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the last night i lie

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Ed is rarely taken by surprise, but it does happen, and it did happen, and in his mind it’s down him believing that this cocoon they inhabit is impenetrable, that so long as they’re all together laughing and eating marmalade and sitting in cuddle puddles for story time at night, pirating will politely pause itself. 

But piracy doesn’t pause, of course, and the other ship got the jump, one full of young dickheads chasing infamy, trying to be fucking heroes. 

Won’t make that mistake again. 

Anyway, it doesn’t matter, he thinks, pulling from the bottle, watching the party take shape around him. Between his crew’s brute force and Stede’s crew’s chaotic enthusiasm, they’d gotten the job done. A few cuts to stitch, Swede’s shoulder to pop back into place—puddin’, pie, etc. No fucking sweat. 

You do it well enough for long enough, you get to relax a bit, he supposes. You earn it. 

It gave him a taste of the old days, which isn’t so bad. Reminds him why he started this whole business, how far he’s come. That’s happening a lot lately, he thinks, since he’s been teaching Stede the way of things. Sometimes you forget you’re the best until someone asks you to show them, until you get to stand there and point out what everyone else does wrong. 

But there he is, brooding again, and so he lets Roach pull him onto the makeshift dance floor, lets his body move for the sake of moving for fucking once, lets himself fly, linking arms with god knows who. 

Whizzing around the third time, mouth open to let the worry escape with the laughter, he catches Stede’s eye through the fog and candlelight and the whir of bodies and everything goes dreamlike for a moment. Stede’s fixing him with that same look, that baffling fucking look, like after the party, like after co-captains. He’s lost entire nights laying around trying to decipher that look like semaphore, trying to suss out what the fuck it could possibly mean. Because by this point he’s pretty sure it doesn’t mean “I wanna fuck.” 

If it did, he reasons, they’d be fucking. 

But it’s distinctly and unmistakably the look Ed would give someone if he had Stede’s face and he wanted to fuck that person. And most people want to fuck Ed, so reason follows that Stede does too, so he figures the question is: why isn’t that happening. 

The first time he saw that look, after the party, he thought he was losing his mind, or maybe his judgement, or maybe his charm. Ed’s always the one to press, always the one touching Stede’s arms or his back, nudging him, always the one finding ways to get close. But that night, Stede had done it, he’d closed the gap between them, had approached with that look, had touched Ed so gently it hurt like the sharpest blades, in and out before you know you’re cut. And Ed thought, this is it, it all makes sense, that’s why he made those fuckers burn their boat, that’s why he’s standing here in the goddamn moonlight looking into my eyes. And so Ed had done what needed to be fucking done, he’d gone in for it, only to have Stede look at Ed like he’d taken his dick out right there on the deck, and so he’d withdrawn, chalked it up to a misread and retreated, and THEN, Stede had fucking turned around and fixed him with that same look! Again!

So what the fuck, he asks himself for the millionth time, like he’s asked the stars and the sea and the clouds and all the fucking gods who abandoned him years ago. Maybe if he’d pressed that first night, maybe if he’d pushed, they’d have gotten it out of their systems, just two guys doing a regular fuck. Maybe Stede had felt weird about it that night, maybe he thought he had to talk about it and didn’t want to—because Ed gets the sense Stede’s not big on what he would probably call physical intimacy or something equally clunky—and that’s what killed it, and maybe he could have said look, we don’t have to talk about it now, we can talk about it after, because once the thing is done then you can talk about the thing if you have to, you can say the things you’re supposed to say, like I’m glad we did, or we could do it again, if you want, or yes, I’m sure everyone heard, and it’s fine. 

They could be doing that now, in another universe, making eyes at each other across the deck and silently discussing secrets only the two of them knew, sounds and tastes and textures they had given each other. They could be having a whole conversation about what would happen when the party ended without having to say a single word, and maybe he knows that but Stede doesn’t, but how the fuck is he supposed to tell Stede that without telling him, is the problem.

He’s so far in his head he steps on Jim’s foot and Jim laughs, and Ed also laughs, as though he isn’t an unhinged obsession where a man should be, as though he’s had a thought besides breaking Stede’s spine like one of his precious books for weeks now. Hah hah! We are dancing drunkenly together! Isn’t that neat! That’s definitely what’s funny!

And there’s Stede with his eyes, with his fucking dimple, with his fucking manicured finger, pointing at Jim and saying something evidently hilarious about god knows what but Ed can’t hear it because he’s thinking about pulling that finger into his mouth, tasting Stede’s fancy fucking lotion, making his eyes roll back into his skull for once instead of looking at him that way. 

Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, he thinks! Maybe that’s how Stede looks at his mother! How the fuck would Ed know? What, he’s supposed to ASK? He’s supposed to say, Stede, mate, how would it be if I took my pants off on purpose, like an actual fucking cunt? Stede, I think I might be in love with you even though I boarded your ship with the intention of killing you and stealing your identity? Yeah, sure, let’s get right on with that. 

Stede, I’m so goddamn happy when I’m with you I’m afraid all the time I’m actually in some sort of fever-dream state and that I will wake up and go back to wanting to die every day?

That’d go well, sure. Why yes Edward, I can assure you that we are both very much awake and marmalade does put a smile on your face, tut tut, pish posh, and then Stede would ice skate back onto the deck and Ed doesn’t even know what impression his brain is doing anymore because that doesn’t even sound like Stede but IN A WAY that’s the FUCKING PROBLEM, isn't it, Stede never actually says anything real about himself. Ed’s cried and Ed’s confessed and Ed’s rambled on about his life and his past and his fucking shame and what has Stede given him to go on? All he knows is Stede likes doing nice things for Ed, and that’s about it. Fucking nothing. 

Stede, do you think you might enjoy doing nice things for my cock also?

GOD, he hates being in love. This is exactly why he’d been fucking avoiding it all those years. Hanging around with creeps and dickheads to get his rocks off specifically to avoid this specific fucking problem.

Lucius’s whine slices through the din. “Babe, you’re making me want to do things,” he says to Pete’s neck before Pete drags him bodily away somewhere, and Ed imagines it with a shiver, imagines hissing it in Stede’s ear, imagines a hand tightening in his own, the promise of it, but as fast as it comes, it’s replaced with a cold splash as Ed’s body hits the sea for good after Stede slits its throat in the night for daring to insinuate the Gentleman Pirate might be interested in his cock. 

What is he thinking. He can see Izzy flipping him off as he bleeds out into the sea. 

