Morning comes cheerily and too brightly by half. Desert sun spills onto the hotel floor between the open curtains. Somewhere outside a neon light flickers, flashing a hazy purple glow over the room in sporadic jolts. Unfortunately the nauseating lighting does little to assuage the hangover pulsing behind Stede’s eyes.
Groaning, Stede smacks his lips together. His tongue is dry as a bone and, oddly, hairy.
Wait, actually hairy? And it’s not his; his hair hasn’t been that long since that rebellious phase in his late teens.
Stede spits out a mouthful of hair and sits up so quickly his stomach lurches for a moment before settling uneasily as he takes in the scene. Beside him salt and pepper curls, smelling faintly of chlorine, fan over his pillow and halo a sleeping man with an impressive beard and tattoos peeking out from beneath his clothes.
His being a bit of a misnomer, in this case, as the man in Stede’s bed is dressed in Stede’s clothes from what must have been yesterday. That’s the fuchsia shirt he purchased on holiday two years ago; he’d been particularly enamoured with the mother of pearl buttons. Unmistakably so! Though of course he tends to wear it properly, unlike this fellow, who’s left it unbuttoned halfway to his navel where a tattoo of a ship slipped just out of sight toward—
“Oh God,” Stede says. There’s a man in his bed. Wow, there’s a man in his bed! For one moment Stede’s filled with celebratory gay pride, a rainbow flag waving behind the dizziness. But Stede doesn’t remember this man in his bed, let alone how he ended up there. Which is a shame quite frankly. He’s really very handsome.
What happened last night?
Stede remembers going to the casino, trotting after Mary and Doug and the rest of their wedding party. He remembers collecting his chips before seeking out the blackjack table. The rest of the day is hazy, smudged over with what Stede can only presume is copious amounts of alcohol. He can almost recall the details, but just as quickly as the memories come, they slip away like sand between his fingers.
Before Stede can properly get his bearings, the mysterious man with his lovely collarbones shifts, yawns, and suddenly dark, expressive eyes are on Stede. Stede begins to sweat inside his borrowed leather. Notably not his clothes either. Oh dear.
Those eyes give Stede a thorough onceover before his face breaks into a pleased grin, crinkling wrinkles into his skin and baring his teeth. It’s devastatingly attractive.
“Oh hello,” the man in Stede’s clothes and in Stede’s bed says, very warmly.
“Good morning,” Stede says faintly, attempting not to fluster at being caught staring.
“Morning. Good night too, I hope, though to be honest I don’t remember much of it, mate.” The man smiles guilelessly, roguishly.
“I’m afraid it’s patchy for me as well,” Stede admits, relieved. He doesn’t seem worried about what they may or may not have gotten up to at least.
“We must’ve been properly pissed.”
“I suspect so, though I hope your head feels less like the inside of a blender.”
The man grunts in response. Stede begins to panic. What is the proper thing to do in this situation? Should he reintroduce himself, or would that be presumptuous? Should he retreat to the loo to change and return his clothes? Should he call to have them laundered? He’s sure he read the hotel offered laundry services on their website; perhaps he could call the front desk.
“I’m Ed,” Ed says, offering his hand.
Oh thank God. Stede takes it. “Stede Bonnet.”
Stede is wearing fingerless gloves, presumably belonging to Ed to match the rest of his ensemble, and as Stede’s leather clad palm meets Ed’s, he notes how his own rings glint around Ed’s fingers. They seem to have been very thorough in their swap, but Stede’s always prided himself in his attention to detail. Although he doesn’t remember that particular golden ring Ed has on his left hand.
Oh. Oh, no. Has he accidentally slept with a married man? And then he promptly forgot about it!
Stede drops his hand, swallows. “I didn’t realise you were—that is, are you—married?”
Ed laughs. “What? Where’d you get that impression?”
“It’s just that ring you’re wearing.”
Ed looks down at his hand in surprise. “I thought these were yours?”
“Not that one,” Stede says. “Are you sure?”
Something is tickling the back of his mind, a memory or dawning realisation or the hangover exasperated by the flashing lights of Las Vegas spilling onto the dishevelled bed. Stede pulls at his left glove, alarm coiling in his gut.
Ed snorts in amusement. “Yeah I’m sure. I think I’d remember if I got hitched.”
“Would you?” Stede says shakily.
He holds his hand between them. Around his ring finger is a band matching Ed’s exactly. Brand new, without a single scratch on it, golden and lovely.
“Fuck,” Ed breathes.
“Fuck,” Stede agrees.
The casino floor is noisy as Stede steps inside with a spring in his step. People are scattered everywhere, gathered around the bar or sat at the machines and card tables, hedging their bets and dreaming of riches just out of reach. There’s the clatter of coins and the whir of the slots, joined by the cheery, musical sounds of the games, enticing the gambler to play just one more round—surely this will be the round everything falls into place, the time the stars align.
This wouldn’t have been Stede’s choice for a bachelor party locale, but Doug and Mary seemed keen, and now that he’s here, he’s feeling optimistic, or even lucky, cliché as it is to say.
It’s rather lovely actually. A casino is a true testament to the tenacity of the human spirit, always trying, even without chance on their side. Stede admires that hopeful energy and hopes to internalise some of it himself. Because today Stede is on a mission—a mission to enjoy himself, to really let his hair down, so to speak. He’s in a city teeming with life in the middle of the desert, against all odds and nature, and if he couldn’t let loose a little here, where else could he?
“I understand there’s a method to this game,” Stede says, leaning conspiratorially toward his tablemate. “I’ve been practising.”
“Good for you,” he says flatly.
“Did it hurt? That tattoo?” Stede taps the spot on his own face.
“No,” the man says, but his eye twitches, causing the star tattooed below his left eye to crinkle.
“I can’t imagine being so bold as to get a facial tattoo! You must be very tough, Mr…?”
“Hands. Izzy Hands,” his tablemate responds from between gritted teeth. Izzy scratches the table with his index finger, and the dealer slides him another card. He slides his hand sideways, standing at seventeen total.
“Stede Bonnet, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Stede waits a moment in case Izzy would like to return the sentiment. He doesn’t. Stede continues, “I’ve never played blackjack in a casino setting before, but I think I’ve gotten the hang of it. Another hit here, if you would, my good, erm, sir?”
“Sure,” the dealer, Jim—who must be very good at their job to remain so stoic—says. They pull a card from the shoe and slip it to Stede.
“As Jim here has a nine of hearts, and my total was only twelve with a four and and an eight—”
“Why the fuck are you narrating?” Izzy hisses.
“—Another hit gives me the best chance of winning despite the risk!”
Izzy looks at Stede for the first time since the game began, obvious frustration pulsing red at his temples. “You’re not even supposed to be talking! Look, Stede Bonnet, if you know the basic strategy so bloody well, you should spend a little time to learn some of the fucking etiquette. You don’t chat at the table. You should be focused on the game! Instead you’re busy announcing all the plays to the other players, you idiot!”
“Well, excuse me for enjoying a bit of polite chit-chat. You’re very rude!”
“Aw, what’s got you in such a tizzy, Izzy?” someone asks, coming up from behind the table. Several shots and a glass of whiskey land on the green felt to Stede’s left. Stede isn’t sure how he managed to carry that many drinks without spilling.
“Oh hello, do you know this asshole?” Stede asks the newcomer, shooting a glare at Izzy.
Izzy ignores Stede completely. “Ed, I don’t know why you insist on coming to this wretched city with all these fucking tourists. They’re completely unprofessional.”
“Live a little, Iz. Alcohol’s here, so you’ll feel better. Always works for me.” With a familiar pat on Izzy’s shoulder, Ed picks up two of the shot glasses and shoots them back.
“Is there a problem here?” Jim says almost disinterestedly. Their expression brooks no argument.
“No,” Izzy grumbles into his glass of whiskey.
“Not at all,” Stede says.
“Not yet,” Ed predicts and takes another shot.
Stede, who is only human after all—and a single, divorced, recently out human at that—can’t help but notice the way Ed tilts his head back and how his long greying hair slips from his shoulders as his lips open to the rim of his glass. Stede finds Ed’s eyes meeting his and he quickly diverts his gaze.
