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forgive & forget

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TWO MEN ALONE

 

 

The sea is beautiful this time of year. 

 

Of course, Stede has always found the sea beautiful. Even when she’s stormy, with waves tall as mountains that could capsize a ship in seconds, even when she’s cold and dreary and gray, Stede has always found her beautiful. But today, today she is exceptional. The setting sun reflects off of her surface and into his eyes, nearly blinding him, all orange and yellow hues. Warmth. Kindness. Danger and safety and freedom all wrapped into one. The sea is his salvation, and though he doesn't remember it, his destruction. 

 

The sun’s rays beat down on him, on the skin exposed by the simple white shirt he wears, burning a little at the still-tender scar on the back of his head. He doesn’t remember getting that, either, but he’s heard it recounted. A brawl. It was unlike him. Very unlike him. So unlike him that it's almost as though it was a different person inhabiting Stede’s skin, which it well might have been. 

 

After all, that Stede Bonnet was a pirate. At least, according to Mary. Stede himself is iffy on that point.

 

“Get out of my house,” Mary says, standing in front of Doug as though shielding him from Stede. The man in question has a black eye and somehow, in spite of everything, an apologetic look on his face. 

 

“Mary-” 

 

“I said, get out of my house. It should be easy for you to leave again, shouldn’t it? After all, you’ve done it once already.” 

 

“But Mary, I don’t remember doing it-” 

 

“That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” 

 

And now, this Stede Bonnet, not a pirate, not a husband, barely a father, stands looking out to sea, the only chance he has at a life worth living. 

 

This Stede Bonnet, however, is a coward. He’s been standing on this beach for hours, a dinghy in the sand behind him where he’s dragged it, and he can’t bring himself to take the first step. 

 

He leaves the dinghy behind. He walks to the edge of the water, removing his shoes and socks, and lets the sea wash over him. The waves are calm, tidy things, peaceful. Stede is about to close his eyes when he spots it. The water is all warm hues of orange, but there's something else there too, something bright and vivid and red like blood. It comes straight to him, washing up and settling on his ankle. 

 

Stede reaches down and takes it in his fingers. It’s a sodden piece of silk, with tatty edges from its journey through the waves, a hole in the center that needs patching. It’s small, like a pocket square, maybe, but not cut like a pocket square. It looks as though it's been torn from a larger piece of fabric, never hemmed or made into anything other than what it is. 

 

It hits him then, like a wave breaking on sand, loud as thunder when it crashes, then trickling away into little rivulets flowing back home,  murmuring one word over and over and over. 

 

Ed. 

 

The problem is, Stede doesn’t recall ever having met anyone named Ed. But the name is so familiar, so dear that he has to speak it out loud, to taste it on his tongue, to see how it fits in his mouth, so he does, and something deep in his soul opens like a locked chest, revealing a dark, empty space that Stede suspects was not always empty. 

 

It's the little piece of silk that decides it, in the end, and the name repeating itself endlessly in the caverns of his mind, in a blank space he didn’t know was blank until this very moment. 

 

There are fine things on the sea. And Stede Bonnet is going to find them. 

 

***

Of course, this is easier said than done. After all, Stede is just one man alone, in a very small dingy, on the very, very large ocean. He does not, however, let this dissuade him. Stede has been dreaming of leaving his life behind for years, perhaps since the very moment he could form the desire to leave it in the first place. And despite the sunburns, despite the burst blisters on his palms from rowing, despite the constant taste of salt in his mouth that cuts into his burnt, chapped lips and all but sizzles, he’s content. 

 

He is also indescribably lonely. 

 

Stede is no stranger to loneliness. He’s been lonely nearly all his life. But this loneliness seems somehow sharper than the rest, sharper than he’s ever known. It's not like it was when he was a child, when he could find comfort in flowers and the pages of a book when the other boys were cruel. It's not even like it was when he first got married, when Mary walked the halls of the house like a ghost and Stede secluded himself in his study. This loneliness is an ache, a yearning, as though he’s known something different, as though he’s known what it is to belong and had it ripped away. 

 

How that could be, Stede has no earthly clue. After all, how could a man who’s never belonged anywhere find a place to belong here, in the vast reaches of the sea?

 

He dismisses it entirely as something childish, something that Mary has placed in his head with the mention of him running away months ago to become a pirate. Of course he’d yearn for that, of course he’d dream of being a competent pirate and a beloved captain, of course he’d want it to be like the stories he’d escaped into as a boy. But Stede knows himself. He knows that he would have embellished the story for Mary and the children. It's more than likely that he wasn’t a pirate at all, that he sailed somewhere and got stranded, or drank himself stupid in a shitty bar for months, and then came home. A midlife crisis, certainly. But the chances of Stede having left home and somehow fulfilled his ultimate destiny? It's laughable. 

 

Still,  the ocean is a very large place for one man alone. 

 

***

“You’ve got some fucking nerve showing your face here, genital pirate. You’re really looking to lose that nose, huh?”

 

There is a very sharp knife digging into the tip of Stede’s nose. This very sharp knife is held by a very tall and very intimidating woman in a red suit. This very tall and very intimidating woman in the red suit had spotted Stede the moment he set foot in the bar called Spanish Jackie’s. What drew him here when he reached the Republic of Pirates, he’s not quite sure. After all, it's a bit of a shithole. 

 

“Spanish Jackie, I presume?” Stede manages to ask, trying not to move his mouth too much in case the knife nicks his nose. 

 

The woman snorts. “Don’t play dumb with me.” 

 

“I can assure you, I am not. I would never stoop so low as to insult your intelligence in that way, dear lady.”

 

She wrinkles her nose. “Ew. Don’t fucking call me that.” 

 

“Duly noted,” Stede says, trying to conceal the trembling of his voice. 

 

Jackie leans closer, scrutinizing him. 

 

“It's definitely him, right?” she mutters to herself. “Sure talks like him.” 

 

She rises back to her full height. “Last I heard, you got shipped off to one of those British retraining camps, or whatever the fuck they call them. Took the Act of Grace.” 

 

It's Stede’s turn to frown. “That doesn't sound like me.” 

 

“No, you definitely did. The little bastard  sent me notice when it was done,” Jackie says. She sighs, removes the knife from his nose. Stede slumps with a relieved breath. 

