Buttons watches the two silhouettes still against the full Harvest moon. The ship shifts underfoot, and he holds his breath from the helm. Blackbeard leans into the sway, a shy arm falling toward Captain Bonnet. For a moment their shadows are etched on the moon, but the ship shifts again, and the spell slips away. Blackbeard pats Bonnet on the arm and they seem to say goodnight. Buttons lets out a deep sigh. The men walk away from each other slowly, but not before turning around for a last shared look. Buttons shakes his head and looks to Karl. “There’s something powerful a’brewin’ under this harvest moon, Karl. Not even me metal teef coulda gnawed through that tension.” Karl stares back at him and Buttons goes on at his encouragement. “Reckon I oughtta tell the rest of the crew.”
The crew is gathered near the bow, tired but still talking excitedly about the night’s events. “Can’t believe we didn’t get invited to the fancy party, babe.” Pete leans into Lucius and Lucius pats his chest.
“We are the fancy party, babe.” Lucius consoles.
“First ship fire in months and I missed it.” Wee John laments.
“Really, though, how was it? Or are you not going to share the details?” Lucius asks Oluwande, who so far has only been going on about how “successful” the night was. “No tea to spill?”
Izzy rattles from behind them. “You spill tea on this freshly swabbed deck and I’ll make you lick it up.”
Lucius spins around and scowls at him. “Gladly.” He sucks in his bottom lip and gives Izzy a cheeky wink. Izzy storms off and the crew collectively rolls their eyes.
“I’ve some tea to spill, laddie.” Lucius jumps at Buttons’ sudden voice right behind him.
“Where did you come from!?” He touches his hand to his heart.
“The sea, and so I shall return to her when I go.” Buttons says with sincerity.
Lucius waits for him to go on, then purses his lips into a smile when he doesn’t. “Okay. Well, we’re not really spilling tea.”
“Hey, his eyes seem bigger than normal.” Wee John points out. Lucius takes a closer look at Buttons, who continues to stare straight ahead, unblinking.
“Oh! Do you actually have something to tell us?” Lucius stands up straighter and moves aside to let Buttons take a few steps into the crew’s semi-circle.
“Aye, it’s the Cap’ns.”
“Wait.” Roach holds up his hand. “Are we calling them both ‘Captain’ now?”
“Still kind of fuzzy on that one, aren’t we?” Lucius agrees. “Go on.” He nods at Buttons. “Cap’n Bonnet has Cap’n Blackbeard under a siren spell.”
Frenchie pipes in, rubbing his hands together. “I knew it! Knew Captain was a siren.” Jim snarls at him but he doesn’t notice. Frenchie blinks around at the crew. “The pretty clothes? The golden, flowing locks?”
“Hair that thick is full of secrets.” Wee John agrees. Frenchie nods and gestures wildly in his direction.
“Cállate! Captain is not a siren. It’s a figure of speech.” Jim snaps at them and Frenchie puts his head down. “Go on, Buttons.”
“Cap’ns nearly kissed on deck.”
Roach grabs the Swede’s arm to support himself. “What!?”
“It’s about damn time.” Jim half-laughs. Oluwande looks at them with a small smile.
The Swede tries to pull away from Roach’s grip. “You’re hurting me.”
“Well, if you weren’t so tender.” Roach squeezes him again before letting go.
“Why are you telling us this?” Lucius asks.
Buttons leans forward on his toes as he speaks. “Seems to me an opportunity for meddlin’. Meddlin’ is good for morale. And t’would be a shame to waste a perfectly ripe harvest moon.”
“Wait.” Everyone turns to look at the Swede. “Isn’t the moon made of cheese?”
Lucius doesn’t miss a beat. “So. Meddling.” He taps his chin.
“Oh!” Roach raises his hand.
“You don’t have to raise your hand.” Lucius starts, but the Swede and Pete’s hands have already shot up. “Okay, go ahead.” He points at Roach in resignation.
“I can make them a special breakfast!” Roach offers.
“Oh, that’s good.” Frenchie nods his head enthusiastically.
“And I can sing.” The Swede beams.
“Sure, Swede.” Oluwande pats him on the shoulder.
“I could spend time with Blackbeard.” Pete suggests.