“Ay, Dios. Sir, finish your turn or I will for you,” Jim threatens.
“Is that allowed?” Stede asks.
Stede tips his head in acknowledgement. He finally looks down at his cards and notices he pulled a seven of hearts, bringing his total to nineteen. “Oh, not bad! I wouldn’t want to bust, now would I, so I will stand here.”
“End this,” Izzy demands to no one in particular except perhaps his God.
“There, there, Iz,” Ed consoles him.
Jim flips their hidden card, revealing a nine of spades. Eighteen.
“Fuck,” Izzy swears as Jim collects his bet. He pushes to his feet, his chair scraping against the marble casino floor. Ed stumbles out of the chair’s path toward Stede, carefully ensuring he doesn’t spill his last shot.
“Don’t be a sore loser. It’s only one game! What’s your problem?” Stede says, rolling his eyes. Jim doubles Stede’s stack of chips. This strategy really works!
“I’m not a sore loser and you are my problem,” Izzy grits out, gathering his whiskey and his remaining chips. “Can’t even play one civilised game around here. C’mon, Ed.”
“Nah, mate. I think I’ll stay here for a bit,” Ed says. He glances out of the corner of his eye at Stede. Ed, unbelievably, actually winks.
“Him?” Izzy asks, dumbfounded. Ed shrugs.
“What?” Stede is completely lost. No one answers him. He looks to Jim, who shrugs as well.
“This is ridiculous,” Izzy continues. “Fine. Fine! I’ll see you tomorrow, Ed.” Izzy storms off, stalking off toward the bar.
“He was a character,” Stede says to Ed. “A friend of yours?”
“Ignore him. He’s mostly harmless.”
“Happily.” Stede turns back toward the table, but peeks at Ed out of the corner of his eye. His shoulders are shaking with silent laughter. Stede is very proud of himself.
Suddenly Stede feels the caress of long hair brush against his cheek. Ed’s leaning over his shoulder, looking down at his cards from the last round before Jim collects them. Stede suppresses a shiver.
“That was a good game,” Ed says. He taps the table with a chipped painted nail. “You sure you’re new at this?”
“I am!” Pride swells in Stede’s chest. “I’ve never even been in a casino before tonight. Bit of a newbie, I’m afraid. But I read up on all the plays before coming here. Do you play much?”
Jim scoffs, and Ed shoots them an inscrutable look before he refocuses on Stede.
“I’ve been around the circuit, yeah.”
Stede recalls the toast Mary led last night when they and the rest of the wedding party had descended upon the hotel bar after a long day of flights. “We only have this one life,” she said, before turning to Doug and tapping his glass of champagne with hers. “Let’s make the most of it, shall we?”
Stede takes in Ed’s demeanour, the easy way he’s leant into Stede’s space, and decides to make the most of it.
“Can I perhaps buy you a drink with my winnings?” Stede asks with a shy smile.
Ed grins slowly. “Yeah? Sounds great.”
His hand brushes Stede’s shoulder, so faintly it might’ve been an accident, but Stede feels that touch illuminate something inside him, effervescent and bright and hopeful as the champagne had been. Wow, Stede thinks, why didn’t I think to come out twenty years ago?
Stede, flush with this gorgeous stranger’s praise and his own courage, blurts, “Can you keep a secret?”
Ed, reading his energy, perks up curiously. Stede begins to roll up his sleeve.
“Shit, man,” Ed says in awe.
“It’s blackjack basic strategy in a flow chart I designed!” Curling up from Stede’s wrist up to his elbow is an elaborate chart clearly inked in permanent marker. Arrows cross every which way, depicting the proper play to make based on the current cards on the table. Stede is very proud of his penmanship given the difficulty of writing on his own arms. “The soft hands are on the right and the hard on the left. I didn’t manage to memorise it all before today, so I thought I’d best come prepared.”
“Wow, this is insane, man,” Ed compliments, tracing a path to victory along his forearm with one finger. Stede holds his breath. “Brazen, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean?” Stede asks.
“What is that?” Jim asks, their voice spiked with warning.
“Oh!” Stede smiles. “It’s my strategy! I’ve written out all the best choices in a handy chart! Clever, isn’t it?”
“Sure is,” Jim says. They pull a radio from their jacket. “Hey, I have someone here who needs to have a little chat.”
“Uh oh,” Ed says calmly. His thumb is pressing against the pulse of Stede’s wrist. “Looks like you’re in trouble.”
“But I haven’t done anything!”
A man with a friendly continence and a casino uniform appears at the table. “Hey Jim, I heard you had a problem that needs to be taken care of?”
“Hey Olu. This guy here brought a cheatsheet.”
“Hello, Olu, is it? Let’s be reasonable about this, eh?”
“Sure,” Olu says jovially. “Hand over the cheat sheet then, if you would?”
“Oh.” Stede grimaces, regrettably tugging his arm free from Ed’s curious fingers to show Olu.
“Yeah, I can’t really confiscate that.” Olu looks like he’s barely containing laughter. “Unfortunately you’ll have to leave, sir.”
Stede’s mouth drops open in shock. “What? It’s not like I’ve actually cheated, you see. It’s simple mathematics!”
“Oh my God.”
“Ed, help me out here.”
“You can’t argue with the casino, mate.” Ed sounds both delighted and regretful.
Olu motions a thumb over his shoulder. “Yeah, sorry, rules are rules. C’mon, let’s go.”
“Oh all right, but could I just—”
And then Stede’s on his feet, being hustled toward the exit by Olu’s hand on his shoulder. “It’s just a formality. You know how it is.”
They pass the poker table where Mary seems to be winning handily, Doug leaning encouragingly over her shoulder. “Stede?” she asks in alarm.
“Ah, it’s fine, Mary. Just—oh, Olu, please don’t crease this shirt! It’s silk. Very breathable in the desert climate but also delicate—Mary, I’m simply relocating! I’ll see you all later?”
“Oh, and Ed!” Stede calls back over his shoulder. Ed has been watching with wide eyes, but snaps to attention at his name.
Stede hurries on, “I owe you a drink, but it seems, ah, my plans have changed! Come with me?”
“Well, fuck. Sure, why not?” Ed shrugs and trots to catch up with a gleeful bounce in his step.
Olu leads Stede outside into the Las Vegas daylight, the sun bright and hot in the endless, cloudless blue. With a little pat on Stede’s shoulder, he says, “Better luck next time,” and returns through the automatic doors.
“Thank you,” Stede says politely to the empty air, a little disgruntled at being forcibly removed from the casino. If they don’t want his money, then fine, he supposes. At that moment, Ed jogs outside, which brightens his outlook considerably.
“Hi,” Ed says, as the doors slide closed behind him with a final burst of air-conditioned relief.
“Hello,” Stede says, grinning back.
“You’ve got balls the size of houses, I’ll give you that.”
“You’re welcome.” Ed sticks his hands in the pockets of his—oh goodness—leather pants and rocks back on his heels. “So where to?”
“Well, if you’re amenable, I do have an idea.” Stede leans in, as if to share a secret.
“Do you?” Ed leans forward too, catches the lapel of Stede’s silk button-up between his fingers. Wow, he’s very close suddenly. It really is very toasty in the desert, isn’t it?
Stede, valiantly, pushes on. “How would you feel about playing tourist?”
“This isn’t even real golf,” Ed says. “I feel like Godzilla next to this fucking thing.” He points a thumb toward the miniature windmill.
Stede surveys the third hole with a knowledgeable eye. The artificial darkness of the mini-golf course lit by glow-in-the-dark paint and ultraviolet light makes the angles a little more difficult to calculate and there’s a tricky corner, but Stede knows how to handle a club, not to toot his own horn.
“A shame I couldn’t take you to a real course, but this will do. It’s for the best. I didn’t even bring along my golf gloves on this trip.”
“I bet you have a little visor too.”
“That’s adorable as fuck.” Ed bites his lip.
“Oh, thank you. Oof,” Stede says, coming up from a squat near the tunnel. Really smooth first date move, Stede. Stede continues quickly, “Mini-golf is good fun anyway! Lots of pesky little traps to work around. It’s surprisingly tricky!”
