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The raid had been a roaring success, if Stede did say so himself. 

He and the formerly marooned contingent of the Revenge crew had been at sea for weeks boarding increasingly larger and finer vessels, seizing control from arrogant captains who underestimated the grit and determination of a dandy tearing his way through the Caribbean in hopes of reuniting with the love of his life, who just so happened to be the Dread Pyrate Blackbeard. With his loyal pirate horde at his side, Stede managed to work his way from captaining a humble but sturdy dinghy up to overtaking the majestic vessel they found themselves boarding today: a smart and swift British merchant ship, well appointed and well stocked for rations and munitions, large enough to at last seek out their much missed, long lost Revenge and the even more dearly missed pirates who sailed upon her. 

Could it really only have been weeks since Stede said a last goodbye to his old life? Standing proudly at the helm of his new command, the Royal James, he thought back to those first few desperate hours: realizing that rowing was actually quite the workout, that rations truly needed to be rationed if they were meant to last, that he could not simply stumble upon his ship after two hours and return to the fold as though nothing had ever happened. But his aim was true, and though the course of true love never did run smooth, so it was that the muscles in his arms bulked at the oars’ exercise, the stomach growling in his belly taught him patience, and his rediscovered crew humbled and held him accountable for his part in the predicament they shared.

“So you kissed a guy for the first time, promised him you’d run away with him, and then you immediately left him to go back to your wife ? I mean, how’s that supposed to make a guy feel?” Black Pete had asked him incredulously after Stede unfolded for them the series of events which had led him there.

“Well, technically chaps, Ed didn’t know I’d gone back to Mary.”

“Okay, so, what did you tell him when you left?” Oluwande asked.

“Ah. That. You see, I didn’t exactly tell him I was leaving.” Stede grimaced. It did not go over well with the chaps.

“Ya disappeared like a wee cowardly ghost in thae night? Shame on ye, Cap!” 

“Ja, ghosting is so not cool,” the Swede agreed.

Stede’s culpability did some work to mitigate the crew’s ire towards Blackbeard himself (“We got off easy - if it were me, I would sail back to Barbados and chop the guy’s fucking balls off with a meat cleaver while he slept and serve them to his wife for breakfast the next morning. But as I say, that’s just me,” Roach said indifferently) though not everyone felt equally at peace (“If he touched a hair on my Lucius’s head I…I swear on my life I…” though Black Pete never did quite articulate what he intended to do, and went quiet, staring out at the waves). Stede himself spent a day feeling - as he would later say, to groans all around - totally at sea, knowing that the man he loved had wrought such destruction in the wake of their aborted attempt at romance. Was he the man he thought he was? Or were his urgings that Stede “see him”, the real “him” - were they true warnings, lighthouses he ought to have heeded, and now he was cracking up on the rocks? The next day he spent in a daze while the heat stroke finally set in and he lost all feeling in both arms once someone finally offered to take over rowing duties and they all thought that perhaps this was Captain Bonnet’s last stand. On the third day he awoke with a renewed sense of fervor - all these ugly things they’d done would not stand in his way. Nothing and no one was going to stop Stede from loving Edward - not even Edward.

So on they went to plunder and pillage, and the Gentleman Pirate felt in himself a change.

He began to lose count of the throats he’d held daggers to and scars he’d earned on every part of his body. Violence became a part of his muscle memory and he drew blood now without batting an eye, though not, he felt sure, simply for the pleasure of the act, but as a means to an end - to protect his crew, his family, and to bring him one step closer to Edward, his love. 

Then again - he could not deny the rush he felt each time he unsheathed his sword, the pride in the discovery of a bounty of loot, the curl of his lip at the sound of surrender on a British tongue. Looting became a favorite pastime, particularly where clothing was concerned. Lamenting his lost wardrobe and his sensible if plain attire, he became a keen observer of the men he overpowered on his stolen ships. If a fellow had an interesting waistcoat and happened to be of about Stede’s size, he would nod to himself and simply say, “I’ll have that,” in so convicted and congenial a manner that men would often put up no fight and simply surrender their clothing to him. 

“The Gentleman Pirate, they shall say of me, he’ll charm the pants off of you!” 

