Actions

Work Header

Waterloo

Chapter Text

On a short list ranking the dingiest dive bars or taverns in the city of Seattle, the Revenge Tavern wouldn’t be the worst, but it would certainly be on the list. Within walking distance of King Street Station, the tavern was sandwiched in the center of Pioneer Square, a district where many a techbro and hipster would take public transit to on Friday and Saturday nights to play-act living paycheck to paycheck, while the working poor filled their glasses with micro-brews and served them deconstructed burgers that were, in reality, just cheap steak tartare, wheat toast, and bamboo shoots.

The Emerald City was unlike most other metropolises in the country; other cities looked as if God themselves had slammed their hand down upon the land, flattening it, and smashed high-rise after high-rise into the dirt like a toddler mashing their Legos into their Play-Doh. Seattle, like Rome, was built upon seven hills and—as Rome fell—in the approximately 170 years since its founding, had sank almost 2 floors into the mud. Despite the near-constant odor of weed, piss, and bus exhaust, the city itself was beautiful; shiny office buildings abutted old growth from the Gilded Age, the dichotomy of the architecture almost its own tourist trap (though most tourists still came for the market or the Space Needle). Douglas firs and western hemlocks stood in defiance to the new construction in the less traveled neighborhoods, reminders that nature had existed since time immemorial and would do so long after humanity had faded.

Edward Teach had stumbled into the city by happenstance some fifteen years ago in an attempt to escape a long story with too many fucked up bullet points and had never left. The sea air agreed with him, and the overcast provided a welcome change to the blistering sun of New Zealand. He tended to go on walks when he needed time to himself, and Seattle was the perfect walking city; by the time his mind cleared, his lungs would be ready to give out on him from hiking up hill after ridiculously steep hill.

He had called last call some 20 minutes ago, and the final group of what he only assumed were Amazon employees had finally stumbled out into the cool summer night. Thursdays weren’t usually that busy, but new layoffs at all the major tech companies had resulted in many a teary-eyed person drowning their sorrows in whatever liquor they could get their hands on. Ed would sympathize with them if their former employers hadn’t caused the rent to skyrocket as they had.

The tavern’s walls were plastered with poster after poster of local bands, and at the front of the space, a giant red cursive R for the hometown favorite Rainier Beer (an affectionately sarcastic name, due to the beer tasting like it had only ever been in a room with hops for about 20 minutes before being canned and shipped). Scale models of hydroplanes from Seafairs past hung from the ceiling, interspersed with the tacky pirate decor the regulars had sourced from Torchlight Parades past. The tavern was Seattle concentrate, and Ed loved every square inch of the musty, sticky place. He had come into possession of the bar after the previous owner, a bastard named Hornigold, keeled over, and Ed had moved into the apartment above it. It was his home.

“Ed?” Izzy called out, standing by one of the small booths in the back corner of the room. “We’ve got a Rip Van Winkle over here.”

Izzy Hands was a short man, roughly his age, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a mean streak in him. Despite being on the shorter side, Ed had no need for a bouncer with Izzy around; he had seen the man knock multiple linebackers on their asses in the decade he had worked at the tavern, and he could drink nearly anyone under the table and still work the bar with ease.

Ed walked over to where Izzy stood and looked down into the booth. A man laid curled up on one side, his golden hair fanned across his closed eyes. He was dressed in a fine navy blue suit, now crumpled from laying there so long, and the table was littered in glass tumblers full of half-melted ice. The man’s chest rose and fell rhythmically; he was asleep.

“What’d he have?” Ed asked, hands on his hips.

“Captain and Coke’s, mostly.” Izzy replied. “The last few were Shirley Temples and he never noticed.”

Ed chuckled. “Right, then. Come on, mate!” Ed grabbed the blond man’s arm and gently shook it. “Up ya get. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

The blond slurred something and wrenched his arm free from Ed’s grasp.

“Come again?” Ed asked.

“Izzedd,” the blond slurred, “go suck eggs in Hell.” The man rolled onto his other side and covered his face, trying to fall back asleep.

Ed and Izzy shared a look and bit back their laughter. “I’ll just dump him outside and close up shop.” Izzy said, grabbing the blond’s arm. “You can go, Ed.”

“Nah, let’s just drop him on my couch.” Ed said, grabbing the man’s other arm and heaving him to his feet. “He’s too pretty to be any real trouble, and I’m not worried about any man who tells me to ‘suck eggs in Hell’.”

“You’re gonna be a wet nurse for a man you just met?” Izzy asked, cocking an eyebrow.

Ed rolled his eyes. “I’m not a fuckin’ wet nurse, Iz. I’m not gonna call the cops on a drunk, and the only cars available right now are those fuckin’ rideshare ones. I’ll let him sleep it off and ban him in the morning when he’s sobered up.” The shorter man shook his head but said nothing, and the three men stumbled toward the narrow staircase that led to Ed’s apartment.
.
.
.
.
.
Ed closed the door to the staircase after bidding Izzy goodnight, and padded into his kitchenette. He grabbed two glasses from the cabinet and filled them with water from the tap, then walked back over to the family space and placed a glass on the coffee table in front of the couch, directly in front of the drunk man. He eased himself into the well-loved recliner near the couch and sipped from his own glass, his eyes on the man in front of him.

He was handsome even when shitfaced, a trait that Ed hadn’t often come across. A light flush laid across the man’s cheeks and nose, and his lips were parted and slightly squished resting against his palm. His hair was feathered and fine, and Ed almost felt a need to run his hand through it. From here, Ed could see his suit jacket was lined with a powder blue silk, and his tie poked out from the inner pocket, a crumpled mess.

The man inhaled deeply, waking up, and pushed himself upright. He squinted around the dimly lit room, eyes unfocused, and tried but failed to take his suit jacket off.

“Here, mate,” Ed said, placing his glass on the coffee table and rising from his chair. “Lemme help you.” Ed pushed the jacket down the drunk man’s shoulders and slipped his arms out of the sleeves, folding it and draping over the back of the couch. The blond watched Ed as the bearded man knelt and slipped his dress shoes from his feet, his vision clearing. Ed tossed the shoes under the coffee table, then turned back to face the blond.

The blond’s lips were moving against his before Ed had registered what was going on. He could taste the rum and cherries on his tongue, and the man grasped at the back of his neck, his fingers warm and soft and gentle. Ed’s nose was flooded with the scent of the alcohol and lavender, exquisitely smokey and light. There was desperation in the blond’s movements, his fingers tightening in Ed’s long hair and holding Ed to him.

It had been years since someone had touched Ed like this. He had fucked plenty of people, sure, but their touch felt hollow; Ed was a means to an end for them. Most lovers were rough with him, too-tight grip in his beard and hair, and Ed had just become accustomed to it. He knew he gave off the vibe of someone who only enjoyed it rough (the tattoos, piercings, and mostly leather wardrobe spoke for themselves), but the man sometimes wanted to just have slow, passionate sex that didn’t make him worry he was going to deal with traction alopecia in the coming months.

The blond turned and laid back, pulling Ed on top of him. It was good—God, better than just “good”, but that’s all Ed’s brain could muster right now—and the other man moaned against him. He finally let go of Ed’s hair and moved his hands to Ed’s waistband, fumbling with his belt. A part of Ed’s brain, larger than he’d care to admit, roared for more, but Ed knew better.

“Whoa, wait a minute,” Ed said, breaking the kiss and quickly getting up, “we’re not doing this. Not right now.”

“Please…” the man murmured as he sat up, his hand returning to Ed’s waistband, hazel eyes glittering, “you’re so beautiful… I want to…”

Ed carefully removed the blond’s hand from his waistband and laid it across the man’s chest. “We aren’t doing anything until you’re sober, mate. Get some sleep.” The man grumbled something in response, but laid back down and drifted quickly off to sleep.

Ed ran a hand through his hair and sighed a quiet “fuck me” to himself. Maybe Izzy had been right; leaving the drunk outside would’ve avoided being given blue balls by a man who was in no state for sex. Then again, leaving him outside would’ve put him at risk of being taken advantage of by some other dickhead, which would’ve made Ed feel like a complete asshole, and Ed couldn’t have that on his conscience.

The bearded man moved quietly down the hall and into the only bathroom, flipping the light on and closing the door behind him. He stared at his reflection in the small medicine cabinet mirror. His eye bags had gotten worse in the past few years, and his age showed in the growing amount of grey hairs on his face and head. His tawny skin had dulled slightly in the decade and a half he had been in the Pacific Northwest, and his face was permanently creased with frown lines. The only thing that hadn’t aged were his eyes.

Izzy had half-joked one night after a few drinks that Ed’s eyes sparkled. Ed had told him to fuck off and shoved his shoulder that night (he had never known how to take compliments well), but when he sobered up the next morning, he caught himself in the mirror. They were a rich, deep brown with the tiniest honey-colored flecks in them, and by God, they did actually sparkle a bit.

Ed tied his hair up into a messy bun—wash day wasn’t until tomorrow—and turned on the shower. Once he had stripped down, he stepped into the small stall, not caring if the water was warm enough or not. He scrubbed down slowly, biding his time and trying in vain to will his boner away. After a few minutes of standing under the scalding water and trying to focus on something, anything else that wasn’t the man dead to the world on his couch, he swore under his breath and took hold of his cock. He shut his eyes and let his mind wander wherever it wanted to go, reminding himself it was just to jerk off and that it’d mean nothing come morning.

The man would step into the shower with him and press him against the cool tile, those beautifully soft fingers kneading into his neck and back as he kissed him. Ed would groan against his lips, low and needy, and the man would wordlessly drop to his knees and take Ed into his mouth, never breaking eye contact. Once he was satisfied with how hard Ed was, they’d dry off quickly and move to Ed’s bed, a creaky mattress with a nest of blankets and two nearly flat pillows. The man would roll the condom onto Ed, his lips pressing warm, wet kisses to the bearded man’s chest and neck.

The blond would grab the lube from Ed’s beside table and prepare himself, sighing Ed’s name over and over as he worked himself open, that delicate pink flush spreading down his neck and chest, and it would take everything in Ed’s power to not cum from the sight of it. The blond man would lay back against the mattress, his hair fanning out in a near perfect halo around his head. Ed would pour a few drops of lube onto his cock and stroke himself a few times, then slowly ease into the man, his teeth digging into his lip to keep from moaning. God, the way the man would writhe under him would haunt Ed, but he couldn’t stop now.

The mattress beneath the pair would creak as Ed set the pace, and they’d both laugh breathlessly in spite of the circumstances (Ed had always said that if you can’t laugh while fucking someone, you’re likely fucking the wrong people). The man would throw an arm over his eyes, whimpering and panting, his free hand twisting into the bedsheets. “Look at me.” Ed would demand as he pushed the man’s knees to his chest, and the man would, eyes hazy and pupils blown wide but focused on him, only him—

Ed came hard, biting back a moan from behind his fist. He let his forehead rest against the cool tile as he came down from his high, heartbeat thudding in his ears. A part of him was surprised his bathroom drains hadn’t failed yet from the amount of shower wanks he had had over the years, but he chalked it up to the soap and hot water breaking down most of the mess before it would likely become a problem.

Once he felt clean again, he turned the shower off and stepped out, grabbing the single purple towel that hung from the rack and quickly drying himself. He brushed his teeth and let his hair out from the bun, then silently stepped out of the bathroom with the towel riding low on his hims, flipping the light off. He peeked down the hallway at the sleeping form on the couch and smiled to himself, then padded to his bedroom and shut the door.

Chapter Text

The first thing Stede Bonnet noticed when he awoke was the scent of black coffee. He was prone to morning nausea (poor sleep always meant for a horrible day full of dry-heaving the next day), but black coffee was a comforting scent; it was potent and didn’t overload his system.

The second thing he noticed was the sheer fucking ache from his neck to the base of his spine.

He sat up slowly, the room already spinning, and stretched, groaning as his back cracked like steps in fresh snow. He blinked, bleary-eyed, and turned his attention to the form making coffee in the next room. His—Stede assumed—nude back was covered in dozens of scars and tattoos, so much so that it reminded him of the “I Spy” books he used to look at as a child. The man’s long hair was tied up into a messy bun at the crown of his head, the locks that were too short for the hair tie to hold cascading in wavy wisps down his neck. A pair of pajama pants were slung low on the man’s pelvis, low enough that Stede could see the dimples just above the man’s ass. A nice ass, Stede noted.

Wait. Shit.

Stede cleared his throat. “Um. Hello, there.”

The man looked over his shoulder, eyebrows raised. “Oh. Good morning, Sunshine.” He turned around, a mug in either hand, and made his way over to the couch. “Sleep well?”

“Absolutely not. No offense!” Stede added quickly.

The man handed Stede a mug and laughed. “None taken. That couch is marginally better than the hardwood, but just barely.” He took a seat in the recliner nearby and sipped slowly from his mug, eyes slipping closed.

Stede held his mug with both hands, warming them, and looked around the small apartment. The best way he could describe it was “eclectic”, but others would likely call it “mismatched”; film and band posters in various states of disintegration plastered the wall, fairy lights along the perimeter of the room were hung in place with push pins that looked like they’d crumble if you so much as looked at them wrong, and the coffee table had so many water rings on it that at first glance, Stede would think it was a design choice.

In spite of all of this, there was a coziness about the space. Morning light filtered in through the slats of the blinds, warming the room. It was obvious this place had been well-used, but it was also obvious that it was well-loved. A worn blanket draped across the back of the couch, crocheted—or was it knitted?—from a powder blue yarn. A small wooden bookshelf rested beneath the only window, filled to the brim with paperback after paperback, their spines cracked and flaking. A small area rug sat beneath both the coffee table, midnight blue swirling with gorgeous cerulean. Waves, Stede quickly recognized. All in all, the space was tidy, just…old.

“Where am I?” Stede asked, still craning his neck to take in his surroundings.

“Tavern owner’s apartment.” The man replied simply.

“Right.” Stede said after a beat.

The man bit the inside of his cheek, amused at his previous response. “You’re in the apartment above the Revenge Tavern. Pioneer Square. Me and my bartender found you blacked out in a booth, so we brought you up here. Neighborhood isn’t safe after midnight for guys like you.”

“Pioneer Square?” Stede asked, slightly panicked. “Where the hell is Pioneer Square? How did I even leave Seattle?”

The other man snorted into his coffee, then wiped his mustache on the back of his hand. “Pioneer Square is a neighborhood in Seattle, Sunshine. Just a few blocks west of the International District.”

“Ah. Right.” Stede relaxed slightly. He roughly knew where he was now; the office was about 10 blocks north from here.

The tavern owner looked from Stede’s face to the mug in the blond’s hand and cocked an eyebrow at him, a silent question. Stede followed his gaze, made a quiet little “oh!”, then took his first sip of the coffee. It was…utter shit. Bitter as the day is long, single-noted, and lasted far too long on the tongue. He grimaced slightly when he finally managed to get the sip down, earning a chuckle from the other man.

“So,” the blond started, clearing his throat, “I know the name of the tavern, but not the owner.”

The bearded man smiled crookedly—boyishly attractive, Stede had to admit—and leaned forward, his free hand outstretched. “I’m Ed. And you?”

“Stede.” The blond said, shaking Ed’s hand.

“Good to finally put a name to a face. Nice to meet you, Sunshine.”

Stede bristled slightly. “Stede. Not Sunshine.”

“Mmhmm. Whatever you say. Sunshine.” Ed added under his breath, just loud enough for Stede to hear. “So no offense, but it’s becoming exceedingly obvious that you aren’t from around here.”

“Is it?”

“The Pioneer Square bit gave you away. That, and your incredibly sexy accent.”

Stede chuckled a bit, his face slightly warm. “Caught me. I migrated here about a month ago from New Zealand. Auckland, specifically.”

Ed raised his mug in recognition. “Raukokore, in the Bay of Plenty.”

Stede raised his mug in response, then begrudgingly took another sip. “Wait a sec,” Stede said after managing to get the coffee down, “did…did we…?” His voice trailed off as he pointed from himself to Ed.

Ed cocked an eyebrow at him. “What do you remember?”

Stede felt the heat rise again as flashes of memory popped up; slamming down drink after drink, stumbling up the stairs between two men, the taste of smoke on his tongue and the rough feeling of a beard against his chin. “Oh Christ. We did.”

Ed flashed him a wry smile and shook his head. “We didn’t. You sure as hell wanted to, though. Tried to give me a fuckin’ tonsillectomy with your tongue.”

Stede set his mug down and covered his face with both hands. “Jesus Christ.” Stede wanted to crawl into a hole and die; that’d be the only decent escape from this mortification.

Ed reached over and patted his knee. “Hey, mate, we’ve all been there before. No hard feelings; people think with the downstairs brain when they’re drunk. Drink some more coffee and you’ll feel better.”

“No, no, no, you don’t understand,” Stede said, both hands raking through his hair and laying back against the couch. “I’m engaged. I’m getting married in four months. That’s why I moved here. My fiancé and her family are here.”

Ed’s eyebrows shot up for a moment, then he shrugged, the news hitting as hard as a feather. “Yeah, I’d see how that’d complicate things for you.”

“Wait,” Stede said, jumping up, “what time is it?”

Ed leaned to his left slightly and glanced at the wall clock in the kitchen. “About 9:10.”

Shit. Shit, shit, shit.

“I was supposed to meet my father for breakfast at 9.” The blond frantically looked around himself, then grabbed his suit jacket and shoved his feet into his shoes. “He is going to be livid.”

Ed’s brow furrowed. “He’s your father. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

Stede opened his mouth to explain, but waved a hand instead. He didn’t need to delve into that with a total stranger.

The pair made their way down the narrow stairs to the bar’s front door. “Thank you, Ed.” Stede said, slipping his suit jacket on as Ed unlocked and opened the door. “I’m still trying to get my bearings, so I’m sorry you were stuck dealing with that. With me.”