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Don’t thank me. You’ve still got a lifetime ban. You’ve got ten seconds to tell me what you’re doing here before I change my mind and take your nose anyway.” 

 

Stede wracks his brain. What is he doing here? It seems like Jackie might know better than he does, in all honesty. Her eyebrow is raising the longer he flounders, and the answer blurts out almost without his awareness. 

 

“I’m looking for someone. Ed. His name is Ed.” 

 

Jackie is silent. 

 

“I know it's not much to go off-” 

 

“You’ll want to find Izzy Hands,” Jackie says abruptly. 

 

“I-Izzy Hands?” 

 

“Mhm. You find Izzy Hands, you’ll find Ed.” 

 

“And where might-” 

 

“That’s all you’re getting, genital pirate. I’m risking by even telling you that much. Now get out of my bar. You’re not out of the Republic of Pirates by nightfall, I’ll know it, and you’ll find yourself with a knife in your back.”

 

She turns, evidently done with the conversation, then pauses. She holds out a hand to one of the various men milling about the establishment, and without a word, he removes his sword from his middle and hands it to her. She, in turn, hands it to Stede. 

 

“You’ll need this. Welcome back, Stede.” 

 

Stede leaves the Republic of Pirates with dubiously fresh rations, a sword, and an ever-increasing gnawing at his stomach that tells him he’s missing something important.

 

***

It doesn’t take much time at all for him to find Izzy Hands. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t take much time at all for Izzy Hands to find him. 

 

He’d been warned about going this way, to be fair. He’d been warned by sailors who passed him, he’d been warned by people at port. A ghost ship, they say, haunts these waters. A fearsome crew, an undead captain, a ravenous first mate. They leave destruction and carnage and death in their path, and then they vanish into the night. 

 

Stede’s never held much stock in ghosts. 

 

Not that he was actively seeking out this ship! No, he may be a bit of a fool at times, but he’s not an idiot. He has some respect for his own life, despite all evidence to the contrary. But it's just his luck, isn’t it, that he stumbled across them all the same. 

 

Dusk is nearly at a close when they spot him. Somehow, they see Stede before he sees them, even in his tiny little boat. He’s upgraded from a dinghy to a one-man sailing vessel, which he’s managing with less issue than he thought he would. 

 

The ship appears, just like the sailors said, out of the mist. One moment the horizon is empty in front of him, and the next, she looms from the fog, bow jutting into the water in front of her. She’s not a large vessel, which Stede imagines could account for her speed, how fast she appears and vanishes once again, but she’s intimidating all the same. She’s not well lit, only a few lanterns scattered across her deck. There’s a flag, flapping in the breeze. Stede squints at it, but he can’t make it out. What he does spot, however, is a figure standing at the bow, a large-brimmed hat covering their face. They stand motionless as a statue, before vanishing with a whip of their coat. 

 

He’s so transfixed by this character, this near-ghostly apparition, that he misses the dinghy being lowered from the side. They move silently through the water, oars dipping in and out of the waves soundlessly. The dinghy nearly bumps into his own boat before he notes it, turning with a start. There are two men occupying it. One, the rower, has a half-shaved head of dreadlocks, and is staring at Stede, mouth agape. The second, standing at the helm with a lantern, is a shorter man with gray hair, dressed all in leather. His nostrils are flaring as he takes Stede in, something akin to fury in his expression. 

 

“Ahoy, there,” Stede says weakly. 

 

“It is you,” the rower breathes. “Iz, you were right-” 

 

“Shut. Up.” the man at the helm hisses, never taking his eyes from Stede. He thrusts the lantern towards the rower, who takes it without a word, and with a single stride he crosses from the dinghy to Stede’s boat. Stede barely has time to blink before a fist is making  a very solid connection with his jaw. He’s sent sprawling. 

 

“What in the fuck do you think you’re doing here?” the man says. He squats down, grabbing Stede’s face, thumb digging painfully into the flesh of his cheek. “What, your fancy life wasn’t good enough for you? You had to come back here and-”

 

“Unhand me, sir,” Stede says. In the quiet, his voice echoes across the water, and the man claps a hand over his mouth. 

 

“Are you stupid?” he demands in a whisper. He stares over his shoulder, chest moving rapidly. He looks terrified. “He’ll hear you, you idiot. He’s going to fucking kill you.” 

 

“Who is?” 

 

“Who- Who the fuck do you think?” the man says, mouth agape. “Blackbeard.” 

 

Stede’s eyes widen to the size of saucers. “Blackbeard? Blackbeard is on that ship?” 

 

The stare he receives in response is enough to wither him. “Where else would he be?” 

 

“Well, I’m sure I don’t know,” Stede says. “I don’t keep track of Blackbeard’s whereabouts.”

 

“You don’t-” the man looks back to the rower, as if for help, but the larger man just shrugs. 

 

“You have the fucking nerve to-to track us down and fucking pretend you’re- what, just sailing?” 

 

“I’m not just sailing,” Stede says indignantly. “I’m looking for Izzy Hands.” 

 

“Hey, Iz, that’s your name!” 

 

“Ivan, one more word and I will cut your tongue out,” the man snaps, but he’s still staring at Stede like he’s missing something. 

 

“You’re Izzy Hands?” Stede asks. He receives only a single nod. 

 

“I’m looking for someone named Ed,” Stede says, grasping at Izzy’s wrist. Izzy snatches his hand back in disgust. “Please. It's important.” 

 

Izzy stands up, looking down at Stede, still sprawled at the bottom of the boat. His lips move soundlessly, like he’s muttering something, and more than once Stede sees his hand twitch to the sword at his side. He’s interrupted from this internal debate by Ivan. 

 

“Boss.” 

 

Izzy looks back towards the ship. On deck, a light moves back and forth in a rhythmic pattern. Izzy lets out a particular vehement fuck. 

 

“It’s Jim, I think,” Ivan says apologetically. 

 

“Fine. Fuck me, fine. Bonnet, whatever fucking game this is you’re playing, I don’t have time for it,” Izzy growls, grabbing Stede’s upper arm and shoving him towards the dinghy. “Blackbeard will put an end to this. Once and for all.”

 

***

Stede follows Ivan up the ladder, and sets foot on the deck of Blackbeard’s ship, and it feels like coming home. 