A turquoise scarf now adorned his neck in a jaunty fashion not unlike that which Lucius was known to sport. One memorable evening after removing gold from the ears of fallen enemies, Roach deftly performed a few piercings upon Stede’s left ear, and he now boasted a small but tasteful collection of earrings that he would swap in and out depending on the mood of the day. And a pair of fingerless leather gloves came one day into his possession, and though he felt they didn’t quite fit the vibe he was going for, he could not bear to part with him, as he stroked the buttery smooth palm of them and thought only of his Edward. 

He was engaged in just such behavior there at the helm of the Royal James when he was snapped out of his Edwardian reverie by the sound of Oluwande’s voice.

“We’re finished getting the prisoners in line, Cap. Ready for inspection whenever you are,” he said, attempting not to notice Stede’s fondling of his own hand in a daze just moments before.

“Ah, yes. Very good. Lead the way, my good man.”

The crew had done fine work, subduing and restraining the men on their new ship. They lay facedown on the deck, hands securely tied behind their backs, some bloodied, some whimpering, and Stede contemplated how the plights of those who flew under the British flag were failing to arouse any sympathy in him as of late. At the end of the row of men lay a gentleman who could only be the ship’s captain - Stede was beginning to get a real sense of these things - something in his steely look of stoicism and fortitude in the face of certain death at the hands of vengeful pirates. But his face was far less intriguing to him than was the glint of something on the Captain’s hand which suddenly caught Stede’s eye. 

“Hullo, what’s this?” he said, kneeling by the man’s side and gently taking his bound hands in his own.

“Unhand me, you filthy pirate!” the Captain said, squirming futilely against Stede’s touch. 

“Hush now, is that any way a gentleman should treat his guests?” he asked, closely examining the stunning jewel upon the captain’s little finger. It was an amethyst, Stede was certain - a royally purple, oval-shaped gem on a thick silver band, notable for intricate, swirling carvings which Stede traced with the tips of his dirty fingernails - tragically, he thought, he had not had the pleasure of ideal conditions for maintaining strict hygiene standards since he left Barbados. The patterns on the band reminded him of other, larger twisting patterns - those not carved in metal but inked on beautiful skin in the shape of a snake, patterns Stede dearly wished to trace someday with a gentle, naked finger, if only he could be so fortunate as to be granted permission to do so. He cleared his throat and his mind of the image to speak again to the Captain.

“Well, I suppose you’re our guests now. Does that make me the rude one in this scenario? I’ve become rather less the gentleman than the pirate in recent memory, I’m afraid.”

The Captain swore at him, but Stede wasn’t listening. Fixated on the precious purple jewel, he was transported to a moonlit night on board the Revenge, so like one he remembered from months ago, yet so very different - he and his Edward and only they themselves, face to face, those faces bathed in dancing crystal moonlight, yes, but this time no pretenses, no hesitations, no ignoring the dictates of desire on anyone’s part. He would not flinch at a sudden movement; Ed would not abandon his resolve. Stede would kneel before him and present a ring - a ring, and a promise. And this would be the ring. Stede heard himself giggle, and though giddy at the thought, he brought himself back to the deck of the Royal James, cleared his throat once more, and got back to the business of looting.

“I daresay your hands are quite the same size as my Edward’s, and purple always did flatter him so. I think I shall have this.” His mind made up, Stede began tugging at the ring, which seemed disinclined to be liberated from its owner’s finger. As if his meager attempts at disguising his eagerness for the plunder gave him away and forced him to work harder for the score.

“You shall not have it! I’ll have you know that this jewel has been in my family for generations and I have never removed it from this hand since the day it was passed on - “

“Passed on to you from your father as it was passed on from his father before him and his father before him, yes, I’m familiar with processes of inheritance. Who would like double share of the loot in exchange for removing my Edward’s new ring from this mangy cur’s hand?”

Excited murmurs and waving hands erupted amongst the Revenge crew, with Wee John and Roach breaking into a dispute over the best methods for removal.

“Got plans fer ye and yar fellow, eh Cap? Ya nae got matelotage on thae mind, have ye? As first mate I’d be honored indeed tae see t’thae ceremony. May even convince Livvy and her mates tae fly over the I-Dos, they make fer quite the spectacle,” Buttons said, with a knowing look of pride on his face.

