Blackbonnet Soulmate AU - Part 10
The Nettles in the Garden Don't Go Away
Summary: It's party time, y'all
Read on AO3 (x)
Read Part Nine Here (x)
Ed wants to go to the party. It’s clear from every motion in his body. The way his enormous eyes are focused so intently on the invitation in Stede’s hand. It’s clear from the way that he asks questions and then interrupts the answers to announce that they’re going.
This is something Ed really wants to do. And the man has done so much for Stede at this point, taught him so many things, it would be selfish to let his own hangups get in the way of showing Ed all the different levels of society.
He promised that he would teach Ed how to be a gentleman. A large part of that is going to events like these and rubbing elbows with all the other important people. He’s taught Ed how to dine and how to dance and the different forms of address. What was that for, if not this?
Stede does not want to go to the party. That’s the crux of it, really. Stede has always hated events like these. He had always thought that it would be better if he had an ally in all of the socializing, someone who he could count on to have his back, but the thought of going to this party with Ed isn’t doing anything to soothe his usual anxiety. The stress is already buzzing and upset in the back of his mind, but Stede ignores it, packs it away.
He made a promise. Stede Bonnet promised he would teach Ed the ways of being a gentleman, and he is trying so hard to become the kind of man who keeps his word.
He walks to his quarters and finds Ed already there, eagerly going through the auxiliary closet. He’s pulling out things that are part of a darker, jewel-toned color palette, and Stede is proud to see it. He shakes off the last of his low mood. This is for Ed. He’ll have an ally. It’ll be fine.
“For tonight,” Ed calls, over his shoulder from where he is finding his way to the formalwear section of Stede’s closet, “I was thinking I could wear purple. You said that it’s a good color for me, right?”
This is going to be fun. The buzzing in the back of his head is leftover from a different life. Everything is going to be fine.
He helps Ed pick out an outfit and then guides him over to the table in the corner of his cabin.
“We’re going to have to do something with your hair,” Stede says, carefully not thinking about everything that might entail.
“Yeah, man, we have to make it fancy, right?”
“Right,” Stede echoes. “If you don’t mind, I would be happy to style your hair for you?”
“Are you sure you’d be able to? It’s quite a bit different from yours.” Ed meets Stede’s eyes skeptically, and Stede feels a flare of indignation on his own behalf.
“I have a daughter, Edward. I know how to style long hair.” Ed laughs a bit and lounges easily in the chair, waving his hand toward his own head in a ‘do what you must’ sort of motion. “And of course I know you have different hair from my own. I spoke with a woman last time we stopped to restock and gathered some oils and combs that would be more appropriate for you.”
Stede isn’t watching Ed’s face when he says this, because he is too busy gathering all of the supplies that he needs for the task ahead. Hair oil and pins and combs and silk flowers and small purple ribbon to match the piping on the coat they picked out. His avoiding Ed’s eyes has nothing to do with the fact that he is starting to fear that this was all a bit presumptuous. That perhaps he, as always, has crossed an unspoken social boundary in buying hair products for a man he has known for only a few weeks.
Well. It’s too late now. He’s already said the words out loud. Awkward or not, Baby Bonnet does nothing if not soldier on.
There’s something so fascinating about all the little details that, apparently, go into preparation for a night. Usually, when Ed wakes up in the morning, he splashes some water on his face, scrubs at his teeth for a bit, and wrangles his hair into something that will stay out of the way. When it becomes impossible to manage, he’ll angrily yank a comb through the gray curls. If he pulls strands out or makes it frizz up around his head, that just adds to the energy he’s trying to bring.
He’s never spent this long getting ready for something. Stede helps Ed pick out his outfit for the night, and it’s all rich silk and brocade and embroidery. There are some fabrics and textures that Ed has been obsessed with since the first moment Stede showed them to him, but Stede had assured him that they weren’t the sort of thing used for daily wear. That they should be saved for special occasions.
Maybe that has something to do with how quickly Ed jumped at the opportunity to attend a party like this.
He’s sitting at this small table, Stede once a-fucking-gain at his back, and he is not going to waste the next few hours thinking about that. Instead, he keeps thinking about the things that Stede described earlier. Fancy people and dancing and gossip and meeting eyes across a room. Brushing elbows with important people. Seeing the world that Stede comes from. The idea is intoxicating.
He can’t sit still, but Stede doesn’t seem to mind too much. The man is seated behind him, slowly pulling a hair oil through Ed’s curls while humming quietly to himself. It’s something that Ed has noticed the past few days, ever since Stede hummed for them when they danced together. He does it all the time, really, whenever it’s been quiet for too long. Ed’s not even sure Stede knows that he does it.
Ed’s fingers keep tapping on the table next to him, on the chair, on his own legs. He gets ahold of this tiny silk ribbon that Stede’s brought over and keeps running it in curlicues through his fingers. Fascinating texture. He shifts seating position and swings his legs back and forth. Stede just continues messing with his hair and chuckles softly when Ed’s movements make it difficult to do his work.
