes Stede towards the covers behind him.

It’s with no small amount of relief that Stede finally collapses in bed, reaching upwards for Ed as he goes. He beckons, trying to hook into the lace of his nightshirt, unwilling to let him get very far away. “C’mere, I can’t sleep unless you’re here, too.”

“I’m right here,” Ed tells him. “Not going anywhere.”

Stede realizes then that he’s let his eyes close, his head already softly pressed into his pillow. Ed’s voice is coming to him through that darkness; in the next beat, his arm is being lifted up, and Ed’s tucking himself under it, pressed into Stede’s side, draping along his front, shoving his head onto his shoulder.

This time, when Stede relaxes, it actually feels like the tension is leaving the muscles in his body. He sighs, and lets his hand come up absently to wind in Ed’s hair. His thumb strokes absently along the fine hairs just at his hairline, baby-fine wisps that feel impossible soft beneath his skin. Smiling to himself, he twists in just a bit to kiss the top of his head.

“G’night, Ed,” Stede says quietly. He yawns; in the middle of it, he still tries to say, “Thanks again.”

Ed, bless him, understands him regardless, and says, “You’re welcome,” before kissing wherever he can reach— the underneath of Stede’s jaw, down his throat, into his soft chest. Yawning himself, he throws one arm around Stede, wrapping himself up more tightly in him. He wriggles to grab the covers, to tug them up a bit further, and that’s all Stede needs to collapse backwards into sleep.

It’s soft, and mostly-calm. He doesn’t remember if he actually dreams anything, but there’s hazy warmth, and drifting sensation, and the lingering feeling that he’s comfortable in a bone-deep sort of way, when he’s startling abruptly upwards into wakefulness again.

He can’t tell how long he’s been asleep. It’s still dark, so it can’t be morning. Plus, he doesn’t feel rested, properly, but he’s not quite as exhausted as he’d been before, either.

For a beat, he’s not even sure why he’s woken up, either. Ed’s still apparently asleep on top of him, face buried in Stede’s throat, hand half-curled around his cheek, hair fanned across most of his face and chest. Even just now, Stede can feel some of his hair in his mouth; he reaches up to tug it out as gently as he can without jostling Ed.

It’s then that he realizes what actually woke him, when there’s a sharp knock— or, more likely, there’s another sharp knock— at their door.

“Captain,” Fang’s voice comes from the other side, and Stede’s bolting upright in a heartbeat. His mind finally catches up with his body, thinking of a million things that could’ve gone wrong with the ship, of a billion things that could’ve happened to Alma or Louis or Mary or Doug. He doesn’t even pause to grab a robe, throwing himself right out of bed to the door.

Behind him, bewildered, Ed asks, “What’s it?” in a disgruntled, half-asleep slur, not fully awake just yet. He doesn’t sound particularly pleased at being jostled up, either, but Stede will just have to apologize to him for it later.

Wrenching the door open in the darkness, Stede asks, “What’s wrong, Fang?” and is only slightly shocked to find that Fang isn’t alone on the other side.

Stede’s eyes are giving his brain information, but he’s still just barely waking up, himself, and it takes him a second to actually properly process what he’s seeing. Which— appears to be Fang, in his own nightclothes, holding Louis’ hand as the boy clings to him like a limpet, attached to Fang’s side, face buried in his leg. From what Stede can see of him, he’s flushed all red, cheeks tear-stained; the sight of him makes Stede’s heart drop into the pit of his stomach.

“There you go, kid,” Fang says. “There’s your dad, see? He’s fine. All dry.”

Stede crouches down, slightly dazed, to ask, “What’s happened, Louis?” just as the boy looks up and realizes he’s there. His face is crumpled, eyes just as red and wet as his cheeks, and he instantly hurtles from Fang’s side into Stede’s arms, throwing himself into him, starting to sob all over again.

Stede’s chest hurts as he wraps his arms around Louis. He’s still completely confused, patting his back for a second and saying, “There, there. I’ve got you, it’s alright,” while Louis hiccups into his nightshirt. “What happened to you? Are you alright?”

“Found him walking around in the hall,” Fang explains. “Said he was looking for you.” He glances at Louis with a little more— weight, and Stede starts to stand so he can ask what he’s not saying.

Louis starts to panic, though, when he moves, clinging more tightly, breath coming shorter as he says, “Don’t go,” and Stede halts, stopping in place.

“Hey, I’m not going anywhere,” Stede says. He gets his arms under Louis, hoists him up onto his hip. It takes a bit of effort to stand, but he manages it, sleep-wobbling legs slowly gaining strength under him.

Behind him, there’s a creak, and then the looming presence of Ed’s body. Blearily, he asks, “What’s going on? Everything alright?”

“He said he thought you got knocked overboard,” Fang tells him. “Figured it was probably a bad dream. Didn’t want me to take him back to his room, insisted on coming to see you.”

“I’m so sorry, Fang,” Stede says quickly. “Thank you so much, I’m really— I’m so—”

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” Fang says. He knocks Louis just on the very edge of his small shoulder, says, “You’re alright, kiddo. See? Just a dream.”

Louis tries to say something, but can’t around his hiccups. After a second of trying, he manages, “S-Sorry,” but Fang just dismisses him with a gesture.

“Get some sleep,” he says. “Don’t worry about it.” He waves at Stede and Ed before disappearing into the darkness down the hall. There’s no sun anywhere, not just in their cabin, so it must not even be close to morning, yet.

In his arms, Louis’ shaking all over again, sniffling into hsi nightshirt, and he refocuses on the task at hand. “Louis, darling, what happened? Did you have a night terror?”

Louis, when Stede was still at home before leaving the first time, used to have his fair share of night terrors. Then again, he was still only a little boy, and Stede remembered having terrible nightmares, himself, when he was young. Though, he doesn’t think he has them anymore, since— Well, nobody used to come, and he learned quickly that waking up crying and alone was better than trying to seek comfort from his own father afterwards and receiving the— the opposite.

With Louis, though, he hadn’t wanted it to be like that. He’d tried to— at least help him through those terrors, if nothing else. To give him the comfort he wanted but never received, could never receive. Even if Louis doesn’t remember those early nights from his life— or, doesn’t consciously remember anymore, anyway— Stede does. It was one of the only things he’d been good at doing for his children, back then.

It’s been a long time since he’s had to do this, but he thinks he remembers how to handle it. Turning back into the room, he asks, “Would you get the door, please, Ed, darling?” over Louis’ soft crying.

Ed’s still bewildered, but he closes the door behind them with a click. Louis seems to relax, a bit, with the room closed around him, and Stede takes him over to the bed with that thought in mind.

“Would you like me to close these curtains?” Stede asks him. Louis blinks up at him through his tears, then shifts to look past him at the curtains.

Tearfully, he nods. Stede doesn’t even have time to reach and pull them back into place, though, before Ed’s doing it for him, enclosing the three of them in that small, dark little space with the bed. Stede tucks Louis into their covers; his son doesn’t release him the entire time, fingers tangled in the lace at the collar of his nightshirt.

“Why don’t you tell me what frightened you?” Stede coaxes him. Louis’ eyes flick up to meet his in the darkness, wide, afraid. There doesn’t feel like there’s anybody more vulnerable in the world than him, right now; Stede tightens his hold on him, pulls the covers up over him.

“Do you— I can—” Ed says, then motions over his shoulder with his thumb. “Go, you know. Like, the sofa—”

“No,” Louis says, suddenly desperate, jerking upright. He insists, “You have to stay, please, please—”

“No, yeah, okay, I’ll— Yeah, I’ll stay, don’t freak out,” Ed tells him. He hesitates for a beat before sitting on the very edge of the bed, watching the boy like he’s a cannon that’s about to blast directly into his face and take his entire head off.

Stede tries to settle Louis back down, tries to rub his hand over his back and steady his breathing, tries to give him any sort of comfort he can.

“What happened?” he asks again. Louis bites his lip; Stede pulls it from between his teeth. “If you let it out of your head, it can’t get so big and scary, right? And I can help with it when it’s out here. So can Ed.”

Louis hesitates for only another beat before he’s bursting open, telling them, “I thought— I was up on the top of the boat with you and the little boat hit you again and this time you went over the side, and you splashed into the water, and when everybody ran over nobody could see you because the Kraken had come and took over, and then the tentacles were wrapping all the way around the boat, and then I— and then I woke up, and— and—”

His hiccuping cuts him off, again, the words stopping for a beat before he tells Stede, “I tried to get out but when I did I couldn’t find you anywhere and I got scared the Kraken really did come and then nobody was there and I got lost and that was just— but then I found— I found Mister Fang— Fang— and he said you were fine and the Kraken’s gone now but then I— I don’t know— I don’t—”

“It’s alright,” Stede assures him. He holds him close, lets him sob out his emotions into his chest. Sometimes, it’s almost impossible, how much Louis reminds him of himself at his age. At the very least, he can be better than his own father; when it comes to this, he can hold him, and comfort him, and just— try to take care of him. “You’re alright. I’m perfectly fine, right as rain. My head doesn’t even hurt anymore.”

Sniffling, Louis keeps his face hidden in Stede’s nightshirt. He even digs in a little bit further, unwilling to let him go.

From the side of the bed, slightly hesitant, Ed says, “Hey,” and then, “It’s alright, Lou. I meant what I told you before. I won’t let the Kraken get your dad. Or the ship. Not ever.”

Louis drags his face up so he can peek sideways at Ed, examining him where he’s perched on the very edge of the bunk. Hiccuping, he takes a shaky breath, then asks, “Are you sure?” in a voice so quiet Stede’s not even sure Ed can hear it.

He has, then, a— a foolish second of concern. It doesn’t feel foolish, in the moment, even if Stede’s brain knows it is, logically. But— Louis is just so much like himself when he was a boy. He’s soft, and he’s sweet, and he’s not— not masculine, in the traditional sense. And Ed— Ed isn’t that masculine, really, but he’s still rather masculine, in some of the traditional senses, or at least— moreso than Stede. Even if he lets himself be more intimate with him than any other man Stede’s ever known, he can’t help shaking this— this fear, still, and—

Still. It’s an age-old fear, born of something that came long before Ed entered his life, that flares up in his chest, now. It’s this terror that Ed will see him, find some part of him he doesn’t like, and dismiss him, the surety he’ll— he’ll say or do something, even if Stede’s brain can’t quite conjure up what, exactly, that would be, that will remind them both that this isn’t how men act, not how he should be teaching his son to act. And Stede— He knows that’s not true, he knows it, but the fear flares up all the same, and he hates himself for it, a little bit.

That’s not what happens, though. Of course it isn’t; Stede knows it would never, even if that can’t stop the fear.

Rather than dismissing Louis, though, or— or judging him, or commenting on him, or— Stede doesn’t know what— Ed just shifts his good leg up under himself, folding it so he can wrap his fingers around his own ankle.

He leans backwards, looking out the window. The curtain’s tugged back at a slightly-askew angle, rumpled by them at some point tonight; a bit of moonlight lights Ed’s face, this way. Stede can see the handsome, dark planes of it as he appears to think, for a beat.

Then, though, Ed says, “You know, I’m actually kind of afraid of the Kraken myself, sometimes.”

“Really?” Louis asks immediately.

Ed nods. “Yeah,” he tells him, fingers tightening on his own leg. “Big old scary sea beast, who wouldn’t be afraid? But,” he says, and lets himself tilt down a bit, leaning so he can meet Louis’ eyes where he’s peering up curiously at him, “I also fought the Kraken. And I won.”

“Really?” Louis repeats, a little less wavering this time.

“Mm-hmm,” Ed replies. “Not only that, but I couldn’t have done it without your dad’s help.”

Louis twists a bit in Stede’s arms, wriggling until he can look up at him from his lap. His bright eyes find Stede’s in the darkness before he demands in his teary voice, “You fought the Kraken?”

That’s not entirely true, but— In a metaphorical sense, Stede thinks— yes, perhaps they did fight the Kraken together. Not only that, but anything that might actually come to threaten the ship tonight— another band of pirates, or a storm, or what have you— is nothing Stede can’t handle. With Ed at his side, Stede’s certain there’s nothing he wouldn’t be capable of in defense of his family and his ship. So, he— He doesn’t feel that he’s lying in telling Louis that nothing can hurt him here, because nothing can. Nothing that won’t have to go through Stede first, anyway.

“I did,” Stede tells him. “I did, and you know what? I couldn’t have done it without Ed.” He glances up at Ed, smiling to him when he tells his son, “So, there’s nothing that can hurt you so long as we’re both here. And Mary, and Doug— None of us would let anything happen to you. Not ever.”

Louis only hesitates for a beat before he’s nodding. He rubs his face along Stede’s nightshirt to dry it before he’s dragging up again, clinging on a little tighter, arms wrapped around him at an angle.

“There, now. Feeling a bit better?” Stede asks him. Louis nods again, tucking himself into his nightclothes, fists twining in lace. “Would you like me to take you back to your mo—”

“No,” Louis answers, before Stede can even finish asking the question. Looking up at him, neck bent back at an uncomfortable-seeming angle, Louis insists, “I don’t want to go, I want to stay with you. Can I? Please? Please—”

“Yes, okay, you can stay here,” Stede says. They’re only here for a few days, anyway; it won’t hurt anything for Louis to be out of his own bed for one night. He’s already out of his own bed just by virtue of being on the ship in the first place, anyway.

And this— Maybe the way Stede’s handling this is a little clunky, and maybe he’s imperfect, and maybe Ed’s not entirely sure what to do, either, and maybe Mary would have known precisely how to handle Louis’ night terrors when he woke up like this, but Stede still thinks they’ve done a passable job between themselves. Ed’s making up a nonsense story for Louis now to trick him back into sleep, telling him about defeating some crab-beast he’s completely fabricated, proving just how strong he and Stede are in the process with his outlandish tales, and Stede—

Stede thinks that this is maybe one of the best outcomes he could’ve hoped for, if this was going to happen at all. It’s like he’s in a dream, still, watching Ed talk to Louis. It doesn’t feel real, almost.

Then, though, Louis glances back at him, asking, “What’s wrong?” with a slight edge in his voice, and he has to make himself move forward.

“Nothing at all,” Stede assures him. He leans in so he can tuck the covers in around Louis before he strokes his hair back from his face. “There you are. How’s that? More comfortable?”

Louis’ little face goes red all over again. He nods, looking down, away. Small, he says, “Yeah. Sorry.”

“Don’t be embarrassed,” Ed says, before Stede can even say anything. “He tucks me in all the time.”

Stede huffs a laugh. When Louis glances up at Ed, then to him, he confirms, “It’s true. See?” He stretches across Louis to tuck the covers in around Ed, as well, patting the edge of the blanket down across his chest, around his shoulders. Ed smiles up at him; Stede does as he did with Louis, stroking his hair back from his face, for a moment, before he tilts away again. “All tucked in. Everybody ready to sleep now?”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees, so Ed nods.

“Yup,” he says. He wriggles his hand free, beckons to Stede. “C’mon, your turn.”

Stede does as asked, climbing into bed on Louis’ other side, shuffling himself under the covers. He replaces the edges of the blankets around them, makes sure they’re settled properly over his shoulders. When he shifts downward to get more comfortable, himself, Louis scoots closer, burrowing himself into his side.

“Hello,” Stede says. Louis yawns against his side, fingers wrapping up in his nightshirt. “There you are. Get some rest. We’ll look after you.”

Louis nods, already most of the way back asleep. Stede reaches down to run his fingers through his hair, then to let his fingertips trace around the edges of his face. It’s something he hasn’t done in a long while, but it always used to help Louis fall asleep when he was still an infant, so he tries it again now. In stroking his fingertips around his face— starting from his forehead, down his cheeks, looping down to meet under his chin— he slowly guides Louis down into sleeping properly.

Slowly, his breathing evens out, and his eyes close, and Stede watches him slide into sleep once again. He doesn’t know the last time he actually watched Louis fall asleep like that; he must’ve still been a baby, actually.

For a moment, Stede can’t look away from his face. Louis isn’t all that much older than he’d been then, not really. His face still has so much of the babyish softness, round cheeks and huge eyes and gentle, curving features. There’s so much of the infant he was in the boy he is now, in the child he’s properly becoming, and it’s difficult for Stede to look away from him. He’s his son, but he’s also his baby, and he doesn’t want to let this go, not when he’s— he’s pretty sure he’s never going to have this again, when he didn’t think he would ever even get to have this again, even on a fluke like this.

Beside him, in the darkness, Ed shifts. Stede’s eyes flick up to meet his and find him still awake, huge dark eyes of his own burning into him through the darkness.

“Hi,” Stede whispers, keeping his voice as low and soft as possible. “Can’t fall back asleep?”

Ed doesn’t answer, for a beat. Instead, he just keeps staring up at Stede in the darkness, expression mostly-hidden by his pillow and by Louis between them.

After a beat, he says, “I’m sorry I can’t— that I can’t, like, give you this.”

“What?” Stede’s brow furrows, his heart jumping like he’s skipped a step. He certainly feels like he’s missed something. “Give me what?”

“This,” Ed repeats, and motions between them. “Or that I took this from you, or whatever. I’m sorry.”

Ed so rarely apologizes for anything that to hear him apologizing for this, for this nonsensical thought he’s having, is almost bewildering. Actually, on second consideration, Stede decides it is bewildering; he feels the need to make certain Ed knows that, too.

“Hey,” Stede says, catching Ed’s attention again, eyes flitting up to meet his. “You haven’t taken anything from me, you— ridiculous man. What are you talking about?”

Ed hesitates before he whispers, “I can’t give you this life. Or— that life. I mean.”

Stede just tries to process, for a second, before it all clicks into place. He can’t help the frown that hits his face, at that point, nor the crease of his brow when he says, “Aw, Ed—”

“Don’t,” Ed warns him.

“That’s not what this is about,” Stede tells him. “I was just— I was just thinking how much I’ve fucked up with him. How many mistakes I’ve made with— Well, with all of them, really, and how— How much I’d like not to have. Not that I—” He stops himself. After a beat, to Ed’s unblinking eyes, he starts over, whispers, “I’ve made so many mistakes, darling. I don’t know how to stop making them. I love them, but— I don’t know h—”

His throat hitches unexpectedly, chest catching. He lets his jaw tighten and clench closed, teeth grinding shut, taking a shaky breath in. Just so he doesn’t lose it, he refocuses downward on Louis. His next breath, he means to be steadying, but all it does is rattle in him.

Ed’s hand comes up, then. He reaches across Louis, arm just barely brushing over his covers when he cups Stede’s cheek in his palm. For a second, his thumb just strokes beneath Stede’s eye, and all his air punches out on his next exhale. Ed softly shushes him, a tiny sound, and Stede nods into his hand.

“I love you,” Ed tells him.

“I love you,” Stede insists. “I’m living the life I want to be living, Ed. I’m doing— I’m doing the best I can. Or— I think I am, anyway.”

“I know,” Ed whispers back. “Hey. I know.” He swipes under his eye again, then lets his thumb come up to slip his lid shut for him. Stede huffs a half-laugh. “Get s’more sleep. You’ll need it tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Stede says, soft. His eyes drift back open, finding Ed again in the darkness. For a moment, they just look at each other. Then, Stede tells him, “There’s nobody I’d rather be with than you,” and Ed’s eyes flicker before he smiles, just a bit.

“Yeah?” Ed asks him. He tightens his grip on Stede’s face a bit, a kiss with his fingertips while he’s unable to move closer. “Me, too.”

Stede smiles up at him and lets Ed close his eyes again. His hand drifts down from his face, but it settles over his chest, fingers hooked in the lace of his nightshirt. Between them, Louis turns over beneath his arm, pushing just a little bit closer into Ed, filling up the space between them.

They fall asleep like that, this time; Stede can only hope this rest will remain uninterrupted.

It’s a blessing, then, when Stede shifts up the next morning and actually blinks awake to sunlight in the room. If there’s sunlight, it at least means he slept through dawn, and that’s as good a night as any, in his book.

Even better is the fact that Louis’ completely asleep, smushed against his side, arm thrown across his waist, mouth open and face crushed into his chest. Behind him, Ed’s moved to drape most of himself over the both of them, arm slung across their bodies, defending them even in sleep, curled close around them.

For a moment, Stede just enjoys it. Then, there’s a knocking at the door, and Alma’s voice demanding, “Is Louis in there? Did he get to sleep in there? That’s not fair—” and he groans, shoving his hand over his eyes.

“Do you hear that?” Ed asks, bleary, bewildered. “Is someone yelling?”

“That would be Alma,” Stede says, and drags himself upwards. Both Louis and Ed glare up at him as he does it, but he goes anyway, gathering his dressing robe from the sofa and tugging it on with a yawn.

The second he opens the door, Alma’s in like a bolt, taking in the room at large, searching out her brother. Once she’s found him, she gives Stede one of the biggest eat-shit looks he thinks he’s ever received in his human life before asking, “Why didn’t you want me here?” with all of the accuracy of a well-placed dagger. He thinks, not for the first time, that Alma might make a hell of a pirate someday.

“He had a bad dream and got lost on the ship,” Stede explains to her. He leans down to kiss the top of her head; her hair’s already done, clothes already on. Mary and Doug must be out and about somewhere as well, then. Feeling stupid even as he makes the offer, he suggests, “You can sleep in here, too, if you’d like.”

“Okay!” Alma agrees easily.

“No!” Louis laments from the bed. “I don’t want to sha—”

“Oh, Christ, there you are,” Mary says. “The both of you— Unbelievable. Will you tell me the next time you just walk out of the room on a pirate ship, please? I really don’t believe that’s too much to ask of you.”

Based on her general state of disarray, Stede amends his earlier assumptions. Alma’s ready for the day all on her own, then, and Mary’s just as half-dressed as he is, with Doug nowhere in sight.

Clapping his hands together, Stede says, “Alright, I think today will go a lot better from here if we start it off with a nice, hot meal. How about we all go back to our rooms and get ready for breakfast, hm?”

“Sounds great,” Ed calls from the bed, pulling the covers up over his head, burying his face under his pillow. Muffled, he says, “G’morning, Mary.”

“Morning, Ed,” Mary replies. She holds out her hand, says, “Come here, Louis, time to get dressed.”

Louis groans loudly, but he drags himself up out of bed. Stede’s happy to see him more lively, more like himself, awake and aware, the worst of his fears slipping away in the light of day. Stede can’t really bring himself to regret how much more comfortable he is with the two of them now, either, especially when he leans in to hug Ed before he wriggles down out of bed.

Ed pats absently at his back in return, still mostly-asleep. When Louis’ gone, he rolls back and over and once again becomes fully asleep.

“I’ll see you in the dining hall in half an hour,” Stede tells Mary, ignoring Ed’s call of “Fuck that,” from the bed.

It takes just a little bit longer than half an hour for Stede to not only coax Ed out of bed and into clothes, but also to dress himself in clothes that he doesn’t immediately dismiss as the wrong choice of clothes for today. This is one of the only days he’s going to actually get to spend with the children in its entirety, and he really wants to make a good impression, to wear something that will linger fondly in their memories.

Eventually, Ed tells him, “They’re not going to care half as much as you do, love, just wear something comfortable,” and picks out clothes for him. Stede accepts his choices, dresses himself in light colors and fine fabrics as Ed hands them over to him. He knows better than not to trust him, by now. He has a vested interest in Stede looking his best, anyway.

For this trip to go smoothly, Stede’s had to— Well, he’s had to do a lot of planning, and organizing, and, now, once he’s left their bedroom to start the day, he finds himself doing even more planning and organizing, last-minute slapdash efforts to fix those little details he’s forgotten. He sets up a hammock for himself in their quarters for himself tonight; Ed can take the couch, he decides, so he can stretch his leg if he needs, and the children can share the bed. And he jogs up on deck, just for a moment, to check in with his crew, and they’re mostly gathering to eat soon, and his brain is becoming a little scrambled, when Ed finally finds him again and catches him.

“Alright,” Ed says. “C’mon, chow time. You need something in your system or you’ll keel over.”