Enough, he decides, and reaches for the nearest bottle in the nearest hand, swallowing so fast he almost chokes. 

But it’s not enough, of course, it’s never enough, which he figures out when he and Stede spend a drunken endless minute flinging each other across the deck while everyone laughs and claps (how this happened he isn’t certain, but he thinks there was a shove involved, and maybe a conspiratorial glance that went around the circle of the crew, and he files that away to examine later). Then the song ends and his mood sours because Stede breaks it out as they still and catch their breath, he breaks out the look, complete with the eyes, like it isn’t obscene that other people can see it, like that shouldn’t be reserved for a private fucking viewing party for Ed only. 

Then Stede says, “Folks, it’s been a lovely night, but I believe I’ll turn in.”

And look, it’s not what he SAYS, so much as everything else. Time seems to pause briefly, long enough for Ed to hold the moment in his mind and rotate it around a bit. It’s a perfectly regular sentence containing perfectly regular information that Stede has conveyed in a similar fashion countless times, so it would be silly to infuse it with meaning, it would, and yet

And yet, he’d looked into Ed’s eyes again, he’d flashed the fucking dimple and then, THEN, Stede had looked down and realized their hands were touching, and he hadn’t flinched, he hadn’t wrenched away, hadn’t turned around. He’d slowly, very slowly, lowered their hands and let go by millimeters before all that night air rushed in between them and then, THEN he’d looked back into Ed’s face, flashed the eyes, AND THEN announced he was leaving before turning, slowly, to go. 

He abandons his earlier promise to himself to drop it and decides instead to tie himself to it like the mast in a storm. The crew is already moving to disassemble the party and he makes a few oblique motions to help while he formulates a plan, something, he thinks, stronger than the dancing around the topic he’s been doing, but not quite so strong as an outright declaration of want.

“Will you be joining us on deck tonight?”

That’s Lucius slithering into his ear like a snake. 

“No, I think I’ll, erm,“—god, was it especially hot tonight?—“No.”


“Good.”

Ed whips his head around and Lucius is smiling with all of his teeth and Ed wants to shove him overboard for somehow knowing things, but resists the temptation, and then Lucius’s head turns very slowly and Ed’s follows and there is a ribbon of light spilling from the slightly open door of the captain’s quarters and Ed’s entire body hums.

“What are you playing at,” Ed hisses. 

“Oh, I rather think the better question is what you’re playing at, Captain.”

How did he find himself on this ship of lunatics where the fucking entire crew seems to have unionized specifically to influence his love life? This whole time he’s been proceeding like this is his regular world with its regular terrors, its regular assholes too, but it’s not, not this ship, not these assholes. These are a different breed of assholes entirely, the ones that insist on seeing you even when you’re trying not to be seen, the ones that help you to get the things that you want instead of stepping over your fucking corpse to take them from you. So what, so what if he announced to everyone that he was about to go attempt to fuck Stede Bonnet until he stopped talking for five goddamn minutes, what would they do? Fucking cheer, probably. Because Stede’s the one that made them like this. 

That’s it, he decides, leaving Lucius and his shit-eating grin behind, and he stomps toward that gorgeous, intoxicating crack in the door, smoothing his hair into its bun and wiping his sweaty palms on his trousers. And just in time, it hits him what to say.  

And wouldn’t you know it, Stede gives him the perfect in. 

“Have a nice time tonight?” Stede asks with a smile, jacket and waistcoat gone, shoes gone, a few flimsy fabrics keeping him safe. The brandy’s already poured, into two fucking glasses, and it’s now or never, Ed.

So Ed arranges his face into an approximation of his usual wicked grin even though all his muscles feel thick and clumsy, he summons that manic energy he’s known for, that devil-may-care insouciance that he remembers having at the beginning, when it was new and he was still showing off, still performing Blackbeard. 

Casually, he moves through the regular evening motions, of peeling off the jacket, of taking a too-big gulp of brandy. 

“Yeah mate,” he says, belts hitting the desk with a thunk, “love a party, it’s just, gah, sometimes all I want after a good fight is a good fuck, you know?” 

It sounds so stupid as he says it, his best fucking gambit, the plan he’d spent all night dreaming up, all that potential in one half-baked sentence. He has to turn away to roll his eyes at himself. 

“Oh?” Stede answers without missing a beat, and of course he’s gonna make Ed say more.

“Yeah,” he starts, cursing himself for not planning farther out than this, “any time I get to see the other side, all I want to do is feel ALIVE. Like, in my body, you know?”

“Hmm,” Stede says like he’s not totally sure he can see the appeal there but is being generous by not pointing it out. “So, who’s the lucky winner?”

And THAT’S where he wants this to be going. Perfect, precious Stede Bonnet, always following his lead. He can’t wait to see his face when he explains this whole charade later. After they’ve—okay settle down, Ed.

“Ah, well,” he says, waving a casual hand as he drops his jacket onto the desk chair, “that’s one of the sneaky downsides to being in charge they don’t tell you about. Crew all works for you, so.” 

He fusses with the jacket on the chair, like he could give half a shit about his jacket right now, but he’s too afraid of what his face would betray if he looked at Stede. Nerves? Hope? Desperation? Nah, better to stay over here, busy himself with nothing. 

“Ah, yes,” Stede says, casual as ever, “bit of a power imbalance there.”

“Right,” Ed says, turning now, fingers in his belt loops as he wanders, feeling like he’s doing a piss-poor impression of himself. If a man with a gun walked into this room he could turn on Blackbeard’s cocky bullshit without a blink. But with Stede he can’t, because Stede fucking saw through it on minute one, and he’s been an impostor to himself ever since. 

“And anyway,” he adds as casually as possible, “it’s not as fun as it used to be. Sweaty strangers in cramped supply closets. Had its appeal once, but, the knees, you know…”

He lets it hang with a wave of his hand, cursing himself. All he thinks about for weeks is getting his hands on Stede and as soon as the topic actually comes up he goes with not all it’s cracked up to be? Letting his guard down all over the place today. What the fuck. Just walking the fucking yardarm drunk.

“So you’re saying,” Stede says, turning on the divan to face him, giving him no choice but to meet his eye, “it would have to be someone equal to you in status, and someplace comfortable?” 

For a split second he dares to hope, dares to let these words right into his heart, right into the empty home he’s been making for them since Stede whispered ‘may I’ (you may, mate, you fucking well may). The hair on his bare arms stands to attention. His stupid brain had been screaming FUCK STEDE for weeks, but this forces him to really imagine it, imagine the reality of Stede Bonnet, the velvet, the sugar. 