“You’re wiggling more than my Alma ever did,” he laughs, jokingly. And it’s fucking Ed up, actually, the way that Stede has been talking more and more about his kids. About Alma and Louis. He sounds so soft and proud when he talks about them. It fucks with Ed’s head a bit. The idea that there are fathers who talk about their children like this. Who learned how to brush hair patiently and steadily, unphased by knots and dirt and rats nests. Who touch so gently and then weave flowers in behind them.
Normally, Ed wouldn’t be able to stand sitting in one place for this long. Especially when he’s this excited. But it’s the combination of Stede’s humming, the soothing and steady touches to his hair, the feeling of silk and brocade against his skin, the way his fancy clothes weigh heavier on his frame than his leather getup usually does. There are so many different sensations from so many different sources, and none of them are overwhelming, and so Ed is just left sitting in the almost-silence of the room. Buzzing with energy but satiated. Ed is a tuning fork, resonating with the echo of Stede’s humming. The beast is awake and at attention, but not yet in motion.
And, see, this is the shit they don’t warn you about, with all these fancy men. It’s easy to hate them from a distance. Easy to plan their deaths then.
Stede’s fingers are smoothly pulling apart the snarls against the nape of Ed’s neck. He never has the patience to get that far with his brush. With the untangling strands of hair comes the heavy smell of tobacco smoke and Ed’s own hair oil.
“Your hair is absolutely lovely,” Stede says, like that’s something anyone has ever fucking said to Blackbeard. “The gray in here looks more like silver. It’s almost like a night sky. With the stars and everything. When I go gray, I’m afraid it’s going to look quite a bit like I’m being washed out in the sun.”
Ed sits there, struck frozen by Stede’s words. It’s fucking things like this. Moments like this where he’s 100% sure, because what kind of line is that, if not the kind you use right before you slam someone up against the wall to give it to them rough and dirty? Why would anyone ever say something like that unless they were trying to get something with it.
His whole body is aflame, frantically burning through any kindling within him and stretching toward the fresh fuel in Stede. He’s tugging at sections of hair now, seeming to weave them into something beautiful. Every part of Ed is yearning toward every touch. He wants to flop, boneless, back into Stede’s lap and let the man do anything he wants for as long as he wants. Ed wants to be back in that beautiful moment from nights ago, when he was dancing with Stede and happily following his lead.
It’s all muddy again now. Will they or fucking won’t they, except it’s horribly, terrifyingly clear that one of them fucking will.
Stede comes around to the front of Ed. He’s utterly focused on his task, not a thought behind those eyes except what he will do to style Ed’s facial hair. Stede combs his fingers through the wild black and gray strands of Blackbeard’s black beard.
Has anyone ever actually touched his beard? He only started growing it out properly after he’d split up from Jack and Hornigold’s crew. Surely someone must have done, at one point, but Ed can’t remember a moment.
Stede is patiently dampening Ed’s beard, dabbing oil onto his hands, pulling it through with fingers and comb. Ed can’t stop looking at his eyes. They’re some fucking color that’s a mix of brown and blue and green and gray. Ed wants to throw something at the wall, just to hear it shatter, just to break this moment. He wants to pause this moment and never let it stop. He wants to shout so that Stede will stop focusing on his beard and look at him again.
Stede holds Ed’s chin gently in his hands. He reaches into Blackbeard’s black fucking beard and ties little, purple silk bows into it. Like everything Stede Bonnet has ever fucking touched, he pulls away and he’s made it beautiful.
Stede directs Ed’s gaze to the looking glass in the corner. Stede has made him beautiful. There are flowers in his hair and bows in his beard and they match the color of his outfit. Ed can’t recognize himself. He doesn’t think anyone he’s met before this moment would recognize him.
Ed looks in the mirror, and he can’t see a trace of Blackbeard. He doesn’t even know who the man looking back at him is. He likes it.
Stede has been uncomfortable from the moment he walked into the party, and the anxiety has been buzzing louder and louder at the back of his skull, but he still can’t quite put a finger on what it is that is making him so uncomfortable.
The hosts of the party come to greet him, and they are smiling and indolent and fake, just like Stede had known they would be. They invite him and Ed, sorry, Jeff, into the parlor. They announce it to the group and half the party follows.
They’re all whispering and looking and pointing and there is something horribly, awfully familiar about it. Stede wants to duck and run, to do anything it takes to get the two of them out of the spotlight before. Before. Before something happens.
He’s trying to make inoffensive guesses with his “phrenology.” He’s trying to touch Antoinette as little as possible while still passing as a master phrenologist.
And then Ed speaks up. Stede feels the bright spotlight swing from him to his companion. There is a gasping, desperate fear that rises within him at the thought, and he’s doing everything he can to catch Ed’s eye, signal him, communicate abort, abort.
The buzzing is getting louder, the spotlight is getting brighter, and Stede can’t breathe. He’s been here before. He’s been the center of attention at a party like this, and it doesn’t go well. Not when you’re Stede Bonnet. The best thing they can do is stay out of everyone’s eyesight and fly under the radar.
