He almost wishes he hadn’t thrown the boy overboard. Barely started, and he’s already fucking sick of digging.
He’d considered his other options, but Izzy would have been a headache (getting him to shut up about coming here in the first place was pulling teeth… or, well. Something like that), and there’s no one else on that ship Ed trusts as far as he can throw them. Certainly no one he trusts enough to be here for this. To see what he does when he…
To be honest, he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do. He doesn’t have a fucking clue why he’s doing this.
But with the piddly amount of dirt this shovel holds, he reckons he has time left to figure it out.
Sweat immediately gathers at his wrists; the heat can’t get out of his gloves and it’s a misery, but it has to be better than the blisters he’d get from the handle on his bare skin. It’s a decent distraction, anyway. Small discomforts to annoy him: the heat on his hands, the strain in his arms, the ache of his knee already starting to protest, and the dull sting of the shovel under his boot. All of it in slow repetition. There’s something almost soothing about it. Hypnotic. The crack of shovel into earth. The thud of boot against shovel. The quiet resignation of dirt onto dirt, added to the pile. Over, and over, again, and again. And eventually, the quiet noises of effort, the heightened beat of his heart, the harshness of his breath.
It’s the first real piece of work he’s done in… he doesn’t know how long. He hasn’t exactly been keeping a tight hold on the calendar these past days. Weeks, months, no matter. Time is easier measured in bottles lately, the options ‘day’ and ‘night’ replaced with the much simpler ‘too drunk’ and ‘too sober.’ He’s not sure which he is now, but it’s definitely one or the other. There’s a tightness deep in his skull, a pressure behind his eyes that throbs each time he strikes the shovel, that grinds between his ears each time he heaves it away. The ground is loosening under his efforts, and he wonders if he’ll be able to keep himself upright when he gets deep enough. He’s not his best on land as it is; balancing on upturned sand and soil while he’s pissed out of his mind is something from a stress nightmare. Even the air itself is challenging him. It’s too thick here, so dense and fragrant he can barely suck it into his lungs.
It should be raining. It feels like it should. There should be clouds, shadows, winds and lightning and thunder so loud it shakes his bones. But the sky is clear. Perfect, ink-black. Stars. A bright crescent moon. Everything is still. Peaceful. It’s quiet. It’s a beautiful night.
It’s a slap in the fucking face, is what it is.
Ed slams his boot to the shovel with a little more oomph. His arms hurt and he’s blinking sweat out of his eyes and he wants this to be done. He doesn’t know how much deeper he’s gonna have to get. He doesn’t know what he’ll do when he gets there. But he needs this to be done. Because the longer he does this, the harder it is to focus. He slips too far into the rhythm, and the mindlessness of the work lets his mind start to list. He tries to keep his eyes on the ground, he really does, but sometimes he loses himself and glances up… and he sees the name staring back at him. Dates. Chiseled into the stone, precise and unchangeable. When he looks down, he sees dirt. The shovel. His filthy boots.
When he looks up, he sees STEDE BONNET.
It’s easier when he doesn’t think. His rum is around here somewhere; maybe he should pause to finish it off, get his mind to fucking shut up for a few minutes. The world’s a bit fuzzy around the edges—has been for the past few days, weeks—but that’s not enough. Right now it only blurs when he turns his head too sharply, when he lifts the shovel too high. That’s not enough. That leaves spaces in between the soft bits, spaces for his mind to drift, spaces for him to look up and see STEDE BONNET with an end date. Stede Bonnet with a time limit that’s already run out.
He thrusts the point of the shovel into the earth. He strikes the heel of his boot hard enough to wring a grunt out of his throat. He heaves, he tosses it away (he didn’t have to toss it this high a minute ago, did he?). He starts again. And he doesn’t think. He doesn’t think.
He could have kissed him. Maybe not sooner, but… more. Again. And instead, he walked away. Twice. It would have been so easy.
“We leave at dawn. I’ll work out all the details. You… think up some new names. Cool ones.” He could have leaned in, crouching, steadying himself with a hand on Stede’s shoulder. Not much. Simple. Nothing to change the world, like the first had done.
“I’ll meet you down there… Hey, get some sleep.” His cheek, maybe. Something chaste, but with a purpose. A goodnight kiss. Fuck, he’d been saying goodnight and it hadn’t even crossed his mind.
He flings aside another shovelful of dirt. His palms are starting to chafe.