“Yeah, something like that, I suppose.” 

His voice shakes because there they are again, the fucking eyes, and he wants to bark ANYWAY GOODNIGHT and fuck back off to the deck where he can take as many hours to restore his heartbeat to its normal rate as it takes, but he stays, he stays and he waits, because maybe he needs to trust Stede to steer a bit.

“What was it like? Before you were a captain?” Stede asks evenly, curiously, the same way he’d ask what Ed thinks the weather might be tomorrow. 

Never gets the questions he thinks he will. He shifts his weight, takes a long swig, considering. 

“Took what you could get, I reckon. You made eyes with someone from across the deck, held it long enough to be sure you were both speaking the same language, and then you went somewhere to let them stick their hand in your breeches.”

Stede pulls a face. Is he blushing? Damn these candles. “Not judging, you understand,” he says, even though he almost definitely is, “just seems awfully … impersonal. Lonely, maybe?”

“That was how it had to be,” he says with a grand sigh. “Weren’t supposed to be doing it, not really, and there was never time, space, privacy. Couldn’t really trust anyone. So it was quick, maybe even hot. And then, you went back to work.”

“Hm. I can see why you might be interested in something different, now.”

He’d be lying, of course, if he said he’d never imagined shoving Stede into some pantry or other and getting splinters in his knees as a reward for how fast they hit the fucking ground. Thinking about it now, though, Stede comes from a world of courtship and romance and fucking beds—fucking floral-scented cabins with locks on the doors—and it had maybe never fully occurred to him that Stede was on a different track here, that just because he was at sea in his body didn’t mean he was in his mind. 

Which is interesting, very interesting indeed, because for Ed charming his way into broom closet blowjobs had turned habit, rote, something like a rut maybe. Something he did to feel something, like sticking his finger in a candle flame. But this conversation has him actually remembering the early days, the days when he’d earned a lot of raised brows and cocked heads, heard lots of What do you mean where am I goings, and Why are you looking at me like thats and had learned to shut that itch down. Everyone wanted to fuck, but nobody wanted to stay. And after a few vague insinuations that there was something wrong with him for wanting it, he’d given up wanting it. 

Or tried to, anyway. 

Maybe that’s what’s been going wrong here. He’s been trying to peel an apple—a sharp knife, a quick slice from a polite distance. But actually he’s holding an orange, something with a softer, deeper rind, something he can dig his fingers into. He’s been trying to blunt-force some kind of white-hot sexual tension between them, as though that was necessary, as though the heat hasn’t been simmering since day one, steady as the rising sun. 

Speaking of Stede, he looks like he’s thinking very hard, also like he’s a little lost as to how to carry this conversation forward. They’ve never talked about sex before, never not once, and it occurs to Ed for the first time that Stede might even think—he might not even realize—shit.

“Yeah. Blokes on ships are all the same, really,” he adds casually, voice oddly liquidy, and tries not to grin as Stede’s eyebrows crawl up his face like they’re about to walk out on strike. 

“Ah. Yes, I’d, erm. I’d wondered,” Stede says, adjusting the lace on his sleeve. 

It feels like as natural a transition as Ed’s going to get. He hops onto the desk and perches, stays very still, no sudden movements, and simply asks the question he’s been wanting to ask for fucking months, finally utters it into the air they’re both breathing. Like it’s no big deal, like do you want an apple or do you want a fucking orange.

“And what about you, Stede Bonnet? Proclivities and all that?” 

Stede breaks eye contact instantly. This is daring, he knows it. Ed’s pretty sure this isn’t the kind of thing a gentleman discusses—and even if it is, he’s almost certain THIS gentleman doesn’t—and the flush creeping around the vee of Stede’s exposed chest confirms it. 

Remember the look on the deck, he tells himself, and feels his guts stir with the memory. Stede might not know the steps, but he’s sure as hell doing the dance. All you have to do is lead, Ed.

“Ed—erm. I don’t mean to accuse,” Stede says, and that’s got Ed’s attention, “but I feel like we’re talking around something here.”

Ed howls a laugh. 

“Mate, are you for real?” It’s almost like Stede doesn’t even realize he does this, like it’s so ingrained as to be automatic. Protecting himself or something. 

“It’s the Spanish Inquisition with me all day every day, and then you dodge the one direct question I ask you? I don’t think so, Stede. I’m stronger and faster and will do anything it takes to get an answer, up to and including tickle torture.” 

And that’s a fucking image, isn’t it? Stede’s ribs in his hands, Ed pinning him in place on top of the desk, mouths inches apart as Stede’s laughs mix with Ed’s, as they turn into shared breaths, turn into a realization, turn into—

“Fine,” Stede says, standing up, failing to suppress a grin, hands jammed in pockets, “I’ll bite. I might be a man with, erm … proclivities. I suppose I’ve … suspected as much. I mean, I did go to boarding school, I’m no stranger to, well, the sorts of things you mentioned earlier. Supply closets and all that. I mean not me personally, of course, but.”

It’s the of course that makes Ed’s stupid fucking heart swell. Like Ed himself didn’t just admit to a hundred supply closets, like Ed would think less of him somehow. He smiles, nods, to show Stede he understands his meaning, to encourage him. And he does, that brave man, he clears his throat and he continues

“Problem was, the boys with proclivities were the same ones who’d seen me picking flowers and decided it was cause enough to tie me to the oars of a rowboat and throw rocks at me—to cite one example among several I’d rather not recount—and so I knew better than to ever trust them enough in a situation as … well, vulnerable as all that.”

Stede's voice stays steady and he has that other look now, the from the dinghy back from the burning party boat that Ed will never forget as long as his decaying body roams these cursed seas, and somehow Ed knows instantly that Stede didn’t retaliate against those boys, but that he would have in a blink if they’d hurt Ed instead of him. 

The candlelight glints off Stede’s rings as he gestures vaguely toward a painful past, and Ed’s stomach twists hard, he’d been thinking this is just a matter of upper-crust politesse, but Stede is saying something different, sadder. Crueler. Ed can see the pain of it etched into the small muscles around his eyes, and yeah, he’ll admit it: Ed’s spent a lot of time wanting to be held, but this is the first time he wants to hold somebody else. 