“You’ll have to show me the ropes.” Ed places his glow-in-the-dark pink golf ball at the starting point indicated by a cross made of what might be electrical tape. “I’ve never done this before. Not even the full-sized kind.”
Stede’s mouth drops open in shock. “Really?”
“Really!” Ed huffs a laugh. “I travel here a lot for work. And all over really. Bit of a globetrotter, me, but I can’t say I’ve ever stopped for a round of golf.”
“Then I can absolutely show you a thing or two!” Stede claps his hands together and moves into Ed’s space.
“May I?” Stede asks. Ed nods. Stede reaches around Ed from the side, covers his gloved hand with his own and adjusts Ed’s grip on the club. “Like this,” Stede enthuses. “And here, widen your stance, just so—” Stede touches one hand to Ed’s lower back, pushing in, and presses the inside of Ed’s knee with his other hand, nudging it out slightly. Ed sucks in a breath. “There you are, just like that,” Stede encourages.
“Great,” Ed says, sounding oddly strangled.
Stede’s fingers rest above where Ed’s shirt is riding up beneath his jacket, exposing a thin strip of tattooed skin. Perhaps a tentacle, or a snake of some kind; Stede can’t see much of it, just that tantalising inch. How badly he wants to touch, to see if he can feel the ink under the drag of his fingertip.
Ed clears his throat. “So now I just…swing?”
Stede blinks. Takes a measured step back. “Yes, all set.”
“Right, okay.” Ed takes a deep, centering breath, wiggles his hips very distractingly, and then swings the putter as hard as he can. The ball shoots off across the room, blessedly empty besides the pair of them, banging into a plastic mountain before cannonballing into the mote beneath with a splash.
“How many points is that worth?” Ed asks, grinning with pride.
“A lot, actually.”
“That’s not a good thing, Ed! You want fewer points in golf!”
“I gotta get more points for how fucking sick that stunt was though, right?”
“It was fucking sick,” Stede agrees, unable to fight off a grin to match Ed’s.
“We can make our own rules. I think that one’s worth like a hundred, what d’you think?”
“A fair assessment.” Stede nods and hustles back to the starting point. “Do you think I can make it over that windmill and into that little palm tree over there? A hundred and twenty points.”
“One way to find out.”
Stede begins to line up his shot, possible trajectories bouncing around his head. “So what is it you do that brings you here so often for work?”
“I’m a gambler,” Ed says, leaning over his putter to take weight off his braced knee.
“Is that a job?” Stede asks, glancing back at him.
“Feels like one, honestly,” Ed says. “Yeah, I do tournaments, work on teams, and show up to promotional events at casinos and all that.” Ed waves a dismissive hand through the air, as if that were somehow unimpressive.
“Wow, that sounds so glamorous! Have you been on television?”
“Yeah,” Ed says, stroking his beard distractedly. “They call me Blackbeard—”
“—King of Blackjack!” Stede finishes, stunned. “Oh, wow, I’ve heard of you! Fancy that!”
“Here I am,” Ed says with a little bow and a sweeping flourish of his free arm.
“Here you are,” Stede repeats. “Playing mini-golf with a fellow kicked out of a casino for cheating.”
Ed just laughs. “Believe me, counting cards will get you kicked out of even more casinos until you learn to be sneaky about it.”
Stede takes his shot, and the ball sails perfectly between the spinning blades of the windmill and catches in the palm tree several holes down. Its plastic leaves shake with the force of the hit, but the ball stays nestled in its canopy. Ed claps politely, just as Stede explained was golfing standard. He also whistles loudly, which is not standard, but Stede cannot say he’s not pleased.
“You said gambling feels like a job,” Stede says after a moment, reflecting on the conversation. “Are you not enjoying the work anymore?”
Ed sighs. He takes off toward the sixth hole, stepping over a small village. He sets up his shot in the completely wrong direction, or it would be if they were playing by proper rules. Ed takes a practice swing, the club whooshing audibly through the air.
“It’s all the same anymore, is the thing. Blackjack’s pretty cut and dry. Any player can tell you that, but it’s so fucking predictable. Once you can count cards, it’s your game, even in the professional circle. Casinos are always trying to make counting harder—more decks, whatever. I still know every move before it’s made. Blackbeard always wins. It’s not even a challenge anymore. I used to do it for the thrill of winning, of making the perfect play.” Ed shrugs, shaking his head. “I dunno. It’s gone. Played too many times, I guess. It’s all so bloody boring.”
Ed slams the putter against his ball with a violent clap. It ricochets off the ceiling, dislodging a ceiling tile and raining several years of dust onto the course. The ball continues its destructive path, ripping a flag from its pole and sinking, somehow, into the centre hole on what appears to be a giant skee ball game. The game lights up and sings out a victorious electronic tune. Pink and blue light flashes across Ed’s pained expression.
Before Stede even recognizes what he’s doing, he’s beside Ed, bringing a hand to his shoulder. “Are you all right, Ed?”
Ed turns toward him. Blinks. Appears to return from the dark place he’d retreated to in his mind. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just fucking hard sometimes, you know?” His gaze slides away from Stede’s worried expression. “You ever feel trapped? Like you’re just treading water? Waiting to drown?”
“Yes,” Stede says honestly. “I have very much felt that way.”
Stede thinks about his divorce. The way he felt signing those papers, how he thought being out would resolve the claustrophobia his married life pressed upon him. The way he feels waking every morning in the same bed, to the same alarm, to head to the same office he inherited from his father. Instead, it’s the same office, the same alarm, the same bed, but the sheets are cold and empty and dreadfully familiar, and Stede is alone.
Stede thinks about the desert, the way he felt stepping off the aeroplane onto the tarmac, the blast of heat rushing over his air-conditioned skin. How alive he felt then, how hopeful, and how alive he feels now, with Ed before him, this fantastic man who plays golf terribly but brilliantly, who has already made Stede feel young and vibrant and desirable with every cheeky grin flashed Stede’s way.
Stede cups Ed’s cheek, the scratch of his beard and the soft of his skin dual sensations in one touch. What other complexities can one man contain?
Stede’s thumb brushes Ed’s jaw, so gently. Ed sucks in a breath.
“Yeah. Yes.” Ed swallows as his eyes dart to Stede’s lips.
A thrill ripples through Stede’s spine at those words, that gaze. He tips forward until he can feel the fan of Ed’s exhale against his lips, and pauses. Not hesitating, but savouring the heady, swooping rush before a first kiss.
Ed closes the space between them first, his desert-chapped lips meeting Stede’s with a desire as strong as any force of nature. Stede, helpless, is caught in his tidal pull, drinking him in, sipping his breath as if from an oasis in this dreamy, neon-bright mirage of a city.
He’s lost in the sensations—the scratch of Ed’s beard, the teasing nip of his teeth, the drag of his tongue against the seam of Stede’s lips which part on a gasp. Ed surges forward, licking inside as his arms encircle Stede, his hands fisting at the silk between his shoulder blades. This fabric wrinkles terribly, but at the moment Stede can hardly bring himself to care.
“Goodness, you’re good at that,” Stede says when they resurface for air. He’s extraordinarily affected; he’s breathless, he’s dizzy, he would kiss Ed again, a thousand times. Surely it should take more than one kiss, even a great one, to steal one’s breath, one’s heart so entirely?
“Always glad to get a good review,” Ed, the cheeky fucker, says.
“Admittedly I’ve few others to compare to in recent memory, but I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed a kiss so much.” Stede brings his hand up between them, traces a finger along Ed’s bottom lip. Ed nips at him, mischief alight in his eyes.
“I’m surprised. A catch like you?” Ed gives Stede an exaggerated onceover.
“Oh, don’t tease me!”
“I’m not! Cross my heart.” Ed unwinds his arms (unfortunate, as Stede instantly misses his embrace) and motions over his chest. “Do you want to know something?” he continues, “I’ve only known you for a few hours and it’s been the most fun I’ve had in years. Honest.”
“I feel the same way,” Stede says, breathless with emotion so boyish and delighted Stede might float from the floor.
“Yeah? Really?” Ed holds Stede’s face in his hands. His eyes search Stede’s even above his smile radiating pure, unadulterated joy.