He had chances. He had Stede right in front of him, with his big, fragile, hopeful eyes, his lips parted the slightest bit. Right there. He could have touched him again. He knows it was only a handful of seconds, really, but that’s no excuse. Each of those seconds was a chance for him to kiss Stede Bonnet, and each of them was a time that he’d decided not to.
Not that it would have changed anything, but. It’d be one less regret stuck in his mind while he kicks this fucking shovel into the earth—
Ed freezes. A dull pain reverberates through his heel, running up the length of his leg. The resistance of striking something solid.
It doesn’t matter. He knew he would get here. Ed keeps digging, keeps up the same motions, and it’s no different now just because the shovel scrapes across wood. Ed digs, and he breathes, and he doesn’t care that this is it. He doesn’t care that there’s something besides soil beneath his feet. He doesn’t care that there’s a coffin in Stede’s grave.
He can make out the boards now, he can see the edges broadening out from the narrow spot below his boots. It has a shape, unmistakable: Ed is standing at the feet. He’s scraping dirt away from the widening of shoulders. He can start to see the person made in the angles. And soon he’ll see the rest, and that’s fine, he doesn’t care, because it’s…
It’s why he’s doing this. He knows, really. Knew from the start. He knows it as well as he knows the tiny, incessant voice that’s been whispering in the back of his mind like a siren, too false to be believed, too real to ignore:
The only word left in his addled head. Maybe this is wrong. Maybe there was a mistake. Maybe the details were twisted, lost somewhere along the convoluted voyage from this island to Ed’s ears. Maybe this didn’t happen. Maybe there’s no one and nothing here. Maybe Ed is digging up an empty box.
Hope has always left a sour taste in his mouth, but right now it’s fuel and fire and the only thing keeping him upright. It’s the only thing that’s kept him going since the moment he heard, and now he can see the shape of a cross under his shovel, and it’s fine, it’s fine that he’s about to do something that might take away the only thing keeping him alive. It’s fine. The wood creaks under his weight. It’s fine. The shovelfuls get smaller; the dirt is spread too thin to fill it. Ed is fine. His heart is pounding in his ears louder than cannon fire, but that’s just from exertion. It’s got nothing to do with the feeling starting to churn deep in his stomach, or the icy hand tightening around his chest. It’s hard to breathe, but that’s just the humid air, the smell creeping into his nostrils. It isn’t fear; Blackbeard doesn’t feel fear. And he certainly doesn’t feel panic. That’s not the feeling thrumming inside him, rising with his blood, clawing inside his skin. His heart is beating in doubletime to the pounding of his shovel, an ever-increasing rhythm against the maybes clouding his thoughts. Some of the maybes are almost reasonable, and some are so stupid, so asinine, he feels childish even allowing them a space in his head. Fucking embarrassing to let himself think that he’s not in there. Fucking pathetic to have let himself hope all this time.
The shovel is more hindrance than help at this point. Ed tosses it aside and drops to his knees with a sharp groan. At first, it seems perfectly rational to scrape aside what little dirt is left in his way, but really, it’s barely a few moments before he’s clawing at the soil. His heartbeat is deafening, and the maybes are suffocating. Through the haze of the rum and the thick air and his traitorous mind, Ed almost thinks he can hear something else. The stupidest maybe of them all. He hears a beating heart, he hears scratching against the lid of the coffin, and maybe, maybe—it’s easy to make mistakes; people get put in the dirt too soon all the time, that’s a thing. It’s possible. Ed knows Stede is in here, and now he thinks if he can just move faster, if he had just gotten here sooner, if he had done this differently, there would still be time. He can still get to him. He can save him. If he can just get the fucking thing open.
It’s not that hard, in the end. He would have thought a gentleman would be buried in a solid gold tomb, but it’s just a box. Ed fumbles for his knife and rams it into the first gap he finds that looks like it’ll give purchase. And it’s easy. He wrenches it back until he’s rewarded with the shallow crack of the board snapping in his hand. He grabs for another; it only takes one good yank to break it away. He tries to breathe, he tries to swallow down the panic, the terror gripping him as he tears the coffin to pieces until he’s cleared enough to pry the top half of the lid free—
He doesn’t know why he’s doing this.
He puts a hand over his nose and mouth, but it doesn’t help much. Breathing is an impossibility. There’s a tremor in Ed’s shoulders as his lungs struggle to take in air. His stomach lurches. The corners of his eyes sting. But that’s… that’s just the smell. He was expecting that. It’s not anything… it’s not because…
Ed can tell that there was… an effort made. He can tell they tried. But given what they had to work with—the absurdity of a literal overkill so fucking ridiculous it could only happen to Stede fucking Bonnet—there really wasn’t much hope, was there? Ed knows parts of it would happen to any man: the discolored flesh, the hollow softness where there should be a solid form. He’s seen that before. He’s been the cause of that before. He knows what a corpse is. But the… the rest of it. The shape of his skull. The absence of features. All the parts that have been broken beyond repair. The mangling that turned this from a person to a body well before decay came along to finish the job.