Ed isn’t listening. He’s standing up, talking louder, drawing attention to him like a magician’s cape. Ed has always been larger-than-life. Blackbeard is able to command the attention of thousands and thrive on it. But this is a party for the upper crust. This is not a safe place to test if that same charisma transfers to other social contexts. It’s testing out miracle shark-repellant for the first time in the middle of a feeding frenzy.
He sees the way the crowd is watching the two of them. An interesting, new attraction to assess. James’s good friend Stede.
Stede knows what lies at the heart of himself, and he knows the way that people like this search for any mistake, any flaw, and hold it up in the spotlight for all to see.
I heard that you attended a celebration at the Belgrave estate last year.
My parents say that you're a bad influence.
After the first few times that Stede manages to catch Ed’s eye and shake his head, Ed stops looking at him. That buzzing in the back of his mind is getting louder and louder. He has to do something. Something to draw attention away from Ed, before something happens to him.
It’s terrifying. He can feel the steel bands of panic tightening in his chest the way that they haven’t in weeks. It’s difficult to take a deep breath, even thinking of drawing the attention back to him. But Stede was raised among these people. Stede’s felt their derision before and he knows what to do with it. Knows how to handle it.
Like jumping from a cliff into freezing water. He just has to take the first leap and then there’s no backing out.
The crowd is laughing and they’re all turned to face Ed and he doesn’t know how cruel they can be.
Stede pastes on a smile, screws his courage to the sticking point, and steps forward.
“Actually! I too have traveled and, in fact, I’ve got an amusing anecdote-” That man who first greeted them, Stede can’t remember his name, interrupts with a bored yell and that’s fine, Stede was expecting that, and it gives him a bit more time to scrounge through his own memory in search of anything resembling an amusing anecdote.
There’s a hand on his shoulder, followed immediately by the warm, lounging weight of Ed.
“Forgive him! Forgive my friend here. Once he’s palmed your cranium a few times, it’s impossible to shut him up!”
The crowd immediately bursts into laughter. Stede feels all of it, the hand on his shoulder and the laughter like a physical force, through a crackling layer of ice. He tries to smile, and laugh, and act like he was in on the joke this whole time. He tries, he tries, he tries.
There’s snow in his ears.
It’s hard to keep track of things, after that. Someone reached into Stede’s chest and stole his voice. He tries one more time to pull Ed aside, to warn him, but it’s hard to even focus on the words. He can’t hear anything Ed is saying in response.
Ed’s playing the pianoforte. He’s dancing with the other guests. He’s joking and laughing and wrapping them all around his littlest finger.
He’s not even looking at Stede.
No one’s looking at Stede anymore. He could leave the room, the party, the boat and no one would think twice.
He stands there for a while, waiting for the crowd to turn on Ed, but they don’t. And maybe that was always what was going to happen. What had Stede been thinking? He’s been around Ed for weeks now, seen the way that others respond to his presence. The way everyone loves him from the moment they first see him.
In what universe would Stede Bonnet’s experiences be a useful measure for someone like Blackbeard?
A few more minutes pass, but the crowd is so loud and they all keep laughing and he’s so far away from it all that the distant sound is becoming overwhelming. So, Stede does what everyone has been hoping he would do since the moment he arrived, and he sees himself out.
He tries to find Frenchie and Oluwande, see if they need his help with anything, but they’re thriving too. Of course they are. Of course everyone here would love the two of them. Stede knows his crew is fantastic, that’s why they’re his crew.
It’s good that everyone is loving them.
Stede goes to find a privy. He lowers the toilet seat and spends an indeterminate amount of time staring ahead of himself, dead-eyed.
Once his buttocks start to go numb, and his mind is nothing more than an even, sparkling snow field, Stede stands up. He splashes cool water on his face. He goes to wait outside for everyone else to finish up with all their frivolity.
There’s something Ed knows he’s forgetting. He knows it’s something important.
He always gets like this, when there’s a crowd like this. If everyone is in high spirits, and everyone’s laughing, and they’re all looking at him, he gets swept up in it so easily. It’s like the beast fucking lives for this shit.
There was that first moment, when Ed had mentioned killing a Prussian, and the room went quiet. He’d thought that he’d fucked it all up. But then everyone had started laughing, and that was it.
It’s intoxicating. It’s dizzying and overwhelming and giddy, the way that it always feels when he’s the center of attention. Ed doesn’t know how to describe it because he’s never bothered talking to other people about it. He feels lighter than air and like he’s watching everything happening from outside of himself but in a good way. People are laughing and he’s shouting, he’s joking, he’s moving and dancing and laughing.
It’s good. It’s good and he’s high on it. This was such a good fucking idea. There’s no filter between his thoughts or his actions. Ed has no idea what he’s going to do next because he’s outside himself, a few seconds behind his own body, watching it happen. But it doesn’t matter if he’s out of control. Everyone’s having a good time, the whole party fucking loves him, and there are no consequences. This isn’t his boat. This isn’t his crew. He isn’t Blackbeard. He’s Jeff, the accountant, and if something starts to go wrong, that’s someone else’s problem.