Everyone groans, but Lucius says, “No, actually, we can use that.”
“Well, I could start a fire.” Wee John chimes in.
“No fires.” Oluwande shakes his head.
“I can offer my artistic skills.” Lucius suggests.
“Yeah you can, babe.” Pete gives him an adoring look and Lucius shrugs with a coy smile.
“I could mess with their sword training a bit.” Frenchie offers. “Try to bring them closer or something?”
“Sure you’re not going to hurt yourself?” Jim asks. Frenchie laughs but Jim stays serious. “I’ve seen you nail your own sleeve to a plank.” Frenchie’s laugh turns to a cough.
“We could give them some alone time on deck. Maybe in the evening.” Oluwande says.
The Swede and Wee John start to protest. “But what about story-time?” The Swede asks.
“Well, maybe we could have an extra cozy story-time down in mine and Jim’s room.” Jim elbows Oluwande in the side. “Hey!”
“Aw, c’mon. It’s only for a night. I’ll make it up to you somehow.” Jim side-eyes Oluwande but doesn’t say anything else.
“But—you can’t read.” Wee John points out.
Oluwande looks at Lucius. “Fine, I’ll borrow something from the Captain’s library.” Lucius relents. “But I’m not doing any voices.”
“And I’ll make a potent moon juice.” Everyone stares at Buttons waiting for him to elaborate. He doesn’t.
“What’s moon juice?” Wee John asks.
“Tis just a bit of water and edelweiss and nettles left out to steep in the moonlight.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of this shit.” Roach interjects and wags his finger at Buttons. “Supposed to have soothing properties or something?”
“Aye. Makes ye all raw. More comfortable exposing that soft underbelly.” He looks directly at the Swede as he says “soft underbelly.” The Swede furrows his brow and looks at his feet.
“I mean, can’t hurt, can it?” Lucius asks. Buttons says nothing.
“Okay.” Oluwande claps his hands together. “It sounds like we’ve got a plan.” The crew nods their heads, buzzing with excitement. Oluwande suddenly frowns and glances around the group as though he’s counting. “Buttons?” Buttons nods at him. “Who’s steering the ship?”
“Ah, good morning, Roach.” Stede waves Roach into his quarters with a chipper smile.
“Good morning, Captain. Shall I set a place for Blackbeard this morning?”
“Yes.” Stede answers with enthusiasm but doesn’t meet Roach’s eye. “Yes, please.” He says a bit more quietly, fussing with his morning robe. “I should get dressed. Running a bit behind this morning—I seem to be distracted.” He looks around his cabin for a convincing source of distraction and busies himself by shuffling a nearby stack of papers. “And what exquisite delicacies have you prepared for us this morning?”
“We haven’t been to port in a while, so we’re running a bit low on the usual rations. But I was able to scrape something together.”
“Scrape something together?” Stede scrunches up his face and sticks out his tongue a bit. “That doesn’t sound very promising.” Roach puts his hands on his hips and raises his eyebrows. “Ah, well. I’m sure whatever you’ve come up with will be more than adequate.” Roach grumbles something. “What was that?”
“Didn’t you say you need to get dressed?”
“Right. Yes, well.” Stede lingers by the cabin door, sticking his head out to look around. “Guess I should. Ed will probably be joining us soon.” He starts to walk into the cabin, then turns back again to have another quick glance around. “Right?”
“Yes.” Roach assures him annoyedly.
“Right then.” Stede walks to his closet slowly, then spins around at the sound of Ed’s approaching gait. Ed rushes into the cabin as though he’s late for something, chest heaving a bit when he sees Stede. “Ah, Ed! Just in time!” Stede beams at him and Ed catches his breath quickly, stealing several quick glances at Stede’s robe. Stede pulls it closer around himself. “I—sorry, I’ve been a bit distracted this morning, haven’t I Roach?” Roach shrugs and Stede shakes his head. “I wouldn’t normally greet you in this state—”
“Like your robe.” Ed interrupts quietly. Roach smiles to himself and fiddles with the silverware.
Stede looks down at himself, and Roach wonders if he’ll twirl in place. He runs his hands along the fabric, grinning again. “It is quite lovely, isn’t it? One of my more extravagant dressing gowns.” He steps closer to Ed and Ed meets his eyes questioningly. “Feel.” He holds out a sleeve and Ed hesitates before touching it.
