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The Pirate Trap

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The pirate, bearded and tattooed, loomed over the hapless British naval officer. His rapier had pierced the sailor’s shoulder and pinned him to the wooden deck. All around them a storm raged, carved out in ballpoint blue swirls. Indigo gushes of blood spurted from the wound and flooded across the lined loose leaf paper. “Spare me! I have a family!” the officer pleaded in a word bubble above his head. “Scoundrels spare no-one!” The pirate’s speech bubble shouted back. “Now DIE, you DIRTY DOG!”

It was a well-executed drawing, Ed thought to himself, even if the pirate looked a little too much like him for comfort. But the school had firm policies about ten-year-olds depicting explicit violence in their creations. He was going to have to talk to Alma’s mother. Which would be easier if her mother weren’t THE Mary Bonnet.

__________________________________

Ed avoided bringing it up for a few days. Mary hadn’t been the one to pick the children up from after-school care that day, or the next. And it hadn’t felt right to raise the issue with the enigmatic and vaguely threatening Nana Sandra, Mary’s aunt or cousin or something, whose eyes seemed to bore into Ed’s soul. She was an ex-nun, apparently, and she terrified everyone. So he hadn’t said anything.

Finally, he sent a letter home in Alma’s backpack. “Dear Ms. Bonnet, Your daughter shows every sign of being as talented an artist as you yourself are. However…” 

So that Tuesday in late October, when Lucius, the administrative assistant, stuck his head into the office and said “Bonnet kids are getting picked up, parent wants a word,” Ed’s nerves jangled. He jumped up and strode into the common area, mustering bravado. “Ms. Bonnet,” he immediately announced, “I wanted to -- oh. Sorry.”

The man kneeling before Louis finished zipping the child’s coat up and straightened, turning to face Ed. Under a pewter grey overcoat he wore a sleek tailored suit in - what would you call that colour? Sage, or mint? No. Jade? “Celadon,” Ed said out loud, without thinking.

“Ah, I see you know your greens,” the man said. Ed looked up at his face, then. Chestnut eyes twinkled at him, blond curls turning slightly to grey at the temples over the man’s laugh lines. “I’m Stede. Ed, I presume?” He reached out a hand. As he moved, Ed caught the scent of his cologne, refined and dry and vaguely floral. Expensive. Ed had been elbow-deep in play dough five minutes ago. He wiped his right hand down his t-shirt, encountered a recent orange juice stain, and quickly dried his hand on his jeans before taking Stede’s hand in his. “Yeah, right. Good. Ed.” He fumbled. This was not going as planned. His hand strayed to the messy half-bun tying up his long, greying hair.

“I’m sorry we haven’t met before,” Stede went on. “I’ve been in London for a show these last six months.”

“Right, the kids told me,” Ed nodded. “Artistic director for the New Rose Theatre? Alma’s very proud.” Stede’s eyes sparkled as he glanced at his daughter, who was carefully decorating another girl’s face with the chalk pastels. Ed would deal with that later. “Listen, I wanted to talk to Mary about…” Stede cut him off. “I’m so sorry, Ed,” he rushed. “I really need to get Louis to his swimming lesson. I’m picking the kids up again tomorrow. Can we talk then?” He reached out and squeezed Ed’s forearm as he said it, looking steadily into Ed’s eyes. Ed felt his pulse kick up. His mouth went dry.

“Uh, yeah, sure, cool.” He said. Cool? Come on, man.

“Great!” Stede announced, and in a heartbeat he and the children were gone.

__________________________________

Wednesday. The Kodály music teacher was finishing up in the common area. A clattering of makeshift instruments as the kids cleaned up, and then Frenchie burst into the office. He still had a cowbell in his hand. “Hey boss?” he started. “Don’t call me that, I’m just Ed,” Ed replied absently, without looking up. “What’s up?”

Frenchie cleared his throat. “Uh, well, Saturday’s Halloween, Ed.”

“Okay.”

“Well, me and some of the guys, we’re having a party. If you’d like to come.”

“Oh.” Ed glanced at his boots. He scratched his elbow and tried to sound casual. “Uh, yeah. Sure. If I’m not too busy.” 

“Right, okay.” Frenchie hesitated. “Well, hope we see you there.”