He can see it, somehow, little Stede, alone and afraid, confused and careful, learning who not to be. He wants to say fuck those kids, he wants to say is that why you came to sea, he wants to say I will never let anyone hurt you ever again, but he knows better than to take up air here. He grits his teeth and stays quiet, because this isn’t about sex anymore, this is about his friend Stede. 

“And then I got married, and—“

“You were MARRIED?” Ed almost falls off the desk. He didn’t mean to blurt it but here we are, and he squeezes his eyes shut and tries to picture it, Stede Bonnet, family man, doting on an heiress somewhere, and it’s painful physically, it’s—GOD. 

Stede smiles, but it’s wry, bitter. Almost a wince. “Arranged. But it was … educational, I suppose. As far as, well, my proclivities are concerned.”

“Because they weren’t … “

“No. They were not.”

He blinks. This is maybe the most information he’s learned about Stede in one go that didn’t involve hobbies or fabrics or spoons. In a quick flash like his life before his eyes, he relives all their conversations—Stede, always generous, benevolent, forthcoming with everything except himself. Stede, gracefully, seamlessly steering the conversation to Ed—like he’d tried to do a moment ago—whenever it got too close. And Ed, always more than fucking happy to drone on about himself and his adventures like the fucking egomaniac he is. Expert tactician my arse

Stede’s like a sunbeam, lighting up the clothes and the manners and the hair (fuck, the hair), and leaving the rest in shadow. But it’s a costume, Ed realizes, just like the fucking leather and the beard, a distraction, a fuckery to wrap himself in. Underneath is a man with no home.

It all turns from shadow to shape, now. No wonder Stede could fix Ed with the look and then turn on his heel. No wonder Stede seemed to speak the language but not know the grammar, no wonder he baffled Ed at every opportunity, scrambled his brain to mush. Ed’s spent way too much time around dickheads and calculating assholes who only care about their own power, their silly hierarchies, people who'd happily do shit like this on purpose just to fuck with you. But Stede wasn’t doing any of it on purpose. He was fucking scared. 

Of course Stede didn’t want to get into a fucking supply closet. His whole life was a supply closet, small and dark and lonely.

No, Ed thinks. Stede wants to be seen for who he is, in broad daylight, wearing a robe and carrying two cups of tea onto the deck.

So Ed watches Stede, who is standing halfway across the room looking like he wants to crawl under the couch and hide, red climbing up his neck like tentacles, his hands jittering until they begin the task of pouring himself a second brandy and taking a sip. 

Stede, who, moments ago, with the bravery of a thousand English warships, had tried to move this forward by suggesting they were talking around something. Ed should have said “yes,” and then fucking devoured him. Was it too late for that?

“Shit,” he mutters.

“Hmm?” Stede asks, too fast, too high, manic. 

Ed hops off the desk and moves to Stede, slowly but deliberately—meandering. Giving Stede time to retreat if that’s what he wants. But Stede stands there, lets him come. He takes the glass out of Stede’s hand and places it on the side table. 

“I’m sorry I pushed you into talking about it.”

“You didn’t. You asked, I answered. It’s just—“ Stede’s staring at the glass and Ed feels guilty for taking his crutch away, “I fear I’m not much fun on this topic. You wanted to talk about, erm, yourself, and I started going on being bullied as a boy. Humiliating.”

“No,” Ed says softly, brow furrowed, “I wanted to talk about you. I want to know these things. I want to hear them. I want to go back in time and punch some children.”

Stede smiles, but still won’t meet his eye, and so Ed’s forced to escalate, he’s forced to take Stede’s hands into his own, fingertips touching Stede’s downturned palms beyond the leather of the gloves he wishes he’d taken off. He’s spent weeks brushing sleeves and patting knees but this is what it should have been, how he should have done it, declaring something rather than hinting at it until Stede gave it to him. Stede swallows hard, but he stays there and acclimates, and suddenly if this is all that happens tonight, Ed’s fucking thrilled. 

“Look, okay, you were absolutely right.”

“Me—I was right?”

“Yeah, mate. We were talking around something.”

Stede’s eyes go big, shocked, and Ed feels his whole face smile. 

“Cause you gave me that look, earlier, on deck.”

“I — a look?”

“Come on, mate,” Ed smirks.

Stede seems to cave in on himself, like he never thought Ed would call him on it. The fucker. Ed feels his smirk become a grin and crawl up his face, and he holds Stede’s hands a little tighter—because fuck it, he can, they’re here—skating his thumb across Stede’s knuckles, feeling him squirm against it. 

He’s right about The Look and there’s some satisfaction there to be sure. And sure, he could surge forward this instant, lift Stede off the ground and carry him bodily to that bed he’s been dying to test out, and he’s 90% sure Stede wouldn’t utter a single word of protest. 

But that would be doing it the old way, and he knows it, and nothing about the old way makes sense with Stede. It’s been forever and a fucking day since he stood this close to someone without a knife in his hand, since he wanted to speak because he knew he’d actually be fucking heard, since he knew for sure his words wouldn’t disappear into the smoke and mirrors of fucking Blackbeard. 

“Thought you were trying to get me to make a move, so I came in here trying to flirt and maybe get something going. I was trying to do it the supply closet way, but you, um, you changed my mind about all that.”

Stede looks like he’s been kicked, suddenly. “So you’re saying you don’t—you don’t want—“

“Stede, I’m literally holding your hands right now.”

“Right.” Stede squishes his eyes shut, shakes his head, stupid.

“I just meant, I thought that’s what you wanted? The supply closet thing. And I thought I wanted that too, but then listening to you I realized I picture something different to all that? I dunno, it’s like… with you I picture slowness. I picture sweetness. Laughing and talking, maybe. I picture … I picture kissing you, even.”

He feels silly saying it out loud, that he wants these things, but as he says them it feels like a door opening in his ribcage, like a breeze rustling the dead leaves and old seagull feathers around. 

Ed watches as relief and hope change Stede’s face, feels his hands return the grip on Ed’s, and then his eyes—cheeky bugger—dart to Ed’s mouth and back up again. 

“Oh, well, that’s—that—,” Stede stammers, but Ed can’t take it anymore and he isn’t sure why he should, so he kisses him. 

It's new territory for Stede, so he keeps it light, restrained. And fuck, Stede smells like heaven, feels like slipping into clean soft sheets, and then Stede moves closer to him, just a fraction, presses harder, and Ed’s heart starts to move around in his chest, thumping so hard it rattles free of its bonds, tries to wedge itself in his throat. He allows himself a tiny bit more: hands sliding up Stede’s arms, slow and steady, finding the warm expanse of Stede’s chest, feeling the thump of his pulse under his thumb. 