Stede— doesn’t quite agree, but he can’t argue that he’s not hungry, so he lets himself be led down to eat with everybody else. He’s the last one there, which usually means he’ll eat standing or leaning, but Alma and Louis have saved a seat between them for him.

“You sit here,” Louis insists to Ed before he can get very far, tugging out the seat on his other side, carefully concealed between himself and Doug. After a beat, Louis asks, “Please?”

“Sure thing, kiddo,” Ed says. He swings his leg over the seat to take it, tugging it in close. “What’s good here? I’ve never been to this place.” He claps his hands together. “Anyone got a menu?”

Louis and Alma both laugh, which— actually has a couple members of their crew laughing, too. Usually, Ed and Stede’s antics are endured with amusement. It feels like a win for them to draw out actual laughs, now. It’s all got Stede smiling, though, the entire way through the shared meal. He’s delighted to see everybody more comfortable with each other; it warms something in the back of his chest, something that rises to fill up his throat, until it feels like his eyes prickle with it.

There’s so much to focus on, he decides, and blinks rapidly to clear his vision, focusing downwards on his own meal. There are so many different options for activities he’s prepared for them while they’re on board, fun card games and a silly little tournament of ship-based challenges and a whole host of ideas he’s spent the last couple of weeks formulating. He wants the time the children spend on the Revenge to be exciting, and unique, and memorable. They— He wants them to enjoy themselves, no matter what. He’s determined.

So, when he’s just about to suggest that he pull out his list of ideas from Lucius’ books so they can discuss what they’d like to do first, he’s a little surprised that Pete actually speaks up before him.

“I don’t know what you were thinking of doing today, Captains,” he says, leaning in over the table so he can see them from down the opposite end. “But the crew ‘nd I sort of put together a little something for our new— ahh, guests? While they’re here.”

Stede smiles, the excitement of his crew doing something unexpected— and together— briefly overwhelming his disappointment over having his own plans dismissed, however inadvertently. “Did you really?”

“Yeah, well,” Pete says, then shrugs, apparently bashful, which— That’s all the more intriguing. “Figured it’d be something fun to do.”

It’s a warming thought, at least. Stede had come up with his extensive list of ideas in the first place because he’d been afraid they’d have nothing to do, that everybody would be bored, that he would be unable to keep their guests and crew sufficiently entertained for the time that they had to share a confined space.

Even if he can’t use his own ideas for activities because of it, this is what he wanted. His crew will just be the ones doing the entertaining, not him, and that— That’s a first, for sure.

Not only that, but he’s a bit surprised they’ve managed to plan something without him. That just makes him all more intrigued to find out what, exactly, it is that they’ve planned, too. He’s got to know, and his excitement is growing, disappointment shrinking, with every passing second.

“It’s just a dumb thing,” Oluwande adds. “Stupid sort of— Don’t get excited about it, is all I mean.”

“Why not?” Buttons demands. “I think it’s exciting.”

“That’s ‘cause it is exciting,” the Swede agrees. He leans his elbow onto the table so he can look properly down at Louis and Alma. “You kids like to revel, don’t you?”

“Sorry, revel?” Stede asks.

“They might be a bit young for reveling,” Mary says, glancing sideways at him.

“Not full-on reveling,” Oluwande hurries to amend for them. He sighs, then turns to Jim. Motioning, he asks, “Would you, please—”

“—Save you from drowning?” Jim asks. Oluwande nods; they smile, just a bit. “Least I could do.” To Mary, they say, “We kinda just got something together. Or— Really, they did. I didn’t do anything. By choice.”

“They did a lot, actually,” Oluwande chimes in, but Jim nudges him backwards, shooting him a glare.

“If you wanna see it first, fine,” Jim says. “It’s not a booby-trap, though. We’re not gonna kill anybody—”

“Okay, wonderful!” Stede exclaims, clapping his hands together. “Now that we’re all in agreement that we are not going to kill anybody, why don’t you show us what you’ve thrown together, hm?”

On Lucius’ insistence, the children cover up their eyes, allowing Mary and Doug to lead them back through the bowels of the ship. Stede’s surprised, following behind them, when they end up outside the rec center of the Revenge. He supposes he really shouldn’t be, though; he’s been so focused on preparing for the arrival of their guests that he’s only just now realizing that he’s unwittingly given his crew a lot of time to themselves in the process.

What they’ve been using that time for makes itself evident when Pete pushes in the door ahead of them. Most of the crew rushed ahead of them to jam themselves in there prior to their guests’ arrival, and Lucius organizes them all now while Stede watches, bewildered.

It’s Lucius that poses in front of them, when they’re finished, and says, “Ta-da!”

The children drop their hands, examining the scene laid out in front of them. For a beat, nobody says anything, just— processing. Stede’s even still processing for a long beat, as well, taking in the— the truly absurd decor strung on the walls, ropes and what appears to be some thin, gauzy sort of paper and a fair assortment of sloppily-stitched little flags pinned up everywhere. There’s also, Stede notes with a jolt of observation, some sort of stage constructed, and seats set up before it.

“Oh, my goodness,” Stede says, clapping his hands up over his mouth before he brings them down to wring together, joined against his chest. “What are you doing?”

“What do you think we’re doing?” Lucius demands. “We’re showing our guests our culture, like you asked.” He motions more dramatically at the crew right behind him; Stede clocks them, most of them hastily tugging on costume pieces. Oluwande’s putting some sort of paint on Pete’s face, the both of them crouching to half-conceal themselves behind Wee John and Buttons.

“Oh— Yes, well,” Stede says. “When I— When I thought we’d be showing them pirate culture, I more thought we’d— Maybe show them a bit of safer sailing, or—”

“That’s not real pirate culture,” Jim pipes up from the back.

“What better way to show you all about what pirates are like than a show pirates wrote all about pirates?” the Swede asks.

“Sorry, one pirate wrote this, thanks,” Lucius comments. Forward, mostly to Mary, he says, “I’m the only one who can pr—”

“Shut up,” Ivan says behind him. “We’re learning.”

Lucius turns, gives him a kiss through the air that makes Ivan smile. “And you’re learning so well. Still—” he turns back to Mary and Doug. “This was mostly me—”

“What is it?” Alma finally demands.

“It’s like a play,” Louis tells her. He glances up at Ed behind him, of all people, to ask, “Right?”

“Uh,” Ed says. “I— think so.” He glances up at Lucius, finds him nodding hastily. “Yeah, it’s like a play. I guess it’s a— It’s a play.”

The look Ed gives Stede then is truly worth a thousand words, or at least ten, which might be: Only your fucking crew would do something like this, Bonnet, which Stede smiles back at him for, hoping his expression cheerfully amends that statement to: Only our fucking crew would do something like this, Teach.

And, truly— Stede doesn’t mind putting his own plans in the proverbial back-seat, as it were. If his— their— crew has made plans of their own, he’s not about to stop them. And if they’ve written and organized an entire— entire performance, and thrown this charming little party around it, just for Stede’s family, for their guests on board this ship, well—

Really, that’s better than anything else he could’ve asked for. Stede finds he really, truly doesn’t even mind all that much when he says, “This sounds absolutely lovely. How have you kept this a secret from me this whole time?”

The entire crew nearly appears to visibly relax, as if a new wash of relief hits them, tension leaving them en masse. It almost confuses Stede to see, if he hasn’t started understanding that they— maybe respect him a little bit, now, and that his words and actions and approval appear to hold some weight, with them. Maybe he’s becoming a proper pirate captain after all.

“It’s not so hard to keep a secret from you, Cap’n,” Jim says. “Head’s up your ass most of the time.”

Then again, Stede mentally amends, trying desperately not to laugh and seem like he’s approving that sort of language, Maybe not.

“You can sit right here,” Wee John says, coming forward to pull up chairs that have been set aside for them. There’s six of them ready to go, which has Stede feeling oddly charmed. He’s even more charmed when Ed drags his stool even closer into his, tilting towards his side.

In the back of Stede’s chest, for a beat, he imagines what it would be like to have brought Ed to the world he used to live in. To— To take Ed ashore, and build a house for him, and take him out in the evenings. To live the sort of life where there are shows, and theaters, and dinners, and performances, where he can— he can treat Ed to special things, and bring him into dark places, and sit close, and tangle their hands together, and— and treat him right, in the way he used to know how to treat people right, sort of.

Now, though, he’s living essentially an entirely new sort of life, and learning an entirely new sort of right, and he tries not to get too lost in lamenting what isn’t, what will never be.

Really, that’s not the sort of life for them. It never would’ve been; not only would Ed not be happy there, but Stede wouldn’t be, either. There’s a reason he had to leave in the first place.

“Now,” Lucius says, standing in front of the stage while the rest of the crew hastily sets up a slapdash set of curtains, concealing them from view as they prepare for their show. “Brace yourselves for a feast for the senses!”

“Eyes, ears, all of ‘em,” Buttons says from the other side of the curtain. There’s a short burst of an exhale, then; Stede can only presume somebody elbowed him. That’s only confirmed when he hears a voice shush him in the next beat.

Undeterred, but now slightly annoyed, Lucius tilts himself like a showman, snapping open the book in his hands. He’s stolen a pair of Stede’s glasses, which he sets now at the end of his nose. Beside him, Ed smacks him in the chest, then points, whispering, “Those are yours, man. In the show,” with excitement. Maybe taking him to see a show someday wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.

“They look better on him than me,” Stede whispers back.

“We thank you to leave your commentary until the end of the show,” Lucius says loudly over them. He’s giving them a pointed glare, when Stede looks up sheepishly. “Thank you. Now, behold: A Pirate’s Life, by Lucius Spriggs—”

“And,” Wee John prompts loudly from backstage— or, “backstage,” from behind the curtain they’re holding up.

“And the rest of the crew of the fucking Revenge,” Lucius allows, before dipping into a slight bow and tucking off to the side. He clears his throat, then shifts Stede’s glasses out of the way so he can actually, properly read from his book without his vision obscured. “Act One: The Crew Gathers. To set the scene, we have a very stressed-out fellow wandering around a dock, asking anybody who looks properly patchy enough, ‘Would you like a job?’”

Stede buries his hands in his face when Jim comes out dressed in his clothes, stolen from his auxiliary wardrobe, saying, “Hello, Gentleman Pirate here, quite vulnerable and ready to be stabbed. I haven’t got any experience pirating, and I’ll tell you that right to your face. Any takers for a job?”

“Oh, this is great,” Ed whispers at Stede’s side.

All Stede does is groan, sighing heavily, dragging his face up to watch the rest of the program. He should’ve known, honestly. He should’ve known.

The program is exactly as Stede really should have expected, from there. He bears witness to his crew reimagining their adventures thus far in very outrageous detail, taking a great deal of creative liberties along the way with the story. He has to admit, this is a fun little way for Mary and Doug and the children to see and hear a bit of their escapades without them being placed in any true danger— or hearing too many of the truly gory details of said escapades. Even if this little enjoyment comes at the cost of his entire dignity, it’s in good spirit, and his crew is— not mocking him, but almost— almost roasting him with such fondness that he can’t even be upset.

As it is, he ends up finding it funny. The way they view the adventures they’ve all been on together is actually deeply amusing, and even kind of endearing. Stede has— Admittedly, he’s struggled a bit with actually— pulling this off, with being a proper captain to a proper crew, but—

Maybe proper captains and proper crews don’t exist. Maybe, the best he can do is this: a crew that goes on adventures together, and laughs about them later, and puts on shows to tell others about their escapades, and lives happily together like a family in the meantime.

After he has that thought, and holding it in mind, Stede enjoys this performance massively. His favorite bit might really be Oluwande’s dual performance, portraying both Ed and himself when necessary, but Buttons as Izzy is a particularly memorable role that he doesn't think he’ll soon forget. He’s got Ed laughing so hard that Stede swears he sees Izzy almost smile, too, which honestly leads him to suspect that Izzy likely did smile while nobody was looking.

By the time it’s come to an end, Stede has his face in his hands again, face on fire. He has to look away from the extremely— extremely syrupy depiction of him and Ed preparing for the very guests currently on board, during which Jim’s version of Stede and Oluwande’s version of Ed end up actually very strangely— almost sweet. Glancing at Lucius, who is watching with what appears to be pride in his expression, Stede can only guess that he has him to thank for this. He knew he’d chosen right, having him as the ship’s scribe; he really is a hell of a writer. Even this, he manages to make palatable as a show.

When Lucius comes back out and takes his bow, Stede feels a bit like an indulgent parent— and a lot like a completely mortified ship captain, which is precisely what he is— but he still applauds. It was very well-put-on, after all, especially considering their resources. He’s rather proud of them, actually.

“Oh, this— This is wonderful,” Mary says.

“Stede,” Doug asks, laughing, “How— How are you even still alive?”

“How are you here?” Mary echoes, smiling so wide, and Stede—

He’d be more offended by that, but she’s laughing with such open joy that he’s both happy for her, and certain that he’s going to regret inviting her onto this ship and letting her get comfortable with his crew.

For their part, the children are deeply captivated by this strange, unhinged production throughout the entire thing. The second the show’s completed, they sprint right up onto the makeshift stage, demanding to know just how much of it was true, asking more about their stories, pulling their attention downwards with excitement.

Stede leans back in his chair, covering his face, just— taking a moment.

“Well,” Ed says beside him. “That was— Ahh. What sort of word would you use for… Hm. That was— colorful? You’d call that colorful, yeah?”

Stede huffs a laugh into the heels of his hands.

“Yes,” he agrees. “That was— That was extremely colorful.”

“Dad!” Alma shouts from the stage, clutching Lucius’ sleeve. “Did you actually go on a treasure hunt?”

“I told you I went on one,” he calls back to her. “With Blackbeard. Remember?”

Even from this distance, he can tell she’s rolling her eyes. “You didn’t say it was so cool, though.”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees, clinging to Fang’s hand right beside her. “You should’ve said!”

“Yeah, Stede,” Ed echoes at Stede’s side. “You should’ve said.”

“You, shut it,” Stede says. He turns to reply to Alma and Louis, but they’re already distracted again, listening to something Jim’s telling them with open awe. Stede can’t hear what they’re saying from here, but he’s sure it’s something the children shouldn’t be hearing.

He glances away, finds Doug locked in conversation with the Swede, apparently having an animated discussion that has them both smiling. It brings a smile to Stede’s face, too, and he turns to comment on it to Ed, only to find Ed’s turned away, as well. Mary’s caught him in a conversation, and Ed’s turned around on his stool to engage with her, facing away from Stede.

It’s nice. It’s— It’s so nice, really. Seeing everyone enjoying one another’s company like this. To see all these wonderful people— those that he considers his family, truly, and all of it— gathered up together, all delighted, like they really are one big happy family. Even as Stede watches, Mary motions for Ed to join her, to move over to the spot Doug’s vacated, and then—

Then, Stede’s sitting by himself, and that’s— that’s fine, really. It’s nice that everybody’s getting along so well with one another.

Stede claps his hands down on his thighs, then stands. He doesn’t want to interrupt anybody, so he slips just over to the side of the room to observe, sliding out of everybody’s way. From his new vantage point, he can hear Alma asking Buttons, “So, what’s the topsail, actually?” and isn’t that something? She might actually be interested in all of this.

They’re figuring all this out on their own without him, so Stede sets himself in the background. It’s what he used to do, anyways; he’s good at this, he knows how to do this, how to— how to let the world sort of take over for him, how to let others pass him by while he just watches them and doesn’t interfere in their good time. This is what he used to do all the time at home. He’s used to it.

Eventually, though, he thinks that someone should probably be captaining this ship, and he can’t be lingering down here. While everybody’s enjoying themselves so much, at least, he’d hate to interrupt them, so he edges out of the room to head up on deck by himself.

Instead of partaking in the activities Stede has planned— which, really, practically nobody even knew about, and they weren’t set-in-stone plans either, so it’s fine— the children spend most of the day occupied with the crew. It’s actually such a wonderful thing, really, because not only are Alma and Louis becoming impossibly endeared to the whole lot of them, but it actually feels as though Mary and Doug are getting to know and enjoy their time in their company, as well. They all get along swimmingly, when left to their own devices.

Stede certainly doesn’t need to be there. In fact, it seems like they’re all getting along much better without his constant interference, so he keeps himself scarce through the day. He’s at hand, of course, and careful not to linger too far if anyone needs him, but he— tries to just become wallpaper, as it were.

He watches while Alma and Louis explore the deck, growing more and more curious about how the ship actually runs, about what the crew actually does to keep it sailing, about what their lives are like on a day-to-day basis. The only way they’ll ever get that full image is from real pirates, honestly, so Stede leaves them to it.

Lingering in the doorway to the kitchen, he can’t help but smile watching Roach show them how to bake bread in his small oven. They show Stede their half-baked little creations with pride, collapsing right in their palms. The entire time they’re working, Roach leans over them, window open, smoke trailing out, telling them, “That’s real good, yeah. Just like that.”

Louis hunts down Fang, after not very long at all, and latches himself onto him, refusing to leave his side for a bit. He winds his hand up in Fang’s, clings tight to him. For all his confusion, Fang lets him do it. Most of his tasks that day are done with Louis stuck to him like a barnacle.

Fang— Well, he might not know why, but Stede knows that there aren’t many people in this world who find a lost little boy they barely know in the middle of the night and patiently guide them back to their parents. Even if Fang doesn’t think it’s a big deal, it clearly resonated with Louis; he obviously favors Fang, unmistakably understands that Fang is somebody he can like, somebody he can talk to easily, somebody he can trust.

Most of what Louis does that day is with Fang, after he and Alma leave the kitchens. He tails Fang and Ivan, for a while, and it’s actually impossibly endearing, to see these two gruff— or, once-gruff, as Stede thinks they’re actually two of the kinder souls aboard this ship— leather-clad individuals from Blackbeard’s fearsome crew being followed around by this tiny little boy all day.

Stede thinks it’s all very sweet, honestly. They show Louis how the ship functions, and keep him entertained, and he can’t ask for much more than that. Both of them are so impossibly good to him; it’s a wonder, really.

While Louis’ wanders off, separating from his sister for once, Stede realizes that Alma’s busied herself with hunting down Oluwande. Mary and Doug keep themselves occupied watching the actual functions of the ship, and Alma learns the— learns the more underbelly sort of functions of the ship. She’s smart, and sticks to Oluwande’s side, which means Jim is close at hand for her to slowly ask questions of, to try and pry information from. She clings to Oluwande’s hand, too, asking him at least a question a minute.

If Oluwande doesn’t have younger siblings, Stede would be incredibly surprised, because he handles Alma like he’s been an older brother all his life. Then again, Oluwande’s something of a big brother to everybody else on the crew, really. But— in the mental image that conjures, Stede thinks Ed might be the father, and he’s the mother, which— he doesn’t necessarily dislike, but, still.

Alma trails both Oluwande and Jim around for most of the morning. After Oluwande’s warmed up enough to her to actually be answering her questions in detail, Jim starts to thaw a bit, too. For a while, they’re just talking; Stede sees them looping around up on deck, Alma set up on Oluwande’s shoulders, asking the both of them something that makes all three of them start to laugh.

The next time he catches them up on deck together, though, later on in the day, he finds them in a slightly more alarming scenario: Oluwande supervising while Jim helps Alma poise herself, holding her wrist steady behind her, positioning her in an all-too-familiar way.

“Now,” Jim says, crouching down lower to adjust Alma’s stance, shifting her shoulders slightly, kicking at the inside of one shoe to spread her feet a bit further apart. “You’re going to want to keep your eye trained forward. Look where you’re throwing, nowhere else. Understand?”

Alma nods. All of her hair’s been gathered up and back, tied into a tight bun at the back of her head. When Jim steps back, releasing her, they reach up to set a small knife in her hand, completing the lethal little picture.

“Okay, now,” Jim says, “throw it,” before Stede can do anything but watch in horror.

Alma aims, adjusts, then flings the knife forward. She doesn’t have bad form, honestly, and Jim reaches out to clap their hand on her shoulder when the knife embeds itself in the post ahead of them, right outside a chalk-ring Oluwande’s drawn for them on the wood.

“Not bad,” Jim comments. “Wanna try again?”

Alma’s nodding eagerly, when she looks up and meets Stede’s eye. For a moment, she looks rattled, then caught-out. He motions for her to continue, though, ignoring the way his heart had started to absolutely pound when he saw the blade in her hand.

He’s got to remind himself that she’s her own person, that she’s— that she’s not a little baby anymore, or somebody he can control. He can look after her, and attempt to guide her, but— if she wants to try throwing knives, honestly, he can’t stop her, at this point. Attempting to would likely only make her want to do it more; he’s more than familiar with her instincts by now.

There are also far, far worse teachers than Jim out there. If she has to learn from anyone, it’s for the best that she learns from somebody like them.

Stede observes them, for a while. Even just as he watches, Jim’s able to make small corrections, helping Alma adjust herself bit by bit until she does manage to get the knife inside the chalk-rings. Another few throws, and she’s nicking the center target.

Whirling around, she throws herself at Jim with an excited, “I did it, I did it! Thank you so much, thank you— Did you see that?”

“I did,” Oluwande says. “Good job, girl.”

Alma claps her hands together, hopping up and down. To Stede, then, she calls, “Dad, did you see that?”

“Yes, darling,” Stede says. “Absolutely wonderful. You make a spectacular marksman.”

Alma whirls back around to Jim, asking, “Do you think you can show me how to use a bow next? Because I know a boy who has archery lessons and I know I could do it—” and that is where Stede has to step in. A bow and arrow letting loose on the deck of a ship sounds like a poor idea even when a child isn’t the one wielding the weapons.

Stede’s— a little bit insane, but his daughter knowing how to use a knife isn’t the worst thing in the world, so he tries to just— be normal about it.

When Alma accidentally catches the tip of the blade on her skirt and tears a small hole in it, though, his heart jumps up into his throat, and he runs to her before he can actually even think.

“Fuck,” Alma curses, and Stede huffs a laugh, hitching her skirt up to check for wounds. “It doesn’t hurt. I just ripped it.”

“You’re sure?” he asks. There’s no blood, so he straightens her back out.

“Yeah,” she says. Glaring down at her skirt, she says, “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay,” he says. “As long as you’re not hurt.” He clasps his hands over her shoulders, trying to slow the slam of his heart in his chest. “And don’t let your mother catch you cursing like that, please, she’ll blame me for it.”

“She says that one all the time, though,” Alma tells him, which Stede delightfully logs in the back of his mind for use at a later date.

“I can fix that for you,” Frenchie comments then from his viewpoint leaning against the rail of the ship. He and a few other crewmates have gathered to watch the impromptu little lesson; now, he pushes away from the side, kneeling beside Stede and Alma, taking her skirt up in his hands to examine the rip in the fabric. “Oh, yeah, no problem. This is much easier than an arm.”

“Than an arm?” Alma asks, breathless. In the next instant, she demands, “When did you stitch up an arm?”

Frenchie laughs, straightening up again. He extends a hand and says, “Lemme fix that up and I’ll tell you all about it.”

She sits patiently for long enough for Frenchie to mend her skirts for her, kneeling on the steps while he crouches in front of her, needle and thread in hand. He talks while he works; she interjects only to ask questions, eyes wide and excited, drinking up every word he has to tell her. When he’s finished, she leans in and wraps him up in a rare, tight hug before jumping down and sprinting off again, and Frenchie lingers for a moment, smiling after her.

When he turns back around and catches Stede watching him, he’s not embarrassed. He only laughs and says, “She’s a lot like you, isn’t she, Cap’n?” before packing up his threads to leave. Stede’s— honestly not entirely sure what he means by that, but it feels like a compliment, when Alma’s being so endearing, so he accepts it as one.

Stede insists that Alma slow down a bit, after that— if only for a moment, and if only for his own sanity, if not her safety— and so she finds Louis where he’s sitting with Buttons. The two of them are introduced at length to the new seagulls on board— Esther and Winifred, whom Buttons defines to be a “lovely couple of older ladies just trying to do things right this time around.”