The office door creaked shut. Ed returned to his laptop. He hadn’t done much socializing since taking on the role of after-school program director half a year ago. At a Catholic private school, no less. Amazing they’d taken him on, really. He wasn’t the man he’d been in his 20s anymore, or even in his 30s, and he was proud of that. He had worked hard to put his past behind him, and he loved working with the children. He’d made a hard break, a clean break, with his former life. When he realized he wanted to work with kids, he had gone back to school to study early childhood education, and then business administration. But he hadn’t found the time to make new friends. And now it felt foreign. Difficult. Maybe a little dangerous. It was a quiet life now, but stable. Good. He didn’t want to mess that up. And after all, Frenchie hadn’t even told him where the party was happening.

The door creaked open again. Ed sighed. “Frenchie, you can just text me the address.”

“Oh! I’m not, ah, Frenchie.” Ed spun his swivel chair around a little too hard at the voice. Stede Bonnet filled the doorway. His hair was more tousled than it had been the day before. It looked absolutely golden above the claret scarf around his neck, vibrant against a charcoal cardigan and dove-grey chinos. That’s a great cardigan, Ed thought. Why am I so into that cardigan? What the hell is wrong with me?

“Stede,” he ventured. “Hi.”

Stede glanced around uncertainly. “Hi,” he replied. “Is this a bad time? I did say I would be back today.”

“No, no,” Ed reassured him. “Now’s fine. You saw my letter?” Ed gestured toward the chair beside his hatrack. “You can just put those files on the floor.” Stede grabbed the stack of paper and carefully placed it on an open corner of the desk. He sat.

“No,” Stede admitted. “Mary received your letter and then flew off to Barbados for her latest showing at the Higgins Gallery. She mentioned you needed to talk to a parent, but she was a little … vague, shall we say? On the details.” Stede crossed his legs, then immediately uncrossed them. Then crossed them again. He paused. And then out of nowhere: “May I ask …forgive me, but … Alma seems to think you used to be an assassin?”

Ed choked. “What?! Oh, uh. No. I was a sniper. In the Army. It, uh. It wasn’t a good fit.” He folded his arms around himself. Scratched his elbow.

“Oh.” Stede’s eyes softened. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried.” He leaned forward, his chin in his left hand, elbow on the desk beside him. “Your story is your own.” His interest, quiet and respectful, was inviting.

Ed leaned back, stretching out his left leg. The knee ached and itched a little in its tensor bandage, under his jeans. “No, it’s all right. I didn’t have the temperament.” He scratched his chin under the beard. “It’s pretty standard, isn’t it? Not a lot of options, drop out of high school, enlist… I just. I was great at it, actually, but I hated it. I lasted a couple of years and then I was out. And then, it’s just, you know? You know how it is, when you thought you were meant to do something and then it doesn’t work out, how lost you can get?” He was rambling.

Stede reached out, patted Ed’s right knee. “I do know. I spent a lot of years feeling awfully lost.” The hand stopped patting and rested, warm and reassuring. On his knee. Ed felt the world closing in. He had just met this strange man yesterday, and yet --

“DAD!” Alma burst through the door. “Oh my GOD, it’s WEDNESDAY.” She glowered at the two men. Stede withdrew his hand, but slowly, Ed noticed. He didn’t jump back or try to hide anything. Ed’s mind was swimming.

“Yes, yes it is Wednesday, Alma. What of it?” Stede’s tone was indulgent. 

“I have BALLET?! Like, NOW?” 

“Oh! Right!” Stede sprung up. “I’m sorry to leave so suddenly, Ed. Tomorrow?”

Ed fumbled for words. “Um, yeah. Yes. Tomorrow.”

Alma didn’t move. “You should come too, Ed.” She skipped over to him and grabbed his arm, tugging.

Stede gently pulled her away. “Oh, no, sweetie, Mr. Teach has other things he needs to do this evening.” She was crestfallen.

“It’s okay, Alma!” Ed crouched down in front of her and tucked a stray tendril of hair behind her ear. “I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I?”

“I GUESS,” she sighed, and stomped off. Stede gave an apologetic shrug and followed her.