“No problem at all.” Ed said with that same crooked smile, and he leaned into the edge of the door (Stede willed himself to maintain eye contact). “Don’t be a stranger, aye, Sunshine?” There was a purr in that last word that Stede pretended to not hear, and he left quickly before Ed could see his face flush.
.
.
.
.
.
“About fucking time,” Stede’s father growled under his breath when Stede sat down at the table. “You’re lucky they’re still on their way.”

“Sorry, sir.” Stede murmured quietly, avoiding eye contact.

The restaurant was fit to burst with suits, a low rumble of voices occasionally interrupted by a guffaw or wheezing laugh paired with the clinking of silver on porcelain. The high ceilings, extended after knocking out the second floor, glittered slightly, mirrors that had been brushed with a faux patina. The floors were a dark hardwood, matching the countless columns all throughout the open space.

The two men sat in silence, the younger keeping his eyes on the salt and pepper shakers. It was best to remain silent when his father was angry; it prevented any more outbursts. That is, until he got angry over how quiet you were, then would launch into a rant over how unsociable you were being. There was little Stede could do that could make his father happy, and even less he could do to impress him. Passivity was the only path to peace; “yes, sir” and “right away, sir” were the only acceptable answers. It had been this way since Stede was a young boy, and it would continue to be this way now as a grown man. Stede was only thankful they were in public; it gave his father time to cool off.

“Ah!” His father said, standing and extending a hand to two identical men approaching the table. “Welcome, gentlemen! Glad to finally meet you face to face!”

Nigel and Chauncey Badminton were everything Stede’s father wanted Stede to be: scheming, unrelenting, and hungry to crush others underfoot in their climb to the corporate summit. Stede was half-convinced they’d turn on each other if offered a good enough deal; they had no loyalties, no contract that their lawyers couldn’t somehow argue them out of. They were unpleasant and frustratingly sharp-witted, and he’d be stuck with them until the end of his days.

“So, Mr. Bonnet,” one of the twins said after the group had finished their breakfasts, “we’re wanting to be certain that your successor plans on keeping the company in the family, so to speak.”

“A merger won’t be beneficial to all involved if they plan on giving everything away or selling after a few years. We’d like to know there’ll be a legacy within the Bonnet name.” The other twin (was it Nigel or Chauncey? Stede had lost track) added. “You understand, of course?”

“Of course!” Stede’s father said, clapping a hand on Stede’s shoulder, causing Stede to flinch slightly. “Stede is due to be married in a few months time, actually! Lovely girl, Mary; wants at least three children, if you’d believe it. Doesn’t she, Stede?” Stede smiled tightly and nodded, saying nothing.

The twins pointed to Stede, unconvinced. “Stede?” One of them asked. “Stede is your successor?”

“Well that’s…” The other said, biting back a grin. “That’s unexpected.”

Stede avoided their gazes and looked down at his empty plate. He didn’t want to be the next company head; if anything, he wanted to bow out as soon as he possibly could. He knew roughly what the job called for, which was the problem; where any person with sense saw infinite possibility, Stede saw a cage. There was no “figuring it out as he went”, because that meant putting hundreds of people’s livelihoods at stake.

Stede was terrified.

“Well, tell us about Mary!” One of the twins laughed, malice in his eyes. Blood in the water; time for the sharks to feed.

Stede raised his hands slightly, struggling to find the words. Mary was…well, she was Mary. She had kind eyes and a sweet laugh, and she wanted the traditional white-picket fence with children playing in the yard. She’d hold his hand when they were out, and said yes when Stede was strong-armed into proposing to her. “Perfectly respectable”, his father had called her, which was true; Mary wasn’t prone to impulsivity or showiness. The most interesting thing about her that Stede could think of was that she liked to paint sometimes.

“Come now, Stede.” His father said, an edge to his voice.

“Mary is…the love of my life.” Stede said, desperately trying to believe the words himself. “She’s smart and kind. She’ll be a great mother.”

Stede’s father nodded, temporarily satisfied. He quickly raised his glass of orange juice. “To Mary, and to leaving a legacy!” The group clinked their glasses together and drank.

Chapter Text

“So you didn’t fuck?”

“No!” Ed shouted over the sound of the power washer in the kitchen. Ed always helped his staff prep the kitchen for weekend evenings; Saturday nights meant for shitfaced people who often didn’t pay attention to their bills, which meant an early start in the day to clean and season. “Jesus, Jim, this is the third time you’ve asked me. No, we did not fuck.”

Jim, a short line cook with shaggy black hair and a smart mouth, looked at Ed from the meat station, unconvinced. “A blond-haired, hazel-eyed drunk man spent the night at your apartment, then left, shirt untucked and hair all messed up? You two totally fucked.”

“Nah, I wouldn’t be too certain.” Another cook, slightly taller than Jim with a short beard and a rich umber complexion, looked up from prepping potatoes. “Ed’s gotten more conservative in his old age. Can’t be too careful these days.”

“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to you in your golden years, aye, Olu?” Jim replied, snuggling up to the other cook and landing a sharp slap on his ass. “‘Cause I’ve got plans—“

“What did I say about flirting with your partner while prepping food?” The final cook, a spindly man a little too focused on sharpening the cleaver in his hand, shouted from the other side of the kitchen. “Save it until we close so I can just hose everything down instead of wiping up by hand.”

Jim pressed a kiss to Olu’s cheek and flipped the last cook the bird. “Get fucked, Roach!”

“Try and fail every night, Jim!” Roach replied.

Ed looked up at the ceiling and let out a long sigh. Get drunk one single time at work and regale a few sex stories to your staff, and they think they’re entitled to the dirty details when someone so much as winks at you. It almost made him want to consider being celibate.

Almost.

Izzy stepped into the kitchen quickly, his face unpleasant. “Ed? He’s back.”

The staff gathered by Ed, their faces ranging from confusion to abject excitement. “Who’s back, Iz?” Ed asked, already knowing the answer.

Izzy rolled his eyes. “Stupid fuckin’ pretty boy you took in the other night. I’ll tell him to piss off.”

“No the fuck you won’t.” Jim said quickly, then turned to Ed. “Ed, go see what he wants.”

“Maybe he wants to say thank you?” Olu suggested.

“Maybe he wants your dick.” Roach snickered.

Ed pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. “Okay, new rule: no talking about your boss’s dick or anything ‘boss’s dick’-adjacent. Genuinely never thought I’d have to make that a rule, but that’s on me.” He walked out before any of them could say anything else.

Stede stood by the front door, hands stuffed in his pockets and taking in the tavern in the daylight. He was dressed comfortably, a pastel blue pullover sweater with dark jeans and athletic shoes. He was livelier, Ed noted silently; the tips of his ears and nose were slightly pink, and his hair was windswept.

“Hi!” Stede said, grinning. “You said to not be a stranger, so…I won’t be.”

Ed chuckled in response. “Indeed you aren’t. What can I do you for?”

“I wanted to thank you again for taking me in the other night. Since I’m still new here, maybe you could show me around the city? Do some touristy things, get that famous Seattle coffee, et cetera. I’ll foot the bill!” Stede added.

Ed paused. “So a date?”

There was a momentary glint in those hazel eyes, so quick that if Ed has blinked, he would’ve missed it. Stede shrugged nonchalantly. “Just hanging out. I have no friends here, and you’re nice to talk to.”

“He’d love to!” Roach said, thundering out of the kitchen with the other staff members following behind. “We’ve got prep down, boss. You go have fun today before we open.”

Ed looked back at the group, mouthing “stop” through gritted teeth.

Jim grinned devilishly. “When was the last time you went to visit Lucius and Pete, Ed? I think Stede would love it!”

“Have you been to the waterfront yet, Stede?” Olu asked.

“No, I haven’t!” Stede replied brightly behind Ed. “Please, Ed? We’ll be back before you open. I promise.”

Ed turned back to face Stede. The blond stood there, a soft smile on his lips that pulled Ed in. He didn’t break eye contact, didn’t look away after a few seconds like most people. It didn’t feel like he was trying to challenge Ed or play some weird game; on the contrary, Ed felt like he was looking into him. There wasn’t a shallowness in those soft hazel eyes, nothing hidden from view.

“Let me get my jacket.” Ed said.
.
.
.
.
.
“A pinball museum?” Stede asked.

The pair had taken almost 45 minutes to walk a few blocks east to the International District, stopping to take photos every 30 feet or so (“You see that massive dragon every day and you aren’t gobsmacked?” Stede had shouted over the traffic noise, gesturing dramatically at the entrance to the district). They stood in front of a nondescript brick building, the windows and front door plastered in posters for local school teams and pho restaurants in the area. Ed pressed his face to a gap between the posters and spotted a familiar form standing on the opposite side of the space inside.

“Pete!” He said, tapping quickly on the glass. “Pete, it’s Ed!”

After about ten seconds, the front door opened, revealing a bald man with large eyes. “Ed!” He said, fist-bumping the bearded man. “Been too long, man. What’re you up to?”

“Stede here is new to Seattle,” Ed said, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at the blond, “so I wanted to show him around a bit. Thought we’d hit here first. If it’s not a bother, of course?”

Pete opened the door to the pair. “Nah, Lucius is just upstairs cleaning one of the machines, but you two are good to wander.” The two men walked into the building, Stede barely able to contain his excitement.

The interior had a yellow glow from the halogen bulbs high in the ceiling, casting everything in sepia. Pinball machine after pinball machine lined either side of the space, displays all aglow and blinking joyously. They ranged from film tie-ins to musical artists to cryptids, each more fascinating and decorated than the next. Ed watched as Stede let his fingertips trail over each machine, an awed smile playing out on the blond’s face.

“Can I play one?” Stede asked quietly.

“Not the ones from before World War II, but the newer ones, sure!” Pete said. “Which one do you want to try?”

Stede’s eyes scanned the room until they zeroed in on a machine, his face breaking into a grin. “Ooh, that one!”

“ABBA?” Ed asked, amused.

“ABBA’s fuckin’ cool, dude!” Pete replied, flipping a switch on the underside of the chosen machine. “Here, I’ll let you have free play, Stede. Just don’t knock the machine around and only press the buttons with your fingers, okay?”

Ed made his way up to the second floor as Stede began to play, smiling to himself. The second floor wasn’t an entire floor, per se; it only covered approximately a third of the space, a thick wooden banister providing a lookout over the first floor. Lucius, a man with intelligent eyes and perfectly coiffed brown hair, looked up from the machine he was working on and flashed Ed a grin. He was one of Ed’s first friends when he moved from New Zealand, and was oft his voice of reason when life got messy. “Hello, stranger. What’ve you been up to?”

“Working like a dog, drinking like a fish.” Ed responded, leaning on the edge of the banister and focusing his gaze on Stede.

Lucius glanced at Ed, then peered over the edge of the banister. “Oh, he’s cute.” Lucius said quietly. “How long has this one been around?”

“It’s not like that. He’s engaged. I met him two days ago. He was too shitfaced to go home, so—“

“So you let him ‘sleep’ your mouth?” Lucius said with a shit-eating grin.

Ed sighed. “Why does everyone think we fucked?”

Lucius looked at him, head tilted and still grinning. “For starters, you look like you have Mariah Carey’s ‘Fantasy’ playing in your head on loop.”

Ed scoffed. “No, I fuckin’ don’t.”

“Uh huh.” Lucius glanced down at Ed’s legs. “And you just decided to bust out those skin-tight jeans I haven’t seen you wear in half a decade for…what? To have a laugh?” Ed flipped him off, still looking down at the first floor. “So what’s his name? What’s he like?”

“His name is Stede.” Ed said, slowly pacing back and forth along the banister, his gaze shifting to the ceiling. “He likes Captain and Cokes, told me to ‘suck eggs in hell’ when I tried kicking him out after closing, then made out with me about 20 minutes later—“

“You made out with him?

Ed waved a hand, desperately trying to quiet the other man. “Jesus, mate, keep it down. He made out with me. Doesn’t remember much, thank God, but it definitely happened.” The bearded man scratched at his neck, leaning against the wall next to the banister. “He’s…he’s sweet. He wants to be friends.”

Lucius cupped his own face, feigning a swoon. “Aww, little Eddie has a crush!” He teased.

A loud buzzing echoed from the first floor, jolting the two men. Stede took a step back from the machine, laughing with Pete and regaling the most recent round. His eyes crinkled when he smiled, Ed noticed. His laughter was warm and genuine, as if he laughed from the heart any chance he got.

“I know those eyes, Ed.” Lucius murmured, any lighthearted tone gone.

Ed looked away from Stede and to the thin carpet under his feet. “Nothing is going to happen, Lucius.”

“Are you telling me that, or yourself that?” Lucius said, gently closing the glass on the machine. “Because those eyes of yours have never lied.”

Ed locked eyes with Lucius, his brow furrowed. “Are you encouraging me to be a homewrecker?”

Lucius crossed his arms and leaned against the machine, his face blank. “I’m encouraging you to follow what you feel, for once.”

Ed rolled his eyes, but said nothing, his gaze returning to Stede starting a new game.

Lucius walked over and leaned on the banister, looking out over the space. “Y’know, when Pete and I first met,” he said, his voice low, “I didn’t want to let him in. I was so used to fucking, then moving on. There’s nothing wrong with casual sex, but deep down, I wanted…more than that. And then Pete came along and I didn’t know how to act. He wanted to get to know me. He wanted to bring me coffee in the morning and go grocery shopping with me and do all the mundane, boring shit together. The way he made me feel—it scared me. But sometimes, the things that scare us are also the things that are the best for us.”

Ed bit the inside of his cheek. Lucius was a master when it came to reading people, and he was no different. “There’s just…something about him, Lu. I don’t know what it is. We talked for all of ten minutes when he came to yesterday morning, and have only spent about an hour together today. Less than two hours and he’s under my skin. And I’m okay with it. Why am I okay with it?”

Lucius shrugged. “Sometimes these things just click into place, Ed. Hell, Jim and Olu moved in together after, like, a month of dating. If things feel right—if you feel it in your bones that he feels the same—then follow that feeling.”

Ed swallowed, then clapped a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “It was nice to see you again, Lu.” he muttered, then walked back toward the stairs.
.
.
.
.
.
“Do you have any spare change?” Ed asked, reaching into his pocket to grab his wallet. “We’ll need to take the bus down to the waterfront, and I don’t have a bus card.” The pair stood on at a bus stop with a handful of other commuters, a kaleidoscope of Seattle’s humanity; a man with tattoos all the way to his jawline wearing a slate grey business suit, an elderly woman with her grocery cart fit to burst with fresh produce, a gaggle of teens sporting varying shades of plaid and angular haircuts.

Stede reached into both pockets and pulled out a few quarters. “Will this be enough?”

Ed laughed and picked up a few quarters. “I’ve got a five, this’ll be enough to get us there and back as long as we’re only there for a few hours.”

The correct line arrived after a few minutes, and the pair grabbed their tickets at the front of the bus then moved to the back. Stede moved to sit in one of the empty rows as the bus began to move, but Ed took hold of his arm and shook his head minutely. “Guy behind has a spray can with him.” He whispered in the blond’s ear. “Safer to stand.” Stede looked at him, bewildered, but stood beside Ed in the doorway. Ed grabbed hold of one of the rubber loops hanging from the bars above the pairs heads, Stede following suit.

Stede caught Ed’s eyes and cocked an eyebrow. Ed leaned back in, his lips stirring the blond’s hair slightly. “He’s either going to tag the bus or huff the aerosol.” He whispered. “Either way, best to be out of reach.” The bus hit the brakes suddenly, causing them both to swear loudly and throwing the blond full-force into the bearded man. Stede’s hand slipped from the rubber loop, and he scrambled to grab any part of Ed that he could. At the same time, Ed grabbed around Stede’s waist with his free arm, steadying them both.

The bus erupted in swearing and insults at whatever gutless driver had cut the vehicle off, a chorus of voices spouting off whatever insult they could muster in their mother tongues. The man with the spray can quickly tagged the window, a mish-mash of letters and symbols, then launched himself wordlessly through the crowd to the front of the bus, triggering another round of yelling. And yet, the pair had remained motionless.

Every part of Ed that was touching Stede burned like fire. Their faces were mere inches from one another, and Ed could feel Stede’s breath against his lips, warm and sweet. His nose filled with the scent of something smokey and floral—lavender again, he realized—and Ed willed himself to not dip his head down into Stede’s neck and breathe him in, press chaste kiss after chaste kiss to the tender flesh and watch the goosebumps rise. Stede’s eyes were unreadable, but there was something there—something unwavering and all-consuming—and Ed was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. It could be so easy; Ed already knew what Stede thought of him (drunk words speak sober thoughts, after all), and it’d only take a few choice innuendos before—

No, he wasn’t going to do that. Stede was engaged. Whoever they were, they were likely just like him, and Stede adored them. Ed tried to picture what the person looked like in his mind’s eye; were they taller than Stede, or shorter? Did they hate cheap coffee like he did? Did they know how to make him laugh? Did they get to see him apply his fragrance each day, dabbing the droplets to his neck and wrists in the dim morning light?

Stede found his footing and stood up straight, stepping out of Ed’s arms. He flashed the bearded man a weary smile, murmuring a quiet “sorry” under his breath. Ed said nothing for a moment, only studied him, subconsciously trying to memorize every detail of his face. Fuck, he was handsome.

“You okay, Sunshine?” He finally asked, the bus beginning its descent to the waterfront.

“Yeah, just jarring.” Stede replied, grabbing on to one of the rubber loops, grip tighter this time. “I haven’t taken public transit in years, so I kind of lost my legs for it.”

Ed shot him a crooked smile. “Kinda like having sea legs, yeah?”

Stede paused, then grinned and nodded. “Yeah, like having sea legs.”

The trip was a short one, a straight shot down a steep hill, the bus’s breaks straining at every stop. The sun had burned off the morning’s overcast, warming the constant breeze coming off the water. The pair elected to get off at the first stop beside the southernmost ferry landing, the scent of car exhaust and sea air imbedding itself into their clothes. Stede nearly jumped out of his shoes as the ferry sounded its horn, earning a belly laugh from the other man that left him in tears.