“I am not baking that man another orange cake, I don’t care if he tries to kill me again! And I demand final approval on the dinner menu. I am only one man and your expectations can be a bit unrealistic, Captain!” Roach said, pausing from his argument with Wee John about whether oil or saliva was a better ring lubricant. It seemed Wee John wanted to suck the ring right off the Captain’s finger. (“Pervert,” said Black Pete. “You’d be so lucky,” said Wee John.)

“Very kind of you, Buttons, and Roach, let’s not put any carts before any horses. I’m optimistic that we’ll find Edward and come to amends on both sides of our respective wrongdoings, but whether he would agree to being my partner and lover for life remains very much to be seen. But it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead with the perfect engagement ring, which I’d very much like to remove from this gentleman’s hand, if anyone has any ideas?”

The captain, still tied beneath him, twisted his body and spat up at Stede, hitting him on his right cheek, causing him to recoil. “No mincing, mewling, piratical sodomite will have my father’s ring whilst I still live. So all they say about you pirates and your filthy habits is true, eh? Of course a real man wouldn’t throw himself in with this patchwork lot. I don’t know which crime I’d most like to see you hanged for - your terrorizing of good Christian seamen or your brazen and disgusting affront to God’s will. I say again, unhand me at once, you great bloody pansy!”

Stede pursed his lips. He delicately - primly, even - removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the offending spit from his face. With great care he folded up the soiled handkerchief and began, calmly, to speak. “Don’t flatter yourself, Captain, it’s not your Christian semen I’m after. Swede, would you be so kind as to untie our guest? I’d do it myself, but I fear I may have too limp a wrist for the job.” With that, he grabbed hold of the Captain's head by his hair and shoved the soiled handkerchief into the man's mouth, gagging him. “Then again…”

As the Swede removed the rope from the Captain’s wrists, Stede continued, “Wee John, flip him over and hold him down.” The man, long and slender, struggled against Wee John’s impressive manhandling. 

“He’s a fighter, this one, Cap. I like my men feisty, me.”

Stede smiled and nodded. “Don’t we all? Roach, please hold his arm still for me, there's a good man.”

Roach didn’t need to ask which arm he meant. He gleefully fell to the ground and held the Captain’s flailing right arm straight and flat against the deck.

“I think I’ve solved it, lads - my darling Edward will have his ring yet!”

With that, Stede removed his dagger from his belt, held his left hand down on the man’s splayed fingers, stopping them from scratching at the deck, and in a swift and sure motion sliced through his finger like a mere carrot, complete with the same satisfying crunch but with the altogether different spurt of crimson blood, removing the digit from his hand and the ring from the finger. In a wild moment of inspiration and in tribute to his dear love, he found himself inserting the severed finger into the Captain’s mouth.

“Much obliged, Captain,” he said in a husky voice as the man screamed and gagged on the taste of his own flesh. Stede stood at last, dusting himself off, regaining his composure, and after admiring his prize properly for a moment (“Eugh. Blood. Well, it certainly adds character, doesn’t it!”), he deposited the ring safely in his pocket. Looking down at the Captain, still in the throes of horror, Stede said, “Over the side of the ship, I should think, eh gentlemen?”

Wee John and Roach, who’d been observing the scene wide-eyed and hungry in relative silence, smirked and whooped as they lifted the Captain off the deck and dragged him to the ship’s railing. 

“Wait!” Stede called back, and all was still but for the Captain’s muffled screams. Stede's heartbeat thumped loudly in his ears as the reality of the scene impressed itself upon him - how easily, how quickly it all proceeded, how wholly he threw himself into the moment. And here he was, outsourcing the Big Job, but ordering it to be done all the same. He examined his conscience. Perhaps it would not always feel like this - but in this moment, before this arrogant, hateful sod, he wasn’t moved to pity or regret, and upon review of his actions in the previous minutes, at last, he understood his darling Edward’s affinity for a good maim.

His mind clear, his breathing in check, Stede approached the Captain, still in Stede’s men’s grip, and reached up a gentle hand to stroke the damned man’s trembling face. “Stop crying,” he said, maliciously sweet, “it’s just the pinkie.”