Ed didn’t let himself think what he might find here—if there was anything to find at all. But also… maybe he did. Maybe there was a piece of him tucked away somewhere that had thought this through, and was stupid enough to envision something different. Something satisfying and poetic. Maybe Ed imagined himself cradling Stede’s still-warm body in his arms, burying his fingers in his pristine curls and weeping over him for Heaven and Hell to hear. With that wonderful ache, that tender sadness from the part of Stede’s best fairy tales where the happy ending feels out of reach for just long enough. Ed would find him, his body intact, perfect, as beautiful as he was on the beach, glowing in the moonlight like that night on deck. Peaceful as sleep. As if he were only waiting for Ed to find him and wake him with a kiss.
He barely has lips left to kiss. If Ed so much as touched him now, his fingers might go right through to the bone. Ed looks at the parts of him that should be familiar, the places he’d brushed his fingers, laid his hands. They’re liquid. So utterly changed from the way Ed knew them that he can barely make out their shape. Ed looks, starting as a cautious sweep, but quickly becoming frantic as he searches, because he needs—he needs to find anything, any trace of familiarity, he needs to find something he knows, but… there’s nothing. Ed looks, and he doesn’t see him. There’s not a single feature left for him to cling to. Even the clothes are unfamiliar.
And somehow, it’s that realization that punches out what little air is left in Ed’s lungs. For all their talk, for everything they shared, it turns out it doesn’t matter. He can tell Ed about fabrics, invite him into the wardrobe he’s kept secret from every other person, he can give Ed the clothes off his own fucking back. But still, here he is, buried in something that Ed has never seen. Resting in peace in the trappings of the life he wouldn’t share. All the parts of him that Ed wasn’t allowed.
He thinks of the rest of those pieces, that life, tucked away in whatever castle Stede kept. A wardrobe full of clothes he never let Ed touch, books he never let Ed see, finery he chose to come back to alone. And Ed thinks—suddenly, wildly—that he should find it, and burn it all to the fucking ground. He found this place easy enough; surely it wouldn’t be much trouble to find the rest of Stede’s life here and reduce it to ash.
Not that it would do any good. Not that it would make any difference. It certainly wouldn’t make the corpse beneath him look any more like the man he might love—might have loved. Ed can look as long as he wants, eyes stinging, stomach roiling, but there’s not… there’s nothing. There’s not even a hint of him. This is a stranger who happens to be lying under Stede’s name. And the weight of that feeling scratches at something in the back of Ed’s mind.
“And what if Blackbeard turned up dead? His corpse disfigured beyond recognition, of course.”
Gun to his head, Ed doesn’t know if he ever meant it. It was a decent plan. Certainly enough to keep Izzy off his back for a while, if nothing else. But he doesn’t know if he ever truly intended to go through with it. If he ever believed he could.
Now, at least, he knows. Seeing the bald-faced reality of Stede Bonnet, his corpse disfigured beyond recognition, it’s fucking laughable to think that it could have happened at Ed’s hand. That night, when he’d held his knife to his back, even if Ed had run it through Stede’s heart like he’d promised, he wouldn’t have been able to do this. To take the face he’d come to know so well, that he’d gazed at, touched, kissed… and to turn it into the flattened, mutilated thing he’s looking at now…
He doesn’t know why he’s here. He doesn’t know why he did this.
Maybe he needed answers. Maybe he needed proof, loud enough to shut up that stupid whisper of hope in his head. And sure, this is proof. This is the most solid, unquestionable, iron-fucking-clad evidence anyone could possibly get. This is the most miserably, utterly dead a person could ever be. But that doesn’t…
It doesn’t help. It doesn’t make it easier. Ed looks down at the rotting, rancid flesh that used to be the man he probably loves—probably loved, and what fucking good does it do? He had thought it was impossible to live with his last memories, with Stede’s face in the dark of the barracks, with Stede’s quiet hope on the beach, with Stede’s smile held in the cradle of Ed’s palm. But he doesn’t understand how he thought this could be better. This isn’t going to leave him. He could have stayed on the ship, stayed with his memories and whatever secrets he couldn’t bring himself to toss overboard. He could have chosen to remember Stede how he was. Whole, and beautiful, and alive.