Stede nods, feeling the rough calluses on Ed’s fingertips brush his cheek as Ed leans in to kiss him again. He wonders how Ed got them. He hopes, fiercely, he’ll get the chance to find out with time.
Stede never wants this moment to end, and yet he cannot wait to find out what the next will bring.
Ed seems to be of the same mind as he pulls away. “So we’ve conquered mini-golf, don’t you think?”
“With only minor property damage too,” Stede adds.
“To be expected in a place where you’re launching fuckin’ missiles with a stick.”
“A bit of a simplification of the sport, but I take your point.”
“If we’re going for the full tourist experience, I know a place. Romantic as shit probably. You with me?” Ed raises his eyebrows.
Stede couldn't say no if he tried. “Absolutely.”
They stop for lunch on their way to their destination, wolfing down street food from a cart with a cheery little awning that somehow offered both tacos and hot dogs. Ed piles on an inadvisable amount of relish and still has the audacity to kiss Stede with vinegar sour on his tongue. Stede doesn’t even mind, is the thing. It’s too much fun. Particularly as they split a fishbowl, the blue drink swimming with summer bright pineapple, wedges of citrus fruit, and topped with two paper parasols. Stede chases one of the red candy fish around the glass with his straw before Ed removes a glove and reaches inside to catch it with his bare hand. Giggling, Stede takes it between his teeth from Ed’s fingers and notes with pleasure the drunken rapture on Ed’s face as Stede licks his lips in satisfaction.
“Wait here, Stede. I’ll be right back,” Ed says as they approach the entrance to the Venetian, the elaborate and distinctive architecture of the resort recognisable even amongst the rest of the Las Vegas kitsch. A series of small docks with gondolas tucked in beside them extend over a shallow canal, the water shimmering in the sunlight. “I’m gonna go bribe a guy for a gondola.”
“Oh, okay. A very normal thing to do,” Stede says to Ed’s quickly retreating back with a laugh. Goodness, he’s falling for a rascal and a scoundrel, isn’t he?
The water laps at the lip of the canal, rhythmic and soothing, and after a moment of tipsy contentment, Stede realises what he’d just thought.
Was he falling for Ed? So soon?
Stede, historically, has only done what was expected of him. He’s always understood love to be built with more than raw attraction, simple chemistry; there must be compromise, and friendship, and mutual respect. He’d lied to himself that he loved Mary like that—that he loved her, but it was a sensible love, a deliberate love, a love with effort. Too much effort, sometimes. It was only ten years and two children and one confusing, eye-opening divorce later that he realised he hadn't loved her the way she deserved.
Being with Ed isn’t like that. Every moment feels easy and electric in a way he’s never experienced. He feels like himself, more himself, even, lit up and alive in Ed’s company. It can’t be love though. He can’t love a man he’s known for a handful of hours.
“This is a first date,” he whispers to himself, watching another couple climb from their gondola and steady themselves on the walkway, arm in arm. “Pull it together, Stede.”
“What’s that?” Ed reappears at Stede’s side. He’s holding a wine bottle dappled with condensation, fresh off ice.
“Nothing! What’ve you got there?”
A water droplet slides from the bottle and down Ed’s arm to drip off his elbow and evaporate off the sun-warmed sidewalk below. Sweat beads at the back of Stede’s neck.
“Convinced the gondolier to let us have the boat to ourselves, and he threw in a bottle of bubbles as long as we don’t tell his boss.”
Stede, briefly, wonders what Ed did to end up with a free bottle of Moët & Chandon, but decides it’s best he doesn’t know. Besides, Stede wouldn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. “Ooh, lovely.”
A set of stairs leads down to a gondola bobbing gently in the canal. Stede steps in first, the boat rocking underfoot momentarily as he gets his footing. Once steady, Stede reaches out a hand to help Ed into the boat.
“I can get in myself,” Ed mumbles.
“Why should you have to?” Stede replies. Ed tilts his head thoughtfully before taking Stede’s outstretched hand.
Ed unties the boat and pushes them from the little dock, steering them into the canal proper. The gondola sways slightly as they cut through the bright blue of the artificial waterway. Stede settles onto one of the upholstered seats and watches Ed’s arms work at the oar, his salt and pepper hair caught in the breeze.
“How is it you’re not melting in all that leather you’re wearing?” Stede asks. “Not that it doesn’t, ah, suit you.”
“Used to it, I guess.” Ed shrugs. “When the weather’s good and I’m bored out of my skull, I’ll usually hop on my bike. Rode her here, actually.”
“A motorbike?” Stede’s jaw drops. He never realised before today he had such an attraction to bad boys, but the thrill that races through him at the thought of his arms wrapped around Ed’s torso, the wind whipping through their hair—in this fantasy they’re not wearing helmets, how very daring—cannot be denied.
Ed smiles cheekily like he can tell what Stede’s thinking. “Had a few too many today, but second date I’ll take you out for a ride if you like.”
Second date, second date, second date. “Wow, yes, uh, that sounds, um. Very good. And ah, sensible.”
“Not often I’m accused of being sensible,” Ed jokes. The gondola drifts to the centre of the canal at its widest point, and Ed relinquishes the oar to drop beside Stede. He rests his elbow over the seatback and leans onto his fist, facing Stede. He’s very close.
“Perhaps I’m privy to a rare side of Ed today.” Stede leans closer still, bringing their shoulders together and their faces near enough to share each other’s air.
Ed’s free hand meanders its way up the buttons of Stede’s shirt, seemingly of its own accord. Casually, he says, “Blows my fuckin’ mind no one’s given you the real ravishing you deserve.”
“Ed!” Stede admonishes, reddening. But, well. This morning he resolved to be bold, for once. To go after what he wants. And, oh, does he want. “Well, the ravishing will have to come later, maybe.”
Ed grins lasciviously. “Have to check the schedule? Fitting me in, are you?”
“If you like, though I’m not opposed to another configuration if it would better suit.”
Ed startles into laughter, breaking the teasing tension between them. “Fuck, Stede.”
“Exactly,” Stede giggles, sending them both into another bout of laughter, the boat jostling beneath them.
Once Stede can breathe again, feeling as though he’s run a mile—and the only time he’s enjoyed the experience too—he adds, “I’m not wholly inexperienced, you know. There’s been a few, er, dalliances, since the divorce; it’s just nothing ever stuck.”
Ed straightens in the seat in surprise. “Mate, you were married?”
Stede winces. In for a penny, he figures. “I was, yes, for about ten years. I have two children too, Alma and Louis.”
Stede feels himself go cold and panic runs away with his tongue. “It was one of those things, you know how it is. We weren’t happy—either of us—and as it turns out we’re much better friends than we ever were a couple. Er, funny story actually. The reason I’m here in Vegas at all is because of Mary, ah, my ex-wife. She and her new fiancé, Doug—who’s very lovely; they make a darling pair, the two of them—are having their joint bachelor-bachelorette party this weekend.”
“For your ex-wife’s next wedding?” Ed is back to looking like he’s holding back a laugh. “What, are you going to be the best man?”
“Well, no. Mary told me in no uncertain terms we’d argue too much, and there was something about budgetary concerns, so instead I’m simply one of the groomsmen. But as she doesn’t have the same appreciation for lace and finery as I do, it’s for the best really.”
“So it was a very civil divorce overall, as you can see. She only tried to stab me once.”
Ed’s eyebrows rocket toward his hairline. “She tried to stab you?”
“Just the once.”
“You’re fucking fascinating,” Ed says. “And she sounds like quite the lady.”
It sounds like an olive branch. Stede reaches out to Ed and squeezes his hand. When he feels Ed squeeze back, relief floods Stede’s body and all the tension sloughs from his shoulders. He closes his eyes, listens to the rush of water against the sides of the boat.
“She is,” he says. He smiles self-deprecatingly. “To be honest I wasn’t a very good husband. Mary tried, she really did, and I—well, I didn’t. I was too blind to notice how unhappy I was making her.”
Stede never listened. He remembers the day she knocked on the door to his study late one evening. It was the first time he’d seen her all day; he’d skipped dinner to hole up with a book and a bottle of brandy. Determination and resignation tightened mouth into a thin, unhappy line as she slid over a business card with Divorce Attorney set in plain, decisive ink across the top. Stede started listening then.