“Oh, yeah. Huh. Feels even better than it looks.” Ed chuckles to himself and Stede watches him closely.
Roach clears his throat. The Captains snap to attention but appear to have forgotten why he’s in the room. He gestures to the table. Stede frowns. “Roach, why have you set two places right next to each other? We have all this table—”
“S’fine.” Ed jumps in front of Roach, flinging his chair back and sighing as he flops down into it. “I’m starving, mate.”
Stede draws his mouth into a thin line. “Well?” He looks to Roach. “Get on with serving the man. You heard him! He’s starving!” Stede gestures aggressively to Ed while taking his seat next to him.
“Right away, Captain.” Roach runs to the kitchen to grab their cleverly contrived meal and comes back to the two of them laughing about something. “Here you are.” Roach sets the plate in between them. Ed eyes the giant cinnamon roll eagerly and Stede turns his palms up in frustration.
“What is this, then?” He asks.
“Yeah, what is it?” Ed scoots closer to the table. Stede’s expression softens at Ed’s enthusiasm.
“Like I said, Captain, we’re running a bit low on rations. But you won’t be disappointed. This!” He waves his hand over it. “This is a cinnamon roll with a sweet orange glaze.”
“Aaaghh.” Ed moans. He looks up at Roach and shakes his shoulder. “Fuckin’ brilliant, man.”
Roach smirks at Stede and Stede sits up a bit straighter. “I guess it is rather inventive.” He relents. “Thank you, Roach.”
“Thank you.” Roach makes a small bow.
“Ah, Roach. Will you be a dear and bring us some tea, please? And make one with seven sugars, hmm?” Ed stares at Stede intently.
“Of course, Captain.” Roach backs out of the room, smiling as he sees Ed reach his ankle toward Stede’s under the table.
Frenchie observes from afar at first, listening to their swords clattering against each other. There seems to be quite a lot of laughing involved in sword training. “Looking good, Captains!” He shouts out to them. Stede looks up and smiles, waving in his direction. He waves back and Ed takes the opportunity to slap Stede on the wrist with his sword.
“Pay attention!” Ed jests. Stede pretends it smarts and flaps his wrist around, then comes back at Ed with abandon. Ed almost loses his footing, retreating with a laugh. “Better!” He encourages Stede, who wears a look of determination like Frenchie’s never seen.
“What’s your plan here?” Wee John startles Frenchie so badly that both feet leave the ground as he spins around. Wee John and the Swede are standing behind him, giggling.
“Got some cat-like reflexes.” Wee John says.
Frenchie scowls at him. “Don’t joke about cats, mate.” Frenchie glances back over at the Captains. Ed is having Stede step and jab again and again, stopping him to adjust his posture subtly. “Figure I’ll sneak up on Captain from behind and give him a shove in the right direction.”
The Swede lets out a small sound of hesitation. “Sure you are not going to hurt anyone?”
“Nah, mate. I was made for this.”
“If you say so.” Wee John says.
“I believe in you.” The Swede adds.
Stede is playing defense this time, having Ed come at him and blocking his strikes. Frenchie angles himself in Stede’s direction and takes off at a gallop, mouth wide in a smile. He puts his hands out in front of him, preparing to give Captain the nudge he needs, and he trips over seemingly nothing, shoving Captain out of the way and landing directly in Ed’s path. He winces as the blade grazes his side.
“Shit, man! Where did you come from?” Ed is on him in a second. Stede drops his own sword and bends over both of them.
“Frenchie! Are you alright?”
Frenchie touches his side, laughing. “Ah, yeah. All just a bit of fun, isn’t it?”
“What fun!?” Stede cries. “You’ve been stabbed!”
“Just grazed him.” Ed puts a bit of pressure on Frenchie’s cut.
Wee John and the Swede rush over to them. “Is he alright?” Wee John asks.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m alright.” Frenchie tries to stand, and Wee John takes him under his arm. Everyone holds their breath to suss out how badly Frenchie is hurt. In the lull, the Swede suddenly puffs out his chest, takes a deep belly breath, and begins to sing.
Wee John kicks him in the shin. “Timing, Swede!”
Ed and Stede share a confused look. The Swede hangs his head.