Instead, he has this. And he’s going to see this every time he closes his eyes for the rest of his goddamned life.
Serves him right, doesn’t it? The one thing that he’d truly wanted, the one fine thing that he decided to let himself have, without waiting for any God to tell him if it was allowed. And look how it turned out.
Ed blinks a little harder. His vision starts to blur at the edges. He tries to ignore it. He pretends that it’s the booze, the stench, anything but the truth. As drops start to fall onto the soiled lace of Stede’s collar, Ed tries to pretend that it’s rain. And what the fuck is that about, really? Trying to hold onto his dignity while he’s crumpled in a pathetic little ball over the decayed corpse of the man he loves—
He lets himself stop pretending.
It’s only him here, after all. There’s no one to see him shaking, convulsing on his hands and knees. No one to hear the sounds tearing out of his throat. There’s no one else here. He’s with Stede Bonnet, and he’s alone.
It doesn’t take long after that. It’s already a perfect storm. He’s shaking, his head hanging between his shoulders, barely able to keep himself from collapsing. Between the air and the smell and the sobs it’s fucking impossible to catch a breath. He gasps whenever his throat will let him, trying to take in whatever air he can. It’s not enough. The heaving of his chest becomes a heaving of everything that’s left of him. The slow roil in his gut takes a harsh turn, starting a breakneck crawl up his throat. He’s already sputtering, choking, and suddenly what’s only torturous becomes unbearable. Ed manages to turn away just in time for the contents of his stomach to spill onto the dirt.
The blessing and curse of his recent alcohol-based diet is that there’s not much to work with. He barely manages one good heave before he’s left spitting nothing but a thin trail of bile. It feels right at home with the tears and sweat and snot already dripping from him in equal measure. It seems rather fitting: he’s an utter fucking mess as it is, might as well add this, too.
It takes fucking ages before he’s able to breathe again, and even longer before the fucking sounds stop coming out of him. And when it’s finally done, all he is, is… tired.
Fuck. He’s never known exhaustion like this. He’s never been so empty in every goddamn fucking way the word can mean.
And he’s done.
Whatever the hell this was, it’s over. Ed tries to dry himself, but the gloves are useless, so the best he can do is wipe his face on his bare arm and pretend it does any good.
(There’s a moment where he wishes he had one of Stede’s fancy handkerchiefs, one of his stupidly soft little lacy cloths—but he manages to beat that thought back down pretty damn quick.)
He starts the process of getting to his feet as soon as the worst of the shaking subsides. Now that the mad rush of adrenaline has worn off, he can finally feel his knee screaming with every movement. Even if he weren’t already going to regret this night for the rest of his life, he knows he’ll absolutely regret the days it’ll take his body to recover from it.
He can’t bring himself to look again. He closes what’s left of the lid, lays some of the broken boards down as best he can, but he keeps his eyes carefully averted. He knows it would only do harm. Ed knows he’s looked at him for the last time.
It takes some doing to haul himself out of the grave, what with the way his head spins and his limbs tremble. There’s pain—it’s in every single part of him, in some form or other. Every piece of Ed stings like a wound that’s not closing right, but none more so than the piece he’s leaving behind, the piece of him that’s going to stay right here in the earth.
He makes some attempt to put things right, even though he knows it’s pointless. He knows he’s well fucking past being able to undo this damage, but still, he scrapes weak shovelfuls of dirt back over the coffin. It won’t do any good, but it feels… necessary. If he has to leave the most precious part of himself in this grave, he may as well give it a proper burial.
He goes, and goes, and goes, until his knee gives out entirely. There’s still a mound of dirt in front of him, but he’s put enough of it back where it belongs to feel a bit of distance from the coffin beneath it. Ed trades the shovel for his bottle of rum, and he collapses. He sits with his back against the side of Stede’s headstone. He stretches out his leg, gritting his teeth as his knee reminds him what a fucking mistake all of this was. He forces down swallow after swallow of rum until it burns off the taste of vomit lingering on his tongue. He reminds himself to keep breathing.
A few minutes later, he reminds himself again.
There’s something that’s been roaming around inside him, prodding into every nook and cranny that’s soft enough to give way. So far, Ed hasn't been too bothered about interrogating it to find out what it is. But now he knows. Without a single question, he knows: it’s grief. Plain as that. Pure, uncomplicated, unfamiliar grief.