Alma endures all of this, bewildered, but Louis is enthralled. It’s only when Esther actually flaps her wings once and hops forward to curiously jump up onto Alma’s leg that she smiles, leaning down to stroke the gull’s head once with the tip of her finger.

“She likes kids,” Buttons tells her. “Got a couple herself. They’re birds, though. And they don’t visit so often, not like they should.”

“That’s terrible,” Louis says.

“You’re right,” Buttons agrees. “Just terrible.” He glances down to the birds, says, “Hear that, ladies? You weren’t just being sensitive. Louis sees it, too. You’re being taken for granted by your boys.”

“You don’t eat these things, do you?” Alma asks, eyeing the bird on her leg skeptically.

“No,” Louis gasps.

“Of course not,” Buttons insists. “They’re members of the crew like you and me!”

Alma grins wide, at that, turning her beaming smile back down on the gull. Stede can’t tell what, exactly, it is that’s struck her, before he reflects on what Buttons has said to her and thinks, Ah. He was particularly excited the first time that he felt like a proper part of this crew, too.

While they’re being introduced to the birds, Lucius sits across from them and sketches them, Pete lounging at his side. After a few minutes, Pete leans over, commenting, “Her eyes are a bit bigger than that,” while Stede observes.

“Thanks, babe,” Lucius replies absently. He brushes at something on his page with the side of his thumb, smudging it slightly before bringing his charcoal back around.

“What’re you drawing?” Alma asks backwards. “Is that me?”

“Maybe,” Lucius says mischievously, tipping the book up to hide it from her vision. She jolts up onto her feet, sending Esther flapping upwards again to land on the very top of Buttons’ head. Though the bird doesn’t screech, she watches Alma with a slightly disappointed look. Stede truly can’t shake the feeling that she really is some silly old lady, but— maybe Buttons’ confidence in her is just rubbing off on him.

“Let me see!” Alma insists, trying to grab for his book. Lucius gasps, holding it up above her head, arm stretched high. “No, give it—”

“You are a terror,” Lucius laughs. “Babe, take this, please.”

Pete snatches onto the sketchbook when it’s passed off to him, reaching up to grab the rail behind him, hauling himself onto the upper deck. He ends up sprawling on his back, but he’s launched himself far enough away that Alma has to sprint all the way around and up the stairs to get to him, so he’s given himself a fair head start in the process.

He still ends up trapped when she takes one set of stairs and Louis takes the other, cornering him in the center. Leaning up over the railing, Pete shouts, “Here you go,” and drops the book back down to Lucius.

Just while Stede’s standing up at the helm, watching, Lucius turns and runs, taking off at a dead sprint towards the other end of the ship. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen him move that quickly, nor laugh that much while doing it. Part of the way along, Stede sees him pass the sketchbook off to Wee John, though he doesn’t break his stride. The children keep chasing him, unaware that he no longer has the book until they grab his wrists and spin him around.

“No!” Alma exclaims. Louis whirls around, then points when he spots Wee John with it.

“There!” Louis calls, and they’re off again, shoes slamming into the wood as they run across the deck once more.

In the end, most of the crew ends up engaged in what is essentially a very complicated and unnecessary game of keep-away— but, then, Stede supposes most games aren’t necessary in the same way that they very, very much are. They’re all having so much fun, so happy and comfortable and excited together, like a bunch of friends playing together, like siblings, just like—

Like one big happy family, Stede thinks, and smiles, leaning forward over the helm. Wee John’s long since passed off the sketchbook— Stede believes that Jim’s got it now, actually— but he’s got Alma and Louis on his shoulders, now, one on each, perched up high while they search the deck together for any potential hiding places for the sketchbook, and they look like—

They look like they’re loving it. That’s certainly nothing Stede could ever have done, and they’re having— just a blast.

When he catches wind of all the commotion— probably because he keeps hearing boots pounding back and forth as everyone runs around the deck— Ed comes up from below deck, Izzy right behind him. Mary and Doug reemerge, Roach right along with them, only moments later, which is very promising, as the sun’s starting to go down, now, and Stede very much misses the meals that Mary used to make at home.

It’s difficult to focus on anything and anyone but Ed, though. It’s been a little while since he’s seen him today— maybe an hour, but, still, Stede really does like spending time with him— and he reaches a hand out to him, beckoning him closer when he and Ed make eye contact from across the ship.

When they’re together again, Ed wrapping his arm up in Stede’s, leather gliding along his linens, he asks, “How’s your day been going up here?”

“Just fine,” Stede tells him. “Everybody seems like they’re having a wonderful time, don’t you think?”

Ed nods, turning out to watch the madness on deck along with Stede. Despite the way this all began, Lucius has joined forces with Alma and Louis, teaching them what Stede heavily suspects might be tricks from his pickpocketing days in order to get his sketchbook back from Jim and wherever it is they’ve hidden it. Mary and Doug are right behind them, listening in, just as rapt as the children are. Stede shudders to think what’ll happen with the lot of them when they return home with all this new information.

“Certainly looks like everyone’s having a hoot,” Ed comments.

Below them, Frenchie strums at his guitar; the Swede shouts something that Stede fully does not understand, and he’s not sure if it’s because it’s not English or because it’s not anything, but then he’s singing, similarly incoherently, and it’s all just— chaos.

“Yes,” Stede agrees. “It does, doesn’t it?” He smiles, watching it all. It warms him up inside, in this very specific way he never thought he’d feel. It’s sort of the same way he feels when he’s up early watching the sunrise and he hears a creak behind him out of nowhere and then, all of a sudden, Ed’s there with him. It’s like— Like he’s already experiencing something so special, and then it somehow gets even better, even when he thought it couldn’t possibly. Pretty becoming prettier, or— something like that. Impossible, but possible.

The Swede hits a note that can— definitely still be considered a note, for some people, Stede’s certain. It has the children cracking up with laughter, anyway, which Stede can’t help but enjoy. It’s such a delightful scene.

He watches, then, when Fang motions for Izzy to come closer, rather than hanging around by the rail like he’s been doing, indulging his habit of hovering on the fringes. Izzy shakes his head, but Ivan shoves him in closer.

“You’ve got to meet these kids, Iz,” Ivan tells him. “They’re actually cool.”

“They’re not cool,” Izzy tells him, voice kept low. “They are children. They don’t belong here.”

“Shut up,” Fang says. “Look at them! They’re so nice. Little one keeps holding my hand. It’s cute.”

“This isn’t supposed to be cute,” Izzy hisses to them.

Beside him, Ed claps Stede on the shoulder. “Be right back,” he says, and edges around him to jog down the stairs, taking a casual stroll over to Izzy’s side.

“Hey,” Ed says to him. He motions with his head in the kids’ direction, then says something to Izzy that Stede can’t quite hear. His hair’s in his face; it makes it impossible for Stede to see his mouth, to try and read his lips to know what he’s saying.

In response, though, even from here, Stede just barely hears Izzy comment, “You said we can’t love pets.”

“These are people, Izzy, fucking shit,” Ed tells him back, voice a little louder. “Just— little ones, fuck, you know? Pre-people.” He turns sideways to observe Alma. To Izzy, he says, “Wouldn’t you rather more people know what the fuck they’re doing before setting out on the seas, or not?” Tilting in closer, Ed says something more, something else Stede can’t hear. Whatever it is makes Izzy turn to look up at him, concealed by his hair for a moment, too.

When they separate, Stede’s expecting Izzy to look mad, because— Well, he’s mostly expecting Ed to have threatened him a bit into behaving, or something. It’s most of what their dynamic is, anyways.

Rather than looking pissed-off, though, or chastened, Izzy instead looks— almost considering. It looks like he’s thinking, which Stede honestly considers to be a spectacular sort of look on him. He loves remembering that Izzy’s actually a man underneath all that— everything that he likes to layer up on top of himself.

Ed backs up, then, and says, “Hey, Alma. Wanna show us what Jim taught you earlier?”

“Oh, yeah, okay!” Alma agrees excitedly. She abandons Louis with Frenchie and the Swede, hurrying to Jim’s side where they’re lounging in a hammock with Oluwande. “Will you help me, please?”

Jim surveys her for a beat, one leg hanging out of the hammock, before they say, “Sure,” and stick a hand out to her. Alma helps wrestle them up and out without displacing Oluwande too much— though, judging by the look on his face, they don’t succeed in a massive sense.

This time, both Ed and Jim move behind Alma when she steadies herself. Ed pulls a knife from his belt and hands it to her, telling her something Stede can’t hear. He’s captivated now, though, trying to listen to as much as he can, leaning forward against the helm. One of the handles digs into his chest, but he hardly even notices, unwilling to look away from the scene unfolding before him. Mary and Doug are watching it all, too, sitting on barrels with Lucius and Pete, apparently amused by the show in front of them.

The sun’s starting to set, now. Behind them, the sky’s all bright pinks, and that lights the deck up with a soft sort of glow. Everybody’s washed in warmth, and Stede tries to commit this moment to memory, too. He hopes Lucius is taking note of it, too; this could be one of the best nights in his logs, he thinks. It’ll make for a great chapter in the books he plans to someday write on his adventures, anyhow.

Below, Alma steadies Ed’s knife in her hand. Jim tilts her elbow for her, correcting her just a bit before asking, “You ready?” and Alma nods.

Jim steps away, but Ed doesn’t, not at first. Instead, he ducks down and says something else to her. Whatever it is he tells her, Alma appears to be listening intently for a moment. Then, she nods, focused intently forward, internalizing whatever he’s said. Ed pats her on the shoulder, then backs off himself, joining Jim where they’re watching from a few paces behind Stede’s daughter and her poised knife.

“Right ahead,” Jim calls to her. “Eyes up, on the target.”

Alma focuses forward, aims, then throws the knife with an exhalation of breath that even Stede can hear, everyone’s so quiet. He can hear, too, the solid thunk of the knife point embedding itself in the post, just a slight bit off-center of the chalk target that’s remained there all day.

The crew breaks out into applause, cheering and whistling for her while Alma laughs, covering her face for a second. Behind her, Ed claps his hands together, then asks, “Wanna try a sword next?”

Alma gasps, whirling, looking up at him with open, obvious excitement, even as Stede’s heart leaps up into his chest. Ed’s eyes flick up to meet his, just for a beat, as if he can hear his pulse racing even from here, but his expression is so— It just seems to shout, Trust me, and so, Stede does, even though it’s making his palms sweat a little bit. Or— Making him sweat a lot, really.

“Really?” Alma asks, and Ed looks back down at her. She spins to look at Mary. “Can I?”

Mary hesitates. To Ed, she asks, “Is it safe? Like, actually safe, I mean?”

“Nobody’s going to let anything happen to her,” Ed promises. Mary seems— only slightly mollified, when she nods, though she doesn’t take her eyes off the scene in front of her. “Alright, let’s see here. Obviously, since I’m the best swordsman here, I’ll be the one to show you the basics, alright?”

“Alright,” Alma accepts easily, eager to get started already, practically hopping in place.

Behind them, Izzy scoffs. Ed grins; it’s just a flash, here and gone, but Stede sees it before Ed’s putting a playful frown in place instead turning to glance at Izzy behind him with a roguish sort of glare, taunting him a bit.

“Sorry,” Ed says. “Do you… disagree with me, Iz?”

Izzy shrugs, looking away. “You’re— not an unaccomplished swordsman.”

He doesn’t continue. Ed leans in a bit, taking a step towards him, prompting him with, “But…?”

For a beat, Izzy doesn’t speak. Then, though, he turns just slightly so his eyes meet Ed’s, hands joined behind him, staring right up at him.

“But,” Izzy says. “You’re a shit teacher.”

Stede often wonders what a remark like that would’ve resulted in before, before he met them, before their relationship apparently started shifting.

Now, though, Ed just laughs, leaning back to glance towards Alma.

“He’s got a point,” Ed tells her. He moves to lift his shirt up a bit, showing her the knot of scar tissue at his waistline that he showed Stede so soon after they’d first met. Alma nearly gasps again; as it is, she puts her hand over her mouth, eyes flying wide, trapping in her surprise. “Yeah, see? Not my best work. Avoiding getting jabbed at all would’ve been much better. Still, I never lost, not in the traditional sense.”

“Yeah, but— How’re you still alive?” Alma asks, incredulous.

“Y’know, you are not the first person to ask me that.” Ed tugs his shirt back down into place, turns on Izzy. “Now, Mister Izzy Hands here— I’ve only seen him lose one duel in his life.”

“Really?” Louis asks.

“Then how’s he still alive?” Alma asks, skeptical.

“‘Cause he lost to your dad,” Ed says. “And your dad spared his life.”

“Stupid fucking decision,” Izzy comments, before either of the children can respond to that story. Louis stares back at Stede with wide eyes; Alma stays focused forward, fixed on Izzy, brow furrowed. Stede can tell what’s coming already.

“How come?” Alma demands.

“Alma, you—” Mary starts to interrupt, but Alma takes a couple of steps closer to Izzy.

“How come it’s stupid?” Alma asks. “To let you live. Why don’t you want that?”

Izzy stares down at Alma with a furrowed brow of his own. It’s obvious that he wasn’t expecting any questions from her at all, let alone this one.

“What the fuck do you mean, ‘Why?’” Izzy asks.

Alma frowns. “He let you live.”

For a long beat, Izzy doesn’t do or say anything. Then, he crouches down in front of her, and tells her, on an eye-level with her, slowly, “If someone challenges you to a duel, you kill them. Else, they’ll come back and kill you.” He motions to his own throat with the knife in his hand, mimes slitting it. “Dead. They won’t care if you’re a little girl or not.”

She studies him skeptically. “But you didn’t kill my dad after he let you live.”

“That’s because your dad’s got something fucking wrong with him,” Izzy says. “Killing him’s like killing a bird.” He evaluates Alma, then says, “He teach you how to fight?”

“No,” she replies.

“Figures,” Izzy says, “but good.” He straightens up, then. “You won’t have to unlearn anything.” He draws his sword from his belt, holding it in gloved hands before him.

There’s a second where he looks down at the blade, where Stede waits— where everyone waits, really, watching him and pretending they’re not— before he shifts just slightly, offering the sword to Alma.

“Take it by the handle,” Izzy tells her gruffly. She hesitates for another beat, and he pushes it closer. “Go on, girl.”

Alma stares down at the sword; Stede can practically see the gears in her head turning, just trying to process what’s happening in front of her. She glances sideways, towards Mary, and receives a nod, though Mary’s hand is already pressed to her forehead, mildly distressed.

Nearly inexplicably, she turns back towards Stede, then. He nods, too, though he’s slightly horrified, himself, and tells her, “Go ahead.”

She turns back around to look up at Izzy, then down at the sword. Reaching out, she wraps both of her hands around the handle, lifting it up with a small, curious sound.

“It’s not heavy,” she comments, curious.

“No,” Izzy says. “Not if you hold it right.” He lightly smacks at the back of her wrist, tapping her hand away. “One hand, not two.”

There’s almost a collective breath released when Izzy starts guiding her slowly, rather than— taking her head off, or whatever it is everyone else is afraid he’ll do. She takes the sword up in only one hand, this time, in her dominant left, and Izzy adjusts himself accordingly, stepping to her side.

“Good,” he says. “Fix your fingers. You’ll want to balance the weight like this.”

Izzy, for what it’s worth, very much had a point earlier. Ed’s style of teaching is nothing like his. When Ed had been teaching Stede how to fight, it had been like more of a game between them, a back-and-forth, where Ed had trusted Stede to catch up with him even when he wasn’t sure he was capable of it himself. It paid off, in some ways, but Izzy— is very much a teacher, and Stede starts to wonder if he might even be able to convince him to teach him a bit more sometime, as well. Ed’s playful, immersive guidance is one thing, but Izzy might be able to teach him some proper techniques, which— honestly would not go amiss, at this point in their pirating careers.

Stede can’t resist the call to move forward, leaving the helm in the Swede’s hands so he can move down to join the increasing chaos on the deck below. While Ed and Jim keep offering suggestions and advice, Izzy is largely dismissing them, intent on showing Alma the proper way himself before they can interfere. It’s only encouraging the rest of the crew to shout their pointers, but Izzy’s ignoring them and attempting to keep Alma focused only on him. He doesn’t need to worry; her eyes are glued on him, taking in every word out of his mouth.

“If you’re going to do this,” Stede hears Izzy telling her, adjusting her grip, lifting the sword into the correct place in the air for her, “then do it fucking right.”

“Figures he’d like the two of ‘em,” Lucius comments from behind them, leaning into Pete where they’re perched on the edge of the inside rail together, swinging his legs. “They’re the same size as he is.”

“Fuck all the way off, Spriggs,” Izzy says backwards without taking his eyes off Alma’s hand as she pulls back and then jabs forward, just how he’s shown her.

“Oh, you love it, Izzy,” Lucius calls back. He kisses at him through the air, a wet smack of a sound.

Louis reaches up to tug on Ed’s hand. When Ed looks down at him, asking, “What’s up, mate?” Louis glances back towards Izzy and Alma.

“What’s Izzy short for?” Louis asks, unexpectedly.

It’s obviously not the question Ed’s expecting, either. He furrows his brow, then turns to look up at Izzy, himself.

“I dunno,” Ed replies. “That’s just where he stopped growing.”

Behind him, Lucius bursts out with a bark of a laugh that he quickly muffles with his hands, burying his face in his palms as his shoulders shake.

“Louis, darling, it’s short for Israel,” Stede calls to him.

“Oh,” Ed says. He laughs then, too, says, “Hey, Izzy—”

“I fucking heard you,” Izzy snaps back at him. “Fucking idiot.”

“This is— Sorry, this is a lot of cursing,” Doug comments.

Stede smiles. “I have it on good authority that this isn’t the only cursing the children have been hearing lately, however.”

Mary turns her red face on him and immediately demands, “Don’t.”

“Two sailors in the family already, it seems,” Stede says. “How delightful. The children never stood a chance with the two of us, did they?”

Mary rolls her eyes, turning into Doug, smiling. It’s such a fond expression, so amused, so pleasantly enjoying herself. Stede can’t remember if he’s ever seen that expression on her face before in her life before this trip. Well, actually—

He remembers it a couple of times before he left, the last time: when she was planning his “death” with him, when she talked with him about Doug and Ed, when she had their last dinner with him as a family. They have a lot more fun around each other when they don’t have to pretend they’re in love with each other, he notes happily.

“No, like this,” Izzy corrects Alma again. “Hold it up here, for fuck’s sake. It’ll make it easier.”

“She’s still a kid, Iz,” Ed tells him. “She doesn’t have to get it perfect.”

“But I can,” Alma disagrees heatedly, adjusting her grip in the way Izzy’s just shown her.

Observing her handiwork, Izzy tells Alma, “Better. Try following through again,” before he says to Ed, “She can do it. She just needs to realize what she’s doing wrong first.”

They both turn to watch her as she jabs at the air again. She’s more balanced this time, hand shaking much less on her follow-through than it had before.

“Good,” Izzy says. His tone is short, the word bitten out, but this is the most praise and approval Stede thinks he’s ever heard him give anyone who wasn’t Ed. In a comment up and backwards, to Ed, Izzy says, “If you want me to teach your fucking kid to protect herself, then let me fucking teach her, and back the fuck off.”

There’s a sort of puzzle-piece-clicking, then, inside of Stede’s mind, a kind of gears-turning-together, an abrupt slam-in of, Oh, that’s it. Because—

Because Izzy’s reconsidering this, because he’s reevaluating the situation, because he’s seeing her— seeing her not just as some strange child that he’s come across, or as some crewmate’s offspring that he’s trying to ignore, but as Ed’s. He’s— He’s taken her in, processed her, and come out with this is an extension of Ed, to be treated accordingly— in a way that Stede, himself, has never received, mind. Then again, Izzy thought Stede was making Ed destroy himself, which— wasn’t untrue, or was, but— whatever.

This, though. This is a person that Ed cares for, a child he’s taking a bit of responsibility for, and Izzy’s shifting to realign his own actions accordingly. A lifetime of accommodating each other makes the adjustment seamless, but Stede thinks he sees it all anyways.

“You’re right,” Ed says. “Somebody should be teaching her to protect herself.”

Beside him, Louis reaches up, pulling on his sleeve. Voice quieter, he asks, “Can I try, too?”

“Oh, of fucking course you can,” Ed says, and reaches down to snatch him off the ground, hoisting him up into the air. Louis shrieks with laughter, grabbing at him, shyness escaping him for a moment in the face of his unexpected joy. “Iz! Got another student for you! This one might be smaller than the sword, though. Don’t know what you wanna do about that.”

“No!” Louis exclaims, upside-down. Ed sets him back down on his feet, nudges him in Izzy’s direction. Alma’s briefly frustrated at his interruption, but they quickly fall in together, watching Izzy with rapt attention.

“Oh, here,” Ed says, handing over his own sword to Louis. “You can practice with mine.”

“Good lord,” Stede can’t help from saying quietly, watching an entire sword be placed into his son’s hands. He stares at it with open awe, even as he grunts with the effort of holding it up, the moment Ed lets go.

“This is so heavy,” Louis tells him, bewildered. “Alma said it wasn’t heavy!”

“Mine’s heavier than Izzy’s,” Ed says, apologetic. “Different sorts of metals and shit, I guess.”

From the crowd of the crew that’s gathered around this little lesson, Lucius gives Stede a thumbs-up. “Great work, Cap’n! Always thought we should have more minors with weapons on board.”

“Please don’t let them stab anybody,” Stede tries to tell him, since he’s just a bit closer than Stede is, but Lucius is already waving him off and looking away, refocused on the show in front of them.

“How do you win a duel?” Alma asks Izzy, now that he’s run out of ways to correct her grip.

“You kill the person dueling you,” Izzy tells her. He points out spots on his own torso, his throat. “Here, here, here— Any of these spots can kill someone quick enough that they can’t come after you first. Also, here—”

“Would you show me?” Alma asks.

“Ooh,” the Swede hoots from the audience. “She’s challenging you to a duel, Mister Hands.”

Alma snaps around, eyes wide as she looks up to Izzy, face paling a bit. “No, I—”

“I know,” Izzy tells her, before glaring sideways at the Swede. “You want to be a little more fucking careful, shithead?” The Swede frowns; Wee John pats him on the shoulder. To Alma, Izzy says, “Best way to win a duel would always be to not fight it in the first place.” He leans in, tells her, “A sword’s a lot more powerful when you don’t even have to use it.”

It’s a lot, to tell a child, but Alma nods anyway, apparently absorbing what Izzy’s saying to her. When he steps back again, she takes the sword back in the grip he’s corrected and perfected on her, then holds the blade up to her eye level, like he’s shown her.

“Pull back,” Izzy says, and she does. “Follow through,” he tells her, and she does that, too, nearly effortless. “Good.”

Louis can’t manage quite the same level of grace in his own lesson, but he still tries. It’s obvious that he’s comparatively not all that interested in it, either, after a few strokes, and ends up abandoning the activity in favor of wedging himself in between Frenchie and Fang and asking if they’ll play him a song.

It’s fun, then, this lesson between Alma and Izzy, while Frenchie provides a playfully-dramatic soundtrack behind them. Alma laughs when he strums particularly quickly while she’s preparing to bring the sword up over her head.

“I can’t laugh,” Alma insists to him.

“Oh, you can always laugh,” Ed tells her. “Sword-fighting’s fun, rule one.”

“Don’t get stabbed,” Izzy corrects. “That’s rule fucking one.”

“Hey, Cap’n,” Jim calls, and Stede looks over at them only to find a shit-eating grin in place on their face. “When’s the girl joining the crew? She’s already twice as good as you are at fighting.”

“Ha-ha, thank you very much,” Stede says dryly. Oluwande laughs at their side; Stede has to fight one back, himself. “Please, don’t say that in her earshot, though. I don’t think my heart could take it.” He pauses, then says, “And probably Mary would kill me.”

“Definitely Mary would kill you,” Mary says, and Stede sighs, letting his head fall back.