“I’ll take care of him, Captain.” Wee John says.
“Ah, he needs proper looking after.” Stede argues.
“I’m so sorry, mate.” Ed apologizes to Frenchie and Stede pats his arm absentmindedly.
Frenchie waves them away. “It’s my own fault.”
“Well yes, of course it is! Why’d you come barreling at me like that?” Stede shouts at him. Wee John and Frenchie ignore him, limping off in the other direction with the Swede running behind. He shakes his head but turns to face Ed and raises his sword again.
Ed takes a step back and lifts a hand up. “I really am sorry! It was an accident.”
Stede smiles. “Oh yes, I know. All Frenchie’s fault, per uszh. Back at it?” He waves his sword a bit.
Ed smiles and nods his head. “I like your enthusiasm. But maybe we call it day, yeah? We’ve been at it for a while.” Stede drops his blade and pouts a little, making Ed pat him on the arm. “You’re getting better.”
Stede’s pout turns to a smile. “Am I?”
“Well, I have a good teacher.” Ed sways on the spot, hiding his grin. “The best!” Stede presses.
Ed taps his blade against Stede’s boot in thanks. “Yeah?” He looks up at him and Stede nods with encouragement. They smile at each other for a moment, saying nothing.
Stede suddenly lifts his shoulders. “Right! Well, I have some business I should attend to.”
“Business?” Ed arches an eyebrow.
“Management, if you will.” Stede gestures around to a nearly empty deck, save for Black Pete, who’s leaning into the nearby railing and obviously listening to their conversation.
“Isn’t it time for your one-on-one with Jim, Captain?” Pete walks toward them and Stede turns to greet him.
“One-on-one? The fuck’s that?” Ed asks.
“I make it a point to spend some one-on-one time with each crew member on a regular basis.” Ed furrows his brow in confusion. “Check in! Make sure everyone is happy and that I’m aware of any concerns. Don’t want another mutiny situation, you know.” He gestures toward Pete. “It’s helpful, is it not, Pete?”
Black Pete shrugs. “We haven’t plotted to mutiny in a while.”
“See?” Stede smiles.
“One-on-one sessions.” Ed repeats. “Fascinating idea.”
“Very.” Stede agrees. “My meetings with Jim have been a bit awkward up until now, what with the whole not-talking thing. Though you’d be surprised how much the eyes emote!” He widens his own for dramatic effect, then pauses before adding, “Yours especially, Ed.” He doesn’t notice the moment of panic that flashes across Ed’s face.
“Will Captain Blackbeard be eligible for a one-on-one now that he’s been with our crew for a while?” Black Pete asks. Ed blinks at Stede, wide-eyed.
“Of course! Whenever he wants!” Stede smiles sweetly at him. “Great suggestion, Pete.”
“I do what I can.”
Stede starts to walk away and Ed shouts after him. “I’ll just take inventory of . . . things, then!” Stede looks back and gives him a thumbs-up.
“I can help you with that!” Black Pete offers. “Be a good chance to practice my counting.”
“Yeah, course, man. Suit yourself.”
Black Pete follows Ed’s gaze, which lands on Stede walking away. He tries to recall everything Lucius coached him to ask. “I’ve been curious.” He starts, “What makes you want to hang around with a crew like us?”
“Your lot’s not so bad.” Ed gives him a shove on the shoulder and returns to counting rope.
“But, the things you’ve seen out there.” He gestures to the wide ocean. “You don’t find it a little . . . boring here?”
“Boring?” Ed snorts. “This is the most excitement I’ve seen at sea in years!”
“Really?” Black Pete asks with sincerity. “But you must have some amazing stories. Bet no one’s seen as much blood as you.” Ed cringes and Pete stammers over himself before Ed can respond. “So, uh, Captain’s getting better at sword fighting, it seems.” He offers.
Ed smiles and Pete relaxes. “Yeah.” He says gently. “Yes, he is. Never bad to begin with, really. He’s a natural.”
“Uh-huh.” He pauses, trying for a new angle. “But do you think he’ll ever have what it takes?”
Ed frowns at him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean.” Black Pete tries tapping into Lucius’s flair for drama now. “Don’t get me wrong. Great guy. Love Captain. It’s just . . . there’s still talk that he’s going to get us all killed.” Ed looks at him seriously and Pete gulps. “Not that I think that. That’s just what people say.”
