There’s a dull ache in Izzy’s knees.
It’s not a hurt, not exactly. At least, not in the same way that the belt, which Stede had casually lain out over the back of the ridiculously luxurious chaise which commands the center of the room (black leather on rich, burgundy suede, the upholstery alone worth more coin than Izzy had seen in his entire life), will hurt when it bites into his skin. Rather, it’s like a… a vague discomfort, capable of becoming so much more.
In the dark, distant corners of his mind, Izzy understands that this is a punishment—which means he’s not meant to be comfortable. His eyes flit to the little cushion (so unbearably soft, it sinks down, down, down underneath his weight, providing just enough support to ensure that his knees aren’t red and throbbing by the time he’s finally allowed to stand) that’s propped against the wall a little ways away. If he’d been good, Stede would’ve allowed him that small comfort while he knelt and waited for Stede and Ed to… to be honest, he’s not entirely sure what they’re doing. It’s not his place to be worrying about it right now, either. He’s supposed to be sitting—well, kneeling—here, thinking about what he’d done—
Like a thrice-damned child who’s been sent to the corner for mouthing off.
He doesn’t even remember what he did, not really. All he remembers is the way that Stede’s mouth had turned down at the corners, his not-quite frown cutting through Izzy like a hot knife through butter. But he needs to remember—knows that Stede and Ed will ask him what it is that he’s being punished for, and will be disappointed if all he offers them is a blank stare. The idea of his lovers being disappointed in him sends a sharp pang of something shooting through his chest… He breathes, slow and deep, and tries to recenter himself. Tries to bleach the image of their disappointment from his mind. He can be good. He can be so, so good.
He just needs to breathe, and remember that they won’t do anything that he hasn’t consented to.
He frowns—where the fuck is all of this anxiety coming from all of a sudden? It’s not like this is the first time that Stede—or Ed, for that matter—has taken a belt to him (and he sincerely doubts that it’ll be the last). It’s not even the first time that they’ve had him kneel like this, with nothing to do but think about how epically he’d fucked up as he stares at the leather belt as it taunts him on the back of the chaise.
But it… it feels different. Izzy can’t explain it. Izzy doesn’t want to explain it.
This was never a problem before Stede-fucking-Bonnet insisted on helping them learn how to understand their feelings.
He feels physically ill—like he’s had a bit too much to drink, or the ship has encountered turbulent waters. Except… he’s stone-cold sober, and the waters are damn-near unbearably calm. The world is quiet, still, and Izzy cannot stand it. Wants to scream, yell, curse… He bites his tongue, because he wants to be good, but each second of continued silence has him ready to claw his way right out of his own skin. He breathes—in through the nose, out through the mouth, slow and so very, very steady—and reminds himself that their taking this long isn’t a bad thing. What was it that Stede had said? I’d never raise a hand to you in anger. A romantic notion (that was also patently untrue—the time that Stede had shoved the point of a dagger into his cheek immediately coming to mind) that did funny things to Izzy’s chest whenever he thought about it too long—and so he didn’t. If he was being punished, then his captains were angry with him. You didn’t punish someone you were happy with.
The moments continue to tick by, and the pleasant fuzziness that usually comes over him when one of his captains tells him to kneel is held at bay by the ever-present ache in his knees. He shifts a little, bare skin sliding across hardwood, and winces when his skin catches on something gnarled and twisted. The skin pulls… and then it burns. He sucks in a sharp breath, tears pearling on his lashes.
It’s nothing. He’s been shot, for fucks’ sake—had pieces of his body sliced off and fed to him. This… This is nothing.
And yet, in that moment… it’s everything. And suddenly he’s sobbing and he doesn’t know why.
Except… he does know. He knows in the same way that he knows that the sky is blue and the grass is green. And the knowing only serves to make everything infinitely worse, because it’s embarrassing. He’s a grown-ass man, a hardened pirate, and he’s fucking sobbing like a babe not yet weaned because he’s a bloody disappointment. He’d done everything that Stede-fucking-Bonnet had wanted—or had tried to, anyhow. He’d played nice with the crew (read: he’d narrowly avoided getting into a pissing match with Lucius when the man had, once again, refused to lift a finger to help with his allotment of chores), he’d sat through mind-numbing stories and horribly performed plays—hells, he’d even started taking his meals with the lot of them. He’d been trying, okay? He’d been trying, because that’s what they’d wanted, and a first mate’s job, above all else, was to keep their captain… err, captains… content. He’d been trying so hard… and the first time he’d fucked up, here they were.
What was the fucking point, if this was all his efforts afforded him?
If he was to be disciplined one way or another, at least let him act like a proper pirate.
He hears voices in the hall immediately adjoining the captain’s quarters before he hears the scratch of the key in the lock. For a moment, he contemplates wiping his eyes… but that means acknowledging the tears beyond the dull stinging at the corners of his eyes and the feel of them coursing down his cheeks. And so he remains perfectly still, hands clasped behind his back, bare knees digging into the wood, and waits. Because he can be good. He can be. The sooner they see that, the sooner the punishment will be over, and—Ed is the first to acknowledge him, a small furrow forming between his brows as he immediately takes note of the tears on Izzy’s cheeks.
“…Iz?” This… This is not the voice he usually uses when they play like this. His tone is gentle… almost wary. Izzy keeps his eyes downcast, his fingers flexing reflexively behind his back. “Izzy, look at me.” It’s a command… barely, but still. Izzy sucks in a deep breath and raises his eyes to meet Ed’s. Stede makes a sound like all of the air has been punched out of his lungs.