 

He doesn’t recognize the ship, not really, and there's certainly something not right about it, but it feels familiar, like he knows the bones of it. The deck is as dark here as it was from the water- for stealth, perhaps?- and it's not been well cared for. There are bits of the railing blown out, and Stede nearly humiliates himself by slipping on a still-slick puddle of blood. 

 

“Move,” Izzy snaps, shoving him forward. “Fang, secure him.” 

 

The man in question looks up from the wheel, and like Ivan, his eyes widen. 

 

“Boss, is this a good idea?” 

 

“Just do as you’re told. You’re not paid to fucking think,” Izzy says. After a moment, Fang hands the wheel over to Ivan, and replaces Izzy’s grip on Stede’s arm. He’s not rough about it, but Stede can tell he couldn’t break the hold even if he wanted to. 

 

He catches a glimpse of that same shadowy figure lingering by the entrance to the deck before they vanish. 

 

He’s divested of his sword. Not much loss there, he’s got no idea how to use it (even though sometimes when he grasps the hilt it feels like the handshake of a close friend), and even if he did, he’s vastly outnumbered. The sword is handed off to a tall, lanky man who only seems to register Stede when he’s mere feet away. 

 

“Captain?” 

 

It takes Stede a moment to realize that he’s being addressed, and it confuses the fuck out of him. 

 

“I’m afraid not,” he says finally, after the word lingers in the air, heavy and biting, for a beat too long. Izzy is white as a sheet and Fang is shifting from foot to foot. 

 

The man looks like he wants to say something else, but then a figure appears on deck, and he shrinks back, nearly disappearing. Izzy swears under his breath. 

 

“On your feet for the captain!” he calls, and the crew on deck snaps to attention. 

 

Blackbeard. 

 

Stede’s heart is pounding, his knees feel like they might give out at any moment, and he’s worried for a moment he might do something humiliating like swoon or plead for his life. 

 

He can barely see the man, standing in the shadows like he is, but the figure he cuts is an intimidating one all the same. He’s got a lazy hand on his pistol, long hair that, as far as Stede can tell, goes past his shoulders, and when he walks, each step thumps on the deck with purpose, specifically tailored to strike fear into the hearts of men. 

 

Stede is entirely awestruck. 

 

He just stands there, for a moment, head tilted at an angle, and then he moves. He paces, slow and measured and steady, like a wild cat stalking prey, and god, does Stede ever feel like prey right now. He sticks to the shadows, traveling just barely closer with each step. Fang keeps Stede held firmly in place, and he doesn’t dare to even breathe, let alone turn his head when Blackbeard finally reaches him. He’s standing just behind him, some kind of haunting spectre, Stede can feel him there but can’t see him. He can only feel the prickle on the back of his neck that signals Blackbeard is leaning closer. 

 

“The Gentleman Pirate returns.” 

 

His voice is nothing like what Stede expects. It’s low, accented like his own, more of a rumble than a voice, deep and dark and it sticks to him like molasses. His breath tickles Stede’s neck, and he shudders, before the words sink in. 

 

The Gentleman Pirate. It's not exactly what Jackie called him, but it's close enough that it could have been a play on words.

 

“Blackbeard.” Izzy’s voice breaks through the spell before Stede can reply (what the hell would he say, anyway?) and Blackbeard freezes. Stede can feel it like a physical thing, the tingle of electricity before lightning hits. 

 

“What.” Blackbeard says, low and dangerous. 

 

“Just- something you should know,” Izzy says. Blackbeard lets out a heavy sigh, and Stede hears footsteps before the man appears in his peripheral. He still doesn’t dare turn his head. 

 

“He’s playing some kind of game with us, captain,” Izzy murmurs into Blackbeard’s ear. “Pretending like he doesn’t know us. Acting like he didn’t even recognize Frenchie-” 

 

Izzy gestures to the lanky man, who’s still staring at Stede like he’s seen a ghost. 

 

Blackbeard tilts his head. He shifts, turning towards Stede, stepping in front of him and leaning in. 

 

He’s… he’s just a man. A terrifying man, certainly, but a man all the same. This close, it's plain as anything. His eyes are dark and closed off, flitting around Stede’s face as he examines him- for what, exactly, Stede’s not sure. He’s not got a beard, not like the legends say and the name implies, but his face is covered in black grease-paint in a semblance of facial hair, and Stede can make out stubble underneath it. He’s close to Stede’s own age, he thinks, give or take a few years, with lines on his face and a kind of weariness that Stede knows all too well. 

 

Stede makes himself meet Blackbeard’s eyes, and a little bit of… something flashes across Blackbeard’s face. It's minuscule, the twitch of a muscle, the relaxing of his mouth, but Stede thinks something opens in those eyes briefly before it snaps shut again. Stede’s short of breath and he has the insane thought that this man is important, that whatever piece of the puzzle Stede is missing, this man holds it, and he’s so sure of it he might just burst-

 

Blackbeard leans back, and the moment is gone. He adopts an expression like he’s spotted something mildly interesting. 

 

“Lock him up.”

 

“But boss-” 

 

Blackbeard moves faster than anything, whirling like a hurricane, and shoves Izzy Hands into the mast with a hand on his throat. 

 

“You fucking questioning me?” he murmurs, and the sound of it sends a shiver up Stede’s spine. 

 

“No, captain Blackbeard, sir,” Izzy wheezes out. 

 

“Then next time you’ll try listening to me, won’t you, Izzy?” he croons. 

 

“Ye-Yes, boss,” Izzy manages. 

 

Blackbeard releases him, patting his cheek. “Very good. Carry on. Not too close to Jimenez.” 

 

Izzy nods, standing as straight as if he’d had a steel rod for a spine. With an almost airy wave of his hand, Blackbeard vanishes as quickly as his ship is said to do. He doesn’t look back, but Stede watches him until he’s gone. 

 

Capricious, he thinks he’s heard people say. Moods that change as swiftly as the sea herself. 

 

***

It’s Ivan who leads him to the brig. His grip on Stede is looser than Izzy’s, as if he can sense that Stede isn’t planning on making a run for it. 

 

He doesn’t need much leading, in the end. His feet seem to know where to take him, carrying him from room to room, through hallways and passages towards the brig. They only encounter one obstacle. They’re just passing by the crew quarters when a hand snakes out from between bars and grabs his wrist. Stede is pulled to an abrupt halt at a door with a sort of window cut in it, lined with metal bars, and he’s brought face to face with a fierce looking person. They have a long, angular face, shoulder-length dark hair, and they’re looking at him like a wild thing, all desperation and fear. Stede’s instinct is to pull away, but there's something in their eyes that stills him. 