Izzy’s lesson continues until Alma’s arms start to shake. She isn’t even the one who asks to stop; it’s Izzy who notices her slowing, who tells her, “You fight like this, you start fucking up and making mistakes. Mistakes get you dead. Get some rest, we’ll do more tomorrow.”

Tomorrow, he says, and Stede realizes that the day really has passed them by. Tomorrow will be their third day together, and the last full day they’ll have on board. They’re getting closer and closer to their destination, to dropping Mary, Doug, and the children off on dry land again, allowing them to continue on with their lives while the Revenge sails on with theirs. And that’s—

That’s what’s supposed to happen, because this isn’t the sort of life they can sustain together, here, all of them. This is a lovely pocket of days, but would be an impossible life to keep up. They’d never be happy here with him; he’s known that for a long time.

Stede has enjoyed today very much, truly. His families feel like they’re combining, properly, as they gather themselves on deck and start heading below to the dining hall together for another family dinner. They’re all so much more comfortable together, now, shoving in to the table elbow-to-elbow as if the children were simply crew members, as if Mary and Doug have always been among them, sharing food and laughing and talking with one another like they really are one big happy family, and Stede can’t help smiling, at that.

But, he also— He also did rather want to spend time with the children, and he didn’t get to do a tremendous amount of that today. And that’s— That is completely alright. That’s wonderful, really, actually, because it means the crew is getting along swimmingly with their guests, and everyone likes each other, and that’s a good thing. That’s a very, very good thing. They all get along just perfectly well without him even needing to be there at all.

At the end of the table at dinner, Stede has Mary on one side, Ed on the other. They’re locked in conversation with each other, Doug, and Oluwande, heatedly discussing— something. Stede’s attention has drifted; he lost the thread a few minutes ago. He’s not particularly hungry, but he doesn’t want to just leave, either. He feels he’s more than content enough to just sit here and watch everybody else enjoying themselves.

Beside him, Mary reaches out to touch the back of his hand. Stede startles, jumping a bit, focus flashing down to their overlapping fingers before his eyes flick up to meet Mary’s.

“Hey,” she says. “You look like you’re thinking really hard about something.” She leans in towards him a bit, conspiratorial. “You wanna talk about it?”

God— Sometimes, Stede just— misses her.

It was difficult, to be together, but not— not because of her, not really. Or, not her specifically. The way they were living, it wasn’t the life either of them wanted. But, she— Still, she was his best friend. She was once the person he was closest to on this planet, regardless of the circumstances around that. He’ll always love her— not just for what they’ve been through, but for the person she is. It would’ve been easy to resent the person who ended up in that position with him, but he could never have hated Mary. He really does love her, even if it’s not in the way he was meant to.

“It’s nothing,” he tells her, because it really is nothing. There’s nothing to be particularly upset about; everything’s going swimmingly. He’s happy with all of this, truly. What’s not to be happy about? “How are you enjoying yourself? How was your day today, hm?”

“It was good,” Mary tells him, and sounds like she means it. That makes Stede smile, too. He’s happy she’s happy. “I never realized how much went into— All of this, you know. I’m impressed you keep all this running, honestly.”

“Ah, well,” Stede says. “It’s the crew that does all the hard work, really. If it weren’t for them, we’d be sunk.”

“That’s what a crew is,” Mary says, smiling. She tightens her grip on the back of his hand a bit.

Feeling a bit— nervous, like he’s a bug Mary’s pinned under her hands to examine, Stede says, “Ed and Izzy, too. They’ve taught me a great deal about being a proper pirate.”

Mary leans in and whispers to him, “I was watching you with Ed earlier, actually.”

Stede’s face heats up instantly. “When?”

 

“Oh, just earlier,” she says, which is vague enough to mean truly anything. Stede mentally flips back through the day as quickly as he can, but there’s nothing he can think of that was particularly outrageous or untoward that she could’ve caught them doing. “Doug and I just saw the two of you chatting earlier, don’t look so terrified. Just—” She motions with a wave of her other hand. “Seeing you with him— and with your crew, here. I didn’t realize—” She stops, then says, her voice as tight as her hold on his hand, “I didn’t realize how really, truly happy you would be here, Stede. Or— How happy you are here, I mean.”

Stede’s shoulders relax all at once, a great release of tension that has him slumping downwards, inwards, shifting towards her. “What?” he asks, because he wasn’t expecting this, really.

“Just watching you all,” Mary says. “Even though this crew is weird— Like, you are all very, very weird, I want you to understand that— You also all obviously love each other very much.” Holding his hand up a bit nearer to her, all determination and intent in her handsome face as she draws him closer, she says, “Stede, they really do all love you. Your crew, I mean. It’s a— It’s a weird family you’ve got here, I won’t lie, but it’s a lovely one. A real one. And I’m so happy you’ve got that for yourself, I really am.”

Stede can feel an intense sort of prickling behind his eyes, but he blames that on— on the poor sleep he got the night before, and an excess of emotion, and the fact that Mary did always sort of feel like the more poetic of the two of them.

“Thank you,” Stede says, voice almost breaking, even in its softness. He turns his hand over in hers, squeezing back. “You, too. Seeing you with Doug makes me feel very happy. And the children— Mary, I’m sorry I’m not doing more—”

She cuts him off by reaching up to pat at his cheek. It’s an unfamiliar touch; he’d always had a shaven face while he was with her, and she didn’t even often touch him, not like this. Over the beard he’s grown, and in this new dynamic they’ve built for each other, she rattles his cheek a bit, fingertips just barely digging into his skin. They’re like new people altogether; their old lives almost happened to different people, people who were miserable and didn’t get to take what they wanted from life.

“You’re doing the best you can,” Mary says, smiling like she never did while they were still together. “That’s all I’m asking for right now. And all they’re asking for, really.”

She glances down the table; Stede doesn’t miss the way her eyes pull up to linger on Ed, on the animated conversation he, Louis, Alma, and Jim are having with another, laughing together over their meals. Mary stays there for a beat longer, just watching Ed, before she returns her eyes to Stede’s.

He’s already expecting what she’s going to add when she says, “And with Ed,” and he can’t help smiling, too.

“I know,” Stede tells her. Mary reaches up to squeeze his face one last time before letting her hand fall to cover Stede’s, his one hand trapped between both of hers.

“I’m so glad you’ve found someone to love you the right way, Stede,” Mary tells him earnestly.

She means it, he knows; he can feel it in the back of his teeth, in the center of his chest. It’s like he’s finally able to let out a breath that he wasn’t even aware he’s been holding— doesn’t even know how long he’s been holding it for. It’s a great sort of relaxing, a tension-releasing that sweeps through his entire self, from his core outwards.

“I’m so happy for you. You— You obviously love each other so much. And it’s—” Mary stops to take a shaky breath. Stede was always the more emotional of the two of them, and her near-tears have him near-tears; he inhales a trembling breath of his own. “It’s just— It’s just really nice to see you happy. To see everyone happy. Even if I think I’ll always be maybe a— a little sad that we couldn’t ever be happy together, I’d— I’d so much rather have this, I think. What we’ve got now. Don’t you?”

He squeezes her hands around his, bringing his own about to settle on hers, capturing her close. Softly, he tells her, “I agree,” and she nods in return, smiling.

“Will you tell me what you were looking upset about before?” Mary asks him again. He frowns slightly. “And don’t say it was nothing, because I know that’s not true.”

“No, I just— I didn’t realize I was looking upset,” Stede says. At her continued piercing examination of his expression, he sighs, then says, “It’s really not a big deal. I just—” He hesitates. She keeps watching him, and he has to fill the silence between them, telling her, “I just was hoping the children would maybe want to spend a bit of time with me. And, I mean, of course they don’t have to, they’re growing older, and they’re their own people, and it’s— Isn’t it so lovely how well they’ve been getting on with the crew? You and Doug, as well. You really all seem to be clicking so well together, everyone gets along so swimmingly. How was your day, by the way? I saw you earlier wh—”

“Stede,” Mary stops him.

He exhales shakily. After a beat, he feels— abashed, and he says, “I’m so sorry, that was— That was absurd of me, I didn’t mean— I’m really so happy everyone’s enjoying themselves. It makes me so happy.”

Mary studies him for another flaying moment before squeezing his hand again and says, “I know. I know it does.”

Her words are heavy, tilted with a slight intonation. Stede can feel them curling up in the center of his chest. If she’s about to say something else, though, it’s stopped then by Ed turning over and noticing them in conversation. He notices, too, Stede’s expression, and he can feel the heat in his cheeks, so— he must be flaming red, by now.

A bit embarrassed, Stede separates himself from Mary, pushing back to rub at his face just for a beat before he straightens out his collar, his sleeves, anxious little twitches that he can’t fight down.

“Everything alright?” Ed asks. “You l—”

“Yes, sorry,” Stede tells him. He takes a steadying breath, then turns to smile at him. “How’s your day been, love? I don’t think I’ve asked you yet tonight.”

The way Ed studies him, for a beat, feels very much like he’s seeing straight through him, but he allows Stede this moment regardless.

“Good,” Ed says, eventually. “Good day, really. Nothing to write home about. Couple of kids underfoot, though. You see that? We should put out traps, catch the fucking things before they get into the food— Whoops, too fucking late,” he says, turning to Alma as she’s tearing into a hunk of warm bread. She grins at him through the mouthful. “Rats got into it.”

“Rats?” she demands to know, still chewing.

“Yeah,” Ed says. “You.”
“Shut up,” Alma laughs, throwing bread at him. Ed catches it easily, hucking it right back at her, dinging it off her chin.

“Alma, please,” Mary admonishes her, trying not to laugh, herself. “Ed— Damn it, this isn’t helpful—”

Stede laughs, too, leaning back just to observe. It’s so nice, just to witness it. He refocuses on his meal, on just enjoying the company around him.

Similarly, he tries not to eavesdrop when Mary and Ed scoot their chairs a bit further down to lean in and lock into conversation with one another, which—

Admittedly, this does have Stede a little tense. It’s a bit nerve-wracking, honestly, the only two people he’s ever— really properly emotionally laid himself bare for, having a conversation without him. Not just emotionally laid himself bare for, either, but, like— He also very much physically laid himself bare for the both of them, and it’s a bit overwhelming to consider the thought that they’d discuss him, that they might— That they could say things about him, or that they— They might—

Fuck. He has to remind himself that he can’t control them, or this, or— any of it, really, the whole goddamn world— but— he can’t not listen. Just— a little.

Besides, if they wanted to have a private conversation, they could’ve had it somewhere private.

As it is, they must not think Stede’s listening, lost in thought as he is. Or, has been, but he’s listening now. He’s honestly still a bit terrified, but— Really, it sounds like they’re— commiserating, more than anything.

“—terrible habit of his,” Mary’s saying, when Stede finally refocuses enough to actually take in what they’re saying. “One that you appear to have broken him of, by the way. Cheers.”

She holds her glass up, and Ed shifts to grab his own up and do the same, letting her clink them together.

“From what I hear,” Ed says, conspiratorial, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” He throws back the contents of his glass, exhales roughly, then takes the bottle to pour himself another. Offering the bottle to her, he’s met with Mary tilting up her glass; he fills it up for her, lets her clink them together again. “Cheers, yourself.”

Mary sips from her own glass. “As far as I can tell, he’s staying put this time. Think he might’ve actually figured out what he wants.”

“Took him fucking long enough,” Ed says.

“And what he wants is you,” Mary says, as if he hadn’t interrupted, with that fun little edge she gets when she’s tipsy. Stede smiles down into his own glass, even as his face glows with heat. It’s impossible not to know what they’re talking about; he just swallows past it, focuses on his liquor, enjoys listening in on them.

“Yeah, well,” Ed says. He’s got that embarrassed vibration in his voice that Stede always likes to hear. It’s a bit disconcerting, them talking together, but it’s also becoming almost— strangely wonderful. Stede’s not about to stop them. “He’s a— He’s a nice guy. But— Well, you know that.” Ed takes a fortifying sip from his drink, looks down into it. “Proper pirate, all that. Great co-captain. Really getting his sea legs.”

“I’ll say.” Mary leans in a bit. “Did he tell you he threatened Doug?”

“He did not,” Ed replies. He turns towards Stede, and Stede quickly pretends he’s only focused on his food, tearing off a bit of his bread to chew on. “How did that happen?”

“Oh, you know how it is,” Mary replies. “Startled a bit, and all of a sudden Stede’s got a knife at his throat, threatening him, telling him he’s going to make him bleed. It was all very dramatic. Of course, he felt terrible about it later. Wouldn’t stop apologizing, but— Still. I’d realized how much he’d truly changed, then, actually.” She takes a new sip of her drink. “It wasn’t until after I’d put together that the Ed that Stede was talking about appeared to, in fact, be the same Ed that was also Blackbeard that I actually realized how much it was he’d changed, you know? The Stede I knew would’ve been terrified to meet Blackbeard. Or,” she amends, “half-terrified, half-excited. I know he told the children stories about Blackbeard even before he left. The first time, I mean.”

“Did he, now?” Ed asks. He leans back in his seat a bit, apparently observing Mary from that slight distance as he crosses his ankles before himself. “He didn’t seem all that interested, when we first met.”

“Then he was lying,” Mary says, “Because he told the children you were one of the greatest pirates of all time.” She sips from her drink. “And one of the most fearsome. There were stories all about you in a few of his books. Alma kept them after he left,” she offers, as explanation. “When I put it together and told them, they weren’t even all that afraid. Said to me that he’d already told them Blackbeard was one of the best captains to ever sail the seven seas. Apparently, he talked about you a lot. They weren’t a bit concerned that he’d run off with him.”

Her voice is teasing, so light and so playful. Stede smiles into his glass, again.

“They weren’t afraid?” Ed asks. He’s playful, himself, but cautious still.

“Oh, no,” Mary says. “Louis told me he was glad, actually. That his dad was with someone who knew what they were doing.”

“Might be a bit of a stretch,” Ed says, “But I’ll take it.” He drinks from his own glass, tells her, “Good to have you aboard, Mary.”

“Good to be aboard, Ed,” Mary replies. “I’ve got to tell you, it means a lot to me. To see him happy, I mean. I didn’t realize I’d never seen it ‘til I’d seen it. Do you know what I mean?”

To Stede’s surprise, Ed actually replies, “Yeah. I think I know exactly what you mean.” His glass makes a soft tinkling thud of a sound when he sets it back down on the table. “Kinda feel the same way about him, actually.”

“Well, that much, I can tell,” Mary says. Stede’s not watching them, eyes focused carefully downward on his plate, so he’s not sure what sort of expression Ed makes then in response, but it’s enough to make Mary say, “Oh, don’t look like that. I mean— It’s obvious how much he loves you. And also very obvious how much you love him. It means a lot to me, to see this. For him to— to have this. And I know it means a lot to him, too.” She huffs, a small laugh. Her next words are a burning sort of truth, telling Ed, “He spent most of the time he was home in between talking about you, you know. That’s not just talk, I mean that.”

Stede keeps his eyes fixed down. There’s a flare of heat inside him, his racing pulse accompanying it. It’s a lot of truth, to set down on the table between them like that. For—

For everything he’s done, Stede regrets most those people he’s loved and still hurt so much— and here they are, his two most intensely-suffering victims, discussing him with such warmth and light that he didn’t think he’d ever even begin to deserve.

This is, also, a lot for Ed to learn about him at once, and Stede feels like something syrupy-hot and impossibly happy cracks open in his chest and melts through his own body when Ed laughs, a soft sort of sound. “I missed him. A fucking— A lot.”

“He missed you,” Mary says. She leans forward, keeping her voice soft, as if she’s only just remembered Stede’s right beside them. “It’s very nice, is all I mean. I’m so glad you found each other.”

Stede can’t stop himself from looking up at the both of them, then, too curious to know what their expressions look like, too eager to read their body language. He finds them studying each other across the table; there’s a pleasant spread of joy inside him when he realizes they’re smiling at each other. That joy only deepens when he realizes they’re both holding a fondness now that he never thought they’d have for him, let alone for each other.

At the movement of Stede’s head, though, Ed glances over at him, makes eye contact with him. He can see the wicked joy in him, too, the excitement, the same eager desire to love each other.

“All or nothing, isn’t he?” Ed comments to Mary, though he’s still looking at Stede, for a beat, eyes sparkling. He turns back to her, says, “Either he’s doing it all right, or he’s—”

“—running away,” Mary finishes for him.

“Exactly,” Ed says.

“Thank you, that’s quite enough,” Stede comments.

“He’s a demon when he fucks, though, isn’t he?” Ed says, in that same commiserating tone, as if that’s somehow a— a casual addition to this conversation, rather than something that’s got Stede choking on the sip he’d only just taken of his liquor.

Strangled, Stede manages, “Ed, please—”
“That wasn’t exactly my experience,” Mary replies, with a truly sadistic sort of humor, in Stede’s opinion, twinkling in her eyes. “But I’m so very happy for you, Ed, really.”

“Please,” Stede begs them. “Not while I’m here, at least, just— Please—”

“We’ll just discuss you later when you’re not around, then,” Mary tells Stede with faux-haughtiness. She winks at Ed over her glass as she lifts it back up.

“Guess that’s what happens when he’s with someone he likes,” Ed says, and it doesn’t feel like he means for it to be so cutting, but Stede immediately feels a little prickle in his chest all the same.

For her part, Mary takes it in stride, agreeing, “Oh, I think so, too,” and glancing sideways at Doug as she does it, which is— a lot of information for Stede during family dinner.

The prickle in Stede’s chest deepens, then, and he prods at it a bit, examines it in the light of being frank and honest with himself. He realizes it’s not being caused by just the— the slight embarrassment that comes with Ed saying something that feels passive aggressive— if not just slightly massively aggressive— to Mary, nor is it the fact that they’re both very much right, as far as Stede’s concerned. He’s never had sex in his life like what he’s had with Ed. His experiences with the two of them have been— been vastly different. And the prickle isn’t just coming from all that, anyhow.

No, this prickle is also the product of something— something different, something a little rougher. Stede’s almost surprised to find that the prickle is here because he actually—

He likes this, a bit. He sort of— He enjoys, a little, this slight edge that Ed has taken on. The entire time their guests have been here, Ed has been so carefully nice, and held so stiffly, but now he’s more himself, and not only that, he’s someone more— possessive, someone who wants others to know that Stede is his, and Stede— He’s not used to feeling so wanted.

Ed’s possession of him is the sort of thrill he’d never thought to feel, never even dreamed to want. Now that he’s got his claws and teeth into it, he’d sooner kill than let it go, desperate to keep being wanted as badly as he wants. He wonders if he should actually be surprised by this realization about himself or not; it really feels like he should’ve seen this one coming, honestly.

Clearing his throat slightly, Stede says, “It seems as though we’re about through here, don’t you think? How about we clean up and meet up on deck for more of ‘Captain Spade’ before bed? Everybody, how does that sound?”

There’s general agreement, voices rising to join the clattering of plates and the pushing of chairs and tables across the wood beneath them and the thudding of boots coming to send a dozen people standing at once. Stede takes advantage of the cacophony to hurry up to the fresh air up on deck, scouting out his barrel and his book before anybody else can come up, just— taking a moment to himself to breathe. He shudders to think of what might be discussed while he’s not there, but— for now. He just wants a breath.

The crew joins him not long after. Mary and Ed come up together, which is truly more than a bit horrifying, but Ed takes his usual place just in front of Stede, a bit off to his side, and there’s no hesitation in the way he reaches out for him, wrapping his fingers around his ankle, so. Stede can’t assume anything they said to each other went over too poorly. Not poorly enough for Ed to hate him now, anyway.

Louis drags over another barrel, then. There’s a horrible screeching of wood-on-wood as he does it, a rough pull, but he’s determined. When he’s done, the barrel’s set up just beside Stede’s. He climbs up onto top of it, then leans over the edge, peering down at Ed below him. Stede doesn’t bother to fight back a smile.

“Wanna sit up here, too?” Louis asks Ed, extending his hand downward.

Ed looks up at him, for a curious moment, before he glances to Stede.

“By all means,” Stede says. “I probably should’ve offered you a seat up here with me a long time ago, Ed. You are my co-captain, after all. Forgive me?”

“No, you don’t have to be sorry,” Ed says, letting Louis take his hand, stumbling up to his feet. “Didn’t even think of it myself, to be honest.”

Ed hesitates, just for a beat, before he lifts Louis up, setting him on the deck.

“Stay there for a sec,” Ed instructs him. He turns back to the barrel, then— shoves himself up onto it. Stede reaches out, grabbing onto him, pulling him the rest of the way. Once he’s up, they manage to readjust so the both of them can lean against the post behind them, sharing it together.

Ed shifts again, bends his leg up, lets it drape over the side of his barrel. When he and Stede shuffle against each other, they’re half-supporting one another, and Stede—

Really, he thinks this might be the most comfortable he’s ever been. Up here, right now.

“Okay, my turn,” Louis says, clambering up onto the barrel, using the metal binding to get a foothold and shove up. He pushes himself into Ed’s lap, which has Alma pushing her way over and insisting she get to sit in Stede’s lap.

It takes a bit of readjusting, then, but Alma settles herself on him, head resting against his chest, curved up into his arms. Beside him, Ed props him up— and vice versa— while Louis sprawls in his lap, playing absently with the hem of his sister’s skirt.

Stede takes a breath, a deep exhale, and then lets himself settle right in, relaxing into place himself.

“There we are,” Stede says, smiling. He pulls his glasses out, sets them on his nose. When he flicks the book open, it takes him a moment of flipping before he finds where he marked their place the night before. “Ah, here we go. Is everybody ready?”

“Yeah,” Lucius calls from one of the hammocks, tonight. “Get started already, I’m tired.”

There’s general agreement, amongst the crew: from Pete stuffed into the hammock along with Lucius; from Oluwande and Jim sharing a roll on the deck; from Buttons leaning against the rail with Frenchie while he strums at his guitar; from the Swede and Ivan where they’re laid out on a quilt in front of them; from Izzy at the helm behind them all; from Fang, Roach, and Wee John where they’re sat on barrels with Doug and Mary; from the children sat in his and Ed’s laps; even from Ed himself. From Stede’s family, which—

Really. He can’t ask for more than this.

“‘Captain Spade’s Journey to the Stars Beneath the Ocean,’” Stede reads, smiling still. “‘Chapter Four.’” He settles in. “‘That night, when George turned his ship over the horizon and joined the world of stars, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d entered a place of impossible beauty, a palace beneath the waves.’”

A full day of activities means that the crew is relatively tired. It’s not a surprise to him; it’s a rare night that anybody in the crew lasts long enough to hear the last words that Stede reads before going to bed himself. When he reads tonight, in the thick salt air of the ocean night, he also watches everybody slowly drop off one by one.

This goes on until, chapters later, he’s just reading to himself, Buttons, and Ed— and, he suspects, Izzy, at the helm.

Stede closes his book lightly, taking care not to jostle Alma in his lap. Ed meets his eye in the moonlight darkness, smiling when Stede tips his head in the direction of their quarters. Much like the night before, Doug and Mary end up stumbling off to their room; this time, though, when Stede helps the children change, they remember his promises, and insist on being taken back to the captains’ cabin with him and Ed.

Ed still agrees, says, “It’s alright by me,” and that’s how they end up taking Louis, held in Stede’s arms, and Alma, hanging off Ed’s back, back to their quarters with them for their second— and second-to-last— night aboard the Revenge.

It— It even seems like Ed is touched by all of this, maybe, which means Stede is insanely touched by all of it. He’s beside himself, really, watching Ed lower Alma into their bed, pulling the covers up over her.

“Goodnight,” he says to her, before Stede lays Louis down with her, tucking him in beside his sister. “Both of you. Sleep good.”

“Thanks,” Alma murmurs sleepily.

“You, too,” Louis tells him around a yawn. He turns over, burying his face in Ed’s pillow. Stede strokes his hair back, then stands.

