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and all the trees began to bend

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There are two homes Edward can never go back to.

One is across an ocean and probably long gone now, dilapidated into dust or held up shakily on the shoulders of another cluster of poor bastards the landlord won't bother to tell apart. Whatever it is, it's not what it used to be.

The other—Ed doesn't know, but he can guess, and the guess hurts worse than knowing because Edward's guesses are on the money so often half the Caribbean thinks he's the devil, but they're also something he does to himself. You might play the hand you're dealt, but nobody forced you to ante up in the first place. The captain goes down with the ship.

So, about this other home. The new one. Here is the problem and the rickety solution all tied up in one: the blankets smell like him.

Ed cocoons himself in fine, soft things, which is a weak substitute for the fine, soft thing he’s lost. It’s dark in here, with only a single candle throwing off enough light to offer the fuzzy suggestion of the walls of the blanket fort. Like the first new thing he’d seen in years glowing at the center of his life. Like night giving way to dawn at the edge of the world.

Small, sticky flashes of candlelight get caught in the shiny trace of marmalade left around the mouth of the open jar. Insects in amber, beating their tiny wings against the crawl of time. The candle burns and melts. The marmalade dries. Ed thinks about dipping his finger in again, topping up the sweetness lingering on his tongue.

He blinks, but it’s too much effort to open his eyes. They stay shut. The amber has him now.

Ed’s last waking thought is of licking marmalade off fingertips, so that’s what his sleeping mind gives him. His penultimate thought is of Stede. Of course.

Here, the dream of Stede says gently, the way he would offer Ed a fine fabric or a bite of food made with more than subsistence in mind. A secret whispered through a keyhole, slipped under the door, like he knew what it would cost Ed to undo the latch so he never presumed to ask. Edward threw all the windows open, took the door off its hinges. He did it all himself. There’s glass on the floor now. The wind blows through. No one else to blame for the mess.

But the wind can’t touch him here. Stede can, and he does. His fingers slip between Ed’s lips, painting marmalade over his tongue, putting something sweet inside him where it doesn’t belong.

Isn’t that nice? he asks, and Ed wants to nod but he can’t risk dislodging the touch. He keeps himself still, barely breathes, like holding a rare moth that has chosen to alight on him of all people. A miracle. A gift that cannot last.

Take more. I don’t mind, Stede says. Fine things are meant for use.

Edward’s tongue seeks out the whorls of Stede’s fingerprints, the crevices under his nails, the hill and valley marking the bend on the inner side of each knuckle. There is something to discover in each hidden place, all the way down to the webbing where his fingers meet the palm like a river delta at the sea. Another new world.

Stede’s candied fingertips stay sweet long after the marmalade is gone.

When Ed wakes, the air is hot and sticky with the smell of burning sugar. His lips are dry, clinging, tender and almost swollen. He finds himself harder than he’s been on his own in years. On the table, the wax melting from the candle has pooled around the base of the jar and overheated the marmalade inside surely beyond salvaging.

Ed’s eyes sting. His mouth feels heavy with a phantom presence. He keeps it closed—shut tight, and nothing can escape. Nothing can leave. With the memory of something he can’t remember because it never happened held on his tongue like a secret, Ed puts hands on himself.

Candle flame flickers and dances on eddies of air. Breath rushes hard in narrow slip-streams in and out of Edward’s nose. The prickling in his eyes burns hotter, sharper. He keeps them open, lets the flame fill his pupils like that fucking fire in that fucking cave that Plato wouldn’t look at, the coward. He’s probably got the story wrong, but Ed never loved philosophy on the rare occasions it trickled to him; he prefers knowledge you can use, like where the tender, vital parts of the body are and how the disparate pieces of a ship work together, ropes as tendons and sails like the lungs of one huge, breathing animal.

Surrounding him outside the blanket fort are all those books, filled with the love of other kinds of things. He saw an illustration of that cave in one of Stede’s leather-bound volumes—a woodblock print like the Blackbeard with the nine guns. Those shadows danced once. Their movement was frozen and badly translated across carving and ink and facsimile, but the power of an image is what the mind fills in around it.

Ed imagines wrapping his hands around the beautiful spine of one of Stede’s books, slipping fingers between the delicate pages. He claps a hand over his mouth. He’s not ready to lose what’s kept close behind his teeth.

The smell of marmalade swells, sugar sparkling in Ed’s eyelashes. He finally blinks. Blinks again, because it’s hard to keep his eyes open again but not for the same reason, and he can’t give over, can’t just curl up and die, but maybe he can, just once. Just a little.

All at once, he remembers the dressing gown. He has to—he can’t stain it, he thinks frantically, never mind that he hasn’t taken the thing off in well over thirty six hours. Holding it close, being held, is one thing. Anything else would be proof. It would be too real, turning away from the shadows and walking into the fire.

Ed rolls onto his back and takes the hand from his mouth. He fumbles with the lovely fabric, pulling it open and away from the nameless work his other hand is doing. A beat passes, a moment of indecision, caught in the air, caught in time and reeled backward. I don’t know what to do.

The choice is this: Edward’s free hand does not return to his mouth. Fabric bunches into a tight wad of silk in his fist, leaking through the gaps between his fingers like sand falling away. With no guard at the door, his lips part around an inconsolable noise.

The weight on his tongue is gone, fled when the gangplank fell. The taste of marmalade, a memory of a dream. All he can smell is wax, burned down to nothing.