 

“Make it quick, Jim,” Ivan murmurs, and Stede realizes he’s been brought this way for a reason. 

 

“Oluwande,” the person- Jim- says. “Oluwande, where is he?” 

 

Their eyes are pleading, face pale and gaunt, and at his wrist, their fingernails break skin. 

 

“I don’t-” 

 

“Stede. Is he alive? Please, is he alive? Did you find him?” 

 

“I don’t know an Oluwande!” Stede blurts out. 

 

There’s a beat of silence. Jim’s grip tightens, so tight that Stede can feel his bones creak, then loosens, then releases all together. Slowly, they draw their hand back behind the bars of what Stede realizes now is a makeshift cell, and they step back, back into the shadows, until the only thing Stede can see of them, glinting in the low light of the hall, are their eyes, pained and betrayed. 

 

It's not until they reach the brig and Ivan has locked the door behind him that a deeply troubled Stede asks, “Should I know an Oluwande?” 

 

“You used to,” Ivan says, and with that cryptic remark, he’s gone too, and Stede is left alone, on this ship that feels so familiar and so foreign all at once. 

 

***

Stede’s first visitor is not Blackbeard. It is not Izzy Hands, or any other member of Blackbeard’s famed crew. No, Stede’s first visitor comes in the dead of night, around what Stede thinks might be the hour before dawn. The lanky man who called him captain sneaks into the brig, easing the door open and shutting it tight behind him. 

 

Stede, who’s not slept a wink, and who could blame him, stands up, moving towards the bars. The man comes into sharper focus, in the dim light cast by the small porthole in Stede’s cell. He’s gaunt, as though he hasn’t been eating properly, the curls of his hair hanging limp around his face. He fiddles with the hem of his sleeve as he looks at Stede. 

 

“Frenchie?” Stede tries. He’s not sure if he’d heard the name right, when Izzy Hands said it, but it seems to be the right thing to say. The man relaxes with an explosive huff of air. 

 

“Oh, thank god,” he says, moving to the bars, grasping Stede’s hand between his own. “Thank god, captain, for a minute there I thought you were serious about this whole memory loss schtick- great performance, by the by, I think they all bought it-” 

 

“Wait, wait,” Stede says, squeezing at his hand. “It- I’m afraid it's not a schtick.” 

 

Frenchie blinks. “But- my name-” 

 

“Izzy Hands said it to Blackbeard. It was more of a guess, than anything,” Stede admits. Guilt threatens to choke him at the way Frenchie’s face falls, the way he squints his eyes like he’s fighting back tears. He looks like a man whose last hope has just been ripped away from him in a very real and very brutal way. 

 

“I’m so sorry,” Stede says, “to be a disappointment.” 

 

“Nah, nah, its-” Frenchie waves a hand, swallowing hard and forcing a smile onto his face. “It’s still good to see you.” 

 

Stede nods helplessly, unsure what else to do.

 

“You called me captain,” he says. 

 

“Yeah, cause you were,” Frenchie says. “Probably shouldn’t call you that anymore though, hey?” 

 

He glances over his shoulder apprehensively, as though Blackbeard might emerge out of the shadows cast in the gloom- which, for all Stede knows, he might. 

 

“Captain Blackbeard probably wouldn’t like it,” he finishes. “So, er-” 

 

He taps his head. “How’d it happen? Do you know?” 

 

“I’ve heard the story,” Stede says wearily. “All I really remember is waking up at home with a horrible splitting pain in my head. Evidently I attempted to fight my wife’s- her Doug. It seems unlike me.” 

 

Frenchie snorts. “That sounds exactly like you, actually.” 

 

“Does it?” 

 

“Oh yeah. You dueled Izzy once. Let him stab you right in the gut just to get the win. You’re a bit of a crazy bastard.” 

 

“Huh.” Stede’s hand goes instinctively to his stomach, pressing where he knows a scar rests. “I suppose that explains that.” 

 

“You really don’t remember that?” Frenchie asks, tilting his head. “Seems like something that would stick.” 

 

“I’m afraid not,” Stede says. “I suffered a bit of a head injury. I don’t remember anything from the past… well, I’m not actually certain how long. Mary was less than keen to elaborate, given the circumstances.” 

 

Frenchie lets out a low whistle. “That’s a rough go of it, cap- Stede.” 

 

“Convenient, that.” 

 

Frenchie nearly leaps a good few feet in the air. They’d been so engrossed in the conversation that neither of them had noticed Izzy Hands ease open the door. Frenchie shrinks back, ducking his head, moving away from the bars. 

 

“First mate Hands, sir.” 

 

“Get out of here,” Izzy orders, barely looking at him. “Do this again, and I’ll report it to the captain.” 

 

“Yes, sir,” Frenchie says, and without a backwards glance, he’s scurrying out. Stede watches him go, and something about the hunch of his shoulders and the set of his face has him glaring at Izzy Hands. 

 

“He doesn’t deserve to be treated like that,” Stede says. 

 

“I’m doing him a favor,” Izzy asks. “Anyone else would have reported him straight to the captain.” 

 

He takes two measured steps forward, stopping a foot from the bars. 

 

“You're not playacting, then,” he says, eyes hard and flinty. “You really can’t remember.” 

 

“I truly can’t,” Stede confirms. 

 

Izzy scrutinizes him a moment more, then shakes his head. “Typical.” 

 

“I’m sorry?” 

 

“I said, that’s just fucking typical,” Izzy repeats. His fingers tap against his upper arm. “Stede fucking Bonnet. God’s fucking chosen. No matter what you do, no matter how badly you fuck up, there’s always something to keep you from suffering consequences.” 

 

“I am being held captive by Blackbeard,” Stede points out. “That seems like a consequence.”

 

“No. You being held captive is a mercy. A consequence would be me slitting your throat here and now. But the captain’s forbidden it. First the act of grace, now this. Nothing ever touches you. He always makes sure of it.  You make a mess, swan off, and forget all about it, while the rest of us deal with your fallout.” 

 

His jaw is clenched, and what started as resignation is slowly turning to anger. “Rest assured, Bonnet, if I have any say at all in this, you’ll face what you’ve done. Whether you can remember doing it or not.” 