“Goodnight,” he whispers to them. “I love you both very much.”

They both mumble something back at him, incoherent and nonsensical as they dissolve back into sleep with very little effort at all. Stede turns to Ed with exhaustion of his own, catching a smile on his face.

“How’re you doing?” Stede asks him. Ed drops his arm around him, kissing Stede hard on the side of the head. He smiles, feeling the sort of warm that cracks down the back of his throat like a— a spicy kind of honey, spilling and thick and base. “Aw.”

“Oh, you know, I’m just peachy,” Ed says. He leans in a bit closer, asks in a slightly lower voice, “You talking about me back home?”

Stede huffs a slightly-too-intense laugh.

“Darling,” he reminds him. “I am home.”

Ed buries his face in Stede’s throat, burning, turning him around, guiding him backwards towards the sofa. Stede really did mean to sleep in the cot that he’d set up for himself, but it’s—

Honestly, it’s much easier to stop himself from rolling onto the floor in the night if he’s in something with at least one barrier, and that is enough of an excuse for him to use if anybody catches him and Ed sharing the impossibly-small space on the sofa together all night.

It’s not the most comfortable for them— not for either of them, certainly, but there’s only so much they can do. They slot in together, fitting into each other’s empty spaces, and drop off there for hours. When Stede does blink awake, this time, there’s a bit of sunlight in the cabin, but not that much really. Morning, but still quite early.

He turns his head, shifting his shoulders up just a bit. Dragging slightly, he lifts up so he can check on the bed and make sure the children are still sleeping.

Glancing at the covers, he finds them empty.

For a second, he just blinks. His brain knows this isn’t correct, but he doesn’t click into what, exactly, is so incorrect about this image for a second before he’s scrambling upwards, cursing, “Shit! Oh, shit—”

“What?” Ed demands groggily. Stede feels terrible for giving him his second night in a row of rude awakenings, but he’s enduring them himself, so—

Again. There’s only so much they can do.

“The children are missing,” Stede hisses to him in a panic. He straightens out his nightshirt, grabs up his dressing gown. In a beat, he’s already lit a candle in its holder, scooped up into his hand, and he says hurriedly, “Something must have happened. I’m going to go find them.”

“Wait—” Ed says, then groans. He scrubs at his face with the heels of his hands before groaning again and saying, “Fuck, wait, just— Hold on, I’m up, I’m coming with you, just— Give me a sec and I’ll help.”

Ed shoves himself upright with another groan, jostling himself further into wakefulness. He takes the dressing gown Stede tugs his arms through, keeps his hair tied back in the silk scarf Stede gave him just last month, yawns until his jaw cracks as he sleepily finds his dagger.

“Alright,” he says, mostly-awake now. “Let’s go.”

The panic vibrating through Stede seems to be slowly seeping into Ed now, too, when they set out hastily past the crew up on deck to go search down below, hunting in every dark corner with the light of their one candle in a desperate attempt to find the two missing children. Really, it’s just a ship, so the two of them couldn’t have gone that far, but the ideas that they perhaps got into something they shouldn’t have, or that they got hurt, or that they— God forbid, that they fell overboard—

Stede just can’t shake those thoughts from his mind. And the second he thinks that they might’ve fallen over into the ocean, actually, he’s turning to Ed with a rising sort of hysteria, saying with a rattling kind of concern, “Ed, what if they went up and— What if they fell?” He reaches up to clutch his own throat with his free hand. “Oh, fuck, Ed, I can’t— What i—”

“They haven’t gone and fallen overboard,” Ed insists to him. “They’re not that stupid. We’ll go up on deck and check that they weren’t there, but, mate, I promise you. We would’ve heard it. Kids aren’t quiet when they scream.”

Stede practically sprints back to the deck with these thoughts in mind, unsurprised to find most of the crew still asleep up there. He’s checking the rails first, but there’s nothing, nothing, and he’s turning back to the sleeping crew again, wondering if he should wake them and ask them to help him search, when he— pauses.

He thinks, for a moment.

When he’d run through earlier, he hadn’t paid the crew any attention. They’d already been in a rush. Now, though, he actually stops, and it’s then—

It’s then that he realizes.

Surveying the clustered sleeping shapes that make up his crew with his candle from up close, he now can see there are additional bodies here that were very much not present when he left after storytime.

It’s then that he’s able to spot them. Tucked into a blanket between Oluwande and Jim is Alma, her face covered by her arm; Stede strongly suspects that she’s not actually asleep at all, but it doesn’t seem that Oluwande or Jim is, either. Searching amongst them for another smaller shadow, he eventually finds Louis doing the same thing, sandwiched between Lucius and Fang, hiding his face in Lucius’ coat, pretending he’s asleep, not seeing anything.

The panic that had been surging through Stede relaxes, finally, and he turns back to Ed, motioning towards the group silently. Ed creeps forward; Stede can see the moment he spots the children, because he laughs quietly, rolling his eyes as he tilts his head back.

“Motherfuckers,” he whispers, almost too quiet for even Stede to hear.

“Looks like everybody’s alright,” Stede says, just slightly louder. “Present, and accounted for, and fast asleep. So. We can— go back to bed, I suppose.”

Ed looks bewildered, for a moment, before he apparently catches on. He’s grinning when he says, “Oh, yeah. Guess we can— Yup, let’s head out. Here we g— Off we go, now.”

It’s not their best performance, but they duck back around the corner together all the same, then wait there in the silence. Maybe they’re not the best actors, right now, but at least they’re on the same page.

They’re rewarded for their realizations, for their understanding, for their patience, when, after a couple of minutes, voices start to murmur on deck.

“That was close,” Stede hears Alma whisper first.

“Did you tell them you were coming up to sleep here?” Jim asks, skeptical.

“Well…” Alma hedges, then stops. “They were still sleeping, I didn’t wanna wake them up.”

“Yeah, that’s a no,” Oluwande says.

“I didn’t mean to,” Alma argues. “They were being so gross, just, like— sleeping on top of each other. I didn’t wanna wake them both up. Just— Ugh.” She pauses, then says, “Besides, I didn’t really plan it. Coming up here, I mean, you know. Louis was just having a bad dream and I meant to just help him myself.”

“But that’s what you’ve got parents for,” Wee John says. “They wanna help you.”

“But if I can handle it myself, I should,” Alma argues with him. “Make it all better, you know. Do better.”

Stede’s chest twists, a little bit. He’s been concerned Louis would isolate himself like Stede himself used to; he feels guilt, and frustration with himself, for not having thought that Alma might’ve suffered from the same thing.

He tries to remind himself to be better with the both of them, to be— to be better.

“Nah,” Lucius says. He’s responding to Alma, but Stede feels as though he’s read his mind, for a beat. “There is no real better, honestly. Just doing your thing and learning when you fuck it up and enjoying the rest of what you can.”

Softly, into the silence that follows, Louis adds, “Sorry we snuck out. I wanted to come up and see you after I saw the— had the dream.”

“No, don’t be sorry, kid,” Fang’s voice noticeably stands out, against the general rumbles of disagreement that follows.

“We’re all having nightmares all the time,” Oluwande tells him. “We’re used to it. Don’t worry about it, honest.”

There’s a beat. Stede lifts his eyes to meet Ed’s, in that moment. His heart’s still pounding, adrenaline not quite dying back down just yet.

“Happy to help,” Jim says, then.

Stede exhales shakily. He can hear Lucius thanking them, hears their conversation continuing into laughter. They’re doing just fine, his children seeking their own comfort, reassuring themselves, making their own friendships, doing their own thing. They don’t need him here, not really.

Turning back towards the cabin, confident his children will be fine for the rest of the night, Stede snags Ed’s wrist. He catches him, pulls him along with him, returns them to their cabin.

Back in their quarters, Stede returns to their bed rather than the sofa, pulling the rumpled covers the children had abandoned back for himself and Ed.

“Should get some proper rest,” Stede comments. “Since we know they’re all alright, now. Ought to get a bit of sleep.”

Ed pushes up alongside him. For a moment, he doesn’t say anything at all.

Then, softly, he asks, “You alright, love?”

“Of course I am,” Stede replies. He shucks off his dressing gown, takes Ed’s along with it, tossing them over the back of the sofa. “I’m so proud of them. Really— All of them. Isn’t this just what every parent wants, hm? To— To have their children succeed, to— to know they don’t really need them all that much?”

Ed evaluates him carefully. His voice is slower, warmer, when he says, “Stede— You know, it’s alright if this isn’t easy. Nobody’s expecting it to be easy for you, mate.”

“It’s really okay,” Stede promises him. “This is exactly what I’ve always wanted to have happen. Everyone’s happy and growing so strong and independent. It’s perfect.”

He folds himself into bed, then, curling into the space the children have left behind. Reaching out for Ed, he’s met with his palm sliding against his, their fingers tangling together.

Ed allows himself to be guided downwards, led into bed with him. Tucking into bed beside him, he surveys him from up close— and, like before, Stede feels a bit flayed open. More than a bit this time, actually.

He closes his eyes against the feeling, burying himself in Ed.

“I’m so glad,” Stede tells him, light, happy. “I’m really so glad. My children are making such happy, wonderful memories with the people I love most. What’s not to love about that? Even if— Even if all those memories won’t— have much of anything to do with me, I’m so glad they’re having fun, here. That’s what’s important, really. If I achieve that, I’ll rather think that I’ve succeeded on this little— little side venture of ours, I think. Don’t you?”

Ed’s arm shifts up, winding around him, wrapping close. He kisses the top of Stede’s head, shuffling in closer until they fit in perfectly together again.

Really, they take up about as much space here as they had on the sofa. They take up the same amount of space practically anywhere they sleep; they have a habit of tangling up in each other, no matter where or how they start out.

Ed tells him, “I still need you when I’ve got bad dreams,” and Stede huffs a laugh. He’s sure that’s what Ed’s looking for, anyways, and he always knows how to make him smile, how to make him feel better.

“That’s what I like to hear,” Stede says. “Only thing better would be you not having bad dreams at all.” He reaches up to tap at the tip of Ed’s nose without looking. “Get some more sleep, love. Big day ahead. Lots of sailing to do.” He yawns, himself. “We’re nearly there.”

Against his back, Ed’s palm glides up, and down, fingers just barely drifting over the soft fabric of his nightgown, the ridges of his spine, the soft dips of his flesh.

Their sleep, this time, is certainly more restful. Stede feels actually properly awake when he comes up next, the sun shining bright through the windows of their cabin. It’s a new day, and there’s so much promise, and salt in the air, and pleasant-murmuring voices at a nearby distance, and Stede can’t help smiling, just a bit.

Shifting, stretching, letting his joints crack and pop, he says, “G’morning, Ed,” just like he does every morning when he wakes up.

It’s only then that he realizes Ed’s not beside him.

Frowning, Stede sits up with a sharp jerk. It is a very, very rare morning, indeed, that Ed’s awake before him, and an even rarer one that he actually physically gets out of bed before him.

Stede runs to grab his clothes, hastily dressing himself. Ed’s a grown man; surely nothing’s actually gone wrong, certainly he’s just fine. He probably just got up a bit early and wanted to do something else rather than lighter.

Honestly, Stede needs to stop— stop panicking so much, needs to stop assuming everything’s gone catastrophically wrong just because he’s not there to ensure it goes perfectly right.

The world, he has to remind himself, will continue turning with or without him.

With that in mind, Stede makes himself pause at his mirror. He dresses himself properly, combs out his hair, tries to take a breath. He still has to put breakfast together, he reminds himself. The crew needs to be roused, and work to be done, and another day to be orchestrated— Though, they likely won’t need him or his plans today, based on how smoothly yesterday went without them.

There’s not a knock at the door, but rather the door just— bursts in, which means he’s not surprised to find Ed crashing through.

Still, Stede isn’t startled, just turning to greet him with a smile.

“There you are,” he says, all warm. “I wondered when you’d be back.” He can see, now, that Ed’s dressed for the day already in what Stede knows he considers to be his nicest set of clothes: fine clean leathers that cover most of him, leaving exposed one bare arm, a bit of his midriff, the dip of his throat. His boots are heavy on the wood below; Stede follows his cue in finishing dressing himself, slipping his own shoes on. “I’ve got to get breakfast out, I’m probably already—”

“We’ve got breakfast out for you,” Ed tells him.

Stede slips his heel into his shoe, bending to buckle it. He conceals the automatic frown that comes up while he does.

It’s not that he— It’s not that he wanted to do it, exactly. He doesn’t need to be in control of breakfast. But he— he wanted to— to help, or to be a part of it, anyway.

“That’s wonderful,” Stede says. “Did the children help you out? I hope they got a good night’s rest, they’ve—”

“Stede,” Ed cuts him off, and Stede takes a breath. He has to take care not to snap the fragile buckle held under his fingers, fastening it into place instead. “You seemed like you were feeling— Ah, I don’t know. A little left out, maybe.”

Stede gets a sinking sort of feeling. Nervous, he turns back up to Ed. “What— What happened? Did you say something? Ed, I really am fine—”

“Mary thought the same thing, though,” Ed says. “When I mentioned it, I mean.” Stede frowns, a bit. “And they were actually sort of hoping that they could get some time on their own today.”

“They— Wait,” Stede says, caught slightly off-guard. “They what? Wait, who’s they?”

“Doug and Mary,” Ed tells him. “They don’t really get a lot of time without those— fucking kids of yours underfoot, I guess.” He nudges backwards at the wood beneath his boot with his heel, a rhythmic thunk, thunk, thunk. Eyes still on Stede, he says, “She asked if we’d be willing to— Y’know, help out a little bit, or whatever. Babysit your kids for a while. Which, I guess, is not really babysitting, since they’re your kids, but— Seems Buttons was telling them about some island nearby, and they wanted to go, but the kids didn’t want to go, so. I just told them that, yeah, of course you’d do it. Figured you’d wanna, anyway.”

There’s a great warmth in the center of Stede’s chest, then, even though he doesn’t quite understand where all of this is coming from. There are many islands nearby, and the weather has been rather nice the entire trip, but Mary still hasn’t mentioned wanting to make any stops to him before. He can’t say he’d blame her for wanting time alone with Doug, either, but he thought she might’ve wanted to ask him about it before jumping straight to asking Ed.

Then again—

When Stede considers this again, in sequence with Ed’s strange non sequitur, he thinks that maybe the people that love him love him a bit more than he thought they did. And maybe they understand him a little more than he believed they might, and maybe they pay more attention to him than he imagined anyone ever would.

“Are they sure?” Stede asks. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” Ed says. “Besides, you’ve got all that shit ready to go in case they get bored. Be a shame if you didn’t get to use any of it.”

Stede catches himself smiling, chest feeling impossibly light.

“Well,” he says. “I really— I think I’m seeing the value in just— just going with the flow, as it were, you know? I think everybody really enjoyed themselves yesterday, honestly. I’m just—” He claps his hands together in front of himself, fingers wringing together. “—I’m happy to let whatever happens— happen!”

Ed looks like he doesn’t quite believe him, but he still steers Stede out of their cabin, directing him back down towards the room Stede so loftily considers to be their dining hall. He fights down the reminder that they will only get to do this one more time, as he takes his seat at the table again.

Today, Louis refuses to let him sit at the head without him, insisting he take the seat at his side, instead. Stede smiles, a bit, as he accepts the spot saved for him, wedging himself onto a stool that was once most of a barrel.

“Mom’s going to take Doug to an island today,” Louis tells him. There’s less excitement in his voice that Stede would’ve anticipated, hearing that.

“Would you like to go there, too?” Stede asks. “I could take you.”

Louis frowns, shaking his head. “No. There’s all sorts of— things on islands.”

On Stede’s other side, Alma informs him and Ed, “Mom and Doug took us to an island at the beginning of the trip. There were tons of snakes and bees and other shit. Louis cried the whole time.”

“Alma, for the— love of God,” Mary hisses down the table.

“Please,” Pete comments. “I’ve shit worse than her today.”

“Colorful, thank you so much, everybody,” Stede interrupts. He claps his hands down on the wood table, pushes to stand. “So, what’s the plan today, then, team? What’re we thinking?”

“Jim and I are rowing Mary and Doug out to the Windless Island,” Oluwande says immediately, his hand up in the air. Stede can hear the unspoken dibs laced through every word he speaks. Beside him, Lucius nudges him, and he adds, “Oh, right, and— Lucius, here, is coming along to catalogue the plant life.”

“Flora and fauna,” Lucius chimes in, beaming. “Whole lot of insects and— things.”

“Oh, and I can row the boat for you,” Pete offers, as if he’s just coming up with the idea from thin air. Stede knows better, but, right now, he also doesn’t particularly care. If they’d have just asked, he would’ve allowed them; it’s almost fun, that they’re being crafty. Like a little game for them all. He feels like one of them, really.

“And what’s everyone else thinking?” Stede asks, looking over the table at large.

For a beat, nobody speaks. Then, Izzy says, “I’ll be watching after your fucking ship, Captain, while you play around all day.”

Stede just barely keeps back his smile. He asks, “Anyone else?” Buttons lifts a hand, and Stede points to him. “Yes, Mister Buttons.”

“I think I’ll go for a swim,” he says, and then puts his hand down again.

“Lovely,” Stede says. He feels a lot more like himself. It’s as if the slight chill he’d been feeling from pushing himself away a bit recently is receding, as if he’s allowing himself to warm back up in this nice, familiar glow again. “Anybody else?”

The entire crew, it seems, is occupied. Roach tells them he’s going to be busy all day, preparing for their last family dinner that night before their guests have to leave tomorrow. Frenchie and Ivan offer their help; Fang and Wee John, in exchange, agree to stay up on deck and help Izzy in keeping the boat afloat. The Swede assures them he’ll be keeping the rest of the crew’s proper chores up all day, retreating out of the dining hall not long after to check in on the non-humans. Which means—

Everybody is present and accounted for— or, not present, but rather, their absence in his roll call are accounted for, anyways. He takes a breath, readying himself.

When he turns down to the children, then, and says, “Guess it’s just us and Ed today, then,” he’s a little stung when Ed shakes his head.

“Oh, no, that’s—” he says, stops. He tries again with, “That’s okay, you don’t have to— I know I’m—”

He sort of waves his hands, then, and backs off, scooting his chair a bit to the side. The sting of hurt that Stede had felt quickly morphs into the warm, spreading bloom of realization.

With this realization that Ed might feel a bit out of place in mind, he’s about to argue with him, to insist that he join them, too, if that’s what he wants, but then he wonders, What if that’s not what he wants?, and he’s briefly torn. It makes him pause; he doesn’t want to force Ed to spend time with him, with them, doesn’t want him to feel obligated.

Mary takes over the decision for him, though, only a beat later, before he can properly do anything. She tilts over, asks, “Ed, please, I’m begging you. The kids can be a lot.” She gestures with her chin in Stede’s direction. “I’d love if it you helped him out with them. Please?”

Ed seems visibly surprised, for a beat, at her apparent— not only willingness to include him, but at the intensity of her enthusiasm, the authenticity of her desires, the fact that she’s so genuinely asking him, ‘Can I please include you in my family?’ without saying so many words, when Stede couldn’t have even begun to hope for the extension of such a thing with what he’s done to her in the past.

Based on the look on Ed’s face, this really is a left turn he wasn’t expecting in the least. This—

Stede’s certain that Ed’s been in cahoots with her already, probably because he thought they were ganging up together against him. He can be forgiven, he decides, this one time, since he doesn’t know Mary that well, so he can’t yet tell when he’s being played by her, too.

For all Mary’s trying to be sly, it’s obvious that she knows what’s up, and that Ed knows that she knows what’s up, and— and so on and so forth. And—

Honestly, it fills Stede with such a joy, such an immense joy, that he hardly knows what to do with it.

In the face of all that joy, Ed agrees, “Yeah, I’d lo— Sure. I’ll help. No problem, really, kids are— Kids are no sweat. Love kids. Kids are just— great. Especially these ones.”

Stede reaches over and cups Ed’s chin in his hand, fingers carding through his beard, just for a moment. He releases him in the next beat, ignoring the gagging of Lucius and Frenchie at the end of the table. “Thank you, love. We’ll have a wonderful day.” Stede brings his hands together with another sharp clap, then, says, “Everybody alright for the day? Anybody need anything? Anybody want to talk about anything, want to—”

“Do you?” Jim asks him. “‘Cause you’re rambling more than usual, Cap’n.”

Smiling, Stede tells them, honestly, “I’m just very excited. I think today’s going to be a wonderful, perfect sort of day, you know? That’s all.” He looks out over his family, then says, “Alright, well, then— If we’ve got no other business, you can all go on and enjoy your day!”

He bangs his cup down twice on the tabletop, nearly like a gavel, and the crew breaks apart at the noise, talking amongst themselves in a pleasant, washing sort of rumble. Stede always loves this feeling of belonging in a crowd; it’s even better, now, as he starts to glow up towards happiness and warmth again, folding back into the family he’d so foolishly been trying to separate himself from.

See, he forcefully reminds himself. They’re not better without you. There is no better. Just like they said. There’s only—

Stede stops that thought, considering. He’s not sure, at first, what there is— but then he looks over his family, again, at this unit that never could have existed without him, and all the mistakes he’s made, and all the lessons he’s learned, and all the relationships he’s formed, and he realizes he knows exactly what there is.

Love, he thinks, finally. There’s only love.

From the rail up on deck, Stede stands behind Louis and Alma, keeping one hand on each of their shoulders as they wave to Mary and Doug, being carted off in their longboat towards the shore of the nearby island. It’s a lovely, tiny little place, a strip-of-sand-with-some-trees sort of a thing. Mary and Doug will be hard-pressed to find space where there aren’t other crew mates probably trying to fuck each other into the sand dunes, tree trunks, and any other semi-stable surface they find—

But, they’re grown adults, and the island’s not that small. Stede leaves them to it.

The crew left aboard really is practically a skeleton crew. If Stede hadn’t been suspicious before, he certainly is now— but he finds, however, that he ultimately doesn’t actually care all that much. If this is a ruse, that is. If it is somehow some elaborate plan that Mary and Ed have orchestrated to keep him from feeling left out, to— to give him more time with his children, then— that’s not a bad thing.

Actually, that would be an incredible thing. That would be a gift, really, and— and it’s not one that Stede would like to squander, either. It’s not one that’s given lightly, and so it’s not one he accepts lightly, either.

“So,” Stede says, turning the children to face him. “What would you like to do first?”

Alma immediately points straight upwards. “I want to see the crow’s nest,” she says, no hesitation in speaking.

Stede really does want to take this last day before the children reach their destination and part again for— really, who knows how long— to really bond with them. He wants to enjoy their company, and have them enjoy his; he wants them to remember him, or for him to have this memory of them, as well.

If nothing else, he’s hoping that he’ll leave a good enough impression on this little excursion of theirs that they’ll remember him with a bit of fondness, later, rather than the bitterness he’s sure he deserves for leaving them in the first place.

That being said—

When he was a child, he had always wanted to visit a ship, and then he’d wanted to be a pirate, and he, too, had been captivated by the idea of the crow’s nest. He’d fallen a little bit in love with that secret, terrifying place, where the most important person on the ship— he thought so, anyway; the ship’s protector, as it were— would fortify themselves, able to look out over the entire spread of ocean around them. Now, he likes to hide up there himself, just to enjoy a bit of solitary time in the place he’d spent so long dreaming of.

Not only does he associate all of that, but he remembers, too, himself and Ed together up in that crow’s nest, simply enjoying each other’s company, time and time again. It sends a warm spread of pleasure through him to imagine overlaying those experiences with this one, to think about enjoying the memories of so much of his family up there, in that special place he’d always wanted to go most when he didn’t think he’d ever get to go anywhere at all.

His daughter, he reminds himself, wants to go there, now, too. And he can give her what he never got to have: he can show her what she wants to see, he can share this experience with her.

“Well, Alma,” Stede says, looking upwards with her. The four of them all tilt together, craning their necks at the same hard angle upwards so they can evaluate the crow’s nest together where it sits high above their heads. “I think that’s a wonderful idea.”