Alone in his office again, Ed wondered. Who is this Stede Bonnet? Why can’t I seem to actually talk to him about the matter at hand? The more he thought about it, the more Alma’s murderous pirate drawing seemed innocuous. But policies were policies. And to his surprise, he wanted very much to continue talking to Stede. Ed had worked a lot of short-term jobs after leaving the Army. Bartender, bouncer, video store clerk, back when those existed. He’d even spent some time working in a garden supply shop, which he liked more than he thought he would. He never stayed anywhere long. He’d developed a gruff exterior which he had brought along with him into his current position. He’d never been good at making friends. But in just two days he’d found himself opening up to Stede Bonnet more than he had done with anyone in, well, ages. It was effortless. He wanted to tell Stede everything, and to learn everything about Stede. He could not wait for tomorrow. 

__________________________________

Thursday. Cooking class. The children were enthralled with Monsieur Rocher’s crepes, especially when he flambéed them in flagrant disregard of the school’s safety protocols. “ROACH!” bellowed Ed from the doorway of his office.

“Yes boss?”

“I’ve told you not to call me that. It’s just Ed.” 

“Yes, boss.”

Ed sighed. He rubbed his hand through his long curly hair, scrubbing at the scalp with his fingertips.

“You can’t light things on fire. It’s an after-school program. I don’t know how else to say it.”

“It’s not Crêpes Suzette without the flambé of the orange liqueur, boss! It has to be authentic!”

“Have you considered a dish that doesn’t require alcohol and fire to be authentic, for this children’s program where we are responsible for the safety of, y’know, children?” 

“Oh. Well. When you put it that way.” Monsieur Rocher considered. “Perhaps I could teach them about baking a cake.”

“Yes, perhaps you could do that.” Ed nodded and waved a hand in assent. “All right, Roach, I’ll leave you to it.” 

“See you Saturday night, boss?”

“Yeah, sure. Maybe.” He threw on his flannel shirt and wandered down the hall and out to the playground. The sun was low in the sky, almost setting. Russet leaves scraped across the cobbles with the icy breeze. Children ran and shouted, hung from the monkey bars, flew into the dimming sky on the swings.

“Hello Ed.” A now-familiar voice, sweet and clear, from just behind him. He pivoted. 

“Hi, Stede.” Ed felt an unfamiliar thrum in his gut. “Nice to see you again.” Stede was standing very close to him. His navy peacoat was buttoned to the neck. He smelled of salt water and seaweed, somehow. He was so solid. So completely present. Ed closed his eyes. Get yourself together, man.

“I hope it really is nice to see me,” Stede ventured. His brow furrowed. “I hope I didn’t make things awkward yesterday.” He took another step forward. It would take nothing to close the gap between them. A trip. A stumble. A fall.

“No! No, not at all.” It’s true, Ed thought. How odd. It didn’t feel awkward. It really should have felt like an intrusion, but it didn’t. This felt safe. Familiar. “Listen,” Ed went on, “I need to talk to you about Alma’s --”

“DAD!” cried Louis. “HELP!” The child had fallen on some gravel beside the school. Blood seeped slowly from his knee. Ed ran inside to get the first aid kit. When he got back outside, Alma was standing over her brother, hands on hips. “It’s only a scratch, Dad,” she said, cutting off a protest from Louis. “He just needs a bandaid. I can take care of him. You need to talk to Ed about my drawing, right?”

“That’s thoughtful of you, Alma,” Stede said, “but the grownups are going to handle this. You run along and play.”

By the time they’d patched the knee and calmed the boy, the sun had set completely.

“I’m so sorry about this,” Stede said, still inches from Ed over Louis’s bandaged leg. “Can we talk some more tomorrow?”

Ed nodded. Yes. They could talk tomorrow. Honestly, they could talk whenever. Or not talk, whatever. Christ, he was falling fast.

__________________________________

Friday. Self defence class. Jim had the kids paired off in the playground. “Pégale, hombrecito! Don’t let him get the upper hand!” Ed suspected Jim had more of a “the best defence is a good offence” approach than was strictly preferable for this age range, but they were so good at the job, and surprisingly fun with the kids. He just felt the need to watch through the window, in case any knives came out. Not that they would, of course. But just in case.

A light rap on the door. “Come in,” Ed stated, turning slightly.

“Ed, hello!” Stede was already in the room. He was wearing a suit again, a dark dusty rose with an ivory vest and a blush cravat. His overcoat was a deep golden brown, with a bit of sheen to the fabric. Like satin. He was so overdressed.