Ed scoffs. “People are idiots.”
“Sure, sure.” Pete glances over Ed’s shoulder, grateful to see Lucius and Stede making their way toward them. Ed starts to follow his gaze, so he pushes him to divert his attention. It works. Ed looks down at his own chest, frowns, and looks back up at Pete with the same frown. Pete tries to laugh it off. “So, Captain’s not a complete loss, then?”
“Do you have a problem with your Captain?” Ed glowers at him and stands a little taller, taking a short step forward.
“Me? No. I’m just curious what the great Blackbeard sees in him. That’s all.”
Ed makes a small hmm noise. “You don’t meet a guy like Stede, your Captain . . .” Ed glances up, “very often. Or ever, really.”
“How so?” Black Pete makes eye contact with Lucius and pleads for them to walk faster.
“You know, he’s . . . got two chandeliers.” Ed mimes the chandeliers by waving his fingers above his head.
“Not sure I follow.”
“He’s got new ideas.” Ed looks off into the clouds like he’s remembering something. “He’s fuckin’ brilliant. And fearless!” Ed nods his head aggressively at his own praise.
“Fearless?” Black Pete pretends to screw up his face as Lucius and Stede come within earshot.
“Don't fuckin’ make that face.” Ed mimics his face back to him. “Stede’s braver . . . ” he pauses, “and kinder, and better than any pirate at the bottom of this ocean.”
“Sorry, didn’t catch that.” Pete leans his ear in toward Ed.
Ed repeats himself. “Stede’s braver, and kinder, and better than any pirate at the bottom of this ocean.”
“A little louder?”
“Are you deaf, mate?” Ed practically shouts. “Stede’s fuckin’ amazing! He’s brave, and kind, and we’d all be lost without him!”
He’s practically spitting in Black Pete’s face, but one look over Ed’s shoulder and he can see that Stede has clearly heard him. Black Pete grins as he watches Stede’s ears go pink. “No need to shout.” Pete waves at Lucius and Ed spins around, catching Stede’s eye and doing a little mini-wave before staring down at his feet.
“Thought you had a meeting with Jim.” He blinks up again at Stede, leaning back on his heels.
“We couldn’t find them anywhere, could we, Captain?” Lucius winks at Black Pete.
Stede hasn’t looked away from Ed, who’s gone back to staring at his feet.
“Could we, Captain?” Lucius repeats himself, elbowing Stede in the side.
“No!” Stede says in surprise.
“Captain!” Lucius and Stede turn around to see Oluwande running toward them. “I found Jim.”
“Oh?” Stede puts his hands on his hips. “Where were they?”
“Oh.” Oluwande pauses to look at Lucius. Lucius makes a small shrug.
Oluwande hesitates. “They were dealing with some kind of knife emergency.” Lucius rolls his eyes.
“A knife emergency? Is everything alright?” Stede asks worriedly.
“Oh yeah, everything’s fine. But they’re ready to talk now.” Oluwande draws Stede away by the elbow.
“Well, we’re going to have to talk about their time management.” Stede glances back at Ed over his shoulder. “I like to run a tight ship, you know?” A grin spreads across Ed’s face.
“You.” Lucius points at him.
Ed points at himself in turn. “Me?” He looks nervous, which makes Lucius smile.
“I need your help with something.”
“I don’t work for you, you know.” Ed smirks at him and Lucius smirks back.
“Captain needs your help with something.”
“What?” Ed’s face goes straight again.
“He’s thinking of redecorating.”
Ed laughs to himself. “Don’t know that I’ll be much help with that.”
“Oh, but he’s requested your help, specifically. Says you have fine taste.”
“Stede said that?” Ed looks at Lucius with doe eyes.
“Mmm hmm. He wants his cabin to be a bit more . . . captain-y.” Lucius shrugs as he says it, but Ed bites.
“Yeah, sure, sure.” He pauses. “Dunno what that means.”
“Yeah, neither did I.” Lucius leans forward and laughs. “But come on. We’ll figure it out together.” Lucius leads him toward the cabin and looks back at Black Pete to give him a subtle nod of reassurance.
