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Aftercare

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“Stop it, Ed. That’s enough.”

All the fury within him rises like a tidal wave prepared to destroy everything in his wake, but then... But then he looks, and he sees.

Stede isn’t smiling - he is, in fact, everything but smiling, the smoke and the embers in the air pronouncing the shadows in his face, illuminating his features in a way Edward doesn’t think he’s ever seen before.

He looks stunning, and he looks furious, and Blackbeard falters.

That’s the thing, though - the fire around them is of the very real variety, the ship threatening to sink any minute. Timber crackles and moans, and the fighting has mostly stopped now, on account of... there’s barely anyone left to fight. Edward himself has been injured, not quick enough to dodge a gunshot to the gut, preoccupied by hearing a familiar voice, seconds, moments, eons ago now...

But Blackbeard wouldn’t care. Blackbeard would push through all of that until the entire world around them lay in ruins, he would raise his sword and take Stede Bonnet’s life as easy as snuffing out a candle, and he would be justified in doing so...

But there’s Blackbeard, and then there’s Edward.

“That’s rich,” he spits, the telltale bitter tinge of his own blood on every word, “who do you think you are, to tell me what to do...?”

But he knows he’s lost, even before his legs give out from under him and he sinks to his knees.

He sees it as if in slow motion - the darkness creeping up at the edges of his vision lends it all a rather dramatic hue, if he’s being honest. All noise fades to the background as Stede raises his hand, firmly, fuck, people listen to him now, of course they do, he’s so good, he’s so good, presumably to stop his crew from approaching, and he himself walks closer to Edward, a mirage veiled in smoke, a lighthouse beckoning him closer, and the distance between them seems unbridgeable, a burning deck, an entire ocean.

He’s saying something but Edward can’t hear him for the roar of blood in his ears, for the hammering of his heart against his ribcage, for all the words he means to shout at him in turn.

You left, you fucker, you left me all alone, and now you turn up here out of nowhere? Now you tell me what to do? Now you have the guts to... To...

But none of it makes it past his cracked lips, because Stede is sinking to his knees as well before him, and before Edward can react, two strong hands hold his shoulders, hold him in place, and it is only now that he realizes how unmoored he’s been, letting the wind toss him around, threatening to disappear with the currents.

“You’re here,” he croaks, and it sounds much more desperate than he’d want it to, much less desperate than he’s feeling. “You came back.”

“Never left,” Stede is smiling at him, fuck him, he’s smiling, and he’s crying, too, very obviously at that, and Edward feels tears welling in his own eyes, and he wants nothing more than to give in, to let blissful unconsciousness take over.

“Fucking... liar. That’s a lie, and you know it,” he exhales, and he’s sleepy now, sleepier than he’s been in a long time, all the restless nights adding up, and if he could just get a moment to rest...

“If you would just let me explain...” Stede is saying, but Edward’s body chooses to grant him his only wish in that one precise moment, and before he can hear his next words, before he can add some more of his own, he’s falling, falling asleep, falling into Stede’s arms, floating away with the currents, and nothing else really matters.

For all he knows, this could all just be a dream, and he’s fine with that, fuck it, he’s fine with that.

At least he got to see Stede’s face one last time. Good. Great. Rest in fucking pieces, Blackbeard, is his last thought, and then he’s well and truly gone.

 


 

It takes Stede weeks. It should take him days, hours, minutes, but it takes him bloody weeks to catch up. He barely manages to keep his crew from quite literally eating each other as they row back to shore in a very ill-equipped dinghy, and from then on, it’s a race. To feed them, to find another, bigger boat this time, and then a bigger one yet, and then a ship... Fuckery doesn’t even begin to describe the amount of idiotic half-baked plans Stede executes in those first couple of days, all in order to make himself seaworthy again, in order to sail out there, and search, but in his defense, he’s in quite the hurry.

The name Blackbeard echoes everywhere they go, and not in a good way. Pirate crews report not only watching him massacre his way up and down the sea, but also witnessing attacking their own with no prior offense, an unprecedented show of ruthlessness, thus breaking an unspoken rule every pirate stands by.

Sure, we fuck each other over all the time, this or that small-time captain tells him in this or that port, but even that has rules, you know? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he’s finally lost his damn marbles.

To say that Stede is worried would be vastly underplaying the amount of sleep he doesn’t get, misses out on thinking about leaving Ed all alone on that beach, never coming back, ruining him...

They find Lucius, wet like a rat and spewing profanities, the next time they make port, and Stede watches him reunite with everyone, watches him reunite with Pete, the way they embrace and don’t let go, and he has to look away eventually.