 

He turns, and Stede panics. 

 

“Wait.” 

 

Izzy, inexplicably, pauses. 

 

“I told you I’m looking for someone named Ed. Is he on this ship? Will you at least tell me that?” 

 

Izzy stands, head turned, silhouetted in the light coming from behind the door.

 

“No,” he says finally, and leaves. 

 

Stede’s not sure what he’s saying no to. No, Ed isn’t on the ship? No, he won’t tell Stede if he is or not?

 

The question will drive him to distraction. He fears it might drive him to insanity, in the end. 

 

***

 

It’s three days before Blackbeard ventures to the brig. Four, if you count the night Stede was brought onto the ship. Five, if you count a visit as being an occasion where two people interact.  In that time, Stede counts two raids. 

 

The ship is always eerily silent, but there’s a certain weight to it just before they hit another ship. He can hear it play out above him, but he never sees it. He can hear cannon fire, sometimes, and sometimes the ship rocks with it. He can hear running footsteps and shouts on the deck above. 

 

Sometimes he hears screaming. Sometimes he doesn’t. They never take prisoners. 

 

Fang comes twice a day with food. He has fresh bruises on his face on the second day, and on the fourth, he walks with a limp. He’s under strict orders not to speak to Stede. The most he ever gets is a murmured sorry as Fang slides the dish through the small opening made for that purpose, and an exhausted, apologetic look. 

 

He’s riding the crew hard, Blackbeard is. Stede supposes that’s to be expected, from the Scourge of the Caribbean, but he can’t help but feel bad for Fang and the crew all the same. And he can’t help but wonder about Ed. 

 

Is Ed up there? Is he a member of the crew, partaking in these raids? Is he a prisoner on the ship, like Stede, like Jim? 

 

Is he even here at all? Or was Izzy Hands supposed to be a way-point, to give him further direction to finding Ed? If he was, he’s done a shit job of it. Stede’s fighting hard not to give in to despair. He’s an optimistic person, is Stede, aways has been. He can find a light even when things are terrible. Some might call that a gift. All Stede’s life, though, has been called softness, naivety. He holds on to it all the same. 

 

This, to be fair, is a dismal situation. But it's something a bit out of a storybook isn’t it? Being taken captive by the world’s most fearsome pirate? It sounds like something he would tell the children, back when they used to play pirates. Though he’d soften some of the details, he thinks, were he to tell this particular tale. 

 

He’s doing this, when Blackbeard comes the first time, pretending this is all a story he’s telling Louis and Alma. 

 

“Avast, ye!” he murmurs under his breath. “Look upon me and tremble, ye fools, for I be the greatest pirate who ever lived! None shall cross me and live to tell the tale.”

 

He doesn’t even notice Blackbeard lingering in the doorway. He’s watching Stede with a blank look on his face and a tremble to his hands, and then he’s gone, as quick as a shadow vanishes when a cloud covers the sun.

 

The second time Blackbeard visits Stede, he speaks. It's near noon on the fifth day of Stede’s imprisonment, and he’s been following a patch of sunlight across the cell, trying to soak it in while he can. God, what he’d give for a book. Any book. He’d read a goddamn supply list, if that was what was available at this point. 

 

He’s closed his eyes, letting the sun hit his face, when he hears the clearing of a throat behind him. He leaps up, whirls around, and comes face to face with-

 

“Blackbeard,” he says. It’s a little too high and a little too breathy, which is odd, given that Stede isn’t really scared. At least, he doesn't feel scared. On the contrary, he feels electric, nerves alight with adrenaline and something fluttering uncomfortably in his stomach. 

 

Blackbeard is every bit as  impressive in the daytime as he was at night. In this light, Stede can see the details of the leather ensemble he wears, can see every smudge of greasepaint on his cheeks where his hand had slipped when applying it. His face is expressionless, impassive, and he's standing a couple feet away from the bars of the cell. 

 

“Stede Bonnet,” he replies, like he’s tasting the name. 

 

“Yes,” Stede says, rather ineffectually. “That’s me.” 

 

“Mm,” Blackbeard hums. His eyes rake up and down Stede’s form. “Just a name, though.”

 

“I- suppose so,” Stede says, not quite sure what he’s getting at. “It is my name.” 

 

“Name doesn't tell me much,” Blackbeard says. “Doesn’t tell me what I should do with you.” 

 

“Wha-what are you going to do with me?” 

 

“Dunno,” Blackbeard says with a vague shrug. He thunks down on a crate in the corner of the room, propping one foot up on the corner, leaning on his knee. The other leg stretches out in front of him, seemingly miles long, supported by a brace. “Haven’t decided. Hard to decide a man’s fate when you don’t know him.”

 

“It-” Stede pauses. “I don’t mean to contradict, but your crew does seem to know me. And you seemed to, as well. You called me the Gentleman Pirate.” 

 

“I did,” Blackbeard agrees, those dark eyes still boring into Stede. “But who is the Gentleman Pirate? Who is Stede Bonnet?” 

 

It should be a simple enough question. But Stede has no answer. He isn’t anybody, really, not anymore. He’s certainly not the Gentleman Pirate, if he ever was. He’s no longer a husband. He’s still technically a father, but only on the virtue of having sired two children. 

 

“I don’t know,” he says honestly. 

 

Blackbeard scoffs. “Shitty answer, mate.” 

 

“It's the truth,” Stede says. “I’m afraid I’m all jumbled up in here.”

 

He taps his head. “It's all a lot of noise. Who I remember being, who I think I am, who other people think I am. None of it seems to match up.” 

 

“Start simple, then. Where do you come from?” 

 

“Barbados.” 

 

“But you’re not there now.” 

 

“No.” 

 

“Why’s that?” 

 

“There was nothing left for me there,” Stede says. 

 

“What was there in the first place?” 

 

Blackbeard’s voice is bland, the tone of a man who’s done interrogations like this a thousand times, though Stede always imagined Blackbeard’s method of interrogation being vastly different than this. Then again, most hostages probably don’t give up information as easily as Stede does. 

 

“My wife,” he says. “My children.” 

 

“So why aren’t you with them?” 

 

“I’m no longer welcome there,” Stede says. That sparks something in Blackbeard’s eyes, and he leans forward. 

 

“How’s that?”

 

“Well, evidently… I rather attacked my wife’s lover.” 