“Going out somewhere fancy tonight?” Ed couldn’t help himself. Here he was, in a Floyd t-shirt and old jeans, hair ratty, beard likely sporting some remnant of applesauce or modelling clay, and then there was this man, this “Stede” standing in front of him like he’d walked out of an advertisement for the kind of watch that cost more than Ed’s first car did.

Stede stopped and looked down at his clothing. “No. I was at a board members’ meeting for the festival I’m hoping to run next summer. Gotta look the part, you know?” Ed didn’t really know.

“Oh, c’mon. You like to dress up. I’ve seen you almost every day this week. It’s not about impressing some stuffy board members, is it?” Ed quashed his nerves. Come on, he thought. Ask if he’s trying to impress you. I dare you. You coward.

“Nah,” Stede said. “You’re right. I do love to dress up.” He paused. He leaned in. “But you know, make people feel underdressed, and suddenly you’re the one in charge.”

Every hair on Ed’s body stood up. They were inches away from each other. Again. He breathed in deep and took a small step backward.

“Right, so. Can we talk about Alma’s drawing? Basically, she --”

“Basically she drew a pirate running someone through with a sword?” Did he have to make it sound so suggestive?

“Yes. A sailor. With a rapier. There was a lot of blood.”

“Yeah, she’s pretty into pirates lately.” That crinkly, twinkling smile. “Especially pirates who look a lot like her favourite after-school program director.”

Ed laughed a little nervously. A little hopefully. “Oh, no, I caught that. I. It’s flattering.” His eyes met Stede’s before glancing away. “I do have to ask you some questions though.”

Stede stepped back with a slow reluctance and took a seat. “Go on.”

“Is there any conflict or unrest at home?” Ed looked at Stede, questioning.

“No, none. As far as I know, she’s perfectly content with Mary and Doug, and with me.”

“Is she ever too rough or violent in playing with her little brother?”

“No, she adores Louis.”

“Does she talk about hurting herself or others, or fantasize about doing so?”

“Definitely not!” Stede seemed more amused than bothered by the questions, which reassured Ed. It was good to see his own impressions of Alma confirmed by her father. Her extremely handsome and magnetic father. 

Ed went on. “Has she exhibited any aggression or inappropriate conduct toward animals?”

“What? No, of course not!”

Ed grinned. “I didn’t imagine she could have, but it’s one of the questions.”

Stede smiled in return. “Are there a lot more questions?”

Ed paused. “Just a few,” he responded. Stede’s face fell a little. Ed’s heart sank.

“Can I answer them on Monday? I’m sorry, I’d love to stay longer. It’s just that we’re supposed to meet friends for dinner and they won’t keep the reservation.”

Who’s this “we”? Wondered Ed. Is he seeing someone? His own brow furrowed. And then, impetuously, daringly:

“I keep office hours at home on Saturdays,” he replied. “You could come by tomorrow. If that works for you?” What are you doing? You don’t even HAVE a home office, you jackass. Ed rubbed his forehead, anxious.

“Office hours on Halloween?” 

Oh right, shit. Halloween. Ed wasn’t sure what to say next. Shitshitshitfuck.

“Unless,” Stede went on, seemingly oblivious, “you could fit me in later in the evening? We’re booked up all day and then there’s trick-or-treating, but it’s done by 8:00 or so. And Sandra will be around to look after the kids once we’re done. I could come by your place around 8:30?”

Okay, whoever “we” was, it couldn’t be a romantic thing, could it? Not if he was suggesting coming over to Ed’s house in the evening tomorrow?

Stede caught Ed’s frown. “Oh, sorry, I’m sure you’ve got some party or other to go to, we can just--”

“NO!” That came out louder than intended. “No, nope, just planning a quiet night in. No parties. No bother for you to come around.”

Stede’s shoulders relaxed. “Oh, excellent.” He pulled out his phone. “You’ll have my number on file, you can just text me the address -- Oh, look at the time! Better text my sister to let her know I’ll just be a few minutes late for dinner.” He typed a few words, put the phone in his pocket, and stood up. “I look very much forward to seeing you tomorrow, Ed,” Stede said, quietly, hand outstretched. As Ed shook it, he felt a current of something unspoken moving between them. He squeezed Stede’s hand, and felt a quick squeeze in answer. Impulsively, Ed brought his left hand to Stede’s shoulder and squeezed it as well. Felt Stede lean into it, just a little. “Tomorrow then,” he said, not moving.