No. No use wallowing in misery. He’s got to find him, and he’s got to talk to him, preferably before he burns down half the Caribbean. And when he does, he’s going to apologize and keep apologizing, he will make Ed hear him out, and he will save him, mostly from himself, by the looks of it, he will...

He will feel a grief and an anger unlike any other when he does finally see him again, it turns out.

The trail is frighteningly easy to follow this time. The smoke can be seen on the horizon hours before they finally manage to approach, pushing their small newly acquired vessel to her limits. A Spanish sloop, all on her own, wandering dangerously close to enemy waters, was the description Stede got seconds before he raced out of port, and he can imagine it all - the ship relying on her speed and agility, and expecting everything but to run into goddamn Blackbeard out of nowhere...

The first thing he sees are the familiar shapes of The Revenge. Reaching for his spyglass, he almost drops it into the water in his anxious fumbling, but then he sees, and it is his ship, by god it is, but it’s as if it’s been through a fire, darker and shrunken...

And then he sees the flag.

A sound like a strained whimper escapes him, and Oluwande next to him shoots him a curious look - without a word, Stede hands him the spyglass, and swallows against a suddenly aching throat.

Fuck. This is fine. If he just gets on board-

A salvo of cannon fire makes the wood under their feet tremble, but it isn’t coming from The Revenge, no, this one is... Right. From behind them. Because of course the British have been keeping track, and of course they made it here just as Stede did. Well, shit.

“Full sail!” he orders, only faltering for a second, “put her between them and The Revenge!

“Captain-” Oluwande warns, but Stede has no time for that now. No time now that he’s so damn close.

“Go!” he roars, and, well, they go.

The fight is... The fight is second to frantically scanning the battlefield for Ed. The Spanish ship is fully ablaze now, about to sink oh so very soon, but a fight has broken out on its deck, a fight, Stede postulates, he’s going to have to bodily drag Ed away from like a rabid dog...

When the British start boarding from the other side, he finally sees him - just a blur of darkness, a shadow in motion among the smoke and the embers, and there’s not enough people, you don’t have enough people, Ed, fuck, go back, or come here, or-

It occurs to Stede that he hasn’t been in a battle like this yet, not really, but there’s no backing down now.

Wood scrapes on wood as he jams his temporary vessel between the British frigate and The Revenge, and as the sea threatens to swallow them whole, he thinks, oh well. Might as well go out in a blaze of glory. Ed would like that. Ed...

Stede finally sees him up close - or, one and half ship decks away - and a tiny, frightened part of him wishes he didn’t. Good god. Good god, he looks absolutely miserable, even as he’s giving the fight his best, even as he’s slashing and cutting, and cackling and shooting...

And Stede is angry with himself first, always with himself first, but, he thinks blindly as he kicks and shoves his way over to Ed, is that really all it took? For Ed to give up everything good about himself?

He sees Oluwande frantically trying to push through the crowd over to Jim, who fights with the ferocity of a jungle cat, and they, too, look ages older, tired, at the end of their rope, and Stede... Oh, Stede needs to have words with people.

Namely Ed, for ruining his crew, his ship, himself. 

“Ed-” he tries, and gets a kick in the back of his knees for his troubles, doubling over.

“Oh no you fucking don’t.”

That menacing wheeze can only belong to Izzy Hands, and Stede is already reaching for his sword by the time he rolls back around.

“Izzy!” he hollers, hopefully loud enough to capture the attention of someone from his crew, “Lovely to see you! I don’t suppose you could help me up?”

Metal screams against metal as he parries a blow that was most definitely meant to be a killing one, and Izzy produces a truly disconcerting battle cry as he lunges at him.

“You have a set of big fucking brass ones, coming back here!” he snarls, pushing Stede back, “after what you did! After what you reduced him to!”

Stede falters, god help him, he does, you brought history's greatest pirate to ruin...

But he lays eyes on Ed at that very same moment, and he is reassured in his convictions. He did come back after everything he did, and he will get his words in, if it’s the last thing he does-

For a split second out of time, their eyes meet, an entire swaying, burning battlefield away, and Ed falters, Stede sees him falter, but then he redoubles his efforts with twice the ferocity, slicing at some poor soldier running for him in an arc that leaves blood spraying everywhere...

And finally, Stede sees not Ed, but Blackbeard. The fire suits him - it seems to spread wherever he steps, seems to want to follow him, and he pays it no mind. There is nothing erratic about his movements - he pushes forth with a cold determination, a slow-boiling fury, and Stede wants to shout at him, this isn’t you, this isn’t you, please, come back come back come back to me-

The gunshot echoes like a thunderclap, loud enough for even Izzy to take note and stop trying to decapitate Stede for a hot second, and Stede knows its mark even before he gets to watch Ed lurch forward - but then that, too, seems to only slow him down a little bit, and oh, Stede has had just about enough.