Stede hesitates for a moment, but only for a moment. Something about Ed stokes bravery in the bellows of his heart, encourages his vulnerability, his honesty. He glances at his feet, feeling ashamed down to the stitched toes of his boat shoes.
“I regret how I treated her. How inattentive I was, as a husband and as a father. I’m so relieved she’s found Doug, but I can’t help but feel I took ten years of her life where she might’ve been happy with someone else. I don’t know if I can ever make that up to her.”
“Why the fuck would you have to?”
Ed shrugs one shoulder. “It’s not all on you to make things right. She left it just as long as you did, ten years, before looking to divorce. They were your years to lose too. And you’re friends now, yeah? Why the fuck would she still be your friend if she was miserable about your past? If she’s moving on from it, why the hell shouldn’t you?”
Stede sinks into the cushion of his seat, reeling in shock. “Wow.”
“Too much?” Ed winces.
“No, no,” Stede says, waving a hand. He stares into the middle distance, picturing Mary’s face before she and Doug entered the casino this morning. Her radiant, happy smile and the ease of the kiss she’d left on Stede’s cheek before ducking into the crowd and tugging Doug along with her, hand in hand. She was so different, so alive compared to that woman in Stede’s study, the Mary without her smile, without paint beneath her fingernails. “I reckon you’re right.”
“Cool.” Ed presses fully against his side, shoulder to shoulder, pinky to pinky. The arm he was leaning against comes around Stede’s back. Ed’s finger doodles aimless circles over Stede’s shoulder, rippling gooseflesh up Stede’s neck. “So what about you, huh? What do you want?”
“Me? I hadn’t—I hadn’t much thought about myself before, well, before the divorce. I followed expectations, you see. But….” Stede sighs. “But seeing Mary embrace a joy she never found with me, well. It’s impossible, but I want it too, so badly it hurts to look at the two of them sometimes.”
“You jealous?” Ed says. His hand stills.
“No! Or, yes, but not of either of them. Just their…their love.”
Ed relaxes again, nudging his shoulder against Stede’s, swaying them both with the gentle motion of the water. “All right, and?”
Stede nudges him back, pushing Ed with him. “And what?”
“And what makes you think you won’t find it? A love like that?”
Ed turns to face Stede more directly, his knees knocking against Stede’s. Ed’s hand slips up to tangle at the back of Stede’s neck and his eyes shimmer in the afternoon sun, all tipsy charm and shocking earnestness in their enticing depths. Stede’s eyelids flutter as Ed’s fingers card through the short, delicate hairs at the base of his neck, tactile without a thought.
Like this, Stede almost can imagine having a love like that, a love that’s easy and joyous and fun. Almost.
Stede sighs wearily, the pleasure of Ed’s touch butting against the raw, bleeding edge of vulnerability the question exposes in his heart. “If you’re trying to distract me, it’s working.”
“Answer the question, Stede,” Ed says in a humid breath against Stede’s temple.
“I was a shit husband,” Stede manages, hears his voice catching even as the truth stumbles free, ineloquently, unintentionally. Inadequately, as always. “Why would anyone give me a second chance?”
The anchor of guilt sinks in Stede’s gut, dragging him down quickly, but Ed is quicker.
“Because you’re clever as fuck? Because you’re a fucking delight with what I can already tell is a great set of tits?”
“Let’s not put the cart before the h—oh!” Stede squeaks as Ed’s mischievous and ever-roaming hands slip down to pinch Stede’s nipples through his shirt.
“Nope, I was right,” Ed says matter-of-factly and grinning from ear to ear beneath his whiskers.
Stede giggles helpless, flustered and charmed, and Ed joins in. And just like that, Stede’s mood is lifted. How could he be upset with this man laughing at him—no, laughing with him? Unable to resist the temptation of that smile, Stede leans in, kissing Ed as well as he can around their laughter. As their chuckles fade, the press of their lips, the tug of their teeth, grows softer, sweeter.
They pull back as one, catching their breath and each other’s eyes. Stede isn’t quite drunk but he feels like it, briming and bubbling with raw and untamed joy for what feels like the first time in a year, a decade maybe, here on a stolen gondola in a false canal in this ridiculous city, glittering in the desert sun and the flash of marquee lights. He’s never met anyone like Ed before, never known a connection so strong in so short a time. I wish this were what forever felt like, Stede thinks wildly, dizzily, looking only at Ed, awash with lust and laughter in the sunlight.
And maybe there is something earnest and fragile and definitely, definitely too soon written into his expression giving Ed some insight into the heart now beating in Stede’s throat, because Ed’s eyes search his as he licks his lips, squares his shoulders, and takes both of Stede’s hands between his.
“Want to do something weird?” Ed says, shifts in front of Stede, and drops to one knee.
After several minutes of furious kissing followed by several minutes of furious googling, Stede calls an Uber. He fumbles the app open with one thumb as Ed unhelpfully nips a line of kisses up his other forearm, tracing the path of Stede’s flowchart into his ticklish inner elbow.
They both manage to down a cup of water each at the resort bar along with quite a lot of champagne drunk straight from the bottle or licked from each other’s lips in the hopes the two might cancel each other out and help them appear at their most sober before the car arrives.
Ed and Stede scramble into the backseat, a tangle of limbs and smiles and I can’t believe we’re doing this glances. They pull up to the marriage licence office in short order, never once relinquishing each other’s hands. They could permanently fuse together at this point, and Stede couldn’t say he’d mind.
“Congratulations, Mr Blackbeard, sir,” the Uber driver says.
Reluctantly, Ed pulls away from Stede’s mouth, leaving a final parting peck at Stede’s small noise of disagreement. “Er, thank you, uh…?”
“Pete,” he enthuses. The stars finally clear from Stede's eyes long enough for him to notice an ace of spades dangling from the rearview. “I’m a big fan. Huge!”
“Good to meet you, Pete,” Ed says genially with his hand half under Stede’s shirt.
“Same,” Pete says, clearly starstruck. “And uh, if you need a rad as hell wedding venue after this, like so fucking sweet you have no idea, just let me know. I can get you in. I know a guy.”
“Where at?” Stede asks, ignoring the hand half under his shirt.
Pete tells him.
“Oh, fuck yeah!” Ed slaps the back of the passenger headrest in excitement.
“That settles it then.” Stede smiles. “Tell your man we’re coming.”
“Wait here for us?” Ed adds.
“Anything for you, Blackbeard, sir. This is maybe the coolest day of my life.”
Ed reaches for the door handle, but Stede stops him. “One moment, darling.”
Stede slides from the backseat and quickly moves around to the other side of the car, popping it open and then holding out a hand to Ed, who stares at the offered palm with wide eyes.
“This again?” Ed says, but he doesn’t sound annoyed. He sounds charmed.
Stede half expected to be mocked, but instead found acceptance. Goodness, he really is going to marry this man.
“Will you take this hand in marriage?” Stede asks, unable to resist.
“I’m engaged to an old-timey gentleman,” Ed says with disbelief. He puts his hand in Stede’s.
“I’ll be here!” Pete calls as they shut the door. Through the lowered window, Stede hears Pete say into his phone, “Hey, babe, clear your schedule! Yeah, I know, but seriously this time. You’re not going to believe what just happened—”
In a stunning feat of bureaucratic efficiency, they’re in and out of the marriage licence office in twenty minutes flat. Stede does an excellent job of feigning complete sobriety for the all of five minutes he’s in front of the clerk, if he does say so himself.
As they’re about to leave, paperwork in hand to be signed by their officiant, Ed plucks a pen from the cup on the clerk’s desk and wiggles it between his fingers in her direction. “Can I have this?” he asks. Before she can respond, Ed’s pocketing the pen with a “Cool, thanks.”
And then Ed’s on his feet, rocking restlessly on his heels, like he’s never been more ready to move. To see what comes next. Stede is right there with him caught in the whirlwind of his energy and this incredible, impossible day.
“Onward!” Ed calls as he crawls back into Pete’s car and kneels over Stede in the backseat, peppering his face with kisses.
“Ed! Please! We’re in public!”