There are dizzying gaps in his memory. He’s laughing with that woman who he first talked to when he walked in. There’s a gap and then he’s got a mask on top of his head. He’s making animal noises and people are laughing.
He’s seated at the piano, singing a bawdy sea shanty for the third time and emphasizing every word so the others can sing along.
He’s dancing around in circles, circles, circles, moving from one person in the crowd to the next. Everyone’s blood is up and everyone is shouting and laughing and they all love him. When he moves from one person to the next, they always meet him with a smile.
There’s something Ed knows he’s forgetting.
Stede has always known that his crew is the best of all the crews out there. That’s only confirmed as Frenchie greets him, encourages him, and then lets the two of them sit in silence for a while. Stede stares out over the dark water, reflecting the stars. After the time he spent with Ed’s hair this afternoon, he can hardly look at the night sky and think of anything else.
It’s a few more minutes of silence before he realizes that Frenchie is working his way up to something. He keeps saying half a syllable and then cutting himself off and frowning. Stede tilts his head in Frenchie’s direction but doesn’t look at him just yet. When Stede’s struggling for words, he doesn’t like eyes on him. It always makes it so much harder for him to think, if someone is looking at him and waiting.
“I’m not sure you should have left him like that, Captain.”
They’re both facing out over the side of the boat, so the words fall with a splash in the water, rather than hitting Stede directly in the chest. If he weren’t so buried in snow, if he weren’t so outside of himself, Stede would probably be feeling shocked and offended right now. Frenchie doesn’t have any idea what happened. Frenchie has no idea how hard these parties are for someone like Stede.
But. Stede is buried in the snow, the drifts high above his head. And Frenchie’s words ended up in the water. So, instead, Stede lets out a vague hum of acknowledgement and inquisition.
“Just saying. I checked in there before I came out here, and it looked like he was putting on a spectacle for all those people. Would have joined him myself, but after what Olu and I got up to, it was better for me to avoid showing my face. If you and he are going to have any kind of relationship, and I’m not saying I know anything, just that it’s obvious the two of you like spending time with each other, you’re gonna have to learn to have his back.”
The words are only half registering through the icy cocoon around Stede, but that last sentence sounded like a threat. Like Stede had left Ed in danger. He’s pushing, pushing, pushing against the snow, trying to make his brain focus and stay present, because this sounds important.
“Sorry, Frenchie, could you say that again? I didn’t abandon Ed. He was doing well and made it quite clear that he didn’t need me there. I figured I would leave him with all his fans.” Maybe some bitterness sneaks in. Stede should work on that. It’s not fair to Ed that he’s feeling jealous like this. It’s not Ed’s fault that he’s so charming and wonderful.
“Yeah, maybe it’ll all be fine. But I know people like this, and they’re vicious. And being different around people like that, it’s dangerous, you know?” Stede is doing everything he can to keep focus, but Frenchie’s words are bringing back a thousand memories of a thousand luncheons. Of parties and balls and gatherings and the way that Stede had always been on the outside. How any input he offered was met with derision and dislike and laughter. How his input tonight had been met with mocking. From Ed.
“I do, actually, know that, Frenchie. I have been to more than enough of these sorts of events myself, and I am quite aware of what happens when you’re the odd one out in the group.”
Frenchie is no longer pretending to stare out over the sea. He’s kind of side-eyeing Stede and scrubbing his hands through his hair.
“Look, captain, I get that you don’t fit in with those people, and that’s why you ended up out here with us. I’m just saying, sometimes you lump your experiences in with the rest of us, and I’m trying to say that it’s not always the same. Sure, you’re with us now, but you were still raised with people like this. You still look like you fit in. You still know all the rules better than someone who just started learning.”
“I don’t think,” Stede starts, feeling the rocking of the ship beneath him more than he’s felt it in weeks, “that anyone in the room is really thinking about that. They all seemed to love him.”
“You and I both know how quickly that can change.” Frenchie is fully turned toward Stede now, and his eyes are steadier and more serious than Stede has seen them since he joined the crew.
They sit in silence for a little bit longer. In the face of this reminder, the snow is starting to melt. Or maybe it hasn’t melted, but Stede has climbed to the top of it. He can feel it against his back, but he’s laying above it, for now.
“Thank you, Frenchie, for saying something.”
They sit together, in the dark, and Stede tries to look back over the night through this new lens. He has been so caught up in the buzzing in his head, in the ticking sense of some impending doom, of his own crippling inadequacy, that he forgot just how uncomplicatedly cruel the upper class often are.
He’s starting to regret leaving Ed alone back there. If Frenchie’s right, then it will be Stede’s fault if something goes wrong. He needs to be there, even if nothing happens. In case Ed needs something. Instead, he’d just slipped out without saying a word. He’d brought Ed to this party, among a crowd of people the man had never interacted with before, and then just left him.