And in a fucked-up kind of way, that’s almost comforting. Because it makes sense. Ed has felt some sort of unsteady since that night on the dock. He’s been pitching around in a storm, blown through far too many ifs and whys and why nots and fucking maybes. He hasn’t fully known the contents of his own mind in all the time that’s passed. On some level, everything has been Stede, and on every level, Stede has been questions. What had Ed done to make him leave? What would Ed do if he saw him again? What does Ed want with him? And why—why the fuck can’t Ed stop loving him, no matter how desperately he needs to?
None of that matters anymore. Ed will never have to answer the question of Stede Bonnet. He’ll never have to decide if he wants to forgive him, love him, kill him, take him back. Now he can abandon that mess. The only thing Ed has to feel for Stede is grief. It’s agony. It’s a pain he knows will live in the marrow of him until the day they toss his body into the sea where it belongs. The piece of his heart that’s buried in this grave will never heal, never grow back, will ache as persistently as his knee—but with no way of bracing it, no way of giving it a moment’s rest. Ed’s grief is all-consuming, and it’s unbearable.
But it’s simple. It’s easy to understand. Stede’s death is the first thing Ed has been able to understand since the night he was left behind. It takes away everything else and leaves only this one simple, impossible burden for him to bear. In a way, maybe this is the kindest thing Stede could have done for him.
Eventually, Ed realizes that he’s breathing without having to remind himself. The booze has finally made things go a bit soft, a bit warm (though that might just be the fucking humidity). He tips his head back. Closes his eyes.
He didn’t think this part through… not that there’s any part of this that he’d thought through properly. He knows he should get back to the ship. If he’s not back before sunrise he wouldn’t put it past Izzy to leave him here and never look back. The measures Ed had taken to ensure Izzy wouldn’t follow him here (the combination of an escargot fork, a hammer, and determination) mean that he won’t exactly be up and about anytime soon, but he’d probably be able to get the crew to abandon Ed without much fuss. Hell, Ed’s not sure he can make his way back to port in the first place, between his knee, his stomach, and the way the ground goes a bit wobbly every time he opens his eyes.
He wonders how this’ll go. Who will find him like this, what they’ll do with him. Do they hang grave robbers around here? Well, not like that matters; they sure as fuck hang pirates. It’s a bit disappointing that in his current state he’ll certainly be going down without a fight, but he can’t make himself care. Maybe he’ll get lucky, and someone will come along and put a bullet in his skull before Ed knows they’re there. It’ll be over before he has to start figuring out how he’s going to live like this. Being put down like a dog in this graveyard might not be a fittingly glorious death for Blackbeard, but it sounds a hell of a lot nicer than the slow agony of Edward Teach dying of a broken heart.
When he first hears the footsteps, he thinks he might have manifested them. Willed his executioner into existence through sheer desire. But habits are hard to break, and Ed has his pistol pointed in the direction of the noise before he even opens his eyes. It’s not loaded, but he’s willing to bet the interloper will be too stupid to realize that.
The footsteps stop immediately, so he’s right about that much. But then there’s a quiet gasp. And that’s enough to make Ed peel his eyes open.
A woman stands a handful of feet away. Ed is disoriented for a moment—but then he realizes she’s wearing black, clutching flowers, so he supposes it makes more sense for her to be here than him.
He sighs. He’s not in any sort of mood to deal with this. He opens his mouth—
“What the fuck are you doing?” she snaps.
And Ed is so thrown that he mumbles, “Fuck are you doing?” before he can stop himself.
“I was going to bring flowers to my husband’s grave,” she says evenly, “but then I found that someone has desecrated it.”
“We didn’t bury him with anything,” she says, “not so much as a gold tooth. And if you’re a Resurrectionist, I’m sure it’s several weeks too late for him to fetch you any profit.”
“Mary,” he says. The name feels foreign in his mouth.
“How do—?” she starts. But she’s sharper than that, and a moment later she says, “You sailed with him.”
Ed doesn’t feel the need to confirm.
“You don’t look like a pirate,” Mary says. And when Ed doesn’t give a response, she adds, “I didn’t think pirates wore leather. You don’t actually wear all of that on the ship, do you?” She wrinkles her nose. “Must be awful in the heat.”
Ed holds her gaze. “Looks cool.”
She makes an incredulous noise. He waits for her to cower, to back away, to look at the pistol aimed at her head with anything other than bland curiosity.
Finally, he can’t bear the calm any longer. “Why aren’t you frightened?”
“I’m an unarmed woman standing next to an open grave that already has my name on it. If you were going to do something terrible to me, I don’t imagine you’d pause for a chat first.”