For all of Stede’s frantic planning and organizing over these last few days— or weeks, or what have you— the most recent realization he’s had is that one single realization he’d had, that one thought that still holds most true: he doesn’t need to schedule every second of the day.

The day is enjoyable enough in and of itself, just moving through it at its own pace, just— He’s ready to try letting the day happen to him, rather than trying to force the day to happen around him.

Between the two of them, him and Ed, they manage to help Alma and Louis climb up into the crow’s nest with them. It’s a lengthy process, and one that has Stede’s heart in his throat for the better part of it, but he thinks he handles himself quite well on the whole. Even when Alma’s foot slips, once, and he and Ed each catch one of her arms at the same time, steadying her while she regains her balance against the post— Nothing bad ever actually ends up happening.

Stede smiles for the reminder that things can go right, that not everything will end in pain and tears and a shitshow of his own creation.

“Wow,” Louis breathes as they reach the top, when he can see nothing but ocean everywhere around him, dotted with the little island the ship’s floating alongside. Squinting, he points, then says, “I can see people!”

Stede can see people, too, and he turns Louis and Alma’s attention away from Jim and Oluwande where they’re unfortunately still visible just off the sand. From the ship, nobody could see them; from this vantage point, tragically, they’re most obvious.

Ed whistles, craning to watch them for a second. Stede nudges him, face coloring, unable to stop himself from hissing, “Ed, please.”

“What?” Ed asks. “Don’t hire such a hot crew next time.”

“What’s going on?” Alma asks, suspicious.

“You know,” Stede says quickly, “Ed can tell what sort of weather’s coming later just based on how the sky looks now.”

“Really?” Louis asks. “What’s the sky mean now? It won’t rain, will it?”

Ed shifts, letting his legs dangle out over the open air, holding himself up against the railing, bracketing a post with his thighs. Observing the sky, he says, “What do you guys think those clouds look like? It’ll help me get a better picture of what’s coming.”

“It’s a bunch of flowers,” Louis says. “Daisies and things. See ‘em there?” He points, tracing the sky with his fingertip. Ed leans in closer to him, following the direction he’s showing him. “See? With the petals on the outsides?”

“I see it,” Ed tells him. Backwards, he asks, “Alright, Al. Lay it on me, what do you see?”

Alma steps forward, kneeling down beside him. Without a second thought, Ed reaches out to wind his arm around her waist, careful not to let her lean forward too far and fall. She doesn’t even seem to notice, herself, and something in Stede’s chest twists at the trust she unthinkingly places in him.

Peeking at the clouds, squinting in such a way that makes Stede think maybe he should suggest to Mary that his daughter, unfortunately, could have inherited a bit of his poor vision, Alma eventually says, “Kinda like cannonballs. With the tops already exploding.”

“Also not a bad one,” Ed agrees. He holds his thumb up against the sky, blots out the sun for a second. “I think we’ve got clear skies ahead, mates, I won’t lie. Smooth sailing.” He glances sideways at them. “Mister Buttons was right. You might just be good luck for us yet.”

Both of them are beaming at him, at that, and Stede’s unsurprised to find that he is, as well.

He joins them, taking the space on Louis’ other side, the four of them lined up in a curving row with legs all dangling out into the open air together. And here Stede had thought he’d needed to plan out this entire trip, to schedule every second, to keep their entertainment organized and consistent, no gaps in between where they could ponder just how much they don’t like what he’s done to them, but then—

But, then, they spend most of that morning, burning well into the afternoon, just— talking. The sun goes up, rising higher and higher, and Stede’s grateful that Mary had the forethought to put the children in sleeves and hats, their fair skin protected from the light, because nobody wants to get down, not anytime soon. As it is, he’s sure he gets a bit red himself, but he can’t bring himself to care.

All they do is linger there together, and Alma and Louis talk, telling Stede all sorts of stories. They tell him about their friends, about the lessons they’re taking, about the last holidays they spent. They loosen up even more, start talking about missing him, start— start leaning into him, telling him about what Mary does at home, what it’s like when he’s not there. They ask what he does without them, ask him to talk about his life.

In return, they tell him all about their lives, and Stede feels, for the first time, that he actually— properly knows his children. Not just as his children, either, not just as— as the people that he helped to create, but as the people that they are. Their personalities, and their wants, and their thoughts, and their choices. He’s getting to know them.

It’s a big picture to get, but an important one, he thinks. He knows Stede slots in every piece of the puzzle, figuring out who they are bit by bit, in the information they reveal to him with each story they tell. Before, he thought, he was an— an okay parent, but he was never good at it. Listening to them now, he feels almost like a father, and nearly like a proper one, too, one who— who can advise them, and who cares, and wants what’s best for them, and does— does what he can to provide them with all of that.

It could be worse, Stede tells himself, and it’s one of the best things he can think about this, he thinks. I love them, they love me, that’s— That’s all I can ask for.

With what he’s done, he’s sure, it could be so, so much worse. He’s so happy to have this; he’s so happy, period.

Maybe this family is unconventional, but it’s also the most functional it’s ever been. Stede hasn’t lived a life better than this one, hasn’t had a family happier than the one he’s got now. Before—

Well, before, when he was a boy, he didn’t know what a happy family was even supposed to look like. Then, before, when he was a man, he and Mary weren’t half this happy, half this communicative; they didn’t enjoy life half this much. If nothing else, they’re giving their children more of that happiness, showing them that there are—

They can show them that there are lots of ways to be happy, lots of ways to live a life where they can find that happiness.

Maybe I haven’t fucked this up completely, Stede allows himself, before Ed nudges him.

“Hey,” he says. “What do you say? Time for lunch?”

“Oh, goodness,” Stede says, tilting his head to look up. The sun has been cascading for a while; it’s well past lunch, actually. “I’m so sorry! I should’ve been keeping track—”

“No,” Louis complains. “I don’t want to go down yet. Just a little while longer?”

“Aw, Louis, darling,” Stede says, and ducks to kiss the top of his head, ruffling his hair. “There’s plenty more that we can do together after we’ve all eaten. I’m sure you can think of something else you’d like to see after you’ve got a bit of food in you, hm? Nice bit of energy?”

The promise of food appeases the children enough to convince them into following Ed and Stede back down to the deck, into trailing after them to the kitchens. Stede helps Roach throw together a lunch for them in the middle of his preparations for family dinner tonight, Ed keeping the children occupied by helping them pickpocket, filch, and otherwise thieve as many treats from Roach’s little kitchen as they can in the process.

The second wind of energy that surges through them once they’ve eaten again has the children running all over the deck, sprinting after one another. Though neither of them has weapons, now, they’re miming the movements they learned yesterday, jabbing and stabbing at the air just as Jim, Ed, and Izzy taught them.

Stede watches after them. He loves them; he’s momentarily exhausted.

“You know,” Ed calls to them from his side, when Alma’s laying flat on the deck, dramatically miming blood gushing out of an imaginary wound Louis’ invisible sword has apparently torn into her belly, “I taught your dad a bit of sword-fighting out here, too.”

“Oh, no,” Stede groans, at the same time both children whirl to look at them. “I wouldn’t really— I wouldn’t call what we do sword-fighting, would you?”

There’s a sparkle of amusement in Ed’s eyes that catches into becoming a whole flaming spark when he asks Stede, “Well, what else would you call it then?” He leans in closer, for only Stede to hear, and whispers, “Pervert,” and Stede’s knees disappear, for a second.

He regains his control, shoving his sensibilities back into alignment. Straightening himself back out, he tells the children, “I suppose we have been— sword-fighting, then, yes. We are co-captains, after all, we— have to keep our skills sharp, and all that. Plus,” he reminds them, as he more fully realigns himself and hits his stride, “Blackbeard knows quite a bit more about swordplay than I do. It’s an honor just to learn from him, truly. And, and, from the great Izzy Hands—”

“He’s not even here,” Ed points out.

“Fuck you,” Izzy says at the helm.

“Oh, shit, Iz,” Ed says, as if he’s been startled. He’s grinning too wide for it to be genuine, though. “Sorry, didn’t see you behind the wheel there.”

“Oh, fuck all the way off, Edward—”

“So,” Ed cuts him off, turning back to the children, clapping his hands together just as Stede does. “Who wants to see a show?”

Both Louis and Alma immediately say, “Me!” and run to drag over barrels they can sit on, hopping up to observe Stede and Ed where they plant themselves before them on deck. It’s nearly like they’re engaged in a little performance; Stede’s put in mind of the show his crew performed just yesterday, and can’t help the laugh that comes up at the thought.

“What’s so funny?” Ed asks, drawing his sword, examining the edge of the blade he’d sharpened only a few days before.

“Just remembering Oluwande playing you,” Stede says. He draws his own sword, similarly sharpened by Ed a few days before; impersonating Oluwande impersonating Ed, he tips his shoulders back, striking a pose. Sword out, he says, keeping his voice rough, “‘Don’t you know who you’re talking to?’”

He’s expecting Ed to laugh at him for quoting the show like that, but— instead, his breath only seems to catch. His dark eyes burn over Stede for a hot second, and he’s not laughing when he shifts, positioning his own sword accordingly, aimed right at him.

“Oh, goodness,” Stede says again, eyes flickering over Ed.

“You want to play?” Ed asks him. “We can play.”

He steps backward, then forward, much faster, sword coming around to tap at Stede’s shoulder. A beat later, Stede’s mind and body catch up with him, and he goes to meet Ed’s next move with a parry, swords clanging together in a clash of metal.

This is not an unfamiliar practice, for them. They train together quite a lot. More often than not, their training devolves into them pressing each other into something and either making out with or fucking each other, the fight slowly— and sometimes seamlessly— transitioning into them tearing into each other in countless other ways. Sometimes, though, they do this just to play with each other, just to have fun and show off and enjoy each other’s company, just to have a leisurely sort of activity that they can enjoy together, something physical that’s not physical.

That’s what they’re doing now, pulling out ridiculous moves they’ve made up together, improvising with one another, just showing off what they’re capable of. They’re not trying to win, just to perform; it’s all the more fun for that, Stede thinks, actually.

He also thinks that Ed might throw the fight, because he’s sure he’s going to lose when Ed unexpectedly drops his hand down, letting Stede’s next cut inward meet right by his neck, nearly getting himself nicked in the process.

For a beat, they just evaluate each other. Both of their chests are heaving from the effort; Stede still keeps his hands steady, the tip of his blade pointed directly into the hollow of Ed’s throat, hovering just over the glisten of sweat between his collarbones.

Then, Ed drops his sword, tossing it to the side. He lifts his hands, palms facing out, and says, “I yield, Captain Bonnet.”

Alma and Louis both start clapping for them. Stede laughs, withdrawing the sword from Ed’s throat, returning it to its sheathe on his hip. Crouching, he scoops Ed’s sword up and passes it off to him before he twists towards the children, dipping into a slight bow at their continued applause. Alma hops up on her barrel, jumping up and down for an excited moment.

“That was awesome!” Alma insists.

Stede reaches out, pulling Ed in to bow with him. Ed does as bid, turning and dropping into a bow, then a curtsy. Louis laughs, jumping up, running towards them; Alma leaps right off the barrel, and Stede has to jerk forward to catch her, swinging her onto his hip. He knows he’s going to feel that in his back tomorrow, but— She’s leaving tomorrow, too, so. It’s not like that can get worse.

Between that, though, and his smarting head, and his lack of sleep, and his sunburnt skin— he’s sure he’s going to need a few days to recover from just this trip, honestly. He’ll probably need more time to recuperate than they actually spent on the ship, and isn’t—

Isn’t aging a hell of a fucking thing?, he thinks, as he sets Alma back down on the ground as gingerly as he can.

His children are getting older, and his back hurts, and he’s starting to get as much white in his blonde as Ed’s got in his brunette, and his crew’s getting better at being pirates in their own right every day. This is what every parent wants, he reminds himself; he’s got a legacy to leave behind, something better than himself, people better than he’s ever been. A world created in his image; maybe even a better one. If there is such a thing.

He asks Louis and Alma, then, “What do you want to do now? I can show you more of the ship, if you’d like. You can go for a swim. We’ve got games, or—”

“We already went swimming with Oluwande,” Louis tells him, closer now, tilting into his leg, burying his face in his side.

“Oh,” Stede says. He sets a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Well, we could—”

“Actually,” Alma interrupts him, tilting into him a bit. “Is it— I’m a little— I’m kinda tired.”

“Me, too,” Louis echoes immediately. He reaches up to take Stede’s hand without looking, pulling on him a bit.

“Maybe we can—” Alma starts, then stops. She glances back at Ed, then turns to Stede again to ask, “Can you read a little, maybe?”

“Oh,” Stede says. “Of— Yes, of course, if that’s what you’d like.” His heart’s— warmed, all at once, and he asks, “Won’t that be terribly boring for you, though? You’re aboard a pirate ship. You can do anything you want. You’ve only got to ask for it.”

They both hesitate, Louis lifting his face towards his sister’s so they can look at each other, having a silent conversation. They’re holding close to him the entire time, still, and Stede thinks, all at once, Oh.

“But,” he adds quickly, honestly, “What I most want to do is spend time with you. No matter what we do.” He crouches down a bit, jostles them both slightly so they look over at him. When he smiles, they smile, too, echoing his expression with almost matching features, so much of both him and Mary in rhe both of them. Now, for the first time, he thinks that might not even be such a bad thing. “So, if you’d like to read with me? That is exactly what we’ll do.”

“Then that’s what I wanna do,” Alma insists.

“Me, too,” Louis says, and turns back to Ed, holding his hand out. “You’re coming, too. Right, Ed?”

“Yeah, of course,” Ed says. “Obviously, if you want me to, I’ll— Yeah, I’ll come. I like storytime.”

When Stede looks up at him, Ed’s already watching him. He’s got a smile of his own, and it makes that same syrupy sweetness spread through Stede again, an all-over sort of warmth that’s honeyed all the way through to his core, to coat over all his insides.

As a child, what Stede had truly wanted was his father’s attention, and his acceptance, and his— his— him. He’d only ever wanted him, but he never thinks he got him, not truly. Or—

He likes to think that, anyway, because the opposite is a horrible thought, and he doesn’t want to imagine that his father would have been like this no matter what their lives had been like. But, for Stede’s part, he didn’t have a mother or father to turn to, and, when he thinks about what he wanted then, it always all came back down to that. He’d just— always wanted to be loved, really. To be accepted. So, so badly.

His father didn’t give him undivided attention. Or— When he did, Stede didn’t want it, not like that. He didn’t give him support. He didn’t give him love. If Stede’s done nothing else, he knows he’s given his children that, knows that he’s still giving them that, that he’ll always give them that.

Maybe they’re on a pirate ship, but they’re on their father’s ship, too, and all they want right now is him, and he understands. He gets it. He might not feel deserving, but to him, he’s him— and to them, he’s their father. That’s more important, really, than anything else storming inside his mind, and he tries to remind himself of that, and it works, actually, quite a bit.

That’s how he finds himself sitting up on the sofa in their captains’ quarters with Louis pressed into his left side and Alma folded into his right, his arms around the both of them, his glasses at the end of his nose as he reads from an old, familiar book of pirates’ tales they’d found on his shelves with Ed’s help.

It’s then that he thinks that this might be exactly what he’d wanted. The memory he’d been looking to make, the impression he wanted to leave. When they’re separated, he hopes his children will remember, if nothing else, this. He knows he will for a very, very long time.

The children, unsurprisingly, drift off into a light sort of sleep over the course of the story. They’ve fallen dead-asleep against him by the end of it, sun-tired and worn out from their last couple days on the ship and— Stede suspects, too, that they didn’t sleep well last night, both too excited to be sneaking around up on deck with the crew.

For a moment, after closing the storybook, he just watches them. This time tomorrow, he realizes, they’ll be gone again. He tries not to let that thought scare him, but rather just to— to help him to appreciate this day while he’s still got it. Nothing lasts forever, anyways; doesn’t make it any less special while it’s here.

Then, though, Stede turns his face up, reaching to take his glasses off and set them aside with his book, and he catches Ed already watching him. There’s this— There’s this expression on his face, this burning sort of look. It’s one that Stede doesn’t think he’s ever actually seen on Ed’s face before, something new, something that’s only just come now. It’s exciting, to think there are still new feelings to be felt, new emotions he can express, always more for Stede to learn about Ed.

Now, he whispers, “What is it, love?”

Ed shakes his head. His eyes are a little wet, but his voice doesn’t shake when he whispers back, “This is just— really nice.”

Stede smiles, nodding a bit. He allows Ed to take his book and glasses gingerly, trying his best not to disturb either of the children in the process. When he’s finished, he folds back in beside them, letting his own head rest on his arm, held along the back of the sofa. His dark eyes follow Stede’s, the two of them just meeting there in silence.

Beside him, Ed shifts slightly, letting his leg stretch out along the length of the sofa. From beneath, he nudges Stede’s ankle lightly with the point of his boot.

Smiling, Stede lets his own head fall back. He nudges Ed back, and gets a smile of his own from him in response.

“We can’t let them sleep too long,” Stede eventually has to whisper. “They won’t sleep tonight if they do.” He extricates his limbs, says, “How about I wake them up and you can look after them for a bit?”

“What?” Ed says, in a quick hiss. “I— You can’t trust— You cannot leave me alone with them.”

“And why the hell not?” Stede asks. “You’ve done wonderfully so far, Ed. I’ve got to say, you might actually be better at this than I am.”

“The fuck I am,” Ed insists. “Stede— Seriously, I can’t do what you do. All this— You reading to them, and teaching them about life, and shit. I don’t know how to do that.”

“Ed, it just sort of happens,” Stede tells him. Ed scoffs, shifting to stand. “No, I mean it! It does, you just— Do whatever you think is best for them, and you can’t go wrong, really.”

Ed evaluates him for a beat before he says, “You can’t be mad at me if I take your advice and it gets all fucked up anyway. I tried.”

“Honestly, as far as I’m concerned, you fucking anything up is the absolute least of my concerns.” He reaches out once they’re both standing, takes Ed’s face between his hands, for a beat. Ed looks up at him, all dark eyes and flushed cheeks and tilting, instinctive, familiar intimacy, reaching to fall into him, too. “You’ve done a w spectacular job.” He kisses his cheek. “And I want them to know you, too, by the way.”

“Why?” Ed asks. “I’m— fucking Blackbeard, you know. You told them the stories. They already know me.”

“Yes, they know about you,” Stede replies. “I’d also like them to get to know Ed on their own.” He kisses him on the cheek, then releases him so he can duck down to the children again. Taking their shoulders under his hands, he rattles them a bit, says, “Hi, hello. Ed’s ready to hear any ideas you have for playing with him for the next hour or so, I’m needed up on deck. How’s that sound?”

“Okay,” Alma says, slightly more awake, eagerness hitting her more quickly. At her side, Louis yawns, rubbing at his eyes still.

Stede ruffles the hair on both their heads, earning a swat away from her from Alma, before he leaves, telling them, “Have fun! I’ll be just up on deck if you need me,” which—

Honestly, he should have known better.

He wanted Ed to bond with his children, because he really—

He sees— He’s—

Ed’s his husband, now. Ed’s with him the same way Mary’s with Doug, the same way— the same way Mary and Stede were with each other, but— magnified times a million, Stede thinks.

So.

It’s important to him that the people important to him love each other, or— at least know each other, and he really does think it’s important that Ed gets to know Alma and Louis for even just a little while without his presence, without his influence.

Then again, they are three of the most uniquely-minded people he has ever met, and he is their sole target aboard this ship, and—

Again, he really, really should have known better. Or at least seen this coming.

From nowhere, as Stede’s standing up on deck, observing the ocean over the rail while Izzy leans against the helm behind him, there’s a bit of a— a chill.

Not long after, some unexpected fog comes rolling in.

It takes Stede a beat, actually, to realize the fog is only on the deck. He processes in the next beat that it must be theater-ice-fog just before there’s a loud thud on the deck in front of him. He blinks, turning, and finds Ed before him, clad in all the weapons he could possibly have been able to find, with Louis posing just in front of him. He’s wearing a leather shirt of Ed’s over his clothes, holding a wooden play-knife from their prop chest below deck.

“Ahoy!” Louis calls upward at him. “We’re taking this ship!”

Ed crouches down and whispers, “In the name of Captain Blackbeard.”

“In the name of Captain Blackbeard!” Louis repeats, louder, pointing his knife a little more aggressively at Stede. “All of this is ours now! Turn over your treasure!”

If Stede had worried about Ed feeling left out before, he doesn’t need to now, because Louis practically feels like a mini-version of him. He even stands like him, right now, and pitches his voice like him. Stede can’t help but laugh, once, before covering his mouth with his hand.

“He dares laugh at you?” Ed asks him. “First Mate Louis Bonnet, what should we do with this insubordinate man?”

Louis evaluates Stede with a critical eye, trying not to smile. Then, he turns back, saying, “Send in the assassin!”

Alma screams as she runs in from the side, a long wooden sword held over her head. She’s gripping it just how she was taught, which means there’s actual force behind it when she whacks it into Stede’s side, knocking the wind out of him for a second.

He laughs on a wheeze, catching the sword. Rasping, he tells her, “Good one.”

“Oh, no, Dad, I’m so sorry,” Alma says immediately. She takes a step in, ducking to check on him. “Are you okay—”

Stede uses her distraction to grab her sword from her, turning it on her so the wooden point is fixed on her chest.

Alma scowls, says, “Hey! No fair, I thought you got hurt—”

“Don’t let him distract you, girl,” Izzy calls from the helm. “Remember what I taught you.”

Alma turns back on Stede with a grin before she’s running around him to jump on his back, kicking at the backs of his knees. Stede exclaims wordlessly, falling down with a shout. She wraps her arm around his throat, then beams up at Izzy, all teeth.

“Good girl,” Izzy praises her in a loud voice from the wheel. “Remember, you don’t gotta be a lady. A fight’s a fight.”

“Yes, Izzy!” Alma calls to him, pinning Stede to the ground, her hands pushing his face to the wood, now.

“Good job, darling,” Stede says, voice muffled. “Now, please— My head—”

Alma scrambles off of him, saying, “I’m sorry,” again, before squinting up at him. “Wait— You’re not tricking me again, are you?”

“Don’t ask him that,” Ed tells her. “He can just say no.”

“Fuck,” Alma says, which just has Ed laughing again.

“I’m going to tell Mom,” Louis tells her.

“The fuck you are,” she replies.

“Kids, kids,” Ed redirects them. “The Fuckery? Remember?”

“Right,” Alma says, and grabs up her sword again, pointing it at Stede as he shoves back up onto his feet. Ed offers him a hand, tugging him up the rest of the way, examining the knock on his head to make sure there’s no fresh blood. He’s alright, though, and, when Ed nods to the children that they can continue, they brandish wooden weapons on him once more. “Give us all your treasure!”

Stede holds up his hands in surrender, says, “Of course. Who am I to fight the terrible Blackbeard, scourge of the—”

“Little hammy, babe,” Ed comments. “Reel it in.”

Louis snorts on a laugh. Alma rolls her eyes, smiling a bit herself.

“Sorry, everyone,” Stede says. “Must be the nerves. Of course, I’ll show Captain Blackbeard my treasure.”

Funny, he thinks, scrambling to come up with something to turn over to them; what he values most in this world, what his real treasure is, he thinks— and would never tell Lucius, honestly, because sometimes, really, treasure is the real treasure, but—

Right now, he really does think it’s them. They’re his real treasure, right now. Maybe always, even.

That wouldn’t be an acceptable answer in this game, though, he knows, so he instead lets them start guiding him away, to head below deck together.

“I know where I can find us some treasure,” he says, and he’s about to say more, but then—

Then— and he knew, he knew he should’ve offered to tie her skirts up for her earlier, or even find her a pair of pants, but he didn’t, and now they’re paying for it— Alma stumbles in her skirts. She trips down hard over the wood, knocking into the sword trapped beneath her when she falls.