Stede is turning to go back in when Ed comes out instead. He’s hurt and angry and ranting to Frenchie and Stede. And Stede is listening, but he’s also looking at the jerky way Ed is moving his body. The way that his earlier pride and flamboyance in his outfit has crumpled into a hunched, defensive posture.
He’s not expecting it, and so the boiling rage gets him by the throat and hurtles Stede into its steaming depths before he has a second to think. One moment, Stede Bonnet is feeling guilty and useless on the deck of a ship. The next moment, Stede Bonnet is a growling, beastly thing composed of rage and flame.
How dare they. Ed is beautiful tonight, with his starlight hair up around his face and woven with flowers and ribbons. Ed had poured all of his charm and light and joy into the party. Stede had seen it.
And these people, his people, had laughed at it. As if the condescending, uninspiring lackwits had done a single thing in their lives to deserve the absolute miracle of Ed’s attention. Of his care. What had any of them done to deserve their place at that party? Resting on their generational laurels, day after day, never once having an original thought. Indolent and utter wastes of space, stealing all the air that Ed could have put to better use.
These were Stede’s people. He had seen the way they responded to Ed’s presence and been idiotic enough to assume they understood what a gift they had been handed.
Stede sees Ed readying his pistol. He stops him for several reasons. The most logical reason is that people like this disrespect acts of violence and passion. That’s the whole point of passive aggression. Show an emotion, give them a reaction, and you have already lost the war. It’s all fine and good to fling daggers of words at each other, but the second someone shows the bleeding wounds or cries out in pain, it’s over for them. The rest of the room would be on Ed like hyenas if he stormed in there, guns blazing and anger in his eyes.
The most emotional reason that Stede stops Ed is because he keeps seeing an image of Ed overlaid on the one in front of him. Just before they stepped out of his cabins and readied themselves to depart, Ed had taken one last glance in the mirror. He had puffed himself up, pulled a few theatrical and uppity faces, watched the way that his clothes draped on his frame. It’s a joy, such a deep and unending joy, to watch Ed love things. That image overtop of this defensive and devastated Ed is untenable.
The main reason, of course, is that this is Stede’s fault. He brought Ed here and he left him here. And Stede is trying to become the kind of man who stands by his word and stands by his friends. He is trying to become the kind of person who Ed can trust to have his back, just as he trusts Ed to have his back when they walk into an ambush or raid another ship. Stede is livid, angrier than he can remember being since that moment in the carriage with Louis in his lap. He made the mistake of trusting the party to treat Ed the way that he deserves.
He is going to make them regret ever looking at Ed. As if they had ever been worthy in the first place.
And he’s going to use their fucking language to do it. He’ll smile blandly and hide his emotions away and he will burn this ship and shatter its remains upon the rocks. Watch them try to apologize. See if they’re ever privileged enough to see Ed again.
Ed fucking hates looking stupid. One of the best parts of being Blackbeard, really, is the fact that everyone always assumes that he knows something they don’t. No one ever questions him anymore.
That moment at dinner? With everyone laughing and the noises growing louder and louder in his ears? Fuck that. Stede wasn’t kidding when he said that these people could use their words to be cruel.
Ed wanted to blow them all to hell. Show them who they were messing with. Stede told him to stand down, and so he is, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still want to.
Stede went back belowdecks with the other two from his crew, but fuck if Ed is going to have anything else to do with this crowd. If he’s going to keep his word to Stede, then he’d rather just get off this ship as soon as possible. As soon as they all finish with whatever tomfoolery they’re up to.
Now that he’s out in the night, though, with the darkness and the rocking of the sea and the rhythmic slap of waves, he can feel his heart slowing a bit. The few lights on deck are less glaring, and the noises from below aren’t grating on his ears. It feels the same as he does when he’s coming down from a raid, one where the other crew actually put up a good fight for once. That come-down from the electric high.
And, now that it’s not quite so loud in his brain, he’s starting to remember some of the things he said to Stede. Potentially not the most, gentlemanly type of things, considering that’s what he was pretending to be tonight. Not the sort of thing a man like Jeff The Accountant is supposed to say.
When did Stede actually leave the party? He can’t remember a moment, just that Stede was there at the beginning and, by the time they moved to dinner, he was gone.
Well, fuck. What the fuck is he supposed to do with this? It’s been years since anyone other than Izzy even dared to get mad at him over something. And, when Izzy’s upset, all you’ve got to do is slap him on the shoulder and point him in the direction of some good old-fashioned pirating and he’s right back on your side. No…words. Or, even worse, feelings needed.
Stede is not exactly the type to enjoy that kind of stuff. From what Ed’s seen of his interactions with the crew of The Revenge, Stede is the type of person who wants to get snippy and moody and then complain a bit before sitting down and having some kind of, fucking, heart-to-heart.
Fuck, but the man is going to be utterly unbearable to be around on the trip back. And Ed’s going to have to figure out how to fix things, and it’s going to be messy and difficult and an utter disaster. If they don’t get chased off this ship first for whatever half-cocked plan Stede was up to right-
There’s a scream belowdecks. That’s Blackbeard’s fucking cue, he supposes. Back on duty, with a crew that’s relying on him to have all the fucking answers to every problem. It was nice to be Jeff, while it lasted.