“I’m sorry, mate!” Ed said, patting Stede’s back as they walked north. “Genuinely, I am, but that was funny.”

Stede’s cheeks were red, but couldn’t help laughing a bit in spite of himself. “Okay, it was kind of funny.”

Ed looked ahead of them and spotted a familiar sign. “Hey, how touristy do you want to get?”

“The tackier, the better!”

“Great!”

The pair ducked into a small shop just off the main sidewalk, its windows fit to burst in nautical flags and fake gold doubloons. The shop’s low ceilings made it feel cramped, but still somehow welcoming. The walls were covered in countless souvenir t-shirts, all pirate- or crab-related. The pair pointed out each pun they saw and repeated them to each other, earning giggles or pained groans from the other.

Ed eventually led Stede to the back of the shop, a small, ancient photo booth tucked into a dusty corner. The advertisement on the outside of the booth was a faded and grainy image of the Space Needle being attacked by a red octopus, the creature’s blazing eyes sitting high on its crown (“Something to be said for biological accuracy,” Ed had said to Izzy once, causing the shorter man to roll his eyes). Ed ducked into the booth while Stede stood outside, hands on his hips.

“There is no way we’ll both fit, Ed.”

Ed poked his head through the grey curtain, grinning. “You said you wanted tacky, Sunshine. I’m giving you uber-tacky.” The blond cracked a smile, then stepped in and crushed himself into the small seat next to the other man. Ed felt his skin burn in the most delicious way again as he pressed against Stede, and made a vain (and hilarious, Ed would have to admit) effort to flex that side of his body.

Once they had found a comfortable enough position, Ed gestured to the screen. “You choose. It’s your day of fun.”

Stede began scrolling through the frames as Ed tried his damnedest to find a place to put his arms that didn’t result in dislocating both shoulders. After a few moments of silence, he cleared his throat.

“So,” he began, “I recall you mentioning breakfast with your father yesterday. You two close?” He felt Stede stiffen, but pretended not to notice.

“He’s old fashioned.” Stede said, those three words saying everything Ed needed to hear.

“I see. And the blushing spouse-to-be?”

“Likely only marrying me because A, our families pushed us to it, and B, she’ll never have to work another day in her life. My father’s the head of his own company, and I’m expected to step into his shoes in the next few years. And Mary, she’s wonderful, really; she’s got a good heart and laughs at my jokes, and—as far as I know—wants kids. But…”

Ed allowed himself a glance at the blond, but only a glance. “But…?”

Stede sighed quietly, now just absentmindedly scrolling through the frames for the photos. “It’ll be a marriage of convenience and duty. Before I proposed, I told my father I wanted to marry for love. Ask me what he said.”

“What did he say?”

“‘Poor people marry for love. Mary has stock holdings.’” There was a bitterness in Stede’s voice, one that Ed felt had long-resided in the back of the man’s throat. He looked up at the screen on the wall opposite, and could see that glint in Stede’s eyes had faded slightly. Ed had never known a life of wealth and privilege, but the more the other man told of his life, the less he wanted to ever have a part of it.

“And if you broke it off?” Ed asked quietly. “If you just…walked away from it all?”

Stede stopped scrolling and let his hands rest in his lap. “I’d lose my family, my future, and would be deported if I didn’t find another job in two months. I have nothing for me back in Auckland. Mum’s been gone for years, I haven’t any friends worth a damn, and have no work history outside of my father’s company.”

As was often the case, Ed realized he shouldn’t have pried far too late. He ducked his head and began to pick at a nail, the heaviness of Stede’s reality weighing like lead in his mind. What could he say? What comfort could he provide to a man being strong-armed into living a life that wasn’t his own?

The blond forced out a laugh and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. This is supposed to be a fun day and I’m ruining it with my sob story.”

Ed turned and looked at the other man. “Hey. No apologizing. You haven’t ruined anything. You’re supposed to tell me about yourself; that’s how you make friends.”

Stede returned Ed’s gaze, smiling slightly. “You’re sweet, Ed. Thank you.” Those gorgeous hazel eyes glinted again and oh, that sent Ed’s heart reeling.

“Anyway,” Stede continued, turning back to the screen, “as much as I’ve enjoyed nearly sitting in your lap in this pillbox of a photo booth, I can feel my leg falling asleep. Ready for your closeup?”
.
.
.
.
.
Ed had made a grave error.

The moment Stede had spotted the Great Wheel from the sidewalk, Ed knew he was fucked (and not, Ed noted begrudgingly, in the “ankles by his ears” kind of way). The Great Wheel was Seattle’s valiant attempt to bring the city into the new millennia, the Space Needle having been constructed for the 1962 World’s Fair and remained mostly unchanged in appearance since then.

Ed’s knuckles were paling around the metal bar, and he felt his breath start to grow shallower by the minute. Stede pressed his face to the glass of the carriage, chattering on and on about the majesty of Mt. Rainier to the south of them and the way the water glittered down below. Ed kept his eyes fixed to the seat opposite as the carriage rocked gently, his other hand gripping the seat for dear life.

“Ed?” Stede asked beside him, his voice tinged with concern. “You okay?”

Ed didn’t move. “Yeah. Trying not to have a fuckin’ heart attack, but yeah. I’m good.”

“Wait, why?”

“I, uh… I don’t do heights.” His heart was in his throat now, choking him. He knew logically that, with how popular the wheel was, he wasn’t in any real danger. He knew logically that if worse came to worse, they’d have to be rescued by the fire department if they somehow got stuck. He knew that the wheel wasn’t like other attractions in the city and the upkeep was likely as good as the Space Needle’s. The funny thing about fear, however, is that it doesn’t give a fuck about logic.

“Oh God.” Stede said, mildly panicked. “Okay. Uhh. What do you need from me right now?”

“Just don’t…don’t move a ton, please.”

“Right. Okay, I can do that.”

Ed could tell Stede was watching him from the corner of his eye now, but he didn’t dare look over. Fuck, this was embarrassing. He wasn’t some delicate flower wilting in the sun—his skin was more ink than melanin at this point, for fuck’s sake—but heights had always been a thing for him. It was bullshit, really; humans weren’t meant to be suspended in the air with just a thin bit of metal and rubber holding them up. Feet flat on the ground? Perfectly reasonable. Stuck in open water? He could at least stay afloat or swim to shore. Crammed in a tin can, dangling in the air? Not a bit of sense.

“Would it…” Stede began, interrupting Ed’s spiraling thoughts, “would it be helpful if you focused on something else?”

Ed gulped and nodded slightly.

“Okay. Turn toward me.”

Ed did as he was told and faced the blond, moving like cold molasses so as to not shift any weight. Stede’s eyes were filled with equal parts worry and determination, his brow wrinkled. He stood up partially and tucked a leg under himself. “Let go of the seat and the bar, Ed. I need you fully facing me.”

“That is not fucking happening.”

The worry faded from the blond’s eyes, and he maintained eye contact with the bearded man. “Do you trust me?” Ed nodded. “Then let go. Give me your hand, and put your other on my knee.“

His hands unfurled from their respective grips and, trembling like leaves, took their places in Stede’s hands and on his knee. The blond turned his focus to his lap and started to massage gentle circles into the other man’s palm, starting on the edge and gradually moving to the center. His movements were confident and sure—had Stede done this before?—and Ed felt the tension start to leave him. Stede’s fingers felt incredible on his skin, kneading every muscle until it was slack under his ministrations, and he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

They sat in silence for a few minutes until the carriage came to a stop at the tallest point, rocking ever so slightly. Ed’s grip on Stede’s knee tightened subconsciously, earning a pained noise from the blond. “Shit, sorry.” Ed muttered, rubbing the spot his thumb had dug into.

“It’s okay.” Stede murmured, sounding like his mind was elsewhere. His kneading slowed, then began to move from Ed’s palm to his wrist, massaging morphing into caressing. His fingers gently traced over the tattoos he could see, every so often accompanied by the lightest scratch of a nail that made the hair on Ed’s neck stand on end. For the first time in a very long time, Ed felt a warmth creep up his neck. It was just touching; it’s not like Stede was groping him over his jeans. So why did this feel so much more intimate?

Ed looked up to find Stede watching him, his eyes dark. It took Ed a moment to recognize the look in Stede’s eyes, but there was no mistaking it: the blond was aroused. No, “aroused” didn’t cut it. He was ravenous. Hell, Ed had seen less hunger in the eyes of starving dogs. Stede knew exactly what he had been doing to him. And fuck Ed if it didn’t drive him insane knowing that.

“Tell me to stop and I will.” Stede said, his voice husky and going straight to Ed’s cock. “If you don’t want this—“

“Don’t stop.” Ed quietly replied.

Fuck it.

Stede took hold of both of his hands and slowly started pulling Ed closer to him, the faintest hint of a smirk on his lips. Christ, someone could see them and Stede was engaged and Stede had responsibilities that would be ruined if they did this but oh God Ed wanted this so fucking badly where the hell was this part of Stede hiding

The blond stopped just short of kissing Ed, holding them both there in limbo. Whether he was savoring the moment or reconsidering it, Ed wasn’t sure, but either way, he was powerless against him.

Stede brushed his lips over Ed’s, feather-light. “Tell me how badly you want it.”

“Play your cards right and I’ll show you later.”

“No. I want to hear you say it.” His voice was commanding, yet gentle.

“It’s all I’ve thought about. How easy it’d be to get you under me.” He was weak, so weak against the blond; Stede could ask him to beg on his knees right now, and he’d do it happily. His mind raced over all of the possibilities, most of them positions and what Stede’s cock would feel like on his tongue.

Stede couldn’t hide his smirk now. “Is that so?”

“Yes,” Ed said breathlessly, “and not to press anything, but I may die if I don’t get a taste of you right now.” He grabbed Stede’s waist and leaned in, but Stede pulled back, grinning devilishly.

“Uh uh uh. Just for that last comment, you’re gonna have to work for it.”

Ed paused. “What?”

Chapter Text

“What?”

“You heard me.” Stede pulled himself out of Ed’s arms and scooted to the end of the bench. “You’re going to have to work for it.”

Ed sat back on the opposite side of the bench, incredulous. “So let me get this straight: I want to have sex with you. Badly.”

“Right.”

“You want to have sex with me, I’m assuming, just as badly.”

“Two for two.”

“But I’m going to have to play this game with you, even though we could easily just go back to my place and fuck until we forget our own names.”

“Yes.”

“…that makes zero fucking sense.”

Stede chuckled. “Have you never heard of ‘the chase’, Ed? You don’t have to hop right into the sack with anyone who wants to fuck. You can build to it. That tension between you and that other person, kisses that end too quickly and touches that linger just enough…” The blond closed his eyes for a moment and bit his lip, a pleased noise leaving him. “…it’s like nothing else. I may want you to pound me until I see stars, but it doesn’t mean I have to immediately act on that want.” He moved close to Ed again, his lips in his ear. “It’s far more fun to make you sweat like this, anyway.”

If Ed wasn’t pink before, he sure as fuck was now. This wasn’t the same blushing, fumbling guy who drank his shitty coffee and left in a rush the other day. It couldn’t be. This Stede was so confident and obscene and witty and fuck, Ed had no clue he could want someone so badly.

“S-so,” he began as Stede gingerly sat back down, “not to be rude, but where the absolute fuck did this come from? What switch flipped that made you decide you wanted to cheat on your fiancé?”

“The knowledge that she’s already cheating on me.” Stede deadpanned.

Fuck.

“His name is Doug.” Stede continued. “They’ve been together for about a year. Bank teller, average family upbringing, lives in the Ballard neighborhood. She’s probably with him right now, actually.”

“Stede, I am so sorry I—“

The blond held up a hand, silencing Ed. “It’s okay. Really. I’m not mad at her or anything. She found someone and she’s happy. She’s a good person and deserves happiness. If anything, I’m jealous of her.”

“Does she know that you know?”

Stede shook his head. “Nope. I don’t know if I’ll ever tell her, but if or when that time comes, I’m not going to do anything about it. One of us should be happy.”

Ed felt a pang in his chest; it took up residence left of center, a dull ache that came in waves the longer he looked at Stede. The blond was looking for a good time, and Ed would happily oblige, but there was more to it than that. “I think you should tell her. She probably feels guilty for lying to you. At least that way it’ll be out in the open. Regardless of the reason why you marry, marriages shouldn’t start with lies.”

Stede shrugged and said nothing.

“Was this always your plan?” Ed asked, changing the subject. “Is this what you wanted when you came to the tavern today? Give me blue balls and bait me into playing this weird game?”

Stede shrugged again. “I prefer to think of it as a long con we’re both aware of. Also no, I did actually want to be your friend, despite the fact that I’m attracted to you. You’re nice and easy to talk to. I thought you were just being a decent guy at first with the whole ‘taking care of me while I was shitfaced’ thing. That break check on the bus, though? I saw that look in your eyes. You surpassed ‘open book’ status; you became a four part documentary.”

Ed was speechless.

Stede’s smirk faltered slightly. “If you don’t want to, we don’t have to—“

“I didn’t say that.” Ed said quickly. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

Stede cocked an eyebrow. “I mean, a Ferris wheel isn’t entirely ideal, but I’m sure we could find a more private place where I could put something else in your mouth, darling.”

It wasn’t often that Ed was out-innuendo’ed, but when he was, a downright decadent feeling filled him in a way that food never could. It was one thing to be desired; it was another thing entirely to be desired and be told as such. Ed expected the other man to have been far more meek, wide-eyed and reserved. This? Oh, this was a challenge.

And Ed loved challenges.

“How am I supposed to ‘chase’ you, exactly?” He finally asked.

Stede crossed his arms, the smirk returning. “Romance me. Draw me in. Make me believe you want this through action, not words.” He paused, his eyes flicking down Ed’s body for a moment. ”You’ll want to pull your jacket down a bit when you stand up, by the way.”

Ed looked down at his crotch, then leaned forward a bit, embarrassed. Stupid fucking jeans.
.
.
.
.
.
“This is a terrible fuckin’ idea, Edward.”

A few weeks had passed since this whatever-the-fuck had started between Ed and Stede, a few weeks of Ed and the staff of the Revenge Tavern (plus Lucius, naturally) dissecting every word the pair had shared and every touch they had felt. Stede had been relentless, coming close enough to kiss Ed but pulling away as soon as the other man tried to make contact. Even so, that was tolerable compared to the dirty talk.

Ed wasn’t some prim and proper delicate flower; the man had taken many, many people to bed, and prided himself on pillow talk to get their engines running before the real show began. Stede, though? It’s like he wrote the fucking book on it. He’d wait until they were in the middle of a crowd, pull Ed in by his collar, then whisper the most filthy suggestions in his ear, ones that left Ed breathless or struggling to hide his blush. He had tried the same tricks on Stede, of course, but the blond had the best poker face he had ever seen. He was unshakeable.

It was Saturday again, and Ed was struggling to come up with an idea for that day’s not-date. Jim, ever the lecher, had suggested Ed go commando and go to Gasworks Park, an idea that was quickly shot down after the group had considered the dangerous proximity of the sharp teeth of the zipper and the possibility of needing to unzip quickly. Roach threw out the idea of a romantic evening in the tavern, to which both Ed and Izzy outright refused. Olu and Lucius, the sanest of them all, suggested the MoPop—the Museum of Pop Culture, nestled next to the Space Needle—for something that wasn’t Pike Place (an abject failure of a not-date that resulted in Stede getting a bloody nose from a flying fish) or the waterfront again (there’s only so many times one can take selfies with the octopus at the aquarium until it gets repetitive). Both Jim and Roach had immediately agreed, while Izzy stood behind the bar, a sour look on his face.

Ed rolled his eyes from the other side of the space as he scrubbed at a table with a sudsy dishrag, the kitchen staff having made their way back into back of house and Lucius already on his way home. “You’ve said that about 5 times today, Iz. I’m still going. It’s been ages since I’ve had any fun, and Lucius thinks it’d be good for me to take some time away from here.”

“Ahh, so because Lucius is encouraging you to fuck a soon-to-be married man, it’s okay, then?”

Ed shot the shorter man a look. “Why do you even care?” Ed asked. “You’ve never gave a shit about who I’ve been sleeping with before. Why is now any different?”

Izzy turned his back to Ed and straightened the liquor bottles along the wall. “You’re playing a dangerous game with this one, Edward.” Izzy said, his voice quieter. “He’s not like us. This has actual repercussions if any of his lot finds out.”

“Yeah, well,” Ed said, shifting his weight between his feet, “none of his lot is going to find out. So I’d appreciate it if you could lighten up and be happy for me for once.”

Ed could see Izzy’s shoulders tense from where he stood. Ed had always said Izzy could be a fantastic liar if it weren’t for his body language. In the same way a person could read Ed’s mind by his eyes, Izzy’s entire body betrayed him at every turn. Ed had jokingly offered to give the shorter man a massage years ago—little fucker was tense enough to cut diamonds with his teeth—and he turned red enough to be a stand-in for a traffic light.

“No good will come from this.” Izzy said, and walked from the bar into the kitchen without another word.
.
.
.
.
.
The MoPop was a rippling structure of glass and sheet metal, almost entirely reflective and as beautiful as it was a bitch to avoid crowds for. It was a long-loved tourist favorite for those who wanted something to do while they waited their turn to go up the Needle, its exhibits detailed just enough to pace oneself through without getting bored.

“I’m going to be honest,” Stede said as the pair left the horror film exhibit, “I’ve never seen the majority of those films.”

“Not even The Shining?”

Stede shook his head. “Nope. I don’t do scary. They always come back to haunt me just as I’m drifting off at night. Hope that isn’t an issue.”

Ed sucked in air through his teeth and feigned a look of disappointment. “Yeah, this isn’t gonna work. See, I fall asleep to Alien every night; it’s like my white noise machine.”

“Ahh, damn.” Stede said, snapping his fingers. “Well, it was nice while it lasted.” The pair laughed.

“Wait,” Ed said, stepping in front of Stede before they entered the next exhibit, “you have to close your eyes for this one. I want to be able to see your reaction.”