 

Blackbeard’s face is interesting. Stede’s noticed, even in their thus far limited interactions, that he seems to have two different methods of expression. The first changes as quickly as a sudden downpour, one moment one way, the next moment another. The second way, though, is more subtle. Much more subtle. Stede receives the second, only gifted the incremental raise of an eyebrow in response. 

 

“Why’d you do that?” 

 

Stede frowns. “I- well. Because she is my wife. And he was her lover.” 

 

It's difficult to quantify a reason, of course, when Stede doesn’t remember doing this in the first place. 

 

“Sure, yeah, she’s your wife,” Blackbeard says. His voice lingers on the word wife just a touch too long. “And she had a new boytoy. So what?”

 

“So what- what do you mean so what?” Stede asks. 

 

“I mean so what? Those two things don’t have to add up to attacking the bloke.” 

 

“Don’t they?” 

 

“Maybe if you love her.” 

 

Blackbeard pauses. “Men do stupid things for love. Rip themselves to shreds for it. So, do you?” 

 

The immediate response should be yes. It isn’t. Because Stede and Mary were never really in love. He grew to love her, in his own way, in the quiet and vaguely sad way that two people forced together by outside pressures could grow to love one another. He’d spent years with her, after all. Before this, he might have tentatively called them friends. If not friends, allies, at least. 

 

“...no,” he says finally, shoulders drooping. 

 

“You’re a strange man, Stede Bonnet,” Blackbeard says. 

 

“So I’ve heard,” Stede sighs. 

 

“Ripped yourself apart, and it wasn’t even for love.” Blackbeard tsks. “Shame, man. You had a good thing going out here.” 

 

It's casual, the way he says it, but it sounds almost practiced. Like it's casual on purpose. Stede’s heart starts to hammer out a pattern against his ribs, picking up in tempo until he worries they might break. 

 

“A good thing …with Ed?” he chances. 

 

This time, the change is anything but incremental. Blackbeard’s face goes slack, and his shoulders drop a good three inches. 

 

“What?” he asks, in a voice so small it barely manages to struggle its way across the space between them. “What did you say?” 

 

“I don’t remember much,” Stede says, pressing his advantage. “But I remember the name Ed. I remember that he was… important.” 

 

“Shut up,” Blackbeard whispers. “Shut the fuck up.” 

 

“I was told,” Stede continues doggedly, “to find Izzy Hands, and then I would find Ed. I’ve found Izzy, but Ed has yet to show his face. I just want to know if he’s here.” 

 

Blackbeard barely appears to be breathing. He’s pressed back against the wall, eyes wide, fixated on Stede without blinking, nostrils flaring. 

 

He looks scared. He looks downright terrified, even though Stede is behind bars and Blackbeard isn’t supposed to feel fear at all. He opens his mouth, and closes it again, like he’s fighting something down. 

 

“You can’t-” he says shakily, then stops. “You- I- you don’t-” 

 

He snaps his head to the side, away from Stede, taking a harsh, sucking breath in through his nose. 

 

“You’ll never say that name again on this ship,” he says finally. “If you do, I’ll have you hanged from the mast and I’ll leave your body for the birds. And I’ll skin you first.” 

 

Stede may be a fool, but he doesn't have a death wish. He drops it immediately. 

 

Blackbeard’s reaction does nothing to dissuade the growing apprehension that Ed might not be on the ship at all. In fact, Stede’s starting to fear he came all this way to find a dead man. 

 

***

He doesn't expect Blackbeard to come back after that. At least, he expects that if he does, it will be to execute him, since they never did come to a conclusion on that whole what to do with Stede issue. 

 

But he does come back. Not for a couple days, following their first conversation, but he comes back. And then he comes back again. And again. They don’t always talk. Sometimes Blackbeard just comes down to smoke. Once he dashes into the brig with a muttered fucking Izzy, and hides there until his first mate has passed, then slips back out with a wink. That wink devastated Stede for a full hour, and he’s not entirely certain why. 

 

Sometimes they do talk, though. Or more accurately, Stede talks. Blackbeard seems to want to know a hell of a lot about him, and is very reluctant to divulge any information about himself. Stede supposes that’s to be expected. After all, he’s Blackbeard’s prisoner, not the other way around, even if lately speaking with the dread pirate feels more like speaking with an old friend than with a captor. 

 

The thing is, and Stede can’t believe he’s saying this, or thinking it, more accurately, Blackbeard seems lonely. He seems horribly, painfully lonely, in a way that’s achingly familiar to Stede. It radiates off of him like heat off a flame, evident in the dark circles under his eyes, the lines around his mouth, the unkempt nature of his hair, in the way he seems to drink in Stede’s every word, even when he’s feigning disinterest. Half the time, it feels like he doesn't even want to be there, really, but that he can’t help himself, that he needs something from Stede. Stede’s not sure if he gets what he’s looking for, but recently, Blackbeard’s been leaving looking lighter than when he first enters the room. 

 

Stede’s starting to think he’s the only person on this ship Blackbeard talks to at all. It's a sad thought. Incredibly sad. 

 

They avoid the topic of Ed entirely. Mostly, they avoid any topic having to do with Blackbeard at all. 

 

Mostly. 

 

“They say Blackbeard hasn’t got a heart. You believe that?” 

 

It's going on dusk, a cool breeze wafting inside from where Blackbeard’s cracked a porthole open. He’s standing near it, a lit pipe in hand, smoke obscuring his face. 

 

“I think every man has a heart,” Stede says. “I’d be surprised if you didn’t have one. You seem to have quite a lot of heart, to be frank.” 

 

“Mmm,” Blackbeard hums. His face is entirely inscrutable, shadowed and shrouded and coated in black grease-paint. It’s smeared, like he’s slept in it and not bothered to wash it off. “It’s true.” 

 

“What’s true?” 

 

“I haven’t got a heart.” 

 

He says it casually, the way one might discuss a missing item of clothing, rather than something so crucial as a heart, as a soul, which Stede knows is what the man’s really saying. “Someone ripped it out. Stomped on it. Tore it clean in two, and tossed it overboard like you’d toss a rat you found in the galley. What say you to that?” 

 

What say Stede to that, indeed. What say Stede to the revelation that the great Blackbeard has had his heart broken, just like any other man? What say Stede to the revelation that this heartbreak still weighs so heavily on Blackbeard that he would bring it up to a prisoner, even a prisoner who he seems to know, at least a little bit. They still haven’t talked about that. Stede’s a bit frightened to broach the topic. 