“Ed, are you still in here? We’re hoping to lock up and get down to Jackie’s for a quick -- Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t realize … this …. was happening.” Lucius stood in the doorway, gesturing vaguely at the two men. 

Stede pulled back first. “I really should be going,” he said. He smiled at Ed, a little slyly. “See you tomorrow night.” He moved toward the door.

“Oy, are you bringing him to the party?” Ed’s eyes darted to the office door. Stede was already in the hall, but he couldn’t hear footsteps. Had he stopped to eavesdrop?

“‘M not going to your Halloween party,” Ed growled. “I’m your director. It’s not appropriate.”

“Mmm hmmm,” Lucius replied, all smirk. “You’re not as tough as you like to let on, Mr. Teach. We all know you’re a big softie.” Ed scoffed, but smiled. “Any-way,” Lucius drawled, “enjoy your “meeting” tomorrow night.” The innuendo in his voice would have made Ed blush, if Ed blushed. Which he didn’t. So he sure as hell wasn’t blushing now.

There was a faint creak of the hallway floorboards and then quick, muffled footsteps. Lucius gave Ed a mock-scandalized glance, spun on his heel, and made for the door. “If you change your mind about “appropriate”, we’re all going to Jackie’s for happy hour. And you can always bring Mr. Clotheshorse to the party tomorrow after your little “meeting.” “

Ed fell back into his office chair. I’ve never been so happy about someone having a sister before , Ed thought. Man, I’m a goner . He opened Alma’s file, found Stede’s number, and sent him a quick text with the address. The response was immediate.

“Can’t wait.”

Me either, thought Ed. Me either.

__________________________________

Saturday. Ed awoke too early, vibrating with nervous energy. He cleaned the condo more thoroughly than usual. Hit the market before the Saturday rush, taking his time as he chose his supplies. He selected an auxerrois blanc, a honey-coloured wine with a finely balanced orchard fruit and mineral profile. He assumed Stede drank wine. Seemed like the type. Better get some imported beer as well, just in case. Flowers next - something casual but bright. A rambling arrangement of red-orange chrysanthemums, surrounded by twigs laden with bright red and orange berries, set off by autumn leaves, caught his eye. The colours made him think of Stede, somehow. He could imagine him in a suit in these brilliant hues. Food was next. Again, nothing fancy, but he needed to have something on hand. Crumbly aged cheddar, crackers, genoa salami, some grapes and blood oranges and plump olives… Ed realized Stede could be a vegetarian or lactose intolerant, or anything. Oh well. He hoped it was the thought that counted.

Back at home, the hours dragged on. Ed paced the floor. Tried to listen to music, read, watch TV. The flowers glowed in the vase on the table. He marched into the bedroom and went through his entire wardrobe. Nothing even approached Stede’s level of style and elegance. Finally, he picked a pair of black slacks and a purple short-sleeved button-down. Not fancy, but adequate. He laid the clothes out on the bed. Went back into the living room. Everything was ready, but it was going to be a lifetime before Stede got here. 

Ed grabbed his leather jacket from the hook. He needed a distraction. A long walk, some fresh air. That would do it.

By the time Ed got home, the sun had set. Children were trick-or-treating throughout the neighbourhood, although few would make it inside his building. It was later than he’d intended to return. He’d lost track of time on the walk. Daydreaming of Stede , he thought sheepishly.

Back in the quiet of his condo, Ed put on some music. A bossanova mix he’d happened upon a few weeks earlier. It was a lot softer than the classic rock and heavy metal he’d loved in his youth, but there was something sweetly sad and thoughtful in the gentle sway of the music that made him feel at peace. He hoped it was romantic without being cheesy or excessive, and. Romantic . Huh. Well, yes, actually, Ed, romantic. That is what you’re going for. On this first date with a parent you just met four days ago.  

Ed felt like a teenager with a crush. It felt … kind of great, really.

The wine and beer were chilling, the charcuterie board was done, the music was playing, he … he’d been walking for about six hours. He stank. “Damn it.” 8:15. He could fit in a quick shower.