Stede cocked an eyebrow. “You’re not going to let me run into anything, are you?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

The blond remained unconvinced, but closed his eyes anyway. Ed led him in between tour groups and crowds, his hand pressed to Stede’s lower back. A dusting of pink spread across Stede’s cheeks, so pretty that Ed nearly pressed a kiss to both, but he resisted the urge. The men finally reached the center of the room, a massive space abutted on either side with glass cases filled with rock and roll memorabilia. The most impressive piece, however, was Ed’s favorite.

“Open your eyes.” Ed said, letting his hand fall from Stede’s back.

Stede opened his eyes, eyebrows shooting up and a hand covering his mouth. The two stood directly in front of a conical structure that stretched to the ceiling, layered in guitars of rockstars past and present. There had to be hundreds of them of all shapes and sizes, all wired in place and glittering in the occasional spotlight. The piece was both chaotic and a stunning feat of engineering, and was easily the most fascinating part of th exhibit, if not the whole museum. Stede stood and gazed at the structure, astonished, all the while Ed watched him, a soft smile on his lips. Seeing the blond like this, awestruck and lost in a moment, filled Ed with a warmth unlike any other.

“Good God.” Stede murmured. “Ed… It’s so beautiful.”

“Yeah.” Ed said. “Yeah, it is.”

Stede finally looked to Ed, eyes twinkling. “Thank you for bringing me here. Truly.” The pair looked back to the structure, every so often pointing out details to one another. Ed felt Stede’s fingers brush the back of his hand once and flinched subconsciously, quickly cursing himself.

“Oh.” Stede said, withdrawing his hand. “I’m sorry, I thought—“

“No!” Ed said quickly. “I just… I wasn’t expecting—“

“—didn’t want to presume anything—“

“—we can if you want to—“

“…I do. Want to, that is.”

“I do, too.”

Stede carefully threaded his fingers into Ed’s and gave his hand a light squeeze, then looked back up to Ed. Stede’s hands were warm, his grip sure and strong. Nearly all sound faded as Ed stood there with the blond, replaced only by his own heartbeat in his ears. Good God, he was only holding Stede’s hand; they had touched more than this already. Hell, they had made out and nearly had sex. But hand-holding was different. Ed wondered if Stede could feel his heart thudding in his fingertips, if his hand had started to noticeably sweat yet or if his grip was too tight or too loose.

His eyes flicked down to Stede’s lips and felt himself lean in—

“Uh uh.” Stede said, grinning and pressing the exhibit map to Ed’s lips. “Not yet.”

Ed smiled in spite of himself and took the map from Stede. “That’s okay. I’m a patient man.” Which was a bold-faced lie, Ed would admit, but he’d do what he had to for the blond. He led Stede through the gallery, pointing out his favorite pieces and laughing when Stede practically dragged him to the glass case holding all four outfits from one of ABBA’s music videos.

“I’m sensing a pattern here, Sunshine.” Ed said as Stede stood mesmerized before the case.

“ABBA has a special place in my heart, and I will not be judged for it.” Stede replied. His expression softened. “My mother was a huge ABBA fan. We had a ‘greatest hits’ album on repeat in the house when it was just me and her. She loved to sing along to it while she did chores, but would always get distracted and we’d dance around the house together.” Stede swallowed hard, and Ed could see a single tear form in the corner of his eye. “Her name was Sarah. She was wonderful.”

“What was her favorite song?” Ed asked, rubbing his thumb over Stede’s. A reminder that he was here, with him.

Stede smiled and blinked the tear away. “Dancing Queen. She loved it all—Super Trouper and Honey Honey were definitely on the list—but Dancing Queen couldn’t be beat. We even had a routine we’d do to it.” He glanced to Ed, then cleared his throat. “I-I’m sorry. I haven’t talked about her in years to anyone.”

Ed looked to the case, his face blank. “My mum’s name was Marama. My dad was a drunk, so she worked from sun-up to sundown, so I hardly saw her. Whenever I did, though…” Ed bit the inside of his cheek. “No matter how tired she was, she’d stay up and tell me stories. Most of the time it was her retelling films, but sometimes it was original stories. She’d do voices and could make the most perfect expressions for the characters. If we hadn’t been so poor, I think she could’ve done theatre or something.”

Stede pressed his shoulder into Ed’s. “She loved you very much.”

“And Sarah loved you.”

They stood together in silence, two men adrift in their memories, holding tight to one another. After a few moments, Ed squeezed Stede’s hand.

“Thank you for telling me about your mum. I know it wasn’t easy. It…it feels good to be able to relate to someone.”

Stede smiled at him in the reflection of the glass. “It does, doesn’t it?”

Ed nodded. “Anyway, there’s another cool part of the exhibit I want to see, too. Come on.”

The bearded man led Stede to the other side of the space, winding cautiously through the crowd. They approached a series of red padded doors with small windows at eye level, a green light blinking over each door.

“What are they?” Stede asked as Ed turned the handle to the first room.

“Soundproof rooms,” he said, “to give people a look at what artists see when they’re making music. They aren’t that popular because they aren’t as interactive as the other exhibits here. But they have real microphones and stuff, so it’s still pretty cool.”

The pair stepped into the room, the door swinging shut behind them. The dull roar they had been immersed in disappeared, in its wake a ringing silence. On the opposite side of the room was a microphone suspended from the ceiling, a pair of over-the-ear headphones draped over the neck of the mic. A fake soundboard sat on a wooden table to the right of the pair, a matching wooden chair long left untouched pushed underneath the table. Foam tiles were layered on the ceiling and three of the four walls, the final wall holding the door covered in a grey gym carpet.

“Good lord.” Stede said, letting go of Ed’s hand and wiggling a finger in his ear. “Didn’t realize how loud it was out there.”

“To be fair, it is a Saturday at one of the biggest tourist spots in Seattle.”

“Nice to have some privacy, though.” Stede said, shooting Ed a knowing look.

Ed cocked an eyebrow at him. “What’re you hinting at?”

Stede shrugged. “Nothing at all. It was just a statement. Although…” He turned his head and brought his lips to Ed’s ear. “It’s not often you have access to a completely soundproof room. Don’t you think?”

Ed bit his lip and closed his eyes. “No, it isn’t. Got any ideas on what to do?”

Ed nearly jumped when he felt Stede grab a handful of his ass, kneading the jean-covered flesh. “One or two.” Stede replied, his voice low and husky.

Ed grabbed Stede by the waist and backed the blond into the corner next to the door, well out of sight from the window. He pressed a leg between Stede’s and rolled his hips ever so slowly, drawing out a hiss from the other man. The bearded man let out a dark chuckle, and ran his hands under the hemline of Stede’s shirt and jacket, relishing in the heat radiating from his skin. “I like you like this, Sunshine.” He purred. “You’re a lot less mouthy when you’re stuck.”

“I think you’ll find,” Stede murmured, looping his fingers into Ed’s belt loops and pulling even him closer, “that my mouthiness will be one of your favorite things about me, darling.”

Ed pressed his forehead to Stede’s and let out a low groan. “Fuck, mate. You can’t drop those on me like that.”

“What?” Stede laughed. “Would you like a warning next time? ‘Hey Ed, I’m about to make a reference to blowing you, don’t cum in your pants’?”

Ed lifted his head and snorted. “I’ve never came in my pants from words, Stede.”

“Yet.” Stede replied, eyes shining and canting his hips up. The friction Stede’s leg provided was divine, just enough to make Ed’s breath catch in his throat. But he wasn’t going to let this little harlot get the best of him.

“Y’know what?” Ed said, fully stepping in between Stede’s legs. “I think it’s time you got a taste of your own medicine.”

“What are you talki—fucking hell—“ Ed bent down and wrapped a hand behind Stede’s knees and lifted his legs up, pinning him against the wall with his pelvis. Stede locked his hands behind Ed’s head, eyebrows nearly disappearing into his hairline.

“You’ve teased me far too much.” Ed groaned, rolling his hips into the other man and watching Stede’s mouth fall open and eyes roll back. “So now it’s your turn.”

“Ah—I’d hardly call dr—fuck me—dry humping ‘teasing’, Ed.” Stede rasped.

Still so cocky. “I beg to differ.” Another roll of Ed’s hips, another gurgled “fuck” wrenched from the blond. “We aren’t going to fuck, and I’m definitely not going to let you cum from this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a little fun with you. Besides, it gives me a sneak peek into the sounds you’re going to make for me.”

Stede threw his head back and laughed, a light and unrestrained thing. “So you like to hear your lovers, then?”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“Anyone worth a damn, yes.”

“Haven’t had the pleasure myself, so I’ll have to take your word for it.”

Stede hooked his ankles together behind Ed and squeezed his thighs tighter. “Ed?” He panted, and God, Ed would hear that in every wet dream he had from now on.

“Yeah, Sunshine?”

“Fucking kiss me already.”

Ed let out a breathless laugh. “Ah, so you aren’t impervious, then. Okay, I’ll kiss you. On one condition.”

Stede let his head fall back against the wall, eyes glazed over. “Fine. Sure. Okay.”

Ed reached up and grabbed Stede’s chin, forcing the man to look at him. “Tell me how badly you want it.”

“Oh, you fucker.” Stede panted, grinning in spite of himself and playfully smacking Ed’s hand away. “Fine then. It takes everything—oh, fuck you and your hips—everything in me to not kiss you every time I look at you. Happy?”

“You have no idea.”

The pair’s second kiss was a kiss in name only; it was sloppy and vulgar, teeth and tongue and desperation. Ed’s knee was already screaming at him and his back was going to ache tomorrow, but God, Stede was something else. He brought out that fire in him that he thought had long been extinguished; he challenged Ed at every turn and pushed him to go further, touch more.

There was no such thing as “close enough” with Stede; the blond moaned into his mouth as his legs tightened around Ed’s waist, rocking his hips to match Ed’s rhythm. Ed finally pulled back and pressed his forehead to Stede’s, a breathless laugh leaving him.

“What is it?” Stede asked, his voice wrecked.

“Nothing.” Ed replied. “I just… I haven’t done shit like this since I was a teenager. Forgot how fun it was.”

Stede’s hips stilled as he lifted his head, eyes clear but unreadable. “And I get this honor because…?”

Ed stopped grinding into Stede and shrugged. “You turn me on. Simple as that.”

Stede unwound himself from around Ed, his feet hitting the carpet with a thud. He hooked a leg behind Ed’s and flipped them, knocking the wind out of Ed slightly and pinning him in place. The blond looked even hungrier now, his eyes practically glowing in the dim light.

“Mind if I confirm that?” Stede purred, and fuck, Ed’s mouth watered. He could only nod in response before Stede pressed the heel of his hand into Ed’s cock, dragging it down the length before squeezing it lightly.

Ed slapped a hand over his own mouth and moaned, a shameless, strangled sound. Stede bit his lip, smiling deviously, and rubbed Ed again, delighting in the sounds he could pull from him.

“None of that, darling.” He said, moving Ed’s hand away from his mouth. “You want to hear me? Then I want to hear you.”

Arousal coursed through Ed’s veins as he bucked into Stede’s hand, hands clawing at the wall behind him. “Stede, mate, someone coooohhhh fuck me, that’s good—“

“What was that, dear?” Stede asked, nuzzling into Ed’s neck and pressing kisses to the soft skin. “I didn’t quite catch it.”

Ed fought to keep his thoughts cohesive but was steadily losing the battle. “S-someone could walk in.” He whimpered, a hand coming up to grip Stede’s hip.

Stede pulled back and gazed at the other man, a positively wicked smile on his lips. “You didn’t seem to care about that a few minutes ago when you were grinding your cock into me. Or is it different now that I’m in control?”

Ed’s breath was coming in short pants now, mouth agape as he looked back at the blond. He could kill Stede right now for what he was doing to him; he loved seeing Ed come apart with just a single hand, the sadistic bastard. And damn Ed, it was depraved how much he was enjoying it. “Stede…”

“Yes, Ed?”

“Lock the door. I don’t care how. Just lock the fucking door.”

Stede stepped away from him and quickly wedged the lone chair under the door handle, holding it closed. He dropped to his knees between Ed’s legs when he returned, hands running up and down the bearded man’s thighs. “Fuck, I’m going to enjoy this.” He said, giddy. “I’ve thought about this so much.”

“You’ve thought about sucking me off?” Ed asked, breathless.

Stede unzipped Ed’s pants and pressed an open mouth kiss to his cock over his boxer-briefs, earning a stuttered gasp from the other man. “Of course I have. Have you seen yourself?” Stede looked up at Ed and mouthed at his cock again. “God, my jaw’s been aching from how badly I’ve wanted it.”

Ed hadn’t lied earlier; he had never came from dirty talk alone. But at the rate Stede was going, he couldn’t make any promises that it wasn’t in the cards in the very near future. “I’m going to warn you right now,” Ed gulped, using all of his willpower to not buck into Stede’s mouth, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay upright after this.”

“That’s okay.” Stede said simply, finally freeing Ed’s cock from his underwear and bringing it to his lips. “Grab my hair for balance.”

The velvet heat of Stede’s mouth was nearly enough to make Ed’s knees buckle. The way the blond’s tongue worked over his cock was incredible, equal parts torture and ecstasy. Ed’s hands raked against the carpeted walls at his back, scrambling to hang on to anything as Stede’s mouth worked its wonders over him. Fuck, he was amazing; Stede already was a fantastic kisser, so it was only natural that he’d be talented at other mouth-related activities, but this was a cut above. The pace was relentless, almost punishing, and the sounds Stede was making around him were borderline pornographic. He was holding nothing back as he worked his mouth over Ed, groaning around him and devouring him with the intensity as if this was the only chance he’d ever have.

The blond glanced up at Ed through his eyelashes and pulled off of him with a wet pop, lips slick and shiny with saliva. “Let me hear you, Ed.” He purred, placing Ed’s hand in his hair. It’s feather-soft, just like he imagined, and if it weren’t for the fact that Ed needed to get off yesterday, Jesus fucking Christ, he’d want nothing more than to bury his face in it. But pressing matters and all that.

Stede twisted his wrist on the uptick, and Ed gasped loudly. “Fuck me…”

“That’s the plan.” Stede swallowed him down again, moaning around him when Ed bucked his hips forward. The blond grabbed Ed’s ass and pulled him closer, forcing him further down his throat, and fuck, Ed wasn’t going to last much longer at this rate.

“Stede, I-I’m gonna—“

Stede rose suddenly, slipping Ed’s cock back into his underwear. A whine left Ed, his hips still moving subconsciously in a vain attempt to find any purchase of friction. Stede pulled his pants back up and refastened them, then ground the heel of his palm into Ed’s cock and fuck, Ed saw stars.

“And that, darling,” he purred, wiping the corner of his mouth with his thumb, “is what it means to tease.”

Ed watched him as he straightened his clothes and removed the chair from the door, mouth agape. There was no way he was human; what fucking person could pivot that easily?

“Fucking hell.” Ed said, rubbing his face. “Remind me to never tease you again. This is gonna be agony to deal with later.”

Stede came closer and pressed a kiss to the shell of Ed’s ear, a soft chuckle leaving him. “Maybe you’ll have some help.”

Ed froze. No. He wasn’t… Was he?

“Anyway,” Stede said, opening the door and stepping halfway out of the room, “It’s getting late. We should get back before the staff wonders where you’re at.”

Ed checked his watch. “Wait, it’s only 2:30–“

“Come on, or you’ll be late.” Stede walked out quickly, Ed hot on his heels.
.
.
.
.
.
The pair stumbled into the tavern, laughing and soaked to the bone.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Stede said, breathless. “You live in the American city known primarily for its rainfall, and you don’t carry umbrellas?”

Ed carefully pulled his hair out of its bun and scrunched it in his hands, excess water dripping to the floor at his feet. “They’re a pain in the ass to carry, mate. Most people just deal with it or wear raincoats.”

“Sounds a bit lazy, if you ask me.”

“That, too. Come on, I’ll get you some spare clothes while your clothes dry in the dryer.”

They made their way up to Ed’s apartment, still giggling like schoolchildren. They each stripped off their coats and kicked off their shoes, then Ed led them to his bedroom.

Ed was never one for interior design, and that showed in his bedroom. Most of the decor in the front room was from Hornigold, and Ed was too lazy to take any of it down. His bedroom, however, was bare to the point of minimalism. He had managed to grab a chest of drawers and two bedside tables made out of cedar from a college kid at the dump years ago, a score he would still bring up in conversation any time someone bragged about a recent thrift shop find. Ed didn’t understand how, but the furniture still gave off the woodsy scent all these years later, and had become a comforting smell after a long day. Rather than having a single lamp, Ed had elected to use fairy lights around the perimeter of his bedroom as he had in the front room; he liked the softness of the light far better than a lamp, and it was easier to wake up to in the morning.

Ed opened one of the drawers and pulled out an old tshirt and sweatpants—both threadbare, he thought, embarrassed—and handed them to Stede. “Here. Toilet’s on the left. We can take your stuff down to the dryer on the first floor in a minute.”

Stede dropped the clothing onto the bed, then pulled off his shirt, his gaze never leaving Ed’s. “You plan on changing, too?” His voice was quiet, steady. Dangerous.

Ed’s hands moved on their own as he stripped off his own shirt, dropping it behind him. “In a moment, yeah.”

Stede reached out and let his hand trace up the snake tattoo on Ed’s arm, his fingers hot as iron against the cool of Ed’s skin. Stede’s eyes were dark now, darker than they were on the Ferris wheel even. They were hungry. “You’re cold. You should warm up first.”

“Out of coffee, and don’t have tea.” The edges of Ed’s vision grew blurry as they stood there, the only thing keeping him anchored being Stede’s hand, ghosting over his chest, touch both barely noticeable and the only thing the bearded man could focus on.

“There are other ways to warm up, Ed.” Stede had moved closer to him now, close enough that he could feel the heat from his skin seeping into his own. Stede’s hand drifted slowly, ever so slowly, down Ed’s chest, and came to rest at the waistband of his jeans.