Stede hates the thud of her hitting the deck, and he’s at her side in a second. She seems to have caught herself, mostly. At least, she hasn’t hit her head, but her face is all red already and her eyes are teary and she’s shuffling up to sit, her leg held awkwardly under her.

“Hey, you’re alright,” Stede hurries to assure her. Behind him, Ed’s shouting for Izzy, then kneeling at Stede’s side again as he wrestles the sword out from under Alma, tossing it aside. “What hurts, what’s happened?”

“Took a little digger there, kiddo?” Ed asks her. Alma nods tearfully, face turned down; Ed crouches at her side, looking her over.

“Is it your leg?” Stede prompts her. Sniffling, she nods again, and he reaches for her ankle. “Can I see?”

She says, “Yeah,” voice breaking. She turns away again, hiding her face; Ed reaches down, less hesitant than before, and rubs between her shoulders.

“You’re okay, Al,” he says. “Just breathe. You’re alright.”

Behind them, there’s the thud of Izzy’s boots stopping beside them, and he says, “Is she alright?” Before Stede can even answer, he’s storming off, saying, “I’m going to get the cook.”

“Why?” Louis asks, a little afraid.

“He’s got all our bandages and things,” Ed explains to him. Louis wriggles up under his arm, squished in nearer to his sister, examining her up close.

“It’s okay,” he tells her. Alma sniffles again, nodding downward, not looking at anyone.

When Stede manages to wrestle her tangled skirts up and her ripped stocking down, he realizes she’s just scraped up her leg a little. Nothing major at all, but he can certainly see why it smarts a bit.

Izzy’s returning with Roach only a second later. Their surgeon-cook kneels at her side, whistles, and tells her with no small amount of confident reassurance, “Oh, that’s nothing. Can I fix that for you?”

Alma nods tearfully, leaning back into Stede and Ed while Roach cleans out the scratches along her shin and her knee for her. He wraps the cleanest bandages they’ve got around her, strips that actually look white. Stede wonders where Roach’s been hiding those, but— If hoarding them means Alma gets to use them now, he can’t be all that upset about it.

Halfway through the process, Alma becomes more fascinated in what Roach is doing than she is hurt or embarrassed by what happened, and she tilts forward, watching him wrap the last bit over her shin. It’s done only moments later, and she smiles a bit, examining his handiwork.

Twisting her leg a bit for her, Roach asks, “How’s that?”

“Better,” she answers. He nods, pushing to stand. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome,” he tells her, and leans down to pass her another sweet he brought up from the kitchens. She takes it eagerly, and Louis accepts one, too, opening his palms up to it like he’s receiving gold, which—

That reminds Stede, actually.

“Behold,” he says, “Your treasure!”

“The candy?” Alma asks skeptically. “You didn’t even know we’d get it!”

“That’s the beauty of treasure,” Stede tells him. “It’s always the most unexpected of surprises, but,” he adds, dramatic, “Sometimes, it ends up being exactly what you needed most.”

Ed rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling, even when Alma and Louis both laugh at him— or, with him, as he chooses to believe.

“Dinner’s almost ready,” Roach tells them all. “So, really, perfect timing, everybody. You can all help me bring it over to the island as a thank-you.”

“To the island?” Stede asks, frowning a bit. “What’re you planning?”

Roach claps his hands together, grinning. “We’re cooking under the stars tonight, Cap’n. One last bonfire to send them off right.”

“Oh, fuck,” Stede says, half-afraid, half-excited, as the children practically leap around him with sheer exploding anticipation. “That sounds— lovely, Roach, what a wonderful idea.”

It really is a wonderful idea, and he’s more and more excited as he realizes just how fun this truly will be. The four of them— and, after a bit of coaxing, Izzy, as well— assist Roach in gathering up all his foodstuffs and cookware and things into the longboat, carting him and the food over to the beach before they return for the rest of the crew.

Alma and Louis stay behind with him, along with Ed. They’re meant to be helping prepare the food, but, when Stede and Izzy row back to the Revenge to retrieve everybody else, he hears them asking Ed to explain the stories behind a bunch of his tattoos, which is very much a moment he’s sad to be missing, but glad they can have.

It only takes them one more trip, though, and then everybody’s gathering together for one last family dinner, gathered around Roach’s growing bonfire in the sand. Wee John feeds the fire with branches he snaps off of trees on the island with his bare hands, using Roach’s knife to saw off a few of the thicker ones.

With Wee John’s help, the fire grows tall, and bright, and they cook Roach’s meat on it, gathered around in the growing darkness. The orange strength of the fire, the heat of it, brings a sort of bottled daytime, as if it’s still bright here while nighttime falls all over, all around them. Stede feels so similarly warmed, as if the same feeling the days bring is kept here with them, too.

The moon comes up, and they’re all just— enjoying themselves. It’s such a stark contrast to that first night, when everybody was— was still holding themselves stiffly, and holding themselves back. Nobody was quite themselves with each other yet, performing what they thought they should be like with one another, rather than what they are, and now, now—

Now, Stede watches as his family becomes a true family. Right in this moment, there aren’t two distinct groups, or three, or— anything. This is one group, one group of people, one family, all gathered here together. There are no divisions; they fall into each other without distinction, just— loving each other, trapped in this moment of joy together, unable to feel anything but this fondness for one another.

Children can’t bring that much bad luck, he reasons, if this trip has brought his crew together so much— has brought his family together so much. One seamless unit, here. Stede’s family. His family. Buttons always does know what he’s talking about.

“You know,” Ed says, falling down onto the log Stede’s chosen to sit on beside the fire, examining the crackling flames with him. “I gotta say, never really saw the appeal of kids before. Small hands are good for taking stuff, but, otherwise? Eh. I could take ‘em or leave ‘em, to be honest.”

“Oh?” Stede asks. “And have you changed your mind now?”

“Eh,” Ed replies, smiling. “A bit. Not massively, but— You know.”

He turns to examine Louis and Alma where they’re sitting in the sand with Oluwande, letting him teach them words he’s spelling out in the sand by the light of the fire. Based on their laughter, they probably shouldn’t be learning those words— nor the ones the rest of the crew are shouting as suggestions to be learned next— but they’re all having such fun. Stede can’t help smiling, too.

Next to him, Ed adds, “I do kinda get it, though. Imparting wisdom, teaching them, like— life shit.” He shuffles a little. “Trying to make the world a little bit better through them. Having someone who’s like— Your family. Who likes you. Leaving a bit of yourself behind.” Examining the children through the flames, then turning back to Stede, he confesses to him, “I think I get it.”

“Aw, Ed,” Stede says, and puts his arm around him, pulling Ed into his side. He kisses the top of his head. “I think you’ve taught them a lot, darling.”

“Not really,” Ed disagrees, but Stede shakes his head.

“You have,” Stede tells him. “Imagine the stories they’re going to get to tell when they’re back home. They fought alongside Blackbeard! Not many kids their age can say that, I’m sure.”

“They also saw Blackbeard kissing their dad,” Ed reminds him.

“That, frankly, they seem to care significantly less about,” Stede says. “The sword-fighting, they like.” He sighs, adds, “God forbid Alma become a pirate. We’re all fucked.”

“She’d be a much better captain than us,” Ed agrees, with something nearing pride.

Stede smiles. “That, too. And Mary’d never forgive me, also. Can’t forget about that.”

“Eh,” Ed says. “I’m sure she’ll get over it.” He turns over, says, “Louis, though— That’s good captain material, right there. Underdog sort. Good leadership skills, real compassionate. Good kid overall.” He pauses, says, “I think he’d make a great captain, actually.”

Stede tilts into him, catching Ed in a short kiss. “Thanks, Ed.”

“Thank you,” Ed replies, even though there’s nothing to be thanking him for.

He tips his head into Stede’s, then, letting them prop each other up. Watching the scene before them, watching their happy family all together, Stede can’t help feeling impossibly bittersweet. Everybody is finally all getting along, and his two families are feeling like one big family, and tomorrow—

Tomorrow, it’ll all splinter apart again. Mary and Doug will leave, and the children will go with them, and a little piece of Stede is going to go right along with them, too. It’s never been this hard to leave them, he thinks, not even the first time. It makes something ache inside of him, something that he can’t shake off. Not even now, not even while he’s trying to enjoy these last moments.

“Hey,” Ed whispers to him, as the night grows impossibly long. “Tired?”

Stede glances at him, turns into the warmth of him so near, all— dark eyes, and closeness, and smoke, and Ed. He can’t help smiling again, finding him there with him.

“Yes,” he tells him. He takes an unsteady breath, turning back out to look through the flames at everyone. “I’m just thinking how much I’m going to miss this. And— This is the way it has to be, I know that. I’ve just— I’ve enjoyed this very much, y’know? Is all.”

Ed nods, shifting in to let their foreheads press together, for a moment. When he pulls away, he pushes a lingering kiss to the space just under Stede’s eye.

“I know,” he says, simply. “Fuck, I know. It sucks. I’m really sorry.” He pulls Stede in a bit closer, arm still wound tight around him, letting their cheeks smush together. Stede can feel the movements of his jaw when he adds, “But, if it helps to remember— Like, just, remember this moment in your memory. Forget about all the other stuff that stresses you out, forget about all the other times you left.” Ed’s eyes flick over to take in their family, and Stede does the same. “Nobody’s leaving now. We’re all just— saying goodbye for a little bit. This one’s so much better than anything else that came before, too, if you really think about it. You’ve dealt with a lot worse, this’ll be no sweat.”

“That’s true,” Stede agrees, already feeling a bit lighter for it. There’s something so unique about Ed, in the way that he not only often seems to know just what to say to him, but also how to say it. Even his missteps are made with such affection and so many good intentions that he can’t help but love them.

“I know it is,” Ed says. “And, you know— If none of this is gonna last anyways, things can at least be good while they’re here. Just ‘cause it’s temporary doesn’t mean you don’t love it, or miss it, or whatever. Doesn’t mean it’s not all still important.”

Stede feels a real prickling in his eyes, then, and a thickness in his throat, and he nods.

“You are— so right, Ed,” Stede says.

Ed rattles him a bit. “I love you.”

“And I love you,” he tells him.

Their family enjoys their last night together into the small hours, until they’re all tipsy and exhausted in the sand, until the children have long since fallen asleep. When they finally gather themselves up enough to try and coordinate a return to the ship, Stede hunts down his children, finds Alma asleep in Jim’s lap, discovers Louis asleep slumped between Fang and Izzy in the sand. He’s pressed into Izzy’s side, which is— impossibly endearing. Izzy’s stock-still, but he hasn’t brushed him off, which is— something, and something that actually does make Stede smile, when he sees it.

“Sorry if he’s bothered you,” Stede says, crouching to lift Louis up and out of his way. Izzy’s hand follows, for a moment, making sure he’s got his body secure in his arms before releasing him. He pretends he hasn’t done a thing, but Stede’s noticed. He can’t stop smiling. “Figured you might’ve shoved him off.”

Izzy scoffs at him. “He’s a child. I’m not a fucking animal.”

“I thought he was a pet?” Stede asks politely, smiling.

“Shut,” Izzy says, “the fuck up, Bonnet.”

Stede’s still laughing when he’s carrying Louis to the longboat. He finds Ed doing the same thing with Alma; Doug’s clumsily helping Mary up into the hull, trying to stop her skirts from getting wet in the lapping waves, dark even in the moonlight. The white crests, at least, are visible, and he’s doing a passable job avoiding them.

Keeping up the charade, back on the Revenge, Stede takes the children into their bedroom. He’s sure they’ll want to sneak away, later, but when he turns to leave them alone in their borrowed bed after tucking them in, Louis’ hand grabs out, snatching at Stede’s sleeve.

“Don’t go,” he begs him, half-asleep, bleary.

“Alright,” Stede agrees, too tired to bother arguing, which is how the four of them end up crushed in that one tiny bed together for their last night here. Stede lays himself down beneath them, Ed tucked around him; the children fit themselves into them, practically draped on top of him. Limbs are everywhere, and heat, and it’s—

It’s a messy sort of pile, and Stede’s sure they’d both get a lot more sleep— and end up with significantly less muscle soreness, tomorrow— if they actually did sleep on the sofa again, but—

Really, he doesn’t mind.

He’s right; he doesn’t sleep well. His back still hurts from catching Alma earlier, and then he’s up most of the night with someone or another shoving him in the face, or kicking at him, or wriggling into his side, but—

It’s their last night here. He keep telling himself that and then, the next morning, he finally, finally manages to fall asleep, just as the sun starts to come up. The warmth of it starts filling the cabin, a glowing sort of light; Stede closes his eyes against it, and Ed settles into sleep, and he fucking finally manages to drop off.

Of course, it would figure, then, that the children would wake up what feels like hardly an hour later. Inexplicably, they appear perfectly well-rested, when they jostle Stede awake.

He blinks his eyes open, heavy, exhausted. Two tiny faces peer up at him; it takes him a second to remember what the fuck is going on, and why the fuck it’s going on, before he exhales in a punch, saying, “Oh, my g— You scared me.”

“You talk in your sleep,” Alma informs him matter-of-factly. “But so does Louis.”

“I didn’t have any bad dreams last night, though,” Louis says, proud and excited all at once. It makes Stede happy to hear; maybe he’s finally comfortable enough here to sleep through the night. Just in time to leave, he thinks, and actively has to force himself not to think about.

“That’s wonderful news,” Stede tells them both around a jaw-cracking yawn. He’s starting to wake up again. He’s certain that he’d be more— well, grumpy, probably, if he didn’t have the promise of more sleep so close-by. What he feels is the sort of joy that can only come when you know you’re going to sleep better tonight than you did the night before.

So— it’s not ideal, no, but Stede can’t help being charmed by their morning excitement, by their glee that matches his, by the endearing way they burrow into him as if they’ve never done a thing wrong in their lives and aren’t actively responsible for at least a dozen of his new white hairs just from these last few days alone.

“Rest for a minute longer,” Stede asks them, as Ed’s eyes start to drift open, blinking sleepily at the three of them and their bed-rustling nonsense. He squints, his brow furrowing slightly; he looks a bit incredulous, as if he can’t actually believe he’s waking up. Honestly, he looks how Stede feels, and he can’t help laughing at the thought in gruesome solidarity. To Ed, he murmurs, “Good morning.”

“G’morning,” Ed says, voice sleep-rough. He clears his throat, looks down at the kids practically perched on his chest, now. “Hey, there.”

“You snore,” Alma informs him.

“So do you,” Ed replies. She huffs at him. “Well, you do.”

“You’re louder,” Alma argues.

“I actually highly doubt that, Al,” Ed replies, and she drags up a pillow to shove over his face. Laughing, he tosses it aside, then wrestles her back in between them.

This, too, is something Stede could never have imagined, could never have predicted. For just this moment, they’re like a family, just— enjoying themselves, like they have endless days like this to look forward to, like this day is just one of many, like they get to do this all the time.

Stede finds himself smiling, enjoying this temporary moment while he has it, feeling the love while it’s here for him to feel.

He can only linger a few moments longer with them, letting the three of them snuggle up lazily into him, before he hears Alma’s stomach growl. At that, he declares, “Alright, everybody up! Time for one last breakfast, I think.”

Getting ready is only a bit of a disaster, but, between the two of them, they wrangle the children into the fresh clothes they left in here yesterday, and they twist Alma’s hair into braids, and they straighten the two of them out enough to look passable in polite society.

Turning them over to Mary and Doug over the breakfast table, Stede feels like he’s fucked up the least he’s ever fucked up with them, which honestly seems to be a great accomplishment, in the moment.

“So,” Oluwande says, when breakfast is nearly at an end, warm, excited chattering starting to quiet under his voice, the last of spiced drinks and steaming-hot breads disappearing. “I know I speak for most of us when I say that I— I really did not know what to expect from all of this, but I’ve actually had… kind of a lovely time?”

There’s a general rumbling consensus of agreement, a pleasant feeling amongst the crew. Stede beams at them all, just— so unspeakably happy. There’s no bitter edge anymore, no fear of isolation, no— no lack of belonging, nothing. Finally, it’s all just fit right into place, and all he feels is joy, here amongst his family.

“That’s why we sort of made you something,” Oluwande tells them. “That way you won’t forget us.”

Frenchie stands up then, unrolling a huge strip of black fabric in his hands. The image presented to them on this flag the crew has made is— really, the word Stede first thinks of is cacophonous, and this is an image, not even a sound. Still, there’s that sort of clattering chaos on the flag, a patchwork of images, all sorts of colors and designs and concepts and passions stitched together onto one huge black rectangle.

“We made you a flag,” Oluwande explains. “Ah— And sort of a memory quilt, as well, I guess?”

“Something to remember us by,” Lucius adds, nudging Doug, enjoying the pink flush that spreads over his cheeks in response.

“Or something to fly,” Jim adds. “If you ever get a ship of your own.”

Alma grins, stretching out to run her hands over the flag where she can reach the edge. She asks, “You really made this for us?”

“You shouldn’t have,” Mary says, sounding peculiarly touched. Stede feels the same way, prickling and burning and just— so excited, so proud, so happy.

“We wanted to,” Oluwande says. “Thanks for being— cool, really. We liked having you on.”

“And we didn’t think we would,” the Swede adds. “At all.” Wee John jostles him, and he says, “No, that’s a good thing. Means more that way.”

“Thank you,” Doug says, unable to stop smiling, himself. “I think the kids actually have something for you guys, too.”

The children jump up with wood-scratching screeches of barrels on the floor and run out of the room, Doug following only a second behind, calling, “No, no, take a right,” after them the second he’s out the door. Stede laughs; they’re gone not a minute, and then they’re stampeding back in, arms clutched full of bits of parchment.

“These are for you,” Alma says, examining the first paper in her hand. She and Louis start passing each of the papers out; each seems to have a crewmate’s name on it.

“What’s this?” Jim asks, taking theirs.

“Thank-you notes,” Louis tells them excitedly. A few of them glance sideways at Lucius; he mouths, “I’ll read them later,” and they relax, looking over the children’s writing, commenting on the little drawings they’ve done. Alma gives one directly to Izzy before she steps forward to wrap him in a brief hug. She pulls away a second later, moving on to give Ed his note next, leaving Izzy staring directly downwards, unblinking.

“I kinda got something, too,” Ed says, once his letter’s in hand, and pushes to stand.

Stede’s heart actually misses a beat, he thinks, as he looks up at Ed with the sort of warmth inside that nobody else has ever been able to fill him with, something special and unique that only Ed could ever give him.

Ed fishes through his pocket, then pulls up with a handful of small coins. Each one’s got a hole punched in it, a chain threaded through. He hands them over, one to each of the four of them.

“Pirate treasure,” Ed explains. “You won it in the duel, so. It’s yours. Now, when you go back home, I probably wouldn’t let anyone see that, ‘cause then they’ll think you’re a pirate, or at least that you know one, which probably isn’t good for you, but. You should always come off a pirate ship with some sort of loot, you know. Can’t leave empty-handed.”

Alma puts the chain around her neck instantly, pulling her braids out so it settles properly, and Louis imitates her, letting it fall against his chest. They both turn to Ed, pull him between them into a hug, wrapped in close.

“Thanks, Ed,” Alma says, and Louis echoes, “Yeah, thanks, Ed!” and squeezes him tighter.

Ed pats their heads, then— shifts, crouching down a bit so he can actually pull them into a proper hug, too. One like Stede gives them. He tells the both of them, “It’s been real having you here. I’ll miss you,” before he clears his throat, separating himself to stand again, pushing himself away from them.

Mary says, “Thank you, Ed,” as well, and Doug echoes it, but Ed just waves them off, returning to Stede’s side as soon as he can. His face is a bit flushed, but Stede’s the only one who sees it, when Ed turns into him.

“That was a lovely thing you did,” Stede says, while the crew lets the children excitedly show them their treasure, while they exclaim over the patchwork of the flag. There appears to be one patch stitched on from each member of the crew; Stede loves it so much he almost wants to ask if they’ll make a version for him, too. Something to fly on the ship. He should’ve thought of them making something together a long time ago, even if it ends up being a funny sort of collage. They’re a funny sort of collage in real life, anyway, as well, so it would fit.

“Yeah, well,” Ed says. “It’s just a dumb little thing.”

“Not dumb,” Stede argues. It’s strangely fitting, actually; he’d just been thinking how they were his treasure, and here Ed is, manifesting that quite literally.

He thinks the two of them might just be perfect for each other, actually. This is just one more piece of evidence towards that, for him.

This is all so endearing that Stede still wants to cry a little bit, in a very real way, and he has to excuse himself for just a moment so he can take a private breath. It’s the only way he knows he’ll be able to get through actually saying goodbye to them without falling apart. His crew already knows he’s emotional; they don’t need to witness in its entirety. Some mystique should remain, he thinks, if he can still salvage any.

“Land ho!” Buttons calls from the crow’s nest, and Stede knows he’s taken all the time he can to gather himself, now. He’s got no choice but to say goodbye, even— even not knowing when the next time he’ll get to say hello is.

Still, Ed finds him tucked into an alcove off the hall, asking, “You okay?” without needing to be asked himself, just before he knows he has to go up. He’s out of time, now. It’s done.

Stede nods in answer to him. Swiping under his eyes, he says, “I’m just going to miss them terribly, I think,” before laughing wetly. “I’m sorry. Isn’t that foolish? They haven’t even left yet. And I’m the one who l—”

“Nah,” Ed cuts him off, disagrees. He pulls Stede in, kisses his cheek. “I’ve gotcha, love. It’ll be alright.”

Stede nods against his chest, taking a deep, steadying breath. When he’s ready, he loops his arm through Ed’s, guiding him down towards the room that will be Oluwande and Jim’s again by the end of the day. Most of the crew’s already there, helping manhandle the bags and trunks back out; between all of them, there’s not even enough for every person to carry one thing. To make up for it, Oluwande ends up carrying Louis, and Alma clings to Frenchie’s back, until they’re back up on deck again.

There’s no time left, now. This is—

This is it, and they can’t go into shore with them, because they’re far too close to land, and Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet can’t be found this close to a city without an immediate getaway. The Revenge can’t linger, either, so. It’ll be left to Oluwande and Fang to row them into shore— the same two elected to go the first time, happy to see their job through to its end— and then row back, quick as possible, without being seen.

“Well,” Stede says, when there’s nothing left for him to say, or do, to stall this any further. Everything’s loaded onto the longboat; Oluwande and Fang are already in it, down in the water, the ladder dangling and waiting for their last passengers. “I guess that’s it, then.” He motions towards the coastline. “Ready to continue your vacation, then? Very exciting things ahead, quite a few landmarks that I think you’ll enjoy, I wrote them all down in that— that little book I left in your things, Alma, so try not to lose it, if you can—”

Alma runs forward and throws her arms around him, then, effectively cutting off his words at once. He’s only surprised for a moment before he bends slightly, getting his arms around her, too. He’s surprised to feel that her face is hot, where it presses through his clothes; it’s only then that he realizes she’s crying.

That’s it for him, then. He can’t hold it back anymore, and he starts crying, too, says, “Aw, Alma. I almost made it all the way through without losing it, you know.”

She laughs wetly against his chest, burying herself in him. “Sorry.”

“Nah, don’t be,” he says. “Worth it.” He kneels to take her in his arms properly, holding her tight. When she’s there, he tries to memorize the feel of her, tries to burn this into his mind so he can pull it up later, when he knows he’s going to miss her so badly it’ll hurt. It hurts already. “I’m so glad I got to see you. I hope I get to see you again very, very soon, darling.” He kisses her cheek, then pulls back a bit to frame her face in his hands. She’s still crying, and he can’t stop, either. “Still got your half?”

She nods, reaching into her dress, pulling out her half of the petrified orange. He fishes his from his own pocket, holding it up to fit in with hers.

“I’m always with you,” he reminds her, his own voice choking up a bit as he does. “I love you so very, very much. Okay?” He kisses her cheek again when she nods, then stands, his fingertips trailing just under her chin before he lets her go. Pocketing his orange half again, he turns to Louis, says, “Sweetheart,” and that’s all he can get out before Louis’ dissolving into tears.