Except, and it takes a moment for Ed’s brain to comprehend what he’s seeing, but when he arrives back in the parlor room, it is to the sight of Stede and his crew standing calmly and peacefully above a scene of chaos. People are screaming and crying and wrestling on the ground. A curtain just caught fire.
Stede’s smiling. Stede did this on purpose. He told Ed to stand down and that he would handle the people who spoke down to him. And then he did.
Whoever is watching from above, whatever imbecile it is that decides soulmates for the people here on Earth, Ed wants to strangle them. This is entirely too on the nose. This is obscene, seeing the flames rise while Stede smiles.
When was the last time? Or, was this the only time that Ed had stepped away from a problem and someone else had solved it for him?
Does it count when Izzy does it? Izzy, who checks with Ed and follows his every command to the letter. Izzy, who goes above and beyond and who has spent decades learning Ed’s every quirk in an effort to anticipate his moods. Izzy, who stands behind Ed and waits with bated breath for the next command, the next direction.
Ed was ready to blow up or leave. Stede commanded him to stand down. And then Ed dicked around on the deck while Stede exacted revenge. And not just any fucking revenge. These people are full-blown panicking at this point.
“We should,” Stede says, in that conciliatory, calm voice of his, “We should probably get going.” And he leads them all out.
Back to their dinghy, his crewmembers rowing them back while Ed just…sits there. When was the last time he just sat there?
And, it’s, okay, he doesn’t feel bad, because he’s Blackbeard and Blackbeard can do whatever the fuck he wants. It just sucks that he was all revved up to have this blowout fight with Stede, and Stede is just sitting quietly next to him, smiling vacantly when he catches Ed’s eye. People are screaming behind them from the boat Stede set on fire on Ed’s behalf.
It’s a side of Stede he never expected to see because he genuinely believed it didn’t exist. The worst sort of anger he’d managed to draw from the man was a scowl and fake-threatening tone.
And if Stede was perfectly capable of doing that all night, if he could have done that before he ducked out of the party, long before Ed, that means that he was choosing not to. And it means that he only did all of that to defend Ed.
It was Ed who fucked up the party so badly that Stede had to defend him. Stede had tried at every point of preparation to warn Ed that he wasn’t ready, and he’d been so fucking stupid to ignore the warnings. And now the man wasn’t even going to chew Ed out. No, Stede was going to sit there and smile instead of turning that rage and retribution on Ed for putting him in that situation.
Inconsiderate motherfucker. Why won’t he just lash out? Is this what he does, when he’s upset? Just, sits in it and thinks about the things he did wrong? This is infinitely worse than just punching a man in the face and moving on like that resolved it all.
No one’s talking on the way back, and Ed’s thoughts are so fucking loud in his head. This fucking sucks.
Okay, so perhaps Stede hadn’t intended to mean it literally when he said he was going to burn the ship down. That’s always been the way it works for him. Stede’s anger at the defense of people he cares for burns bright and shimmering, and sometimes he’ll get out a sharp remark or two, but fire doesn’t burn long in snow, and he’s never been sure enough of the social contracts around him to really follow through. How far is far enough? How far is well beyond what was deserved by the original offense?
In all his life, for the few moments his anger flared before melting in snow, Stede had never managed to do something this drastic. Not by a hundredth. He’s been at sea for almost a month and a half now, and it feels like years of experience. Maybe that’s what happens when he lives his life outside of the snowstorm or maybe that’s how the life of a pirate always is.
The point is: the fury had howled and growled and pounced and Stede hadn’t done a thing to stop it. And now all those people are scattering overboard and dropping in the few dinghies they have. Stede can hear their screams as they’re rowing away.
He’s searching through himself, like that incredibly kind man had taught him to, back when he was haunted by the ghost of Nigel, but Stede can’t find that same curdling guilt in his stomach. They’re fairly close to several different islands and there were multiple rowboats on that ship. Besides, all Stede had done was make the people confront their own poor decisions. If they can’t handle that news, is it really Stede’s fault, what’s happening to them?
Maybe. Maybe it is. But, well, these were the same people who had said unkind and hurtful things to Stede’s friend. If they couldn’t handle the same treatment, they really should have considered that.
When Stede gets back to his cabin, his first stop is to wash his face again. This time, it’s more to remove the scent of smoke than it is to hide any evidence of tears.
He’s trying to calm down. The snow from earlier in the night is long gone, and Stede is left feeling like a prowling, beastly thing. In the quiet of the bathroom, with so many noises removed, Stede can feel himself coming down from the high of it.
When he steps back out into his living quarters, he finds Lucius lounging on one of the couches.
“How was the party?” he asks, not looking up from where he’s sketching in his book. It looks like he’s putting the finishing touches on a, ahem, rather risque piece.