He wanted this. God, he wanted this. Stede was brilliant and sexy and kind—kinder than anyone Ed had ever been with—and Ed wanted nothing more than to fall into bed with him and forget everything that wasn’t just the two of them. Stede had made him stumble over himself and act like an ass, and still took it all in stride. He understood him in ways that no one else had.

Which is why this was so difficult.

Ed took Stede’s hand and gently removed it from his waist. “I can’t have sex with you, Stede.”

Chapter Text

“I can’t have sex with you, Stede.” Ed said, taking Stede’s hand and holding it as if it was made of glass. “Not yet, at least.”

“Why not?” Stede asked.

Ed couldn’t look Stede in the eye. “Because,” he said, his voice quieter now, eyes focused on Stede’s hand in his, “if I have sex with you, it’s gonna ruin me.”

Stede didn’t move. “I don’t understand.”

“This won’t be meaningless, or just for fun, or whatever kind of bullshit I wanted it to be originally.” He rubbed his thumb over the back of Stede’s hand. “Not to me.”

“Ed…”

“I need you to look me in the eye and tell me it’ll mean nothing to you.” A lump found its home in Ed’s throat, and he kept his eyes focused downward. “I need to…to set my expectations and figure out how to bury it now before anything else happens. I know the moment we start, I’ll lose myself in you, and there’ll be no going back. It’ll replay in my mind day after fucking day and even when it ends—when this, whatever the fuck this is, ends—I won’t be able to move on, even if I wanted to. So I need you to tell me that this is just sex to you, and afterwards you’ll go off and live your life in one of those fancy fucking condos on the 20th floor and forget me here. It’s the only way I can do this and not lose my mind.”

Stede raised his other hand and lifted Ed’s face, meeting his gaze. “Okay.” Ed could almost hear his own heart shatter. “I’ll say it.”

A coldness settled in Ed’s chest. There it was. The other boot dropped. This is what happened when he’d let someone in; he’d get caught up in all this messy shit and would sully it by being too much too quick. He wasn’t and would never be enough. Izzy was right; no good came from this, and fuck, Ed should’ve listened—

“I’ll say it.” Stede continued, his thumb caressing Ed’s cheek. “Whatever you need from me, you’ll have it. I will let you believe that I don’t care. I will fuck you like I hate you if you ask me to. I will leave right now and never come back here if it’ll give you peace. But don’t for a moment think I mean any of it. Because I want this as much as you do. I want you, Ed.”

His eyes…God, they’d be Ed’s undoing. They burned into his skin, finding the deepest, ugliest part of Ed and looked upon it with so much affection and desire that Ed could almost hear his own heart weld back together, strong as steel. Ed let his eyes close and stood there, desperately trying to hang on to this world before Stede, trying to remember whatever semblance of peace he had before this man barged into his life and ruined it in the most blessed way.

There was nothing the blond could say that would save Ed from the aftermath; it was inevitable. Stede was going to leave him a broken man after all was said and done, and Ed would never see this city, her streets, her waterfront, her buildings from a bygone era the same way again. There wouldn’t be an escape for Ed after this; no amount of looping up and down the steep Madison Street that could make Ed sweat or hack or wheeze Stede out of him. The blond would stay in his bones until his body was burned and scattered into the ocean.

“Look at me, Ed.”

The man opened his eyes. Stede’s face was less than an inch from his now. Ed wanted to kiss each line in his skin, taste him on his tongue, get drunk on his essence and forget who he was and what he’d been through. As far as Ed was concerned, there was no one before Stede, and there’d be no one after him. Nothing and no one made him feel this way.

The quickly-shrinking sensible part of him repeated every reason why this was a horrible idea, screaming at him that no good would come from this, but his body refused to listen.

As long as Ed lived, he would consider this kiss their true first kiss. It was gentle, cautious, testing the waters of this new phase the pair had stepped into, entirely uncharted. Stede let go of Ed’s hand and held his face in place, hands winding into his beard and tracing his jawline. He tasted…god, he was intoxicating. The kiss they shared the night they met and the one from earlier didn’t even compare to this. He could feel Stede’s tongue trace his lower lip, and he sighed, mouth falling open slightly. Ed’s body finally caught up to him, hands ghosting over Stede’s lower back, as if any real contact would make the blond vanish into thin air.

Stede arched into him, his body soft and so fucking warm against him, Jesus fuck, and it took everything in Ed not to fall apart. The bearded man couldn’t bring himself to hold the blond. Not yet. He wanted to exist in this space forever, being kissed by this person who was funny and sweet and good, far too good for him. Ed had ached for this for so long, late at night staring at the ceiling as the other side of his bed grew cold, the other occupant muttering excuse or another, and left him. Left him like they always did.

But the way Stede held him… so secure, so sure of everything happening and everything he was doing. The other man touched him so reassuringly, as if to try and convince Ed that yes, he was wanted. Someone actually, genuinely wanted him as he was.

Stede pulled back a minuscule amount, eyes still closed. “Ed…”

The man could hardly breathe. “Yeah?”

Stede’s lips brushed over his as he spoke a single word.

“Please.”

And finally, finally.

Ed let go.

They moved in sync, Ed laying back against the bed, Stede straddling his waist, their lips never losing contact with each other. Stede pulled them both upright, hands tangled in Ed’s hair, and ground himself into Ed, drawing out a delectable moan from the other man. There was no more teasing in Stede’s movements, no playfulness or smugness like the past few weeks; he was soaking this in, getting high off of Ed and everything he offered.

“Fuck, Stede…”

Stede reached between them and made quick work of Ed’s jeans, pulling his cock out and stroking him ever so slowly. “Christ, you’re so fucking sexy. I don’t get it. How are you so sexy?”

Ed pressed open-mouthed kisses into Stede’s shoulder, groaning as Stede’s hand worked over him. The blond’s palm was deft and soft, and his thumb would catch over the head every so often, wrenching out a whimper from Ed, just on the right side of oversensitive. He was incredible, fucking Christ, and Ed caught himself bucking into Stede’s grip as much as their positioning would allow.

“How many—oh God—how many men have you been with?” Ed rasped.

Stede tilted Ed’s chin up with his free hand, catching his gaze and grinning. “I’m looking at the first one.”

“Fuck me.” Ed panted out a laugh. “So the museum—?”

The blond mouthed at Ed’s neck, sucking hard. “The first cock I’ve ever touched besides my own.”

Shit, Stede. For having no experience, you sure know how to treat a gentleman.”

“Years of reading erotica and jerking off does wonders. Plus,” Stede twisted his wrist, causing Ed to gasp and bite his lip, “it helps when you’re the gentleman in question, darling.”

Ed growled and moved quickly, flipping Stede and letting the blond fall back onto the bed with a light whump. Before the other man had a chance to protest, Ed stood and shoved his jeans and underwear down to his ankles, then kicked them off to the side. “Show me what you’ve learned, then, Sunshine.”

Stede kicked off his own jeans and boxers and tossed them off the edge of the bed. Christ, he was gorgeous. The flush over his cheeks spread down his neck and across his chest, hidden slightly by the blond hair that trailed down to his cock. Stede was hard as iron already, a drop of precum beading at the head. Ed recalled from earlier Stede saying his jaw ached when he thought about blowing him. He had originally taken this facetiously, but the longer he stared at Stede’s flawless cock nestled almost picturesquely in blond curls, the more he realized that Stede was not, in fact, fucking with him.

“But I wanna suck you off for a bit first.” Ed breathed, grabbing a hair tie and tying his hair up into a messy bun. “Can I?”

“Fucking hell, yes, please.” Stede scooted backwards on the bed until his head rested on the pillows, legs splayed. “Gimme all you’ve got.”

Ed knelt between Stede’s legs, licking his lips and taking hold of the blond. “Not yet, mate. I wanna make sure you can last longer than 2 minutes first.”

“What makes you think I caaaoohhh Jesus Christ—“

Ed didn’t like to brag much (his self-esteem was mediocre on a good day), but his oral skills were unmatched. He loved having his mouth full and busy, the sounds of his partner’s whines and moans egging him on. The weight of Stede’s cock on his tongue was sinful in how good it felt, and Ed swallowed him down eagerly. He could taste the salt on his skin and smelled his musk, primal and fresh. He laid down on his stomach then, resting all his weight on his elbows and hands holding Stede’s hips in place, then glanced up at the other man.

Stede’s lips were red and puffy now—had he been biting them?—and his hands were twisted in the sheets beneath him, knuckles white. His breathing came in short pants, and Ed could feel his thighs tense on his shoulders. He looked half-ruined already, hair mussed and eyes glazed over. The bearded man let out a pleased noise around the blond’s cock, and Stede let his head fall back, a low moan leaving his lips.

“I’m glad you didn’t try this at the museum.” Stede chuckled, his voice wrecked. “I doubt that room would’ve been enough to—fuck ME—“ Ed swallowed Stede down until he hit the back of his throat, tongue flattening against Stede’s length, and the blond squirmed beneath him. “Keep doing that, God, please keep doing that…”

A laugh rumbled deep in Ed’s chest as he pulled off of Stede, lips messy with precum and saliva. “I think that’s enough, then, don’t you?” He crawled up Stede’s body and kissed him sloppily, then flashed him a devilish smile. “Can’t have you spent just yet. That being said…” Ed ground his cock against Stede’s, earning a keening sound from him. “I’d be more than happy to swallow you down at a later date, darling.”

“You’re terrible, you know that?” Stede ran a hand through his curls, pushing them off his damp forehead. “Just thoroughly insufferable.”

“Oh, you don’t really think that, Sunshine.” Ed laid beside him on his side, a hand trailing up and down the blond’s torso. “So. How do you want me?”

Stede rolled onto his side, face unreadable. “I uh… I’ll be honest, I’ve fantasized either possibility.”

“Oh, so you’ve fantasized about fucking me, then?” Ed purred, half-teasing. “Am I face-down every time, or—?”

“Not all the time, no.” Stede pulled him into another kiss, heated and needy. “Usually it’s just missionary.” He gently tugged Ed’s good knee over his hip and rocked forward, their cocks making contact and driving Ed half-mad. “That way, I get the best view.” He landed a slap to Ed’s ass and gave him a wolfish grin. “Get to watch that pretty face while you take my cock.”

“Stede?”

“Yeah?”

“Just fuck me already.”

Stede kissed him again, and Ed could feel his grin against his lips. It was a simple thing, really; kissing someone who was smiling was common and happened every day. But feeling Stede smile as they kissed, knowing the way the corners of his eyes crinkled while it happened—which was steadily becoming Ed’s favorite thing about the blond, he noted—felt so much more than the sum of its parts. Kissing Stede felt right. As scared as he was to admit it to himself, kissing Stede felt like…home.

Ed grabbed lube and a condom from his side table and tossed them to Stede, who had moved to the end of the bed. There was a part of him that wanted to keep spouting off quips, wanted to tease Stede and see how far he could push things before Stede flipped him face-down and fucked him mercilessly into the mattress. But the time for that would come later. He wanted this to be different than what he had had before, because it already was different.

Stede prepared himself first, then squeezed some lube onto his fingers. “Tell me if I hurt you, okay?”

Ed let out a hearty laugh, drawing his knees up. “Mate, I can promise you that you won’t. Just ease into it and it’ll be fine.”

Stede nodded and pressed a finger to Ed’s entrance, carefully tracing the ring of muscle before gently pushing in. The first touch was by far Ed’s favorite; sex itself was pretty good for him when he was receiving, but that first touch was always the best part. There was something so thrilling about the potential of the experience, even if he was half-convinced it might be bad—

FUCK.” The word punched out of him as Stede hooked his finger and brushed over that sweet spot inside him.

“As I said,” he purred, nipping at the inside of Ed’s thigh, eyes alight, “erotica does wonders.”

“I can see that.” Ed choked out as Stede pushed in a second finger. “Christ…”

Stede scissored him open, murmuring quiet but absolutely filthy words of encouragement against his skin. Ed whimpered when the blond added a third finger, nails digging into the backs of his thighs. As much as he was enjoying this, it was both too good and somehow not good enough.

“Okay.” He croaked after a few minutes. “Okay, I’m ready.”

Stede continued to finger him, his free hand pushing one of Ed’s knees further into him, spreading him wider. “Hmm, I’m not convinced.” Stede taunted.

Ed let out a frustrated growl. “I swear to God, if you don’t get your cock inside me right now—“

Ed’s words caught in his throat as Stede withdrew his fingers, then morphed into a positively indecent moan when the blond sank into him, bottoming out but not moving to let the other man adjust. It burned slightly, but Ed felt so deliciously full; if he didn’t know any better, he’d swear he could feel Stede in the back of his throat.

“Fuck, you took it so well, darling.” Stede’s eyes were hazy with desire now, and Ed had to will himself to not flip them both over and ride him until he forgot his own name. “You’re so beautiful like this. So fucking beautiful.” Stede started to slowly thrust into him, his hands replacing Ed’s on the backs of the bearded man’s thighs.

“Stede, Jesus Christ…” Ed grabbed at his headboard as Stede rolled into him, agonizing and euphoric.

He let out a whimper with every pump of Stede’s hips, grip tight on the headboard and in the sheets. His pace was languid and sensual and tender, something that Ed had never known. He could feel the drag of Stede inside him, every movement making each nerve in his body roar for more. Ed would let everything in his life fall apart—the tavern, friendships, any and all responsibilities—if it meant he could spend the rest of his days being fucked as passionately as this by Stede.

Stede let go of one of his legs and caressed his face, his touch gentle. Reverent. “It’s so…” Stede began, his breath coming in pants now as he increased his tempo, “…Christ, you’re so…”

“I know.” Ed rasped, threading a hand into Stede’s curls, pulling him in closer. “I’ve never…it’s never been like this. Not with anyone.”

Their lips connected, and Ed wrapped his legs around Stede’s waist, securing him in place. His body scorched under Stede, all rational thought leaving him as his release coiled in his stomach. Stede reached between them and began to stroke him in earnest, his lips moving down to Ed’s ear.

“God, you’re so good, Ed.” He whispered, breath hot against the bearded man’s neck. “So much better than good. Don’t have the fucking words for it. Nothing I say would ever be enough.”

Ed wrapped his arms around Stede’s neck, nails digging into his back, already nearing his own end. “Fuck, Stede…Don’t stop, I’m so close…”

Stede let out a strangled sound, his hips now snapping into Ed at the same pace as his hand on his cock. “You’re so perfect, Ed. So perfect for me. Cum for me, darling.”

Ed’s ears rang as pulled Stede back into a punishing kiss, moaning into his mouth as his release spilled across his own chest. It wasn’t long before Stede’s hips bucked up one final time and stilled, the blond cumming with something akin to a sob. He collapsed on top of Ed, the pair sticky with sweat and Ed’s release, chests heaving.

The blond eased out of Ed after a few moments, body trembling. He carefully removed the condom and dropped it into a waist basket nearby, then curled into Ed’s side. “That was…”

“You have…ruined sex for me.” Ed chuckled, covering his face with his arm. “Everything else will be mediocre compared to this. Jesus fucking Christ, mate. What kind of erotica do you even read?”

Stede snorted and pressed a kiss to Ed’s shoulder. “All kinds. It’s how I learned what I like.”

“Oh yeah?” Ed asked, rolling on his side and tugging the top sheet over the pair of them. “And what do you like? Might want to try something different next time.”

“Nope.” Stede said, nuzzling into Ed’s chest. “Just because we fucked, doesn’t mean I’m an open book. Gotta keep you on your toes somehow.”

Ed rolled his eyes and smiled. “Fine. Have it your way.”

“Just did.”

“I will throw your clothes out the window, I swear to God.”
.
.
.
.
.
They would meet a few times a week, staying close to the tavern to avoid drifting too close to places Stede’s father might stumble upon them. On slower nights while Ed was busy, Stede would slip into the kitchen and spend time talking with Jim, Olu, and Roach, the trio often cajoling Stede into cooking the occasional dish and descending into laughter when Stede would turn any meat or fish into charcoal. Ed would have to bite his cheek to keep from grinning the entire night; he didn’t need his friends to like his partners, but seeing them welcome Stede they way they had was certainly nice.

Most nights during a lull, the pair would walk over to the International District and bring various cuisines back to the apartment to eat after they closed up for the night. As mind-blowingly incredible the sex was, it was never expected; the pair would often crawl into Ed’s bed after dinner and share stories from their lives between gentle kisses. Ed loved those nights—he loved every night he could share with Stede, of course—but there was something so soft about those nights in particular. They always ended the same way: either man saying their last kiss would be the final one for the evening, then would pull the other into another kiss before Stede could walk out or Ed could playfully shove him out.

They had just finished their dumplings and cleaned up when they crawled into Ed’s bed, the pair of them having shed outer layers and each pulled on a pair of sweatpants.

“You seem to be getting on with the kitchen staff.” Ed said, coming to rest on his side.

Stede smiled and fully faced the bearded man. “They’re all great, Ed. Jim is hilarious. They speak so highly of you, too.”

“I’d hope so. I sign their paychecks.” The pair laughed.

“I don’t think Izzy likes me much, though.”

Ed shrugged. “Izzy doesn’t like anyone. I’m pretty certain he only tolerates me most days.”

Stede cupped Ed’s face and rubbed his thumb over his cheek, and Ed sighed, pressing into his touch. “He’s missing out.” Stede murmured, his eyes half-lidded. “You’re very likable.”

“Just likable?” Ed replied, the stress of the day pulling him closer to sleep than normal, and he laid an arm over Stede’s waist.

Stede’s eyes slipped closed, a soft smile on his lips. “Some would say more than likable.”

The other man opened his mouth to respond, but thought against it. There would be time to ask Stede what he meant, to discuss what their connection would become once Stede was married, but Ed couldn’t bear the thought of ruining this.