“Captain-y.” Ed keeps repeating to himself as he runs his fingers along the edge of Stede’s bookshelves.
Lucius hovers by Stede’s journal. “Yep, that’s right. Why don’t you take a survey of that side of the room?” He waves Ed in the opposite direction.
Ed nods his head. “And you’ll check this side.”
There’s something childlike about his expression, so Lucius winks at him. “You got it.” Ed smiles at him and practically skips to the other side of the cabin. Lucius quickly thumbs through the journal, flipping it open to a specific page and angling it just so. He pretends to read maps when Ed skips back over to him. “Well, that was fast.” He raises his eyebrows at him.
“Yeah, I think I know the place pretty well, actually.”
“Do you?” His eyebrows go even higher.
Ed doesn’t seem to notice, and he’s already staring at the page Lucius laid out. “What’s that?”
Ed moves Lucius out the way and picks up the journal. Lucius peers over his shoulder like he’s seeing it for the first time. “Oh, that.” He laughs. “Captain likes to keep a little visual documentation of everyone onboard the ship. Crew and visitors alike. Nothing pervy.” He winks at Ed, but Ed doesn’t notice.
“And this one’s of me.” Ed looks down at it in awe, running his finger over the sketch.
Lucius swats his hand. “Don’t touch it—you’ll smudge it.” Lucius smiles at it too, then. It’s a great likeness. Ed’s full cheeks lift his eyes up at the corners, bottom lip pouting up through his heavy beard. His salt-and-pepper hair hangs freely around his face with little blossoms woven into his half-bun.
“When did you do this?” Ed asks him. “Didn’t know I was posing for a portrait.”
“Did it from memory.” Ed studies the sketch even closer. “Stede’s memory, to be exact.” He leans in toward Ed and Ed looks up at him, bewildered.
“You mean he—”
“Described you to me? Yeah.” Lucius gives Ed a knowing look and Ed lets out an almost inaudible breath. “Tried to convince him to let me sketch you in the flesh, but he insisted he knew your face by heart.”
“By heart.” Ed repeats.
“You look good, don’t you?” Lucius fishes for a compliment on his art.
“I look . . . happy.” Ed smiles down at the sketch and Lucius pats his hand. “Can I see the others?”
“Umm, don’t know how you were raised, but on this ship we don’t read each other’s diaries.” He stops himself. “Well, I guess Captain is the only one with a diary. But we wouldn’t read each other’s diaries.” He pauses again. “If we had them.” Ed looks disappointed and Lucius decides to show some mercy. “Plus . . .” he wriggles his shoulders at him. “You’re the only one who has one.”
This catches Ed’s attention. “I thought you said—”
“I lied.” He puts on a fake pout. “Yeah. Didn’t want to embarrass the Captain, but between you and I, Captain had it commissioned.”
“He paid you for this?” Ed can’t hide the surprise in his voice.
“I’m worth it, aren’t I?” He bats his eyelashes, but Ed keeps looking at the page. “Or maybe, you’re worth it.” Ed holds his breath for a moment. “Well!” Lucius exclaims. “Guess we’re done here!”
He starts to walk toward the door, but Ed stops him. “I thought you wanted help decorating.”
Lucius sighs and slumps. “That’s right.” He glances around the room. “What do we think of the two chandeliers? Overkill?”
“The open fireplace?”
“The loose books that I have to reshelve after every storm?” Ed shakes his head.
“The tacky gold whale thingy?”
Ed looks at him in disbelief. “Nothing tacky about a gold whale, mate.”
“Alright then. Sounds like we should keep everything as it is?” Ed looks around and nods earnestly. “Fine, great. Thanks for your help!”
He turns to walk out and Ed calls for him again. “Wait—Lucius?”
Lucius sticks his head back in the door. “Yes?” He asks, a slight hint of annoyance.
“Could you—could you help me with something?” Ed looks at him imploringly and Lucius feigns a sigh, stepping back into the room.
“Where is everyone?” Stede pretends to stomp around the deck, putting on a sulky face for no one to see. “Wee John? Swede?” He sings out. Evening has fallen and he’s spent the last hour rehearsing tonight’s story. It’s a turning point for Pinocchio and he wanted tonight’s read to be memorable. “Missing story-time? Unheard of.” He sighs to himself, then a wave a resolve crosses his face and he storms off toward the crew’s quarters.