“Darling,” Stede is crowding his space—not quite close enough to touch him, but still close enough that Izzy can feel the heat radiating off of his body. “What happened? You’re crying.” Izzy wants to laugh, cruel and dark. Way to point out the fucking obvious. Instead, he just cries harder.
Izzy blinks, the world a blur of crystalline colors behind the veil of tears that continue to pour from his eyes. Shame wells up inside of him, filling him to bursting—his mouth opens, closes… no sound comes out, save for a strained whimper, and that just embarrasses him all the more. If the ground were to open up and swallow him whole right that very moment, Izzy certainly wouldn’t oppose it.
A moment later, they’re both crowding his space and Izzy’s desire to run multiplies tenfold.
Ed reaches for him, stopping just a millimeter or so away from making actual contact. “Iz…” He breathes, and Izzy watches his face as he struggles to find and use his words, “Iz… Can I… Can I touch you, mate?” Izzy blinks, confusion battling with the maelstrom of emotions brewing inside of him. He’s the first mate… his body is for his captain. Ed has never needed his permission to touch him.
He can practically hear Stede hyperventilating at the thought. Bodily autonomy is one of those fun little things they’re all learning about together.
“I think that words might be a bit much for him right now.” Stede says, with a painfully soft smile. “How’s this? Blink once for ‘yes,’ twice for ‘no.’” Both men watch Izzy expectantly, and after a moment, he blinks once, sending a new mess of tears coursing down his cheeks. “That’s a love.” Izzy shudders, the knot in his chest loosening slightly—he doesn’t want to think too much about what that means.
Luckily for him, he doesn’t have to—because Ed takes that moment to ask again, a little gentler this time, “Is it alright to touch you?”
Izzy blinks… and still, Ed hesitates for a beat before leaning in to swipe the tears from his tattooed cheek. The touch is horrifically soft, like one of Stede’s ridiculously frilly shirts, although the hand that is touching him is decidedly not. A calloused thumb works over the curve of Izzy’s cheek, a slow, steady caress that breaks him apart and pieces him back together all at once. Ed is as useless with words as he is, but he communicates more with that gentle caress than he could in the most eloquent of speeches. The knot in his chest continues to loosen until he shudders around a wet, half-sigh, half-sob… Ed’s fingers slide around the back of his neck and ever-so-gently ease him forward. Izzy falls into him in an absolute mess of limbs, the wound on his knee stinging something fierce as he changes position for the first time in who knows when. He barely notices when Stede leaves to retrieve one of his banyans to drape across his bare back—
He'll never admit just how good the fabric feels against his skin in that moment…
Nor will he admit how good it feels to cry into Ed’s shoulder, as he revels in the scent of tobacco and gunpowder and… and…
“Shh…” They don’t ask him to explain, and words cannot express how grateful he is for that… because he doesn’t think he could, even if he tried. “It’s okay. Here, let’s just…” Ed shifts him a little so that Stede has access to his injured knee. There’s a bright sting as Stede cleans it out with… something, Izzy doesn’t actually know what… before the blond bends down and—
Did he just fucking kiss Izzy’s injured knee?
The whole thing is so ludicrous, it has him barking out a laugh… his eyes widen a little at the sound—how long has it been since he really, truly laughed like that?—and both Stede and Ed stare up at him like he’s a fucking miracle, which has him wanting to crawl into the nearest hole and die. He’s absolutely not blushing… but he is breathing easy for the first time since… well, since they left him in here to think on what he’d done.
The relief that fills him is quashed almost immediately by the reminder that the pain is still coming—it’s just been momentarily delayed.
But when he looks up… to his surprise, the belt is gone. He frowns, not sure he understands what’s happening anymore. His confusion worsens when Stede offers, “How about I draw us all a nice, hot bath, hmm? You’ve been so very good, kneeling for so long… I’m sure you’re sore.”
For the first time that evening, Izzy’s tongue decides that it wants to cooperate with him, “B-But what about…” Even so, he cannot bring himself to say the words. He only watches, miserably, as Ed and Stede share a long look, before—
“I don’t know about you, but I think you’ve suffered enough for one night, mate.” Ed says, nosing at the tattoo on the side of Izzy’s neck.
“Precisely.” Stede agrees, “And besides… punishments are not meant to be enjoyable, no… but they’re not meant to be torturous, either. If we’re going to play—in any capacity—then you need to be in the right headspace for it, dearest. As far as I’m concerned, when my lover is bleeding and sobbing, he’s not in a headspace to consent to much more than this right here.”
Izzy wants to protest—if he’s earned punishment, then he shouldn’t be able to escape it just because he’s ‘not in the right frame of mind.’ And yet… when he speaks, all that comes out is a weak, fluttering, “T-Thank you.”
Stede just smiles, “There’s nothing to thank me for, love.” He gently runs his fingers through Izzy’s hair, humming softly as Ed continues to hold him, “Now… what say you to that bath?”
“Please…” His voice is little more than a whisper of sound against Ed’s neck. Ed squeezes him a little tighter.
“Alright, love. Just a couple minutes, alright?”
He withdraws, and the tightness in his chest returns, just a little… only to almost immediately be soothed by the weight of Ed’s arms around him. His knee throbs in time with the rapid-fire beating of his heart, and yet… he’s the calmest that he’s been since he first entered the room. Distantly, he recognizes that Stede will likely wish to talk about all of this once he’s in a better headspace… but right now, all he needs to do is focus on the feel of Ed’s arms around him, on the sound of his heart beating steadily inside of his chest… and breathe. There will be no punishment tonight… just an overly luxurious bath he’ll luxuriate in in the sanctity of his own mind.
The dull ache in his knees subsides, like waves lapping gently at the shore, and Izzy is at peace.