He’s never held a precious thing he didn’t steal—never had something precious choose him. He thinks of everything he ever coveted, took, hid away in that dank old boat, only to toss them when he found something better. Thinks about all the people he let use him the same way, as a conquest, as a story to tell or a point to prove, then discard him just as easily. 

It’s not regret, not exactly. Surviving at all takes too much energy for regret. 

No, he realizes. It’s more like relief. 

It’s unsettling, scary almost, to not have that pressure leaning on him, to not have the end in sight right from the start, to not be racing toward it. He sees all the hours before them unfurling like silk, lazy and luxurious, and beyond that he sees dancing on decks and laughing, sees an actual future beyond the bone-numbing drudgery of his life and he has to pull away, has to breathe. 

“Okay?” He asks. 

Stede’s whole face is smiling, his eyes are smiling, his fucking hair is smiling, and Ed is too, it’s okay, they can smile at each other. 

He needs to kiss Stede again, and so he does because he can, he lets his hands slide up the curve of his shoulder, watching his eyes close involuntarily as Ed’s fingers brush his face, as Ed pulls him close. He tilts his head and gets Stede’s bottom lip between his own, pulls at it, feels Stede move into him, relax into the moment, sigh against his mouth. 

“You can touch me, you know,” Ed says.

“Oh. I—“

He lifts Stede’s hands, kisses the knuckles of each one, places them gently on his own shoulders. 

“Okay?”

Stede nods, but he doesn’t look settled, so Ed waits, he could wait all night, could watch the feelings move across Stede’s face, watch him chew his lip, listen to his shaky breaths. Stede’s hand begins a tentative journey around the back of Ed’s neck, fingers in his hairline, and Ed softens into it, lets his eyes fall shut. His own hands move to Stede’s waist, to the softness of his shirt, fingers winding in it, caressing his ribcage, getting used to his contours, the warmth of him. 

“I’m scared, Ed,” Stede whispers, and Ed’s eyes fly open. 

“Tell me,” he says, palm on Stede’s face, Stede leaning into it, warm, soft, alive. 

“With Mary, it was always … it was awful, we were forced to marry, forced to procreate, everyone waiting on us to do it. I felt like there were twenty people in the room with us every time we tried, just watching, waiting, judging. Sometimes I didn’t even—I couldn’t...“ 

Stede shakes his head, like he’s disappointed in himself.

awfully impersonal. Lonely, maybe, it ricochets around Ed’s brain like a stray bullet.

“Do you feel like there are people watching now,” Ed asks gently, thumb skating across his cheek bone. 

“In a different way, I suppose. Like. Like somehow the people who've always expected this from me are at the windows high-fiving and saying I Told You So. Paying each other off for the bets they made about me.”

"Wait here, mate."

Lightning quick, Ed goes to the windows, opens every curtain one by one, makes an absolute show of looking out of every corner. He peeks into the closet and the secret closet and the secret secret closet and he looks through the library, behind the bed curtains, under the couch, and the whole time, Stede’s smile is returning to his face, inch by precious inch. 

“Stede,” he says, returning, eyes darting around dramatically, “I don’t want to frighten you but,” and he leans in close, conspiratorial, whispering in Stede’s ear, “I think we're alone.” 

“You’re teasing.”

“No mate,” Ed says, deadly serious, taking Stede's hands again for good measure, “I’m trying to tell you it’s safe. Just you and me. Talk to me.”

“I, well, it’s just that—the kissing is—but the rest of it, I don’t know Ed, I’m afraid you’ll make me do other things—“

“MAKE you? Mate, what? Okay. Hold on. Look at me.” 

Stede does, and he looks sick, mouth distorted into a grimace. 

“I want you to hear this, okay? Your days of forced sex for procreative purposes are gone, they’re way back there, on land. Okay?”

Stede nods, but he’s still white as a fucking sheet. 

“Stede, there’s nothing to this except being happy. Except feeling good, making each other feel good. Okay? I’m not interested in doing anything with you until you can’t stand to NOT be doing it.”

His face scrunches. “Until I’m—wait.“

“Okay, look, let’s keep it very simple. Do you like kissing me?” Ed asks softly, “because I like kissing you.”

Stede doesn’t blink, doesn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

“Do you want to come here and kiss me again?”

Stede moves and Ed feels fluttery inside, light, anticipation making him wobbly like he’s drunk on a flight of stairs, like he wasn’t kissing this man two fucking minutes ago. He gets a cautious hand back at Stede’s waist, braced for him to flinch or freeze, but he doesn’t, he presses on, hands on Ed’s shoulders where Ed had put them earlier, fingers exploring his nape. 

Stede looks at him for a long moment. “You really like this?” 

As if to say YOU like THIS, as if to say BLACKBEARD likes THIS, as if to say BLACKBEARD likes Stede Bonnet’s nerves and inexperience and lavender-scented hands and what answer could there be, really? 

Ed wraps his arms around Stede’s waist, all the way, cinching him, pressing the line of their bodies together, and Ed fucking kisses him. He pulls Stede’s lip into his and runs his tongue along it, feels Stede’s arms grasp at his neck, feels his hair snag in Stede’s fingers, in his rings. He makes a low noise in his throat and sneaks his tongue into Stede’s mouth, and it takes Stede only a second to give himself right back to Ed, the brandy-stung warmth of his tongue pressing back, searching and tasting, as the world tips sideways for a bit.

Their mouths slip apart but Ed holds him close as a feeling, tight as a plan, lets his nose find the soft place where Stede’s shoulder becomes his neck, breathes into it for a moment, decides it’s his favorite place on the whole earth and he’s going to settle down there, retire, live out his days. 

“Yes. Okay?” he says to the skin there, to the freckle where decides he will build his home. He feels Stede nod, nuzzling at Ed.

“Come here,” Ed says, heart in his mouth. He lets his hand run down Stede’s arm and catch his fingers, steers them toward the couch. Stede stops dead halfway there.

Ed turns back to face him, warm smile, “Clothes are staying on, mate. I promise.”

Stede grins at that, but doesn’t move right away. He looks seriously at Ed across the distance of their arms, evaluating him in some way that Ed doesn’t understand. Ed tilts his head, wrinkles his brow in question. 

And then Stede fucking Bonnet, eighth wonder of the fucking world, pulls Ed in the other direction. Toward the bed. And Ed’s knees agree to make the journey without giving out, but only just.