“Terrible, like I knew it would be,” Stede mumbles, throwing himself into a chair nearby and relishing the solid plush-thump of his body falling into furniture. His body calms a little further. “I set a ship on fire before we left.”
“Uh huh, great,” Lucius says, leaning close as he focuses on what seems to be a particularly tricky bit of shading. “I spent the day waging psychological warfare against Izzy.”
“Dear lord. But, then again, he is a truly unpleasant man, isn’t he?” Stede is taking a moment to push against the floor, leaning his full body weight into the back of his favorite chair and feeling as more and more of the upholstery surrounds his body and presses back. It can’t hurt to spend a little time debriefing with his crew. “I’ll never understand why Ed feels the need to keep him around.”
“Do you think anyone’s ever led a mutiny against a first mate? Like, if the whole crew got together and agreed to take Izzy down, could anyone really stop us?”
“I don’t think that’s a mutiny. I’m pretty sure it’s the captain that dismisses the first mate. So, we would really have to focus on convincing Ed.”
Lucius snorts a laugh and then erases the resulting wobbly line. “Yeah, but I’m talking about ways that the crew could do it. Maybe if we just tossed him over while Blackbeard’s distracted. You know? Ask for forgiveness, not permission and all that.”
“As if you’ll be able to pull something like that over on Ed.” Stede feels obligated to defend his friend, seeing as the man isn’t there to do it for himself.
“Please,” Lucius scoffs, “I mean, obviously he’s a great captain and tactician and stuff, but he’s distracted all the time when it’s just the crew. I’m pretty sure I saw him when I was sneaking over here, just standing on the deck and staring over the edge.”
“Alone?” Stede asks, sidetracked by this idea. Maybe Ed is still upset over the events of the night. It was a trying night for everyone. Not just Stede. He’s trying to remember what Frenchie talked to him about. “Maybe I’ll go check on him.”
“Wow,” Lucius drawls. “Imagine my surprise.” But he waves a hand in Stede’s direction and continues to draw while Stede gathers himself to leave. “Send him my love, all that.”
Beautiful things, Ed reminds himself, because he was a fool to ever forget. We’re just not those kind of people.
It was nice, for a moment, to pretend like that wasn’t true. Nice of Stede to indulge him in the fantasy, as if anyone has ever been brave enough to say no to Blackbeard once he’s got an idea in his head.
The red silk is wrapped around and around his fingers. The red handkerchief. His first gift from his soulmate. His first gift from…Stede. Because it was Stede. He must have been just as young as Ed, back then. Maybe younger, and isn’t that a fucking thought.
It had been the softest thing Ed had ever touched. He had kept it up his sleeve for weeks, feeling the slippery, body-warm liquid of it up against his pulse point. The first thing that had ever fed the beast. Moved from sleeve to inner pocket over the years. Taken out less and less.
He tries not to risk it or get it dirty, but that’s pretty much impossible with the life of a pirate. Within a few years, the vibrant red of it had faded to something ruddier, mottled with stains. Salt water. Grog. Rum, a few times. Whiskey, once. And, of course, it gets sweaty as hell in all the black leather. In the last few years, Ed’s started to notice that the fabric itself is wearing away, pulling thin in some places and the weave falling loose in others.
It’s the first fucking nice thing that he ever owned. Secreted away from his rich fucking white man of a soulmate who, Ed now knows for sure, owns hundreds like it. His soulmate who, even with all that, stole and stole and stole from Ed over the years. His soulmate, who gave Ed something fine and beautiful and that Ed’s lifestyle has left gritty and uneven, stained and falling apart.
Ed’s still in his fucking fancy outfit, and it’s stupid. He’s so fucking stupid, standing out here in the dark, sweating all over this wonderful outfit he took out of Stede’s closet. Even in the night, out here, it’s so fucking hot all the time. There’s sweat all bundled up with his fancy hairstyle and ribbons and flowers. He’s making these clothes stink. Stede will probably have to burn them, to get all the Ed off of them. Lost fucking cause.
He’s too focused on all of these thoughts, building a home in the self-pity that hurts so fucking good. When he really gets into it, he can wallow like this for days. Drives Izzy absolutely out of his mind.
It’s the self-pity that’s so loud in his ears he doesn’t hear Stede walk up.
“That’s a lovely piece of silk you’ve got there,” Stede says. Ed wants to hide it away and never let Stede or anyone else see it ever again. He knows better than to show such a clear weakness to anyone.
“Oh, this tatty old thing?” he scoffs, because it’s always been safest for him to hide the most vulnerable parts of himself by putting them on display and striking before anyone else could.
“Sometimes,” Stede says, and he’s whispering. Talking so gently. Like he fucking knows, the bastard. “The old things are the best things.” The man reaches out for a second, and the beast rears up, snarls in warning, but before anything can make its way to Ed’s expression, he’s already stopped.
“May I?” Stede asks, checking, always checking. The hand hangs in the space between them, patient and undemanding. Ed could shut this shit down, stomp away, slam the door behind him, and Stede would simply approach him again tomorrow. He could say ‘no’ and Stede would move on like nothing had happened. Stede asks if he ‘may’ and it’s a soothing stroke along the beast’s flank.