He could argue. For the sake of her future self-preservation, if nothing else, Ed could point out that it’s still very possible for someone like him to do something terrible to her, chat or no. But he knows he’s not going to. Knows he wouldn’t harm a hair on her head regardless of who she is. So he doesn’t bother.
He lowers his gun.
And they look at one another.
“He talked about you,” Mary says, after a stretch of uneasy silence. “Wouldn’t ever fucking shut up about all of it, actually,” she adds, and Ed feels an odd pang somewhere in his chest. “So, which one are you? Calico Jack? Izzy Hands?”
Ed could almost laugh, because of course she thinks he’s one of the bastards.
Then again, he reckons she’s right.
“What did he ever tell you about Blackbeard?”
She shrugs. “Not much. Brought up the name once or twice, but. It was all about the name, right? He never said anything that mattered, just tacked ‘Blackbeard’ onto every story like a… a bragging right.”
Ed grits his teeth against the unexpected twist of that knife. But it shouldn’t be surprising. Stede didn’t abandon Ed just to go home and make small talk about him to his wife. If Stede had anything nice to say about him, he wouldn’t have fucking left in the first place, would he?
“But you’re not Blackbeard,” she says.
“You don’t have a beard.”
Ed feels his lip twitch. “It’s coming in.”
She looks at him, tilts her head as if considering. Sizing him up. “You know, I don’t think I ever believed him. It’s not exactly believable. He pretends to be able to sail a boat for a few weeks, and he just so happens to bump into the most infamous pirate captain of all time? It sounds like one of the ridiculous stories he used to tell the children before bed.” She hums. “I suppose it’s… rather something to know he was telling the truth. Makes the stories more interesting, anyway.”
Ed tips his head back, resting it against the stone. He closes his eyes. He takes a slow, shaking breath. And he waits for her to leave.
She doesn’t. “What is it, then? You wouldn’t go to all this trouble for a lark. Did he steal something from you, and you want it back? Or, were you hoping to be the one to put the final nail in? You wish you could have killed him yourself?”
Ed indulges in a sharp, bitter sound at the thought of what he wishes he could have done to her husband. “Something like that.”
“It’s hard to imagine him being a competent enough pirate to make a real enemy.” She pauses. “Unless you can make an enemy just by being that annoying.”
Ed furrows his brow. “Not supposed to speak ill of the dead, I thought.”
“Not supposed to dig up their corpses either, yet here we are.”
Ed opens his eyes. Mary still looks at him. Her composure is a form of quiet defiance.
He offers her the only gesture of goodwill he still knows: he holds out his bottle.
For a moment, she shrinks back. But—whether from genuine interest, or fear of what might happen if she refuses—she steps forward. She only makes it about halfway before she slaps a hand over her nose (apparently Ed hasn’t replaced enough dirt to fully take care of the stench. He must be either too drunk or too used to it to notice). Still, though, she goes on. She takes the bottle from him and knocks back a decent swallow with no hesitation. “Fuck,” she grits through her teeth, “that’s disgusting.” She wipes her mouth on her sleeve as she hands the bottle back to him, nearly getting a face-full of flowers for her troubles.
Ed starts to take another swig himself—but first, he tips the bottle toward her. The world’s saddest fucking toast.
He doesn’t expect her to stick around after that, maybe just drop the flowers and make a run for it. He forces his bleary eyes to focus on the sky, and he can see a streak of golden-red peeking above the rooftops. He isn’t sure if it’s much too early or much too late for a proper lady to make a pleasant jaunt to her husband’s grave, but either way, he reckons she wasn’t planning to stop long and she’ll be fucking off home any minute now.
But the longer she stays there, the longer Ed rests his heavy head against Stede’s gravestone, the longer he floats in his rum-hazed stupor, waiting until he can drown… the harder it gets for him to ignore the truth: this is it. However this ends, it’s the end. It’s his end. This is the last night he’ll ever spend with Stede Bonnet, and it’s almost over.
When he thinks about it like that, he can’t let her leave, can he? He can’t be left here with nothing but the truth, he can’t be left to do this alone, to have to find his own way forward. He can’t let the only remaining piece of Stede’s life walk away from him.
“He thought he deserved this,” Ed says, because he needs to say something, and it’s the first thing to claw its way from his head to his tongue.
“Yeah, well, he was a proper fucking martyr, wasn’t he?”