“Oluwande!” Stede calls down the hall, scanning for any sign of his crew. There’s an almost imperceptible whispering and shuffle coming from Oluwande and Jim’s room. He lightens his footsteps and approaches slowly. “Oluwande?” He asks before he raps on the door. No response. He opens the door and his mouth falls open. The entire crew is sleeping in this tiny room. Oluwande is reclining in the corner, breathing heavily with his head resting on Jim’s shoulder. Lucius and Black Pete are curled in towards each other on the bed, Wee John is sleeping upright, back against the bed frame, with Frenchie reclined across his lap. The Swede is rolled up in the fetal position with Roach lying behind him, one arm draped across his hip. Even Ivan and Fang have squeezed into the room, reposed against the far wall, Ivan’s arm wrapped around the back of Fang’s shoulder. Stede smiles at the sight of them all. “Right, then. Night, night.” He whispers and closes the door behind him.
“Cap'n?” Buttons startles him as he steps back out onto the deck.
“Buttons!” Stede clutches his chest. “Apologies.” He walks toward the helm. “I nearly forgot you were here. How silly—who would steer the ship if you weren’t?” He chuckles but Buttons remains expressionless. “Say, isn’t it—” He gestures toward the moon, still full in the sky. “Won’t you be basking in moon glow tonight?”
“Aye, normally, I would. But no’tonight.”
“No? Why’s that? It seems everyone’s routine is a bit off this evening.” He glances around the empty deck, looking wistful.
“That’d be the effect of the full moon, Cap’n.”
Stede smiles at him politely for a moment, then shakes his head. “I don’t know what you’re saying, Buttons.”
“Tis draining, this kind of lunar energy.” He looks lovingly at the moon.
“Ah.” Stede rocks back on his heels, humoring him. “Well that would explain why everyone turned in early, wouldn’t it? I thought maybe they’d tired of my story-telling.”
“Not to worry, Cap’n. The moon is a powerful thing.”
“It is, indeed.” Stede looks out across the water, closing his eyes to recall something. “How do you stay alert on nights like this, then?”
Stede creases his brows. “I’m afraid I’m . . . not familiar.”
Buttons pulls out three mugs as though on cue. He sloshes one at Stede. “Made some extra if you’re so inclined.”
“How thoughtful.” Stede takes a mug from him, sniffing it and pulling away in pleasant surprise. “It smells quite floral. What’s in here?”
“Just a bit o’edelweiss and nettle water left out to steep in the moonlight.”
“Interesting.” Stede takes a sip and smacks his lips together. “Oh! Much better than nose juice!”
“Aye.” Buttons asks no questions.
“It seems you’ve made a mug too many.” Stede says with regret.
“No.” Buttons nods over Stede’s shoulder and Stede turns to see Ed walking toward them from across the deck. He lets out a nervous hiccough. The moon illuminates his figure like a spotlight, sending a streak of silver across the side of his face and his exposed arm. His hair is halfway back so Stede can see the full expanse of his smiling cheeks.
“Ed.” He croaks out quietly. “Ed!” He shouts this time and waves, then pulls his hand down quickly since Ed is already walking his direction. Ed hurries up the steps to the helm, wafting a scent of sea moss and vetiver in Stede’s direction. Stede wipes his palms on his trousers.
Ed turns to greet Buttons. “What’re we drinking then?” As he turns his head, Stede sees the flowers woven into the bun at the back of his hair. His lips part and his eyebrows come together, lifting his fingers toward the blossoms before Ed turns back toward him. He drops his hand and clears his throat.
“It’s a special Buttons concoction. Moon juice! Ever had it?” He smiles wider than he means to.
“Can’t say that I have.” Buttons hands him a mug and Ed smells it, then sips eagerly.
Stede searches his face. “Do you like it?”
Ed frowns, thinking, then smiles. “Think I do.” Stede claps him on the back.
“What’s in it?”
Buttons starts listing. “Water. Nettles. Edelweiss. Moon glow.”
“Edelweiss?” Ed asks, his hand reaching up toward the back of his head. Stede’s breath catches in his chest.