 

“I think it's a damned shame,” Stede says. His own heart is beating rapidly in his chest, something ugly bubbling in his gut, and he sort of thinks he might be sick. He's not sure why. “And I think whoever did that is a fool.” 

 

The man on the other side of the bars lets out a huff, like he’s been punched, and Stede sees one of his hands clench into a fist at his side. 

 

“Fuck you, Stede.” 

 

And then he’s gone, and Stede is left, again, with only shadows. If it weren’t for the smell of smoke lingering in the air, Blackbeard may never have been there at all. 

 

***

There’s been another raid, and Stede thinks something’s gone wrong. There are more boots on the deck than there should be, which either means that they’ve been boarded, or that Blackbeard’s decided to start taking prisoners. The second is unlikely. There’s shouting, and there’s gunfire. Stede keeps his eyes firmly fixed on the ceiling, as though he could bore through it with just the intensity of his gaze. 

 

Needless to say, he’s not expecting a visitor. He receives two. 

 

The first is a haggard looking sailor with wild eyes, who comes barging into the room, head whipping around like he’s looking for a place to hide. His eyes land on Stede, and he begins to race forward. Stede readies himself to do- something, he’s not sure what, but he doesn’t get the chance. The man lets out a cry and falls to the floor with a thump. 

 

There’s a knife buried in his back. 

 

Stede’s second visitor is an even more haggard looking Jim Jimenez. There’s blood on their coat and a cut on their cheek. They stride to the body, tugging the knife out of the man’s flesh with a sickening squelch of muscle. Blood spurts out of the wound. They wipe the weapon on their sleeve carelessly. 

 

“From the other ship,” they say by way of explanation. Every couple seconds, their eyes dart back up to the ceiling, gauging the sounds of the raid above. 

 

“I don’t have long before they notice I’m missing,” Jim says. They move closer to the bars, and Stede, in a wild moment, thinks they might unlock the cell. They don’t,  they just lean closer, with their forearm pressed against the bars.

 

“I thought you were a prisoner?” Stede asks. 

 

“They let me out for raids,” Jim says. “I’m a good killer.” 

 

The words are bitter and harsh. “That’s why he kept me.” 

 

Those dark eyes bore into Stede, pinning him in place. “I know you don’t remember anything. Frenchie told me. I don’t really give a shit if you remember or not. You need to fix this.” 

 

“Fix this?” 

 

“Si. This is you, Stede,” they say, gesturing around the  ship, encompassing all of it. “Maybe its not totally your fault, but you were the fucking catalyst, here.” 

 

“I don’t- how can I fix something if I don’t know how I broke it?” Stede asks desperately .”I want to help, I do. If I’m in any way responsible for your imprisonment, I owe you that much.” 

 

“It’s not even about me,” Jim says wearily. “It’s about-” 

 

Their words are cut short as Izzy Hands appears, furious, behind them, grabbing their arm and shoving them backwards. 

 

“Back to the deck,” he hisses. For a moment, it looks like Jim might disobey, like they might stick a knife in Izzy’s chest sure as they’d killed the sailor whose body is cooling on the floor. But something seems to deflate in them, shoulders slumping, eyes thinning, head drooping. 

 

Jim changes course, and spits directly in Izzy’s face before storming off. 

 

***

 

Blackbeard comes again the day after the raid. He doesn’t speak of it, but even if Jim hadn’t been down in the brig the previous day, Stede would have known it went badly simply from the way Blackbeard holds himself. There’s no blank face, not today- on the contrary, Blackbeard’s face seems to hold an eternity’s worth of weariness, all contained in one mortal man. His hair is pulled back from his face, leaving the bruises scattered across his jaw wide open for Stede’s examination, and his knee seems to be causing him pain as he limps in. 

 

Stede’s an empathetic person. Too empathetic, if you ask his father. He always has been. But there’s something about Blackbeard’s weariness that cuts him deeper than he expects. There’s an urge there, bursting into life in his chest like a thing resurrected, that wants to comfort, to help, to hold. 

 

Alas, there are still bars between them. 

 

“It's rough work, y’know,” Blackbeard says. “This life.” 

 

“I imagine it is,” Stede says carefully. “The books do paint it somewhat differently.”

 

“How so?” 

 

“Oh, adventures on the high seas, swashbuckling scallawags, romance, oftentimes. I always liked those stories.” 

 

The edge of Blackbeard’s mouth tugs up, as though he can’t help himself. “Yeah, I know. You always were a fucking lunatic about that shit. First time we met, you pulled a book out to show me a picture of myself.”

 

This is the most information Blackbeard has ever offered about their previous acquaintance, and Stede grasps onto it like a dying man grasps a life preserver. 

 

“Was it  a good likeness?” 

 

“It wasn’t back then,” Ed says. “Might be more accurate now.”

 

That’s... not a clarifying statement. 

 

“You had a whole fucking library,” Blackbeard says softly. He’s not looking at Stede. Stede’s not entirely sure he’s aware he’s speaking at all. “On a ship. A library.”

 

There’s a quiet awe in his voice. It's not mocking, or cruel, or even in jest. No one’s ever spoken about Stede like that in his life. It's this awe that gives him the courage to ask his next question. 

 

“Was I… a good pirate?” he ventures. 

 

Blackbeard snorts. He leans back against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest. “No.” 

 

“Oh. Well, then.” 

 

Stede’s not sure what he expected. It fits, really, that he’d get to live out his dream, and he’d be just as rubbish at it as he is most things in his life. It was foolish to expect that to be different. 

 

“You were a great one.” 

 

Stede’s head snaps up. “I-” 

 

It's only then that he catches a hint of a smile on Blackbeard’s face. 

 

“Oh, you- that was really quite cruel of you,” he says, an answering smile spreading across his face. “Was I really?” 

 

“Yeah. Best I ever knew. Not exactly conventional, but who gives a fuck about tradition, right? More people should try new shit.” 

 

“Is that what I did? Tried new things?” 

 

“You paid your crew a salary,” Blackbeard says, incredulously. “I never heard of a pirate paying a salary in my fucking life ‘til you.” 

 

“I mean, I imagine that without the threat of starvation hanging over their heads, the crew would be happier. A happy crew is a happy ship.” 