“I’ve seen worse,” Pete says from the front seat as pulls into traffic. “Anyway it’s all sorted. He’s going to meet us out front.”
“Sweet,” Ed says, finally relenting his onslaught as Stede pinches at his waist. He sits back into his own seat and absentmindedly rubs his left knee over his brace for a moment before startling to attention. “Oh fuck, right!” Suddenly Ed’s in motion again, leaning over the centre console and into Pete’s space.
“Whoa, hey man!” Pete grips the steering wheel tight as he swerves slightly on the road.
“It’s fine, mate, just wait a second.” Ed sounds unconcerned.
Stede’s treated to a lovely close-up encounter with Ed’s lovely leather-clad arse now wiggling just inches from his face. His fingers itch to touch, but as he’s finally sober enough to control his impulses, he nobly refrains. But it’s very difficult, and he deserves recognition for his strength.
Ed unloops the ace of spades card from the rearview and launches back into his seat with an oof. “Here we go.” He unzips his pocket and retrieves the pen he stole from the marriage licence clerk. He bites the cap between his teeth and autographs the card in nearly illegible handwriting, scrawling Blackbeard along with a little skull and crossbones. It’s unbearably adorable.
“Thanks for all the help, man,” Ed says, looking over his handiwork.
“Oh my God. Can you make it out to ‘The Dread Black Pete’? Everyone on the subreddit’s going to flip their lids. Holy shit.”
“Yeah, all right.” Ed adds the name, caps the pen, and passes the card back toward the front seat.
“That was very sweet of you,” Stede says, all melted sugar.
“Shut up,” Ed mutters, shoving at him before leaning bonelessly against his side. Ed’s long hair tickles where it brushes the back of Stede’s bare arm, and Stede imagines he can feel the warmth of Ed’s flushed cheek against his shoulder, even through the fabric of his shirt.
The gleaming golden tower of Mandalay Bay looms against a sky now softening with the first pink caress of sunset.
“Hello, sailor,” Pete says as his arm wraps around the man who comes to greet them at the entrance to a nearby building. The man is in fact wearing a sailor suit, complete with a striped shirt, a round white cap and a jaunty red neckerchief.
He swats at Pete’s shoulder lightly. “Babe, you know it’s the uniform.”
Pete kisses him, laughing, and then turns to Ed and Stede.
“This is Lucius. He’ll officiate for you.”
“Despite all appearances, I swear I’m licensed.” Lucius looks Stede up and down quickly. “Oh God.”
“What is it?” Stede looks down at himself, but thankfully nothing is out of place despite Ed’s roaming hands in the backseat.
“You’re going to get married in shorts covered in, what are those, little embroidered palm trees?”
“They’re from my vacation wardrobe,” Stede defends.
“Your vacation wardrobe,” Lucius and Ed repeat simultaneously, the former with disbelief and the latter with affection.
“I like ‘em,” Ed says and reels Stede in for a kiss not particularly suited to their current company.
“Different strokes for different folks, I guess,” Lucius says doubtfully. With a single pat to Pete’s chest, he politely looks away. “Anyway, let’s get moving, shall we?”
Reluctantly Stede separates his lips from Ed’s and tugs Ed’s hands from where they’re descending toward his ass.
“Later,” Stede reminds Ed and boops him on the nose.
“Mate, did you just boop me?”
Lucius leads them through the throngs of visitors, skirting around families with strollers and children clutching plush stingrays with cotton candy sticky fingers.
“This way,” Lucius indicates. “So Pete didn’t give me much to go on when he called in this favour. Do you both have vows? I can do a standard script or we have a fishy sort of one. You know, aquarium themed. I don’t really recommend it, but it’s your call. Oh, and do you need rings?”
“Um,” Stede says helpfully.
“No fish and we’ll wing the vows,” Ed decides.
“Excellent choice. Love the confidence.”
“And yes to the rings, please,” Stede says, gathering his wits about him. “For me a classic court band, six millimetre in a high karat gold. Diamonds are traditional, I know, although I do fancy a blue stone, perhaps a sapphire or even something a little more exotic? But channel-set for easier handling. And oh, with milgrain edging, if you please. Do you have any preferences, Ed?”
“Two gold bands it is!” Lucius interrupts cheerfully. “Great, I’ll add them to your bill. Pete, love, would you go grab—Yes, thank you.”
“Well.” Stede huffs.
Pete disappears into a side door marked “Employees Only”, although Stede is fairly certain he doesn’t actually work here. Lucius unclips a red velvet rope hung with a “Reserved” sign printed in curling script, and steps unceremoniously to the side.
“Your chapel awaits.”
Around the corner is the reef, the long tunnel awash in the blue light and the shifting dance of the water’s reflection along the floor. Fish swim in every direction, fluttering in the waving aquatic foliage or surging in great schools around the towering reefs. In the midst of the chaos, sharks drift leisurely through the water, casting dark shadows as they pass overhead.
“This is the coolest shit,” Ed declares. He presses against the glass, hands splayed. “Look at that fucking shark. There’s a fucking shark at our wedding, Stede.”
“I’m glad he could make it,” Stede agrees. He spins around, taking in the surreal feeling of being underwater. “It’s beautiful.”
From a box at the end of the tunnel, Lucius assembles some sort of stand and places a book with a vibrant marbled cover onto it. Pete returns too, handing a little black velvet box to Lucius, who takes it with a brief kiss in thanks. “Are you ready to get started? Should we expect any guests?”
“Nope, just us,” Ed responds.
“We’re being very spontaneous,” Stede adds.
Stede momentarily wishes he’d thought to invite Mary and Doug, but they should be celebrating their own love today. He wouldn’t want to distract from that, he decides. He’ll tell her everything later, when he introduces his husband.
Stede’s heart races and his gaze darts to Ed, who’s bounding over to him with a childish enthusiasm lighting his every feature. “Can you believe this? Fucking mental.”
“I can hardly believe it.” Stede takes both of Ed’s hands in his, draws him near. And Ed, gorgeous, wild, lovely Ed, lets him.
So yes, he can hardly believe this man would want to marry him. Stede’s never felt this way about someone before. Never felt so at home next to another human being. Not once in his life.
But they hardly know each other. Surely, in time, Ed will see what others have always seen in him—his weakness, his selfishness, his flair for the dramatic. He’s ruined everyone he’s ever touched. Guilt slides black and acidic in his chest, burning hot.
“Are you certain this is what you want? You don’t have to do this,” Stede says like he’s begging, though for what, he isn’t quite certain. He’s not sure what he’s more afraid of: for Ed to leave or for Ed to stay.
“I know. I asked, didn’t I?” Ed says like it’s simple.
“But what if you, I don’t know, regret me—marrying me—tomorrow morning?”
“I won't,” Ed asserts. He shrugs. “We’ll deal with it then. Maybe this is impulsive. Maybe it’s a little stupid, or, uh, a lot stupid—”
“—But fuck, where’s the fun if we’re always sure? I’ve made stupid decisions all my life and I’ve made it through. And I dunno, I feel like I’d rather make the rest of them with you. So yeah, I’m all in, Stede. Let’s make a stupid decision together.”
This is what Stede wants, isn’t it? To take opportunity by the horns and do something reckless, exciting, and yes, even a little (or a lot) stupid? Ed makes his breath quicken, his blood sing—perhaps that’s reason enough to trust him, to trust himself and this bone-deep feeling of rightness that’s already made a home inside his heart.
“You’re right,” Stede says softly.
“Damn right I am.” Ed leans even closer, knocking their foreheads together with a little too much force. “Marry me, you loon.”
“Yes, I will.” Stede blinks away the tears gathering in his eyes.
“Then let’s marry the shit out of each other.”
Stede takes the initiative and kisses Ed hard. When he pulls back, Ed looks into Stede’s eyes, his expression saturated with affection and wild with excitement.
“That was cute. Are we all set?” Lucius says, breaking the spell bound in their shared gaze.
When Ed and Stede nod, Lucius clears his throat and begins. The script is generic, truthfully, but Stede finds himself enthralled with Lucius’s recitation. The boy could really give a speech. Stede’s palms begin to sweat where they are joined with Ed’s, but Ed doesn’t seem to notice, or maybe he doesn’t mind. Wouldn’t that be something?