Ed stripped off in the bathroom and threw his crumpled t-shirt and jeans in the hamper. He turned on the shower, waited until steam was fogging up the mirror, and stepped in. The piping hot water streamed through his hair, coursed over his tattoos, the greying curls on his chest and forearms, the star-shaped scar on his shoulder where he’d been shot decades earlier. He lathered up with charcoal soap, smelling of anise and sandalwood, and scrubbed. Shampooed his hair next, and as he raked his nails across his scalp, ran his fingers down through shoulder-length strands, he imagined Stede washing his hair for him, his perfectly formed fingernails grazing the nape of his neck, and -- ah. Ow. Yeah. A familiar and urgent twinge in his groin brought him back to reality. Best not to think too far down that path just yet. He returned to rinsing out the shampoo when: BZZZZZZ.

Fuck. Shit. How is he here already? It can’t be -- water still streaming off of him, Ed hopped out of the shower and grabbed his cell phone. 8:29. Jesus. The man was prompt.

Ed half slid, half ran to his room and threw on the black slacks. They were a little tighter than the last time he’d worn them. It had been a while. He raced to the intercom and hit the button. “Hello?” he huffed into it.

“Uh, Ed?” Stede’s voice was unsure. “You sound out of breath. Everything all right?” 

“Huh? Yeah, everything’s fine. Uh, c’mon up.” He buzzed Stede in and ran back to the bedroom to throw on the purple button-down. He was still toweling his hair dry when there was a knock on the door. Ed willed himself not to run to answer it. Walked over slowly. Deliberately turned the knob.

“Hi, come in --” Ed’s voice trailed off. Stede was wearing the celadon suit he’d had on the first time they met. But he’d paired it with a high-necked, incredibly frilly white blouse of some sort, with a complicated wrap of fabric around the neck. He was wearing a -- what were those things called? A frock coat? In a pearlescent colour that complimented the celadon. There was an old-timey pistol strapped on a belt around his waist on one hip, and a sword dangling from the other. Atop his head was an enormous three-pointed hat with a huge white plume rakishly swooping from it over his left ear.  

“Hah - Halloween?” Ed managed.

“I took the children trick-or-treating, and of course they just had to be pirates, so I thought I’d dress up as an old time sea captain. They were making me walk the plank all evening, it was adorable.” Stede took off the hat and then paused, looking Ed up and down. Bare feet, wet hair, a little out of breath, his tattooed chest peeking slightly through the buttons of a deep purple shirt that was … “Ed?”

“Yes, Stede?”

“Um, your shirt’s misbuttoned.” Ed looked down. Sure enough, he’d missed the third button from the bottom. His belly peeked through the gap made by the missed button.

“Oh! Oh, yeah, sorry, I was in a bit of a rush to get dressed when you got here.” He turned away and quickly fixed it. Took a deep breath. When he turned around, Stede was uncertainly surveying the charcuterie board, the drinks on ice, the flowers. “We did say 8:30, didn’t we?”

“Yes, yeah, we did?” Ed’s throat closed up in trepidation. 

Stede looked confused. “Okay, I thought so. I didn’t want to be late for our meeting. But if you are expecting guests we can reschedule, I just …” Oh. Oh no. Ed’s heart sank. How could he have gotten this so wrong? 

Stede trailed off as understanding dawned. “Is this - is this for me?” The softness in his voice made something flutter, like a moth's wings, just beneath Ed’s breastbone. I dare you , he told himself. “Well, yeah, I mean, we were getting along so well, I thought, so I just. I dunno. Thought you might like to have a drink. Or whatever. Spend some time together. We don’t have to. But maybe we should. I think.” Suave, Ed. Real smooth. He looked at his bare toes. He crossed his arms, scratching at his elbow. And then there was a warm hand on his forearm, Stede’s face so close to his own he could feel the other man’s breath in his beard. Ed looked up into sparkling chestnut eyes. 

“I was hoping you’d want to,” Stede said. “I just didn’t know how to make the first move.” Ed let out an involuntary snort. 

“What do you mean? You’ve been flirting with me since the moment we met!”

“Have I?” Stede seemed genuinely astonished.

“Haven’t you?!” 