The back of Stede’s legs hit the edge of the bed, and Ed gets his hands back on Stede’s hips and looks at him, really looks at him, tries to still the churn of his own feelings for a second. Tries to asses him impersonally, like he would in a fight. Stede’s nervous but he’s not afraid, Ed sees. He’s open but cautious, like he isn’t sure if this is the right thing to do. Like he’s calculating all the ways this could go wrong. 

So Ed makes a few informed guesses, and with a slow, chaste kiss to the corner of Stede’s mouth, he snakes past Stede onto the bed, everything still on but his boots and jacket, crosses his feet lazily, the picture of calm (if you ignore the pressing outline of his cock in his trousers), like this is just a new way to hang out together. 

Stede turns, makes his way to Ed on his knees, and Ed guides him down to his chest, head in the crook of his shoulder, feels his heartbeat in the flat palm on his back, breathes into his honeysuckle hair. He pulls Stede a little closer, bodies flush, and Stede places a shaky hand on Ed’s sternum. 

Ed sighs contentedly, gets a hand in Stede’s hair to muss it like he’s always wanted. 

“What are we thinking about your proclivities, mate?” Half joking to keep things comfortable, half hoping it will be easier for Stede to talk like this, where he doesn’t have to look at him. 

“Well,” he says, clearing his throat, “I think it’s safe to say they involve whatever it is you just did with your tongue.”

Ed’s laugh is full-throated. “Ever kissed someone and liked it?”

“I’m not sure I would have even understood that to be ‘kissing’ before today.”

Which is an answer and also not an answer, but Ed huffs a laugh and decides to let him get away with it. Ed turns, hitches Stede’s leg up over his thigh, lets his hand stray and stay there. Stede’s fingers find the bit of chest peeking out above his t-shirt, worry at the hair.  

“What’s kissing like in your world then? Show me,” Ed says, chuckling because the tactic feels cheap even for him.

“Well, we’re already doing it all wrong, I’m afraid,” Stede says, dimple appearing with his smirk. “First, we’d definitely be upright. Second, one of us would almost certainly be a lady. Third, our tongues would never be acquainted. It would be—now, imagine we’re standing up and fully clothed—it would be more like this. Prepare to have your socks knocked off, Ed.” 

He puts some distance between them and then squeezes his eyes shut tight and plants the fastest, dryest, chastest peck to Ed’s cheek. 

“Gave one of those to Izzy this morning,” Ed says with a frown. 

“Why, Ed,” Stede says dramatically, “I didn’t know you loved him so fervently, so passionately—“

Ed kisses him for real, pulling him closer, laughing into his mouth. 

“Haven’t kissed someone in ages,” he says, which earns him an incredulous look. “Mean it. Haven’t wanted to, really.”

“Do you think it’s weird,” Stede asks, “that I’ve never—or that you have and I haven’t—“

“Enjoyed sex?” Ed smirks, and watches Stede bloom. It’s so fun to watch him blush like this, to watch his eyelashes flutter and his mouth forget words, it’s so fucking fun getting to be with him like this, to watch it all be new again for someone. Makes it all feel new for him, too, the kissing, the pirating. Like anything could happen, like the night is just beginning. 

No,” Ed says and means it. “If anything it’s … I dunno, it’s sweeter, for me. Knowing you trust me. Getting to hear all the little noises you make and knowing only I’ve heard them. Feeds my massive ego.”

Stede laughs at that, buries his pink face in Ed’s chest. 

“But look, mate,” Ed adds, tipping Stede’s chin up because he knows he’s about to get a look from him, “It’s fine you don’t have experience or whatever, but I need you to talk to me. I don’t want to hurt you like they did. Okay? So I need you to stop being afraid to say sex words.”

Stede splutters and Ed holds his chin there, forces him to stay, smirks him into submission. 

“You’re sweet,” he says, thumb stroking Stede’s bottom lip, “but you still have to say it, Stede,” voice dropping to a growly whisper, “say you’re thinking about sex, you’re thinking about fucking.”

Stede shivers, so Ed gets close to his mouth, says the words right into it, “Cause I’m thinking about it, Stede,” he says, nudging with his hip a little, “thinking about taking your shirt off, thinking about your skin, how warm and soft you’ll feel in my hands.”

Stede moves to kiss him but he dodges it. “Go on. Tell me. I can hear you worrying.”

“I—" 

Stede keeps looking at his mouth and he's sick with it, but he stays still, just out of reach. 

“I want that,” Stede spits, like a confession, like a dare.

“Want what?” Ed keeps his voice low and sincere, thumb moving lazily on his thigh, every inch of them close so Stede won’t be afraid. 

“I want you to take my shirt off. And t-touch me.”

Ed rewards him with a kiss, that thing with his tongue, he thinks dizzily, swallowing little sounds out of Stede’s mouth. He drags his hand up Stede’s thigh to his waist, starts tugging at the shirt there, really taking his time, wanting Stede to know the ache of anticipation, the salt-sting of it resolved. 

He gets a hand under Stede’s shirt at the dip of Stede’s waist, trails his fingers up Stede's ribcage. Feels Stede stop breathing, stop kissing him. 

“Okay?” He keeps asking and it feels stupid, but it seems to center Stede, a little wayfinder or something. And anyway, Ed’s been in those situations himself, where things just move and you never stop to think whether you actually want them to, and then suddenly it seems like it’s too late. So he keeps asking. 

Stede nods, moves his hand to the hem of Ed’s shirt, fingers brushing the skin there. “May I?” He asks shakily, all his seductive swagger gone, and Ed nods, adjusts, helps the two of them out of their shirts, settles their bodies back together. It takes a second to get there, like wading into cold water, but then the full press of skin-on-skin is almost too much, and Ed realizes he's gotten way too used to having a second skin between him and the world at all times. Stede’s touches are as gentle as his kisses, exploratory, fingertips grazing his ribs, his scars, so Ed tries to mirror him, keep it light, teasing, maddening. Ed brushes Stede’s nipple with his thumb and Stede gasps a surprised whine into his mouth.

Then time goes gooey for a bit. Stede gets grabbier, fingers gripping all of Ed’s northern hemisphere soft parts, the muscles in his arms, the back of his neck. Their noises get needier, hungrier. Ed gets teeth on Stede’s earlobe and Stede’s hips jerk forward, hard line of his cock sliding against Ed’s thigh. 

“Sorry,” Stede blurts, leaping back, making space.

Ed cocks an eyebrow. “Too much?”