Lucius turns a page and continues, “Please take this time to share your vows with one another.”
“I’ll go first, then,” Stede says, and takes a deep breath. “Ed, I can’t believe I was so lucky to have met you. You’re remarkable. I don’t particularly know what I’m doing, I’ll admit, and granted our nuptials are a little unorthodox, but already I can’t imagine another day without you. So thank you, I suppose, for giving me this chance to love again.”
Stede runs a thumb over Ed’s bare knuckles. At some point he must’ve tucked his gloves into a pocket. A constellation of tattooed stars spills over the back of Ed’s hand, and Stede bends to press a kiss to one set between the knuckles of his ring finger, the place their wedding band will sit.
“You’re like some kind of fucking prince,” Ed says breathlessly. “Walked right out of a story and stumbled into my life.”
Stede makes a doubtful noise. “I’m not—”
“No, it’s my turn,” Ed interrupts.
“He’s right, it is his turn,” Lucius adds.
“Thanks, yeah.” Ed shuffles on his feet, never content to be still for too long.
“So, Stede, you’re like some prince, with all the chivalry and shit that comes with that, but you’re better than a prince. Because you actually listen to me. You see who I am, me, Ed, and you don’t care at all about my reputation as, like, the legendary gambler Blackbeard or whatever. And you love golf but you’ll play it badly with me just because I was enjoying myself, you know what I mean? Fuck, I’m messing this up. I dunno.” Ed pauses, and Stede squeezes his hands. Ed smiles and peeks back at Stede, an embarrassed flush deepening over his brown skin.
“You just let me be me. Just Edward. And right now I just wanna do what makes Ed happy. So, uh, I reckon what makes Ed happy…is…you.”
“Oh, Ed,” Stede breathes, delighted. “You make Stede happy too.”
Ed grins, all traces of nervousness slipping from his shoulders at Stede’s declaration.
“Right, so next we have the exchange of rings. Here’s one for you and for you. All right. Ahem. Edward Teach, do you present yourself willingly and of your own accord to be joined in marriage to Steve—”
Stede winces. “It’s Stede, actually. Don’t worry yourself though. Happens all the time.”
“Oh sorry, my bad.” Lucius refocuses. “Edward Teach, do you present yourself willingly and of your own accord to be joined in marriage to Stede Bonnet? With this ring, do you agree to love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health, in sorrow and in joy, to have and to hold, from this day forward?”
“Yeah, I do,” Ed says and bites his lip as if to prevent himself from saying more. His eyes dart over Stede’s face, taking him in.
“Stede Bonnet, do you present yourself willingly and of your own accord to be joined in marriage to Edward Teach? With this ring, do you agree to love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health, in sorrow and in joy, to have and to hold, from this day forward?”
“I do,” Stede agrees, for the second time in his life. Ed slides the simple golden band onto his ring finger. Though it’s not the ring Stede thought he’d want, he suddenly can’t imagine it being anything else. It’s just this, as it should be—a simple, beautiful promise, warmed by Ed’s touch.
“Thank you and congratulations. I now pronounce you husband and husband. The grooms may now kiss each other,” Lucius proclaims. He shuts his book with emphasis.
Stede, overcome, throws his arms around Ed’s neck and kisses him, ignoring the wetness dampening his eyelashes. Ed kisses him back, at once enthusiastic and tender, bringing a hand to his cheek. Above their heads, sharks swim, not paying any mind to the new love blossoming below, baptised in the otherworldly aquarium glow.
Here Stede is, getting a second chance at love. Until coming to Las Vegas, Stede hasn’t historically been a gambling man, but this time, he’s willing to bet he’s found something true.
After, there’s paperwork to be signed and a bill to be paid, and they thank Lucius and Pete for their kindness profusely with a very generous tip on Stede’s part.
There’re celebratory drinks, first champagne—paid for, this time—and then tequila shots, because why not? Ed licks salt from Stede’s hand, his tongue wet and lingering before he downs his drink and sucks the lime into his mouth with a flash of teeth to its tender flesh. He licks his lips. “Your turn,” he says in a desire deep voice, and so Stede does. There’s a lot of kissing, after that.
They take another car back to Stede’s hotel, drunk on tequila and each other’s company. Ed is gripping Stede’s left hand in both of his, running a thumb back and forth over the gold band now at home there.
“I’ve never been married before,” Ed says in drunken awe, like the novelty of the thought still thrills him.
“I have.” Stede smiles weakly. “But it wasn’t half as exciting as this one. I spent the months beforehand dreading the wedding, agonising over my vows and the ceremony and if Mary and I would ever agree on mattress firmness.”
“No,” Stede says forlornly. “I spent ten years with a constant backache. But I’m a bit of a blanket hog, I’m told, so perhaps we’re even.”
“Another marriage ruined by unmanageable sleeping arrangements.”
“Ah, no, that would be on account of my being a raging homosexual.”
“That’d do it.” Ed guffaws. “I can sleep anywhere so I reckon we’re all set.”
“I look forward to it,” Stede says honestly and leans his head onto Ed’s shoulder, enjoying the ride.
“Shhhhh, Stede. You're going to get us caught, man.”
Stede tries to stifle his giggling, but it's so funny. This situation is so funny. How is it possible that this is his life now?
“You married a talented fucking lockpicker is how,” Ed answers with a grin as the lock pops open and the door to the hotel pool unlatches under his hand.
“Very nice,” Stede compliments. “You're very good with your hands.”
“Oh, you've got no idea, mate.”
Stede hums in acknowledgement. “Maybe I'll find out soon?”
“Maybe,” Ed says, “If you're not being a dick.”
“And if we're not caught for breaking and entering at this swanky resort, I assume.”
“I can't believe you just said swanky.”
Stede pats at the wall, stumbling drunkenly in the dark, until he manages to find the panel that controls the lights. He squints at the tiny letters swimming in front of his vision until he sees the word pool and flips it.
The light erupts from beneath the surface, casting rippling shapes across the cavernous room, the empty lounge chairs. Besides the hum of the filter and the sloshing of the water gently against the tiled edges of the pool, it's quiet.
Ed whoops loudly, the hypocrite. The sound echoes around the room as he strides forward, tugging at the complex closures of his leather jacket.
Stede follows, unable to resist following the trail of leather breadcrumbs Ed is shedding behind him.
“C'mon, man, get naked!”
Stede glances up and sees Ed at the edge of the pool, chest bare with his thumbs hooked into the elastic of his underwear. He's covered in tattoos, black ink woven over his brown skin, signals of stories Stede doesn't yet know but is suddenly, desperately excited to hear.
And touch. Stede, courageous this deep into his cups, stumbles forward and reaches out to trace the wingspan of the eagle at Ed's throat. This is his husband. His husband!
“You're my husband,” Stede tells him.
“Yeah, I was there.” Ed grins at Stede, his arms moving to steady him, and that gentleness melts something inside Stede's chest. Warmth floods his veins and spills into his limbs until even his fingertips are trembling with it where they drag down Ed's stomach.
“You're beautiful. Completely gorgeous,” Stede says, enunciating very hard. Ed needed to know.
Ed scoffs, but his expression is open and tender and embarrassed.
“C’mon,” he repeats, soft and resonant.
Ed’s hands shift and then Stede’s belt is unbuckling, his shirt tugging free, his buttons slipping at the application of surprisingly steady fingers. Stede blinks, dizzy with drink and something even headier, and then he’s stepping out of his shorts and underwear and Ed’s arms are back around him. They’re skin to skin, electric.
“Satisfied?” Stede says. He meant to sound teasing, but it comes out tremulous, wanting.
Ed kisses Stede soundly. The scratch of his beard against Stede’s chin is everything. The press of his lips, soft and wet and opening at a swipe of Stede’s tongue. Stede leans back, panting and eager.
“Are you ready?” Stede asks.
“For what?” Ed asks, voice husky and eyes gratifyingly dazed.
Stede pushes Ed’s shoulders and he topples backwards into the pool.
Water explodes everywhere with a huge splash as Ed goes down, cursing all the way. Stede slips into the pool after him, finding his footing on the rough pool floor through his laughter. He shivers as the cool waves lick at his overheated skin.