He reached over Stede and set his alarm clock to go off in about an hour, then curled back into him, the blond’s breathing already deep and face slack. Ed pressed a kiss to his forehead, the let his eyes fall closed.
.
.
.
.
.
Ed didn’t know how long they had slept past his alarm, but knew by the sound of the knock at his door that it had been far too long ago. Cool morning light peeked through the blinds, and his stomach dropped.

“Fuck.” Ed said, sitting up and tying his hair up. He glanced over at his clock and let out a groan; it flashed 12:00, almost mockingly. Stupid fucking shoddy electrical in the stupid fucking old as shit building. “Stede, we slept in.”

“Hmph?” Stede said, rolling over and shooting a bleary-eyed look at Ed’s alarm. “Whaddaya mean?”

There was another sharp knock at the apartment door, and Ed slapped at his own face, trying desperately to wake himself up fully. “You stayed the night, Stede. I think we lost power last night or something, so it reset my clock. The alarm didn’t go off.” He stood and pulled on his slippers, then made his way to the front door and cracked it open.

A older, well-dressed man, stony-faced and dead-eyed, looked Ed up and down. “Where is Stede?”

“Who’s asking?” Ed quickly replied, keeping the door mostly closed. “Who the fuck let you in here?”

“Don’t play coy.” The man spat. “I know he’s here.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, mate. I’m giving you two seconds to get out of my tavern before I—”

The door swung free from Ed’s grasp, and the air suddenly went ice-cold. Ed looked over his shoulder to see Stede standing there, Ed’s sweatpants hanging off his hips and hair mussed. All the color from his face drained in the blink of an eye, and he swallowed hard before speaking.

“Hi, Dad.”

Chapter Text

“You’ve got five minutes to get dressed and get downstairs.” Stede’s father said, his voice tight. He left the door ajar and quietly made his way down the stairs.

Stede could feel the hair on his neck stand on end and his mouth dry. This was bad. This was very, very bad. He walked quickly back to Ed’s bedroom and started to dress, ears ringing.

“How the hell did your dad even find us?” Ed said, following Stede and pacing his bedroom. “We were careful. No one in your life knew, right? And none of my friends would’ve said anything. I don’t think any of them even know your last name. No one except—”

“It doesn’t matter how he found out, Ed.” Stede said, voice shaking. “What matters is that he did. We were too gutsy and he found out, and now it’s come back to bite me.” He shoved his feet into his shoes, the heels folding down, causing Stede to swear.

“We-we can fix this somehow.” Ed said, kneeling down beside him. “Just let me talk to him. I’ll say—“

“Say what, Ed?” Stede glared at him, and the words poured out of him like bile. “Say that we’ve been fucking for months behind my fiancé’s back, but it’s okay, because you pinky swear not to tell anyone? Obviously your circle isn’t as tightly knit as your originally thought, because someone told him. If they told him, they could’ve told his business partners, and now my entire future is on the line.” He stood and brushed past the bearded man, speed-walking to the door.

“Need I fucking remind you,” Ed said, hot on his heels and voice raised, “you pursued me. You made the first move and wanted this. I would’ve been perfectly fine with being friends, but you wanted more because you weren’t getting anything at home. This is your fuck-up, not mine.”

Stede turned on his heel and faced Ed. “You know what? You’re right; it was my fuck-up. All of this was a mistake. I should’ve forgotten about you after that first morning.”

The air was sucked out of the room, and Ed’s expression shifted into something cold, empty. “You don’t mean that. Say you don’t mean that.”

Stede fixed his collar and squared his jaw. “Goodbye, Ed.”
.
.
.
.
.
————————————S T A R T————————————

 

 

The slap across Stede’s face stung something fierce. His father glared at him, shaking his hand as if to shake the feeling of Stede’s cheek off, and straightened back up. “What the fuck were you thinking?” He spat. “A fucking tavern owner? Really, Stede? How could you be so fucking stupid?” His father punctuated his sentence with another slap.

They were stood in the lounge area of Stede and Mary’s apartment now, a chic, minimalistic space. The car ride back had been a quiet one, and Stede had hoped he could escape reprimanding, but felt his stomach drop when his father told their driver to drive around until he called for him.

The abuse had began shortly after his mother had passed when he was a child, initially only flicks on his ear or tugging his arm a bit too hard, and had just…never stopped. His father had been careful to keep the worst of it behind closed doors, and would quickly assuage any concern from extended family by blaming Stede for being clumsy or acting up and needing “correcting”. Stede had desperately tried to get other adults involved—their priest, his teachers, anyone and everyone—but every single one waved a hand and described his father as “old fashioned”. After a few years, Stede gave up and realized it’d be easier to just take whatever beating he was due for and move on.

“I just thought—“ Stede began carefully, head ducked down, but was silenced with yet another slap.

“No, you didn’t think.” His father grabbed a handful of his hair and wrenched his head up to face him, face twisted into disgusted rage. “That’s the problem. You never think because you’re a idiotic good-for-nothing. You’re lucky Mary and her family don’t know.” He shoved Stede’s head away and started to pace.

 

 

————————————E N D————————————

Stede cleared his throat, head still down. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to pay off the man that told me about your little escapades, and you are getting married in two days as planned. No one will ever know about this. Least of all the Badmintons.”

The blond watched his father pace, nails digging into his palm. Even after all of this, he was still solely focused on his company and what he stood to gain. “How did you find out? Who told you?”

His father waved a hand, still pacing. “Some man named Hands. It’s only by the grace of God that he isn’t asking for much and doesn’t have anything more than photos of you two together in the tavern.”

Izzy. The man who wanted to toss him into the street the night he and Ed met. The man who sneered at him when he came back to thank Ed, eyes brimming with disgust. The man who glared at him from across the bar every night he was there. The man who barely said a few words to him in the few months he had been a part of Ed’s life.

If Stede ever saw him again, he’d kick his fucking teeth in.

The lock of the front door rattled open, and Mary walked in, arms loaded with groceries. “Oh, hello!” She said brightly, kicking the door closed. “So sorry, Stede hadn’t mentioned you were stopping by.”

“Mary!” Stede’s father said, embracing her after she had dropped the groceries on the island in the kitchen. “Lovely to see you, dear. Stede and I were just chatting about last-minute details for the wedding. Right, son?” His father flashed him a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

Stede nodded and returned his smile, cheek still stinging.

“Well, I best be off!” Stede’s father said, making his way to the front door. “See you lovebirds soon!” He shot Stede a look, then quickly exited.

Mary quickly turned to face Stede, her smile dropping. “Okay, what were you actually discussing? And why is your face so red?”

Stede cast his eyes down, shaking his head. “Nothing important, dear. I’m not feeling well, so I’m going to lay down. Wake me when it’s time to cook dinner, please.” He could see Mary watching him as he crossed the lounge and entered their bedroom, her brow pinched in worry, but said nothing more to her.

The blond shut the door quietly behind him, then let out a silent scream, the tears falling like rivers after a flood. He held himself tightly, fingers digging into his ribs and shoulders, and leaned hard into the wall, sliding down until he came to rest on the carpet, face still twisted in an agonizing scream. He felt like his throat would split in two, could taste the acid on the back of his tongue.

Stede screamed for the life he’d never have, for every possibility at happiness being snatched from him at every turn. He screamed for the rage he felt at his father, at the Badmintons, and every stupid, selfish motherfucker like them who ruined lives for profit. He screamed from grief, the memory of his mother’s beautiful smiling face fading as the years went on. He screamed from being thrown into this unfamiliar city, no one to confide in or connect with. He screamed from being forced into a marriage with a person who had never and would never love him.

Finally, he screamed at himself, for ruining the one good thing in his life.
.
.
.
.
.
The next two days went by in a blur. Stede drifted through the hours, mostly spent answering questions with monosyllabic answers and staring out the open bedroom window toward the water. He could smell the ocean every so often, the salty-sweet air grounding him when he felt himself drift too far into his thoughts. Mary tried to engage him in conversation a few times, but quickly gave up when she realized his mind was far away from anything going on around them.

Stede woke up alone the morning of the wedding and dressed in silence. His groomsmen, all associates from the office, agreed to meet him at the church, and Mary had elected to spend the night with her bridesmaids so they could all get ready together. The day was projected to be a beautiful one—ironic in view of the circumstances, Stede thought bitterly—and the sun had already burned off any overcast by late morning.

He decided to take a ride-share vehicle to the venue, a building that was once a church, now called the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary was breathtaking even from the outside, one of the more well-preserved buildings from Seattle’s old growth. Its stained glass windows diluted the early afternoon light into a warmth that made the main space look like something out of a storybook, its vaulted ceilings and gargantuan organ almost medieval, and Stede couldn’t care less. He made his way wordlessly down one of the hallways toward the backroom, flashing tight smiles at every guest who greeted him or clapped him on the back.

Stede finally managed to find the correct room and stepped in. “Hi all!” He greeted Mary and her bridesmaids, much to their shock and irritation. “Was wondering if I could chat with Mary for a moment?”

“Really, Stede?” One of Mary’s bridesmaids—Stede couldn’t remember her name, and he frankly didn’t care to try to—spouted off, trying to block his view of his soon-to-be bride. “You know it’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding! How could you?”

“It’s okay, really!” Mary said from the corner of the room, clipping a string of pearls around her neck as she stood in front of a full length trifold mirror. Her gown was a simple white satin with a natural waist that flared at her knees, the top part just off the shoulder with sleeves that ended halfway down her forearms. “Superstitions are so old-fashioned. Could you all give us a moment, please?” The group of women filed out, each shooting Stede a suspicious glance, then shut the door.

Stede swallowed. “You look beautiful.”

“Thank you.” Mary’s voice was flat, quiet.

“Do you know many people here?”

“Only a few. Most of them are my parents friends.”

Marriages shouldn’t start with lies.

“Ah. That’s how it usually goes, right?”

“Yep.”

Marriages shouldn’t start with lies.

“Who do you know here?” Stede wrung his hands, while Mary continued to put her jewelry on.

“Just some friends and coworkers. A few family members were able to make it from New Zealand, too.”

Marriages shouldn’t start with lies.

Ed was right. He had always been right.

“I know about Doug.”

Mary froze in the mirror, eyes wide. “Wh-what?”

“I said,” Stede said, taking a seat on the couch that sat against the wall opposite from her, “I know about Doug. I know where he lives, where he works, how long you’ve been seeing him.”

Mary continued to stare at him, back still turned. “How did you find out?”

“You left your phone unlocked one night. Once I saw the messages, I did a bit of snooping. His social media is entirely too easy to find. Be sure you talk to him about making more things private.”

Mary let her hands drop and stared at Stede in the reflection of the mirror, her eyes narrowing. “Well, now that you know, what are you going to do about it?”

“Not a damn thing.” Stede leaned back against the couch and picked at his cufflinks. “From what I know, he’s a good man and treats you well. That’s all I can ask for. If I can’t make you happy, I’m glad he can. I’m the only one who knows, by the way, and I plan on keeping it that way.”

Mary walked slowly over to the couch and sat beside him, shoulder pressed into his. “Why didn’t you say anything when you found out?”

“I didn’t want you to feel guilty that you had someone and I didn’t. I love you, Mary. Genuinely. But—“

“But not as a husband should love a wife.” Mary wiped a single tear away and sniffled. “I have felt guilty. Terribly so. You’re a good man, Stede. I wish I could love you the way you deserve. I just…don’t. I hope you find someone who can.”

Stede gave her a bittersweet smile. “I think I did.”

Mary’s eyebrows shot up, and she smiled. “Really? That’s great! What’s her name?”

“His name is Ed.” Stede said, now teary-eyed.

Mary said nothing, but her smile morphed into one full of knowing and understanding.

“He’s…so loving.” Stede continued, blinking the tears away. “He takes care of people so well. Kindness comes so naturally to him. And he’s so funny and he listens to me and the way his eyes sparkle just kills me and the sex—“ Stede slapped a hand over his mouth, face turning red.

Mary let out a laugh, more reactionary than anything. “Stede! Good for you, mate. You deserve it.”

Stede shook his head, letting his hand drop into his lap. “No, no, I’ve already ruined it. I said the most awful things to him when my father caught us. If he didn’t slam the door in my face first, his friends would likely kill me before I even got a word out. Now I’m stuck here, and I’ve broken the heart of the man I’m in love with. No offense.”

“None taken.” Mary took his hand and threaded their fingers together, a sad smile on her lips. “We’ve got ourselves into quite the mess, haven’t we?”

Stede returned her smile. “We have.”

Mary bit her lip, thinking for a moment before speaking. “You know… We don’t have to do this. Not really. I know our parents and everyone out there expects us to get married and pop out a few kids, but we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to.”

Stede’s brow furrowed. “But what about your future? You wouldn’t have any financial security or safety net. And what about your parents?”

Mary shrugged. “You make sacrifices for love. Plus, my parents have enough money to retire ten times over anyway. They don’t need your money; they just want it.”

Stede chuckled before continuing. “And you love Doug?”

“I do.”

Stede could see something behind her smile, a history with this Doug that he’d never get the full story of, but knew what she felt for him was real. “We can marry. That way you’ll have the financial security. But you can still see Doug. I won’t interfere with that and will take it to the grave. One of us deserves to be happy.”

“You don’t have to do that for me, Stede.”

A knock at the door made them both look up. Mary’s mother, an older and bitter-looking version of her daughter, poked her head in and scowled at the pair. “Stede! You know better! Get out of here right now!”

The groom and bride stood, fingers still entwined. “I meant what I said.” Stede murmured, and pressed a kiss to Mary’s temple.

“As do I.” Mary replied, and pressed her own kiss to the back of his hand.

Approximately half an hour later, Stede stood opposite Mary at the altar, his heartbeat thudding in his ears. The priest was droning on about being lighthouses for each other or something equally as ridiculous, but Stede could only focus on Mary. She was looking directly into his eyes, a soft and expectant smile on her lips. She didn’t look the part of a blushing bride—she looked the part of a friend who only wanted the best for him.

“Stede,” the priest said, his voice somehow quivering and booming at the same time, “do you take this woman to be your wife, to live together in matrimony, to love her, to honor her, to comfort her, and to keep her in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, for as long as you both shall live?”

“I…” Stede’s voice trailed off, his breath whistling through his nose.

Mary gave him the smallest nod. She quirked her eyebrows up slightly, and squeezed his hand once, twice.

“I…”

Ed grinning as he shook drops of rain from his hair and beard. Head thrown back, laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes. Flustered and blushing so sweetly as he held him on the bus. Nose crinkled in confusion when Stede left suddenly their first morning together. Sleeping in bed in the dim light, lips parted and hair strewn over his face. Panting beneath him, leaning his face into Stede’s touch. Deep brown eyes so warm and loving and focused on him, only him, as Stede walked away.

“I can’t.”

Chapter Text

“I can’t.”

The church gasped, and Stede could hear his father immediately start trying to explain away any doubt to the Badmintons. Mary closed her eyes and sighed deeply, then broke into the biggest grin Stede had ever seen.

“Thank fucking Christ.” She tossed her bouquet over her shoulder to one of her bridesmaids and ripped off her veil. “You’re a brave man, Stede. I’m proud of you. Now let’s go.” She turned to the wedding guests. “Doug? Babe? You drove, right?”

“Wait, you invited Doug?” Stede asked, equal parts confused and amused.

Doug, a man with mousy brown hair and a dusting of stubble, stood from midway back and shuffled to the aisle, murmuring apologies as he did so. “Yes, dearest—I beg your pardon—yes, I did. Car is about—excuse me, I’m so sorry—about a block away. Nice to finally meet you, Stede.”

“Delighted, Doug.” Stede said, giving the other man a small wave, then turned back to Mary. “Quick question, though: where are we going?”

“Well, we sure as shit aren’t staying here.” Mary laughed. “We’re getting the fuck out of here, and then we’re getting you your man back.”

“Language, young lady!” The priest boomed, a wrinkled hand clasping the cross around his neck.

Mary tilted her head and squinted at him. “Oh, fuck off. This isn’t even a church anymore. Anyway…” Mary grabbed her train in one hand, and Stede’s hand in the other. “Come on, traffic sucks in the city every day, but it’s terrible on Saturdays.”

Stede’s father rose from the pews then, blocking the aisle. “Stede.” His father said, his face tight and growing redder by the moment. “I will not let you ruin this.”

Something deep within Stede’s chest swelled, searing and thick like lava. He let go of Mary’s hand and stepped carefully down the stairs, glaring unflinchingly at his father. “You have spent the majority of my life telling me how useless and how much of a disappointment I am. I was just a pawn to you. Mary and I both were. You only ever wanted to continue to profit off of us when I took over the company. I was and will never be enough for you, and you know what? I’m finally okay with that, because I don’t have to be good enough for you. I’m good enough, period, and what’s more? I’m finally good enough for someone else, too.”

“Who, the tavern owner?” His father asked, barking out a laugh. “You can’t be serious.”

“His name,” Stede said, voice growing stronger, “is Ed. And he is worth ten times what your fucking company will ever be worth.”

There were murmurings through the crowd, echoes of “tavern” and “should be ashamed” rippling back. Stede’s father glanced behind him, and Stede could almost see his nerves start to fray.

Good.

“Where will you go?” He asked, turning back to the blond and trembling with anger now. ”You have no experience. You’re not a legal citizen like Mary is. With no job, you’ll be deported in two months.”

“Since I plan on moving out of that ugly apartment you have us in, he’s welcome to stay with me and Doug until he’s on his feet.” Mary answered, linking her arm through Stede’s. “Plus, there are plenty of jobs here, and Stede’s more than capable.” Stede looked down at her and flashed her a grateful smile.

“Oh come now, Mary.” Mary’s mother said, joining Stede’s father in the aisle, wringing her hands anxiously. “You’ve had your fun. Enough of this.”

“Fuck off, Mum.” Mary said, her eyes still trained on Stede’s father. “You and Dad are just as guilty in all of this. I don’t want to hear what you think about my life every again.” Her mother sputtered for a moment, then quickly sat back down, face ghostly white.