“A quite surprising and beautiful combination, isn’t it?” Stede asks, holding Ed’s gaze.
Ed breaks his eye contact first, turning back to Buttons. “Thanks, mate.” He turns to walk back down the deck and Stede follows him. “Where is everyone? Thought I was going to be late for your reading.” Ed looks around, noticing the unusual quiet.
Stede smiles at him. “They all turned in early. Something to do with the powers of the moon.” Stede waves his hand in the moon’s direction. “Quite sweet, really. I walked in on them all dozing in Jim and Oluwande's room. I like to see them close as a crew. Like a family.” Stede rests his elbows on the railing and looks out across the night sky.
Ed takes a step closer to him, watching the moonlit water dance in his eyes. “That is sweet.” He brushes his elbow against Stede’s, joining him to lean on the railing. They drink from their mugs at the same time. Ed stretches tall again, causing Stede to stand up with him. The quiet settles between them before Ed speaks quietly. “Do you . . . see anything in the moon?”
Stede answers right away. “Oh, always.” He looks at Ed. “Something different every night, really.”
Ed laughs. “Really? What do you see tonight?” He stays focused on Stede as Stede looks back out.
“Well, there’s the obvious face.”
“That doesn’t count.”
“I know—of course not.” Stede frowns at Ed for a moment and turns back to the moon with a grin. “Too obvious.” He pauses. “What about the rabbit?”
“The rabbit?” Ed squints into the distance.
“Yeah, just there.” Stede points and draws in the air.
“Can’t see it, mate.” Ed leans himself further over the railing.
“Don’t fall, Ed.” Stede walks behind him and places a delicate hand on his waist, setting his drink down to take Ed’s wrist in his other hand. Ed takes another drink and Stede drops his hands, wiping them on his trousers again. “Sorry—sweaty hands. Blame Buttons’ moon juice.” Ed huffs. Stede pulls Ed’s shoulder down slightly with the weight of his chin, resting his head there and grabbing for Ed’s wrist again to show him the outline of the rabbit.
Ed lets out a tiny gasp. “It’s a fuckin’ rabbit!”
“There we go!” Stede laughs and they turn to face each other.
Ed flexes and clenches his fingers at his side. “Do you know how many nights I’ve spent under this moon? And you just point out that rabbit like it’s been there the whole time?”
“It has!” Ed shakes his head and laughs. “What do you see, then?”
Ed looks back out at the moon. “There.” He points.
“What?” Ed takes Stede’s hands fully in his own, and Stede pulls away. “Ed! Your hands are freezing!” Ed pulls them down to his side and grimaces, but Stede picks them back up and cradles them in his own, turning them over and squeezing them gently. Ed’s shoulders fall away from his ears. “Show me.” Ed smiles nervously and lifts their hands to the sky, drawing dot-by-dot. “A crab! It’s a crab, right?” Stede wriggles a bit, still staring at the moon and Ed keeps his hands tight in his.
“Yeah, mate. It’s a crab.”
Stede lets out an abrupt laugh. They drop their hands and Ed steps closer again. Stede leans into him, getting the right angle to point at the rabbit again. “You know, it’s not just a rabbit.”
“Yeah?” Ed leans down and follows Stede’s gaze.
“No.” Stede shakes his head. “It’s a, uh, very brave-looking rabbit.” Ed frowns. “And kind.” Stede turns toward him and smiles, and Ed remembers his own words, suddenly bashful.
“Aw, yeah. Bravest, kindest rabbit I’ve ever seen.” Stede picks up his moon juice and takes an aggressive swig. “Well, uh, the crab may look tough.”
“Yeah, tough as nails.” Stede adds and Ed smiles. “But he’s not, is he?”
“Nah, not so tough. See the flowers in his claw thingy?” Ed looks to the moon, pointing again, but Stede takes his shoulders and turns Ed back to face him.
“I see the flowers.” Stede reaches to brush the flowers in Ed’s hair and Ed rests his cheek in Stede’s hand. Stede runs his fingers along the side of Ed’s face and Ed brings his hand up to meet Stede’s. They turn to face the moon again, Ed’s head resting on Stede’s shoulder, their hands intertwined.
Buttons leans over to Karl, watching their silhouettes. “Now that’s a moon meddlin’.”