Stede closes his eyes, breathes through it. “Was it—was it too much for you?” 

“No, mate. I loved it.”

“It’s just that—I get afraid to—“

“To what,” Ed coos, pushing a bit of hair off Stede’s forehead. 

“It always felt like. Well, like an invasion.”

Ed smiles. Grabs Stede’s leg again, puts it back where it was. He lets his hand slide along the outside of Stede’s perfect thigh to his ass cheek, gets a handful of it, pulls him even closer, makes direct eye contact as he rolls their hips together, as he presses his own erection into Stede, who seems to briefly lose consciousness. 

“Okay?”

“Ed,” Stede says, swallowing hard, “Ed, I think my proclivities might be you.”

Ed's fucking face hurts from smiling. “Reckon I’ve been waiting to hear that a long time.”

“No,” Stede says, bashful.

Ed rolls his hips again for emphasis, drags his lips up Stede’s neck to his ear, holds him tight as he wriggles from Ed’s beard tickling him. “Yes,” he whispers, and means it, god he means it. 

“What else do you like, Ed?” Stede breathes. 

Wait. “I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that.”

Stede grins crooked and lascivious, evil, fucking knowing, says, “Well, then I guess you’ve never been with a gentleman before,” and Ed feels the words shoot straight down his spine into his cock. This fucking dork and his lines, and Ed's melting like wax in his hands. This is what I get for letting my guard down.

“You—“ Ed says, blinking, “I’m supposed to be—fuck, that’s it,” he says, and in one move has Stede on his back, pinning him like a moth, legs locked together. Stede lets out a little oh and Ed thinks that’s fucking right

“I like this,” Ed says, watching Stede’s eyes jut all over his bare torso, “I like when I can feel you, when I can feel that you like it. I like when you move your body with mine. I like watching you trying to decide where to put your hands.”

Stede looks at his hands, raised uselessly, touching nothing. Then he slowly moves them to the leather on Ed’s thighs. 

Ed kisses him, hard, and feels Stede’s fingers dig into the muscle.

“I like,” he gasps, “I like when you touch my legs, and I like when you get all messy and disheveled, like that only I get to see it.” He’s kissing Stede again and again, mouthing the words into his neck, his collarbone. “I like the way your skin feels, the way it smells like the sun, I like the way you taste,” he says, running the flat of this tongue along Stede’s nipple, pulling it into his mouth. 

“Ahh,” Stede whines, body pushing against Ed’s, his hands raking up Ed’s sides. 

“Okay?” He asks, biting at Stede’s jaw, gripping his ribs. 

“Ed, it’s never—I don’t—“

Ed stills, rests on his elbows, worries a lock of Stede’s perfect hair. “Take your time, sweetheart.”

Stede breathes very deliberately. “I’m not sure, erm. What happens next? But I think that—I think that whatever you’d like, I’d like?”

“Hm,” Ed says, pretends to consider it. “I think I might like to take your pants off, to start with,” he says, like he’s making it up as he goes. “Mine too, I suppose. While we're at it.” 

He gives Stede a long, searching kiss. 

“And then I think I’d like to hold you as tight as I can, feel your whole body in my hands. And after that, we can re-asses the situation? What do you say?”

Stede gives a tiny nod and then he starts on his own trousers, doesn’t even wait for Ed, who grins at him like a madman as he attacks his own breeches. Ed arranges his hair back into something of a knot and then, pants dispensed with, they settle together with a few caught breaths and stilted touches, and then he’s there, Stede is fucking there, close as air. 

Ed gets Stede’s face in his hands, says, “Okay?” And Stede nods. 

“If it stops being okay, I need you to tell me. You can’t be afraid to tell me. Promise.”

“Promise,” Stede says. 

Ed wraps them together again, serpentine and smooth, lets his hands go wherever they want as they figure out how their bodies move together, how they fit best. He kisses Stede, kisses him so much his mouth is pink from the scratch of Ed’s beard, and then keeps kissing him, kisses him like time is running out, because it’s been 20 fucking years since he was held and kissed like this, since his prick ached like this, since his entire body sang like this, since he passed his whole heart into another person like this. Every time he feels Stede’s cock against him time freezes for a second and Ed is reborn, brand new to this room, to his own body, to this fucking earth, like a tiny amnesia, like a clean slate. 

He can’t remember the last time he wasn’t worried about fifty things at once. 

He flops on top of Stede and Stede’s legs move automatically to Ed’s waist, but then Stede seems to freeze, seems to rethink, maybe panic a little, so Ed slows it all down, carefully puts Stede’s legs where they were going, one by one, feeling his chest heave beneath him, watching his eyes.

“Is it—“ Stede asks, “don’t women—“

“Don’t see any women here, mate,” Ed says, and kisses him slowly, tenderly. “Only us.” 

Stede clutches at him, fingertips in his shoulders, legs gripping at his sides. Ed’s going to fucking faint if he doesn’t come soon, there’s no oxygen left in his brain, no blood left in his veins, but he can’t stop, can’t imagine breaking this embrace for something as silly as a fucking orgasm, so he stays, rocking with Stede and slowly going mad with it. 

“Ed,” Stede whines, body twisting, and Ed lifts onto his elbows, gives him some space.

“Okay?” He asks, fucking trembling, fucking vibrating apart. 

“No,” Stede says by way of exhale, and Ed’s off him like a shot, sitting up. 

“No, no” he says again, urgently, “I’m good, Ed, I’m—this is so good, you’re so good for me, I’m … I feel like a different person, I think.”

And then his eyes dart down to Ed’s erection, quick as a blink, but Ed catches it. Smirks.

“Say it, Stede,” he purrs, wiping Stede’s spit off his mouth with the back of his hand. “Go on.”

“Your—your cock,” Stede says, and Ed’s stomach flips all the way upside fucking down. “I—it’s so beautiful, Ed, I—can I touch it?”

Ed’s brain goes whoosh like a cannonball. He scoots up, straddles Stede's middle, and then all he can do is nod dumbly as Stede’s hand reaches out, palm grazing against the skin of Ed’s balls, then slides up and grips him, gentle but firm, tests out moving. Ed’s eyes close automatically, his toes curl, his head tips back. 

“I figured you like this, because of what you, erm, said earlier,” Stede says, because of course he remembered Ed’s idiotic banter from earlier, of course he was paying attention to every goddamn thing Ed said, and if that ain’t love

“Yes, Stede, yes,” he breathes, as Stede’s hand finds something of a rhythm. “It’s so—fuck, it’s so good, you’re so good, it won’t be long for me, is that okay?”