“I am not yours to control anymore.” Stede continued, drawing closer to his father. “I’m not the scared child I used to be, the one you used to bully until he did whatever you wanted. That Stede is gone and he is not coming back. You are a cruel…” he shoved his father in the chest, causing the older man to take a step back. “…soulless…” Another shove, another step backwards. “…and unfeeling bastard, and I thank God that I am nothing like you.”

The two men stood, glaring at one another and chests heaving. Stede wanted to hurt him so badly; he wanted to make him feel at least a fraction of the pain he had put him through for all these years, wanted to make him feel the deep shame that came with what he had put Stede through. Decade after decade, only knowing anger and frustration and fear, being told to accept his father as he was and not reject him for what he had done—

Stede could feel Mary’s hand on his arm, gently tugging at his elbow. “Come on, Stede.” There was so much compassion in her voice, more than Stede had ever heard before. “It’s time to go. You’re done here.”

The blond allowed himself to be led down the aisle toward the exit, the space completely silent save for his, Mary’s, and Doug’s footsteps.

“You are NOTHING without my name, without ME.” His father barked behind him, sounding not unlike a desperate dog, chained up and cornered with nowhere to go. “Do you hear me, boy? You’re dead to me. You will never see a single red cent from me again.”

“Maybe so.” Stede said, turning and walking backwards. There was a newly found confidence in his voice, and his veins felt hot under his skin. “But now? This,” Stede gestured to the expansive space of people, all looking back and forth between his father and him, “is your legacy. This is what you will be remembered for: a third-rate executive being outed for trying to live off his adult son, in front of at least 300 of Seattle’s most influential people.” The trio had finally made it to the double doors, Doug exiting first and holding the door open.

“Better get a good publicist!” Stede said, then walked out behind Mary, the sudden roar of the wedding guests being quickly muffled by the doors as they swung shut behind him.
.
.
.
.
.
Stede made it a few yards down the sidewalk before he doubled over, hands on his knees and breath coming in giant gasping breaths. The adrenaline that had flooded his system while talking to his father now went into overdrive, and reality had begun to set in. Everything he knew and hated…gone. His job, his financial security, the book that had been written for him without his permission.

He was free.

So why couldn’t he breathe?

“Stede?” Mary asked, hovering close, her voice barely audible over the cars going by, “what do you need right now?”

“Just…” Stede waved a hand, heart racing. “I don’t want to be touched right now. Please.”

“Okay.” Mary said, taking a step back from him.

Her and Doug stood there as Stede fidgeted and paced back and forth, their expressions wrought with worry. Stede felt like his body was buzzing, felt like his skin was too tight, felt like his suit was smothering him and holding him down at the bottom of a full swimming pool. All at once, everything was too much; the reflection of the sun off the buildings was too bright, the sound of the cars puttering by was too loud, the air was too thick. He ripped his tie from his neck and stuffed it into his pocket, then squatted down, head in his hands.

“I think we need to go somewhere quiet.” Mary murmured to Doug, then bent down so her lips were in Stede’s ear. “Stede? How about we go to the car?”

Stede stood up, breathing still uneven, and gave her a small nod. The pair followed Doug to a small parking garage and clambered into his car, then sat in silence.

“I…” Stede began, his voice shaky. “I don’t know what’s going on with me. I can’t—I thought I’d be happy, leaving it all behind. I am, but I just—I can’t breathe.”

Mary turned around in her seat and held out a hand to him. “Can I have your hand for a moment? It’s okay if you don’t want to.”

Stede took her hand in his, trembling.

“I need you to repeat after me, okay?” Mary said. “My name is Stede Bonnet.”

“My name is Stede Bonnet.” He echoed.

“I have blond hair and hazel eyes.”

“I have blond hair and-and hazel eyes.”

“My body thinks I’m in danger. It will pass, and I will be okay.”

“My body thinks I’m in danger.” Stede gulped, and gripped Mary’s hand tighter. “It will pass, and I will be okay.”

Mary smiled at him. “Well done. Again.”

The ex-fiancés sat and repeated the mantra together as Stede felt himself come back down, his breathing returning to normal. They let go of one another, and the blond murmured a soft “thank you”.

“Now,” Mary said, “you ready to go get your man back?”

“I don’t even know if he’ll talk to me.” Stede bit his lip, a lump forming in his throat. “I broke his heart. He let me in, and I shoved him away. I wouldn’t even know what to say to him. I just…” The tears started to fall now, and Stede wiped them away roughly on his sleeve.

Doug cleared his throat and turned slightly in his seat toward Stede in the back, then spoke. “I know I’m just the guy your now ex has been seeing, so feel free to tell me off.” He looked at Stede expectantly, then continued when Stede nodded. “I won’t pretend to know anything about what went on between you and Ed, but I think maybe…maybe you can start again? If that makes sense? You can atone for what you did and said, but don’t promise to do better. Just…do better. Show him what he means to you through actions, not words. Words are meaningless without action, anyway.”

Mary placed a hand on Doug’s arm, her thumb tracing small circles over the suit jacket. “All you can do is apologize and do better, Stede.” She said. “Love means holding each other accountable when you hurt one another. It’s how we grow.”

Stede sniffled and looked down at his feet, face hot with tears. “What do I do if he…if apologizing and doing better isn’t enough?”

“Then you take it one day at a time.” Doug said. “Regardless of what happens, that’s all any of us can do. You can plan and strategize, but sometimes it isn’t enough and life happens. Just take things as they come.”

Stede shot him a thankful smile. “Not that you need my approval—especially in this case—but you picked a good one this time, Mary.” He grabbed his tie, now wrinkled beyond comprehension, and blotted at his face, then returned it to his pocket. “How, uh… Do I look okay?”

“Handsome as ever.” Mary said with a grin. “You ready?”

He thought of Ed then; the way he always missed a few locks of hair when he threw his mane into a bun, the way he could unflinchingly hold a gaze with those deep brown eyes, the way he wheezed before belly-laughing. The thought of being rejected by the man who had held his heart so carefully terrified him. But sometimes…the scariest things are the most worthwhile.

Stede clicked the seatbelt into place, then nodded. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

“Two straight days?” Lucius asked.

Lucius, Olu, Jim, and Roach sat in one of booths in the tavern, the kitchen trio all sullen-faced and in various states of exhausted.

Olu nodded, head back and staring at the ceiling. “Two days of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. On loop. Sinéad O’Connor will haunt me until I die.”

“I’m gonna cut the power cord to the stereo, I swear to God.” Jim groaned, head on the table.

“Can’t change the station because Ed has the password. Maybe we can get Izzy to cancel the streaming plan?” Roach suggested.

“Not happening.” Izzy said from behind the bar, shining shot glasses. “It isn’t the first time Ed’s had his heart broken by some dipshit. Just gotta wait it out. He’ll be back to himself soon enough.”

“It’s affecting business, Izzy.” Roach said, indignant. “We’re already down a couple thousand.”

“And will likely be down even more by the time Ed comes out of this episode.” Olu added.

Izzy didn’t look up. “Fleet Week is next month. We’ll be fine like we always are.”

“This isn’t like all the other times Ed’s been dumped, Izzy,” Jim said, lifting their head from the table. “You know that. Ed really, really cared about Stede. I think he even loved him.”

“He didn’t love him!” Izzy suddenly growled.

Lucius stood and walked until he was about ten feet away from the bar, eyes narrowed and arms crossed. “Yeah? How would you know?”

Izzy’s lip curled into a sneer. “Maybe I just know Ed a bit better than you do.”

“Or maybe you want to know him better.” Lucius said. “What did you do?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, I think you do.” Lucius countered. “I get the feeling little Izzy meddled in something that wasn’t his business, just so he could finally get what he wants.”

“What do you mean, Lucius?” Olu asked, standing up from the booth.

“I’m willing to bet money that Izzy ratted them out.” Lucius deadpanned.

“Why would he do that?” Roach asked. “Izzy cares about Ed.”

Lucius glanced over his shoulder to the staff. “That’s why he did it. Izzy’s been trying to get in Ed’s pants for years. I saw it ages ago, but thought I was reading too far into things, so I kept quiet.”

“Shut up.” Izzy growled.

Lucius shot Izzy a mirthful look before continuing. “Izzy knew Stede was different than the rest, so he contacted Stede’s father to get him out of the way.”

“I’m warning you, Lucius.” Izzy’s lips were tight, a vein popping out in his neck.

Lucius tilted his head. “Got tired of waiting in the wings, so you ruined Ed’s life just so you could put it back together again, huh?”

“Fuck off.”

“Couldn’t handle the thought of him finally making love to someone who wasn’t you—“

“SHUT UP!” Izzy hurled a shot glass in Lucius’s direction, face red and blotchy. Lucius ducked, and the shot glass shattered loudly against the brick on the opposite side of the space.

For a moment, there was silence.

Pinche cabrón!” Jim roared, trying and failing get past Olu. “This is all your fault!”

You’re why Ed is up there miserable!” Roach shouted pointing towards the staircase. “How could you do that to someone you claim to care about?”

“Izzy? Really, mate?” Olu said, arms wrapped around a struggling Jim. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You didn’t just ruin Ed’s life; you ruined Stede’s!”

“Oh, don’t gimme that bullshit!” Izzy replied. “He ruined that himself when he decided to fuck someone that wasn’t his fiancé. I just ripped off the bandage instead of pulling it off slowly. Now that blond fuckwit is free to have his happy little life, and Ed can move on. None of you know him like you think you do.”

“And you do?”

The group turned toward the staircase. Ed, clothed in a threadbare tank and sweats, hair still tied in the same bun from two days prior, stood at the foot of the stairs. He looked haggard, weary, but his eyes were the kind of dark that turned a person’s blood to ice.

“Izzy,” Ed said, hands in his pockets, padded slowly to the bar, “I am going to give you…one chance to tell me the truth.”

“Ed, I—“ Izzy began, but was quickly cut off by Ed’s hand wrapping around his throat.

“Choose your next words carefully.” Ed muttered, squeezing slightly. “Tell me the truth. Did you tell Stede’s father about us?”

Izzy swallowed hard, then reached out ever so slowly and caressed Ed’s cheek. There were cracks in his hard veneer, a softness that he had never shown to anyone save for Ed when he was shitfaced and nostalgic for the early days of the tavern. The shorter man’s eyes were agonized, wanting, a lifetime of unspoken speeches brimming full and threatening to break the dam that he had worked so, so hard to build up.

“I was just trying to protect you.”

Lucius’s hand gripped Ed’s shoulder suddenly, tight and supportive. “Ed. Let him go. There isn’t anything else any of us can do.”

Ed slapped Izzy’s hand away and released his neck, then drew in a shuddering breath before speaking. “Get out. Never come back.”

Izzy’s face went slack. “Ed.”

Lucius grabbed Izzy’s wrist and tugged him away from the bearded man, guiding him to the door. “You’ve done enough, Izzy. Just go. Please.”

“I was trying to protect you, Ed.” Izzy repeated, pushing back against Lucius. “I told you no good would come from it, a-and I thought it’d be better this way instead of it all crashing and burning—“

“NO.” Ed shouted, coming around the bar and getting in Izzy’s face. “Don’t you fucking lie to me. You weren’t trying to protect me, Israel. You were only out for yourself. You had no right to stick your nose into my life like that.”

Izzy’s face grew red. “No right? I’ve given you ten years of my life, Edward. Ten years of slaving away in this godforsaken bar, working like a dog day in and day out right beside you, through recessions and months where we didn’t have two fucking cents to rub together. I have had my shit kicked in and ruined my liver and God knows what else because I thought maybe… maybe someday you’d…” He pursed his lips and looked at his feet, fists clenched.

“Maybe someday I’d what, Izzy?” Ed asked.

The shorter man looked up at him, his jaw set. “That maybe someday you’d see me here. That you’d see I’d been here, all along, for you.”

Ed felt his breath leave him as he looked down at his now former bartender. Izzy had been by his side all these years, laughing with him, holding his hair back when he dumped his guts into the dish sink God knows how many times, patting his back and reminding him of who he was when yet another person broke his heart. He was always so reassuring, massaging his ego and letting Ed be vulnerable when he needed to be. Izzy, despite what he had done, was a good man and had taken care of Ed.

But Izzy wasn’t Stede. And he never would be.

“I owe you my thanks.” Ed said finally. “I owe you gratitude for being here for me, especially for as long as you have. I do love you, Izzy.” Ed drew a shaky breath. “But not in the way you want me to. I don’t know why. I wish I could tell you why so it’d be easier for you, but I just don’t have an answer.”

Izzy’s eyes dulled as Ed spoke, and Ed could almost hear the shorter man’s heart break. His mouth formed a thin line, and his breathing was even, steady.

“I shoulda known better, I guess.” Izzy muttered. He turned and threw his shoulder into the front door, walking out into the bright sunlight.

No one in the tavern moved.

“Roach?” Ed asked after a beat, hoarse but kind, “could you get me the broom and dustpan, please? And start a mop bucket? Last thing we need is people slicing their foot open on some broken glass on our busiest night.” The head cook nodded silently and walked quickly into the kitchen.

“Olu, you’ll be on bar with me tonight.” Ed turned away from the front door and crossed the space toward the broken shot glass on the opposite side of the room. “We’ll eighty-six the more complicated menu items until we can find another bartender. Don’t expect it’ll take too long—“

There was a thud against the front door suddenly, and a flurry of voices began shouting outside. Ed could hear fists meet flesh, then a woman’s voice shout a name.

“STEDE!”

Fuck.

Ed’s body moved instinctually, sprinting to the bar and diving over the edge. His hand wrapped around the handle of the wooden bat he kept next to the till, a solid piece of maple he had picked up from a thrift store when he took over the tavern. It had seen better days, but served its purpose in the years it had been in Ed’s possession, scaring off any would-be robbers or gutsy sports fans who tried grabbing a bottle to-go.

Ed pointed the bat at Olu and Jim, who still stood by the booth they had been sitting at. “Don’t call the cops unless I say so. I’ll handle this.” The pair only nodded in response.

The bearded man threw the front door open, his grip on the bat tight, then stopped in his tracks.

Both Stede and Izzy were laid out on the sidewalk, groaning and glaring daggers at each other. A short brunette woman in a wedding dress moved to help Stede to his feet, but was held back by another man who quickly said “No, leave him!” Stede’s cheek was bleeding, and he either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

“You fucking asshole!” The blond shouted, finally getting to his feet. “You ruined—“

“Yeah, yeah, ruined your life.” Izzy retorted, and spat out blood onto the pavement as he stood. “Already went through this dog-and-pony show with Ed, mate.” He squared up and tucked his chin. “You want another piece, though? Here’s your chance.”

Stede raised his fists, and it became wildly apparent that the man had never been in a fight. There was only one way this would likely end, and it wouldn’t be pretty. Pedestrians had already begun to slow and watch the group, a few pulling out their smartphones. Ed sighed and tossed the bat back into the tavern, then quickly stepped in between the two men, hands raised.

“Before you two morons draw an even bigger crowd, you are going to knock this shit off and do as I say.” He pointed to the blond, who had already dropped his fists. “Stede, you’re bleeding. Get inside. Now. Your little entourage needs to leave.” Stede looked to the couple and flashed them an unconvincing but reassuring smile. The pair looked between him and Ed, then silently clambered into the car parked in front of the tavern and slowly drove off. Stede shot one last look at the former bartender, then staggered into the tavern.

“Izzy,” Ed said, redirecting his attention to the shorter man, “leave.”

Izzy spat again and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Gladly. Best of luck to you, Ed. Lord knows you’ll need it.” The man turned on his heel and made his way toward the train station, never looking back.
.
.
.
.
.
“You’re lucky.” Ed murmured, dabbing at Stede’s cheek with some alcohol-soaked gauze. “Izzy usually drops people with one punch. I’ve seen him do it to a few Seahawks before.”

Stede hissed quietly at the feeling of the gauze, the muscles in his neck going taut as he shrugged out of his suit jacket. “I would’ve been fine. My health insurance won’t end ‘til the end of the month, and I’m no stranger to getting my ass handed to me.”

Ed had grabbed the tavern’s first aid kit and dragged a limping Stede up to his apartment, ignoring the questioning gazes of his staff. Years of dealing with drunks had made Ed surprisingly adept at patching people up; the alternative was the emergency room (which was already overcrowded, mind you), and Ed knew that if someone was in his bar, it was unlikely they had the money for an ER visit. They had sat in silence on his couch for at least ten minutes while Ed had picked dirt and debris out of Stede’s wound, the other man’s eyes trained on Ed’s, watching him intently.

Ed scoffed. “Why are you even here, Stede?” Ed dropped the gauze on to the coffee table, then began to dab ointment on to the blond’s face, fingers light and gentle. “You made your feelings very obvious when you left. I was your mistake, remember?”

“I called the wedding off.”

Ed’s hand froze. “What?”

“I called the wedding off.” Stede repeated, and god, his eyes could stop traffic right now. “I didn’t get married. That was Mary and Doug that were with me. They drove me down here. I quit my father’s company, too. For good.”

Ed finally moved after a beat, wiping his finger on a bit of tissue before grabbing a bandage. “Shit idea, if you ask me. You should’ve had something set up first—“

“Ed—“

“—maybe start applying to local retail places—“

“—Ed, please—“

“—Lord knows Starbucks is always hiring—“

“I did it for you.”

Ed locked eyes with the other man and stopped breathing.

“I…” Stede let out a small nervous laugh, then swallowed hard. “I have spent…so much of my life apologizing for just existing. I was never man enough with my father, never attentive enough with Mary, never enough for anyone or anything. But when I’m with you, I can just…be. I can laugh, talk, live how I want to. I don’t feel shame or guilt when I’m myself around you. You make me feel like I’m perfect the way I am, but you also make me want to be a better man than I was yesterday.”

Ed didn’t respond.

“I was wrong for hurting you.” Stede said as he took Ed’s hand in his. “I was wrong for pushing you away. I was wrong to choose that other life. Any life that doesn’t have you in it will always be the wrong choice. I can’t change what I’ve done, but I can do better. I’m so sorry, Ed.”