Ed looks at her, and his surprise must show on his face because she says, “What? He was,” without a moment of hesitation. “He makes this ridiculous choice without even glancing over his shoulder to look at the mess he’s created, then he suddenly decides to grow a conscience and feel guilty about it, and what does he do? He comes back and makes his guilt everyone else’s problem.” She lifts her chin, glancing up at the last stars that are bright enough to hold their own against the glow of early dawn. “Wanted to fix his mess, but didn’t give a shit how any of us wanted it to be fixed. Just did whatever he thought would make his guilt go away. So he gets to see himself as noble and selfless, while everyone else suffers for it.”
She stops. She puffs out her cheeks, then lets out her breath in a weary sigh. “Sorry. Maybe I’m still a tad bitter.”
“You’re right.” Ed swallows; the rumble of his own voice is unfamiliar to his ears, but he soldiers on. “D’you know, he was ready to let himself get executed just for his little list of petty sins.”
Mary scoffs. “Yeah, ‘cause that would have helped. Everybody knows the best way to fix your mistakes is to die instead of having to actually deal with them.”
“Right.” Ed lifts his head, sitting up a bit taller. “Like he thought it would do any good. Didn’t care what he would leave behind, didn’t fucking think what it would have done to anyone else, what it would have—”
He catches himself. But Mary is looking at him, so. Probably not quite soon enough. He scoffs, something sharp, growled. A pathetic attempt to save face.
Mary hums. “Bit of a moron, wasn’t he?”
“Selfish fuckin’ bastard.”
She doesn’t argue.
Ed takes another drink. He doesn’t feel the burn anymore. Numb, all the way down. He looks at the bottle, watches the gentle swirl of what little is left inside. And he asks, “Did you love him?”
“No,” Mary answers. Simple as that. Ed looks up, and she meets his gaze without so much as a hint of embarrassment. “That was never part of the equation for us. I tried—obviously—I tried as hard as I could, but…” she shrugs.
Ed sits with that. He turns it over, tries to parse through it. Honestly, he’s not sure if this makes it worse, or better. To know that Stede left him to go somewhere he wasn’t even wanted. For Stede to have ruined Ed’s life just to go ruin someone else’s as well.
He takes an uneasy breath. “Did he love you?”
She throws her head back and laughs. There’s no malice in it. It’s a bright, honest sound, it’s… strange. Ed can’t remember the last time someone laughed in his company.
(Well, maybe he can.)
Mary shakes her head, pressing her fingers to her grinning mouth. “Sorry, sorry, I—” she gathers herself. “I’m certain that there are arranged marriages where husband and wife fall deeply in love, and come to be as blissfully besotted as any couple who were free to choose. But…” she laughs again, softly. “Given a thousand lifetimes and the very best of intentions, Stede and I would never have been able to love one another. At least not… the way spouses should.”
She looks down at the bouquet in her hand, and something changes on her face. “It’s a little… it’s odd, I suppose, but. In the end, I think we had reached a kind of understanding. When we weren’t forcing ourselves anymore, when we were able to give that up for good. I—I think… If things had been different, if we had been allowed to choose each other on our own terms. I think we could have been friends.” She smiles, but it’s a sad look. “And really, I think it’s rather unfair that we only realized that when we had to say our first proper goodbye.”
Ed waits her out, seeing if she’ll say more, seeing if she’ll get that horribly gentle look off her face. But she doesn’t. So he swallows, and finally lets himself ask the only thing that matters: “Why did he come back?”
She shrugs. “Just to be a dick.”
It’s a quiet, shaking thing. But it’s out of him before he even realizes, before he can wonder whether his body remembers how to do it. It sounds rough. It’s fucking ugly, to tell the truth, but it’s… kinda nice, too. And it’s his.
Mary’s smile twists, her whole face going wry and mischievous—and Ed thinks that in another world, he could have liked her very much. Maybe in that same, kind world where she could have been Stede’s friend, she could have been Ed’s, too.
It’s a nice thought. Ed might hang onto it.
“I do think his intentions were… maybe not good, but. Fine. Decent.” Mary rests the tops of the flowers in her other hand, giving them a little bounce. “In his head, I’m sure he thought he was making things right. Trouble is, he was only ever interested in what he thought ‘right’ was. Because fuck what I want, yeah? God knows there were times I would have loved to flee into the night and leave my family and my duties behind, but that’s not a decision the wife gets to make. I was always left to sort out whatever pieces he decided to give me.” She lets the bouquet hang down at her side. A few petals shake loose, falling lazily to the ground. “It was wonderful when he left. Like I could breathe for the first time. We were finally a family. Without him, we managed to make something beautiful. And of course he had to come back and ruin it. Selfish fuckin’ bastard.” She smiles, but then furrows her brow. “This,” she tilts the flowers gently toward the open grave, “this is the only truly kind thing he ever did for me.”