Ed reappears from below the rippling surface, his grey-streaked hair plastered to his face and neck and tangled in his beard.
“You little shit!” Ed laughs. He’s stalking forward, predatory, the gleam in his eye sparking anticipation all down Stede’s spin and back up again. Ed mutters, “I can’t believe you did that, you cheeky little fucker. I’ll get you back, you just watch me—”
Stede realises he’s walking backward as his back hits the pool wall, the chilled tiles pressing into his skin. And then Ed is looming over him, pressing him to the wall with the full length of his body. Stede has never felt so naked, so possessed.
“Ed, don’t you dare!” Stede squeaks, grinning even as he wants to demand more, wants to take anything Ed—his husband—will give him. “You’re supposed to be nice to me! It’s our wedding night!”
“You want me to play nice? Are you sure that’s what you want?” Ed says with a voice rough as a choppy sea. His lips drag against Stede’s cheek until his mouth presses against the ticklish shell of his ear. His hot breath fans over Stede’s chilled skin.
“I changed my mind. This is better.” Stede gasps as Ed takes his earlobe between his teeth.
“I concur,” Ed practically purrs.
Stede widens his stance and Ed slots between his legs. He brings their hips together beneath the water, and Stede groans as pleasure courses through him. Ed thrusts against him, his growing hardness apparent even through the now thoroughly soaked underwear he hadn’t managed to remove before Stede pushed him into the pool. Stede bucks his hips in response, closing his eyes as alcohol and arousal make his head spin.
“Yeah?” Ed pants against Stede’s neck. “This all right? It’s good?”
“Yes, darling,” Stede confirms, affection swelling in his breast. “It’s good, it’s so good. May I—ahh, let me just—”
Stede’s hands slide to Ed’s hips and pull. He twists his legs and pushes Ed against the edge of the pool instead, flipping their positions.
“Fuck, Stede,” Ed moans, his head falling back against the tile. Stede reaches a hand behind his head to soften the blow. “Shit, yeah, manhandle me.”
Ed’s fingers tangle in Stede’s hair, pulling him close and sucking Stede’s lip into his mouth. Stede moves his hands lower, feeling the tensed strength in Ed’s thighs. He tucks his fingers under Ed’s knees and tugs, just a little.
“If you would, please. Closer, Ed.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ed agrees, and his legs come up, encircling Stede’s hips and tightening, pulling their arousals flush. They both groan at the sensation, foreheads and chests and lips sliding wetly together.
“Ed,” Stede pleads. “Oh, Ed, fuck, you feel—you feel incredible. I adore you, darling. I do, I do.”
“Ughn.” Ed’s breathing hitches, his hands tightening in Stede’s hair as his back arches. “Shit, Stede. You can’t just fuckin’, fuckin’ say that kind of thing, who does that, fuck.”
They rut against each other, their breathing quickening, the push and pull of pleasure and the buzz of alcohol rending the world into nothing but intimate gasps of breath and quiet splashes of water along the pool’s surface as they surge together, higher and higher and—
Across the room, the door at the entrance squeaks open.
“Fuck,” Ed and Stede whisper in unison, stilling instantly. They sink further into the water, hidden by the angle and the pool wall.
“Why’s this open?” A voice says. “Last shift must’ve forgotten to lock it.”
“Aye,” another voice says in a strong Scottish accent. “Either that or it was those witches again. Management never listens about the witches.”
“It’s past midnight, which as everyone knows is when a witch’s power is at its strongest,” the first voice agrees.
“What devilry, they even turned the lights on!” the second voice says, switching off the pool lights and plunging Ed and Stede into darkness.
“We’ll write it in the report,” the first voice says, his voice disappearing as the door shuts behind them with a click.
It’s quiet for a moment, interrupted only by the soft lapping of the water and Stede and Ed’s still quickened breathing. Then Ed cracks up into giggles, sending Stede off the edge with him.
“Witches?” Stede manages incredulously with tears in his eyes.
“Could be,” Ed says, attempting seriousness. They both dissolve into laughter again, until both of them are wheezing and shushing each other.
“We should probably go,” Stede says once he can breathe again. “My room?”
Ed pulls himself out of the pool in one smooth motion, water cascading off his back. Completely unselfconsciously, he steps out of his soaked underwear, only drunkenly mistepping once, and wrings the fabric out.
“Can’t put clothes on back over these,” he says. He surveys the clothing discarded along the poolside, considering. He picks up Stede’s palm tree embroidered shorts and tugs them on.
“Those are mine!”
“Serves you right for shoving me in, you lunatic.” Ed has the audacity to stick his tongue out at Stede before bending to snatch up Stede’s shirt as well and doing up the buttons incorrectly.
Stede sensibly takes the ladder up out of the water and collects his own underwear and Ed’s leather trousers. “Fine, then I’m sure you won’t mind my borrowing these?”
“My clothes look good on you, mate,” Ed says, a tender note of sincerity ringing through his tease. Stede’s ears burn.
“I don’t think I can figure out how to do up your jacket in this state,” Stede admits, the clasps, snaps and zippers swimming before his drunken eyes.
“A tits out kind of look. I approve.” Ed presses his palm to Stede’s bare, water-dappled chest and kisses him with a wet swipe of his tongue.
Stede is so happy. A wedding band around his finger has never felt so right.
When they make it out of the elevator to Stede’s room, Stede reaches around into the backpocket of his own shorts and gives Ed’s ass a squeeze as he retrieves his wallet and key card.
They stumble into the room, arms wrapped around each other and trading surprisingly gentle kisses. Ed steps out of his shoes, and Stede tosses Ed’s boots to the side, having never actually put them on. Stede pushes himself onto the bed, his head hitting the pillows. Ed crawls onto the bed over him, all damp, curling hair and rumbled silk and dark, drink heavy eyes.
The bed is so soft with luxurious Egyptian cotton sheets in his upgraded suite, and Ed is so warm as he curls around him. Stede covers a yawn as Ed presses his face into Stede’s neck.
“Mmm, you smell nice,” Ed slurs sleepily before slumping against Stede’s side with a gentle snore.
“Oh,” Stede says as his own eyes fight to stay open. He tucks a strand of his husband’s hair behind his ear. He’s not disappointed; nothing could make today any less incredible than it has been, and, frankly, it’s been a full day. He’s met the love of his life. What more could he ask for?
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“And here we are,” Stede says, taking another sip of his tea.
“Here we are,” Ed agrees, tearing open another sugar packet and dumping its contents into his third cup of coffee.
The pain medication and breakfast they ordered through room service has done wonders for their mutual hangovers, even if the space behind Stede’s eyes still thrums painfully against the morning sun. Stede’s gaze drops to his hotel branded mug, hoping it might grant him some wisdom. On his arm, the blackjack flowchart is faded and smudged, most likely from their midnight escapade in the pool, he now recalls.
Together they were able to parse their scattered memories of the day before and build a cohesive narrative from it. And what a story it is. Stede remembers Ed now, of course he does. The wonderful, ridiculous man who agreed to marry him after one magical day together.
“We’re mad as hatters, aren’t we?” Stede looks up at Ed, uncertain of what he’ll find.
Ed snorts and steals a piece of toast from the room service cart, slathering it thick with admittedly delicious marmalade. “We sure are.”
They’re quiet for a moment, assessing each other.
“I imagine you’ll want this back,” Ed says, plucking at the silk of his shirt, its collar gaping to display a myriad of dark tattoos inked along his collarbones.
“Unless you want to keep it,” Stede says, quite without thinking. “It suits you.”
Ed smiles and glances down, almost shyly. Stede watches as Ed twists his new wedding band around his finger, pensive. The gold glitters in what little sunlight spills into the room from behind the now drawn curtains.
“It sounds like I still owe you a ride,” Ed says. His eyes catch Stede’s, tender hope and open fondness blazing beneath his dark lashes. “If you’re still open to that second date.”
“I’d like nothing more.” Stede grins, almost breathless with relief.
A new day awakens outside, the desert sun burning hot over shimmering casinos and winding roads Stede will travel with Ed. He’ll lean into his husband’s embrace as the landscape whizzes past and feel like the luckiest man in all of Las Vegas, free at last.