Ed pulled his hand out of Stede’s grasp, finally taking in a sharp breath. The blond’s face fell, and he let his hand fall into his own lap, his expression now one of hopelessness.

Ed wanted to kick Stede out, lock the door, and never see him again. The wound he had made was still fresh, stinging in the open air. Hell, Ed was half-certain his pillow was still damp with tears. Stede had broken his trust before; who’s to say he wouldn’t do it again? The blond might be able to worm his way back into his father’s good graces if he tried, right?

Anyway, a life with Ed was one of damned hard work and little leeway. Ed couldn’t give him anything worthwhile. Nothing like what he had with his father and Mary, at least. There’d be no fancy dinners and first-class flights to other countries. Hell, they’d be lucky if they could ever afford a trip to the San Juans.

“You don’t want this life, Stede.” Ed said, sticking the bandage to Stede’s cheek. “Barely scraping by, never getting a break. You don’t want—“

“I want you.” Stede cut him off. He sounded so sure. “I don’t care about anything else. I’ll take whatever life gives me as long as you’re the one who’ll be beside me. There isn’t a single thing that could ever make me change my mind. You are the only constant in all of this that matters.”

Oh God.

Ed could feel his pace quicken. “But what about—“

“Ed.” Stede took the man’s face in his hands, light as a feather and held him as if Ed was something sacred. “Tell me to leave.”

“Wh-what?”

“Tell me to leave.” Stede repeats, and Ed had to force himself to focus on the blond’s eyes and not the gentle movements of his thumbs across Ed’s cheekbones. “If you tell me to leave, I will. No questions asked. You have that choice. I refuse to force you into something just because you felt guilty that I was groveling. If you don’t want this…if you don’t want me anymore, that is okay and I will leave.”

He should. It’d be for the best. He could move on and forget him and live his life in his cocoon in the shade and never worry about being hurt again and God themselves would never know how lonely he’d truly be and he’d never say how much he’d miss the sunshine, his Sunshine—

“I can’t.” Ed choked out, tears rolling down his cheeks and pressing his forehead to Stede’s. “Christ, I can’t. Please, Stede. Please don’t leave again. I won’t survive it if you do.”

“Never, darling,” Stede said, shaking his head and breath quickening, “never again.”

Their kiss was sweet, breathless, and made Ed’s heart swell and Jesus fuck he needed so much more of Stede right now. The bearded man pulled the blond into his lap, hands making quick work of the buttons of Stede’s dress shirt and tossing it away. Stede’s middle was soft under his fingertips, one of his favorite features of him—of which there were dozens, thank you very much—and he let his hands ghost over and around to his back, nails biting ever so slightly into the warm flesh.

Stede couldn’t stop giggling through each and every kiss, the sound almost melodic. There was a happy desperation in his movements; he already knew Ed’s body well, but he couldn’t stop himself from kneading, caressing, stroking every part of him he could get his hands on.

“Bed?” Stede panted between kisses, and Ed could feel his lips curl upward.

“Yes, God yes.”

The pair left a trail of clothes behind them as they made their way to Ed’s bedroom, Stede chuckling when Ed nearly tripped over his pants and Ed fighting back a wheeze when Stede somehow smacked himself with his belt. The dark cloud that had hung low and heavy over them had finally disappeared, bathing them both in a light so warm and bright that Ed could feel it radiate in his chest and seep out from every pore. He felt weightless, adrift in the most happy of ways, and all he wanted right then and there… was Stede.

“You know,” Ed said, settling between Stede’s legs on the bed and enveloping him completely, “I used to only call you ‘Sunshine’ because of your hair.”

Stede quirked an eyebrow up, half-smiling. “Oh? And now?”

“Now it’ll be because you’re the light of my life.”

Stede let out a long breath, eyes glinting mischievously. “Okay, credit where it’s due: that was very smooth.”

“Thank you, I try.”

Stede moved them so he was straddling Ed, hands splayed over the other man’s chest. “Thoughts on your own pet names?” He purred, rolling his hips down on to Ed’s, rubbing their half-hard cocks together.

Jesus fuck—I like ‘darling’, but y’know—mmmfuck me—dealer’s choice.”

“I’m partial to ‘dearest’, too.” Stede said all too casually, rolling his hips again. “Though there’s plenty of others I’ll only use when we’re alone.”

“Like?” Ed gurgled, a hand raking up Stede’s thigh and coming to rest on his hip.

Stede pressed a finger to Ed’s lips, a self-satisfied smile unfurling on his face. “Patience, Ed. We have plenty of time.”

In a moment of clarity, Ed surged up and cupped the back of Stede’s head, fingers entwining in his curls. “Yeah, we do. Now, c’mere.”

As much as he enjoyed Stede’s quips as he was absolutely ruining him, Ed felt his mouth was far better suited being occupied. Kissing him, mouthing at his neck or chest or hips, sucking him off, it never mattered. Stede’s mouth was the eighth wonder of the world. There would be religions founded and stone carvings made in honor of it. Ed would dream of it until his dying day and he couldn’t ask for more.

“Please, darling,” Stede whined against his lips, hips rutting against Ed hard and slow, “I want…let me ride you.”

Ed pulled back the smallest bit. “You sure? Don’t feel like you have to. I forgive you completely, if it wasn’t obvious yet.” It wasn’t that Ed never wanted to give instead of receive; on the contrary, he wanted to rail Stede from the moment he locked eyes on the blond four months prior. But when he was left a gasping, moaning mess from Stede’s cock the way he had been, he never felt the need to raise any other possibility.

Stede panted out a short laugh. “It’s very obvious. I just—mmf—need you inside me. Sooner rather than later, if you wouldn’t mind.”

God above, Ed could cut diamonds with ease after that.

Stede grabbed the needed supplies from the bedside table and rolled the condom on to Ed’s cock, then laid beside him, his own fingers shiny with lube. His cheeks were so flushed, and he almost looked bashful.

“Don’t look away.” He murmured, raising a knee up to his own chest, and Ed wouldn’t have dreamed of it.

He watched Stede’s expression change, the blond’s mouth falling open slightly and exhaling slowly. His eyes fluttered, and Ed could see Stede’s arm moving at a languid pace in his periphery. The blond licked his lips, and Ed desperately wanted to look down, wanted to watch as the other man worked himself open for him, skin shiny with sweat and lube. The sounds in the bedroom echoed in Ed’s head, flesh moving against flesh in deliciously obscene ways. And still, Stede watched him, eyes dark and wanting.

“Fuck.” Stede rasped after a few minutes. “I-I can’t wait any longer.” He climbed on top of Ed and positioned himself, then sank down slowly, a long, breathy moan leaving him, wanton and shameless.

Christ,” Ed groaned. “I can’t—fuck, that’s so good—“

If God and Heaven and all of that shit existed, Ed was there. Stede ground down on him to the hilt, tight and plush and encompassing in the most sinful heat imaginable, and Ed couldn’t even pretend to not go cross-eyed. His toes curled as Stede rose up slightly, feet squirming at the end of the bed as the blond found a torturously slow rhythm. The bearded man’s hands found their way to the other’s hips, less about control and more about just finding something to hang on to.

Stede’s hands found their home on Ed’s stomach, nails biting into skin just enough to be felt but not to cut through. His mouth hung open as he fucked himself down on to Ed, eyes half-lidded and barely focused on Ed’s face. The blond looked wild, untethered from everything that wasn’t Ed; soft, whimpering “ahh”s and “fuck”s punched out of him with so much passion that Ed wanted to bottle them to savor forever.

“Stede…fuck me—“

“I am, darling.” Stede panted, lips quirking upward as he let his head fall back.

Ed let out a strangled noise before he grabbed Stede’s hands and tugged them down, pressing their torsos together. The other man let out a gasp, eyes fully focused on Ed’s face and brow puckering upward. Ed dug his heels into the mattress and began to thrust into Stede in earnest, one hand gripping the blond’s hip and the other wrapping around Stede’s cock.

“Jesus, Ed, fuck—“

Ed jerked Stede with a fervor, a breathless smile spreading across his face. “That’s right, lemme hear you, dove—“

Stede let his head drop, nipping and sucking hickies onto Ed’s neck, murmuring breathless sweet nothings into his hair as Ed’s hips bucked into him. The bearded man could feel himself teetering on the edge of oblivion, barely lucid, when Stede murmured the most beautiful words he had ever heard into his ear, voice absolutely wrecked.

“Say it again.” Ed gasped against the blond’s collarbone, fireworks being lit behind his eyes, “God, say it again, Stede—”

“I love you.” Stede whispered, gentle and open and real, and Ed was gone, swearing a blue streak and clinging to the other man as his orgasm washed over him. Stede wasn’t far behind, streaking his chest and hand, moaning Ed’s name into the air like he’d been aching to say it his entire life.

“I…” Ed began after a few moments, heart fit to burst.

“I love you.” Stede panted into his neck, pressing sloppy kisses against the sensitive skin. The words tumbled out of him, a love-drunk stream of consciousness. “God, I love you. I should’ve said it ages ago. I’m yours, darling. Mind, body, and soul. Just yours, only yours, forever. I love you, I love you, I love you.”

He meant it. There wasn’t a single doubt in Ed’s mind. The voice in Ed’s head—the one that taunted him and shamed him and made him feel like nothing—was silent for the first time in recent memory. This blond lunatic who touched him as if he was the finest thing ever created, laughed at his terrible jokes, and made his blood hot with a single glance. He loved Ed and said so so freely. There wasn’t a moment of hesitation, no pauses or “umm”s. Stede Bonnet loved Edward Teach and meant it.

“Forgive me,” Ed finally replied, unable to keep the grin off his face, “but are you sure? Seeing as I’m still inside you and all.”

“I’d feel the same if you weren’t.” He took Ed’s face in his hands and peppered kisses across his cheeks, eyelids, nose. “I love you, Ed, and I’ll keep saying it until you believe me.”

“What about when I believe you?”

“Then I’ll keep saying it.”

“For how long?”

“Until every star burns out and the universe goes cold.”

Ed snorted and kissed the tip of his nose. “So poetic.”

“Oh, shut it. You know that made your heart flutter a bit.”

Ed withdrew from him and disposed of the condom, then pulled him into his arms, radiating a warmth he hadn’t felt in the longest time. “Of course it did. You said it, after all.”

Stede groaned and tried to peel himself away. “Ed, love, we’re still a mess.”

Ed held on tighter and flashed him a wolfish grin. “Don’t you dare. You aren’t going anywhere for a long, long time, Sunshine.”

“Always so bossy.” Stede teased, hooking a leg over Ed’s hip. “Why aren’t I going anywhere, hmm?”

Ed pressed kiss after kiss into the blond’s hairline, cheek, neck. “Because…” he purred, “I plan on making love to you until we’re both completely spent…” He sucked lazily on a hickie on the blond’s neck. “…take a break to eat, rehydrate, maybe stretch…” He circled one of Stede’s nipples with his thumb, earning a pleased sigh. “…and then will continue to make love to you until we’re both numb from the waist down.”

Stede giggled, then took Ed’s face in his hands, thumbs stroking over his cheeks. “Have I said that I love you yet?”

Ed pretended to think, then shrugged. “Can’t remember. Might as well say it again.”

“I love you, Ed.”

“I love you, too, Stede.”

Chapter Text

- S T E D E -

Although morning sex was Stede’s preferred way of being woken up on the weekends, Ed humming quietly in his ear as he combed his fingers through his hair was a very close second. Coming into consciousness, completely wrapped in his lover was a heaven unlike anything else; he could smell Ed on his skin, feel the heat from his body radiate to his, hear his breathing and match it subconsciously.

More often than not, Ed’s humming was something sweet and light; he adored classic rock and 80s metal (his “Scrub Daddy Tunes” cleaning playlist was mostly Mötley Crüe, naturally), but would choose something like the Carpenters or Simon & Garfunkel to ease into the morning. Stede would feel himself come into the world, body boneless and eyes heavy, and roll into Ed until he was flush against him, tucking under his chin.

This morning’s choice took a moment for Stede to pinpoint exactly which song it was, but once he did, he started smiling; “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” by ABBA. A good choice, Stede would readily admit.

“Mmmm…g’mornin’, Sunshine.” Ed said, pressing a kiss to Stede’s temple.

“Morning, darling.” Stede yawned. “What time is it?”

“Just after seven, I think.”

Stede cracked an eye open. The morning light filtered through the blinds of the window, bathing the room in a warm, golden light. It had been two years since he had moved in with Ed, and since then, he had added his own personal touch to the space, in addition to other odds and ends. A painting of the Space Needle bathed in light from the setting sun hung opposite of the bed, a gift from Mary last Christmas. Framed photos of Stede, Ed, and the people in their lives dotted the walls; Jim and Olu’s wedding at Kubota Gardens, Izzy grinning and flipping the camera off as Flint pressed a giant kiss to his cheek, Ed and Lucius mid-laugh while Stede and Pete rolled their eyes to the side.

The upholstered items had been updated with new-to-them items, thanks in part to Stede being an absolute natural behind the bar, if he did say so himself. The blond had thrown himself headlong into learning everything he could about bartending, eventually creating his own drinks that had increased foot traffic into the tavern three-fold. A particular favorite had been his Lighthouse shots, a lemon and lavender mixture that had been so good, he had refused to make them for Ed because they would get him into trouble of the “dancing on the bar” variety.

“I don’t wanna get up.” Stede whined, nuzzling into Ed’s neck. “We have to go grocery shopping, and prep for tonight, and—“

“And tell everyone the news.” Ed murmured.

Stede yawned again. “What news?”

Ed drew a shaky breath and climbed out of bed, one hand behind his back.

“Ed?” He asked, sitting up and taking Ed’s free hand. “Is everything alright? Did something happen?”

“I…uh…” Ed gulped, and Stede could see tears form in the corners of his eyes. “I feel like a fuckin’ idiot, because I had this big huge speech planned, but I’m about to be a right mess. Just let me ramble for a minute, yeah?”

Stede pursed his lips, worried, but nodded.

“When we met,” Ed began, “I thought I had everything figured out. I was gonna work in this place until I keeled over in the kitchen peeling potatoes or some shit, dying alone in a puddle of my own piss. I didn’t want that, but I had made my peace with it.”

Oh God.

“And then you fuckin’…barged into my life. You were honest, and you were kind, a-and you were fearless, and you made me feel like a fuckin’ teenager again with how horny I was.” The pair laughed before he continued. “I fell for you so hard and so quickly, and every day I get to wake up next to you is just another gift you give me.”

Holy shit.

“You choose me, every day, after all of the bullshit and disagreements and stress from the tavern. You show me you love me on days when I think I’m hard to love. It doesn’t matter where life takes us or how something could go to hell; you are my harbor in a storm, and I never want to be parted from you.”

Stede could feel his heart leap into his throat while he tried to keep breathing. Christ above, this was happening. Ed knelt down then, wincing slightly at his weak knee.

“Darling, your knee—“

“I’m okay, love.” Ed said, smiling softly. “So, Stede Bonnet. Love of my life, fire in my loins, my Sunshine…” He moved his other arm from behind him, holding out a small, plain gold ring. “Will you do me the honor o—“

“YES.” Stede answered quickly, tears of his own rolling down his cheeks. “Yes, of course, yes! Absolutely!” Stede held out his left hand, trying and failing to hide his trembling as Ed slipped the ring on, then wrapped his arms around Ed’s neck and pulled him into a deep, loving kiss.
.
.
.
.
.
- E D -

The tavern was packed that night, moreso than any normal Saturday, and friend after friend of the happy couple filed in, everyone all too eager to get a look at Stede’s ring.

“A round of Lighthouses on me! In honor of the happy couple!” Lucius called out, and the tavern erupted in cheers.

Ed stood at the end of the bar, watching his fiancé work. His movements were fluid, effortless; the blond was able to manage a full counter with ease, and had an amazing memory for tabs. If he wasn’t already hopelessly in love with him, Ed would’ve likely fallen in love with him again by watching Stede work.

“He’s doing well.” A familiar voice said beside Ed.

Ed looked down. “Izzy? When did you get back?”

The shorter man looked rested and bronzed, albeit slightly more grey. “Few days ago. Flint got stuck at the docks, but he sends his love.”

“Tell him we said thank you.” Ed replied. “How was Nassau?”

“An absolute dream, but I’m happy to be home.” Izzy looked bashful all of a sudden, cheeks tinting pink. “He, uh…he asked me to move in with him.”

Ed cocked an eyebrow. “And you said…?”

Izzy bit the inside of his cheek, but couldn’t hide his smile. “Bought some boxes and tape today.”

The bearded man clapped a hand on his shoulder and grinned. “Congrats, mate! I’m happy for you. Genuinely. Flint’s good to you and for you.”

Izzy rubbed at his neck, his own grin making his eyes crinkle. “He’s a good man, Ed. Makes me laugh like no one’s business and he’s just...” The shorter man’s voice trailed off, and he looked up at Ed. His eyes are brighter, Ed thinks; there’s a spark in them that he hadn’t seen since he hired Izzy all those years ago.

“Are you happy?” Izzy cocked his head toward Stede, who was busy shaking a cocktail.

Ed turned his attention to the blond, a warmth spreading through his chest. There was a small part of Ed that still felt guilty; he had apologized at least a dozen times Stede’s first week on bar, massaging the tension out of his jaw and temples while the blond sucked down cup after cup of chamomile to relax. Stede hadn’t worked in the service industry before (“People are such…dicks!” he had said after a drunk had thrown their beer on him; Ed had to be held back by Pete and Olu from kicking the drunk’s ass), and Ed felt he had suckered into a life he wasn’t cut out for. There was an equally small part of him that thought Stede was just humoring him until something better and fancier came along—

But then Stede caught his eye and walked quickly over to him, tugging him into a quick kiss and earning a wolf whistle from someone in the tavern. “I can hear you thinking.” The blond said. “Stop it. Enjoy the evening. I’m low on ice. Love you.” He winked before speed-walking back behind the bar.

“Yeah.” Ed said finally. “Yeah, I’m happy.”

And he was.