The fight has shifted and twisted halfway onto The Revenge, halfway onto Stede’s own little ship, but the ebb and flow of it is... less struggling to stay alive, and more watching the British battle it out with the Spanish, who are in turn trying to save their necks and get away from their own doomed vessel...

Without really thinking about it twice, Stede reaches aside and pulls Izzy Hands to him, quite literally by the collar of his shirt, his eyes barely ever leaving Ed’s shifting, fighting form.

“Get them off The Revenge,” he hisses, even as Izzy struggles in his grasp, “make your people get everyone off, and get moving, before we burn down with them.”

“I don’t take orders from you-”

It’s so very easy still, and maybe when all is said and done, Stede will have to address the strange sort of weightlessness he feels as he tugs Izzy even closer, until the only thing separating them is the edge of Stede’s sword pressed to Izzy’s throat.

“This isn’t an order,” Stede says kindly, with perhaps a manic tinge to his smile. “It’s just a friendly suggestion. If, by some miracle, we survive this, I will tie you to the mast of my ship - not The Revenge, no, the other one, the smaller one, see, right there - and I will set her adrift towards the fucking horizon. And that’s if you don’t get in my way. Move.”

And Izzy moves.

And Stede gets to finally, finally call out to Ed.

It’s simple after that - everything is, now that Ed is here, and in his arms again, and it is Ed, Stede saw him, through the black soot around his eyes, through the darkness enshrouding him, he’s there, he’s still there.

It’s probably nothing short of divine intervention that they manage to escape - ever so briefly, Izzy’s people work with Stede’s people, long enough to free both vessels from the death grip of the Spanish and the British, and before either of those realize what’s going on, the two battered ships are on their way away, shoving any and all soldiers unfortunate enough to linger behind into the depths.

It’s not the most glorious of escapes, but it keeps them alive. Technically speaking.

“Those of you who want to wait until your captain wakes up, are more than welcome to stay with us,” Stede addresses the very few of Blackbeard’s crew who got stuck on The Revenge also - even this far off, he can see Izzy on the other ship, glaring. He readjusts his hold on Ed - like he’s ever letting go of him again - and sighs. “Those of you who would rather try your chances with our mutual friend Izzy Hands, his new ship is right there.”

This is punctuated by his crew reassuring everyone of their free choice with a liberal use of swords and other assorted weaponry, and before he knows it, they’ve got Ivan and Fang on their side again, at the very least, with the rest mostly braving the currents before the ships are too far away from each other to make the swim.

“There we go, then,” Stede huffs, exchanging one last telling glance with Izzy across the distance - this isn’t over, but it is over for now.

Ed chooses that very same moment to wince in pain in his arms, and immediately, Stede is dropping to his knees with the weight of him, and the whole world takes a breath.

“There you are,” he murmurs, “it’s all good now.”

With as much gentleness as he can muster, he swipes sweaty strands of hair away from Ed’s face, and cups his cheek.

“The look of you,” he exhales, and Ed stirs lightly, mutters something under his breath, his eyebrows knitting together in a brief frown - he looks aged, exhausted, worn down to the bone, and black soot stands in for his beard, circles his eyes, makes his cheeks look so very sunken...

Stede feels the prickle of tears - seems like he’s been crying for a while now, in fact - and it takes someone clearing their throat nearby for him to remember Ed and him aren’t exactly alone.

“So-o... Can we toss him overboard, too, Cap’n?” asks Roach, almost considerately.

“Not just yet,” Stede offers a watery chuckle.

“Really? Not even torture him a little bit?”

“How about we just wait until he wakes up, first,” Stede mumbles, then, with a bit more conviction, as his entire crew seems to be staring at him like he, too, has lost his marbles: “Secure the ship, please. Make sure she doesn’t sink while we’re at it. You’ll all have a chance to say your piece to Ed after he wakes up, yes?”

A somewhat discontented murmur passes through the men, but then Olu is the first to respond, waving some of them over to start clearing away the debris, and reluctantly, they follow.

Stede only realizes now that his arms are aching with the weight of it all, with the weight of Ed, and he allows himself a moment of weakness, hanging his head until it’s almost buried in the crook of Ed’s neck. When he looks up, Ed is still very much out of it, but still very much there, and Stede will take it, by god will he take it.

“I’d say you’ve tortured yourself quite enough, besides, haven’t you,” he sighs.

Ed doesn’t need to respond for him to know he’s right.