She looks down at the dirt covering her husband. Ed follows her gaze. And for a moment, there’s silence. It’s heavy, as thick as the air around them. And in it, Ed can hear the things that neither of them are willing to say.
“Fuck,” Mary steps in close, flapping her hand expectantly at what’s left of the rum, “give it here, then.”
Ed gives it willingly. He even lets himself smile—just a tiny bit—at the balls of this woman, as she demands Blackbeard’s booze and polishes off the bottle without so much as a ‘thank you.’
“So what’s this?” Ed nods toward the flowers. “Seems like a lot of trouble for someone you’re not too choked up about.”
“I have to play the part, don’t I? At least a few more weeks. Society, and all.”
“Hate to tell you, your performance tonight has been shit.”
And she just smirks at him. “Well, excuse me for assuming a pirate doesn’t have much interest in telling the town gossips that I’m not properly mourning my husband.”
“‘Might do.” Ed draws his good leg up, resting his arm on his knee. “You don’t know what a monster like me is capable of.”
“Eugh,” she wrinkles her nose, “don’t be dramatic. Any ordinary man is capable of doing horrible things; you don’t get to hide behind the excuse of ‘Oooh, it’s not my fault, I can’t help it, I’m a big scary monster.’”
Ed bristles. “I am. I’m fuckin’ Blackbeard.”
“You’re not though, are you? You’re just some guy.” She tilts her head. “What, something Tighe, right? Teach? Teach, that’s it. Your name is Edward Te—”
The flowers fall from her hand.
“Oh,” she breathes.
Ed can’t read what’s happening on her face, but he knows he doesn’t like it. Something in his gut has him reaching for his pistol before his head can think better of it.
“You’re Ed,” Mary says. Her voice is suddenly small. “You’re Ed.” She raises a hand to her chest, then her mouth, her fingertips moving like she doesn’t know what to do with them. Like she’s become lost. “He… he told me about you.”
Ed frowns. “You said—”
“Not Blackbeard. He told me about Ed.”
“Oh.” That’s… well. It’s something. And though it feels foolish, it feels fucking childish, he hears himself ask, “What did he say?”
She looks around, like she’s just now realizing where they are. “I don’t…” she shakes her head. “I don’t understand. Why are you—you’re not supposed to be here. Didn’t he—” Her expression crumples into something gentle, pitying, something that makes a tight-wound tendril start to unfurl in Ed’s chest. “He didn’t find you?”
Ed sneers. “Quite the opposite, actually.”
“No.” She keeps shaking her head. “No, that’s not—” she presses her hands to her face. She takes a deep breath, then another. Her hands tighten into fists.
And she shouts: “Fuck!”
For a moment, Ed is too goddamned startled to react. All he can do is watch as Mary starts gesticulating with blind rage. “Stupid fucking asshole! I told him he needed a better idea—what, he’s gonna take his little rowboat and immediately find the one ship he wants that could be anywhere in the whole fucking ocean? Thinks he can magically find you before… before this?!” She flails an arm at Ed. And she lets out one harsh, nearly-hysterical laugh. “Stede Bonnet, fucking off without a plan, and look at the mess he’s made. Again. Typical. Just fucking typical, isn’t it?”
“Watch yourself,” Ed warns, because he doesn’t know what else to say. For some reason, his heart has started pounding. For some reason, it’s getting harder to breathe. And for some reason, there’s a voice—familiar, awful—starting to whisper in the back of his mind. And he can’t have that. He’s had enough of hope; he’s not strong enough to survive any more of it.
“No, Ed,” Mary starts moving, gesturing wildly, coming toward him, “Ed, this isn’t—!”
He aims his pistol at her chest. It’s still unloaded, still every bit as empty of a threat as it was before. But this time she has the decency to look worried about it. She stops in her tracks. She raises her hands in surrender. And, mercifully, she’s quiet.
“If I were you,” Ed says, voice dangerously even, “I would think very carefully about what I chose to say next.”
Mary looks at him. Her eyes are wide, desperate, her shoulders heave with breaths that look as unsteady as Ed’s own. Ed’s heart pounds a little harder.
She looks down into her husband’s grave, then she looks down the barrel of Ed’s gun. The voice in Ed’s mind gets louder: the most impossible, most horrible, most beautiful maybe of them all.
She says, “Do you know what a ‘fuckery’ is?”