Stede stills for a second, smiles with so much love, so much pride in his eyes that Ed tries to remember a single good thing he’s ever done in his life to deserve Stede Bonnet’s gentle hand on his prick and can’t, can’t think of one, because Stede’s other hand is raking up his thigh, thumbing at the join of his hip, because Stede is rocking his own hips underneath him.

“Okay?” Stede asks, the cheeky fucking bugger, giving him a squeeze. 

Ed grabs Stede’s hand, grips it, shows him. Stede’s a quick study, enthusiastic too, creative even. Stede's sitting up a little now as he works, eyes transfixed on Ed’s face, watching him as he gets there, as he gets close enough to rock his hips into Stede’s hand, as they find their pace. 

Stede bares his teeth, looks fucking ferocious, like he’s going to fight Ed’s cock to the end, and Ed starts to spiral. He wants to come for his own sake as much as he wants to give Stede the satisfaction, the reassurance, to show him he's good, this is good. As the wave hits, Ed’s brain goes so blissfully goddamn blank he briefly considers he might have brain damage. He feels Stede flinch as his spend hits Stede’s chest, feels Stede’s grip slide slick over his cock, feels his thighs shake, hears Stede make some kind of low growl as he finishes at fucking last, as Stede fucking Bonnet adds years to his life with the palm of one hand. He collapses into his own mess on Stede’s chest, kissing him like he’s trying climb inside him, grasping at his face, fist in his hair. 

“Can I use my mouth,” Ed asks, “on you, would that be okay?”

Stede nods, and the ferocity on his face changes shape into something like terrified wonder, and Ed’s on the move, nuzzling at the mess on his stomach, sliding his tongue into the join of Stede’s thigh, hair sticking to his tongue, Stede’s body unable to stop moving, grinding, bucking toward him. He stops for a second with his face between Stede’s legs, takes a breath, wants to hold this moment, just for a second, at least long enough to feel sick every time he recalls this scent, the musk and tang of him.

He sucks a kiss to the salty inside of Stede’s left thigh, lets Stede move into it, lets Stede’s leg squirm against his grip, and then trails tender kisses up to his balls, nuzzles them with his beard, lets Stede revel in the sensation for a moment, listening to him moan obscenely from somewhere beyond the scope of his attentions. This is the part he loves best, this aching stillness, the inhale, the part where the storm is coming for sure and your whole body is tensed for that first fat drop, and Stede practically hovers with the want of it, his entire body a silent plea. 

He licks a hot stripe up the underside of Stede’s cock and Stede groans “FUCK,” and it does something for Ed he isn’t prepared for, winds him up all over again. He holds Stede’s hips down with his forearms and then takes Stede down in one slow gulp, sucking, swallowing, and Stede comes almost instantly, which he was expecting, with a long groaning whine, bucking wildly against Ed’s weight pressing, squealing and yelping Ed’s name as it moves through him, body shuddering and twitching, and Ed takes it all, holds it all, stays with him.

He crawls up the bed and pulls Stede hard into his chest, handling him rougher than he has all night, and breathes hard into his hair. Stede throws his arm lazily over Ed’s torso, heaving breaths, nose pressed into Ed’s sternum, grinning and kissing his breastbone.

He feels the tears creeping, itching. “Should have asked you about that goddamn look a lot earlier, mate,” he says, just to get out of his head. 

Stede laughs into the muscle of Ed’s chest, moves back to look at him. 

“Would you believe me if I said I didn’t know I was doing it?”

“Not a chance, you bugger.”

“It’s true,” Stede says, flopping fully onto his back, and Ed takes the opportunity to nuzzle up near his armpit, feel the feather-soft hair on his skin, breathe in the tang of him.  

“I’m uhh, not so adept at hiding my feelings, if you hadn’t noticed. Everything shows on my face, I suppose. Embarrassing.”

“It’s lucky for me, at least.”

“Oh?” Stede asks, getting his hand in Ed’s hair, making him coo like a dove. 

“I’d never have tried this with you in a million years, otherwise.”

“That’s odd. I think of you as a man who knows what he wants and gets it.”

“You mean a pirate?”

Stede chuckles. “I suppose so.”

“Not with you, mate. You’re a whole different breed, a whole different species, even. And anyway, I’ve seen you angry. I’d never risk it.”

“Afraid I’d make you to torch your own ship?”

“Well, it’s your ship, so. But yeah, something like that.”

He waits a beat, fingers playing absently in the hair on Stede’s chest. It’s after, he tells himself stupidly, so they can talk about it.

“It’s just like. You were there, you know, and you’d say these things, you’d do these things, and you were right there, and then you’d be gone. And I thought I was losing my marbles for a fair minute there. Whiplash.”

“Hmm.”

“And then tonight, the way you looked at me while everyone was dancing, after they shoved us together, I wanted to pull you into my arms in front of everyone, watch you blush, get it going finally, but I felt like — I dunno, like, if you rejected me, then I’d know it was true, every awful thing anyone’s ever said about me, I was just a monster, a devil. Couldn’t risk it.”

And Stede does the kindest thing imaginable which is that he holds Ed tighter, pets his hair, kisses the bit of his forehead he can reach. They breathe together like that for a moment. 

“I know there’s nothing I can do to disabuse you of that notion, but what I can say is that I don’t give a toss what anyone’s ever said about you. You’ve given me my entire life back, shown me more about myself in a few short weeks than anyone ever has. You respect me and you’re kind to me and you make me laugh and you're generous with your expertise and, well, erm, let's say you had me yelling rather enthusiastically just now. I can’t speak to what sort of man that makes you, but to me, Ed? You're everything.”

And yeah okay, he’s crying now, just a little, and Stede doesn’t say anything about it. 

“I vote that going forward, we rely more on words than deciphering each other’s looks. What do you say to that?”

Ed laughs. He nods. “I think I’m in love with you, Stede.”

“Wow,” Stede says, and Ed can fucking hear him grinning. “Starting already then.”

“Gonna pretend you’re not making jokes right now.” But he’s smiling too, he’s never been smilier, his eyes are closed and there’s no knife under the pillow and his toes are dragging up and down along Stede’s calf, and the morning is coming soon, and the goddamn voices are quiet. 

“I’m not,” Stede says softly. “I was struggling with how to say it, but I think your way was simpler. I’m in love with you too, Ed.”

He stays awake after that, just long enough so he’ll be sure he didn’t dream it.