Stede crouches down again, pulls Louis into his arms. He falls right into him, clinging to Stede while he hiccups through his sobs. It’s all Stede can do not to cry just as hard as he is, feeling the pain just as acutely in the back of his own chest.

“I’m going to miss you, too, Louis,” Stede promises him. “So, so much. But I’ll see you again. I will.” He memorizes the feel of him, too, burns this image into his arms, into his mind, into his heart, the center of his chest. “I love you so much.”

“I love you, too, Dad,” Louis tells him, tears finally slowing, burying his face in him when Stede moves to pull away. He hugs him a moment longer, as hard as he can, before he has to separate him, let him go.

The ship’s lingered off-shore too long already; they can’t risk staying any longer, can’t risk getting caught here. They all know it, too. Their time’s at a final end, now.

“It was lovely to see you again, Stede,” Mary tells him, and he laughs wetly, letting her draw him into a hug, too. She’s not quite crying, but, then, this isn’t quite such a horrible parting, for her. He’s almost envious, but, he’s also so glad he’s got so many people to love that separating from a couple of them can hurt this much. He never thought he’d ever have that, before. It’s good, maybe, he thinks, because it hurts so badly.

“It was lovely to see you, too, Mary,” Stede replies. He squeezes her tight. “I’m so happy you’re happy.”

Mary laughs, too. “Me, too.” She kisses his bearded cheek. “Love you.” She tugs on the beard, just for a second, then the hoop pierced through his ear. “Love this, too. Very rugged, Mister Pirate Captain.”

“Please,” he says, and she kisses his cheek one last time with another laugh before withdrawing. Stede pushes in to hug Doug, unable to stop himself this time, pulling him into his arms. Doug— clearly doesn’t know what to do with him crying, but pats his back all the same before passing him off to Ed.

“It’s been lovely,” Doug tells them. “Thank you so much for having us, really. We’re very grateful.”

“We’ll keep sending letters to the Haven,” Mary promises. “Addressed to Ed’s co-captain, yeah?”

“No,” Stede says.

“Is there a better word to use?” she asks. “Is it husband?”

“Goodbye, Mary,” Stede insists, turning her towards the rail, now. When he twists back to check for the children, he sees both Alma and Louis both hugging Ed tightly one last time, wrapping him between them, clinging, unwilling to let him go. For his part, Ed’s doing the same, buried in between them, arms close around them.

Stede steps over, sets his hand on Ed’s shoulder. He startles slightly, then separates, when he comes back to himself, lifting his wrist to rub tears out from under his eyes.

When he stands up, straightens out, adjusts his leathers, his beard, his hair, his weapons, he still looks the perfect picture of Blackbeard, but—

There’s all warmth, in his voice, when he says, “I’ll miss you guys. A whole lot, actually.” He holds out two fists, and Louis and Alma each bump their knuckles to his, grinning. “Like I said, keep it real. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Stede can’t help laughing, at that. Ed playfully scowls at him, reeling Stede into his side, mussing up his hair just to give him something different to complain about.

They hold the ladder for them as Mary climbs over first, Fang catching her below, before they’re sending Doug down after her. Alma follows him, careful on each rung, and Louis takes his time, the last one to leave, taking one slow rung after another before Oluwande’s catching him and sitting him down in the hull of the longboat.

It feels like the entire crew’s on one side of the ship, now, and Stede would worry they’ll tip, but the Revenge has done this before, and only days earlier. Rather than murmuring amongst themselves now, though— like they’d done when they’d first spotted Mary, Doug, and the children— the crew’s now hollering, and shouting, and waving their arms, and calling their final goodbyes, as if they have not a care in the world, as if they don’t have to escape as soon as possible, as carefully as possible.

It’s such a welcome shift, such a stark change from how it was at the beginning of all this; Stede can’t help his incoming sunburst of a smile, is helpless to fight the warmth that radiates from his chest and up and out, through all of him— not that he’d want to, anyway.

Beside him, Ed leans into him. Stede pulls him as near as he can get, for the moment.

“Go the way you planned it?” Ed asks, close to Stede’s ear.

“Not quite,” he allows. He tilts up to smile at him, then. “Better, actually, I think, though. Far as better goes, anyway.”

“‘Better,’” Ed echoes. “I’ll take better.” He ducks in, kisses Stede’s cheek, the corner of his mouth. “Sure you’re feeling alright?”

Stede makes a so-so motion with his hand, wavering it in front of him. He still can’t look away from the longboat as it rows into shore, waving when he realizes Alma and Louis are waving at him.

He keeps on waving until he can’t see them anymore, until they’re delivered onto the shore and disappear beyond the trees, rushing to meet their carriage and manage the rest of the way into town.

The longboat rows back, and the crew disperses, and life— life goes on.

Stede lingers on deck, still, though.

Just—

Watching.

Ed gives him some time, but they can’t stay here. They both know that.

“We should probably set sail,” Ed comments at his side, after a bit, and Stede nods. He really, truly does know that. It just— It hurts, too.

Ed turns, motioning to Izzy at the helm. The ship starts to move with a bit of a jerk, once they’re no longer anchored into the silt below.

Again, Ed asks, “You sure you’re alright?”

“Yes,” Stede says, because he is.

He really is, too. This isn’t a lie. This— Well, This might be the most alright he’s ever been, actually, which is probably part of why it’s making him so emotional, part of why it hurts so much.

Turning to Ed, he says, “Thank you. I really— I can’t thank you enough, Ed. Sincerely. Thank you.”

Ed’s all smiles and warm cheeks again when he says, “Aw, really. I had a lot of fun, Stede, honestly, it was— It was a good time for me, too.” He throws his arm around Stede, steers him towards their cabin again. “They’re good kids. Didn’t think I’d actually enjoy being around them, but— Fuck, I think I’m actually gonna miss ‘em. Both of ‘em. Like, really, I’m not even lying. Isn’t that sick?”

“Little bit,” Stede agrees, and Ed knocks their shoulders together again.

Once they’re back in their quarters, Ed shutting the door firmly behind them and locking it, there’s only a moment of silence.

Then, Ed says, “Hey, Stede,” and Stede turns into him automatically.

He starts to ask, “What?” but he’s cut off, then. And—

He’s not sure what he’s expecting, but it’s not for Ed to wrap him up in one of the biggest hugs he thinks he’s ever received in his life. Ed’s abruptly there, but then he’s so— so warm and solid against him, in a melting sort of way, like his limbs are all fitting into Stede’s, like he’s— he’s wrapping himself around him so tightly that they won’t be able to untangle themselves afterwards.

It’s the same sort of hug, Stede realizes, that he gave Alma and Louis; it’s the same sort of hug that Ed had asked for, after he saw them get it for the first time. It’s the same sort of hug he needs, right now, this— this bear hug, this embrace that swallows him whole, the kind that tells him everything’s going to be okay, and he’s loved, and all that, and so he throws his arms around Ed, too, winding in as close as he can get to him, burying in the mane of his hair, in the warmth of his throat, in the solid comfort of his body, and just— relaxes, just lets go.

“I gotcha,” Ed murmurs to him. He kisses the side of his head when Stede exhales shakily. “I gotcha.”

It’s a long beat, where they’re like that, and Stede doesn’t think he can find it in himself to let go. But— he did make Ed a promise at the start of all this, really, and he’s not going to go back on it now, not when he’s finally able to show him how properly thankful he is for— for everything. For everything these last few days, or these last— last few months, or years, however long—

It feels like he wants to thank Ed for retroactively improving his entire life, for giving him a family, for filling him with love, for driving him with purpose, for making this all— all of it, everything, every bit he’s experienced— worth it.

“It’s okay,” Ed tells him. “Your family loves you, man. That’s a good thing.”

“I know,” Stede replies, to all of it, smiling. The sadness is vanishing, really, and he’s just all filled up with this warmth instead, with this thick heat, with all the love Ed’s spreading into him just from holding him pushing up inside him until it has no choice to come pouring out of his mouth, honey-thick and just as sweet. “I love you so much, Ed.”

“I love you, too,” Ed replies. It’s like all that honey’s spilling out of Stede’s mouth, and he kisses Ed, just because he can’t not kiss him anymore, just to give him some of that overflowing syrup-sweetness that he can’t keep contained in his own body any longer.

Stede reaches between them, then, hands scoring down Ed’s leather top to reach the buckle on his pants. They separate, for a beat, where Ed’s dark eyes find his. His chest heaves against Stede’s, heart starting to rabbit; Stede can feel it pick up speed, and glances up at him, his own pulse racing in his own veins.

“I recall,” Stede says, undoing Ed’s buckle without looking down, keeping his head tilted up so their eyes stay connected, “I promised you that I would seduce you properly once I was sure you’d earned it properly.” He tugs his belt free with a slip and a hiss of leather against leather, tossing it aside to drop on the floor below with a thunk. “And I think you’ve more than earned my gratitude, don’t you?”

A soft sort of groan punches out of Ed then, unbidden, and his hands grasp at nothing at his sides for a beat before lurching up to grab at Stede, finding his waist with unerring accuracy.

“I’d say that’s a yes,” Stede murmurs, just before Ed lets one hand skate up into his hair, tightening his grip so he can draw him into a kiss.

“I fucking forgot,” Ed says into his mouth. He reaches down to get his hands on Stede’s pants, too, finding the tight fastens over his belly. Yanking at them, nearly tearing them from their bindings, he says, “Oh, fuck, I missed you—”

“Yeah?” Stede asks. “Even though Mary said I’m a poor show in bed?”

Ed huffs a laugh into his throat.

“She doesn’t know what the fuck she’s missing,” Ed says into his flesh, his voice a growling sort of rumble that vibrates all the way to the centers of Stede’s bones.

“You were right, you know,” Stede confesses to him, breathless.

“Usually am,” Ed replies, a bit rasping himself. “What about this time, though?”

Stede tears apart the fastens on his pants, pushes them down. “It’s a hell of a lot better when I’m with someone I like.” He kisses Ed, parts his lips, licking along his tongue, behind his teeth. He only pulls away to amend that to, “Someone I love, actually.”

Ed’s hungrier, when he pushes into Stede, then. His hand comes up to cradle his jaw, cupping his chin hard, tipping it up, rough fingertips gliding through his coarse beard. He digs in harder to kiss him deeper, to spread Stede open wider, to plunge further inside him. His tongue’s hot along his lips, slipping down along his own tongue, and Stede’s knees are weak, barely able to keep him upright as he clings to Ed, still fumbling to get his cock out.

“Yes,” Ed says, when Stede finally has his fingers wrapped around him, when he draws him into another biting kiss. He pushes Ed backwards, navigates him to the sofa until he can shove him down onto it, climbing up into his lap to straddle him. “F— Stede, c’mon, the—”

Stede leans past him towards the table behind the sofa, rattling through the drawers without taking his eyes away from Ed, burying into his throat to leave a mark while he searches with his hands.

When he finds what he’s looking for, he bites out, “Aha,” into Ed’s mouth before sitting upright again, straddling his lap, knees pressed down on either side of him, thighs spread wide across his to accommodate the breadth of him.

He brings the little vile of oil in between them, shaking it so it tinkles a bit, the liquid inside sloshing against the sides.

“This what you want?” Stede asks, and Ed nods in a hungry jerk, tipping up to claim another biting kiss from him. His hands score down Stede’s sides, catching his hips hard enough to bruise him up a bit. He glides down next to his hips next, catches him there, too, leaving marks in the shapes of his hands when he yanks Stede in harder, pulls him in closer.

“Yes,” Ed breathes. “Fuck— Fuck, please, you can do w—”

His hands fumble at Stede’s pants, shoving them open and apart, mouth coming up to find his again. His words cut off into a rumbling in his mouth before he’s kissing him again, sloppy, biting into him, just trying to get more and more and more of him.

Stede acquiesces; he wants the same thing, so it isn’t difficult to give and take in return. Everything in him is surging towards Ed, blood boiling, heat pulling, all gathering in his cock, and, fuck, he could die just looking at Ed under him like this, let alone touching him.

He eats up hot leather and skin with his hands, swallows as much of Ed as he can manage before he’s slicking his own fingers and shoving his pants further down. It’s horrible, terrible, to break the kiss he’s got with Ed, but it’s worth it when his own fingers press to his entrance, when he can sink them in just a bit further, just to breach himself.

His breath all punches out on Ed’s name, before he repeats it on a groan, a low, “Fuck, Ed,” that has him swallowing before he gasps, pushing in a little bit deeper.

“Fuck,” Ed echoes his curse. His hand comes up to wind in Stede’s hair, drawing him in so he can mouth along his jaw, tongue dragging through the short scratch of his beard, prickling against the soft, wet drag. He sucks in a kiss near his chin, drags up in another wet slide to his mouth. Stede rolls his hips into Ed’s, and he says again, “Aw, fuck—”

“I’ve gotcha,” Stede promises him. He exhales jaggedly, a shaky breath that punches out when he pushes his fingers in deeper.

If he had the patience to wait for Ed to open him up properly right now, he would, but— He doesn’t, he just— He needs to be open, needs to be spread, needs to have Ed inside him, needs to have him filling him right now, needs to— needs to show him just how much he means to him, how grateful he is to him, how much he cares for him, how— how much he loves him—

“Fuck,” Stede punches out again. He sinks onto a third finger, spreads himself open. His head falls back, the line of his throat exposed for Ed to run his hand up, palm flat over his own jugular, his pounding pulse, fingers threading up the soft underneath of his jaw. “I love you. Ed— Fuck, I love you—”

“I love you, too,” Ed echoes, throaty and rough. Stede shakes, shoulders shuddering when he slips his hand out of himself.

He can’t take it anymore. Honestly, he can’t, and he fills his palm with oil from the vial, bringing his hand to Ed’s cock, heedless of what spills beneath him and what doesn’t. It’s a rare moment he won’t be considering what he’ll have to clean up later, but he’s drunk on Ed right now, can’t find the thought to care. That’s a problem for Stede later; Stede now is consumed, and all he can do is consume.

His fingers wrap around Ed, find the soft, slick heat of him easily. He glides upwards, lets his thumb press to his slit before he strokes down again, and tightens his grip, and shifts just enough to twist, to let his hand meet Ed’s skin and start fucking the tight circle of his fist in a steadily increasing pump, over and over and over, until Ed’s writhing beneath him.

“Stede,” he punches out, “please,” and it was never like this before him. There’s sweat that dots up on Ed’s skin, and he’s covered in this— dew, like he’s a haze of lust, and he chases after Stede like he’s starving for him, and this— This is his everything, this—

With Mary, it was never like this, never. Even the bits he’d enjoyed felt wrong, somehow, or off-center, sort of, and it’s not until he’d put all the pieces together that he realized what was missing. And— yes, having sex with a man changes things tremendously, but it’s also—

It’s Ed.

It’s being with someone who actually knows all of him, who he lets himself be vulnerable with, who he genuinely allows himself to want and know and love, and whom he allows to want and know and love him in return.

It’s Ed, all the way through. It’s just— It’s Ed.

That changes everything, really. Stede could never have been this creature with Mary; he could never have been this man, this hungry beast, this animal of a person who feels lust like it’s hunger, who starves and takes and devours as if he would die without it, as if Ed is his air and his food and his pumping, raging blood and his beating, pulsing heart.

Stede brings the hot, slick heat that’s coasting inside of him to Ed’s cock, slicks him until Ed’s falling apart under him, until neither of them can take it any longer. It’s only then that he pushes upwards again, bringing the head of Ed’s cock to his slick-loose entrance.

“Ready?” he asks him, one hand still gripping Ed’s cock, holding him steady. The fingers of his other hand dig in hard to Ed’s tattooed shoulder, desperate to keep himself balanced; for his part, Ed’s got a tight hold on his hips, holding him upright. His dark eyes burn up into him, just— waiting, wanting, flaming, so much heat inside them Stede can feel that fire licking into him, too.

“Yeah,” Ed says, breathless. He licks his lips, swallows, then nods, a jerky twitch. “Yeah, come on, Stede, would you—”

His jaw falls open, and his head tilts back, when Stede does lower himself, then. He lets himself take a moment to adjust to the breach of his cockhead inside him, to breathe roughly through his nose, but he doesn’t want to take the time to adjust.

He wants, so he takes, and he fucks himself down until he’s seated in Ed’s lap, clinging to him, both of their chests heaving.

“Holy fuck,” Ed groans out. “Oh— Fuck, Stede, would you—” His hands scrabble at him, tracing up his chest. He clings to him, says again, “Fuck—” and Stede— Really, he can’t help but agree.

He noses down into another kiss with Ed, dragging their faces together until their mouths meet, and they bite together sloppily. Stede has to shift to get his knees under himself again, a quick shuffle upwards. Once he manages it, though, and achieves the proper leverage, he can fuck himself down on Ed’s cock like the madman he is, like the devouring, hungry beast he’s becoming.

Ed clings to him, desperate to give as good as he gets. He rolls up into him from beneath, grinding so deep into Stede when he fucks down onto him that he swears to God, he can feel him in his belly, like he’s filled up to his throat, heart stuffed up with him.

When Stede cries out into him, unable to fight back the next wave of sheer feeling that rolls through him, Ed tilts him down into him, sealing him in with a kiss. Their noises aren’t silenced, exactly, but they do swallow each other’s sounds, muffle one another, biting out grunts and moans and short words, curses and names and dripping-sweet fond-nothings, hidden in their mouths, spilling down their throats. It’s all Stede can do just to hang on, to trust his body and Ed’s to get them through this. It’s all-consuming; he can’t do anything but feel, and do, so he feels, and does.

Beneath him, Ed says, “Fuck, Stede, I’m not— I’m— I’m fucking—”

Stede nods jerkily, tipping up into another biting kiss. When his teeth meet Ed’s lower lips, he gets a jerk of a twitch upwards, his hips slamming to find the place inside Stede that has him sparking out inside, has his mind melting to drip down his spine and pool in his stomach, and then he’s falling apart. He can’t take this, not for much longer.

“Come on,” he says, not even entirely sure what he means. He tips himself forwards, just as Ed wriggles a hand between them to wrap around Stede’s cock, and he cries out, sweat dripping down the sides of his face to disappear into his beard, to trickle down and dot in damp little circles on Ed. “Come— Come on— Ed—”

Ed works faster, harder, grip tighter, grinding deeper, and Stede pushes down onto him, and into him, and fucks himself on his cock, and meets him beat for beat until he just can’t take it anymore.

It’s building, and building, and building, and before he even realizes it’s happening, it’s happening, and this sheer feeling courses through him. His mind just whites out, a bit, and he lets his head fall backwards, the line of his throat exposed, breathing jagged, cumming harder than he has in a long while.

Beneath him, Ed doesn’t stop stripping his cock, the slick sucking sound of Stede’s dick fucking the circle of his fist continuing long after he’s shuddered to a stop, the last drops rolling out of him.

It’s only then that Ed gets his hand up into Stede’s hair, directing him down into a kiss that has Stede’s eyes prickling, Ed’s name punching up out of him like it’s the only word he’s got left to say. Ed kisses his cheek, the corner of his mouth, desperate, hard, pushing, digging, in, and in, and in, until he’s cumming, too, and they slump into each other, Ed’s breath rattling hot and heavy near Stede’s ear while he pushes his face into his shoulder.

Inside him, it’s all just— heat, flooding heat, and he stays there, basking in the feel of it filling him inside. There’s a long, warm moment.

Then, Ed’s laughing shakily.

“The poor fucking couch,” he rumbles, voice scratching. “Aw, shit. I’m really sorry, mate, I prom—”

“Don’t be sorry, Ed,” Stede tells him breathlessly. He swallows, then takes a steadying breath of his own. “I— Sorry, I really think I’m too tired to give two shits about it right now. You can always ask me about it again later, though, if you’d like.”

Ed laughs again. Stede briefly worries he’ll be— offended, maybe, but all Ed does is say, “Honestly? Yeah, I’m fucking tired, too.” He kisses Stede’s cheek, says, “Thank fuck you said that, because I swear, I’m gonna be asleep in— maybe five minutes, and I don’t want you to think it’s you, but— Fuck, I am so tired. I’m not cut out for this shit. I need a fucking— I need a nap.”

Stede absorbs Ed’s rambling with a pleased smile, lethargic already, pressed into his front. Sleepily, feeling like all the heat is draining out of him— all the adrenaline, all the heart-pumping, blood-boiling action— and leaving him with this overwhelming exhaustion, this tug towards sleep, which he’s— honestly, more than welcoming right now. He’s not had a proper night’s sleep in a few days. In fact, it was the promise of just this moment that had gotten him out of bed at all earlier this morning.

“Let me get you back in bed,” Stede mumbles into Ed’s throat. He kisses lazily at a bruise he finds in his flesh, there, before lifting his head, then his shoulders, pushing himself up. “Get you out of those clothes.” He kisses the space under his eye, the side of his nose. “Least I could do.”

“Mm,” Ed rumbles, just a soft sort of— sound of a word, more of a feeling. “Got your work cut out for you.”

“Mm,” Stede echoes, and gets his hands around Ed’s wrists, tugging him upright.

It takes a bit of maneuvering, but it’s not all that bad, really. They get out of their clothes, and spill into bed, and— Genuinely, knowing that the door is locked, and that Izzy can handle mostly anything that could happen while they’re in here, and that they can just— just sleep, uninterrupted, for a while, has him motivated to do pretty much anything to get them there.

“Fuck,” Ed says, eyes already closed, completely naked except for the sheets Stede’s tucking around him. He yawns; through it, garbled, he tells him, “I think this is the most tired I’ve ever been.” He shifts, lets his eyes drift open, finds Stede. They wrap up in each other in bed, fitting together like they always do. Ed fingers the edge of the fraying bandage on Stede’s head, rubbing along the tender skin. “I don’t think I slept normal once the entire time they were here.”

“Not easy being a parent,” Stede agrees sleepily. He yawns, himself. Contagious, he remembers. “At least our kids can get on fine without us.”

It takes Ed a beat to understand what he’s saying before he snorts a laugh. “Think the ship’ll still be sailing when we wake up?”

“One can only hope,” Stede says. “I think we’ve taught them well, though. They can probably manage a few hours without us.”

“Or days,” Ed amends, stretching out, joints cracking. Emphatically, he repeats, “Fuck.”

“Or days,” Stede echoes in agreement. He wouldn’t mind a bit of recovery time from all the excitement, really. And—

Certainly, he’ll have to go up on deck afterwards, and proceed to be a captain, and so will Ed, and soon they’ll need to plan another raid, or hunt another ship, or search out another adventure, but—

All that can wait, for a beat. He can allow himself this moment in between. They both can.

“Love you,” Ed says sleepily beside him, kissing the soft give of his cheek.

“Love you more,” Stede whispers back to him. He tightens his grip on him, hugs him tighter, closer. In that same whisper, he reminds him, “You know that, right? You’re my— Ed, you’re my family. I love you more than anything.”

Ed smiles, in the beat before he drags his eyes back open. He finds Stede without needing to search for him, unerring as he meets Stede in the darkness and swallows him whole with just his eyes.

“Yeah?” Ed asks him.

“Yeah,” Stede replies. He reaches up, letting the pad of his thumb brush over the very edge of the fringe of Ed’s eyelashes, coasting to cup his face at the side. Pulling him in a bit closer, trying to tug them into one body, he says, “I mean it. You’re— everything. Ed, I mean that.”

Ed’s eyes flit between Stede’s, one to the other, before he nods. He tips up a bit, kisses the corner of Stede’s mouth, the first place his lips can find to meet him.

“You’re mine, too,” Ed murmurs back into the space between them. “And I mean that, too.” He kisses him again, repeats, “I mean it loads.”

Stede smiles, wrapping his arms tighter around him, coaxing Ed into the dreamy sort of sleep while he’s still half-kissing him by the time his breathing evens out and his heartbeat steadies and he finally drops off with him.