And, well, why the fuck not? Ed’s already embarrassed himself in every possible way tonight. Already made it quite clear what happens when he’s allowed within spitting distance of anything fine.
Might as well hand the handkerchief over to someone who knows what to do with it. Stede probably would have stolen it back through the soulbond at some point anyway.
Ed hands over the red silk, and Stede cradles it between his fingers. Stede’s hands are soft and lightly tanned and unblemished. He’s maneuvering the silk carefully and gently. There’s a fishing hook caught in Ed’s stomach, pulling him forward. He keeps waiting for Stede to drop the fabric to the floor, throw it over the side, tuck it away from sight.
Stede folds the silk up into a neat little flower and, after glancing in Ed’s eyes to make sure it’s okay, he leans forward and carefully arranges Ed’s handkerchief in the breast pocket of his stolen jacket.
And what else did Ed think would happen? He’s been telling himself for years that his soulmate is stealing from him. That his soulmate has taken everything and he’s going to steal it back with interest. But this is the truth of it, isn’t it? That blaring, glaring truth that Ed has done everything to avoid seeing for the past few weeks.
Stede hasn’t stolen anything and Stede isn’t hoarding his beautiful things. Stede would hand it all over to Ed in a second if he thought it would make Ed happy. Stede has been doing that the whole time. He’s cake on Ed’s birthday and shiny rocks that catch in the sun. Giving and giving and giving, ten presents for every one he took.
Stede pulls away, and he’s made the handkerchief beautiful. He makes everything he touches beautiful. That ratty, stained piece of fabric Ed has never been able to let go of is sitting prim and proud in his breast pocket. Stede’s outstretched hand is a treasure trove with the doors blown open.
The moon is high and loud above them, and the stars in the night sky are so fucking bright, and it’s all turning Stede’s eyes dark and liquid. Stede’s smiling, but it’s not his usual, giddy, up-to-fuckery grin. It’s this quiet, wondrous thing.
“There we go,” he says, and his eyes are the only thing Ed can see, the only thing in the whole fucking world. This moment is the whole fucking world. Stede reached out and touched him and made him beautiful and now he’s staring at Ed like he can see that beauty mirrored back.
“Look at that,” Stede says. “You wear fine things well.”
And that’s it.
Just like that, Ed’s heart has leapt from his chest and deposited itself, bloody and aching, in the loose curl of Stede’s fingers. It’s a shriveled, blackened thing. There’s a hole blown clean through Ed’s chest from where it escaped, but it doesn’t even hurt. The wind is echoing through him. He just keeps staring, keeps feeling the way every gentle flex of Stede’s fingers unwittingly constrict around the gory organ.
Make it beautiful, Ed thinks, for a wild, irrational moment.
And Stede is looking at him, and his eyes could swallow the world whole, and Ed is 100% sure, this has to be it. He’s dying here, and his heart is settling comfortably, snug against the hollow in the center of Stede’s palm.
He’s going to kiss Stede. Because it’s the only thing he can do. Because to do anything else might kill him. There’s this moment, with the ocean and the sky and the stars in a riot around them, when Ed really thinks it’s going to happen.
And Stede leans back.
So, Ed leans back.
And then there’s another moment, a shuffle, scramble, mumble of a thing. Putting the space back between them. Ed’s pretty sure he claps Stede on the shoulder at one point, but he can only guess that from the lingering warmth on his fingers and the panic-black hole in his memory.
This is where he slinks off to lick his wounds. This is where Stede decides whether he’s going to run screaming for the hills or if he’s just going to come back the next day with firmer boundaries.
Except, when was the last time that Stede fucking Bonnet did anything according to expectation? Ed hasn’t even had his first taste of self-pity, is just beginning to glance over his shoulder to steal a final look, when he catches Stede’s eye.
And then. They just. Stand there. There’s a gleaming white thread tied in the air between them. It’s the thing that pulled Ed in before and it still isn’t gone. Stede’s just standing there, the starlight caught in his crows feet and the feathery ends of his hair. He’s smiling and looking right into the center of Ed (and then clear through to the other side, owing to the recently-acquired hole).
Stede smiles, and nods one last time, and then finally turns back toward his quarters.
And Ed is left standing there. He’s waiting for the icy, creeping dread to arrive. For the self-pity and the panic and the surety that he’s gone and blown a cannon-shot through the center of every good thing. And it doesn’t come.
The wind is glancing over the hole in his chest, setting his body singing like the lip of a wine bottle. Somewhere far outside of himself, Ed feels his heart constrict with the grasp of someone else’s hands.
He rubs a palm over the place in his chest where his heart used to be.
In that empty space, there’s a tiny, wavering flame, just brought to life. Set there by his soulmate.
And just like that, he knows. Ed’s still reeling from all the revelations tonight, and it’s about time he let Stede in on one or two of the things he knows. Like the fact that they’re soulmates, for a start.