 

“Being a pirate’s not about being happy, Stede. It's about survival.” 

 

“Isn’t happiness the point of survival?” 

 

Something struggles to the surface, somewhere deep in his subconscious, fighting against the tide. 

 

I reckon what makes Ed happy is… you.

 

The memory is cut off by Blackbeard’s face, closed off and suddenly blank. 

 

Fuck . And it had been going so well. He just can’t seem to help fucking it up. 

 

“Survival is the point of survival,” Blackbeard says bluntly. “If you think otherwise you’re an idiot.” 

 

“I-” 

 

“Happiness is the concern of the fucking wealthy,” Blackbeard continues, clearly not finished. “People who can afford to worry about that shit. The rest of us? We have to claw and scrape and fight our way just to have a chance of living a life, of surviving past the destiny god or whatever the fuck puts on us.” 

 

He’s pacing now, back and forth in the tiny space allotted to him. “I should have been dead a thousand fucking time over by now, you know? I should have died when I was a fucking kid, but I didn’t! You know what I did instead?” 

 

He leans in, all fire and rage. Stede can nearly see flames dancing in his eyes. 

 

“I fucking survived. I’m not here because I’m fucking happy. I’m here because I did what I fucking had to do even when I fucking hated it. I’ve killed people. People who got in my way, Stede, I’ve killed them. People who threatened my fucking survival. Think long, and think hard, before you cross me again.”

 

Stede’s mouth opens, but the only word that comes out is- 

 

“Again?” 

 

Blackbeard goes still. Eerily still. 

 

“What do you mean, again?” 

 

He blinks once, twice, three times. His shoulders rise and fall with a breath. 

 

“How do you think you ended up back home, Stede?” he whispers. “You crossed me.” 

 

***

You crossed me. 

 

This is you, Stede. Maybe it's not totally your fault, but you were the fucking catalyst here. 

 

Nothing ever touches you. He always makes sure of it.  You make a mess, swan off, and forget all about it, while the rest of us deal with your fallout.

 

This is what they’ve been talking about, isn’t it? What everyone’s been talking about from the moment he arrived on this ship. He betrayed Blackbeard. Somehow, some way. Maybe it doesn’t matter how. He betrayed Blackbeard, and now other people are suffering for it. Jim, Frenchie, probably this Oluwande fellow that Jim mentioned, possibly even Blackbeard himself. 

 

But if he betrayed Blackbeard, why is he still alive? If he betrayed Blackbeard, why wasn’t he executed on sight? Why would Blackbeard speak to him at all, let alone in the familiar, bordering on friendly way they have been these past days? 

 

And how on earth does Ed tie into all of this? He must, given Blackbeard’s reaction to the name, but there’s no one Stede can fucking ask. And he’s desperate to ask. Increasingly, horribly desperate, desperate enough to risk his life to find out the answer. Every day he goes without knowing is torture, like hot needles are being shoved through his ribcage and straight into the traitorously soft thing he calls a heart. 

 

Was Ed an accomplice in his betrayal?

 

Did he betray Ed along with Blackbeard?

 

Did his betrayal get Ed killed? 

 

He’s not sure which option is the worst one. None of them are good, and they’re getting increasingly worse as the days wear on. 

 

It should, perhaps, be no surprise that Stede Bonnet, notorious fool, decides to take the risk. 

 

***

He tries to time it right. And for a moment, he thinks he succeeds. Blackbeard is in an unusually good mood. He’s gone off on a tirade about mutinying against his first captain, taking over the ship, and it's everything Stede’s storybooks told him and more. He’s even brought a brandy down, and deigned to let Stede have a glass as well. They’ve lapsed into a comfortable silence, listening to the waves crest and break against the sides of the ship. Blackbeard’s eyes are closed, leaning up against the wall next to Stede’s cell, only a hand's width away from Stede, and he looks content. Reluctant as Stede is to break that, he doesn't see that he’ll get a better chance before the question of Ed fully drives him insane. 

 

“May I ask you something?” 

 

“Shoot,” Blackbeard responds lazily. 

 

“What was he like?” 

 

Blackbeard’s brow furrows, and he cracks an eye open. “Who?” 

 

“You’ve rather forbidden me to say his name.” 

 

Both his eyes open then, his mouth hardening into a tight line. 

 

“It's driving me mad,” Stede says. “Not knowing. I came all this way looking for him, and now I’m just- drifting. I have no direction. If you’re planning to execute me, at least let me go to my death knowing what happened to him. If you’re not, then I’ll need that direction to go on my way.”

 

Blackbeard doesn’t answer. 

 

“I’ve tried to remember,” Stede says, increasingly desperate. “If I could just remember, this would all be so much easier, but I can’t. I have only you. I’m begging.” 

 

“Why do you want to know?” Blackbeard asks, sudden and sharp. “Why are you looking for him at all?” 

 

Stede hesitates. It's a dangerous thing to reveal, probably, but how much more danger could he be in? He’s already a captive on Blackbeard’s ship. He knows what the dread pirate does with captives, what he could very possibly still be planning to do with Stede. 

 

“Because I loved him,” he says softly. “Love him still. I’m not certain of much, these days, but that much I know.” 

 

Blackbeard hunches in on himself, snapping his head away from Stede. “Fuck you. No, you didn’t.” 

 

“I did. I do.” 

 

“No you fucking don’t!”  He slams his hand against the bars, fingers curling around it like a vice, bringing his face only inches from Stede’s. “Ed was- he was my fucking friend. He was all the best bits of me. I was supposed to- I’m meant to keep him safe, and then he met you. And you ruined him, Stede Bonnet.”

 

-brought history’s greatest pirate to ruin-

 

“That’s not fucking love. And if you think it is you’re fucking sick, mate.” 

 

Blackbeard leaves, and Stede, alone in the brig, weeps, haunted by a sickeningly familiar voice murmuring -

 

Stede Bonnet is not a human. He is a plague.

 

He’s less alone than he thinks. Outside the door, Blackbeard has collapsed into a heap, shaking, and there he will stay until Izzy Hands finds him and leads him back to his quarters. 

 

Behind the wall, in a passage known to none but the man who designed the ship, a figure crouches. Pale and gaunt from lack of food and lack of sun, the stowaway listens to Stede sob, and he begins to formulate a plan. You see, this particular stowaway has a gift. 

 

He’s fantastic at breakups.