“I don’t know, I’ve never flirted before!” 

It was Ed’s turn to be astonished. “That doesn’t seem possible. You’re, uh, you’re very good at it.” He paused. “Wait, how long have you and Mary been divorced?”

“Oh, three and a half years?” Stede shrugged in response to Ed’s saucer eyes. “Work has been busy. Life has been busy. I’m still a parent, whether I’m married to their mother or not. The only reason I haven’t been around since you started at San Augustine’s is that show I was doing in London.” He stopped. He was still holding Ed’s forearm. All he has to do is lean his head forward, just a little, thought Ed. “And I, well, I had a lot to learn about myself after we separated. I dated a few women but nothing ever clicked. And then when something did click, I dated a few men, but it still didn’t feel as though it meant anything. So I haven’t really - “ Ed leaned forward. 

As Ed’s lips pressed down against Stede’s warm mouth, Ed felt the hand slip from his forearm to his neck, pulling him in. Ed wrapped his arms around Stede’s torso and broke the kiss for a split second. Stede’s eyes were still closed as he tilted his head up to follow Ed, like a reflex, like a magnet. “We click,” Stede breathed. Ed placed another gentle kiss on Stede’s top lip, his own lips parting slightly, and lingered there for a heartbeat, before Stede’s mouth was open, questing and hungry, and then they were lost in each other.

They jolted apart a second later when Stede’s phone began to ring loudly. “Oh!” he managed. “Alma’s video calling me.” Before Ed could say anything about Stede’s ruffled hair and swollen lips, before he could even pull fully from the embrace, Alma’s face appeared on the screen. 

“Hi Dad! Hi Ed!” She waved proudly. She was in a ripped, striped shirt. Over her thick stockings she wore tattered, oversized shorts. A piece of rope was tied around her waist and she had a plastic patch over one eye. Eyeliner scars and stitches peppered her face, and there was a lopsided skull and crossbones drawn on her forearm in what looked suspiciously like ballpoint pen. Her left hand was obscured by a plastic hook. “ED! Do you like my costume? Dad said we could call you to show you! Do you like it?”

Ed chuckled. “It’s awesome,” he said. Stede was almost cheek-to-cheek with Ed, keeping them both in the frame for Alma. 

“Do you like my dad’s costume? He’s a gentleman!” 

“Yes, I like it very much.” Ed grinned, in spite of himself.

“Doesn’t he look handsome?” There was a devilish glint in the girl’s eye, Ed belatedly realized.

“Uh, well, um.” And then, to hell with it . “Yes, I think he looks extremely handsome.” Even looking at the phone Ed could tell Stede had just blushed a brilliant pink. Alma crowed.

Nana suddenly filled the frame. “Hello Stede, hello Ed. Time for the children to go to bed. You two have fun tonight.” And then she winked .

The phone abruptly showed nothing but a carpeted floor. “Uh, Sandra? Sandra I believe you forgot to hang up,” Stede started. Alma’s voice came faintly through the phone: “I TOLD you the drawing would work,” she said. And in response: “Si, si, mi hija. Eres bien inteligente. Pero ya es hora de dormir. Vamos a echarnos en la cama y…” “Do you think they’ll get married?” Alma asked. Stede mashed the end call button.

“Ah, well. Nobody ever accused my daughter of being slow.”

“Diabolical, is more like it,” Ed chuckled. “Now, where were we?” He kissed Stede again, long and slow and …

“Ed?” Stede pulled back. “You know, we could go to your work party.”

“So you were eavesdropping?!” Ed feigned indignation.

Stede smiled, a little coyly. “I couldn’t resist. But really, do you mind if we go? I’ve known most of those guys since Alma started kindergarten. They’re pretty fun.” Ed looked so disappointed Stede almost laughed. “Here,” he said. “Help me put together a costume for you. You’d make a fine pirate. Where’s your wardrobe?”

Ed sighed. “In the bedroom. C’mon.” He pointed toward the bedroom door.

“Oh, no,” Stede insisted. “After you.” 

“You’re such a gentleman.”  Ed laughed a little in spite of himself, and then let out a slight groan as Stede pushed him up against the doorframe. “Not for long,” Stede growled in his ear. “Those parties never really get going until after midnight, you know.” 

Oh, thought Ed. OH.